Tuesday, January 27, 2009

From Random Mess to Collection - Theology of Collecting

As a stamp collector I take great joy in bringing order to random messes. Just tonight I took a couple envelopes of Dutch stamps and sorted them by stamp into a book so that I can fill up my album and trader cards. I am thinking about this as I recall a talk with my friend Sarah regarding methodology. One of my pet peeves with academic life has been the pervasive insistence that one have, name and know ones method. But I feel that no one really takes a methodological approach to helping one name, describe - heck even know ones method. I am pretty sure I have a handle on method (on good days I think that) but I still am wanting it to be neater, tight little defined categories into which I can bring order to the madness that is study.

Sarah was talking about this method of letting the data evolve its own categories. I forget what she called it, but one had to resist the urge to evaluate but rather let the categories emerge as one explored the material in a certain topic/genre. It sounds good for what she is doing - reclaiming the voices of a specific group of women. While it isn't exactly what I need, it does remind me of what happens so often in incipient theology, that is theology which emerges in the actual faith life of believers. The night before another friend commented on how in churches she had attended they had some good ideas they were working with theologically but no idea where those ideas came from let alone how to aptly evaluate those ideas. In fact I think that many Christians have quite naive ideas about where theology comes from which means it is even harder to address incipient theology in any sort of critical way. But theology evolves in communities - it doesn't drop down from heaven (unless you think God is the sort that likes to drop random and incompatible ideas into various religious communities just to see how screwed up they can get - my friend Lori would say that God's not an asshole like that) it rises up from the experiences, readings and traditions of people trying to live lives of fidelity and faithfulness to God. So in a sense the categories emerge for folks in their faith lives. That doesn't mean they don't have good insights or that there is really no true faith or doctrines. But it kills the presumption that we have the market on those things. Stumbling around we tend to get some things right. And if we believe that God is in this process then we should also be confident that stumbling around we get more right than we get wrong - even if sometimes we misconstrue some of our right assumptions.

So here we are back at a mess. And me, I like order. Perhaps that is why I love theology so much - it brings order to chaos. Not simple order by any stretch - and if you saw my stamp albums, you'd wonder why I have so many extras in there. Well order is complicated - it means taking on variance, respecting and even enjoying diversity, drawing lines as to what you will and will not keep, and what you will do with what you want to keep. It is a collection, and a collection follows internal and arbitrary rules - but that is its beauty. The collection is unique. It is wonderful and has an inner logic that brings joy to the one who organized it. Theology, that project I undertake, has that for me too. That is my method.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Working on Themes

I have a list of themes now - still a wee bit of tweaking though. One of the themes that I'm doing, this is a specific one, is Emerging Church. This was suggested by my director, but I'm thinking of changing it up a bit: Emerging Theologies in the Evangelical Church. I'm thinking that this formulation will let me catch a few influential innovations/ contextualizations in evangelical theology. Soooo I'm thinking a decent book on Open Theism (either Pinnock or Boyd), a text on Centrist Theology (Grenz Renewing the Center is my top choice here), Missional theology (I probably should do Guder's Missional Church, but I'm investigating Hirsch's Forgotten Ways). I have room for one more foundational type text.

The other general theme I have a bit of flexability with is Contextual Theologies which I might call Theological Methods and capture the following: Contextual Theology (Bevans for sure), Local Theologies (Schreiter), Incipient Theologies (Cochrane) and maybe something on Worldviews.

The rest of the themes are very specific and point to a set of books. One is on George Eldon Ladd, but I am toying with a cluster of Fuller thinkers on Kingdom Theology. I'll probably end up choosing three Ladd texts for that one: The Gospel of the Kingdom, The Blessed Hope and The Presence of the Future.

The other hard task is locating a copy of The Principle of Hope Vol. 2 Ernst Bloch - I have vol. 1, and vol. 3 is readily available but vol. 2 is hard to find online. Gotta love an atheist for the sake of God.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Brilliant Post!

Ben Meyers has provided a wonderful list of advice for budding theologians. Be sure to check it out. Warning: do not drink hot liquids while reading this most serious of lists, don't say I didn't warn you. :-)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Lot to do about Something

I'm really excited today. Had a great conversation with my friend I (that's what I call her). She never fails to jump into the deep end in our conversations. We have been conspiring to start up another Freedom Vineyard group with them too. But also I managed to connect with other Vineyard folk academically swimming in the deep waters of political theology (or at least thinking deeply about how the Vineyard's contextualization of kingdom theology leads to social engagement!). So stoked about that.

I also have some other cool happenings. This week I'm guest lecturer in a course on Music and Spirituality talking about how music is an anchor in liturgical practice. I'm taking my guitar for that! Also I've been asked to give a lecture to a psychology of evolution class on the belief side of the evolution/creation debate. This will be fun because I can examine some ideas of identity construction. The only snag there is that it is a French class and the prof needs buy in from the students for me to come, my expertise is a match. I really have to address my language deficit!

OK, back to work.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Invisible Hand of Evangelicalism

I had a chance to hear Jan Jans (Tilburg University) this past week. There were several moments that caused synaptic firings in my wee brain, but one was a discussion on greed as the engine of capitalism. That individual greed, described as the individuals pursuit of maximized gains, is assumed to produce a corporate good by fueling the economy. The system goes terribly awry when it is divorced from ethical considerations on the functioning of this invisible hand. In fact the invisible hand is an assumed deus ex machina that follows the proper functioning of individualized action - if I pursue maximum profit, like everyone else, then the invisible hand will automagically cause the system to function in a way that we all benefit. Two big problems result: 1) there is no real way to connect the invisible hand to the individual actions, hence it is hard to critique the system when it fails as it has obviously done even in this current recession and 2) the system is based on a sin.

Ah, but that language of sin is outdated, outmoded and not useful. If we define sin as the adherence to naive religious edicts then it is hard to establish a case for using the language of sin here. But are these edicts really so naive? And is it not also possible to expose a core of humane expectations, sometimes called virtues, that animate most religious legal structures? If so then the language of sin indeed becomes highly useful in critiquing social (even economic) structures. I would argue that this is the case.

Sins fall into certain categories, for my purposes I will define them as actions that disadvantage a partner of a certain transaction. The Hebrew texts begin by establishing the nature of sin: first sin against the creator (Adam) and second sin against the other (Cain and Abel). Implicit in the second creation narrative is also a sinful transaction between Adam and Eve, these initial events serve as a means to explain how sin enters into creation as a distinctly human enterprise with dire consequences. So in this sense, and this continues throughout the first testament, sin is a uniquely human problem and robs at least one participant of the capacity for an ideal life. Adam and Eve are expelled, Cain is marked and Abel is dead. From the get go the notion of sin has tragic and serious consequences. Let us take that standard into our current problem.

In order to maximize profits it is necessary that we create a situation where there are winners and losers. Certainly there are degrees to which this is true. But it is not true that everyone equally participates, or even has the opportunity to participate, in a way that will make them winners. Contrary to the American Lie, uh I mean Dream. The ever growing disparity between haves and have nots, in affluent North America even, is undeniable proof that this is the case, despite the rants that exist about the poor simply being lazy. This is even more evident in the so-called third world which has for too long been the lap dog of the so-called first world.

The critique has to be what else can use as an engine for economy?

But this was all content of the discussion - the synaptic jump in my brain had to do with Evangelicals and how we have modelled our religion in the image and likeness of Capitalism. Let me explain...

We call people to individual salvation and we ask them to manage their own lives well. That is good, but it is not enough. We expect that through these individual actions a social reality will automagically be changed (bettered in the best cases of evangelicalism). We believe in an invisible hand, but one we cannot have direct influence over.

We are right to believe in an invisible hand - but as Christians we name this invisible hand the God of the first and second testaments. If that is the case then we must take seriously the instruction that those testaments provide. Specifically in relation to our interaction with the social aspect of real life. By de-politicizing religion, that is relegating it purely to the private sphere of life, we have literally rendered ourselves socially impotent. Yet, we are by nature political beings. Even in the garden it is recognized that humans do not function as they should in isolation - and this is given the weight of being the words of God. So if our call is to individuals, and I do not dispute that it is, it must be for individuals to become what they are capable of being - political, responsible and active.

This does not repute the invisible hand, rather it recognizes that we participate with God (invisible hand) in making this world a better place. Standing for justice as did the prophets. Working for peace as do the blessed. Speaking of hope as did the evangelists. I am not calling for something less than personal piety - but actually something more. Just as Jesus instructed the Pharisees to practice both their meticulous practice of tithing AND to regard the weightier issues of justice, this is the call we need today.

A system that focuses only on the individual is just as flawed as the system that is based on greed. Sin is overcome when we consider the cost to others (and ourselves). So in the words of Jesus, "go and sin no more."

Monday, January 12, 2009

Is the Emerging Church a Sexy Topic?

I'm just wondering.

Turns out panels work different than we thought, so I'm trying to cobble my piece together. Just sent it off to team Heather for feedback. We might have to host our own conference to do what we wanted. :-)

Anyway, thoughts on the sexiness of the Emerging Church?

I think that from a popular stand point, perhaps it is waning. But academically there is a fair bit of notice going on - but will it be sustained? For that matter what will be the emerging church that emerges next? Is it the Bruce Malone post-liberal stuff? Not quite sure but for sure it is coming.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Continuing my Studies

I made it through the week. My second course is on Liturgy and Spirituality with Prof. Susan Roll. I've known Prof. Roll since she landed at Saint Paul, and taken one or two courses from her already. She's a good professor. I am more interested in the later part of the course, the beginning is too much of a Cathlocentric beginning for me. I want a more flexible definition of liturgy, the class will do this but not the text that we are reading.

Last night I met with a couple other PhD students (we all have the same director) to discuss proposing a panel for an upcoming conference at Concordia University. I hope we do it, if we get accepted I'll share some of the details. I'm a bit wary of taking on too much - met with my director and we are hammering out my themes for the dreaded Comprehensive Exam!!!! One of my tasks is to actually read some respectable evangelical theologies - I did not really get that at Saint Paul. I'm trying to track down course descriptions from evangelical universities - but my problem is I don't know which ones are really good. I found Fuller and Regent so far (Regent needs to work on its site, it was hard to get course descriptions that included required reading texts). I'm open to suggestions.

The start of this process is basically to really think through what I want to spend the next three or so years of my life thinking about. It has to be narrow enough to fit into a 600 page max thesis and big enough to keep me interested long enough to finish it. I'm making progress, but I'm glad she framed it this way. It is making me pause. I am fairly impulsive so this is a good exercise.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Continuing my Research

I need to prepare a few paper proposals this week. One is actually a panel I would participate in and the other is for Congress 2009. I'm already doing work at that conference with the Canadian Theological Society so it makes sense to try and get a paper accepted as well. I want to tie it into my Master's research on the North American Evangelical Emerging Church as well as some work I'm doing for a book on Micro-Missional Faith Communities (co-authoring with Brad Culver). I think I found a niche in looking at the formation of ecclesial identity within such communities. I can root it in the theological insights of James Cochrane (incipient theology) and hopefully introduce a dialogue that has some hope of connecting local theological innovation with formal theological discussion. We'll see.

Had my first class yesterday, Methods and Approaches in Contemporary Ethics, with Ken Melchin. The course will focus on religion in the public space and dig into the thinking of Charles Taylor and Bernard Lonergan. I'm more interested in Taylor's thinking but I should get my head around Lonergan as well. We have a class of 8 students, that is not a bad size. I think they have a smaller masters programme this year. I'm the only PhD student in the class and I'm thinking the course as is will be good. We are starting with an intro to the conversation via Rawls and Habermas, now that will be a bit insane.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Packing up the Christmas Tree

All too soon the Christmas break has come to an end. I have just a few tasks left to do - store the tree that I just boxed up, get some groceries and vacuum the main floor. Sharon will be busy putting paint on a wall this afternoon. The house is much quieter with just Chelsea home in the morning. I'm finishing up some stamps today, Switzerland is my goal. I have half of a good sized stock book full to either mount in my album (not that many, I have a respectable Swiss collection) or sort into my trading boxes. I actually sort my traders onto dealer 102 cards. Not that I am pretending to be a stamp dealer, it is just easier that way. For me the relaxing is in the process, which is quite complex. When I get stamps I first sort the on-paper (meaning someone has carefully torn away the rest of the envelope and left the stamps stuck to the paper - I like this as often well meaning folks damage stamps trying to remove them for me!) into colours. Yup - that matters. It is the colour of the envelope that is a problem. White ones are great! But colours can bleed onto stamps in the soaking process. Then I soak them in three bowls: lukewarm water till then almost fall off the paper, water with a bit of salt and baking soda to neutralize acids, and finally a clean water rinse. I dry them on wax paper covering whatever surfaces my loving wife allows. This I call the soaking party - you should join me it is lots of fun!

Dry stamps and stamps already off paper get put into a tupperware container on my desk. This was overflowing at the start of my Christmas break (in fact I had a box beside it full too!). I tend to toss anything that is damaged and my oldest daughter has been playing with those stamps. I then sort the stamps from my bin into 12 boxes (of various sizes)each full of envelopes (almost one for each country). These boxes are labelled: Machins, Regional Machins, Europe Collected, Oceana Collected, South America (which is also Central America and the Caribbean), Great Britain, Europe, Africa, North America, Asia Collected, and Australasia. These boxes are always full of goodness, ready to sort.

From the boxes I sort the envelopes into stockbooks - one country at a time. Actually I only do this for countries I collect. The others get packaged into auction lots that I take to the club's auctions or sometimes put up on ebay. A few are accumulations that I plan on making into a collection at some point - Austria is one such culprit as I have two lovely full baggies of Austria in those boxes. In the stock book I end up with rows of the same stamp. This is important because often stamps have printing variations. Today I was looking for fibres embedded in Swiss stamps. The colour of little threads in the paper will tell me which printing a stamp is. Actually one stamp had an added feature of a pike (weapon) with either 3 or 4 lines left of the guys hand. I have a lovely little 10X loop with a light that I keep constantly at hand. The other thing I check a lot for is watermarks and the interval between perforations (along the edges of the stamp). Once I have identified just which stamp is which from a row, I see what I need in my album. I prefer postally used stamps (even when the mint, or unused, version is worth more) so I sometimes switch up a stamp in my album because I now have one with a much nicer cancellation. I then update my want list and find the appropriate section of my card files for the traders. If I don't have a 102 card for that stamp variation I make one and price it at 1/3rd the catalogue value (my catalogues are from 2001, but a trip down East should net me more recent ones! Thanks to my uncle-in-law Raymond). As you can imagine my file boxes of traders are quite full. I have been getting these nice red dealer boxes - I have three of those so far. But I also use the boxes the cards come in and kleenex boxes fit perfectly sans cover. I will take a box with me to the club or us it to easily find stamps my few penpal friends ask me to locate. Everything is Scott numbers except the UK used to be Gibbons numbers, now it is both. The reason for that is I have a full colour Stanley Gibbons checklist for my favourite country to collect. You might have guessed this from seeing 3 boxes just for the UK! I love Machins.

Alas, today I will clean up the last of the collection and get my desk ready for a semester of studies. Sharon asked me what I think about when I'm working on my stamps. I told her, 'nothing at all' as that is sort of the point. I'm one of those guys who is always thinking. Stamps distract me long enough to rest. Mental work is quite taxing - despite the way that society has devalued it.

This is a bit of how I spent my holiday. I hope yours was restful too. Now back to weightier things.

Saturday, January 03, 2009


I had an awesome visit from an old friend last night. He was off interning with the now infamous Todd Bentley. The thing I like about him is that he has a good head on his shoulders, and he isn't afraid of critiquing a movement that he also deeply respects. I'd say that his challenge is getting appropriate critical distance, but who doesn't have that challenge? (if we are being honest) However, we had a wonderful talk about hermeneutics, presuppositions and dangerous tendencies within the Charismatic world. Now to be upfront - I felt a bit out of the loop as to the players in that world, but it is the world I come from too. We both agree that the deep need is for Charismatics to interface with theologians and for theologians to interface with Charismatics. As it is most Charismatics, and this is a judgment I am making, consider having the "Spirit" as mitigating their need to have anyone teach them anything. It should not surprise us then that Charismatics have a huge range of innovations functioning in their midst - both the truly horrid and the truly brilliant. But there are no real tools for assessing innovation or even correcting some of the more disturbing innovations.

I might take up this task in detail here on the blog. It is dear to my heart. I still know (sometimes personally) half of the players in the Charismatic world. And some I deeply respect. Others, not so much. But for this post I want to focus on this notion of having the "Spirit". Which at its worst is the same old elitism that erupts in every movement that thinks it has the "whole truth", and at its best is a cry for a deeper spiritual intimacy for all Christians.

My buddy would talk about this "having the Spirit" quite a bit in regards to the inability of Charismatics to learn from others. This notion, if I am reading him right, is not that only the Charismatics that have access to the Spirit of God (and by that I mean immediate, unmediated access) but that somehow only the Charismatics have somehow ascertained the true way to maintain that access. The problems with this sort of pneumatological proposition are what led to my exodus from Pentecostalism. But lets focus on what the implications are here.

If, as is proposed and often admitted, Charismatics have immediate and unmediated access to the Spirit, by which they can only mean direct communication from God, then there should be specific fruit evident. At least my critical mind would go looking for the fruit. What should/would that fruit be? Unity? Mercy? Justice? Restoration? Healing? Peace? Love? Joy? Fulfillment? I would think none of those should escape an assessment of any theological innovation. Of all those, I think only healing has had any sort of evaluation - and that is usually the more dubious emotive healing experience of the ecstatics and not the continual assessment that can only take place years after such events have occurred. (Even still has anyone compared ecstatic healings with long term prayerful healings?) As a close second perhaps joy is also looked at - but I'm not convinced that some of the ecstatics junkies I've met really qualify as having the type of deep joy I read about in scripture.

Now I'm not building this case to discard the innovations (even the ecstatics), but to say that there needs to be a way of assessing these phenomena and bringing some of the better innovations into prominence in the corporate ecclesial psyche. In other words what gift can these Charismatics make to Christ's Church?

I am suggesting that the notion of immediate and unmediated is deeply flawed.

It functions like this. Influential Charismatic X has an experience. They reveal this experience to other Charismatics. It is given the same weight as say scripture or tradition. Such experience becomes integrated into the normative spiritual experience without any real evaluation (innovation). Others have similar experiences (supposedly - that is they at least mediate them in the same way) and it becomes normative within an ever growing population. The late John White talked about the psychology of this in "When the Spirit Comes with Power" which I highly recommend.

In that scenario what is missed is that mediation happens all the way along. (That is it is neither immediate nor unmediated). The Influential Charismatic X interprets their experience, even if it is to put a narrative around it. Charles Parnham was talking about tongues long before Asuzu (and Seymour was sitting in the hall listening to those lectures). We all have theological assumptions operative, so experiences are instantly mediated through our assumptions and our worldview(s). Now there can be worldview changing experiences, this is well documented, but even these are mediated and reined in through our internal need for coherence. We never land far from where we start. In other words it is naive to assume immediate or unmediated access to the Spirit.

Does this invalidate our experiences of the Holy Spirit? Not at all. It simply contextualizes them and better it lets us critique the innovations they lead us to. So if flopping on the floor leads to the fruit we outlined earlier - I will be the first one joining you in flopping! But if it is really only a way for me to feel good about myself, then lets work together to something more mature and more beneficial for the Church and ultimately the world that God so loved.

Thursday, January 01, 2009