Saturday, February 28, 2009

Freedom and Individualism

Charles Taylor's Malaise of Modernity is an excellent critique of individualism. We have traded the values of community and belonging for the lure of a false freedom that we were convinced came from becoming less dependent and connected to everyone else. The liberal dream is really the American Dream - one that falsely promises anyone can be anything. But the reality is we have become a people desperate for identity and cut off from the ways that we really come to know ourselves - that is, through community and dependence. It should not surprise us that there is a passionate desire for people to return to roots, to ancient rituals within religions and to spiritualities from foreign contexts. That is a desperate move. One we've hard won the freedom to allow. And a move that disturbs modern church leaders even though they hardly seem to understand why.

Like Taylor, who contests the knockers and the boosters of individualism, I'm torn on the issue of retrieval within faith communities. On the positive side there is an influx of richness coming into our liturgical practices, and that is actually bringing some life to people. But it is a bit indiscriminate and unfocused. I think the answers are there, but at the same time not there. And what I mean by that is this: you can do all those nice things and still not find the identity you are looking for. Let me make a jump and come back to this point.

The primary means of defining oneself has shifted from our relationships to people to our relationships to economy. Society, despite the rhetoric of freedoms, really values only certain things. Productivity being one of them. But this is productivity measured in specific ways - it isn't about having healthy productivity, but about maximized financial profit potential. (My move from a high paying IT career to a questionable future in academics is very counter-cultural.) So we define ourselves in terms of our jobs, what we do and how "successful" we are at doing it. This is an unfortunate shift - because our occupations are hardly stable identities let alone meaningful in ultimate terms (with some exceptions of course).

Just look at the expansion of cyber-dating, we don't forge relationships in our work environments, and lets face it, we don't have that much other community. So we turn to the internet. I'm not against this, but it is symptomatic. Before, we would meet our mate in our communities - church, school, social clubs even the bars. But now those places represent, at best, truncated communities and in their current form we are unsatisfied because we expect them to form identity for us.

So here is where churches come in. And the move towards ancient-future practices is part of this quest for identity. In some sense it the church trying to validate its identity - I did a lot of work on how this dynamic functions in evangelical communities (and I dare say that ended up saying a lot of the same things Carl Henry said, but in a different context). But the church is also responding to the demands of a culture of individualism - when the adherents see the church only in terms of what it can do for them. This is exactly the attitude that turns ancient-future treasures into vacuous fad. It is precisely our attitude towards church that will determine how and if church can help us understand ourselves.

Individualism robs the church of its potential to help define a people (Imago Dei). But it also robs individuals of the real freedom of participation - being free to be part of something bigger than themselves, something which can truly give them/us/me a sense of identity. I long for that. I long for real freedom. Not the truncated, do what you will, swill liberal philosophy has offered us. Rather the grounded call to participate, to be dependent on, and to even be hurt by - the other. To be community. To break bread, not as an individual - but as a body. Incomplete without the whole. The trappings of the ancient must look so odd to those looking for fulfillment within individualism. It is not personal piety, it is corporate identity. It is not individuality, it is cooperation and belonging. It is body and community, Trinity and belonging. I hope that we retrieve these things - but we do it in the spirit in which they were forged, not twist them to the culture of individualism.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Goings On

Tracked down the rest of my comp. list books last night. I have books coming from three different used book stores in the States. I figure it is worth it, these are going to be books I live with all summer, and most of them will be core texts for my research and teaching. Saint Paul has a funny way of organizing their comps - they want a small set of foundational texts based on seven themes. My profs had less themes but tonnes more books! And huge texts too. The biggest text I have is Ernst Bloch's Principle of Hope - but I am only really responsible for about half of volume 1 and a section from volume 3. That's a relief, because volume 2 is really hard to find (if you have a spare one you'd like to part with, please let me know). I sent out a final list to my committee and am really just waiting on one reply to know it is going to the faculty head for approval. I think the count is 19 books, 6 essays, 2 articles and selections from Principle of Hope. In September they will meet to set up my exam question, my director wants me to go off and read until then (after this semester of course) and come back with my notes from the readings. Then we'll start working to prep for the exam. I'm actually quite excited about it all and we are thinking that an exam date in October will work fine.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Great News!

I already mentioned that I am doing Local Area Coordinator of the Canadian Theological Society work for Congress 2009 (formerly the Learneds). And I just received notice that the paper I proposed was accepted! That is so good. This one is similar to the paper I have accepted for Concordia's conference next month, but a bit of a twist. "Micro-Missional Ecclesial Identity" is the title, and I am exploring the way in which alternative forms, in this case deliberately small faith communities, are efforts to wrestle with what it means to be the church. In a sense it is about an incipient ecclesiology. But what is exciting is that now I am officially using a term - micro-missional - that my dear friend Brad coined, and using it in an academic setting. I think this term is important for a number of reasons.

  1. It identifies that every effort of the church re-inventing itself can be named, can be a model. Now I'd be the first to say that a model doesn't help you, and in fact it is the following of models that is part of the reason that micro-missional options are emerging. But, never-the-less you can always determine bounds by which to describe a movement and this is helpful for academics who wish to understand a given model.

  2. It situates the churches that have affinity with this model/tag as a response to the mega-church. I know that emerging church commentators have made this observation already, but here I'm naming the model in a way that directly confronts an alternate model which does not provide a satisfactory ecclesial identity to the micro-missional crowd. This is not a value judgment in my form, but an entrance into a conversation that might shed light on what kind of ecclesial identity micro-missional might describe.

  3. It is a super cool way of describing a counter-cultural trend - the love of the small. As someone who has experienced both models, it is easy to describe the differences in terms of benefits (on both sides). But there is something that is unfortunately hip about being small that also allows us to bring to bear a critique.

I also situate this movement in what I call cycles of evangelicalism. Something that I have adapted from the historical work of Robert Webber, particularly his book The Younger Evangelicals. This allows me to ask questions that I know aren't in the immediate conscious of micro-missional leaders. Questions like: what will this look like when it integrates into the larger sense of evangelical identity?

A lot of work ahead of me. I'm excited to be bringing my questions and research into an ecumenical context and amongst academic theologians.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Bugs Me

I'm finding the continued talks of bailing the automotive industry so infuriating. A business that fails should be allowed to fail - no matter how many jobs it means are lost. That might sound heartless - but the help creates only an illusion of security. Plants will continue to close, people will continue to lose their jobs and we will be simply worse for it in the long run. The idea of an invisible hand is exactly that - an invisible hand not a government prop and prod. If we've changed systems then let's be upfront about it and try to figure out what the heck it is. Seriously I'm all for finding an alternative to capitalism, but not as a poorly conceived knee jerk reaction.

But I'm actually pleasantly surprised at some of the responses I've seen from evangelicals around the atheist bus ads. Bravo for not giving into the knee jerk reactions of Christians who somehow think that in their isolation they have maintained anything resembling a moral authority. Bring em on. Heck, if we really believe in the freedoms that allow us to practice our religions in relative peace then we should welcome any and all tests to those freedoms. Personally I think these ads are brilliant conversation starters, but hey I'm not known for being afraid of much.

For your amusement check out this awesome bus sign generator.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Concordia - Theology Beyond the Classroom

I am pretty stoked to announce that my paper "Sensory Services and Ecclesial Identity" has been accepted at the Theology Outside the Classroom: How Theology Mediates Between Religion and Culture conference, March 26-27 at Concordia in Montreal. I haven't all the details, but I did manage to get the word bricolage into my abstract! Just read an excellent article by Joshua Moritz (Dialog 47:1 Spring 2008) on the emerging church. I'm tempted to pour myself into this paper - but right now I have two papers due next week and I'm lecturing at Ottawa U (Christians and Evolution) two days before presenting in Montreal. Ok, got to get back to work!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Madam Guyon

OK, admittedly I read this book specifically for a project. I have had Madam Guyon's translated autobiography for years and years, having heard it was really good. Wrong! This was painful to read. She is so abused by just about everyone in her life. But she twists this abuse (crosses as she calls them) into the bases of a spirituality. So much so that while I'm with her on in some of the inner life - it is hard to distinguish what is the product of an imagination warped by glorifying her pain and suffering and that which is genuine mercy. Sometimes it is clear that she is spinning the situation - especially in the accounts of faltering conversions. But other times you are left wondering what the rest of the story really is. I have no doubt thought that this is how she sees the story - otherwise she would have been more careful with her words.

What really disturbs me is that the book jacket makes these insane promises about the contents: it will teach you have to deal with adversity, how to be a mature christian, blah blah blah. Bull. It is the story of how one woman copes with incredible abuse. How a brilliant mind denies the very mind that God gave her (and still it shines through at odd moments, likely what inspired Fenelon so much) because her ideal is to be the dumb servant, abused because it was "God's pleasure" to do so??? Guyon does not teach us to be mature, but to have a twisted view of God. In this she is a product of her times - at once resisting the enlightenment and also thrusting forward into an enlightenment mode of actualizing her faith. This book is a confusing tragedy and not a model of any sort of healthy spirituality.

Is there an Evangelical in the House?

I've mentioned before that the shortcoming of studying at a predominantly Roman Catholic Institution (there are many benefits mind you) is that I am not as exposed to Evangelical Theology as I would like. In fact I really resonate with Stackhouse's chapter in Evangelical Landscapes - "Why Johnny can't produce Christian Scholarship". Case in point, I recently ordered three promising (from the descriptions) evangelical texts on political engagement only to be most disappointed by two - the rare thing was that I was not disappointed by the third as well. Actually I'm sure these would be fine texts for folks in the pews who do not want to think too hard about their faith, but I'm less inclined to think that what we need is more light fluffy books. Seriously - look at the world around us. God loves that world. So you would think we would too. But enough about that.

My director has given me the delightful task of finding an evangelical dialogue partner. I made a short list and have handed the task over to my director with my suggestions. I have a certain trepidation about such a relationship though - in my current setting I am the authority on evangelicalism, pentecostalism and things charismatic. I am quick to identify both the strengths and weaknesses I see in the groups I identify most strongly with. But how many of those insights are based simply on my own assumptions - I guess it is time to find out. If I can complain about evangelicals wanting it light and fluffy then I better be willing to ditch the fluffy assumptions I have as well.

Should be a very interesting thesis project.

Monday, February 09, 2009

My Son is Giving Away a Book!

Ever since Jim introduced me to the son I had forgotten I had (apparently), I have treated Esteban like the long lost son he is. His mother and I (despite the problems regarding Esteban's age) are so proud that he is giving away a book. Unfortunately, he seems to want to exclude his dear old parents, yet again, from the gifts he knows he should be sending our way. He has only offered to ship this book to folks in the US. At least he isn't hitting us up for money - unlike his much younger sisters!

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Feeling the Tidal Pull

There are times when I feel like I am firmly planted, things are organized and deadlines reasonable. But then there are moments when I get the sense that the tidal wash is eroding the sand I'm standing on. Soon I'll feel the tidal pull. Life, for me at least, is often like a tide. Sometimes it's high and threatens to pull me out to sea and other times it is low and I'm able to see with great clarity the path I'm on. I am not complaining, sometimes those tidal pulls have led me into some amazing waters. They are scary at first, especially when you recognize the hints between your toes, but in the midst of it I need always be grateful that I've learned how to swim. The ebbs and flows of life are not something you can control - but what you can control is how you respond. When I think it is too hard I just remember my many friends that have it worse than me yet still manage to find the sandbars when the waters recede - some of them are positively amazing swimmers too! Today, is one of those tingling in the toes days. I have reading week coming up - but I also realize that I need it and deadlines are looming large on my horizon.