Tuesday, December 6, 2016

From skyscrapers to mosaics (re-posted from 2012)

I've been enjoying Renewing the Center by the late Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz (1950 - 2005). I picked this book up on a whim at a used book sale. It was $5 well spent. Grenz is often associated with the emergent church crowd, and Brian McClaren contributes a Foreword. Yet I don't see in Grenz the eagerness to jettison (or water down) unfashionable Christian doctrines that one sees with McClaren, Doug Pagitt, et al. This book seems to me a thoughtful attempt to come to grips with postmodernism in a way that remains faithful to the Apostolic Nicene faith, and that retains a high view of Scripture and the centrality of the church to God's plan of salvation. One of the things I like most about Renewing the Center is it's call for evangelicals to make ecclesiology more central. He suggests that the postmodern turn is an opportunity for evangelicals to recognize how influenced we've been by Enlightenment individualism and empiricism, and a tendency to rely too much on unaided human reason.

But what exactly is evangelicalism? Some have argued that the term has become so broad as to have lost any value. In addition, since the 1970s the word is increasingly associated with political and cultural agendas rather than the evangel (good news) at it's root. Critics are right to point out the problems with those unfortunate associations. In trying to get a handle on evangelicalism Grenz cites a classic formulation from historian David Bebbington, which is as good a definition as any. Evangelicalism is characterized by conversionism, activism, biblicism and crucicentrism. Stated that way "evangelical" is a word worth defending.

But back to the book. The first half is basically a theological history from the Protestant Reformation to the late 20th century, and it's a cracking good read. Grenz follows the various streams that flowed from Luther and Calvin and shows how each of them influenced the evangelical movement that emerged in the wake of the fundamentalist/modernist controversies of the 1920s & 30s. It's fascinating stuff. Included are extended discussions of evangelical luminaries like Carl Henry and Bernard Ramm. Grenz is always charitable in his assessments, even when he's critical. His biases do occasionally show, though. For instance, when portraying the legacy of Old Princeton as a victory of arid Protestant scholasticism (the cognitive-doctrinal) over and against a concern for personal piety (the practical-experiential). In my opinion this is a caricature that doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

In the second half the author begins to set out the parameters of the book's subtitle: an evangelical theology for a post-theological era. Here we're in the realm of philosophical concepts and academic jargon, but it remains an engaging read. Grenz agrees with the postmodern thesis that Enlightenment foundationalism is dead. This is the notion that "certain beliefs anchor other beliefs, i.e., certain beliefs are 'basic,' and other beliefs arise as conclusions from them." Foundationalism seeks to gain "epistemological certitude by discovering an unassailable foundation of basic beliefs upon which to construct the knowledge edifice." In this way of thinking the quest for knowledge, indeed the quest for truth, is like building a skyscraper. You lay a foundation and then build it floor by floor. In the quest for theological truth evangelical theologians have imitated the methods of their secular counterparts, who arbitrarily assign religious beliefs to the realm of "nonbasic status". (all quotes from p. 208)

This begs the question: "What killed foundationalism?" The short answer is postmodernism killed it. Postmodernism is one of those words/concepts that's notoriously difficult to get a grip on. I agree with the wag who said postmodern is really mostmodern! In any case one of the insights of postmodernism is that human reason is "person specific" and "situation specific." This is argued by self-styled Reformed epistemologists Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Grenz points approvingly to these two eminent philosophers as examples of constructive Christian engagement with the postmodern context. They don't deny the existence of basic beliefs, but they "join other nonfoundationalists in claiming against the Enlightenment that there is no universal human reason. That is, there is no single, universal set of criteria by means of which we can judge definitively the epistemic status of all beliefs." (p. 208)

In summary: one's conception of truth is inseparable from one's community.

Plantinga and Wolterstorff acknowledge the inevitability of our being situated in a particular community and the indispensable role our respective communities or traditions play in shaping our conceptions of rationality, as well as the religious beliefs we deem basic and thus by appeal to which we test new claims. And they readily admit the attendant loss of certitude involved with this acknowledgment, for they realize that these various communities may disagree as to the relevant set of paradigm instances of basic beliefs.

The difficulty this poses for any claims to universal truth ought not to be overlooked . . . . Nevertheless, the communitarian turn marks an important advance. This focus returns theological reflection to its proper primary location within the believing community, in contrast to the Enlightenment ideal that effectively took theology out of the church and put it in the academy. More specifically, nonfoundationalist approaches see Christian theology as an activity of the community that gathers around Jesus the Christ. (p. 209)

Grenz further defines that community as one made up of individuals who've had a saving encounter with Jesus Christ and who now find their identity in him. This is not to turn religious experience into a new foundationalism ala Schleiermacher and Protestant liberalism, but it's to make it "the identifying feature of participation in this specific community." (p. 210)

In turn this community becomes basic for formulating Christian theology. Instead of the metaphor of a building, this results in something more like a mosaic.

This mosaic consists of the set of interconnected doctrines that together comprise what ought to be the specifically Christian way of viewing the world. This worldview is truly theological and specifically Christian, because it involves an understanding of the entire universe and of ourselves in connection with the God of the Bible, and the biblical narrative of God, at work bringing creation to its divinely destined goal. (p. 213)

For the most part Christian scholars have assumed a defensive posture when engaged with the grab bag of ideas labelled postmodernism, viewing it as a threat to orthodox faith and practice. But what if—while recognizing the dangers—the church embraced the opportunity to articulate a fresh vision of "the faith that was once for all entrusted to God's holy people"? (Jude 1:3 NIV) This book is a worthy attempt to do just that. In writing it Grenz saw opportunities where others saw only danger. We need more optimistic books like this one!

Quotes from Stanley Grenz, Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era (Baker, 2000)

Thursday, October 20, 2016

In praise of ambiguity

Late Tuesday evening while most American sports fans were watching Game 3 of the Cubs/Dodgers series, I watched a recording of a soccer match played six hours earlier in Germany: Tottenham v. Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League. Parenthetically, in cases like this I quarantine myself from media so as not to learn the result before I have a chance to watch it. As a diehard Spurs supporter I experienced the match as a stressful emotional rollercoaster. It wasn't until the final whistle blew that I fully exhaled. "Wow," you may be thinking, "it must have been quite the back and forth high-scoring affair!"

Actually, no. You would be half right. It was a back and forth affair in which each side had the upper hand at various times, but the final score was 0-0 "nil-nil" with both teams walking away with a point (instead of the three points a win would have earned). Here would seem to be Exhibit A to the "soccer is boring" crowd's jibe that it's a sport that features "lots of running around with nothing happening." I get it, believe me, I get it, having once felt the same way. But like Saul on the Damascus Road I've had an epiphany, so even a match in which neither team scores can leave me breathless. Another example of an utterly compelling match that ended nil-nil -- and felt like a massive victory under the circumstances -- was the 2013 USA v. Mexico World Cup qualifying match at the Azteca. Still one of my favorite soccer matches, and sports memories, ever.

Football fan Andi Thomas writes in praise of the nil-nil draw in a terrific piece at SB Nation in which he compares the Tottenham/Leverkusen match with a less scintillating 0-0 result the night before in Liverpool (if you're a fan of the English Premier League you'll want to click through and read the whole thing). Thomas writes:

This is why the nil-nil draw is so important to football as a sport. Most, if not all of the other sports that might aspire to a similar kind of cultural penetration don't even permit such a thing to happen, either through explicit rules mandating some kind of overtime or by implicitly ensuring that points (or whatever) cannot help but turn up. (One exception is test cricket, which has produced some truly beautiful five-day draws.) As such, while almost anybody that takes any sport seriously comes away from a match thinking about the things that were good and were not, and barely any victory is entirely joyous, there is always a result to centre the response. 
Perhaps, to adapt the joke slightly, it's not that a nil-nil draw is 90 minutes in which nothing happens — did you see Hugo Lloris' save? That was definitely a thing — but 90 minutes in which lots of things happen but fail, ultimately, to resolve into anything immediately coherent. Which is a problem, perhaps, if you've promised millions of Monday night viewers one of the games of the century or you wanted to pick up three points in a tricky Champions League group. But we might also suggest that part of the singular character of football is that it forces those that follow it into not-infrequent moments of institutionalised ambiguity, where the uncertainty is the result, and frustration and satisfaction just have to find a way to rub along.

That last paragraph is the best thing I've read in a while about football -- and come to think of it -- is not only an apt description of a sport in which victory and defeat often cancel each other out, but of life as experienced most of the time.


Friday, October 14, 2016

The power of feelings (Dallas Willard)

This is how Dallas Willard begins Chapter 7 "Transforming the Mind: Spiritual Formation and Our Feelings" of Renovation of the Heart.

Feelings are a primary blessing and a primary problem for human life. We cannot life without them and we can hardly live with them. Hence they are also central for spiritual formation in the Christian tradition. In the restoration of the individual to God, feelings too must be renovated: old ones removed in many cases, or at least thoroughly modified, and new ones installed or at least heightened into a new prominence.
Our first inquiry as we greet people for the day is likely to be, "How are you feeling today?" Rarely will it be, "How are you thinking?" Feelings live on the front row of our lives like unruly children clamoring for attention. They presume on their justification in being whatever they are—unlike a thought, which by nature is open to challenge and invites the question "Why?"  

Further on Willard states: "Feelings are, with a few exceptions, good servants. But they are disastrous masters." The aim of this chapter will be to show us how we can master our feelings in the service of transformation into Christlikeness. And not just master, but more importantly, replace wrong feelings with the right ones.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

How to pray during hurricane season (originally posted in 2008)

Reports are starting to come in from the islands in the path of Hurricane Ike, as now it bears down on impoverished Cuba. Reports of 80 percent of homes destroyed, infrastructure wiped out, and more deadly flooding in Haiti. Just a couple of days ago we here in Palm Beach County were reckoning with the possibility of a direct hit from a category 4 hurricane. Instead, on a sunny Lord's Day I sit here counting my blessings that we were spared this one. The high pressure ridge that's causing our beautiful weather is the same ridge that kept Ike moving west through the Caribbean instead of turning northwest into Florida. It's all about the timing.

I've been reflecting on how a Christian should pray when a hurricane threatens. With almost three months left to go in hurricane season, we'd be fortunate if Ike was the last one. I offer three possibilities, well actually four. First, pray that it doesn't come here. Second, pray that the storm weakens and goes harmlessly out to sea. Third, thy will be done. I believe all three together are the best response. Personally, I can't in good conscience pray #1 without the other two...especially #3 ("Not my will, but thine" should be the default mode of all prayer). I'm no more deserving of being spared the wrath of a killer storm than someone in Cuba or the Gulf coast. Which leads me to a fourth response that's been impressed on me as I've been reading Isaiah the last few days -- in particular, the first terrifying chapters where Isaiah prophecies God's coming judgment on Judah and the nations. Humble repentance.

For the Lord of hosts has a day
against all that is proud and lofty,
against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low;
against all the cedars of Lebanon,
lofty and lifted up;
and against all the oaks of Bashan;
against all the lofty mountains,
and against all the uplifted hills;
against every high tower,
and against every fortified wall;
against all the ships of Tarshish,
and against all the beautiful craft.
And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled,
and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low,
and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.
And the idols shall utterly pass away.
And people shall enter the caves of the rocks
and the holes of the ground,
from before the terror of the Lord,
and from the splendor of his majesty,
when he rises to terrify the earth.

Isaiah 2:12-19 (ESV)

The prophet was predicting a day that came to pass when God used Assyria and Babylon as his tools to judge Israel and Judah, but he was also looking ahead to The Day when all the nations will be judged. In that day only the righteous, those covered by Christ's blood, will find refuge in the strong tower that is the name of the LORD. The meaning of the prophet's name conveys the blessed hope: the LORD saves. Hurricanes, floods and earthquakes are birth pains (Rom. 8:22). They remind us of a future day when every mouth will be stopped and every knee bow. They're a reminder of how powerless we are. They're a reminder that there's still time.

Zion shall be redeemed by justice,
and those in her who repent, by righteousness.
But rebels and sinners shall be broken together,
and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed.

Isaiah 1:27-28 (ESV)

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Diabolical Faith (Thomas Merton)

This year I've been reading a lot of Merton. Many of the meditations in this collection have faith, and the life of faith, as subjects. One of the biggest benefits to immersing yourself in Merton is a deeper understanding of faith: both what it is and what it is not. This is huge, because faith must be a subject of profound interest to any seeker of the one true God. As the scriptures tell us:

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. Hebrews 11:6 (ESV)

In an essay titled "The Theology of the Devil" Merton describes a counterfeit version of faith that ends up drawing us away from God. See if you recognize it.

The theology of the devil is really not theology but magic. "Faith" in this theology is really not the acceptance of a God Who reveals Himself as mercy. It is a psychological, subjective "force" which applies a kind of violence to reality in order to change it according to one's own whims. Faith is a kind of supereffective wishing: a mastery that comes from a special, mysteriously dynamic will power that is generated by "profound convictions." By virtue of this wonderful energy one can exert a persuasive force even on God Himself and bend His will to one's own will. By this astounding new dynamic soul force of faith (which any quack can develop in you for an appropriate remuneration) you can turn God into a means to your own ends. We become civilized medicine men, and God becomes our servant. Though He is terrible in His own right, He respects our sorcery, He allows Himself to be tamed by it. He will appreciate our dynamism, and will reward it with success in everything we attempt. We will become popular because we have "faith." We will be rich because we have "faith." All our national enemies will come and lay down their arms at our feet because we have "faith." Business will boom all over the world, and we will be able to make money out of everything and everyone under the sun because of the charmed life we lead. We have faith.
But there is a subtle dialectic in all this, too.
We hear that faith does everything. So we close our eyes and strain a bit, to generate some "soul force." We believe. We believe.
Nothing happens.
We close our eyes again, and generate some more soul force. The devil likes us to generate soul force. He helps us to generate plenty of it. We are just gushing with soul force.
But nothing happens.
So we go on with this until we become disgusted with the whole business. We get tired of "generating soul force." We get tired of this "faith" that does not do anything to change reality. It does not take away our anxieties, our conflicts, it leaves us a prey to uncertainty. It does not lift all responsibilities off our shoulders. Its magic is not so effective after all. It does not thoroughly convince us that God is satisfied with us, or even that we are satisfied with ourselves (though in this, it is true, some people's faith is often quite effective).
Having become disgusted with faith, and therefore with God, we are now ready for the Totalitarian Mass Movement that will pick us up on the rebound and make us happy with war, with the persecution of "inferior races" or of enemy classes, or generally speaking, with actively punishing someone who is different from ourselves. . .


Monday, August 15, 2016

Plain talk from Dallas Willard

Here's another foundational statement from Renovation of the Heart:

We must clearly understand that there is a rigorous consistency in the human self and its actions. This is one of the things we are most inclined to deceive ourselves about. If I do evil, I am the kind of person who does evil; if I do good, I am the kind of person who does good (1 John 3:7-10). Actions are not impositions on who we are, but are expressions of who we are. They come out of our heart and the inner realities it supervises and interacts with.

Today one of the most common rationalizations of sin or folly is, "Oh, I just blew it." While there is some point to such a remark, it is not the one those who use it hope for. It does not exonerate them. While it may be true that there are other circumstances in which I would not have done the foolish or sinful thing I did, and while what I did may not represent me fully, "blowing it" does represent me fully. I am the kind of person who "blows it." "Blowing it" shows who I am as a person. I am, through and through, in my deepest self, the kind of person who "blows it"—hardly a lovely and promising thing to be.

Whatever my action is comes out of my whole person...

There you go again, Dallas Willard. Not sugar-coating it. Not letting us off the hook. Good intentions are not enough. The will is not strong enough. Because I am sinful, I sin. A bad tree produces bad fruit. But the good news is that my intentions and will—indeed my heart— can be aligned with God and his kingdom (which Willard defines as "the range of God's effective will, where what God wants done is done"). I can be formed into a good tree that bears good fruit. That's the radical-sounding message of this book.

More to come...

Quote from Chapter 2 "The Heart in the System of Human Life"

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A reason to vote for Trump

My favorite moment of the presidential campaign happened back in February when Donald Trump stood before a crowd of Republican establishment types in South Carolina and declared that the "war in Iraq was a big fat mistake." He continued by pointing out that the trillions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost got us nothing and that the reason given for invading Iraq (the supposed presence of WMD's) was false.  As you can hear if you watch the clip, all this was met with a chorus of boos by the pro-Bush crowd.

Of course, Trump went on to win the South Carolina primary and the rest is history. If I was going to vote for the Donald (I'm not) it would be for this reason: that he rightly pointed out that the GOP foreign policy establishment emperors have no clothes.

Fast forward six months and many of the same people who engineered the Iraq debacle have signed an open letter saying Trump isn't fit to be president, and would put our national security at risk. They may be right, but it's hard to take seriously those who have already done so much to make the world a more dangerous and unstable place by their hubristic blundering.

There's a terrific piece by David Goldman that you should read. A link to the full article is below, but here's an excerpt.

The Republican Establishment believed with fervor in the Arab Spring. Weekly Standard founder Bill Kristol went as far as to compare the abortive rebellions fo the American founding. It backed the overthrow and assassination of Libya’s dictator Muamar Qaddafi, which turned a nasty but stable country into a Petri dish for terrorism. It believed that majority rule in Iraq would lead to a stable, pro-American government in that Frankenstein monster of a country patched together with body parts taken from the corpse of the American empire. Instead, it got a sectarian Shi’ite regime aligned to Iran and a Sunni rebellion stretching from Mesopotamia to the Lebanon led by ISIS and al-Qaeda.
Trump is vulgar, ill-informed and poorly spoken. He has no foreign policy credentials and a disturbing inclination to give credit to Russia’s Vladimir Putin where it isn’t due. But he has one thing that the fifty former officials lack, and that is healthy common sense. That is what propelled him to the Republican nomination. The American people took note that the “experiment” of which Gen. Hayden spoke so admiringly was tough not only on the ordinary Egyptian, but on the ordinary American as well. Americans are willing to fight and die for their country, but revolt against sacrifices on behalf of social experiments devised by a self-appointed elite. That is why the only two candidates in the Republican primaries who made it past the starting gate repudiated the Bush administration’s foreign policy.

Read the whole thing. I've said it once and I'll say it again: Trump is the nominee the intellectually bankrupt Republican establishment deserves. I say that as one who dutifully drank the "conservative" Kool-Aid for years. No more.

Monday, August 8, 2016

A legendary trio: Ford, Wayne and Fonda

John Ford's two favorite actors were John Wayne and Henry Fonda. Essential to being a Ford favorite on screen, was being a Ford favorite off screen as well. Fonda once quipped that the director cast actors based on their card-playing ability! There were practical as well as personal reasons for this. A John Ford film set was a small community, so naturally Ford cast people he would enjoy hanging out with when the cameras weren't rolling. When Ford's stock company headed out to Monument Valley to shoot a picture, away from meddling producers and the bright lights of Hollywood, in many respects they lived a romanticized version of the frontier lifestyle they were bringing to life on screen.

All this is recounted in local author Scott Eyman's indispensable Ford bio Print the Legend. Both Wayne and Fonda fit easily into the director's macho inner circle: a membership that required an appetite for lots of "boys will be boys" carousing, and most importantly, letting Ford win at cards. Below is a poor quality shot of Ford flanked by Wayne and Fonda, with another regular member of the Ford entourage Ward Bond at far right.

Being a friend of Ford's off the set was a mixed blessing, though, since one had to endure Ford's incessant ribbing which often crossed a line into outright cruelty. Duke Wayne was a regular target of the deeply insecure Ford's mania for control over those around him. Perhaps this stemmed from the fact that it was Ford who fashioned Wayne into a movie star...and he was never going to let Duke forget it. Fonda, on the other hand, was already an established star when Ford cast him as Abe Lincoln in 1939, and the relationship between these two men was more like that of one between equals. Young Mr. Lincoln began a run of three films in which Ford and Fonda collaborated -- the other two being Drums Along the Mohawk and The Grapes of Wrath -- a trio that went a long way toward raising John Ford to the pinnacle of American filmmaking.

After the war the Ford/Fonda relationship continued to be fruitful in films like My Darling Clementine and Fort Apache. Fonda and Wayne both brought a natural ease to the screen, but the characters they played for Ford were quite different. Eyman explains:

Ford would use Fonda in a very different way than he would John Wayne. Wayne's characters were earthy and warm, brawlers by temperament, capable of love and rage. Fonda's characters burned with a cold fire—they displayed strength, but a removed, abstracted, rather asexual strength, tempered by the actor's instinctive austerity.

This contrast is set in stark relief in Fort Apache (1948): the first installment of Ford's great Cavalry Trilogy. Fonda's Colonel Thursday and Wayne's Captain York display contrasting qualities that Ford admired -- the "by the book" mentality of Thursday that would rather charge headlong into an Apache massacre than admit weakness, and the easy intuitive intelligence of York who is willing to meet the Indians as equals to avoid bloodshed. Ford had room for both kinds of men in his American mythology. He once described Custer as "great" and "stupid"...just like Thursday in Fort Apache.

Eyman writes: "Ford's work embraces deliberate contradictions. . . . Ford is a realist as well as a romantic poet." One could spend hours arguing the relative merits of Wayne and Fonda's performances for John Ford. Recently, I've been immersed in My Darling Clementine (1946). Along with Young Mr. Lincoln and The Grapes of Wrath it forms a foundational trilogy of American self-understanding, both real and imagined. Based on his legend and myth-making turns as Honest Abe, Tom Joad and Wyatt Earp, I give Henry Fonda the slight edge over John Wayne. But it doesn't matter. All that needs to be said is that their complementary talents were the perfect tools for an American master to create some of the greatest motion pictures of all time.

Quotes from pp. 211 & 341 of Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999)

Monday, August 1, 2016

What Trump could have said to Mr. and Mrs. Khan

I don't have the bandwidth to follow every twist and turn of the Trump craziness, but Rod Dreher does, and he imagines what Trump could have said in response to Khizr Khan's speech at the Democratic National Convention. Could have said, that is, if Trump "had the instincts of a normal human being."

"I cannot imagine the pain of what Mr. and Mrs. Khan have been going through since losing their son. I honor their patriotism, and regret that they have allowed the Clinton campaign to exploit their heroic son’s death and their own grief. What I would tell them is this: as Commander in Chief, Donald Trump will not send any more sons and daughters of America to fight and die in unnecessary wars."

That would have been an effective and wise response. Instead, we have the spectacle of a Republican presidential candidate crassly attacking a Gold Star father and mother who could be poster children for the best of American ideals. Truly remarkable.

As I wrote in this space previously: virtue has left the building.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Dallas Willard - spiritual formation is not optional

Here's a foundational statement from Chapter 1 of Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ: a book every disciple of Jesus—regardless of your tradition or denomination—would benefit from. I'll be sharing more from this revolutionary book. I have to give a shout out to Team Carlson (you know who you are) for giving me the nudge to read DW for myself.

Dallas Willard:

[...] Spiritual formation, without regard to any specifically religious context or tradition, is the process by which the human spirit or will is given a definite "form" or character. It is a process that happens to everyone. The most despicable as well as the most admirable of persons have had a spiritual formation. Terrorists as well as saints are the outcome of spiritual formation. Their spirits or hearts have been formed. Period.

We each become a certain kind of person in the depths of our being, gaining a specific type of character. And that is the outcome of a process of spiritual formation as understood in general human terms that apply to everyone, whether they want it or not. Fortunate or blessed are those who are able to find or are given a path of life that will form their spirit and inner world in a way that is truly strong and good and directed Godward.

The shaping and reshaping of the inner life is, accordingly, a problem that has been around as long as humanity itself; and the earliest records of human thought bear eloquent witness to the human struggle to solve it—but with very limited success, one would have to say.

True, some points in human history have shown more success in the elevation of the human spirit than others. But the low points far exceed the high points, and the average is discouragingly low. Societies the world around are currently in desperate straits trying to produce people who are merely capable of coping with their life on earth in a nondestructive manner. This is as true of North America and Europe as it is of the rest of the world, though the struggle takes superficially different forms in various areas. In spiritual matters there really is no "Third World." It's all Third World.