Wednesday, August 24, 2011

All Grace is Incarnation

Ilya Yefimovich Repin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
"You're sufferning." Todd Hunter said to me across the table at Dick Church's this morning.

Ouch. Yeah, that's it, I'm suffering. It's funny how sometimes when someone puts words to what you're feeling it can have such an impact. Much that I hoped on has been stripped away, people that I care about are in pain. I am suffering. It's not that I'm Job, I still have food on my table, I still have my family and friends who love me, and my body is not covered in boils.

But I am hurting. I am longing to hope, but afraid to in the face of disappointment. So, it's hard to see grace right now, in my life. Friends of mine have pointed to some grace, but it remains hard to see. It's also frightening to point to one thing or another and say, "that's grace." It seemed like grace when I got into Trinity College, it seemed like grace when I couldn't pay for my visa and my church did, it seemed like grace when I found a place to stay in the weeks before I was supposed to move into school. Yet, after all those things, something came up that meant I couldn't go. Of course, that doesn't mean those things weren't grace, it's just hard to see now. Still, I believe God is with me. I believe there is grace.

My aunt sent me a blog post entitled "So all is Grace?" She said it made her think of me, that they were things I might say, though in different words. I think that's true, one or to things aside, and I think it gives at least something of a picture of how I can find comfort now.

In the face of suffering, it's easy to try and explain how it exists in God's world. That's what we in the philosophy world call a theodicy. Yet, as I've said before, theodicies all too often do violence to the reality of human suffering, they strip the raw pain away, abstracting it to an intellectual problem to be solved. Likewise, they often fail pretty miserably at being specifically Christian (or Muslim, or Jewish, etc), relying rather on a generic notion of God that is often far different from the one which has been revealed to us.

I honestly don't know what the reason for suffering is. I believe, ultimately, that God is in control. I believe that He is good. But why do we suffer? Is it because of free will? Perhaps some larger plan? Is it to teach us? To punish?

I don't know. I have my theories, but they're just that -theories, and in the face of real suffering they will always ring hollow.

But there is something that does not ring hollow. God became man. God incarnated Himself into the world of suffering, and in that very same incarnate Self He gave us the first fruits of the New Creation. I know that whatever the reason for suffering is, I can trust the God who stand over that suffering because He was willing to enter into it.

God the Father, in His eternal and unbreakable bond with Christ through the Holy Spirit, is with us in our suffering. And He is making everything new. I don't know why it hasn't come into its fullness yet, but I trust Him, for I once was blind, but now I see.

All is grace. Yes.

And all grace is incarnation.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith by Matthew Lee Anderson

Image taken from  Mere Orthodoxy
Matthew Lee Anderson, author of Earthen Vessels, has been told through Twitter than I am terribly mean and know only how to bruise and destroy. Thankfully, the person who told Anderson this was joking, since I don't think I could live up to that reputation - most of what I have to say about Earthen Vessels is good.

In the first half of the book, Anderson lays out a basic picture of what he thinks the body is, and who he thinks his audience is. None of his reflections on the body should be earth-shattering to any biblically informed Christian who has spent time reflecting on the body, but that's okay because his audience probably hasn't. His audience is Evangelicals, who many have accused of being Gnostic, while Anderson, in defense of us, can at best call us inattentive.

If Anderson is right that Evangelicals have merely been inattentive, then this book will do a lot of good if its read. He establishes that the body is our place of personal presence in the world, the temple of God and the vessel of our worship, and then goes on to explore specific question in reflection of this anthropology. Should Christians get tattoos? What should Christian sexuality look like? What about homosexuality? Anderson approaches all of these questions carefully, and he's clearly given them a lot of thought. Unfortunately, the sheer breadth of the material he's trying to cover means his arguments are often rather thin. He seems to be touching on the topics rather than giving them the thorough analysis they deserve. In the end, the approach seems perhaps more blog-like than book-like. Once again, however, I don't think this is really a problem, because I rather think the point of these chapters is, in the end, a plea to at least think about these things. Think about the body and worship, think about tattoos and the Christian body.

Throughout the book, I found myself at times agreeing with Anderson, at other times disagreeing. Occasionally his critiques of liberal theological positions seemed to me to rather miss the point of those positions. Then again, he, like myself, is a conservative, and its hard to understand the opposing mindset if you haven't spent time immersed in it. There was only one point in the text where I was seriously bothered by anything Anderson said, which was when he discussed yoga. I am not a practitioner of yoga, but I found his view to be narrow and perhaps a bit reactionary even (I plan on writing a separate post on the subject, though, so I won't go into more detail here).

In the end, if you're an Evangelical Christian, or count any Evangelicals as friends, I recommend you read this book. It's true that if you've given much thought to the body nothing here will surprise you, but at the very least it should spark some ideas in your head, and it will probably give you some ideas as to how to approach the Evangelical community with this topic. If you haven't given much thought to the body, then this book is an absolute must read.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Is Doubt Faith's True Method?: A Lesson for Michael Patton from Aristotle

By After Frans Hals [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Michael Patton over at Credo House Ministries recently wrote a post that's been getting a lot of attention in the biblioblog sphere. In it, he argues that Roman Catholic scholarship is fundamentally an oxymoron.

Patton argues that Descartes method of doubt, though flawed, provides the basis for what constitutes scholarship. We doubt that we might know better. Since Roman Catholics, apparently, aren't allowed to doubt, they're simply going to end up defending preconceived notions. This, Patton says, is not scholarship, and if anyone who identifies as a Roman Catholic doubts, they obviously aren't a true Roman Catholic.1

There's plenty of critiques to be made of his argument, and indeed many have already been made. Rod at Political Jesus has critiqued the notion of intellectual freedom inherent in Patton's definition of scholarship. Jeremy of Unsettled Christianity criticizes his view of what Roman Catholicism is, and Brian of Near Emmaus argues that if Patton's notion of scholarship would also condemn Evangelicals. My friend James Arnold will also being discussing the post on Evangelical Outpost later today discussing Patton's notion of scholarship.

I'd would also like to discuss the notion of scholarship expressed here, specifically his application of Cartesian doubt. I will also explore an Aristotelian notion of sciences and apply it to the subject at hand.

I am no fan of Descartes, but Patton has, like many of his peers, misunderstood Descartes project. Yes, Descartes set out to doubt in order to find a firm foundation, but once that foundation was located, he felt secure in trusting it that he might build further upon it. Doubt for him was a tool, not a way of life as it was for the skeptics. This meant that doubt would eventually be left behind. Further, doubt only played a role in building up Descartes epistemology and metaphysics. It was not, for example, the driving force when he studied anatomy.

Descartes doubted everything he thought he could, came to the conclusion that he could not doubt his own existence, and using a very strange ontological argument moved from there to the existence of God. Once God was secure, Descartes felt he could securely believe in the existence of the outside world. On the basis of that security, Descartes could then rely on the apparatuses of that world (such as senses) without continuing to doubt them. Likewise, a Roman Catholic (like, say, Descartes) could begin by doubting the church, but after testing it come to believe in papal infallibility. Once that was done, papal infallibility could then be used as a firm basis for making other decisions about truth. I'm not saying anyone would be right to come to this position, nor that it could even be done. What I am willing to say is that we all do this in a myriad ways throughout our lives. The vast majority of things any of us hold to be true, we hold to be true on the warrant of others whose testimony we trust.

This brings me to the Aristotelian notion of science. Aristotle believed that there is a series of sciences, not just one, and that each had its own principles. The science of logic, for example, would depend on certain basic principles such as the law of non-contradiction2, while physics would depend on certain presuppositions about physicality. No science can critique its own principles, instead these are set by other sciences higher than it. For Aristotle these sciences existed in a strict hierarchy. At the top of all of these would stand metaphysics, and from that science you would derive the primary principles of the lower sciences. We might very well doubt the strict hierarchy of sciences affirmed by Aristotelian, but the basic principle seems firm. Good literary critique follows very different laws than good astrophysics.

We can even see the basic sense of how one science takes as givens what another asks as questions in modern physical science. A chemist, for example, will take as given the basic principles of modern physics, making use of them in doing his chemical work. Indeed, a given chemist will assume most things about chemistry to be true except the very specific things he is testing for.

So how does this apply to Roman Catholic Scholarship? For the Roman Catholic scholar, the major area of scholarship upon which his being a Roman Catholic could have any bearing would be theology. Theology, like logic or physics, is its own science and will have its own principles. But what are those principles? The fact of the matter is there's no easy answer to that question, and different faiths and denominations will have different answers to it. For the Protestant Evangelical, the primary principles for good theology will be sound exegesis of infallible scripture, likely coupled with certain basic Evangelical traditions and experience. The Evangelical can of course question these principles, but one can't rightly call him an Evangelical unless he accepts them. It is only once he does accept them that he is doing Evangelical Biblical scholarship. Likewise, the Roman Catholic confession comes with certain principles underlying its interpretation of the science of theology. This includes scripture, but also includes tradition and papal authority. The Roman Catholic can of course doubt these principles, but once he has accepted them he can freely use them, just as Descartes could freely use God in his philosophy once he was convinced of the existence of the divine. The Roman Magesterium leaves many questions in theology unanswered, and the Roman Catholic scholar can explore these questions freely, his method will simply be different and rely on dogmas established by the church (rather than scripture alone). This is a different scholarly method than the pseudo-Cartesian Evangelical one Patton favors, but it is no less scholarly than it. At least, it cannot be shown to be less scholarly unless we can discover a higher science that can show us definitively what the best principles are for theology.
1. Based on what he says in the comments, Patton's notion of what makes one a true Roman Catholic (or a true Evangelical, or a true atheist) is the specific propositional content of your beliefs. A Roman Catholic, on his view, has to believe everything the Magesterium teaches to be Roman Catholic. The problem is that this imports an Evangelical Protestant view of identity into Roman Catholicism. However, what makes one a member of the Roman Catholic faith is a much more ecclesial matter. If you are baptized as a Roman Catholic (in fact, if you're baptized in a Trinitarian format) you are a Roman Catholic. You may not be in perfect communion with the church, but your identity is set by the sacrament, not by the propositions you affirm.
2. An proposition cannot be both true and false at the same time.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Graduate School

I have some sad news. Most of my readers also know me in person, and have probably already heard this, but a few of you that follow me don't interact with me much in other spheres.

I won't be going to England.

The details aren't important, just know that certain crucial details fell through at the last moment. With any luck, I'll be able to move forward with graduate school before too long, but in the meantime I'm going to do my best to apply myself to growing in Christ and in service of others here at home.

And hopefully blogging lots. 

The Lord be with you! 

My Body Before the Chasm

To say something painfully obvious - space is related to body. As embodied creatures, are mode of existence is inherently linked to the limits of physical presence, which in turn means our very identity is radically spacial. Yet, spatiality itself is hardly a fixed concept. Leaving aside issues of modern physics, the way we interact with space is shaped by the technological and cultural framework in which we find ourselves. The citizen of Rome, with access to its incredible system of roads, had a very different interaction with space than a medieval peasant who's life was likely to be constrained to roughly the same area in which he was born. Our modern world takes this to yet another extreme.

This fact was made very vivid to me on my recent trip to the Grand Canyon. The most striking thing was the raw experience of the canyon as an entity. This chasm in the earth, a mile deep and miles wide, was nigh incomprehensible to me, even as I stood before it. To say that I felt tiny before it is to make a nearly criminal understatement. And I don't just mean tiny in a physical sense, I mean existentially minute. Yet this very fact led to a distancing. My mind almost automatically tried to push the Canyon into familiar and manageable categories like paintings and photographs. I had to force myself very consciously to acknowledge the reality of the massive untamed space before me. And my friend's and I also turned very quickly to levity - planking near the edge of the Canyon, for example. I suspect this had a certain aspect of coping to it.

I've been reading Matt Anderson's book, Earthen Vessels and he relates in it his own experience of hiking in the Grand Canyon, and how it forced him to realize more strikingly his physical need for water. I suspect the act of testing your body against the size of the canyon would likewise help to make solid the reality of its massive scale. Yet, the very fact of my body prevented this experience - I am simply not fit enough to hike the Bright Angel trail.

At the same time as all of this was going on, however, there was also a shrinking of space precipitated by modern technology. For one, we left California on a Monday afternoon, spent all of Tuesday at the Grand Canyon (and even got a late start on that) then drove through the night at arrived back in California on Wednesday morning. All the distance from California to Arizona, which dwarfs the size of the Grand Canyon, became a matter of a couple of days and several cups of coffee. Likewise, all of us took a great deal of photographs, extending the moment of our time in the Grand Canyon forward in time, and seeking to share it with others. And I tweeted. And texted. For all the size and distance of my time there, it was largely collapsed by my ability to be in ready contact with others every instant.

I can't begin to imagine all the ways in which this expanding and collapsing of our bodily interaction with space has shaped us. We go about our lives in a world that is forever distancing us from our embodiment. We carry around the internet in the palm of our hands, the entire world never more than a click away. Yet, at times the world forces through, we encounter it in its raw untamable expanse and it humbles us, as did my experience with the Grand Canyon. The more technology advances, however, the rarer these experiences become. This is not an inherently bad thing, but it is dangerous lest we rush headlong into this future and forget what we are at our core. I think here of Thoreau's claim that "We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us."1 This, of course, does not have to be the case, but if we don't stop to think about it, if we do not go into this future with a solid anthropology, then I very much think it will be. Man will not make machines, they will make him. The experience of our embodiment is one of the most beautiful things about our nature, and it is an inextricable part of our being. If we loose sight of it, it will be to our peril.
1. Walden, Henry David Thoreau