Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Ride the Wave and Keep Your Cool

I had an afterthought for my last post. In the two historical examples I explored, the Protestant Reformation and the movement to abolish slavery, I made two points: In each case, 1) the individuals who were agitating for social change managed to align themselves with historical trends that favored their cause; and 2) ultimately, both movements were only successful after a great deal of very brutal violence.  However, I need to also point out that neither Martin Luther (nor the Reformers), or William Wilberforce (and the Quakers, Moravians and Methodists) had any idea that they were “riding a wave” of history. They did what they thought was right, and their timing happened to be very good. So I suppose that something can be said for taking one’s stand on moral issues, regardless of which way the wind seems to be blowing.

We could examine other historical examples such as Gandhi’s drive for the independence of India, and Martin Luther King, Jr’s work on behalf of civil rights. In all of these examples one can find numerous moments when the historical actors must have felt that all of the forces of history and society were against them. Both Gandhi and King are great examples of patience and persistence in the face of opposition. I must also point out that both men were assassinated for their efforts. 

My overriding point, however, is that rage is a poor motivator for bringing about social change. With the possible exception of Luther, the other charismatic leaders were not primarily motivated by anger or rage. Luther did exhibit a good bit of anger and even rage increasingly over his lifetime. It might be argued that his anger against the Pope and against anyone who opposed him might have done more harm than good in his cause to liberate the conscience of the individual from the tyranny of the ecclesiastical domination. Gandhi actually called off his movement on several occasions when his followers became worked up into a rage against the British resulting in violence (of course, they were reacting to British violence such as the Amritsar massacre). On two occasions he fasted until his followers stopped their angry agitation and desisted from all violence. He and King both understood that anger leads to rage, which leads to violence which then provokes a corresponding backlash of reactionary violence. He who lives by the sword will die by the sword. Gandhi reportedly once said that following a policy of “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”

Anger is normally experienced as a secondary emotion. The primary emotion is usually hurt, frustration or disappointed expectations. Outrage can also result from injustice. Anger is a useful emotion in the same way that pain is useful; it is an early warning system that something is wrong and needs to be addressed. As long as we use anger to help us reflect on what is wrong and to take constructive steps to resolve it, it is useful. However, when anger becomes destructive (or self-destructive), it is no longer useful and it becomes self-defeating.

We can use anger to hurt others, which almost always provokes an angry response from the other. We can also push it down in repression, or push it aside in denial and then it becomes self-destructive. When anger lingers in the soul unresolved, it becomes corrupted and begins to accumulate more anger. Picture a snow ball rolling down a hill and becoming increasingly larger. Anger turns into rage, and rage turns into some kind of violence. Then all will suffer.

There are many reasons to be angry in contemporary American society. The factory worker who used to make $25 per hour building cars, but now works for $9 or $10 an hour at Walmart may be angry at globalization, or angry at immigrants. The unemployed and underemployed are angry. Working class people are angry with what they perceive as elite snobbery and insensitivity. The political elites become angry when their privilege and power becomes threatened. Many are angry to see the frequency with which innocent young black men are gunned down. Political partisans are angry at the results of elections, or the sense that the system is rigged against them. Many are angry at the media on both ends of the spectrum. Perhaps most of the public is angry at the apparent dysfunction of Congress and our political system. People are angry about the cost of health care or its unavailability. Others are angry about rising taxes. In this kind of situation unstable individuals become dangerous powder kegs awaiting a spark to light their fuse. Daily infusions of partisan anger on radio talk shows or 24/7 cable news programs feed the anger and inject it with steroids. 

What happens when the collective level of frustration, pain and disappointed expectations in society reaches a critical level? Can an entire society experience rage? There are ample examples scattered through history and around the globe of societies that have degenerated into violence, genocide and brutality.  What happens when individuals with years of bottled up rage reach a triggering point and resort to mindless and irrational violence with guns, knives or even with automobiles? Can social rage become demonic? How do we resist becoming sucked into the vortex of anger, frustration, and rage? How can we call for fundamental change in our society when we ourselves are taken over by toxic emotions that threaten violence against our neighbor?

These are questions that we need to ask ourselves in our current situation. What would Gandhi do in our present level of agitation? Are there any favorable historical trends or waves with which we need to align ourselves currently? And how do we keep our ‘equanimity’ or peace of mind in the midst of the storm?   

I suggest that there is ancient wisdom in the traditions of the Hebrew prophets, the teaching of the 'Middle Way' of the Buddha, the Sermon on the Mount of Jesus the Prince of Peace, the Greek Stoics and even more recent examples such as Gandhi and King that can illuminate a path forward, and open a way of reason, love and courage to face the challenge of our times.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Ride the wave: Reflections on anger, rage and social change #1

"You say you want a revolution, well, you know, we all want to change the world"

Social change is like the waves of the ocean. The trends have been building in volume, intensity and speed for hundreds of years, like the waves have for hundreds of miles. You can bide your time, choose a wave you like, and "ride the wave," or you can drop anchor and try to ride them out. What you cannot do, is to try to stop the waves or reverse them.

Individuals, institutions and specific social movements can only very rarely bring about significant social change. Apparently Gandhi said “if you want to change the world, begin with changing yourself.” Most of us can hardly change our own bad habits or lifestyle. When we live with the expectation that we should be able to change the world around us, or, to put it another way, when we live in a high level of tension with society (as is the case with almost all religious sects), it generates feelings of frustration and even rage.

The only way a religious sect or a partisan ideological movement can hope to bring about significant social change is if the it happens to “catch a wave” of economic, social or cultural change. I will provide two historical examples.

The Protestant Reformation.
Most of the reformers who came before Martin Luther (1483-1546) had the misfortune to end up being burned alive at the stake, condemned by the Holy Inquisition. What was different about Martin Luther? Why did he become the father of the reformation rather than meeting an untimely end at the stake? (by-the-way, this year, 2017, is the 500-year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation)

Luther and the other reformers who came after him had the good fortune of riding a cultural and economic wave of change that was washing over Europe at the same time as their principled objections to the abuses of the sale of indulgences in Roman Catholic Church.

First, the Church had been seriously weakened by the Black Death and a series of crises of corruption including The Western Schism which brought about a split within the Catholic Church which lasted from 1378 to 1417.This was only resolved barely a hundred years before Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door. In most of Europe, but especially in Germany, the Roman Church had a serious problem of credibility.

Second, Luther began writing his protests at just the time that a new technology, the printing press, made possible the mass distribution of his writings in colloquial German. This also made possible the wide distribution of his translation of the New Testament in German, along with a German dictionary, establishing a standard German language, and feeding into the rising tide of German nationalism.

Third, The Protestant Reformers caught a tide of rising nationalism. This was the era of the beginning of nation-states, especially in England, Holland and France (Germany would not succeed in becoming a unified nation-state until the nineteenth century). Although France was not a Protestant nation, it was becoming a powerful and unified nation-state, pursuing its own empire and national interests, with a large Protestant minority. You might say that Luther and the other reformers were lucky, or perhaps their timing was impeccable.

The movement to end slavery
Slavery had existed in Western Civilization from the time of the Roman Empire and the letters of Paul in the New Testament (it also existed pretty much everywhere else in the world). Throughout the history of Christendom, it might be argued that Christianity (at its best) occasionally ameliorated the condition of slaves, but it never tried to abolish slavery.

Once slavery become lucrative and powerful engine of economic growth with the establishment of sugar, tobacco and cotton plantations in the Americas, it also became associated with race or color, and was justified as a natural condition by Aristotle, and ordained by the God of the Old Testament who had cursed Ham and his son Canaan.  The theory was that Canaan had migrated into Africa with the mark of slavery and that it was therefore justifiable and God-ordained to enslave Africans. Even more, by capturing Africans, or purchasing them from other Africans, and forcibly baptizing them as they were brought on board Portuguese ships bound for the New World, the thought was that Catholic slave traders were “saving their souls” while destroying their lives.

The first “Christians” to begin to challenge the slave trade on moral grounds were the early Moravians and Quakers (although admittedly, there were also Quakers and Moravians who owned slaves in the Caribbean). Gradually, Quakers insisted that their own members be disfellowshipped if they refused to give up their slaves.  The Moravians and eventually the Methodists joined the abolitionist movement and began to agitate, criticize and oppose the Atlantic slave trade. David Brion Davis, Slavery and Human Progress (1984)[1] points out the astounding phenomenon of the abolitionist movement, almost entirely composed of evangelical activists, which in a scant one hundred years was able to completely change the sentiment of Christendom, and turn complacency and rationalization of the slave trade on its head. From the early 1700s to the early 1800s, the overwhelming consensus of Christians changed 180 degrees regarding slavery.

However, it is important to note that a number of scholars, such as Eric Williams[2] of Jamaica and historian Erick Wolf have shown that it was propitious timing. The early phase of economic capitalism, which depended on plantation slavery and the slave trade for the vast accumulation of capital, had run its course. The capitalist system now needed consumers, and consumers needed to be able to earn wages for their labor in order to “buy stuff.” Slave economies, such as existed in the American South, Brazil and Cuba, were now part of the problem, not part of the capitalist solution. Thank God for the evangelical movement which placed itself on the right-side of history to oppose slavery. But it is important to note, that they were not the only cause of the end of slavery. There were many variables involved, of which perhaps the most powerful was economic.

Finally, in both of these examples, even with a hundred years of constant activism and agitation, and powerful cultural and market forces favoring change, the eventual changes did not come without great violence. The Protestant Reformation engendered almost continual violence for over a century, culminating in the brutal Thirty-Years War and the Peace of Westphalia (1648). The end of the slave trade came with the deaths of nearly an entire generation of men in the United States’ Civil War.  

One might not like secularism, pluralism or modernity. One may not like the changes in gender identity, marriage equality or the value of personal and individual liberties in Europe and North America. However, pause and think long and hard before signing up for some quixotic crusade to “take back America” or to turn back the tides of history.  Discern and learn to sail on the waves of social change, don’t fight them or you will, at the very least wear yourself out, and, more ominously, find yourself at the center of a vortex of anger, rage and violence

I think it appropriate to close with the immortal words of John Lennon:

[1] Davis, David Brion. Slavery and Human Progress. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Reflections on the City of God, So Far, Part 2

It should be noted that if you haven't read the last post, you should probably not read this post.

Saying that, here are so more things Augustine cared about.

3) Evil Doesn't Exist

Now this is a strange one because Christians (at least us conservative ones) find themselves fighting against relativism at every turn. Surely, evil exists, because Hitler. Though to be honest, I've never met a true ethical relativist. I would assume that true ethical relativists have more money than I do and have never had to stare down evil in the face.

Or they smoke a lot of weed.

Or both.


The point is, evil doesn't exist because evil doesn't have a substance. Evil is not a thing, it is the lack of thingness. To those of you who have read CS Lewis, this is sounding awfully familiar.

St. Augustine put it shortly: "For evil has no positive nature, but the loss of good has received the name 'evil'" - Book 11, Chapter 9

I'll be honest, I don't know how well this holds in modern academia. But it does help support the idea of a natural law, that things work better when things are going "naturally" and things go bad when things are going "unnaturally". It also implies that if things go naturally (like sex), that it is a good thing. In fact one would be wild enough to say that all of creation is good, even the person who feels like they might be lacking.

At the very least, it is interesting to see the seeds of many philosophical systems to come in Augustine.

4) All Civilizations will Fall but God will Handle It

The fourth item is the reason I started to read the book. I really do think this country is going to heck. In fact, I wish Florida would secede and make more money as a tourist destination. But my own absurd politics aside, when one is a student of history, I'm sure a question crosses everybody's mind; "When is civilization going to fall?"

Or for those who are younger "How will l I survive the zombie apocalypse?"

But when it comes to Western European civilization, we've persevered, though there is a teenager somewhere in America that longs to be a Patrician.

But that was the point Augustine was trying to make. All civilizations change and shift. And the pagan gods won't certainly involve themselves, especially if they're as mean as they seem to be in myths.

And regarding whether the pagan gods can protect the Romans? He wrote "For why did these gods permit the disasters I am to speak of to fall on their worshipers before the preaching of Christ's name offended them, and put an end to their sacrifices?"

Money (Moneta), sex (Venus) , and power (Jupiter) didn't save the Romans and it won't save us now. So how is God involved in the middle of this?

"As for those who insult them in their trials, and when ills befall them say. 'Where is thy God?' we may ask them where their gods are when they suffer the very calamities for the sake of avoid which they worship their gods, or main they ought to be worshiped; for the family of Christ is furnished with its reply: our God is everywhere present, wholly everywhere; not confined to any place. He can be present unperceived, and be absent without moving; when He exposes us to adversities, it iseither to prove our perfections or correct our imperfections; and in return for our patient endurance of the sufferings of time, He reserves for us an an everlasting reward. But who are you, that we should deign to speak with you even about your own gods, much less about our God, who is to be feared above all gods? For all the gods of the nations are idols; but the Lord made the heavens'" - Book 1, Chapter 29

Money, sex and power can't save. Those things die. God is eternal, He is incapable of death. When everything fades away, it will be the soul encountering God with no mediation. For the Christian, for those who love God's kingdom, that is a wonderful thing. It is a wonderful thing to be prepared for God's coming kingdom through evils. It is a wonderful thing that God is so sovereign that He uses the calamities of the world for our good.

And for those who worship money, sex and power? I assure you, you're going to have a miserable time in God's kingdom. At the very least, you're going to be poor, ugly, and powerless on day. Heck, some of us are already there!

But it should be noted, we can only trust God because God seeks to bless us in Christ. This leads to my last point.

5) All Felicity Returns to God

Apparently Blaise Pascal once said that a man commits suicide because he seeks to be happy. St. Augustine once wrote that all of paganism can be reduced to one god: Felicity. Fortune. Luck. Blessing.

Again, if you're read CS Lewis, you know where I'm going with this.

With Augustine trying to dismantle polytheistic paganism, he makes a brilliant statement. Felicity is the only god necessary for all of men's dreams to come true. What did he mean?

"But how does it happen, if their books and rituals are true, and Felicity is a goddess, that she herself is not appointed as the only one to be worshipped, since she could confer all things, and all at once make men happy? For who wishes anything for any other reason than that he may become happy? Why was it left to Lucullus to dedicate a temple to so great a goddess at so late a date, and after so many Roman rulers?... For, in presence of Felicity, Fear and Dread would have disappeared - I do not say propitiated, but put to flight... Felicity, however is certainly more valuable than a kingdom. For no one doubts that a man might easily be found who may fear to be made a king; but no one is found who is unwilling to be happy". - Book 4, Chapter 23

We turn to money, sex, and power, because we want joy. If I might be so bold, eternal joy. In fact, Augustine goes as far to say that a man would rather happy than be king. Though to be fair, being a king also upped your chanced of being assassinated.

But you get the point.

But here's the trick, only God can bring joy. Eternal joy, even. The gods can't bring eternal joy because they're terrible people. Money, sex, and power can't bring eternal joy because those three things are fleeting?

But God? He hung Himself on a cross and died so that we might be reconciled to Him. And it's having faith in what God has done in Christ that brings joy. God suffered the curse of being a human in a sinful world in Jesus Christ, all the way to the cross, so that we may live with Him in new bodies in his kingdom.

But that's another blog post, I think.

Granted, I'm not saying you're going to have any psychological health imrpovements. But what I am saying is that Jesus came back from the dead, and that when He returns, His kingdom will be one of eternal felicity.

At the very least, Zeus is a terrible person and the economic woes of the last decades don't pain a strong picture for faith in what we see.

With that, that is what I've gleaned from Augustine so far, or at least, as much as I can fit in a blog post. I didn't want to talk about Roman history, Augustine's Platonic undertones, and his problem with the gods which can go for hundreds of pages.

Take care, God bless.


Reflections on the City of God, So Far, Part 1

Before I start any (real) writing, I should introduce myself shortly. I am a seminary student in Miami, I am a Reformed Christian, and I am a Cuban male with a girlfriend far nicer than me. It is with this background that any sane person would want to read St. Augustine's "The City of God".

Okay, well there's more.

I'm also unemployed and unsatisfied with the state of American politics. In fact I'm unsatisfied with the state of American evangelicalism to the point where I refuse to call myself an evangelical, no matter how many times a person might try to inform me otherwise. Indeed, I am a Reformed Christian, which means I think I'm right all the time. It also gives me a +3 in irritability.

Though in all seriousness, when one is down on their luck, a person tends to think about "higher" things. In my case, as somebody that has a degree in history, their first instinct is to see what a dead person has written about "higher things", especially since the result of said dead person's work has been paradigm shifting for Western civilization.

In other words, a little wisdom never hurt anybody.

I should note that the City of God has two main divisions. The first ten books are concerned with "Why Paganism is Wrong and Why it's Stupid to Put Your Hopes and Dreams in Pagan Thought And in Fact You Should Stop Looking to Rome for Your Salvation".

The second part, the next twelve books, can be argued as "This is the Story of Christianity and How it Fulfills All Your Hopes and Dreams Unwittingly and PS Paganism Is Still Dumb".

Granted, that's not how Augustine of Hippo wrote it, but it gets the point across.

And seeing that I just entered the second part of Augustine's 1,000 page tome, I'll focus on what I've learned about the world from Augustine, so far.

1) Slut Shaming is Bad

Our culture, or at least the people around me, seems to think that calling a woman a slut is bad. I would agree with that. Though, I do think that women's issues are given more attention than they should, if only because I fee the press is trying to use identity politics to take away my money.

But my general irritability aside, there is a very real issue with sexual abuse in the Church. If you doubt me, one only needs to think about the Sovereign Grace scandal or the Catholic Church. Or if you just want to talk about abuse in general, one only needs to look at Mars Hill Church in Seattle or one of our wonderful local megachurches that care about witnessing to the kingdom of God.

(That last part was sarcasm)

But in all seriousness. It's been my experience that the Church doesn't know how to deal with sexual politics. So imagine my surprise when I read what Augustine wrote about a bunch of women who were raped by barbarians:

"Let us rather draw this conclusion, that while the sanctity of the soul remains even when the boy is violated, the body is lost when the sanctity of the soul is violated, though the body itself remain intact. And therefore a woman who has been violate by the sin of another, and without any consent of her own, has no cause to put herself to death; much less has she cause to commit suicide in order to avoid such violation, for in that case she commits certain homicide to prevent a crime which is uncertain as yet, and her own". - Book 1, Chapter 19

At the very least, any accounts of Augustine being a misogynist should be tempered. And at most, the Church has a lot to learn from this quote, at the very least, that a woman doesn't need guilt and shame to be burdened upon her. In fact, Augustine is trying to remove it by telling the woman that she has no need to kill herself because she is still pure, no matter what her body tells her.

2) God is Sovereign Because We Need a Will

If it hasn't been drilled into your head already, I am a Calvinist. This means that I have a strong view of the doctrine of predestination. Saying that, people seem to think the doctrine of predestination implies that we don't have a will. Other people seem to use the doctrine of predestination without understanding why it exists: to bring comfort to those who have faith that God loves them.

But St. Augustine? Well he does something that we can learn from. God's exhaustive sovereignty establishes our will, because

"In His supreme will resides the power which acts on the wills of all created spirits, helping the good, judging the evil, controlling all, granting power to some, not granting it to others." - Book 5, Chapter 9

He goes on to say that He does not give evil wills, because the Good cannot cause evil. In this sense, the origin of evil is a mystery, and perhaps it's good enough to know that God is sovereign and cares for me.

It should also be noted that the options for God's sovereignty weren't plentiful in the ancient world, according to Augustine. It was either Fate did everything and we have no will, or God had no will and we had a will. One made us animals, the other makes God not God. Augustine really tried, you must admit.

At the very least, I think it lays the ground work for the argument from the Unmoved Mover.

I feel like I've written too much. I have three more things to write about regarding the first half of the City of God. So, I'll leave you with the two things I wrote and my introduction. With that,


Saturday, March 14, 2015

Ray Kurzweil and the coming singularity

Ray Kurzweil, 2005 "The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology."

He describes an exponential increase in technologies like
  • Computing
  • Genetics
  • Nanotechnology
  • Robotics
  • A.I.

  Questions for reflection:

 1) If what Kurzweil is predicting is true, what are the dangers?

2) What are some theological issues involved in human technological evolution?

3) What are the social issues involved? What about ethical issues?

4) Kurzweil believes that the human brain will be reverse engineered by 2045 and shortly afterthat will be downloadable as software into super computers (and believes in looming A.I.).

How do we think about the human soul and singularity?

How will further technological development affect how we think about evil and redemption? What potential for evil use of technology is presented by his predictions?

Historical evolution of human technologies

Assuming that technology continues to develop at an accelerating pace (even if Kurtzweil is wrong in his predictions)

How should we prepare?

How will it effect business, education, family life, religion and church life?

What new human needs will appear?

How does this change the way we relate to history? to sacred tradition? or does it make it more necessary?

and finally, how should we prepare our children and grandchildren?

Ray Kurtzweil's predictions on Wikipedia:

Predictions made by Ray Kurzweil

Quote from Wikipedia; 
"According to Ray Kurzweil, 89 out of 108 predictions he made were entirely correct by the end of 2009. An additional 13 were what he calls “essentially correct" (meaning that they were likely to be realized within a few years of 2009), for a total of 102 out of 108. Another 3 are partially correct, 2 look like they are about 10 years off, and 1, which was tongue in cheek anyway, was just wrong. Kurzweil later released a more detailed analysis of the accuracy of his predictions up to 2009, arguing that most were correct."

Sunday, February 1, 2015

“Gabriel’s Oboe” and music as a channel of the numinous

Let’s take a break from Hunter. I know several guys have the book and have started reading. I’ll come back next week with some thoughts on the tension between the sacred and secular.

Does the Spirit ever speak to you through melodies? Or through musical lyrics? Of course, for a church attender, the voice of the Holy often speaks through the lyrics of church hymns. That is not what I am trying to explain.

I am referring to the apparently random irruption of intuitive revelation through a seemingly secular song on the radio in the real world; the 9 to 5, Monday through Friday world.

During the years that my wife was sick with terminal cancer, I pretty much stopped listening to “Christian” music and “Christian” radio stations. I was not angry at God, but I was just tired of the Christian "ghetto." I normally had the radio tuned to NPR or occasionally Latin or pop music. There were numerous moments when I felt completely defeated, or overcome with grief, and suddenly Uncle Kracker would come through the radio waves saying “follow me and everything will be alright!” or the moment that my faith was wavering, Journey came on the radio singing “Don’t Stop Believing.” Or the time I was struggling with anger and frustration and God spoke to me through the Beatles: “When I find myself in times of trouble,Mother Mary comes to me speaking words of wisdom, Let it be.”

 But the strangest experience I have had with music and the numinous was several months before Debbie was diagnosed with cancer (I also had a dramatic foretelling dream that prepared me for what was to come, but that is another story for another blog post). Somewhere around February or March of 2005, I started waking up in the morning with a haunting melody stuck in my head. It was a very distinctive melody, instrumental only, and it seemed to be trying to tell me something. Weeks went by while I puzzled over the source of the melody. Where had I heard that music before?

One day while I was looking for a DVD in my entertainment center, I came across an old video in VHS format of the 1986 film with Robert De Niro called “The Mission.” I had not seen that film in 15 years. I got it out and put it in my VHS player. When Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) climbed the waterfall and went into the Paraguayan jungle to reach the Guarani Indians, armed only with love and an oboe, the melody that he played, and that enchanted the Guarani is called "Gabriel's Oboe" and was composed by Ennio Morricone

I had found the melody that had been haunting me for weeks, but why?

A month or so later I was to go to Brazil to spend five weeks apart from Debbie learning Portuguese in Rio de Janeiro. I was nervous about being alone in one of the most sensual cities of the world.  About two weeks before I was to leave, our world began to fall apart as the test results came back positive for cancer. How could I go to Rio de Janeiro for an entire summer and leave Debbie to deal with tests and cancer by herself? (hear Gabriel’s Oboe here in your imaginary ear). Debbie was adamant that this was a God-given opportunity and she insisted I continue with my plans to go. Her mother would stay with her while I was gone.

After I arrived in Brazil and began building relationships with a great group of students who were also there to study Portuguese, I continued hearing the melody in my mind. A metaphor began to take shape in my thoughts. God was calling me into a secular jungle to play a melody of love for millennial and university tribal groups!

The instrument--my oboe--was my 35 years of committed marriage to Debbie, and the melody was our true love. I played that melody often with other students, some of whom were amazed to actually meet someone with a successful, long-term marriage that really worked, and that was better at the end than it even was in the beginning. One student came to a profound and lasting faith. Others, I have maintained contact with.

When I returned from Brazil, we received further bad news. The cancer was stage 4 and terminal. Seven years went by, seven wonderfully difficult years full of danger, courage, adventure, romance, grief and joy; and then Debbie died. Now I find myself wandering and feeling lost in a jungle of a different kind, no longer so sure of my metaphor.

Yesterday, I played The Mission for my religious studies students as I do every semester. Whenever the theme of Love surfaces in the film, the faint melody of Gabriel’s Oboe can be heard in the background, like when Mendoza (Robert De Niro) is finally shot, defending the Guarani that he once hunted and enslaved. He strains to look for his friend, Father Gabriel until he sees that Father Gabriel is also killed while carrying the sacramental host. While the melody continues to play, Mendoza closes his eyes and follows Father Gabriel into the next world. 

Every time I hear it (even in the classroom), I choke up. There are times that I no longer care. There are times that I want to give up. There are times I want to say "fuck it" and live hedonistically in the moment. But then I hear that haunting melody calling me forward toward love and hope--almost against my will -- almost. Love has me in its strong grip, it will not let me go … (I am choking up a bit as I write this)

Ennio Morricone - The Mission Main Theme (Morricone Conducts Morricone)

 A few years ago Sarah Brightman received Enno Morricone's permission to write lyrics to go with Gabriel's Oboe in Italian titled "Nella Fanstasia"

   I still cry when I hear Gabriel's Oboe, but now the metaphor has changed. 

Now I am no longer the heroic missionary who courageously enters the jungle and plays the oboe for the benighted natives. Instead, I am just another lost soul myself, floundering around in the darkness of the secular jungle (with the community of lostness) and Someone is playing an enchanting melody of love and hope which forever draws me forward and toward that same Someone, and toward a dream of a better world where each night there is a little less darkness, a "dream of souls that are always free, like clouds that float..." 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Strategies of Power (and cultural Influence)

I am sitting on my back patio, reading on into Essay Three (his book is divided into three parts) of James Davison Hunter’s book and getting a little excited as I see where he is headed. In true “external processor” fashion, I have reached a point where I need to stop and express my thoughts in print (even if no one reads this, it helps me organize my thoughts).

In his second essay (part 2 of the book) he devotes one chapter each to examination of three current political theologies of Christian evangelicals; the Christian Right, the Christian Left and what he calls the Neo-Anabaptist position. He describes them as cultural strategies of “Defense against,” “Relevance to,” and “Purity from” and shows that the first two (the Right and the Left) buy into the “Constantinian heresy” (from an Anabaptist perspective and here Hunter agrees with them) of Christian alliance with the coercive power of the State and the necessity of political domination to impose moral views on a pluralistic public that is lacking a clear moral consensus. One of his most telling quotes is about the extensive politicization of our society:

"The politicization of everything is an indirect measure of the loss of a common culture ... the competition among factions to dominate" (I cannot find the page number right now but he amplifies this view in pages 102 to 107 in his discussion of the Nietzchean Will to Power and the ugly function of Ressentiment)

 I have come to appreciate the biblical values reflected in many of the moral issues of the Christian Left (protections for the weak, justice for the poor), although Hunter does a good job of deconstructing the Christian Left’s Nietzschean “will to power” that also even more clearly characterizes the Christian Right’s approach to politics. My problem with the Right (as well as with the Left) has been the way they seek political domination through party politics and ultimately control of the State, which seems ideologically partisan and antithetical to the spirit of Christ. The Christian Right actually did achieve complete control of all three branches of government (executive, legislative and judicial) in the 2000s, roughly at the same time that they peaked in influence and began to decline. The Democrat Party learned from its errors, and made room to include people of faith on the Left in 2008. Hunter does an excellent job of documenting and exposing this process. In many ways, I find myself closest to what he calls the ‘neo-Anabaptist” position (which values the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount about loving one’s enemies, and turning the cheek), but, as he points out, the problem with that position is not so much the issue of “domination” but their hostile attitude toward the World and tendency to disengagement from the public sphere. So many of his paragraphs about power, cultural power and political power; and both soft and hard power, fit into concepts I have become aware of in recent years, especially through Robert Farrar Capon’s ideas of Left-handed and Right-handed power (borrowed from Luther) and David Hawkins in Power versus Force (probably borrowed from Chinese Daoism). It is a good thing that I own my own hardcopy of Hunter’s book; the pages have turned yellow with highlighting.

For at least a decade (the same decade that Debbie was ill and I was in graduate school) I have floundered around in the dark, like the proverbial blind man in India, thoroughly frustrated as I groped and prodded the contours of the proverbial elephant, sensing the outlines of some truth intuitively but unable to coherently describe what I was sensing. By keeping one foot in the university and secular culture, and the other in evangelical subculture, I led myself to a place where I felt culturally schizophrenic...

 I felt strongly that the Christian Right took a seriously wrong turn somewhere in the late 1980s and 1990s and departed from Jesus’ style of exercising influence by attempting to dominate the State and legislate evangelical morality through the electoral process (in the absence of a clear cultural consensus) thus leading to the disastrous “Culture Wars” and the current massive exodus of Millennials from churches (just do a check of the hashtag #postchurch on Twitter).

Hunter has helped me save a great deal of reading and investigation with the Christian Left and the Neo-Anabaptists by analyzing their underlying strategies of influence (Note: I owe a deep debt of gratitude to thinkers such as Brian McLaren and Anabaptists such as Yoder and Hauerwas and I respect their basic theological message just not necessarily the accompanying strategies of cultural influence).   

I am anticipating where Hunter is going with his idea of cultivating “Faithful Presence” in the public realms of culture such as art, higher education, business, development, science and philanthropy (as opposed to the three predominant strategies of “Defense against, “Relevance to,” and “Purity from”) and I am genuinely excited about it. For several years I have been reflecting on the Babylonian captivity of the Jews as a paradigm of culture change and a reflection of God’s higher purposes with all of the implications of Jeremiah 29 (especially verses 5 to 9).
Faithful Presence accurately describes the attitude of Daniel and his three friends as they served in public administration under Nebuchadnezzar’s rule in the Babylonian Empire. They did not defensively resist the empire (although some Jews did, such as those who escaped to Egypt), they did not assimilate to Babylonian Culture (witness the three Hebrew children in the fiery furnace) and they did not withdraw from active participation in the life of the empire in order to maintain their purity (although some Jews did, think of the exiles who laid down their harps and refused to sing songs of Zion). Daniel and his friends provided a faithful (and non-political although quite public) witness and had the privilege of helping to interpret the Emperors’ dreams.  

I think Hunter’s proposed strategy will provide another big piece of the crazy jig-saw puzzle in my head about “what Israel should do,” and “how we should then live.”  I have to confess that it also stirs in me, not only hope, but the early flickering of desire to participate in a faith community. I have been a blind man without a vision for far too long.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Changing our culture? (or not)


I was cleaning my office and re-organizing my books over the holidays and came across a book I ordered a couple of years ago but neglected to read, “To Change the World” by James Davison Hunter. If I remember correctly, I saw a review of the book on Scott McKnight’s Jesuscreed blog and thought that it would be interesting. Sadly, as with many books I buy, it ended up unread and sitting on my shelf, so, I picked the book up and started to read in the New Year. It was like finding hidden treasure in my office …

Besides being a Christian (I am tempted to say an evangelical Christian but that has so many contested meanings lately …) Hunter is a distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture and Social Theory at the University of Virginia. He is also the Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and has authored several other books, including one on the Culture Wars. All of this to say, when it comes to culture theory, he knows his stuff; he is not talking out of his ass.

Hunter begins by asking why, after sixty years of Evangelical effort in politics, and more importantly, in efforts to shape the minds and hearts of believers in a biblical, evangelical world view, is our culture more secular and less “Christian” than ever?

Hunter outlines two kinds of Christian attempts at shaping culture; one is the “worldview” approach advocated by such representatives as James Dobson and Charles Colson. This approach believes that to change culture, one must change ideas. The other is a “production of material culture” approach advocated by Andy Crouch. He examines and finds both of these approaches greatly lacking because they fail to take into account cultural elites, networks, cultural power and institutions that influence culture  

Hnuter shows that a majority of members of our culture believe in the existence of God and are opposed to abortion (p.19). Also, a majority of Americans believe that God had some part in the process of creation of humanity, with almost half of the population stating that Darwin’s theory is unsupported by evidence, and yet, public policy and secular culture clearly favors the minority opinions in all three areas (p.21).  Apparently, contra Colson and Dobson, shaping the worldviews of the hearts and minds of believers is not enough to change the dominant culture.  In contrast, the Jewish community and the LGBT community, although representing very small percentages of our population, have both had a significant influence on the shaping of our culture. Apparently, winning hearts and minds at the grassroots level is not all that is going on in the shaping of culture (note: I am not necessarily endorsing majority views here; although I believe in God and am pro-life, I am also a firm proponent of Intelligent Design and the emergence of Homo Sapiens from hominid evolution 250,000 years ago. These are examples of Hunter's thesis).

In Chapter 4, Hunter puts forward his own, alternative view of cultural change in eleven propositions, which I will cover in a subsequent post. Chapter 5 has been my favorite chapter so far (because I am a historian) in which he gives an overview of cultural change from the days of the early church, through the Irish (or Celtic) revival, the early monastic movement, the Carolingian renaissance of medieval Europe, and the Protestant Reformation. In each phase of the growth of Christianity, he documents the networks and institutions (primarily academies and universities) that propelled forward a Christian vision of society. In the conversion of barbarian Europe, for example, the missionary monks who went out to convert the heathen most often started from the top down, with the barbarian king and nobility, before attempting to reach the common people.  A common denominator of the Christian shaping of culture, besides education, include protection and financial support from nobility or state authorities (example, Frederick the Wise’s patronage of Martin Luther). Hunter ends Chapter 4 with discussion of various evangelical movements that were subsidiary (or subsequent) to the Protestant Reformation such as the Great Awakening and the Abolitionist movement in Great Britain to end slavery (William Wilberforce was part of large network of believers from the educated classes who opposed slavery).  In all of these movements over a 2,000 year period, there were not just great individuals, or godly ideas at work, but there were networks of highly educated men (and sometimes women) that formed an alternative Christian "elite" for society.  

So why have Evangelicals failed to “disciple” our nation? Hunter is critical of the influence of Georg Hegel and German Idealism combined with Evangelical Pietism that created an erroneous view that it is ideas in the hearts and minds of believers that create and change culture. This was the view propounded by Charles Colson and James Dobson. Hunter critiques this view as naïve idealism that fails to take into account networks, institutions, power and elites

What does Hunter propose to change culture? I have not finished the book but I can anticipate his suggestion that sincere believers should be seeking higher education and encouraging their young people to “go out into all the world” by supporting them in getting PhDs and MBAs or starting their own businesses and sending them into influential institutions that help shape public policy. Pretty much the opposite of what we have been doing for the last sixty years. This reminds me of another book that I have not read by a premier scholar at a major university, Mark A. Noll, called “The Scandalof the Evangelical Mind.”

To be continued …

(Note: to better understand what Davison means by elite institutions and networks, click here to read a selection on Cultural Capital from pages 84 to 90)

Monday, December 8, 2014

Rodrigo Mendoza and Agape

(NOTE: This is a passage from the closing paragraphs of chapter 4 from a book I am writing)

   So what is the way forward? Is there a better way to approach issues of sexuality? “The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind” … solo agape. There is a great scene in the classic movie The Mission (1986) with Robert de Niro. DeNiro plays a Spanish slave trader and mercenary, Mendoza, consumed with guilt over the killing of his younger brother in a duel.  The Jesuit Father Gabriel (played by Jeremy Irons) challenges him to a strenuous act of penance by climbing the forbidding water falls while tied to his armor and weapons.

 Through much pain and effort, Mendoza succeeds in making it to the top of the falls with his heavy load of weapons and guilt. 

The Guarani Indians, the very people he formerly hunted and enslaved, decide to spare his life and cut him loose from the heavy pack his was dragging behind him (and symbolically from his prison of pride and guilt). Mendoza breaks down in weeping and laughter as he is set free from himself. 

In a subsequent scene, Mendoza asks Father Gabriel how he can thank him for all of his help. Father Gabriel tells him "don't thank me, thank the Guarani" and gives him a copy of the New Testament. Mendoza is surrounded by nearly naked native women with beautiful bare breasts who are in the process of tattooing him as a sign of his induction into their tribe. The view wonders what will happen next. Will Mendoza take advantage of his new found popularity with the tribe and sleep with one (or several) of the native women? The next scene finds Mendoza slowly and thoughtfully reading from 1 Corinthians 13. 

 (Robert DeNiro reads 1 Corinthians 13)

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body [a]to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing. 4 Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, 5 does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, 6 does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails … 

1 Corinthians 13:1-8

In the end, Mendoza does not take advantage of the innocence of the native women; he gives his life in the attempt to defend them from the encroaching Portuguese troops. His character has been transformed by mercy and divine love. Agape love becomes his moral guide. Instead of attempting to impose an abstract moral code of categorical imperatives on people, the way forward is to teach, preach, demonstrate and impart the Love of God. Those who internalize the divine agape love will, in the end, make the right choices, because since God IS love, they have internalized God.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Social Construction of Reality and Facebook

In 1966, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann wrote a groundbreaking book on the sociology of knowledge called “The Social Construction of Reality.” The idea behind the book was that our worldview is largely determined by our social milieu, our social context. People who are raised in Islamic cultures turn out to have a Muslim worldview, people who are raised as Catholics largely have a Catholic worldview, etc. I have found this to be true in my own life.
I was raised in a working class, union household and my father’s worldview was both Christian and conservative Democrat. I remember that I was the only kid in High School who supported Lyndon Johnson for President over Barry Goldwater in 1964 (my High School was solidly conservative Republicans, but I didn’t have many friends, so my family commitments trumped my friendship commitments).
In the ensuing years of the 1960s, my friends were largely counter-cultural hippie types, and by 1968-69, I broke with my family values and moved further to the left, protesting the Vietnam War and eventually joining the Trotskyite Socialist Worker’s Party in Providence, Rhode Island. Che Guevara was my hero (hey, Churchill said that if a young man was never a socialist, he has no heart!).
In 1974, I met my wife to be, a sweet Baptist Sunday school teacher and we were married. At some point soon after that, I had, what we call in Religious Studies, a “numinous” experience, which I interpreted through the evangelical Christian lenses of my wife, my family and their friends. I soon found myself in a VERY conservative Christian context. Although there were some innovative things about their practice, they were conservative politically. Soon after, I voted for Jimmy Carter for President, not only because he was a Democrat, but because he claimed to be “born again.” From there, it was a short step to Reagan Republicanism (along with many other blue dog democrats), despite the fact that Reagan never claimed to be “born again.” Nevertheless, he knew how to engender support among the Moral Majority Christian movement and used the Christian vote to get elected.
After I returned to the university to earn a master’s in Latin American studies, I began to be exposed to more liberal thinking again. I tried to think critically, and keep myself as unbiased as possible. By the time I earned a PhD in Latin American history (and had gone through the death of my wife and seven years of struggle with cancer), I distanced myself from the reflexive and uncritical conservatism of my life-long Christian friends, and had developed a large network of liberal friends, both GenXer’s and Millennials as well as Baby Boomer professors. My new friends influenced my thinking profoundly, but instead of swinging radically again to the left, I tried to balance my views by maintaining the conversation with many of my conservative friends, especially those who are thoughtful, reasonable and open to considering new ideas.
I confess I am an avid networker; I am constantly making new friends and I love a good conversation! But at the same time, I am very loyal to long lasting friendships. So it was that I found myself in the last few years with a unique opportunity to maintain dialogue on national and world issues with both conservative and liberal friends. A few years ago, I went through my 1200 “friends” list on Facebook and counted how many liberal and conservative friends I have as FB "friends" (I also confess, I do not view Facebook as a medium for “friendship”; I see it as more of a contact database).
 It turns out that my Facebook friends list broke down to about a 55/45 split between liberals and conservatives, although enough conservatives have “unfriended” me (or I, them) that it is now closer to 60/40.  This has given me a unique opportunity to engage both sides of the severely polarized ideological divide in civil (for the most part) discourse. I think this is strength and a blessing for me that helps me avoid partisan thinking and helps me maintain a relatively unbiased critical thinking. In other words, I can see both sides of most issues with help from my conservative and liberal friends. On some issues (especially social issues) I find myself thoughtfully coming down on the more liberal side. On others (especially fiscal issues) I lean toward a conservative or libertarian view. On military issues, I have returned to my non-militaristic, peacemaking Quaker roots.
If you have hung in there with me this far dear reader, please bear with me two more paragraphs--here comes the punchline! 
What concerns me the most is that the majority of my liberal friends do not have any conservative friends at all. The same is true for my conservative friends. They have isolated themselves into a conservative Christian ideological ghetto. Conservatives listen to Rush Limbaugh, Scott Hannity and watch Fox News and Bill O’Reilly. Liberals watch MSNBC News and enjoy the biting social commentary of Jon Stewart and social satire of Steven Colbert, and Bill Maher. In other words, Conservative and Liberals have locked themselves into self-reinforcing information feedback loops and get no external input that seriously challenges their worldviews. There are two totally opposing perceptions of reality that have been constructed and never the twain shall meet.
This is not good for our democracy or for the future of our civil discourse. I would like to suggest a thought experiment. If you are a Liberal, go through your Facebook friends list and count how many conservatives are reading your posts (if any). Do the same if you are a Conservative. If you are opposed to gay marriage, do you have any gay friends? If you are in favor of higher taxes for social spending, do you have any friends who are small business owners and entrepreneurs? I would suggest that you need both conservative and liberal voices in your life to keep you relatively unbiased (absolute freedom from bias is probably not possible) and allow you to find and plant yourself the reasonable middle ("Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall have their eyes clawed out" ~ Bible teacher Bob Mumford). Moderation has become an extreme point of view in our current discourse and moderates are excoriated by both sides of the ideological spectrum in current policy debates. In other words, if you value yourself as an “unbiased critical thinker,” then get some new friends (and by all means, keep the old friends!) The future of our Republic may depend upon it!
Heed the ancient wisdom which says: "love bears all things."