Your Coffee is a Disaster (…among other things)

This is just 17 minutes of absolute delight.

 

Also, I’m so glad that they chose the my top three songs from this album to perform. So fun. So whimsical. “Waltz Whitman” almost makes me cry every time I listen to it.

Forgetting What We Once Knew

I’m seeing a lot of people, these days, following Denethor’s example: forgetting what they once knew about their neighbors and fellow citizens, practicing the fear of change and difference, responding to that fear by building fascist architecture of their own design.

Alan Jacobs, continuing the work of seeing LOTR everywhere

Repentance Means We Are Wrong

I’ve been reflecting recently on a simple question:

Is it possible — or perhaps probable — that Christianity can require something of us that *goes against* our personal moral inclinations?

Perhaps this is too simple of a question. On its face, I think most people would say “Yes.” I.e., Christianity requires us to *change* in some way. Beginning to follow Jesus means that I need to change my current course of action in some way. It almost seems like a silly question to ask.

But I want to dig deeper on this, because I don’t think we often appreciate the reality of this question.

From the time we are born, we are inculcated into a way of living. And within that way of living, we are given a moral compass. It’s probable that this moral compass is acquired from multiple, somewhat unknowable sources. But it stands to reason that these sources would include culture and socialization, ancient philosophy and religion, reason, emotion, political and ideological commitments, geography, and baseline biological instincts. There are probably more that I am missing. This is true for nearly all human beings (barring those experiencing mental illness that prevents them from making moral judgments). In other words, we all have a sense of what actions are “right” and “wrong.” Some of us believe killing animals is morally acceptable. Some of us believe responding to violence with defensive violence is morally right. Some of us believe sexual relationships belong to married, heterosexual couples, while others of us disagree.

Therefore, it stands to reason that prior to submitting to faith in Jesus or a decision to follow Jesus, we have a pre-built sense of “right” and “wrong.” In other words, we have a moral compass. And that moral compass, for the most part is strong. If I believe killing another human being is wrong, it’s likely that I have a strong belief that this is so, and that I ought to never do such a thing.

Now, perhaps there are lesser moral inclinations that are harder to follow. For example, maybe I “know” that I should not yell at my children, but I do so anyway (I clearly have no experience with this). I may have given myself some kind of permission in my head to do this, but will probably feel remorse afterward, and (hopefully) attempt to not do so again in the future.

I want to focus in here on the stronger moral inclinations — the things that we have an unshakeable inclination are right or wrong, and are almost impossible to change our views on.

I might argue that Jesus’ primary call (the call that overarches the ethics to which he calls all humans) is the simple line: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”

Why would he issue such a demand unless he is requiring something of us that goes against our moral inclinations?

Let’s look at it another way:

1. We all have a sense of right and wrong.
2. We have no choice but to (at least attempt to) line up our lives with that moral sense.
3. Therefore, the way we live our lives (usually) lines up with the moral duty we feel (especially for *strong* moral inclinations).

If Jesus requires us to “repent,” doesn’t this mean that he is asking us to deny at least some of the strong moral inclinations that we feel? Repentance means a “turning away” coupled with a “turning towards.” He recognizes that we are living our lives in a certain way, by inherited moral standards, and expects that we will reject those standards in favor of a different standard (informed by what the world would look like if we lived as if God was “king”).

If we make the decision to follow Jesus, and submit to the requirements of living under the purview of the Kingdom of God, we need to grapple with this problem: what moral standards do our culture and upbringing and natural reason give to us that are incompatible with the following of Jesus?

Institutional Racism Can’t Be Ignored, Even If You Don’t Buy into “Antiracism”

We clearly have poor white neighborhoods which suffer from many of the same problems we find in poor communities of color. For whites living in poverty, there is no escape from the concentration of crime, broken families, poor schools, and drugs that are so often a problem in poor neighborhoods. But if whites can gain some economic resources, they can move from those neighborhoods and project their family from much of the deleterious effects of those neighborhoods. But residential segregation makes it harder for people of color to remove themselves form such neighborhoods since people of color tend to make less money than whites. Thus, to stay in neighborhoods of color is to stay much closer to the negative elements of poverty, even if that family of color has moved from poverty to middle class status.

George Yancey, “Why We Cannot Ignore Institutional Racism”

Power, Politics, and Faith

I have a running theory that political ideologies are always at odds with the Christian faith. In other words, political ideologies are always attempting to displace loyalty to any other forms of faith. Especially religious faith, and even more especially orthodox Christianity.

But let’s put this more simply by way of practical examples.

Let’s say I’m a moderately liberal Democrat in the US in the 21st century. This might mean that I hold to certain policy positions such as:

  • We should expand healthcare to as may people as possible, especially those in financial need
  • We should implement a carbon tax and other policies that reduce carbon emissions in order to help mitigate climate change
  • We should support a woman’s right to choose an abortion and provide the means by which to obtain an abortion
  • We should provide the opportunity of a quality education (including and up to higher education) to all US residents
  • We should require more oversight of police authorities – especially as it relates to the use of force on US residents – and adequately fund other means of community protection and care (mental health workers, social workers, etc.)

These are just a few examples, but you get the picture. I could have done the same thing for someone who identifies as a libertarian, a moderate Republican, or a democratic socialist.

If we’re trying to see why a political ideology like this or any other is at odds with the Christian faith, we have to ask two questions:

  1. Are these policies in accordance with, opposed to, or neutral towards the Christian faith? (and a secondary question to this might be – how would we know where these policies stand in relation to orthodoxy? hint: we’d first need to know what is required of us if we call ourselves “Christian”)
  2. What are the means by which these policies be implemented? In other words, is the how we pursue implementing these policies in accordance with, opposed to, or neutral towards the Christian faith?

Question two, I think, may get at my point more deeply than question one. That’s not to say that question one is unimportant. On the contrary, it could be argued that the in history of US politics, the focus has been on some version question one. E.g., what policies should we implement, and do these policies help make a more just and equitable society that supports the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The reason that question two is more important is a Kierkegaardian stance. His concern is less about the content of faith (perhaps because of the time and place in which he lived) and more about the “how” of Christian faith. What is our relation to the things we believe? Do we hold those beliefs abstractly in objectively (in our heads)? Or do we actively and subjectively attempt to live in the implications of our beliefs?

This is why political ideologies are at odds with the Christian faith. There are no political affiliations I know of that do not attempt to implement policies via power. It may be authoritarian power or democratic power, but it is power nonetheless. To implement societal change – new laws or ordinances, abolishing old laws, etc. – power is required.

Not so with Christianity. In fact, I think it is arguable that attempting to follow the way of Jesus is to relinquish the right to use power to effect change. Rather than use power, the Christian way to effect communal (and yes, even societal) change ought to be what humans often think of as weak and foolish. That is: faith, hope, charity, and forgiveness.

Political ideologies, regardless of their content, are always attempting to displace Christian faith and practice. One attempts to change the world via power and policy. The other attempts to change the world via love and forgiveness.

The question is, which one do we have the courage and faith to align our lives with?

More on Catechesis/Discipleship

I received some good thoughts from a friend in response to my last post.

First, he noted that one of the difficulties of counter-catechesis in American life is that American spheres of formation often have a perceivable endpoint. For politics, we can vote. For capitalism, we can consume. For patriotism, we can support/serve.

Second, he briefly mentioned the difficulty of the Benedict Option — particularly, that it is often seen as a version of escape and the relinquishing of influence in our communities.

American Catechesis

To the first response, I understand and agree, to a point. Old-school systematic catechism also perceived (and perceives?) an endpoint. My first memories of church, before we scooted over to the charismatic/Pentecostal traditions, are from St. Luke-Simpson UMC in Lake Charles, LA. I can specifically recall some of the older children starting to go through catechism, and before we moved to the charismatic church a few miles away, I assumed I’d go through the UMC catechism too (and was excited about that!).

But the whole point of that catechism was for confirmation within the church. After those classes, one becomes a full-fledged member of that local body, and of the United Methodist Church.

There was no such system, as far as I was aware, in any of the following churches we attended. Most of them were charismatic or Pentecostal, but all of them focused on inner, experiential change with a focus on right belief. That focus rarely came with systematic teaching or discipleship. Instead, it was simply assumed that serious members of the church attended Sunday school and services on Sunday morning and Wednesday evening. Adolescents attended youth group. Children attended “kids’ church” — but to my recollection, there was no systematic basis for teaching the tenets of the faith.

Here is where the difficulty comes in. On one hand, the Evangelical-Pentecostal-charismatic mix of traditions I grew up in recognized something essential. That is, spiritual growth is relational and ongoing. Confirmation/catechism can, in some cases, miss this point. The danger is that it can assume completion of catechism and baptism or communion are the “final steps” of the process. Then, spiritual growth (or discipleship, or sanctification, or whatever your tradition calls it) is stunted. This leaves a gap in the formation of character, which can be filled by some of those spheres mentioned above (politics, consumerism, individualism, patriotism, etc.).

So, in one sense, the Evangelical-Pentecostal-charismatic traditions get it right. There is little desire for a systematic catechesis because of a fear that it seems like there is no more to do after it’s complete.

On the other hand, my assessment is that the traditions without a systematic catechism have done very little to replace it with a robust alternative. Instead, we have relied on emotional appeals and a heavy emphasis on personal devotion in the form of “quiet time.” (To clarify, I don’t think we ought to divorce spirituality from personal devotion or emotion — those can be important parts of spiritual growth.)

What, then, are we left with? Christians without a deep foundation of theological and creedal understanding. And again, what fills in these theological gaps? The spheres of politics, patriotism, and consumerism. And in some sense, we could argue this is even more dangerous. Because when this happens, those spheres distort the emotions and the personal devotion of the Christian, and it becomes really easy to conflate American ways of life or political commitments with what Jesus seems to ask of his followers.

So maybe what I’m talking about is two-fold. For those churches that already offer a systematic catechism, we need a more robust and continual discipleship which continues to form the character and worldview of its members. For those without a systematic foundation in Christian theology and thought, we ought to start providing a catechesis based on the creeds.

I still think my initial point in the first post is true — we need a strong catechesis, coupled with a continual discipleship.

What I’m not sure about is how many people will actually be willing to give their time to this. It’s much, much easier to continue to adhere to the systems in which we have already been catechized. The pull of American politics, consumerism, individualism, and the like are strong. Maybe that’s why Kierkegaard was so stringent about the fact that the mob is untruth.

The Benedict Option

I was going to respond to my friend’s concerns about the BenOp here, but I’ll leave that for next time. This post already got a little longer than I anticipated.

Is a Counter-Catechesis Even Possible?

…because I was and am convinced that the primary reason American Christians are so bent and broken is that we have neglected catechesis while living in a social order that catechizes us incessantly.

Alan Jacobs, “Learning from Rod Dreher”

This is something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while. And I think it’s an idea many others have had as well (see James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom – specifically the idea of the “mall” as the new cathedral, the new catechizer).

There are many, many, many spheres of influence over individual human lives. Culture(s), political ideologies, education, economic systems, books, music, movies, social media (heaven help us), families, communties, etc. etc. ad infinitum. And these all interweave and join up in ways we can barely begin to understand. Look at the problem too long, and one becomes overwhelmed. Unable to think clearly about which is more influential right now, which should be addressed right now, and how the church should respond right now.

This is the problem of catechesis (and for those of you who don’t know, catechesis traditional is the term used for religious instruction prior to baptism/full membership of the Christian body). Especially in America — I am unfamiliar with other societies — the Protestant church has largely done poorly with catechesis in the local church body over the last hundred (Two hundred? Five hundred?). And the problem with this is that we are always given a counter-catechism. Really, multiple counter-catechisms. I can give myself over to political life or revolution; I can become a patriot; I can revel in the modern capitalist-consumerist order. I can do all three of these things, and not realize that by doing so, I am giving my allegiance to things other than the creedal faith of Christianity.

That’s why strong Christian catechesis is needed. I just don’t know how to do that without going full Benedict Option (which I cannot bring myself to completely endorse, but which always has a pull for me that I don’t fully understand). And then, of course, you run the risk of abuse, cultishness, or just losing touch with the broader culture.

Theology as Meaning-Making

My last post ended with this line: “It’s when theology fills in our gaps in meaning — the “why” to our scientific “how” — is when it is at its best.”

Obviously, I don’t think theology is pointless. I love it too much to think that. But aside from what I mentioned before — that theology is at its best when it drive us to action – I’d also like to explore the idea of theology as a meaning-maker in our lives.

I’ll be recording the sermon on the Holy Spirit this week. One of the things I’ll be saying is something along the lines of this: Most of us have a sense that this universe isn’t just a bunch of atoms floating around randomly. Instead, many of us have an intuition that this whole thing means something. The biblical account helps us to see just a little bit under the surface of our lived experience. This isn’t all there is. From the Genesis creation stories to the prophetic literature to the Gospels to Paul’s letters, we’re reminded that there’s maybe something else going on.

In my mind, when we try to evaluate human existence, we have to start somewhere. By that, I mean that if you want to actually believe that life has meaning and purpose, you have to decide whether it can have meaning and purpose. For meaning and purpose to objectively exist (that we’re not just “making it up,” so to speak) the universe cannot be a random ball of material floating on infinitely until its eventual expiration.

In other words, if I affirm that there is nothing “under the surface” of the material universe in which we are experiencing consciousness, then I cannot logically affirm that human existence is inherently meaningful or has an ultimate purpose. There is no good or bad. There is no right or wrong. There is no “better” or “worse.” Everything that is just is. And I have no objective reason to act one way or another.

The corollary to this argument is that for human existence to have meaning and purpose, the material universe cannot be all that exists. Somehow, some way, we need a guarantor of meaning. A foundational, divine, supernatural *something* that makes life meaningful and imbues it with purpose.

So, put simply: Objective meaning cannot exist without the supernatural.

This is not a post claiming what kind of supernaturalism or divinity one ought to believe in if one wants to claim that human life has meaning. Only that meaning requires the supernatural.

And this is where theology comes into play.

If we start with evaluating our lives at the “material” level — i.e., what I can see, hear, smell, taste, touch — we can only get so far. I can eat an apple and know that it tastes sweet. I can jump and understand that I won’t fly into the air. But when I start to think about my very existence, I am left with nothing. When I start to ask the question “Why?” — my senses come up short.

Theology is an attempt to answer that why with a foundation in the supernatural. In Christian theology, if the question is “Why am I here?” the answer is somehow related to the fact that God has breathed life into this universe, and has some expectation about what that life should consist of. If the question is “Why am I in pain?” or “Why am I suffering?” the answer should be related to the fact that something in our experience is broken.

Again, my senses can tell me that I am here. They can tell me that I am in pain. They cannot give me some ultimate answer for why these things are the way they are.

If we want to engage in meaning-making (that has an objective foundation) we all have to engage in some form of theology.

Is Theology Pointless? Sometimes.

What exactly is the point of theology?

This question bothers me frequently because (1) I love theology and (2) on the surface, it seems like a relatively useless pursuit. I’m sure you’ve heard the term “He is so heavenly minded that he’s no earthly good.” That isn’t to say that a claim like that is always wrong. It’s true that there are some people who don’t do the hard work of integrating theological work with the concrete, lived experience of the everyday. (NB: this is tangentially related to Kierkegaard’s claims about objectivity/subjectivity – theology is “subjective” in that if we know a theological truth only objectively, we don’t “know” it at all)

Theological reflection certainly has the potential to be useless. Especially the speculative forms of theology that are concerned with claims about God or the divine that have no basis, or no clear “so what” to which they point. Let’s take the claim that God created the world in six days, and that it’s necessary for Christians to affirm this. What’s the point of a claim like this? Presumably, it’s to argue against the prevailing scientific consensus (based on mathematics and physics) that the universe has existed for billions of years, and that the earth was formed over hundreds of millions of years. Probably there is some concern here that a claim like this is inherently atheistic — i.e., it doesn’t require a Creator.

Ultimately, I have little patience for theological claims like this. To clarify, it doesn’t bother me when people believe in six-day creationism. If it brings them comfort or bolsters their faith — that’s fine, I suppose. But requiring this as a marker of true Christian faith is when I lose patience. My reasons are at least twofold:

  1. Because all of the physical evidence we have gathered over hundreds of years have consistently proved this claim to be wrong. (I could certainly provide some sources here, but that’s not the point of this post)
  2. It’s unclear to me what effect this belief is meant to have on the life of the person believing the claim. Is it only because we are committed to some literal reading of the Genesis creation account? And if so, why? What other purpose could requiring this belief serve? Does believing in this claim make you more faithful? More content? More loving, kind, patient?

I found myself thinking of the question of the usefulness of theology this week when I wrote a sermon on the Holy Spirit. Since a part of my spiritual upbringing included Pentecostal/charismatic expressions, my personal feelings about the Holy Spirit are ambivalent at best. In my worst moments, trying to understand the Holy Spirit can feel like another exercise in pointlessness. In other words, who cares who the Holy Spirit is/does?

But as I listened to and read experts on the subject (see The Bible Project’s series on the Holy Spirit), I found myself realizing that good theological reflection on the Holy Spirit can be extremely useful. In my own exploration, as I sharpened my understanding of the Bible’s picture of God’s Spirit, the connections to real life seem simple and prescient. If the Holy Spirit is understood as the life-giving force and energy that created and sustains the universe (a truly beautiful picture by itself), and we affirm that the Holy Spirit has now been poured out on all of humanity — that has many implications:

  1. All humans deserve radical dignity — including our family, friends, neighbors, immigrants, and enemies. I have every reason to love and care for those around me, because they too are sustained by the same Spirit that sustains and gives life to me.
  2. I can trust and be comforted by a truth like this, and know that my life is meaningful and purposeful. Even when that purpose seems unclear.

There are many, many other implications. But this is where theology is useful. It’s when theology fills in our gaps in meaning — the “why” to our scientific “how” — is when it is at its best.

Thinking Charitably about COVID-19 and the Economy

Flatten the Curve, or Restart the Economy?

I’m sure you’ve heard that a main point of contention surrounding social distancing is whether we ought to continue to stay home or not. Many, many scientists, medical professionals, and public policy professionals have indicated that we need to social distance for a long time to prevent us from hitting the max death predictions in various models. Here are some good overviews of this point of view:

The crisis is complex, but the goal is simple: reduce how many people that get infected all at once to “flatten the curve.” I.e., reduce how many people need critical care all at the same time so that we don’t run out of hospital beds, medical staff, and medical equipment (primarily ventilators, since this disease overwhelmingly affects the lungs).

Naturally, the social distancing we’re implementing has led to heavy negative economic impacts – by necessity. As people stop going to work, stop venturing out unnecessarily, and stop gathering with others, this reduces many people’s ability to make money as businesses are losing customers. And because of this we’re already starting to get some calls for backpedaling on extreme social distancing. My good friend Chad Graham (pastor by trade, economist at heart) shares these concerns. Here are some good articles reflecting these concerns:

In the long run, these authors argue, extreme social distancing will have a worse effect on the death toll (and on life in general) than if we were to loosen social distancing measures now (or much sooner than many medical experts are calling for). In other words, the cure is worse than the disease.

Now, this may very well be true. I happen to disagree, because I think the movement of people back into public life is much more complex than simply letting those who are not vulnerable go to work while isolating those who are vulnerable. I myself am likely not vulnerable (I’m 30, I have no underlying health conditions, I am not obese, etc., etc.). But my daughter, an otherwise healthy child, suffers from asthma-like symptoms — primarily in the fall and spring when allergic reactions to pollen and particulate matter are at their highest. So what do we do with someone like me? What happens if I am exposed, show little to no symptoms, but later expose my daughter to a disease that could kill her? And that’s just a simple case. There are other people I could come into contact with that think they are not at risk, but in fact are.

How to Think Charitably

This isn’t even the point of why I’m writing. My main point is that I’m very concerned with the way I’m seeing these conversations play out online. Some are mischaracterizing those who support extreme social distancing as irrational, or as if they are pursuing this in bad faith as a way of removing Trump from office. On the other hand, I’ve seen people characterize those who want the economy to restart as heartless capitalists, or as “throwing a tantrum” so we can go back to normal (really, I saw someone say this on Facebook).

In his book, How to Think, Alan Jacobs argues that we have lost the ability to think charitably, and gives some guidelines for how we might start to regain this critical skill in the Internet Age. At the end of the book, he gives a “Thinking Person’s Checklist.” One of his guidelines is, “Try to describe others’ positions in the language they use…” In other words, when you reiterate someone else’s argument, represent it both fairly and with their strongest and best arguments.

That’s absolutely not what’s happening when we say someone is throwing a temper tantrum if they bring up questions about whether halting the economy is the best move forward when dealing with a global pandemic. Emotions are high, and the stakes are high. But if we cannot represent another person’s point of view fairly, we’re attempting to win policy arguments via social pressure and strong-arming rather than rational, clear debate. This reveals an unwillingness to deal honestly with facts and willingly reevaluate our assumptions and biases.

That is not to say I agree with my friend Chad. I’m personally willing to take the chance on extreme social distancing, because it seems to me that we have relatively more reliable data about the likelihood of a high death rate from COVID-19 deaths over the data on deaths from economic instability. But I also think that, at the bottom of things, Chad and I share the same concerns: we want as few deaths, for as little economic shock as possible. We simply disagree on how to get there. And I trust that his motivation for restarting the economy are noble in nature — not simply because he idolizes capitalism.