Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Free-will, Freedom, Universalism, and the Allure of Love (John A.T. Robinson)

It is probable that the mental picture usually conjured up of the relation between divine omnipotence and human freedom is that of two irresistible forces each pulling in opposite directions. If, per impos­sibile, one were to gain a painful inch here or there, it could only be at the expense of the other’s loss: submission to the power of God must involve the abandonment of the freedom of man. But have we any rea­son to think that this is at all an accurate picture of what happens when will meets will in the personal relationship of love? Surely, it is grossly misleading.

We all know times, when a man or woman really shows his or her love for us, whether it be in some costly manifestation of forgiveness or self-sacrifice or in some small act of kindness or consideration, that we feel constrained to respond—we cannot help ourselves, everything within us tells us that we must. Our defenses are down, the power of love captures the very citadel of our will, and we answer with the spon­taneous surrender of our whole being. Yet, at the same time, we know perfectly well that at such moments we can, if we choose, remain un­moved; there is no physical compulsion to commit ourselves. Everyone may point to instances in which he has been constrained to thankful re­sponse by the overmastering power of love. And yet, under this strange compulsion, has anyone ever felt his freedom infringed or his personal­ity violated? Is it not precisely at these moments that he becomes con­scious, perhaps only for a fleeting space of time, of being himself in a way he never knew before, of attaining a fullness and integration of life which is inextricably bound up with the decision drawn from him by the other’s love? Moreover, this is true however strong be the con­straint laid upon him; or, rather, it is truer the stronger it is. Under the constraint of the love of God in Christ this sense of self-fulfillment is at its maximum. The testimony of generations is that here, as nowhere else, service is perfect freedom. When faced by an overpowering act of love, we realize how absurd it is to say that the freedom and integrity of our moral personality are safeguarded only if we set our teeth and determine not to allow ourselves to be won to its service. If, then, we do not lose, but rather find, our freedom in yielding to the constraining power of love, is there anything to be gained for the cause of liberty by demanding that when it is under the control of self-will it shall in the end be stronger than when it is under the control of love? May we not imagine a love so strong that ultimately no one will be able to restrain himself from free and grateful surrender? If the miracle of the forcing of pride’s intransigence—which is no forcing but a gentle leading—can be achieved in one case (St. Paul would say, in my case), who are we to say that God cannot repeat it in all? One by one, may not each come to the point at which he finds himself constrained to confess in the words of Charles Wesley:
I yield, I yield,
I can hold out no more;
I sink by dying love compelled
To own thee conqueror!

In The End, God…, by John A.T. Robinson, p 105-106

Monday, April 24, 2017

Reflecting on ‘The Love That Matters’ by Charles Featherstone (6) The Journey Into Islam

This is the 6th in a series of posts reflecting on The Love That Matters by Charles Featherstone.  1st post here.


Because Charles experiences within Islam were what first piqued my interest in reading his story, I’d like to spend the next several posts reflecting on how Charles characterizes those experiences. 

So what attracted Charles to Islam?

Perhaps it’s necessary to look at this question by way of contrast.  There are, of course, competing narratives about the “nature” of Islam in our world today.  A popular narrative in modern America is that Islam is “inherently violent” – that its teaching and ethics, its history, its founder, etc. necessarily lead a “true believer” towards a violence and hatred that’s expressed naturally and legitimately in the sort of ‘acts of terror’ that we see today.  Theirs is a “god of hate”, some would say.  This can be supported in any number of ways – through a careful proof-texting of Quranic texts, by pointing to the history of Muhammed and the development and spread of the religion, through the witness of the ex-faithful or of suicide bombers and their heavenly aspirations. 

The implications of this narrative, the way it shapes cultural attitudes and perceptions, are numerous.

Relevant here are the corresponding ideas that (1) violent people are attracted to Islam precisely because their own violence and hatred finds expression and authorization in Islam as ideology and (2) that if it hasn’t already, “true Islam” will naturally cause people to become violent and hate-filled.  As the narrative goes, Islam both attracts and creates violence because of what it “inherently” is.  And because this inherent nature of Islam simply is what it is, this claim can be made apart from any economic, social or political factors.  These factors may accelerate or decelerate the process, but the underlying argument is that there is no real distinction between “Islam” and “radical Islam” (“radical” in the sense described here).

Now it’s not my intent to address any of that general narrative here.  The only thing that I’m concerned with for the purposes of this post has to do with Charles’ particular narrative and how it doesn’t fit that popular narrative.

A few or my earlier posts centered around Charles’ childhood – his anger, loneliness, his perceptions of power, etc.  Charles was angry before becoming Muslim.  So was his becoming Muslim borne of the desire to express this anger and rage without pretense?
I wasn’t drawn to reform.  I didn’t want to make America work better – I wanted to damn it and burn it down. (p 77)
What was I looking for?  What did I want?  Some kind of justification for the urge to do violence, some way to legitimize my rage at the world I lived in.  That’s what I wanted.  I had a nihilistic urge seeking a pretense, some sort of idea, some mess of words to cover the naked desire to simply burn everything down. (p 79)
But conflicting with this rage and nihilistic urge is the desire for a kinder world:
My nihilistic desires struggled mightily with this wanting a kinder world.  And lost.  And thank God.  Somehow, in the midst of all of this, I realized that I could do the kindness I sought in the world.  Islam, with its emphasis on good deeds, helped guide me to this place. (p 80)
Charles did not become Muslim because it was a natural fit for his nihilistic world view or gave him free reign to “burn everything down”.  Quite the opposite.  In his own words, he became Muslim because in it he perceived a way to “do the kindness I sought in the world”.  I suspect that his vision of what the world was – the nature of power – did not permit a vision interested in fundamentally “changing the world”.  But Islam was, perhaps, a means to protest the ways of the world.  A doing of kindness that was, if nothing else, a form of resistance.

So Charles’ narrative is the opposite of the popular narrative I outlined above.

That was my 1st observation. 

The following series of quotes led me to a 2nd observation:
In becoming Muslim, I had found that parts of the African American experience were useful in explaining both my life and my experience of living in America.  This is akin to what Norman Mailer wrote in his 1957 essay “The White Negro”.  Though Mailer is speaking of 1950’s hipsters, with their existential cynicism, I think what he says can also describe some white Americans who, like myself, found themselves growing up on the wrong side of America, in which whiteness conferred no social advantage because the people abusing us were also white. (p 76)
Rather, what spoke to me was the experience of social power and state power as a constant, almost existential threat that African Americans like Malcom X wrote about.  That a “life of constant humility and ever-threatening danger” – think Citrus Elementary School – could also lead to other responses – to separatism, because “if you don’t want me, then I don’t want you either. (p 77)
He’s careful not to characterize the connection here as one of race, but one of experience and understanding:
I am not pretending to be anything or anyone I am not – I am not claiming blackness.  But the story Malcom X told of how he experienced America made sense to me.  It made an awful lot of sense.  It was an America I experienced and understood. (p 77)
So this “life of constant humility and ever-threatening danger” is the backdrop for the allure of Islam.  We needn’t and shouldn’t suppose that Charles choice was driven primarily by rationale deliberation or theology – that would all come later.

For me, this series of quotes demonstrated the inability of the Christianity that he had been exposed to – the dispensationalist variety that I wrote about here – to speak to his situation.  It was not a fit for a person with Charles’ experience of America - for the lonely, marginalized outcast.  Tragic, but I have to confess that I’m not surprised.  Why is this?  

This is not to suggest that if the church were to “do it right”  - whatever that means, that anyone and everyone is just going join up with a traditional church the moment a representative comes knocking.  That hasn't been my experience.  That’s na├»ve, condescending, and sidesteps the complexity that is a human life.  

Still.  Who and what is the church for and what does it represent?  What does it bring to the world?  Is the church for “the least of these”?  Is it really?  How? 

This demands, I think, some serious soul searching for anyone who identifies as “Christian”.  Speaking to myself as much as anyone else.


Monday, April 17, 2017

Reflecting on ‘The Love That Matters’ by Charles Featherstone (5) Aching to be Loved

This is the 5th in a series of posts reflecting on The Love That Matters by Charles Featherstone.  1st post here.


In case you hadn’t noticed, the subtitle to ‘The Love That Matters’ is “Meeting Jesus in the Midst of Terror and Death”.  As the “meeting Jesus” part has not happened yet in the narrative flow of the book (at least not consciously) I’d like to focus on the 2nd half of that sentence – the “in the midst of terror and death” part - prior to getting to the “aching to be loved” part that is the title of this post.

Though the specific forms and manifestations vary, the experiences of “terror and death” are prevalent throughout the early parts of the book.  For example, Charles writes:
What was I looking for?  What did I want?  Some kind of justification for the urge to do violence, some way to legitimize my rage at the world I lived in.  That’s what I wanted.  I had a nihilistic urge seeking a pretense, some sort of idea, some mess of words to cover the naked desire to simply burn everything down. (p 79)
This is just one example.  Earlier posts in this series have touched upon this rawness and pain, a pain that leads to “nihilistic urge”.

But then, just a handful of pages later and seemingly out of nowhere, Charles writes:
Love can be an abstraction or an ideal only for those fortunate enough to take its presence in the world – its fleshiness, its goodness, its generosity – for granted.  To ache to be loved, as Jennifer and I both did when we were young, is to ache to know God. (p 86)
Because love is a relationship, and it’s meaningless to claim to love someone if there’s no chance she will understand or experience the doing as love. (p 87)
Where did this come from?  The contrast between these sorts of thoughts and those from just 7 pages earlier provide something of a glimpse into the nature of the battle to find a place in the world "in the midst of terror and death".  There is a tension, an uncertainty.  And as sometimes happens in life, Charles thoughts on love are a surprise, an interruption into a story as it’s being told.

I wonder, was Charles only able to write these words in hindsight?  Can a person only recognize such things about love in their past having subsequently found something of that love that they’re aching for?  And having seen it, they can go back and see their trajectory towards it?  Or does one recognize such things in the moment, in between the moments of nihilism?

I don’t know.  Maybe it doesn’t matter.  Either way, I really liked what Charles wrote here. 

Love cannot be reduced to an abstraction.  Nor can it’s “success or failure”, given this definition of love as fleshy concreteness and as meaningless apart from relational fulfillment, be reduced to the mere offer of love.  Because it’s meaningless to claim to love someone if there’s no chance of that person understanding or experiencing that love as love.

Love must be experienced as love in order to be complete as love.  It takes form through both giving and receiving. 

This is an existential statement.  And it’s an eschatological statement.  It need not become abstract to be either of these.  It need not become generalized or lose its sense of particularity if we take this definition of divine love and widen it, drawing out it’s implications. 

Love is not concerned with its success in terms of minimum requirements, in terms of being “offered” and then shrugging it’s shoulders contentedly if “rejected” in “free-will” by one person or by every single person who ever lived (there is no distinction).  No.  You can argue that God’s love ends I suppose.  You can try that, and some do.  But don’t argue for the fulfillment of love apart from the beloved’s experience of it as such.  This love is not kitschy or sentimental.  But it is relentless, entering into a world of terror and death.
"The only victory love can enjoy is the day when its offer of love is answered by the return of love.  The only possible final triumph is a universe loved by and in love with God."
-William Barclay

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Theodicy, Death, and the Laws of Nature II (Thomas Lynch)

The set of events (rather pointless to call them "unlikely") that resulted in the death of a young girl named Stephanie are provided on p 55, just prior to this section.  To briefly summarize, the family was driving through Kentucky on their way to Georgia for vacation.  Some local Kentucky boys, mischievous but not malevolent, were messing around in a local cemetery for fun.  They stole a headstone.  Getting tired of carrying it, they decided to toss it off the overpass.  It was at just this moment that Stephanie's van passed under:
The stone shattered the windshield, glanced off Stephanie's father's right shoulder, woke her mother riding in the passenger seat and, parting the space between the two front seats, struck Stephanie in the chest as she lay sleeping in the back seat.  She had just traded places with her younger brother who cuddled with his two sisters in the rear seat of the van.  It did not kill Stephanie instantly.  Her sternum was broken.  Her heart bruised beyond repair.
Words provide little comfort.  No explanation can dull the reality of it (I assume the story is true).  But Lynch cannot help but cycle through the various explanations:
Sometimes it seems like multiple choice.
    A: It was the Hand of God.  God woke up one Friday the 13th and said, "I want Stephanie!"  How else to explain the fatal intersection of bizarre events.  Say the facts slowly, they sound like God's handiwork.  If the outcome were different, we'd call it a miracle.
    Or B: It wasn't the Hand of God.  God knew it, got word of it sooner or later, but didn't lift a hand because He knows how much we've come to count on the Laws of Nature - gravity and objects in motion and at rest - so He doesn't fiddle with the random or deliberate outcomes.  He regrets to inform us of this, but surely we must understand His position.
    Or C: The Devil did it.  If faith supports the existence of Goodness, then it supports the probability of Evil.  And sometimes, Evil gets the jump on us.
    Or D: None of the above.  Shit happens.  That's life, get over it, get on with it.
    Or maybe E: All of the above, Mysteries - like decades of the rosary - glorious and sorrowful mysteries.
Each of the answers leaves my inheritance intact - my father's fear, my mother's faith.  If God's will, shame on God is what I say.  If not, then shame on God.  It sounds the same.  I keep shaking a fist at the Almighty asking 'Where were you on the morning of the thirteenth'?  The alibi changes every day.
The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade by Thomas Lynch, p 56

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Reflecting on 'The Love That Matters' by Charles Featherstone (4) Searching for God in Dispensational Christianity

The 4th in a series of posts reflecting on The Love That Matters by Charles Featherstone.  1st post here.

One day, when I was fourteen, I suddenly found myself interested in God.  Wanting to go look for God.
I suddenly found myself interested in God.  Who knows how such things happen, but what better place to find oneself suddenly interested in God than the deeply Christian and predominantly dispensationalist southern California of the 1980's, right?!
Living in suburban California in the early 1980s, the only religion you were likely to bump into by accident was a conservative, happy face dispensationalist Christianity. (p 53)
Now, even though this was a few years removed from his brutal elementary and middle school years, the experience of loneliness, rejection, and cynicism remained present.  As I said in an earlier post, you don't just magically "get over" those things.  They provided the context in which Featherstone first encounters the Christian faith.  So what does a 14 year old in pain look for in the quest for God?
But there was also belonging.  I ached to belong, and to an extent, I was welcomed into this group. (p 53)
And one more thing I could belong to, another place where I was taken seriously as a human being with something to contribute. (p 53)
I'm certain that belonging was a primary concern to me when I was 14.  While that needs becomes muted over the years for any number of reasons, it's always there.  We are less conscious of it perhaps, able to bury it through career, activity, entertainment, alcohol, but we never outgrow are 14 year old need for belonging.
Honestly, I find the whole thing pretty embarrassing.  I was never a particularly good Christian in high school, and by my junior year I would give it up all together.  But I did believe for a time, even in much of the nonsense of dispensationalism.  (A group of us decided to write "rapture letters," explaining to people what had happened to us when we disappeared.  My mother found mine in the typewriter, mistook it for a suicide note, and had a meltdown.) (p 53)
I wonder if Charles, at the encouragement of his dispensationalist friends, felt "persecuted" when his mother found that letter and "had a meltdown"?  Such tribulations were foretold to be a sign of the end times....

Anyway, I recall reading most of the Left Behind "novels" early in my college years, I think.  It was after my own "religious awakening" during the summer between my 1st and 2nd years of college.  The only place that I had to work out any of my God questions was within the soft-core dispensationalist faith of my parents.  I didn't have any Christian friends at school, and I didn't even really want any at the time.  I was in a fraternity, and perhaps a bit like Charles, I found the whole thing just a bit silly and embarrassing (see that belonging thing??).  Our family had gone to church much of my life, but I had never really made any friends at church.  I mean, I had lots of friends growing up, but never any from church.

Actually I take that back.  I think I had one friend from one of the churches that we went to for a few years during my middle school years.  It was short-lived.  His name was Vanya.  I didn't know it at the time, but his parents were Fundamentalists with a capital "F".  I really only have two distinct memories.  The first is of a sleepover at his house.  They didn't have a TV and his parents made us go to bed at like 8pm.  The second is of inviting him to play football with me and my friends from school (we lived in the same town but he was homeschooled and didn't know anybody).  It was tackle football, and some of my friends were being rough on him because his name was Vanya.  After a dirty play, he said "What the hell?!"  Nobody thought much of it because we all swore like crazy.  It was barely a swear word anyways.  Later that day (or maybe a day or two later), I got a phone call from Vanya apologizing for "impure speech."  He also wanted the names and phone numbers of all of my other friends who had been playing that day so that he could apologize to them too.  I was pretty much horrified.  I gave him a few phone numbers, the numbers of the guys who I thought would go easy on him (and easy on me).  I think that was the end of the friendship.  I'm sure he told his parents of his "impure speech" and that they'd made him call me which my parents thought was terrible.  I look back now and think it's well beyond "terrible".

In any case, I wasn't "rejected" at church or anything.  I just didn't find it to be a place to belong, nor did I need it to be.  I went because my parents made me.  Truthfully, I don't think I really learned anything helpful about God in those years.  I only recall learning things that I even now struggle to unlearn.  But that's for another post.

Back to dispensationalism.  Far from being a necessity for belonging, my own devouring of Left Behind novels was done from a more twisted motive.  It was pretty much the desire to be piously entertained.  Entertainment.  It was like solving a riddle and I liked that.  These were like the movies, only this (or something like it since nobody could read all the symbolism with 100% accuracy) was really going to happen!  I read maybe 5 of the books.  I don't know how many there are and I don't care to know.  I lost interest.

And so did Charles.  But Charles observes that dispensational theology might have been a great fit for him:
In fact, if you're a teenager who is obsessed with history and current events and who has something of a cynical view of the world, dispensationalism is a perfect theology.  It takes you seriously, takes what you know seriously, and your knowledge is no longer simply a strange collection of facts and stories that fascinate you (and perplex everyone else) but suddenly has cosmic import.  You know the signs of the coming of the end and can read those sings with a subtlety that most others cannot.  You're valued, even if your faith is rough and needs forming. (p 54)
It's a vision that makes a lot of sense if you're angry and cynical, if there's a part of you that, in your pain, wants to see the world crumble and burn.

The "insider knowledge" that characterizes dispensational theology can and does create a sense of solidarity.  There is belonging in being part of an "us" over against "them", especially when embedded in the DNA of the "us" is a knowledge of the future which is characterized by the eternal blessedness of "us" and the demise of "them".  It unites in "hope" (though not much of a "hope" IMO), and it unites in purpose and vocation - keeping the faith and saving the "others" from the tribulation.

Now there are any number of reasons for a person to exit this dispensational lunacy.  For Charles:
But this faith, as intellectually interesting as it was for a bit, couldn't do much for me otherwise.  It could not give meaning to my suffering.  It could not deal well with the suffering of the world.  It was, near as I could tell, the faith of comfortable people, people who had never struggled.  It looked for one thing and one thing only - the coming of the end of the world.  Everything was about signs and portents, wars and rumors of wars, nations fighting nations, Jesus returning on the clouds, and making preparations for all that. (p 54)
I could write for days about "eschatology" and it's inviolable connection to life in the moment, how it can transfuse hope and meaning into the moment.  I won't do that here though.  Suffice it to say, Charles was searching for an incarnate spirituality, one that is present within the world as it is rather than one that primarily seeks escape.  Dispensational theology is simply incapable of providing this incarnate faith.  It's eschatological vision cannot do it.  How could it?

While I wrestle with the questions of suffering and theodicy differently than Charles, I really relate to his pursuit of a faith that is willing and able to at least see suffering, that doesn't turn away from it.  For him, I think, there was no real hope in dispensational theology.  It's vision of "salvation" was insufficient, and it made staying in that community ultimately impossible for Charles.

A traumatic childhood of fear, rejection, and loneliness led him away from this interpretation of the Christian faith.  That's worth pondering.  Very poignant.  Would he have been more at home had he not suffered, had he led a more "comfortable" life?  Had he cared less about the suffering in himself and in the world?  Does that seem like a twisted vision of Christianity?  In any case, we can't say what would have happened if Charles had encountered this dispensational theology having lived through a different set of experiences.  He didn't.  So he moved on.


Monday, April 10, 2017

Reflecting on ‘The Love That Matters’ by Charles Featherstone (3) On Power & Endurance in an Unjust World

Charles early years, as you might expect, were formative in his perceptions of power, "power" being a way of saying "this is how the world really is."
Between school and home, I began to understand power in a very simple and brutal way: as the ability to inflict pain and suffering with impunity.  The key word here is impunity – if there were consequences, if there were a check, someone of something that could or would step in to prevent or even punish, then there would be no power.  There may be cruelty and violence, but real, raw, brutal power needs to be able to say, “You are at my mercy.  No help is coming, because there is no one who can or will help you.”  It needs law.  It needs righteousness.  I have come, over time, to appreciate and even understand there are other kinds of power (I have to in the vocation to which I have been called), but even now, this really is fundamentally what I believe. And I grew increasingly angry.  Angry at the world.  (p 39)
This is not mere "belief".  This is personal experience:
Suffering is rarely, if ever, deserved.  But once you are target by power, it will not let go.  Because it is not in the nature of power to let go of those it has grasped hold of and swallowed. (p 56)
And with poignant clarity:
Because I never lived, as a child, as a young person, with any sense that the world could be changed.  Little would work in my favor.  There was no cavalry, no knight in shining armor, no guardian angel waiting to save me.  That never happened.  There was no justice.  Just loneliness, shame, fear, and violance.  The world was a fundamentally unjust place, and it had to be endured. (p 57)
Charles recalls his childhood perceptions of ‘power’ with striking clarity.  One senses the wounds beneath his words, a characterization of power and existence that remains fresh and vivid decades later.  He admits as much.

“..even now, this really is fundamentally what I believe.”
One does not choose to understand power in this way.  It just happens, the result of thousands of tiny interactions, observations, failures, successes, torments.  One does not “choose” to see power as “no help is coming.”  No, one experiences it, a reality in which “no help is coming” in a way that it can’t be unseen or unexperienced.

He recounts his anger, his hunger to see others hurt the way that he had hurt, the imagined satisfaction at the prospect of annihilative nuclear war that would render all power and suffering as meaningless.  Power made meaningless becomes the ultimate good.

Importantly, the battle for Charles is either to fight this fundamental reality, to survive within it, or to succumb to it.  There was no alternative worldview to bear witness to.


As the story develops, a new narrative takes form:
To forgive those kids at Citrus Elementary, to forgive Ms. Johnson, it all felt like weakness to me.  I held them tight because I felt that if I didn’t, they would win.  To forgive felt like powerlessness.  And more than anything, I wanted what they did to me undone.  I knew that was impossible, but the ten-year-old boy was not reasonable.  He wanted to have the last world.  To be powerful.  He wanted impunity. But that isn’t how it works at all.  By holding them tight, I gave them – these ghosts long gone – the power to tell me who I was.  And I finally understood, not in some intellectual way, but in a deep true, emotional and spiritual way, the truth of forgiveness.  Forgiveness is power, the power to say “you do not get to tell me who I am.”  (p 217)
Note the page #'s of each of these citations.  The earliest is page 39 and the last is page 217.  There are 178 pages between them.  That's several decades of living.  Then a sudden change.
"And then it came to me.  All at once.  Forgiveness suddenly made sense."
On the one hand, this realization came "all at once" for Charles - a moment of clarity, an interruption.  The thought was not there one moment and the next it was.  On the other hand, our lives are not a series of disconnected and unrelated moments.  So it seems impossible to fully separate one particular moment from the moments contained in the 178 pages in between these two citations.

Now I'm certainly not saying that Charles needed his life to go exactly the way that it did so that he could learn a spiritual lesson about the power of forgiveness.  I don't believe that.  Honestly, I think that's a potentially abusive hermeneutic.  But even if I did, I'm not comfortable talking about lessons learned from struggle in anyone's life other than my own.

Still, it's the hope that the arc of our lives bends and moves towards something that sometimes keeps me going.  Often the bend seems to be towards darkness and loss.  An abyss.  But the light appears, surprising us, awakening our imaginations to a different way of being.  And I don't think that the light and the darkness are evenly matched.  The light is stronger.  It endures.

And yet in the world as it is, there's the haunting "even now, this really is fundamentally what I believe."  We want to believe otherwise but we cannot.  Our moments of clarity, those moments when the sky is pealed back and we something of reality, simply don't stay with us in that irresistible revelatory way in which we often first experience them.  Against our wishes they fade.  We live in the tension of hope and tragedy.

Refer back to the earlier quote:
Suffering is rarely, if ever, deserved.  But once you are target by power, it will not let go.  Because it is not in the nature of power to let go of those it has grasped hold of and swallowed. (p 56)
How different would it read if this "power" that "will not let go" is perceived as irrevocably redemptive, if the power that "swallows" us wills our good!


Monday, March 27, 2017

Some Ways to Discern Real/Fake News per Science Mike (The Liturgists)…..and #3 will shock you!!

Another great episode by The Liturgists.  Below is Science Mike’s methodology (paraphrased) for testing news claims as told on the Liturgists recent episode: Fake News & Media Literacy (starting at about the 16 minute mark).

1 – Legitimate news media will name the author and contributors to any post or article that they publish to create accountability.

If there is no author listed, lower the confidence that you put in the quality of the article and/or the truthfulness of it’s claims.

2 – Where was this published? 

Have you ever heard of this publishing institution or organization?  (Not to say that you’ve heard of every legitimate outlet, but do your due diligence.)

Do they have an editorial review board that holds journalists and authors accountable for the words they write?

Does this institution publish corrections, retractions, or letters to the editors?

Is there some means for the readership to publicly hold the institution accountable?

Who owns the publication?

3 – Date of publication?

Fake news generally doesn’t put a date of publication, so people often won’t realize how long the story has been out.

Fake news will often massage the language to make it appear as if it’s happening today.

4 – Trustworthy media cites specific sources.

It names names, names specific organizations, studies, etc.

Are the specific sources named or unnamed?  Must understand that you cannot fully substantiate news that comes from unnamed sources.  Stay alert, but don’t draw conclusions or take specific actions.

Does a news article state that “studies say” without citing a specific study or institution?  If that's the case, dig deeper.

Note that statistics/charts/graphs can be used selectively (though not necessarily inaccurately) to support a narrative.  Example, compressing (or expanding) a statistical time frame to illustrate the degree to which something has increased or decreased over time.

5 – Is the article well-written?

Typos, grammar mistakes, poor punctuation, and ALL-CAPS are huge red flags that you’re not dealing with trustworthy content.

*6 – Does anything in the piece make me angry or afraid?

Be aware that emotions aren’t good for analytical decision making and of your own propensity for confirmation bias.

Be aware of the capitalistic drive for media to create and profit from confirmation bias, sensationalism, and emotion.  In these cases, there is an obligation to dig deeper before accepting or sharing information.

Be aware of genre (e.g. satire!)

And if this is too much to remember, listen to Mike's rap at the end of the episode (lyrics here).  Brilliant.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Theodicy, Death, and the Laws of Nature (Thomas Lynch)

I'm reading Thomas Lynch's The Undertaking for Lent this year.

No way around these haunting realities:
But my father had seen, in the dead bodies of infants and children and young men and women, evidence that God lived by the Laws of Nature, and obeyed in statues, however brutal.  Kids died of gravity, and physics and biology and natural selection.  Car wrecks and measles and knives stuck in toasters, household poisons, guns left loaded, kidnappers, serial killers, burst appendices, bee stings, hard-candy chokings, croups untreated - he'd seen too many instances of His unwillingness to overrule the natural order, which included, along with hurricanes and meteorites and other Acts of God, the aberrant disasters of childhood.
The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade by Thomas Lynch, p 45-46

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Meaning of the Trinity for the Communal Life of Faith?

I wrote a series of posts several months back about the question “Is God Primarily Angry?”  (My answer to that question is “No” btw.)

One of those posts had to do with the Trinity.  In it, I invoked the image of perichoresis – “dance” or “rotation”.

Now, I didn’t intend to try to work out any sort of “doctrine of God” or to “explain” the Trinity.  I know now more than ever that I am not able to do so.  I mentioned in the post itself that the image that I started with was anthropomorphic and, essentially, to not get too caught up in it.  

My goal in appealing to the doctrine of the Trinity in my approach to divine wrath was really threefold:
  1. To establish that God is not lonely and doesn’t have needs (as in God doesn’t need “wrath” to display some aspect of Himself that might not be possible without someone to punish). 
  2. To question and clarify what is intended by the word “wrath”. 
  3. To argue that God doesn’t have “parts” (as in “primarily” angry).
Essentially, my intent was to view and define divine “anger” (or “wrath’) through the lens of protology (origins and first things).  In other words, what is original within God?  Is the sort of hostility that characterizes the typical construal of wrath an eternal ‘attribute’ of God?

I still think my questions/points about “primary anger” are valid, that a protological imagination is essential to how we address them, and that the Trinity shapes Christian protology.  Attack the metaphysics of that post if you like, but don’t let them detract from the intent of the post and the validity of the line of thinking therein.  

But since the release of Richard Rohr’s book The Divine Dance (which I haven’t read) and The Shack (which I haven't seen), there seems to have been a spike in discussions of the Trinity (along with an associated spike in heresy hunting).  I’ve read several in-depth blog posts & discussions, most of them by some really smart guys.  

It's been...interesting.  Sobering.  A bit disorienting.  

The terminology is often inaccessible, necessarily anthropomorphic, and riddled with semantic equivocation.  People use the same words but mean different things.  When it comes to Trinitarian thought, the definition of “person” is enough to make your head spin.  So as far as the Trinity goes, to be forthright, I’m not sure that I have any idea what I’m talking about.  Looking in on some of these discussions makes me realize just how much I don’t know.

So there’s that. 

But that’s only part of what I wanted to say in this post.  The other part has to do with the place of the Trinity within the spiritual life of the Christian faith that I currently find myself in (of the evangelical variety).  What is it’s meaning for the life of faith?  

At best, the answer is not self-evident.

We do not say the creeds.  Our “liturgy” rarely invokes any traditionally Trinitarian language.  Even if it did (per more liturgical traditions), there is no clarity as to what it is that we’re talking about or why such things matter beyond dogmatic identity and association.  Evangelists occasionally reference the necessity of intellectual assent to the proposition “Jesus is God”, but their reason for doing so is to avoid the terrible fate that will come as a result of not making such a confession.  We may take a few steps into the realm of meaning in asserting that “to see Jesus is to see God”, but that hardly validates the metaphysical complexities, intricacies, and anathemas seen in the history of Trinitarian thought.

Sure, a few of the theologically minded may discuss some of the finer points of Trinitarian thought.  But other than a passing reference to the Trinity being “confusing” (the most common reference), as a religious badge of identity over against “non-Trinitarians” and their “misunderstandings” (“they think we believe in 3 gods!” we say incredulously) or in the rhyme of contemporary music, it holds no particularly vital or life-giving place in the spiritual life of the Christian community of which I’m a part.

I don’t know what to make of that.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Reflecting on 'The Love That Matters' by Charles Featherstone (2) Alone

Being the father of a young daughter, there's a lot about Charles' childhood years that stuck with me:
“I did tell my parents once, not long after it started.  It was at dinner, we were sitting around the table, and I remember my father’s response; “People are going to tease you.  You just need to learn to deal with it.”  Not helpful.  My mother’s advice was even worse; she told me I needed to understand that the people who teased me probably had hard lives at home.  Why that was supposed to explain their teasing me I wasn’t sure.  But I quickly determined that my parents could not be trusted.  I may have mentioned the problems a time or two, but I never really talked to them about this again.  In fact, no adult could be trusted.  No one in a position of power and authority could be trusted.  Because they didn’t want to know.  Or because if they knew, they didn’t care.  And they certainly weren’t going to do anything to help.  I was alone.  I was on my own.  This much was clear.”   -p32
“There were a lot of mornings when I would wake up wondering, “Why?  Why do I bother going through all this?  What if this is all there is?  What’s the point of going on?”  Because at the age of ten, I was afraid, truly afraid, that this life of loneliness and fear, and having to deal with abuse on all sides – from kids and adults alike, at home and at school – was all there was ever going to be.  So what was the point of going on?  If this was all life was going to hand me, there was no point.  No point at all.   -p35
“I was simply not wanted by the world in which I lived, by the people who lived in and ran that world.”   -p38
"They sometimes spoke nice words, words of caring and concern - "I Am Lovable and Capable!" - but they never meant it.  Ever.    -p38

My wife, daughter and I were at a birthday party for a 7 year old boy a short while ago, the son of some close friends of ours.  Lots of boys and girls, some still in diapers, running around yelling, screaming and farting.  It was loud and it smelled pretty bad just about everywhere.  It seemed like there were about 50 kids, but in reality there were more like 15. 

Like a lot of 7 year old boys, the birthday boy is into Star Wars.  He’s not just into Star Wars toys books.  He’s into Star Wars in a way that he wants to be IN Star wars.  He doesn’t just want toys, he wants the whole costume.  So we got him a Darth Vader costume – jumpsuit, cape, helmet – the whole deal.  He took a quick break from opening his presents, went in his room to put on the costume, and came back out and finished opening his presents.

Putting on the costume, a little boy simply HAS to play the part of a servant of the Dark Side.  The commanding walk and intimidating presence, the trademark breathing.  The power.  Naturally, sides are going to be chosen and leading to some sort of fun conflict.  In this case, Darth Vader was putting kids in "jail".  Jail was a bedroom with the lights out.

Being one of the smaller (and more persuadable) toddlers, my daughter was thrown into "jail".  Put into a dark room, closed door, no lights.  By Darth Vader.  For the fun of the party.

So she is in the room crying desperately.  My wife and I thought we heard crying, but there were lots of kids running around and everyone seemed to be having a good time.  With all of the noise at the party, we just didn't think much of it.  Crying came and went.  We certainly didn't think the cries belonged to our daughter.

We don't know how long she was in there.  Though it probably felt like an eternity to her, it wasn't more than a few minutes.  Other people heard her crying as they walked by the door of the "jail".  They opened the door and she came running out.  These folks brought her to us, and we picked her up and comforted her in her tears.  You know the type - the hard tears where the person gasps for breath.

She calmed down fairly quickly.  The birthday boy's dad chastised him for what he did, he apologized, my daughter and Darth Vader made their peace, and things mostly went back to the way that they were.  But my daughter still talks about this.  She hasn't forgotten.

Pretty anti-climactic.  So why do I bring this up?  

I don't mean to compare a bit of out-of-control birthday party fun in a healthy environment with friends to Charles' hellish experiences growing up.  They're decidedly not the same thing.  But I just wonder, what would it have done to my daughter if she had been in that room for 15 minutes?  30 minutes?  But what if she'd been locked in the dark and nobody cared?  In the midst of having a good time, what if nobody had really wanted to hear or respond to her cries?  Her parents, the ones tasked with safety (and not just her physical safety) being either aloof or indifferent?  Principled to the point of looking the other way?  And the same with everybody else....a sort of survival of the fittest social environment?

Would she start to lose faith in people?  Could it have been the sort of moment in which a bit of innocence is lost, the moment where a child realizes that the world is not an entirely safe place?  That she might just be on her own?  That her pain was a sort of inconvenience to the ethos of the party?  No doubt moments of loneliness and pain come to all kids, but what do parents do when they come?  She was able to find comfort, but what if there wasn't any to be found?

What if, in her trauma, we had just calmly explained that "this is the way birthday parties are"?

Now remove the particularities, and imaginatively transpose these metaphors to the constant existence of a 10 year old boy.

As the father of a 3.5 year old, the sort of constant fear that characterized Charles' elementary school years breaks my heart.

I recognize that I can’t protect my daughter from everything.  Up to a point, I can’t protect her from struggling because difficult situations may emerge from the best of environments and intentions.  My wife and I have made conscious decisions to let her interactions with other kids play out, up to a point.  We want her to learn to have a humble self-confidence, to stick up for herself, to learn to work through difficult situations with other kids.  

When kids are mean (nearly always unintentionally at her young age), we often tell her that we want her to be nice even to the people that are mean to her.  A "treat people as you want to be treated" Golden Rule sort of thing.  I think it's a good thing to strive for, this proactive growing of the internal capacity for love and good will towards others.

But I think about what Charles needed as a child.  First and foremost, he didn't need practical relationship advice, solid and time tested principles, reality checks on the way things are, lessons in empathy, etc.  He simply needed to matter to someone.  To be known and heard.

As a parent, I really need to remember that.  I'd like to think that I always will.  Hearing Charles' story, however, I cringe at my capacity to offer false comfort.  Things are fairly easy now from an interpersonal standpoint because usually her little issues with other kids are accidents.  She's 3.5 years old.  She has an innocence about her, a pure and joyous way of seeing the world.  I can tell her that sometimes kids just play rough or mean, or that she should try to remember that other kids sometimes have things going on that make them act out a little bit.  It is easy to do this because she is so young.  It is easy because the kids she hangs around are generally good kids.  But it will not always be so easy.

My role as a dad cannot be reduced to abstract "ideals", words of wisdom that float above the fray of actual existence.  The pain or loneliness experienced in the life of an actual flesh and blood person cannot be reduced or dismissed as an occasion to tout principles or learning opportunities.  For a child - for my daughter - to be loved is to know that she matters, in her joys and successes but particularly in her pain, her perceived insufficiency, her failures, loneliness, rejection and heartache.  There's no substitute for that, no program or "life-lesson" that can render unnecessary or fundamental that innate need of value and worth.

You know what?  I don't think we ever really outgrow that need.

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