Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Bulwarks of Belief (M Samson; Repost)

Picking up where Kenneth left off, chapter 1 on Charles Taylor's book "A Secular Age" continues in sections 5-6 to develop his thoughts on the shift in the "conditions of belief" which have taken place in pre-modern to modern societies using as marker dates the years 1500 to 2000.

After looking at disenchantment and the eclipse of anti-structure, Taylor examines the shift in time-consciousness between moderns and pre-moderns, and in particular the time placing of events which to pre-moderns could be and were placed in more than one kind of time. For moderns, at least Taylor cites Walter Benjamin in saying that time is "homogeneous, empty time." (pg. 54). Or in other words, our present outlook for the most part enshrines homogeneity, coupled with a view of indifference to content. For earlier pre-moderns, there were three "kinds" of time. The 'secular' or 'ordinary,' 'higher times,' which introduce the kairotic knots and 'warps' according to Taylor, and thirdly the idea of 'The Great Time.' The 'Great Time' is the time of creation, or the beginning, which is behind us, but also above us. The Middle Ages inherits two kinds of 'Higher Time' or 'Eternity,' one from Plato and the Greeks, that of objective time of process and movement, and that of St. Augustine who wrestles with 'time' in his 11th book of his Confessions. St. Augustine sees eternity as the gathering together of past into present to project a future. Unlike the pre-moderns, we moderns tend to live their lives and conceive of them entirely within the horizontal flow of 'secular time.' Now I must confess, I have never really thought about this. Franks Comment captures this beautifully for me. This is indeed a complex thread to trace out. These shifts are not easily explained, and I too am enjoying this monster book.

Bound up closely with the change in time-consciousness is another shift in the way we understand the universe in which we live. We have moved from the idea of a 'cosmos,' an ordered whole with meaning for humanity, to a universe having its own kind of order, that of exceptionless natural laws. This insight I found tantalizing indeed! I once held to the young earth creationist viewpoint. It is no secret either as Taylor points out that many of the battles between belief and unbelief of the modern era, have been fought over this issue of 'cosmos' vs 'universe.' and the challenge of 'universe' to Biblical religion. Creation vs Evolution is fast becoming or else already is a political hot potato in the USA. For me the irony of the Ussher chronology using modern calculation methods to entrench the Bible in the 'cosmos' was startling! I never heard it put that way before. I will be following Taylor closely here, and hope he develops this further.

Lastly, Taylor looks at the issue of "Reform" and "reform." He spells out with refreshing candor for a Catholic the spiritual abuses that arise in the Middle Ages and how the stage gets set for the Reformation. Being a catholic myself, I appreciate his openness. He also seems to hint at how it may have been avoided. Latin Christendom in the late medieval period attempts to bridge the gap between the laity and the 'elites' if you will. Between those who are 'clergy' and or 'religious.' Interestingly Taylor sees this drive to reform and remake society as playing a key role in the undoing of the old enchanted cosmos idea, and further, the creation of a visible alternative in exclusive humanism, as he puts it. Again, I'm going to follow this closely.

Now, I don't really feel that I am in a position to be critical of Taylor at this point. This is the first work I have read from him, and I am in uncharted waters right now. I may need to supplement my reading of this book in order to get a better handle on him. I'm still taking it all in. This is far more complex than any of the 'subtraction stories' I have read quickly over the years. I wish I could say more at this point and make a better contribution, but this will have to do for now... still reading.....

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Evangelicals Politically Engaged

It would be foolish to claim that evangelicals are not politically engaged in society. However, there are a number of drawbacks to the ways in which many evangelicals approach issues of social importance. Evangelicals tend towards a fairly pragmatic view of political engagement. This is because the primary concern is not the political engagement but rather the ability to witness. It is impressive how readily polarized evangelical groups can be when the issues are framed in terms of their witness and their perceived ability to witness.1 The classic example of this is the work of the Christian Right in the US. I find that Canadians tend to be less animated (more forgiving and flexible) in how they express their commitments, but these political commitments should not be underestimated (I believe that this is part of the reason the Conservatives have made it this far in our Country). This propensity for polarization reveals that what is lacking is an ability for individuals to sustain a reflection on political engagement. What suffers most is the very thing that is believed to be preserved - witness.

The witness of any religion is always tied to the ability of that religion to foster political engagement. The kind of political engagement that prophetically stands up in the face of injustice. While Christianity is not alone in its capacity to evoke the prophetic spirit, it is surely a rich part of Christianity's own formation. But what has been traded for the political prophetic voice is an apocalyptic and ecstatic spirit that deems overt political involvement as participation in a world which has no lasting hope. Pat Robertson's recent racist remarks about Haiti prove this point. What is unfortunate is that this is what passes as prophetic in much of evangelical culture. That is the prophetic is an ability for enforcing a deep apathy towards critical political issues. The church has become the state church preserving the state's status quo at all costs. What cost you might ask? The cost is the witness.

In Power Evangelism John Wimber claims that a faulty gospel message can at best create weak Christians. His claim comes in the midst of a discussion of the Kingdom message as the kerygma of Jesus' own gospel proclamation. I think he hits something important. The gospel that many North American evangelicals have bought into often has no reference to such political notions as the Kingdom of God. In fact Kingdom is only mentioned as an afterward as if saying the sinners prayer somehow transports one into the Kingdom. This could not be further from the message of Jesus. The Kingdom isn't something we can usher people into, a veritable holding place where we can plug up our eyes and ears and await the great yanking away. No. The Kingdom was central and its direction was always incarnational not escape. Sometimes I'm convinced that our gospel messages have more to do with our own personal comfort than with anything we read in the four gospels.

This weakness is already hurting evangelical witness. There is a growing awareness that the issues of our day demand a profound and prophetic response. And with none coming from our churches and ministries it should not surprise us that our numbers are dwindling. The plea of this argument is not to water down our gospel - I think we've done that enough. But to reflect on how our gospel actually might have the prophetic capacity to be, once again, a force for good in our world. This won't happen while we happily clap in our pews. It happens when we follow Jesus into the highways and byways and become like a certain famous Baptist who prepared the way for the Kingdom to come in the person of Jesus Christ.

1. By witness, I am referring to the active sharing of ones own faith in hopes of leading other individuals into a similar religious orientation.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Bulwarks of Belief (K Sheppard; repost)

Charles Taylor's A Secular Age is a sustained criticism of negative secularization theories. As we saw in the introduction that Frank's post provided, Taylor is primarily concerned to narrate the transformation of the "conditions of belief" from premodern to modern societies. He does so in order to reveal how the background to lived experiences (and the aspiration to flourishing, fullness) proves crucial to understanding the shift from naive belief to an awareness of many belief options.

Chapter 1, "The Bulwarks of Belief", begins with differences between what Taylor calls an "enchanted" and "disenchanted" world, borrowing from Max Weber and Marcel Gauchet. But this shift is only one part of the story, which Taylor discusses under the headings "obstacle", "equilibrium" and "a common understanding done away with".

(I) The enchanted world is a world filled with what Taylor calls "porous" selves. A porous, premodern self places the locus of meaning and action in the world "outside" him or herself, "exogenously". The enchanted word was spiritual, where things themselves had meaning, where meaning could be extra-human and intra-cosmic. This contrasts with the modern, disenchanted world where meaning is fundamentally construed as "within" ("endogenously"), and specifically within the human mind. This buffered self sets up a series of boundaries not present in premodern selves: between agents and forces, mind and world, physical and moral. Where the natural world, the existence of society and the enchanted cosmos affirmed the existence of God, it was very hard to embrace unbelief. If someone denied God they did not thereby leave the "field of forces" that remained, many of which were malevolent, making unbelief difficult to entertain.

(II) Porous selves were thus vulnerable selves. They were also part of communities that felt themselves to be part of a spiritual and force-filled world. That is why, Taylor argues, there was such enormous pressure to conform, such intolerance for heretics, and so little unbelief.

(III) Porous selves were also part of a society that held two goals in tension: that of self-transcendence associated with the ideals of Christianity, and that of normal human flourishing. Taylor uses Turner's concept of play between structure and anti-structure, as embodied in medieval Carnival, for example, to demonstrate how this equilibrium was held in balance. It was both functional, in "letting off steam", and affirmational, in confirming the normal order of society.

Subtraction stories do not pay enough attention to these changing conditions of belief and are therefore unable to explain the transition from naive belief to an awareness of belief options. Taylor supplements this criticism with a narration of such changes, from the enchanted to the disenchanted world, from the porous to the buffered self, and from the world of play between structure and anti-structure to its restriction in contemporary life.

One may perhaps suggest a few avenues of criticism: first, on a methodological level, with Taylor's argument that the conditions of belief and background need to be front and centre in any account of secularization; second, even if one accepted Taylor's methodology, one might then criticize his use of existing scholarly material to posit the transitions he does. While it would be foolish to think consensus was ever likely to emerge on either point, evaluating Taylor's contribution must begin here.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Vineyard and Post-Christian Reality

Jason Coker has been posting some excellent articles on the Vineyard in the aftermath of Tony Jones' comments. His recent description of a missional think tank (which included David Ruis!) is very helpful. Two things that encouraged me were the fact that they were resisting trashing the attractional models and that they are also wrestling with how to incorporate whole families into some sort of post-Christiandom church life. I've struggled with this a lot in my own church planting/pastoring work. I have to agree that we are in for a hard road. And I see two reasons for this: 1) Churches are stubbornly hanging on to Christendom models. We shouldn't always have to arrive late to the party. And 2) the culture that rejects organized religion on religion's terms does not have clear models for developing an ecclesiology. The resistance that is part of the cultural makeup actually works against efforts to define what a post-Christiandom church might look like.

I think the question is: Is it worth it? And for that the only answer I can give is yes. The reason for that is because of what I've seen the encounter of God do in the lives of people. Heck, my own life is completely revolutionized because of the God who met me in my brokenness. For that reason alone it is worth the wrestling to build a church that can carry this message of hope to the world. Do you think it is worth it?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Heaven Misplaced (Review)

This is the second of Douglas Wilson's books that I have reviewed. And I'm happy to say this is a much better book. However, he makes some methodological choices that hurt his argument and toward the end of the book he has lost his flow of coherency. But his project of historical optimism is a good one, I just wish he'd spend more time unpacking it.

The book is a very reformed reading of Kingdom theology. That is he is developing a theology about the concept of God's reign, its implications for Christian life and thought, from a reformed position. In fact he imagines a more dispensational view of history as an opposing view. Several times I truly agreed with his conclusions but would never have tackled the issue in the way that he does. In many cases his evaluation of theological problems is simply not sustained enough to get the reader where he wants them to go. This is important because of his methodological choices.

Early on Wilson asks us to read this book as if it were a story, that is suspending out judgment until it is done. That would be great if he were telling a story, but his style is polemics - he is arguing. So this tactic is not helpful, it sets up the reader to expect a piece of exploratory theology only to serve up a completely different dish. As a reader this was disappointing, a missed opportunity on Wilson's part.

The other methodological problem I have is one of target audience. This book is definitely written to a popular audience. It comes complete with bible studyish questions on each chapter. It also has some nice break out definitions (and while he does some nice defining, every now and then he drops something in without really explaining it) that are aimed to help the reader who might not have a theological or historical background. The reason this is disappointing to me is that I think he has some good insights and I'd like to see more of his underlying thoughts. For example, he tries to expand our notions of atonement, but his clear bias towards penal substitution are resoundingly clear. What is worse, he introduces alternate views and never pursues them - perhaps he doesn't know how/where they fit?

Despite these weaknesses, I did enjoy the book. He does a good job re-interpreting the classic "end times" texts. And he also does a good job making the Kingdom of God a central theme in his theology. I give this book 2.5 stars out of 5.

[EDIT] One of the things I forgot to mention about this book is that Wilson is entirely too triumphalistic. His project of historic optimism should be more invitational than it is. A good example of this is how he deals with ecological issues, in short he doesn't. And the very critique he levels against eco-theology also applies to his own theology that has a distinct and privileged view of our species (although I think this is not a true assessment of much eco-theology). Here he resorts to substitutionary atonement as the paradigm of choice and basically says our only task, as the Church, is to make disciples of the nations. A fine claim, but he fails to unpack it adequately. And he also fails to note what implications disciple making has on self-identity. It is almost like he wants to push the envelope, but only so far. I think the whole envelope needs to be remade from scratch (there is my bias). It also struck me as odd that in this whole project he doesn't once tackle the chief objection - theodicy. What we end up with is a repackaged (Christianized) version of human progress when it seems to me that is the last thing he really wants to do.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Coming Revival Amongst the Gays???

Some of you have caught wind that Tony Jones has stirred up a bit of conversation about the possible demise of Vineyard and Calvary Chapel. Now Iggy has weighed in with a very interesting comment:
It seems there are many Vineyards that may be as you described, yet there are also many that are not. Presently I attend a great one. I know also that Jason Clark in the UK is Vineyard… so I wonder… is your analysis quite as right on as it could be? Remember we entered the Anita Baker era in the 80’s so homophobia was rampant… so it would follow suit that many CC and Vineyards would turn against those they found to be gay. Yet, I see a openness that is returning… Vineyard is actually turning to N.T. Wright as far as theology… and many of us are looking at the gay community as the next wave of God’s grace. To put it in the old terms… some are seeing a revival coming out of the gay communities.
A couple of things struck me as I read Iggy's comment.

1) Finally someone said it. Really I think we need to recognize the context in which Lonnie carried out his ministry. This is not an excuse for homophobia, or even a watering down of the gravity of the injustice of homophobia, but a simple recognition that this is what was being done at the time. We need to look back and say in that context we probably wouldn't have done any better - but that should provoke us to make sure we don't perpetuate the ignorance that was the homophobia of the 80s. What I took from David's film is that John didn't respond until it was thrown out in the open by someone else. My gut tells me we just don't know enough about what happened and neither man is around to probe into this any further.

2) About time. I have been feeling for a while that there is a work of grace that God wants to do in the homosexual community. I say this as someone who hasn't completely worked out what I believe about homosexuality. So far I'm convinced that orientation is not sin and that the scriptures are far from clear on the topic (despite what some have asserted). I'm also confident that God loves homosexuals, and that God has put a huge love in my heart for homosexuals that are in my life, some of whom I know also love God in profound ways. Maybe I should have taken a clue from my friend James, way back in my early Christian days he befriended me and let me in on his struggles with self-worth. All of them centered on a lack of acceptance for him as he knew he was - didn't James deserve unconditional love too? He asked me what I thought of him being gay (this was the first thing he ever said to me) and I told him I didn't think God approved but that I was ok with that. I don't think he expected that from the fundie Pentecostal he worked with. As I got to know James I began to see the ways in which God was reaching into his broken life and trying to heal the rejection he'd faced. I also noted that God's agenda was bigger than Jame's sexual orientation - James was a person Jesus loved and longed to be with. I'm not sure where it would go from there, I leave that to God. I moved away and left James with another very capable Christian to be friend and counselor. What saddens me most though is that finding Christians who were capable of seeing someone like James through the eyes of God's love are still few and far between.

3) But haven't we also heard... Even though I felt that news of a grace revival amongst the gay communities was hopeful I can't help remembering all the other sources that us charismatics have been claiming revival would come. I am tired of it. Revival is coming from the North. Revival is coming to the Middle East. I can't help wondering how much of that is individuals crafting false hopes because they simply don't have the psychic energy needed to deal with the spiritual needs around them. Or worse because they can't cope with the fallen world we live in and want to escape. I'm not sure this is the same thing, but I feel caution is the word. Revival is not a word I like that much anyway. Revival never comes by our initiative, although I do believe that true revival is proceeded by prayer - not all prayer efforts resulted in revival (nor should they). Rather I think these things must be processed as invitations. I think that if you feel God wants to move in a particular community - then do something about it. That might be the very call to prayer that I was talking about earlier. But it is also a call to act. I am not confident in revivals (they don't usually end well), but I am confident in God's desire to reach into all communities and bring Good News that changes lives. Sadly, I'm also convinced that Jesus' assessment is still good today - the workers are few.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

PhD Seminar - Winter 2010. My Last One!

On April 9th I'm scheduled to present my Project Proposal, at which time the University sends me off to write my thesis. What a long haul this has been! But good, I think ultimately the process has been a good one. The key at this point is to identify what do I have the passion to sustain study on long enough to produce a new contribution to my field in? I have been thinking a lot about public and private spheres and the construction of self-identity. I think that is going to be pivotal for my research. But it could also simply reflect my ramping up for some good Taylor discussion. Focus, focus, focus.

I just received the official seminar schedule, we start off with preparing for the comprehensive exams - I've already written these so I'm tempted to come late for that one. But the bulk of the sessions look like they are concerned with this whole idea of process. I think that will help, in order to structure my time I will definitely need to develop a process specific to my research. Along those lines I've been thinking a lot about methodology.

I want to us a dialectic methodology. That is I want to put one school of thought in conversation with another. Specifically I want to put political theology (via Moltmann and possibly Pannenberg) in conversation with conservative evangelical Kingdom of God theology. I think Russell Moore's The Kingdom of Christ lays out what I'm talking about in terms of Kingdom theology, that will be my starting point. What I think I need are a small set of questions to animate the conversation. That means I'll spend a bit of time outlining my intentions and the players, and then I will be posing those questions to each body of theological inquiry. From there I will attempt to see how each of these conversation partners will respond to the approaches of the other partner. Hence, creating a conversation. A good example of this is Moltmann's dialectic style of theology. He is really good at letting the partners have a fair say even before he brings in the next voice. Hopefully I can limit the voices so that the project does not get out of hand. But my intuition is that such a conversation will at least identify some key insights that can be used in the creation of a Conservative Evangelical Political Theology.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

A Secular Age - Reading Schedule

For those of you wanting to follow along with our reading and blogging adventure here is the reading schedule we are attempting to follow. Link this post as I'll be updating it with links to the posts as they are created. Also we will try to keep our main comments on the latest post, but feel free to comment on specific ones as well. If you post a comment on an older reading you might not get a response right away. Also note that the names represent the five official commentators of this project.
Introduction - Frank
Bulwarks of Belief 1-4 - Kenny (Jan. 14th)
Bulwarks of Belief 5-6 - Mike (Jan. 21st)
Bulwarks of Belief 7-9 - Ben (Feb. 4th)
Rise of Disciplinary Society 1-2 - Frank (Mar. 25th)
Rise of Disciplinary Society 3-4 - Kenny (Apr. 1st)
Rise of Disciplinary Society 5-6 - Frank (Apr. 15th)
The Great Disembedding 1 - Mike (Apr. 22th)
The Great Disembedding 2-3 - Ben (Apr. 29nd)
The Great Disembedding 4-6 - Frank (Apr. 29th)
The Spectre of Idealism - TBD (May. 6th)
Providential Deism 1-2 - Kenny (May. 13th)
Providential Deism 3-4 - Kenny (May. 20th)
The Impersonal Order - Mike (May. 27th)
The Malaises of Modernity - Frank (June 3rd (my birthday!))
The Dark Abyss of Time - Ben (June. 10th)
Expanding Universe of Unbelief - TBD (June 17th)
19thC Trajectories 1 - Kenny (June 24th)
19thC Trajectories 2-5 - Mike
Age of Mobilization 1-2 - Frank
Age of Mobilization 3-4 - Ben
Age of Authenticity 5 - TBD
Age of Authenticity 6- Religion Today 7 - Kenny
Religion Today 8-10 - Mike
The Immanent Frame 1-4 - Frank
The Immanent Frame 5-6 - Ben
The Immanent Frame 7-10 - TBD
Cross Pressures - Kenny
Dilemmas I 1-3 - Mike
Dilemmas I 4-6 - Frank
Dilemmas I 7-8 - Ben
Dilemmas II 9-11 - TBD
Dilemmas II 12 - Unquiet Frontiers 16 - Kenny
Conversions 1-2 Mike
Conversions 3 - Epilogue
Edited Mar. 25/10

4th Edition as a Player

After DMing 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons for many months, today I had my first chance to experience it as a player. I must say that I'm liking this version more and more. It promotes cooperation and makes every player's contribution (role) valuable. I still dislike some of the more video game like aspects (squares, simplified movement, allies not giving cover for ranged attacks, etc.) but I cannot complain with how the system works. It is not hard to teach. It makes game play similar for all classes (which I did not like at first) which means you all always have something to do and you all basically go about doing it the same way. It is overall a big improvement on previous editions of the game. I spent much of one epic battle (we were 1st level characters) in the belly of a giant frog! That's me in the far frog. One of the things I like about this version is that it is not hard to drop a character, but it is rather hard to kill them. I'm slowly being digested by this frog, I've stopped making saves to get out (I couldn't roll over ten four times in a row! And I'm rolling to make sure I don't die, but still taking damage. I was 2 HP away from the magic -11 dead mark when Glen made a miraculous hit on my frog, freeing me! I managed to hang out long enough for a healing to get me back up. But I had missed most of that fight. That's the last time I volunteer to open the door for the party while they hold back at the entrance! Sheesh. It was much fun though, the fact that it came so close made it exciting. I was already envisioning my brother Jimm the Shady taking over (my character was the eladerin artful dodger rogue Slimm the shady) so I could keep playing. Fun day!