Another Day, Another Shooting

What continues to confound me about this continual, ridiculous process through which we constantly seem to be cycling is not that the shootings are happening — I think we’re past the point of being surprised that people, teenagers, whatever, with access to such destructive weapons will use them against other people.

No, rather, what continues to confound me is that Christians are continuing to support a political party funded (at least in part) by an organization that fights for the right to make such weapons in the first place. Such an organization obviously has no actual regard for the dignity and value of human life — its only concerns are power and profits. Christians that continue to hold on to the idolatry that is the American right to bear arms (and all that we are told is supposed to come with it) are blatantly ignoring the writings of the Gospels and Paul. The very Lord we claim to follow clearly modeled and taught some form of radical nonviolence (see both the Sermon on the Mount and every Gospel’s recounting of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection). Further, Paul’s interpretation of the life and work of Christ is clear: it is foolishness, a scandal, nonsense to the “wise” and “powerful” of the world. And yet, Christ our hope, our victor has laid waste to such powers and principalities. How? By doing the very opposite of what we would do — that is, he made himself nothing, less than nothing, “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.”

The “thoughts and prayers” Christians offer in these situations will continue to sound like a clanging gong and a noisy cymbal to those who see that the Lord we proclaim is not really our true Lord. Christians, let go of your attempts to grab hold of your rights and power and feeling of security in this world. It is nothing more than what the God-man we claim to follow did.

Objective Knowledge, Reversed

Kierkegaard’s only valid form of certain, objective knowledge is in the realm of logic (or its extension of mathematics). Theoretically, approximate objective knowledge can be gained in the realm of history and science, but it’s only ever approximate, so it can’t be said to be “certain,” and is always subject to revision. M.G. Piety details SK’s distinct categories of knowledge in her book Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralistic Epistemology, and those are the only two realms of objective knowledge she can distinctly identify.

Interestingly, McCombs addresses how this situation has reversed in contemporary culture in The Paradoxical Rationality of Søren Kierkegaard:

Although the Hegelian System is now dead and gone [what Kierkegaard spent much of his time lambasting], systematizing is still alive and well. For example, scientific naturalists claim to know that all reality is material reality, or that all reality is to be known, to the extent that it can be known, not in diverse ways but exclusively by the public methods of mathematical and empirical sciences. (70)

This is an inversion of SK’s notion of what counts as truly objective knowledge — math and logic provide objective knowledge according to Kierkegaard, but they are not the limit of what is knowable. This, in my opinion, is a large reason why we experience a large amount of doubt about any religious or ethical truth claims. We have accepted the cultural claim re: immanence — that we can only know what is provable empirically or logically because we cannot empirically or logically prove anything exists outside of the material world.

Something Small Everyday

This, from Austin Kleon, is exactly what I needed to hear today:

It takes time to do anything worthwhile, but thankfully, we don’t need it all in one chunk. So this year, forget about the year as a whole. Forget about months and forget about weeks.

Focus on days.

The day is the only unit of time that I can really get my head around. Seasons change, weeks are completely human-made, but the day has a rhythm. The sun goes up; the sun goes down. I can handle that.

I needed to take some time away from my thesis writing and reading — the end of the school year, along with the normal, daily busy-ness that comes with family and work life, led to the need for a little break. However, I’m finding it eminently difficult to get back into the hard work of reading every night. The inertia of the last few weeks is weighing heavy on my will.

So, what’s the solution? Well, I think it’s a perspective-shift. First, I need to actively understand that getting back into the work won’t feel natural or easy. In looking for the path of least resistance, my brain would much rather rewatch The Office than read a book called The Paradoxical Rationality of Soren Kierkegaard. Second, I need to lower the expectations which I have placed on myself I cannot immediately revert back to three hours of reading per night when I haven’t been doing that recently. Instead, I need to use the tactic of simply “one small thing, every day.” Kleon again:

Figure out what your little daily chunk of work is, and every day, no matter what, make sure it gets done.

Don’t say you don’t have enough time. We’re all busy, but we all get 24 hours a day. People often ask me, “How do you find the time for the work?” And I answer, “I look for it.” You find time the same place you find spare change: in the nooks and crannies.

Let’s get back to it, one step at a time.

Christian Intellectuals

It would be valuable to have at our disposal some figures equipped for the task of mediation — people who understand the impulses from which these troubling movements arise, who may themselves belong in some sense to the communities driving these movements but are also part of the liberal social order. They should be intellectuals who speak the language of other intellectuals, including the most purely secular, but they should also be fluent in the concepts and practices of faith. Their task would be that of the interpreter, the bridger of cultural gaps; of the mediator, maybe even the reconciler.

Half a century ago, such figures existed in America: serious Christian intellectuals who occupied a prominent place on the national stage. They are gone now. It would be worth our time to inquire why they disappeared, where they went, and whether — should such a thing be thought desirable — they might return.

—Alan Jacobs, “The Watchmen”

Kierkegaard on Disengagement

Kierkegaard, despite many claims to the contrary, was not an irrationalist. He did not think that one can believe whatever one wants to believe, and his famous claim that ‘subjectivity is truth’ was never meant to convey that truth is simply relative. In fact, Kierkegaard clearly indicates in both Philosophical Crumbs and Concluding Unscientific Postscript that objective knowledge (in certain areas) is entirely attainable. In particular, he references the spheres of mathematics and logic, where absolute (ideal) knowledge can be attained. He also affirms at least approximate knowledge in the case of empirical observation and, to some extent, historical knowledge where evidence is available.

When Kierkegaard claims that subjectivity is truth, his main goal seems to be to claim that objective knowledge in the ethico-religious sphere is impossible. But this is not necessarily because ethical or religious truths are not objectively (in themselves, without reference to anything else) true. Rather, those kinds of truth can only be known subjectively. Human beings cannot know those truths objectively because knowing those truths objectively requires a disengagedabstracted stance. The problem with that stance is that it is impossible for humans to hold such a stance while also living in the truth of the ethico-religious claim. Let’s take an example from SK (through his pseudonym Johannes Climacus) directly:

If one who lives in the midst of Christendom goes up to the house of God, the house of the true God, with the true conception of God in his knowledge and prays, but prays in a false spirit; and one who lives in an idolatrous community prays with the entire passion of the infinite, although his eyes rest on the image of an idol; where is there most truth? The one prays in truth to God, though he worships an idol; the other prays falsely to the true God, and hence worships in fact an idol. (Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 179-180)

This understandably makes contemporary Christians squeamish, because most of us have been taught that our faith is built around having a right, true, objective conception of God. We must objectively know that the God we worship is the true God, otherwise our worship is meaningless. This stance fundamentally misses at least a few points. First, can our conception of God ever be accurate? We may find some way of approximating something about God, but in the long history of human attempts at understanding God, the best we can come up with is that God is infinite (a relatively meaningless concept in everyday life), God is love, etc. If we were required to objectively know the God we are attempting to worship for our worship to be valid, wouldn’t all of our worship necessarily be invalid?

Second, Kierkegaard is not denying the objective existence of God (or anything else for that matter). He specifically mentions in the passage above that the one living in Christendom has a “true conception of God.” His project, at least through the Climacus writings, were an attempt at making hard distinctions within the spheres of human knowledge. There are things that are knowable by humans objectively, but there is also a hard limit on what can be knowable that way. When we attempt to know ethical or religious truth objectively (i.e., cross the knowledge boundary), we make a category error. Further, humans do not have the ability of holding on to knowledge objectively without being dispassionate and disengaged, and this is exactly the wrong stance within ethical and religious truth. Therefore, Kierkegaard doesn’t deny objective truth directly, but the function of holding on to knowledge objectively. Function and existential application were his primary concern.

The Non-Pragmatic Private University

Professors, and the colleges and universities they inhabit, are no longer gatekeepers of knowledge. Information can now be tapped by nearly anyone, anywhere, anytime, at a low cost…

But what if a university is not an information-based organization? What if schools did something more than inform and credential? What if they were constituted by a complex web of practices transcending the exchange of information? Indeed, what if they were animated by an entirely different conception of reality altogether?

These questions invite us to more carefully consider the identity of, and practice within, the faith-based college and university.

“Christian Higher Education in an Exponential Age” – Kevin Brown and Stephen Clements

Working in private, Christian higher education in the contemporary moment provides a unique vantage point from which to assess the necessity, practicality, and inherent ills of the strange endeavor of building and maintaining a university. We live in the kind of moment where universities (and especially education in the realm of the humanities) are being routinely questioned as regards their usefulness. (Remember Rubio’s [in]famous statement on the fact that we should have less philosophers and more welders during the 2016 primary debates? He has since recanted, but the sentiment remains within the GOP.)

When higher education in general is commodified and reduced to the dissemination of information, and its value is judged based on its ability to “contribute to society,” (read: place adults in the workforce) we have reached the point when capitalism as an ideology has subsumed higher education as a common good. What of the university, then? Especially the small, private, Christian university, which has the primary stated purpose of training ministers and preparing people theologically and spiritually. Such a university holds no inherent value for that kind of society. These questions are not lost on those who work in higher education, especially private higher education. I frequently converse with staff at my own university that are concerned about the future of, not only our university, but Christian universities in general. From my perspective, we currently find ourselves at a crossroads — do we double down on our original mission of training ministers and missionaries, with a secondary focus on marketable degrees, or do we brave the path already forged by others, allowing our distinctively Christian purpose to fade into the background?

But what if, as the quote mentions above, the university’s purpose was redefined? What if neither of these two options are appropriate? If we live in an age where information dissemination is no longer necessary because of technological disruption, perhaps the university can regain its purpose as a shaper of individuals, communities, and society. James K.A. Smith spends time writing on this in Desiring the Kingdom:

I’m suggesting that Christian education has, for too long, been concerned with information rather than formation; thus Christian colleges have thought it sufficient to provide a Christian perspective, an intellectual framework, because they see themselves as fostering individual ‘minds in the making.’ (219)

Instead of talking about ‘Christian college’ — which makes it easier to traffic in the abstraction of ‘Christianity’ as an intellectual system — perhaps we should instead speak of ‘ecclesial’ college and ‘ecclesial’ universities. If Christian faith cannot be adequately distilled into the formulas of a Christian worldview, but rather is a social imaginary that is carried in the distinct practices of Christian worship, then any institution that would be meaningfully ‘christian would need to be a liturgical institutions of sorts, animated by the specificity of Christian liturgical practices. If education is always a matter of formation, and the most profound formation happens in various liturgies, then a Christian education must draw deeply from the well of Christian liturgy. (221)

The reality is, many public universities have already accepted Smith’s understanding of what the university is meant to accomplish. Without getting into the dumpster fire that is the liberal-conservative debate, it’s clear that most public universities are havens for left-leaning political ideologies, and they do so not by just information dissemination, but by character formation. Christian universities would do well to follow the lead of other universities. The purpose of the Christian university ought to be character and reason formation first. Information, which is so easily attainable now, ought to only be distributed in classrooms at the service of the task of formation.

Healthy Social Media Habits

I don’t really know how to have a healthy relationship with social media. Well, not all social media. Facebook and Instagram hold little appeal for me. In fact, the only reason I even have a Facebook account is because I’m going to be doing some social media work for Life in Deep Ellum during my practicum. That work will end in May, so my plan is to completely be rid of Facebook by the end of May (and by that I mean, actually delete the account). That’s really only because of my concerns about privacy and social manipulation that a platform like FB is capable of).

Instagram — I don’t know. I don’t really use it very much, and it’s like that happy-clappy part of the internet that seems to do little harm. It’s at least a little bit nice to look back at my own account and see something I thought was worth capturing on a specific day.

Twitter is a whole other problem for me. I don’t really know what it is about the platform that draws me. Perhaps it’s my ability to connect with people outside of my own circles, or at least see what people in the field of theology/philosophy that I respect are writing and thinking. Maybe it’s the ability to quickly write off a thought without thinking about it. The problem is, I don’t even have the Twitter app on my phone, and yet I still find myself with an open Twitter tab in Safari all the time. I also sit in front of a computer most of the day, so it’s really easy to keep a Twitter tab open and hop on it.

The problem is obvious: it’s distracting, and easy to open and scroll through when my mind hits the “boredom wall” or the “lack of focus wall.” If I hit a point where I need to sit and think — about a project or an email or whatever else — my natural tendency is to avoid that intense focus if there is an easy-to-find distraction. Further, I can’t deny that I really like being up to date on the goings-on of the day.

I think I know what the answer is. I’m just not quite ready to admit it yet.

Post-Resurrection Life is Often Ambiguous

I gave a short, post-Easter Sunday talk today in one of the smaller class chapels today at SAGU. Here’s the manuscript (ish):

Post-Resurrection Life is Often Ambiguous

I’d like to start today by being a little bit vulnerable. I hope that’s okay.

Some of you probably know who I am, but if my hunch is correct, I haven’t met or interacted with most of you. And certainly none of you really know my story very well. My name is Chris Baca, and I’m currently the Director of Student Billing here at SAGU. I also graduated from SAGU in December of 2012 with a degree in Theological Studies. For the most part, while I was a student here, my goals after school were either to become a professor of theology, or a pastor, or do some mix of the two. As you can see, that’s… not exactly what happened.

In fact, while I was still a student here, in the summer of 2011, I started working in the same office that I work in now. Back then, it wasn’t called “Student Billing,” but “Accounts Receivable” (which sounds really formal and intimidating, so I changed that as soon as possible). Anyway, after a series of events in my own life — getting married, having two daughters, going through several faith crises — I found myself, well, stuck. Working in the Student Billing office was never my intention. I mean, what kid hopes to be a money collector when they grow up? (If you did, that’s really weird)

In any case, I spent most of my time, for MANY years frustrated, bitter, and anxious that I didn’t seem to be going anywhere. I felt like I had no way out, and each day, I found myself doing a job that I didn’t want to do, day in, and day out, over and over and over again. I had to have (and still have to have) lots of tough conversations with students and parents, often about financial situations that I sometimes didn’t have a very good answer to. Not only that, but most of the time, I didn’t feel like the work that I was doing was meaningful, and I felt like I was above it.

I grew up in the kind of culture that made me feel like my life could only be meaningful if I was doing something big and extraordinary – my big “calling.” Every day, every moment of my life was meant to be spiritually significant, or I wasn’t really living my life for Jesus. And when that didn’t happen — when I didn’t seem to be on a path to do that BIG THING I thought I should be doing, that sent me into a downward spiral of fear, and anger, and disappointment.

Based on my experience the last few years, I think humans have two ways of approaching life. On one side of the spectrum there are people who essentially view life as not having any inherent or overarching meaning. Each day is essentially no different than any other day. There might be some relative highs and lows, but in the end, our lives are ultimately not really significant.

On the other side of the spectrum (and I think this is the direction most of us in this room tend to lean), there are people who think that every single day, even every single moment is ultimately significant and meaningful. That doesn’t mean that they’re “amazing,” — simply that each and every moment of their lives are understood as eternally or cosmically significant. And most of us that have grown up in the kind of culture that demands that we be “on fire for Jesus” experience life this way.

During my time working in the Student Billing office, my problem was this: one end of the spectrum ended up pushing me to the other end. I spent so much time as a teenager and twenty-something year old thinking that my actions and career and day-to-day life had to add up to this big, extraordinary thing. When that didn’t happen, my frustration and bitterness led me to the other end of the spectrum. Eventually, each day seemed not so different from the last. Life, at least for me, wasn’t all that significant. I had difficulty finding any kind of ultimate meaning — in my life or in anyone else’s.

I think both ends of the spectrum are poor ways to approach life. There may be some element of truth in each of these approaches, but neither provides a healthy way to understand the day-in, day-out realities of each of our lives. I found myself thinking about this during and after the Easter service at my church yesterday.

The Resurrection is a beautiful, victorious occasion — the thing that God has done that redeemed and still redeems the world that we live in. You would think that, after the Resurrection of Jesus, the world would have immediately, obviously, irrevocably changed. But what bothers me about the end of the Gospels is that… well, it simply doesn’t. Let me read a passage out of Luke for you:

Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles[a] from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him. He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” “What things?” he asked.

They go on to have a conversation, and then:

As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him,and he disappeared from their sight.

This is a little bit strange, right? The God of the universe, made flesh, has died on a cross, and performed the miracle of all miracles by rising from the dead. And then, he hides himself from them! These disciples are going about their regular business, walking on the road, eating dinner with a stranger, and all of a sudden, they realize the guy they’ve been hanging out with is Jesus, whom they know has been crucified. And then he just disappears!

This is how Luke chooses to talk about life, post-resurrection. It’s a beautiful thing, something that changes everything. And yet, somehow, it changes nothing. Life goes on. The world still turns. The disciples’ regular, daily routines are normal, but interrupted by the living Jesus.

I think this is an indication that God doesn’t operate by our rules, or by the spectrum I mentioned earlier. The whole world has changed in an unbelievable way, and yet, God doesn’t turn the world upside-down. Not every moment is this grand, significant experience. In this story, God is showing up directly within the mundane, daily tasks of the disciples.

So, at the end of all of this, I just want to remind you that, even after what may have been an incredible Easter Sunday for you, God rejects this spectrum of approaches to life. Life won’t always be this extraordinary, awe-inspiring experience. Neither does it have to be ultimately mundane, meaningless, or arbitrary. Even in a post-Resurrection world, most of us are called to routine, daily tasks. Some of us are called to do jobs that may not feel all that spectacular or special or impactful. But the reality is that the Resurrection redeems even those things. God meets us there, though his face may sometimes be hidden.

The Tyranny of Social Media over the Digital Commons

Well, I fell down the rabbit hole today. I woke up with a cold, and was able to catch up on some pieces I missed whilst on vacation last week. Alan Jacobs’s blog post on the beauty of RSS feeds in the age of curated algorithmic streams led me to his essay at The Hedgehog Review on cultivating the digital commons well. Then later I found an old essay of his at The New Atlantic on attention and technology. Then, of course, randomly, Cal Newport’s posted a small piece on the difference between a social internet and social media on Study Hacks.

Lots of links. Anyway, these all have me thinking about the appropriate ways of tending to the digital commons in a way that is not only beneficial to me (refocusing my attention to meaningful work) but also to my broader social community. Is Facebook, with its optimization towards selling my information to the highest bidder, really the best way to do that? I don’t think so. So, on a whim, I downloaded all my info from the network, and completely deleted my account (which they make incredibly difficult to do — if you want to do this it some point, go here, and click the “let us know” link under “How do I permanently delete my account?”). We’ll see how long I keep Twitter. I still like it too much to give it up, but that’s also what smokers say who know they need to quit and just refuse to do so.

Further, I’m considering building my own website/platform that includes my blog, but is more than that. I’m not under any delusion that people will be interested in what’s there, or anxiously waiting for me to post blogs, etc. However, I think it’s a way to tend to the social, digital commons, and further attempt to (re)build towards an open, free internet. People are not commodities, and that includes in the digital realm.

Maybe I’m being idealistic, or “tech-Amish” as Jacobs says, or Chicken Little-ish. I don’t tend to think so. For too long, my attention has been taken away from building a meaningful, digital space of my own that isn’t controlled by some insanely humongous corporation, where my data is being mined and sold for money.