Friday, April 30, 2010

Life: Midterms and Thinking About Graduate School

So, its been a while since I've posted up about my life, so I thought I'd give a little blurb. Mostly, I'm working away at the coming midterms, with an essay due in Philosophy of Mind, and a big midterm test in Ancient Greek Religion.

In addition, I've added a few schools onto my potential graduate schools list - namely the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and St. Johns University here in the Ol' US of A. Both have amazing programs, and St Andrews now has perhaps the greatest living theologian - N.T. Wright - teaching there. Have to say I'm excited about the possibilities.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Book Review: Giving Church Another Chance

Late last year I read my pastor and Bishop Todd Hunter’s first book, Christianity Beyond Belief in which he argued for the importance of entering into God’s story and living as Christians not merely for cleansing from sin, but further for the sake of touching the lives of others with Christ’s love. That is, being a people set apart by God for the sake of the rest of the world, just as Israel was intended to be.

Recently, he released his second book, Giving Church Another Chance: Finding New Meaning in Spiritual Practices and it is a book well worth picking up. There is a large group in our society, even within Christianity, who have become disenchanted with church. Todd was one of these, he went through a “de-churched” phase, experimenting with various alternative forms of Christian worship, but then, at the end of this journey, he found himself as an Anglican Bishop. For those of you who don’t know, Anglicanism, which has its roots in the Church of England, is a high liturgical church, with bishops, priests, and formal organized prayers. What happened? Well, you’ll have to read the book to get the full story, but in short Todd discovered the role of the liturgical church as a tool for spiritual formation. He came to realize that church is not “what it’s about” but rather a place of spiritual refreshment for Christians, a center for our lives from which we go forth to bless the world.

I still have some of the problems I had with Christianity Beyond Belief, namely the stylistic simplicity (especially the use of quotations from The Message paraphrase of the Bible) but as before, I feel these aesthetic complaints do not reflect on the importance of the content.

Ultimately, I don’t think this book is as important as Surprised by Hope but it’s a wonderful tool for understanding Todd’s vision and I truly believe that the “re-practicing” of church advocated by Todd in this book should at the very least be examined by all Christians (especially the section on the Eucharist), but especially those who would tear down centuries of tradition on the basis of their own limited experience and personal interpretations of scripture.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Theology: Transhumanism

Utopianism takes many forms, the vast majority of them are quite disturbing,and Transhumanism certainly takes its place as one of the more troubling. The following article is a very interesting theological critique of Transhumanism and it also has a lot of interesting stuff in it about the importance of the physical in Christianity.

The Anti-Theology of the Body

Politics: Democracy and Progressivism

Very good interview by Mars Hill Audio about the effects of Progressivism on Democracy. The intro is a little long, but the interview itself is fantastic and there's a lot of stuff in here that applies to Distributivism/Communitarianism.

Mars Hill Interview on Democracy and Progressivism 

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Philosophy: To Strive and Flourish

Earlier, I wrote a blog post in which I advocated for decentralized government, in order to counter the dangers of fanatical Utopianism. However, even if the dangers of a centralized Utopia could be countered, it might still not be the ideal, for it remains possible that a necessary component of human flourishing includes a necessary component of achieving flourishing for oneself, which is what I believe the anti-Utopian is getting at when they claim that humans need striving. In the sphere of the virtues, for example, justice might demand that the rich man care for widows and orphans who cannot care for themselves, but it is important that this is a decision of his will. The law could force the rich man to take this action, and this might externally look the same as the case of the one who chooses to care for them, but this justice would be part of the system and not part of the rich man’s life. Thus, he would not be flourishing as an individual, and the law might actually be preventing him from becoming a just man.

Similarly, a man eating food he did not earn does not get the maximum good available from the meal. Certainly, he is nourished, his basic physical need being cared for, but the benefit of the satisfaction of having earned the meal is missing. Ultimately, a hungry man unable to work might need to be fed from the proceeds of another man’s labor, but if a centralized power gives every man food they have not worked for, they have the satisfaction taken from them by default. Instead, it seems better if help comes from those in immediate contact with the hungry man, who can give him only the help he needs and, if possible, help him to stand on his own that he might achieve the fully flourishing life [1]. Since, as mentioned before, a real Utopia would be the best environment for human flourishing, even if that included striving, the best a centralized power could do to create Utopia would be to do nothing, instead leaving it to individuals and local communities.

At this point, it may be asked why I have included local communities and not simply left everything to the individual. After all, if achieving something for oneself is part of flourishing, doesn’t local community interfere in this just as much as central government? However, this is not the case. First, the community is sensitive to the needs of the individual. The work put into a meal is not the only important part of it, other factors such as its satisfaction of hunger are also extremely important. It is better for a man who cannot work to eat a meal he has not worked for, than for him to starve. Ultimately, a local community is better suited to know when he needs charity, and when he needs rehabilitation. Also, in most cases an individual contributes to his community in ways he cannot necessarily contribute to a centralized system, and these are often intangible. The sickly widow may be unable to labor for her bread, but may provide an important area of emotional support in her community. The awareness of this in herself and her community creates a sense of reciprocity and this in turn provides the missing component of satisfaction. As a centralized body is necessarily detached from individuals, it cannot operate in terms of such intangible benefits and thus the component of reciprocity is removed.

[1] I originally considered this idea earlier in my blog, but it was recently brought to my attention that it is explored in the Thomistic principle of subsidiarity. I have not yet had the chance to study into this, so the arguments for it are essentially my own.

Note: As with my last post, this one was taken largely from an essay which I wrote for school (the same essay as the last one in fact)

Friday, April 9, 2010

Politics: The Dangers of Utopia and the Boon of Inefficiency

It is my firm conviction, brought about by the observation of history, that the dreams of Utopians are far more likely to drag us to hell than to build a better world. From Hitler’s Reich to the terrorism of Bin Laden, many of histories greatest evils have come from the pursuit of the perfect world. Really, Utopianism is a kind of hate. It identifies what I see as the perfect state for human kind, it becomes intoxicated with that vision, and then it cannot help but make that the end of all action, and in so doing come to see any who stand in its way as monsters and sinners. We all hope for a better world, that is our nature, and it is a fine thing to strive for that world, to work at it with sweat and tears, and most of all with love. But, when we try and make that world, to forge it by power, to force it on others for their own good, then we become Utopians and we soon become monsters.

The temptation for the Utopian is the temptation to think that the best way to achieve the ideal human circumstances is through exercising the influence of some strong centralized power, most notably that of government. In general, this view seems to arise from the appeal of efficiency. Where a thousand local agencies might work at cross purposes, sabotaging the formation of Utopia, a single central organization can organize these efforts and thereby seemingly better achieve the goal. However, it is precisely this efficiency that makes the temptation to centralization a liability.

At its heart the problem is the limits of our own knowledge, which in turn leads to a deep moral concern. As is frequently mentioned by moral philosophers, there is a great diversity of moral codes present in the world, ranging, for example, from cultures which practice female circumcism to keep women in their “proper” place to those which view women as equal to men. This doesn’t actually, as some claim, lead to the conclusion that the moral ideal is relative, but it does seem to show that it is very easy to go astray. Mistakes in this area are bad on a local and individual level, leading to ruined lives, but they are devastating when made by a centralized power. It is here that the moral problem comes into to the picture, as in the historical case of Soviet Russia, whose attempt to create a Utopia based on their view of flourishing human life led to the deaths of millions, and to economic damage from which the country is still suffering.

Thus, precisely the inefficiency of local attempts to make the world ideal seem to actually make these the ideal case. It is important here to make a distinction between inefficiency and incompetency. Local efforts to build a better world will still ideally make a difference, only doing so more slowly. Those communities which properly understand the good will see their members flourish more, while those which don’t will ultimately run into far more problems. As other communities see the success of the flourishing locality over the others, this will encourage them to adopt similar practices. This is more piecemeal, but it avoids the devastating consequences possible when a mistake is made by centralized power.

This, I argue, is one of many justifications for the distributionist and communitarian state. We cannot afford to build a legal and economic system on the basis of a centralized power that will too easily be co-opted by the machinations of Utopians seeking to make the world a better place… at any cost. In the human world of limited perspective and moral failure, inefficiency is a boon, not a detriment.

Note: Much of what was written here was originally explored by me in a paper for my Metaethics class in the Fall of 2009 (and, hey, I got an A on it, so I must have done something right)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Politics: Distributivism, It's Probably Not What You Think It Is

Politics come up with me in conversation. I don't think I aim for it, but it just seems to happen (so does Religion... thankfully I also seem to have a flame dampener around me... most of the time). 

"I'm a distributivist," I tell them, and, almost inevitably, they think it's some kind of cute term for socialism. It isn't, indeed its quite distinct. Here's a definition, taken from the website of distinguished distributivist John C. M├ędaille. He's got quite a detailed "encyclopedia of distributivism" if you want to know more.
"an economic theory... [it]ts key tenet is that ownership of the means of production should be as widespread as possible rather than being concentrated in the hands of a few owners (Capitalism) or in the hands of state bureaucrats (Socialism)"
There's of course a lot more to the theory, and it's further tied (typically) to communitarian/localist politics, which hold that government power, as much as possible, should be widespread and distributed (see the connection?). There's many justifications for this view, some practical and others moral. I've talked about it a few times here before, and plan to say more about it in the future, but there's your basic definition.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Theology/Life: He is Risen!

Happy Easter! He is Risen!

Now, I know what at least some of you are probably thinking - Easter was yesterday genius, it's Monday. However, thankfully, that's actually not quite correct. You see, the traditional, liturgical churches divide up the year into a series of seasons, each structured around a part of the Christian story, each speaking to an important part of our journey as believers. The most famous of these seasons is probably Lent, or perhaps Advent (Christmas, though I doubt most people think of the season as a whole as a religious event). However, the whole year has its seasons, and Easter is a full season of its own, lasting from Easter Sunday until the Day of Ascension, as long as the season of Lent before it.

Easter is Lent's mirror. Lent is a time of mourning and reflection, a time of quite contemplation and fasting. As most of you know, it is traditional to give up something we love for Lent, it is an act of submission, a way of realigning oneself with God's story. Lent, Holy Week included, stands as the road to the cross, to the day when (as the wonderful song "In Christ Alone says" ) " in the ground His body lay/ Light of the world by darkness slain."

But Easter season stands on the other End of Christ's Passion, it is the celebration of life, of the fact that the Grave could not hold the King. What is more, Easter proclaims God's promise that He is making everything new, that one day the old order of things, of death, decay, oppression and sin, will pass away and be resurrected in Christ a glorious New Creation. This promise celebrates the goodness of what God has made, from the majestic mountains, to the simple things in life like chocolate, and, yes, even wine.

Because of this fact, N.T. Wright in his wonderful book Surprised by Hope suggests that we start a new tradition. Just as in Lent we gave things up, rejecting the old order of the world, in Easter we should, at least for that season, take up something new as an affirmation of the goodness of what God has made, and an anticipation of what is to come. Of course, this can be something you'd label "spiritual" like a special quite time for prayer, or a regular Bible reading schedule... but it doesn't have to be. The new thing can be a new hobby (maybe you might want to take up drawing like you've always wanted to), a new habit (greeting strangers on the street) or maybe even just learning to appreciate a form of art or food you've never before enjoyed.

Easter is a season of feasting, of celebration, so I challenge you, take up something new. Feast in the goodness of what God has made. I for one am taking up guitar, and I'm also going to let my friend try and infect me with his love of poetry.

Go live and flourish!