Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Does Subjectivism Lead to Nihilism?

I recently read this quote from an interview Dinesh D’Souza had with Stanly Fish for his book, Illiberal Education. Stanly Fish argues that:

They worry [the opponents of his educational philosophy] that there will be young people walking around acting in a random, nihilistic way, or perpetually perplexed about life. But that doesn’t follow from my position at all. I’m just saying that our standards are acquired through socialization. My critics assume a world in which persons are not socialized. Actually, it is impossible to live without standards. The only question is, where do standards come from, how are the realized, whose standards prevail?

If you don’t know who Stanly Fish is, he is a rather notorious English/literature/religion educator who writes frequently for the NY Times. He is notorious, in part, because his brand of subjectivism is not always easy to nail down. He argues that we can realistically discuss objective moral values, but that they are always subjectively applied give any and every social context. The above quote was published when he was an English professor at Duke in 1991.

The first sentence of the quote strikes me as frighteningly prescient, which make Fish’s position na├»ve. Eighteen years later, and I think the argument that subjectivism does create a bunch of perplexed nihilists is pretty much done. I think it is inevitable that this level of subjectivism leads to an unhinged randomness about life. If the only real question is where our “standards come from,” given time, the only answer students will have is “me.” That is a bad place for value, standards and meaning in life.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Do Christians Cherry-Pick The Bible? Pt. 2

In his short article on this complicated topic, it seems Barna takes the position quoted at the end of the piece:

The Rev. Kent Ingram of First United Methodist Church, which is within a denomination undergoing its own internal squabbles over gays in the church, views the Bible to some degree as a Rorschach ink-blot test – what we see and choose to emphasize in it tells us more about ourselves than anything else.

“We read the Bible to defend our orthodoxy,” Ingram said.

This position is a kind of appeal to relativism: different people appeal to the same document to support different points of view; therefore, there really isn’t much else to say. Far from being an argument against the other pastors in the article who allegedly cherry-pick from Scripture, it is the ultimate justification for cherry-picking. Ingram’s apparent deconstructionist/reader-response version of interpreting Scripture might argue that cherry-picking is all there is. If the Bible doesn’t shape our orthodoxy, then our “orthodoxy,” or presuppositions about God and the spiritual life shape the Bible. If we then become those kinds of interpretive authorities, the only right thing to do is affirm what we agree with and deny what we don’t.

In the end, this view of reading any document doesn’t settle any questions. It avoids the substantive questions of what the original authors intended, what principles are being communicated, and how should I best understand this piece of literature, and replaces them with an appeal to the subject – an appeal to the reader’s preconceived feelings about things.

Every reader carries their culture, upbringing and their prejudices with them when they read anything. But the decision to turn those subjective realities into interpretive devices is ultimately self-destructive. A goal of good reading is to challenge those preconceptions and wrestle with the truth.

So while it is true that some do read the Bible to defend their orthodoxies, it is not true of most serious Christians. We read the Bible to find its orthodoxy.

But there is still so much more to say.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Do Christians Cherry-Pick the Bible?

The religion reporter at the local paper, The Gazette, recently did a short piece titled, “Is Bible an all-or-nothing proposition?” The piece was precipitated by the recent move in the ECLA regarding homosexual lifestyles and marriage, and was intended to ask the question whether Christians cherry-pick from the Bible. Barna notes:

The crux of the issue comes down to the Bible — or, more specifically, how one views it. Is it the literal word of God, and if so, shouldn’t the faithful follow everything in it? You might be surprised by how some religious leaders answer the question.

Several Colorado Springs evangelical pastors I interviewed contend that the Bible is the absolute word of God, yet they acknowledge that they dismiss or de-emphasize various biblical passages.

In other words, they cherry-pick the Bible. (To be fair, most everyone else does, too, but biblical literalists sometimes criticize other Christians for not accepting Scripture in its entirety.)

After very short blurbs from each of three interviews, Barna accuses the pastors of cherry-picking from Scripture. The only minister not accused is the one who agrees with the premise of the article.

So, is it true? Do Christians simply agree with those portions of Scripture they find comfortable and gloss over the rest? Because this is such a serious, not to mention complicated issue, I am going to split my thoughts up into a couple of posts (at least).

First of all, let me say I feel the accusation. I have spent my entire adult life dealing with Scripture, and there are still plenty of stories and passages I don’t know exactly what to do with. But, after my time in Scripture and the development of my own belief system, I tend to agree with C.S. Lewis when he says in Mere Christianity that the God of Christianity is far too uncomfortable to be made up by us. So, if we believe in someone who betrays our natural comforts, chances are good we aren’t making him up or cherry-picking according to our own pleasures.

Secondly, the Bible is not a simplistic document that can be handled with simplistic notions. The Christian Scriptures contain the legal and cultic (cult = having to do with the practice of religion) documents of an ancient middle-eastern people, the religious documents of a theocracy, history, prayer and wisdom books, prophetic oracles, spiritual biographies, epistles, apocrypha, and more. Each literary milieu comes with all the standard hermeneutical principles, just like we would expect to use when comparing the writings of Abraham Lincoln, Emerson, and Emilie Dickenson. It would be simplistic silliness to “exegete” all three of those authors the same way. So it follows it is simplistic silliness to exegete Leviticus, Psalms, Jeremiah and Paul in exactly the same ways.

Therefore, we need to avoid the phrase, “I take the Bible literally.” You don’t. Even if you say you do, you don’t. What should be asserted is something more like: I take the Bible seriously, or, I affirm all the Scriptures affirm. Take for instance my belief that I take the Bible seriously and Psalm 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” I don’t take that to literally mean that the sky speaks like humans speak. Taking it seriously avoids the silliness of taking it “literally,” and yet allows me to believe what the original author intended to say. The complexity and beauty of creation reveals to me a God.

But, of course, Barna is not that worried about my hermeneutical method and metaphor. He wants to know about the biblical injunctions about homosexuality. So then we will need to continue…

Monday, September 21, 2009

What Was Important to Mother Teresa?

The LHC book club is reading the biography of Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light. Early on, I was moved by a powerful insight into her deep and primary motivations for doing what she did. How do you think the average person would answer the question, What were the most important things Mother Teresa did? More than likely, we would get answers along the lines of her compassion and "social justice" work.

According to her, however, two things were at the root of what she did. First, she prayed. When she suffered, she prayed. When she anticipated suffering, she prayed. She asked everyone she wrote to to pray for her.

Secondly, she wanted to satiate Jesus' thirst for the love of souls by leading the poorest of the poor to Him. She was an evangelist with almost no equal.

In other words, the compassion was the means to her own ends of leading people to Christ.

Do the current "social justice" movements in evangelical and main-line circles have it exactly backwards?

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Way To Win An Argument Today

Worldviews have consequences – sometimes inevitable and destructive consequences. There is an argumentative move being made more and more in our culture that is about as irrational as it gets. What is so infuriating about it is that it is pervasive and persuasive among sizeable chunks of our population.

It probably has a formal name I don’t know, but I am going to call the move “Emotional Sabotage.” (It could also be an instance of the non sequitur, the ad hominem, or some version of a genetic fallacy.) The Emotional Sabotage happens when instead of dealing with the claims or ideas of someone with whom you disagree, you attack their emotional or psychological stability instead. Though it is a natural and unreflective reaction many times in the heat of the moment, it is abhorrently childish in thoughtful conversation. This argumentative move is driving me nuts because it is about all we hear right now, often times from alleged Ph.D.s.

Without even dealing with the embarrassment that is Jimmy Carter, let’s move to a more influential and “mainstream” voice, Maureen Dowd. The pull-line from her column, “Boy, Oh, Boy,” says it all: “Joe Wilson’s outburst in Congress revealed one thing: Some people just can’t believe a black man is president and will never accept it.” The rest of the article fares no better in the rationality or logic department. It is one long ad hominem attack on Wilson making him out to be a racist with only one-half a sentence devoted to whether Obama lied or not. She says he didn’t. Case closed.

So, the pull-line is the argument. Someone disagreed with an African-American, so he is a racist. That’s on par with arguing: You disagree with the usefulness of hypnosis, so you are an anti-Semite. Or: You disagree that chocolate is the best ice cream flavor, therefore you are a pedophile.

Dowd pulled the Emotional Sabotage, and it seems to have taken over the debate regarding the actual details in the bill and the facts contained within. Whether Wilson or the President is right on the merits is not an actual question for Dowd – all she wants to do is make you afraid to disagree with her side and be labeled something vile.

But, I would argue, the Emotional Sabotage is the inevitable result of a worldview Dowd and others likely hold. Theirs is a more morally and religiously progressive point of view, which entails the belief in the ultimate authority of the individual. Without a non-subjective and intolerant reality to deal with, they are left more and more with only “their” sets of preferences, which end up outweighing facts. The symbolism meaningful to them outweighs all argumentative considerations, because all they have left is their symbols. Literally, the only moves they have left are appeals to their symbolic social gestures. Therefore, the worst sin that could be committed is not to mistake reality or the facts of the matter, but to disagree with their social sensibilities.

So it is frustrating, but not surprising, that many in the public discourse have only the Emotional Sabotage or its corollaries in their philosophical tool boxes. May it not be with those who follow Christ – those who believe in the ubiquitous truth of God.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Preaching In The New World

With all the cultural sensitivity among evangelicals, there is a lot of talk about the form and shape of church as well as sermons. What role does the sermon play in our world today? What about the role it plays even the lives of the average believers?

In a post on the Out of Ur blog, David Fitch offers some thoughts on current preaching myths, and the beginnings of some thoughts on where preaching ought to be headed. Part of what he says in the way of direction:

The bottom line is once we preach for formation, where God’s truth is birthed in and among us, we become shaped for his mission in the world. We can see things we didn’t see before. We act out of assumptions we didn’t have before. We imagine what God is doing in ways not possible before. And a little congregation becomes a powder-keg for mission and the harvesting of fields ready for the gospel.

I can appreciate the importance of this insight. I have made a deliberate effort almost every sermon for a couple of years now to pay attention to the “spiritual formation angle.” And all I mean by that is that I try and answer the prophetic question – how do we now engage with God’s character and will in this particular area? We preach the truth of God’s word, and we strive to bring people into spiritual spaces where they want to and will encounter God.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Wesley, Pastors, Reason and Logic

I recently picked up John Wesley’s Address to the Clergy. I had a great time reading it through, being motivated by almost everything he said and laughing out-loud at the silliness of our own age.

Imagine an Address to Clergy being written (or Power-Pointed) by a leading minister of our day. What specific advice would it include? What kinds of traits and habits would it tell clergy they would need to have in order to be good and effective pastors?

Here is just a smattering of the first three or four pieces of advice from Wesley to clergy:

To begin with gifts; and, (1.) With those that are from nature. Ought not a Minister to have, First, a good understanding, a clear apprehension, a sound judgment, and a capacity of reasoning with some closeness? Is not this necessary in an high degree for the work of the ministry? Otherwise, how will he be able to understand the various states of those under his care; or to steer them through a thousand difficulties and dangers, to the haven where they would be?

Secondly. Is it not highly expedient that a guide of souls should have likewise some liveliness and readiness of thought? Or how will he be able, when need requires, to "answer a fool according to his folly?" How frequent is this need!

Thirdly. To a sound understanding, and a lively turn of thought, should be joined a good memory;

Fifthly. Some knowledge of the sciences also, is, to say the least, equally expedient. Nay, may we not say, that the knowledge of one, (whether art or science,) although now quite unfashionable, is even necessary next, and in order to, the knowledge of the Scripture itself? I mean logic.

Wesley mentions many other things, including knowledge of history and geometry.

Honestly, has our culture changed so much that now none of these things are mentioned when it comes to a healthy and effective pastorate, or have we dumbed-down the role of pastor so that these things just aren’t on our radar screens anymore?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Idols as Makers

The thoughts of the 115th Psalm are some wonderfully culturally and spiritually provocative thoughts. The Psalmist argues that those who make and worship idols become like them.

Those who make them become like them.
So do all who trust in them.

One of the most provocative commentaries on these words I have run across comes from Marshall McLuhan’s, Understanding Media. It is in this book that he makes the famous assertion that the medium is the message. A large part of his argument is that the use of technology is necessarily an extension of and formation of our “nervous system.” We cannot engage with technology without being shaped by its form long before we even deal with the message.

The ancient idol makers of Psalm 115 crafted gods out of metal and stone, and thus created technologies and mediums for spiritual use. McLuhan notes:

To behold, use or perceive any extension of ourselves in technological form is necessarily to embrace it….By continuously embracing technologies, we relate ourselves to them as servomechanisms. That is why we must, to use them at all, serve these objects, these extensions of ourselves, as gods or minor religions. An Indian is the servomechanism of his canoe, as the cowboy of his horse or the executive of his clock.

Great fodder for thought!

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Tony Jones and Sexuality

One of the emergent leaders of years past, Tony Jones, has been creeping further and further away from classical Christian orthodoxy and into some territory that Christian history does not look on with favor. Besides denying the doctrine of the Trinity, Jones is obsessed with aberrant sexuality. One glance at the larger blog will serve as evidence. There is nothing un-Christian about paying attention to a theology and anthropology of sexuality, but I’m not sure he is looking at the issues from an angle that will produce useful conclusions.

In any event, his positions on sexuality have been accused of being the first steps in a slippery slope, and in this video he responds.

To the matter that slippery-slope argumentation is fallacious, I think we need to be careful about what we mean. I know it is a form of argument that can be pulled out of a person’s pocket at any moment to be used as a scare tactic, and that often the reasoning is rather non sequitor, but that does not make the argument automatically fallacious. There is work out there that establishes forms of “slippery-slope” argumentation that is not fallacious, but in the sense in which Jones is using it the real proof is in the pudding. Can we point to actual, real-world examples of slipping slopes when a society’s attitude toward sexuality, family and marriage change? I think so. Slippery slopes do exist.

But a more fundamental error he makes is to shift the biblical and ethical burden to “monogamy” from “heterosexual.” Despite the machinations of some theologians, Scripture is abundantly clear both in the text and the context that God’s design for sexual expression is within monogamous heterosexual marriage. Jones has reached a point where “monogamous” is the key ethical term, and the words “homosexual” and “heterosexual” are either synonymous or superfluous. They can be swapped out without any change in the rightness/wrongness of the concept. I think he has put all his ethical eggs in the wrong basket.

Ironically, Jones’ current position may be an example of the result of a slippery slope. I think it can be argued that his original and laudable impulse to read our current culture and learn from it has turned into one of the classic theological mistakes: his cultural sensitivity may have slipped into culturally-driven exegesis.

HT: Constructive Curmudgeon