"The canonical literature does not offer a settled, coherent account of reality; rather it provides the materials for ongoing disputatious interpretation." - Walter Brueggemann

Friday, August 14, 2015

Evangelicals are Thinkers, Too (even when they don't realize it)


I believe in objective truth; I promise. The postmodern skeptic that I am, I still believe in affirming certain things as true (or at least as having truth-value). It gets tricky with morality, because with morality we actually decide what is or is not bad, immoral, to be frowned upon, whatever. Christian evangelicals often give skeptics like myself a hard time because we have no set moral base, no standard for determining what is right and wrong, and so--as the saying goes--"everything is permitted."

I agree that we have no set moral base. We have nothing to turn to which tells us outright what is moral and what is not. We do have to decide that ourselves. We do have to construct our own morality. I do believe in having a "foundation," and in having a moral framework. In that, I may be considered moderately conservative, even somewhat religious. But I also think that that moral foundation has to be constructed by us, and I take issue with how evangelicals think of moral foundations.

What I find ironic, humorous, sad, and irritating is that evangelicals generally don't realize that they don't have it any better. I know many who would quickly say things like "the Bible says," and who would refer to "God's law" or "God's created order." This is their moral framework. Fine. But there's a difference between believing something to be God's biblical law, and thinking of it as an ontological given.

In order to say "the Bible says" and to refer to "God's law," one has to have gone through so many steps in coming to that claim. One has to examine the Bible, dwell on the teachings of whatever church they're presented with, and decide the truth-value of everything they come across.

One also reads the Bible in a certain way (taking it at face value, or taking it literally, or researching it, or whatever). One also inherits cultural assumptions about morality, God, the Bible, etc.

Take the holiness code for example. No Christian abides by it, and yet it's in the Bible. How can this be? Well, with the help of theologians throughout the centuries, Christians have reasoned that they are not obliged to follow it because of Jesus, given what is said in the New Testament.

Notice how the Bible is something to be reckoned with, something that has to be examined, something one has to approached with reason. Only after one reasonably examines what the Bible says and weighs out the different elements and implications can one then decide what to believe given what the Bible says.

The often infuriating thing about evangelicals is that they don't seem to know that when they decide on a certain conclusion, on what to believe about morality, truth, etc., they are choosing to believe. Evangelicals are not passive recipients of objective truth. It's not that objective truth is being handed down to them in some unmediated, revelatory way. I can think of several people who seem like they think the "biblical truths" they believe in were handed down to them straight from God--as if no thinking was involved whatsoever.

My point is, evangelicals are inherently in the same business as skeptics like me. We all have to examine things. We all have to do the intellectual dirty work. We are all thrown into existence, without explanation, without specification and clarity, without an introduction to the nature of things. We all have to just go along and try to pick up as much as we can, learning every step of the way.

None of us has any real moral foundation to refer to. People say the Bible is life's instruction manual, but that is in no way clear. To say so is not to accept the Bible as it is; it's to apply to the Bible a purpose that it may or may not actually serve, and there's a lot of finitude and a lot of intellectual decision-making (however flawed) that separates the Bible from the evangelical's interpretation and application of it.

We all have to construct our own morality. Franklin Graham is constructing his own morality just as much as Richard Dawkins is. Graham just pretends like his construction is objective truth, handed down to him directly from God. In reality, we all just have to do the best we can with what we have to construct the best moral framework we can.

If you do think the Bible provides the best one, knock yourself out. Some of us don't limit ourselves to the Bible, but it's fine if you want to believe that the Bible is the source of all knowledge about morality--just do so with the knowledge that you are making a decision to believe, not being unilaterally brought into the know. You are not the direct line from God to the world. You are a thinker, a believer, and a decider, just like the rest of us.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Faith as Affirmation: Sorry, Author of Hebrews, I Don't Agree with You

Art by Samantha Muljat of Blood Bank Design
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1; NRSV) 
Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see. (NLT) 
Faith is the assurance that what we hope for will come about and the certainty that what we cannot see exists. (ISV)
It is the contention of Enlightenment rationalists that faith is by nature blind. Faith claims something is true when it's not (or, at least, when we have no reason to say it is). Such thinkers would read Hebrews 11:1 to mean that faith fills the gap between what can be known and what can't be known. It is evidence of something that cannot be proved, certainty in the face of the unknown. If this is faith, I would agree that it is negative.

Progressive Christians would read the verse and emphasize the words "conviction," "confidence," and/or "assurance." Faith is a conviction that the object of our belief is true, and faith gives us confidence that it is true, assuring us that we do not believe in vain. This is weaker than certainty (and might actually claim less than the author of Hebrews meant to), but it still claims quite a bit. It still boldly fills the gap between the known and the unknown.

This still seems negative to me. It's not certainty, as it leaves room for self-awareness and is based on conviction and not proof, but I think it still claims too much. Fundamentalists view faith as proof that their beliefs are true; progressives view faith as a personal conviction that Christianity is true. There is an important difference, but I still think the latter is insufficient because it claims more than I think we can.

Is there a weaker form of faith? Is there a faith for heretical skeptics like me? Or should we just abandon faith altogether?

My suggestion is to view faith as affirmation, not as assurance or certainty. I believe, but I could be wrong. I believe, but I recognize that I cannot know. Faith is the affirmation of things hoped for, the supposition of things not seen. Of course, this is not what the verse says, but I think it is necessary to disagree with the author of Hebrews.

To affirm something is to say yes to it. Faith says yes to the object of belief, but leaves room for doubt. And a supposition is stronger than a suggestion. A supposition is not just a "maybe." It is a claim, even if a weak one. It is an affirmation of truth-value, but one that is not certain or confident.

So I think faith should be embraced as the affirmation of a supposition, not as the certainty or assurance that something is definitely true.

Despite uncertainty, a claim is made. That claim is one of faith. But it need not ignore the uncertainty, or ignore the possibility of being false. There is room for doubt, even if the doubt remains less compelling than the claim.

This leads me to what I think is another important facet of faith: being compelled. We make faith-claims not because we are certain that they are true, but because we are compelled to make them, either by our experience, or by the appealing nature of the belief, or something else. We see truth-value, and that compels us to believe.

Truth-value. That is what faith affirms. It does not boldly claim, "This is true." It, inspired by the object of belief, claims, "This has truth-value." Truth-value means we have reason to be sure that there's something true about it, but how true it is is not clear.

This, I think, is noble faith, faith worth having. It is virtuous faith, desirable faith, and I even think it makes faith ideal, preferable to its alternative.

It leaves room not only for doubt, but for pluralism, for a universal respect for all faith-claims, and for recognizing truth value in all systems of belief. We can all have a pleasant conversation if we are all epistemologically humble.

We are finite. We are limited. We are small. We claim too much if we claim certainty. Certainty in the face of the unknown is arrogance and ignorance; it isn't faith. Faith is a risk. Faith believes. In believing, we recognize that there is a gap between what is known and unknown, because that gap occasions the belief.

If you KNOW that Christianity is true, you don't have faith; you have fabricated certainty.

Heschel says, "God was concealed even when He revealed."* Revelation does not provide us with unmediated, certain knowledge of what is beyond us. Revelation only gives us an object of belief, something that requires faith. It does not give us something of which we can be certain.

The book of Job provides a perfect illustration of this. God reveals himself to Job. He speaks directly to him, addresses him, and comes before him. What is Job's response? Instead of having an Aha! moment, he bows before the abyss and humbly claims "I know nothing."

Truth is concealed even when it is revealed. Faith affirms the revelation, while respecting the hiddenness that accompanies it. All our faith-claims should be tempered by a respect for mystery and the unknown.

Sure, it's not a strong faith. It's not a conviction, or a confident or sure faith. But I think it's the best faith we can reasonably embrace. In all our believing, we must leave room for doubt.

*Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955), 193.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Why Millennials are Going to Bring Destruction, and Why That's Good

I grew up in a conservative, Evangelical, charismatic home in Seattle. It wasn't necessarily a fundamentalist home, but it was characterized by the common traits of Republicanism, conservative gender roles, purity culture, an inerrantist view of the Bible, and other things commonly associated with fundamentalism. I was lucky in that I wasn't in too deep and I experienced disorientation at a young age.

To make a long story short, my grandmother, a spiritual guide for my family, betrayed us and screwed us over. This led to a lot of re-thinking when it came to our worldviews. The long journey I have taken since then has mostly led me away from those roots. I'm a liberal, agnostic heretic, and I'm definitely not in Kansas anymore.

I'm also lucky because I turned out okay. I love being the rebel with a cause and without all the emotional baggage and catastrophes that come with being subversive. I've seen a lot of people who had the right spirit but went off the deep end. I've seen a lot of rebels who I rooted for who didn't end up okay. I'm lucky in that respect.

Many people got married and found that their preparation for marriage was jacked and so they ended up getting divorced. Others struggle with depression and suicide, and don't understand why they are the way they are, and they want to change but feel that it's impossible. Others can't help but go to the other extreme and become the opposite of everything their fundamentalist surroundings were. And others receded into their blind faith and embraced an ignorant bliss, because the alternative is just too daunting to them.

All of this is to say that fundamentalism really fucked up my generation. So many young people are experiencing the negative effects of their upbringing and trying to cope with them in different ways, and a lot of bad situations have come from it.

But I think there's hope.

We millennials are going to bring destruction. We're going to get rid of problematic religious claims, gender roles, systemic evils, and a lot of other things. We're not going to make it very comfortable for past generations. It might be painful and it will definitely be challenging, but know that it needs to be done. It won't always be done in the right way, but it needs to be done, because the world toward which we are headed is a better one. We won't just destroy, we will create, and we may not do everything right, but we'll make a better world than the one we grew up in.

Don't try to control us. Don't try to control people. Don't try to control your kids. Don't try to control your spouse. If you do, you'll just end up hurting them, and they'll end up hurting you in rebellion.

What we are seeing in a lot of places is the collective rebellion of millennials. Some is good, some is bad, and all of it is destructive some way. But it's also creative, and it's not comfortable, but it's worthy of trust.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

What the Death of God Means for God's Future

Art by Samantha Muljat of Blood Bank Design
I've been learning a lot about Hegel--not as much as a philosophy student does, mind you, but enough to be intellectually stimulated. Every week it seems something about Hegel resonates with me and stirs my philosophical creativity. This week, it was his idea of the Geist, or the Spirit, or the mind (whichever you like), as well as the Neo-Hegelian modern philosophy of the death of God.

The Geist is constantly becoming, moving toward an end, an end which it will arrive at by any means possible. Hegel's Geist is similar to the open theist theology of the Holy Spirit. Open theists state that God does not possess unlimited power, because his effective power is limited by the free wills of other beings. Thus, the work of the Holy Spirit, God's effective presence in the material world, is to seek by whatever means possible the accomplishment of the will of God. The world is constantly in the process of becoming the kingdom of God through the work of the Spirit.

Furthermore, open theists claim that through our decisions we can give the Spirit more avenues for accomplishing the will of God. I may be wrong--and it is a real possibility--but this is the impression I get of Hegel's philosophy of Geist. Assuming the similarity is valid, I can move on to my next point.

In Hegel's philosophy, how the Geist or Spirit will move in the future cannot be determined. All that we can do is observe the past and analyse what the Spirit was doing there. We can't know what the end goal, the Absolute, looks like, we can only see the means the Spirit used in the past to progress toward it, as well as try to ready ourselves for the work of the Spirit, so that we may assist in the development toward the Absolute.

All of this is quite similar to Pannenberg's theology of the kingdom of God. He said God does not yet exist because his existence is tied to his reign, which will not be realized until the end of the present age.
(Forgive my use of the male pronoun for God. I don't think God is male, but I do think it sounds funny when people constantly say 'God' instead of using a pronoun. Here's to hoping we come up with a normative gender-neutral pronoun.)
What we are left with in Pannenberg's thought are the penetrations of the kingdom of God into the present age. Or, to put it in [what is hopefully] a Hegelian perspective, we are left with the outbursts of the Absolute in the current state of our development. The kingdom of God can penetrate the present age through our actions. As the liberal maxim goes, "God has no hands but our hands." Caputo's way of saying this is that we give God existence through actions. We can occasion the birth of God in the world through how we respond to life's events.

This theology is made possible because of death of God theology, specifically with the Neo-Hegelian death of God theology that took Hegel's idea of Geist and turned it into an atheist materialism. In this theology, the death of Jesus, the God-man, signifies the death of God, and the subsequent giving of the Spirit signifies materialism. It is not that God actually died, or that the Spirit was actually given to us, but that the death of God is a stage in Hegel's development of ideas. The idea, or Vorstellung, of God had to die so that we could realize that we have the power, we hold all the cards, and our battleground is here, the material world, and the material world alone.
I may not be making any sense, and I'm really sorry if that's the case, but let me get to the crux of this post, which is to share where I'm at intellectually.
In my last post, I said that I think the idea of the kingdom of God, by which I mean the ultimate goal toward which we are ever-laboring, is a very valuable thing. I struggle with it, though, for three reasons: 1) I don't think humans are capable of reaching it. As Rachel Menken says to Don Draper in Mad Men, "The Greeks had two meanings for [utopia]: eutopos, meaning the good place, and utopos meaning the place that cannot be." If we are the only hope of the future, I think the kingdom of God is the good place that cannot be.

2) While I don't find denial of the possibility of the kingdom of God compelling, as it seems to neuter hope and trivialize our present work toward progress, I can't come up with a compelling reason to claim in faith that the kingdom of God will indeed come about. This is especially the case because we haven't really made much progress in the thousands of years that humans have been around. We still have slaves. We still have poverty. We still have war. The list goes on. We've done a lot of great things, but we still haven't gotten closer to some of the most central goals of progress. This leads me to the other reason why the idea of the kingdom of God is troublesome for me.

3) I no longer see a reason to posit the existence of a metaphysical being who will unilaterally bring about the kingdom of God at some point. What would make this happen? Why would this God suddenly bring it about? Why hasn't he done it yet? If it's on us, this seems to be just as nihilistic as saying it won't happen; and if we say God has reasons for delaying that we don't have access to, we run into the problem of the alienated soul that I talked about in the last blog.

What I propose is an agnostic faith. We can claim that the Spirit is moving and working, and that we can observe the Spirit's work in the past; and we can believe that we are working toward the Absolute, the kingdom of God, the Spirit's end goal, and that we experience outbursts of the Absolute in our present age, and the the end toward which we are working is an end we will someday experience. We can do all that.

But, these claims should be tempered by agnosticism. We don't know that any of it is true. In fact, we don't really have any good reasons to say they are true. The leap of faith is a leap for a reason. But instead of saying something is true when we don't know if it is true or not (instead of taking a leap of faith), we should live as if it were true for the benefit of our engagement with the material world.

Do we know that our work toward progress is going to yield the Utopian end that we long for? No. But living as if it is will assist in our positive engagement with the material world (I talked about this in the last blog).

That being said, and I'm repeating yet another point I made in my last blog, we should not claim too much about the Spirit or the future. We do not know what the future holds. This is the other point at which I am still very much an open theist. The future does not yet exist, and we do not know how it will unfold, and so we should not make bold claims about what will happen in the future, even in faith.

Furthermore, we do not know what the Spirit is, if anything. Spirit, God, and kingdom of God are all Vorstellungen--ideas. Giving them solid names, backing them up with faith, and claiming them as revelatory of absolute truth is claiming too much, and claiming too much will limit our scope. Theology, philosophy, and religion should widen our scope and provide us with valuable tools for positively affecting the material world.

Herein lies the value of death of God theology. It is not that God literally died, but that in our reflecting on the Spirit's involvement in the past we see that the Spirit (give it whichever name you like it) was always involved with the world in this way. We only experienced it as a death because of our previous conception of God. The idea of an all-powerful God unilaterally working at his own ends is gone. In place of it, we have the theology of the Spirit in the material world. Caputo rightfully calls it "birth of God theology."

In this theology, God is all immanence. The world is panentheistic, with God limited to the material world and dependent upon us to give him birth, and so the kingdom of God is limited to our actualizations of it. But there is still hope for the future, that the future holds something grand, something that affirms our present work, something that will prove our efforts fruitful, and will not render our lives insignificant or our labors in vain. There is still hope for the coming kingdom of God.

So, this is a pragmatic theology of hope, one that stops short of claiming too much. It is pragmatic because I consider first and foremost what assists in our engagement with the material world, in our confrontation with our immediate experience of life. It is hopeful in that all of the theological claims (about Spirit, about God, about the kingdom of God, etc.) are recognized as Vorstellungen that are meant to be representative of the mysterious Absolute that I long for and hope for. They don't exist, because their existence is tied to their actualization in the material world, and that is something we can only hope for.

We may never have it. We may never have the actualization of the Absolute in the material world. But there's hope, and that hope assists in our seeking the betterment of the material world, and that's quite fine for me.
At least, these are thoughts I've been having. My goal is to share what I've been hashing out and to engage others, so please let me know what your thoughts are.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Alienated Soul

art by Frank Kelly Freas
In my last blog, I talked about the film Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and what it says about the plight of human existence. That is, in our finitude we are insignificant and are denied answers to our questions about the meaning of life. For all we know, we could be pawns in some primordial, metaphysical game--like Job.

Faith, then, is essentially a bone that our creator(s) throws us so that we can find a little comfort in our meaningless and insignificant existence. As if to say, "Here, you can't know the grand scheme of things, you can't have the answers to your questions, so have faith. Come up with a construal of reality that comforts you and believe in that. So while you're insignificant and your life is meaningless, you'll find comfort in your faith."

This, I think, is a weakness in truly believing in a metaphysical realm. Our inability to know anything about the metaphysical realm makes it alienating to us, which is why Hegel spoke of "the alienated soul" or "the unhappy consciousness." The human being projects himself or herself onto the metaphysical blank canvas and conjures up a theology which then alienates the human being.

I think it's alienating because it's clouded with considerable doubt. What is the metaphysical God like? Your guess is as good as mine. God is a blank canvas on which we paint our fears and desires.

But maybe it's not even God beyond our physical realm. Maybe it's like Descarte's example and I'm just a brain in a vat and the "metaphysical realm" is made up of a mad scientist in a laboratory. The ultimate unknowability, the mysterium tremendum, of the metaphysical realm makes it alienating to us. We become lead actors in supporting roles, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Suppose, however, that there isn't a metaphysical realm. Suppose we have no real concrete reason to posit the existence of anything beyond the material world. Then, the unknowable consists of that in the material world which we have not come to know. Instead of a blank canvas on which to paint our elaborate guesses, we would have a world of unmapped territory to explore.

Furthermore, instead of worrying about the goings-on of the metaphysical realm (if it even exists!), we could busy ourselves with cultivating a more harmonious social order here in the material world. Here, again, I am pulling from Hegel, who said that the development of ideas culminates in human freedom, which consists of harmony with the social order.

Does this grant us certainty? Of course not. There could be a metaphysical realm. There could be a God. There could be gods even. It is indeed a faith claim to accept the material world as the full range of reality. But it can be debilitating to preoccupy ourselves with a metaphysical realm that may not actually exist. Which leads me to my next point.

Does this mean we should abandon religion and theology? No, not exactly. Though, it does mean that the purpose of religion should be the material world. The focus of theology should be enabling us to further pursue harmony with the social order. In this vein, I think the Christian idea of the kingdom of God, for example, is quite valuable because it is an idea of the kind of social order we should strive toward. Martin Luther King saw the promised land and all of his efforts were in pursuit of that ideal. Religion and theology can do a lot of good in forming the ideal we are working toward, as well as laying out how we can pursue that ideal.

The danger is that revealed religions can be regressive if they claim too much about the ideal we are pursuing. If you have the picture of what a puzzle is supposed to look like, but it isn't the right picture for the puzzle you're actually working on, you'll be working toward a goal but you won't make much progress. Revealed religions, if they claim too much about how the world should be, may take us afield and inhibit us from progress.

The truly virtuous religions are those that assist in our efforts here on the material world, and don't claim too much or get bogged down by preoccupation with a metaphysical realm.

At least, these are some thoughts I've been having lately.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Lead Actors in Supporting Roles

I'm not much of a Shakespeare person, so when my friend Charity brought the movie Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead over, I wasn't super excited to watch it. I figured, it has good actors in it, so I may enjoy it some. To say I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement. The movie is not only enjoyable and funny, but intellectually stimulating and philosophically brilliant.

The plot is complicated, but suffice it to say that it revolves around Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are supporting characters in Shakespeare's play Hamlet. In the movie, they are the main characters, but their plight is that they are becoming aware of their roles as supporting characters. As supporting characters, they are not the concern of the grand scheme of things, nor do they know what the grand scheme is. They only pick up little bits from their engagements with their surroundings and when their parts of the play actually occur. One humorous example is when they hear talk of how Hamlet has "changed" and "transformed." They repeatedly quote this information later on in the story, but they do not know why it was said in the first place, let alone if it is actually true.

They eventually come to realize their insignificance. One of the ways this happens is through their reflection on death, of which Rosencrantz (?) says, "Out we come, bloodied and squalling, with the knowledge that for all the points of the compass, there's only one direction. And time is its only measure." Because we're not in control of our fate, we are insignificant. We are powerless. As Guildenstern (?) says before he dies, "There must have been a moment at the beginning, where we could have said no. Somehow we missed it." He says this because he knows his death was not something he chose, but was orchestrated for him.

The other characters know they are insignificant. The other characters are also privy to the grand scheme (or at least to a good deal more of it than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). The insignificant supporting characters are left to play their part, up until their unfortunate end. The sad caveat is that they have the same kind of conscious experience as the main characters--the same reason, emotions, etc.--and so they engage their fate with curiosity and try to figure out the meaning of their existence and confront their inevitable death while being too insignificant to be granted any of the answers.

What is brilliant about all of this is that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem to represent humanity as whole, their plight representing that of humanity's. We too curiously engage the meaning of life and try to confront our inevitable death. We wonder what the grand scheme is, and what our part is in it. We despair when we realize we are too insignificant to be made privy to the grand scheme. We don't get to know the mystery of reality. We don't have access to absolute truth.

This is the same thing Job learns in the biblical book. At the beginning of the story, we are made aware of the reality: Job is a pawn in a wager between God and the satan. The story then narrows in on Job, who does not know what is going on. His experience leads him to confront the mystery of God. He demands to know the answers to his questions, the reasons for his suffering, the meaning behind his experience. How does God respond? By showing him how insignificant he is. There are things going on that are way beyond Job, of which Job has no knowledge, and his role does not come with ultimate knowledge. Job doesn't have security clearance for that level of information. He is denied access. What is left for Job is to accept his role and make of it what he can.

In my next blog, I want to engage this idea further. I'll lay out why I think it shows that believing in something beyond creates what Hegel called "the alienated soul," or, "the unhappy consciousness." I will then advocate an alternative.

Until then, I hope you enjoy chewing on these ideas as much as I have.