Archive for December, 2012

images“Whenever Christians think that we can support our ethic by simply pressuring congress to pass laws or to spend tax money, we fail to do justice to the radically communal quality of Christian ethics.  In fact, much of what passes for Christian social concern today, of the left or of the right, is the social concern of a church that seems to have despaired of being the church.  Unable through our preaching, baptism, and witness to form a visible community of faith, we content ourselves with ersatz Christian ethical activity–lobbying Congress to support progressive strategies, asking the culture at large to be a little less racist, a little less promiscuous, a little less violent.  Falwell’s Moral Majority is little different from any mainline Protestant church that opposes him.  Both groups imply that one can practice Christian ethics without being in the Christian community.  Both begin with the Constantinian assumption that there is no way for the gospel to be present in our world without asking the world to support our convictions through its own social and political institutionalization.  The result is the gospel transformed into civil religion.” (Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, pp. 80-81)


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Why Is There Winter In Narnia?

Narnia-winter*A shorter version of this essay appeared in The Harvard Ichthus:

The central thrust of Stephen Prothero’s provocative book, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World, is that the various major religions of the world are all manifestly not saying the same thing in different ways.  This thesis runs directly contrary, of course, to the contemporary zeitgeist that could wish such a basic unity to be discovered, in the name of relativistic pluralism.  As Prothero expertly demonstrates, however, there are incommensurate differences that separate most religious belief systems from each other that chasten those who attempt a naive harmonization.  Claiming that Buddhists, Muslims and Christians (or whoever) all adhere to the same religious worldview and set of practices is not only deeply reductionistic, but in fact as dishonest and blatantly fallacious as saying that Democrats and Republicans actually embody the same political perspective, or that Capitalists and Marxists are pursuing an identical economic agenda, but simply communicating it with different vocabulary.  Such ideologically disparate visions as these cannot be swept under the rug by appeal to a generic umbrella called “politics” or “economics” under which each viewpoint is exhaustively explained by and reduced to.  In exactly the same way, the category of “religion” is wrongly employed if the intention is to caricature what is distinctive in each religion’s particular vision of the world.

Yet Prothero opens his study by acknowledging that there is, in fact, a single isolated point of common ground that connects every religious tradition:

“What the world’s religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point.  And where they begin is (more…)

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imagesSpirituality is a tricky word.  We hear and and use it commonly, and that may make it all the trickier.  Like the next-door neighbor you’ve known on a first-name basis for years, but who turns out to be a spy or a terrorist, the word fools us by its apparent familiarity.  In fact, it freights quite diverse meanings.  A cursory visit to my web search engine scratches up literally hundreds of ‘spiritualities’…We resort to the word avidly, even promiscuously.  Clearly we, our society, like this word…What spirituality means is not at all easy to say, given its range of referents.  I assume, however, that this much is clear: spirituality is a word we turn to in preference to certain other, less appealing alternatives [he mentions ‘religion,’ ‘piety,’ ‘holiness,’ and ‘purity’ as such unattractive alternatives in contemporary society]…One reason the term is so popular is that by itself it is vague, amorphous…I trust it requires little argument to state that, say, ‘nudist spirituality’ is not synonymous with ‘Victorian spirituality.’  What thin and exceedingly general meaning does spirituality have that allows it to be used of both nudists and Victorians.  I could never imagine anyone committing life and energies to such an abstraction.  Consequently, against conventional grammar, spirituality appears to be a noun decisively determined by its adjective.  The adjective determining spirituality as I want to consider it is Christian

Out of [the orthodox Christian] tradition, we can say clearly what spirituality is not.  It is not opposed to the body, it is not nonphysical.  It is not removed from history, the ongoing flow of time.  It is not asocial, a solitary activity or state of being.  It is not primarily inward and invisible, a hidden affair of the private heart.  In all these ways it is unlike a common conception of ‘spirituality’ in our day as a compartmentalized experience, customized by and for the lone individual, removed from any pesky, constraining traditions or social bodies (institutions)…

Orthodox Christian spirituality is participation and formation in the life of the church that is created and sustained by the Holy Spirit.  The God shaping and enlivening this Christian spirituality is the trinitarian God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–the Three in One and no less the One in Three.  The spirit-uality of Christian spirituality draws its life and definition precisely from the Holy Spirit who is a Person or member of the Trinity.  The Holy Spirit shares in the perfect communion of Jesus the Son and God the Father.  Jesus prays to the Father that his followers, the church, will ‘all be one’ just ‘as you are in me and I am in you’ (John 17:21).  It is through the Holy Spirit who, as the Nicene Creed has it, ‘proceeds from the Father and the Son,’ that the people are made one in the church and made to partake of, to participate in, the communion of the Triune God.  As such, Christian spirituality thoroughly has to do with physical bodies and history and social institutions…

Christian spirituality cannot be pitted against physical bodies.  Through the Spirit bodies are made, and one has been resurrected (with others to follow).  Christian spirituality also cannot be pitted against time or history.  The Spirit initiated history and constantly works in it.  Finally, Christian spirituality cannot be pitted against the church, even if it is a ‘religious institution.’  The Spirit enables us to see beyond the church’s flaws and recognize it as Christ’s body.  The gifts of the Spirit, which help Christians to deepen in spirituality, are given ‘to each’ for ‘the common good’ of the body (1 Cor. 12:7), so that in its words and practice it might wouch to the world of Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life.  This was Jesus’ prayer and expectation: that the oneness of the church, the integrity of Christ’s corporate body, would verify to the world that Jesus was the Son, sent by the Maker and King of the universe (John 17:21, again).  The church, we might say, is the Spirit in public, or simply the Spirit’s public…

Christian spirituality is the whole person’s participation and formation in the church–Christ’s body, the Spirit’s public–which exists to entice and call the world back to its Creator, its true purpose, and its only real hope.” (Rodney Clapp, Tortured Wonders: Christian Spirituality for People, Not Angels, pp. 11-18)

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Why Philosophy?

images“I am increasingly aware that philosophy no longer counts as what is ordinarily thought of as ‘general knowledge’.  An educated person is supposed to know his or her national history, a few standard literary and artistic references, even a few odds and ends of biology or physics, yet they most likely have no inkling of Epictetus, Spinoza or Kant.  I am convinced that everyone should study just a little philosophy, if only for two simple reasons.

First of all, without it we can make no sense of the world in which we live.  Philosophy is the best training for living, better even than history and the human sciences.  Why?  Quite simply because virtually all of our thoughts, convictions and values exist and have meaning–whether or not we are conscious of it–within models of the world that have been developed over the course of intellectual history.  We must understand these models in order to grasp their reach, their logic and their consequences.

Many individuals spend a considerable part of their lives anticipating misfortune and preparing for catastrophe–loss of work, accident, illness, death of loved ones, and so on.  Others, on the contrary, appear to live in a state of utter indifference, regarding such fears as morbid and having no place in everyday life.  Do they realize, both of these character-types, that their attitudes have already been pondered with matchless profundity by the philosophers of ancient Greece?

The choice of an egalitarian rather than an aristocratic ethos, of a romantic aesthetic rather than a classical one, of an attitude of attachment or non-attachment to things and to beings in the face of death; the adoption of authoritarian or liberal political attitudes; the preference for animals and nature over mankind, for the call of the wild over the cities of man–all of these choices and many more were considered long before they became opinions available, as in a marketplace, to the citizen.  These divisions, conflicts and issues continue to determine our thoughts and our words, whether we are aware of them or not.  To study them in their pure form, to grasp their deepest origins, is to arm oneself with not only the means of becoming more intelligent, but also more indepedent.  Why would one deprive oneself of such tools?

Second, beyond coming to an understanding of oneself and others through acquaintance with the key texts of philosophy, we come to realize tha these texts are able, quite simply, to help us live in a better and freer way.  As several contemporary thinkers note: one does not philosophise to amuse oneself, nor even to better understand the world and one’s own place in it, but sometimes literally to ‘save one’s skin’.  There is in philosophy the wherewithal to conquer the fears which can paralyze us in life, and it is an error to believe that modern psychology, for example, can substitute for this.

Learning to live; learning to fear no longer the various faces of death; or, more simply, learning to conquer the banality of everyday life–boredom, the sense of time slipping by: these were already the primary motivations of the schools of ancient Greece.  Their message deserves to be heard, because, contrary to what happens in history and in the human sciences, the philosophers of time past speak to us in the present tense.  And this is worth contemplating.

When a scientific theory is revealed to be false, when it is refuted by another manifestly truer theory, it becomes obsolete and is of no further interest except to a handful of scientists and historians.  However, the great philosophical questions about how to live life remain relevant to this day.  In this sense, we can compare the history of philosophy to that of art, rather than of the sciences…All [the great philosphers] furnish propositions about life, attitudes in the face of existence, that continue to address us across the centuries.  Whereas the scientific theories of Ptolemy or Descartes may be regarded as ‘quaint’ and have no further interest other than the historical, we can still draw upon the collective wisdom of the ancients as we can admire a Greek temple or a Chinese scroll–with both feet planted firmly in the twenty-first century.” (Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, xii-xv)

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Sin Boldly in Christ

luther“If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true, not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly—for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here we have to sin. This life in not the dwelling place of righteousness but, as Peter says, we look for a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” (Martin Luther, letter to Philipp Melancthon on August 1st, 1521)

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Here is the link to the podcast of my recent talk on “The God Who Hides” for Yale Faith and Action:


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imagesCAP47VF7“Those who love God will desire not only to enjoy Him but ‘to enjoy Him forever,’ and will fear to lose Him.  And it is by that door that a truly religious hope of Heaven and fear of Hell can enter; as corollaries to a faith already centered upon God, not as things of any independent or intrinsic weight.  It is even arguable that the moment ‘Heaven’ ceases to mean union with God and ‘Hell’ to mean separation from Him, the belief in either is a mischievous superstition.” (C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, p. 41)

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