Monday, March 31, 2008

Why Matter Matters

Jesus showed the apostles real hands and a real side. He really ate with his disciples; he really walked with Cleopas; he really conversed with people, using a real tongue. Jesus really reclined at supper, and with real hands he took bread, blessed and broke it, and offered it to them…Don’t let yourselves be deceived into thinking that Jesus ate with out teeth, walked without feet, broke bread without hands, spoke without a tongue, or showed a side that had no ribs.

—Saint Jerome

The Christian story, from the beginning of the narrative in Genesis to its dramatic climax in Revelation, is an earthy story, a fleshy story that celebrates materiality, laments its perversion by human sin, and eagerly awaits its ultimate glorification in the resurrection life. Creation may not be exhausted by material creation (angels are created and they're not material), but it is the material world whose creation is chronicled in the opening pages of Genesis and whose tale of glory and disgrace, near total collapse and full restoration is told throughout the bible.

The story of creation, by the way, is not merely a story of Divine production or origination either. It is a story of Divine delight, delight in the material world brought into being by the Word. Indeed the creational refrain “It is good!” echoes through the pages of Genesis and beyond.

The doctrine of the incarnation, the taking on of flesh by the second person of the Trinity, signals God’s re-affirmation of embodiment and creation. So too the Ascension. The incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, his taking on of flesh, was neither momentary nor provisional. God’s persistent “Yes!” to embodiment reverberates into eternity in the resurrection, exaltation, and glorification of the embodied Christ. The humanity of Christ, his embodied nature, is not shed in the New Jerusalem. It is taken up, exalted and glorified.

Remember too that the most prominent image used in Scripture for what awaits us in the hereafter is that of a great banquet, nothing short of a Eucharistic feast of carnal delight. And not a whiff of disembodied or ghostly existence is to be found anywhere in that image.

If you want to know what it means to be human, what it means to live a full-orbed and flourishing human life, look to the embodied Christ. What you will discover there is exactly what sober-minded theologians have been telling us all along: that an authentic human existence consists in a fully embodied life rightly lived in relation to God, to neighbor, and to the rest of the terrestrial world.

Now I’m on record as saying that we human beings are wholly material beings, lacking immaterial parts such as an immaterial soul. And I believe that a world-affirming, material-affirming view of our nature has concrete, practical implications. For example, a recognition of the fact that God’s kingdom has come to us in the embodied Christ helps us to avoid misconceiving our eternal destiny vertically, as “up in the heavens.” Instead it encourages us to reconceive the kingdom of God horizontally, as here and now, even if its eventual fulfillment lies in a future—an embodied future—that we anxiously await and actively anticipate.

Second, wrapped as we are in flesh and bones, and embodied in ever-expanding circles of social relations— family, neighborhood, community and world, materialist-friendly views of human nature make good sense of the urgency and importance of our call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and to pursue this-worldly justice. Why? Because the fact that we are material beings highlights the fact that starvation, want, and physical impoverishment are kingdom concerns. The world of bullfrogs and butterflies, of economic systems and environmental hazards, the world of sex and love, of loneliness and connection, the world of factory farms and consumer goods—in short, the fully, physical world that both depresses and delights us, is precisely the world that matters to God. It is this world that God is restoring. Contrary to the sacred hymn, this world is our home. It is broken, disfigured, and dis-eased to be sure, but it matters to us. It matters to us because we are created for it in all of its physicality.

A materialist-friendly view of human nature also serves to protect us against turning our longings for a new day into longings for a disembodied existence in some far off and distant heaven. Like the prophets of long ago, whose longings were for this world finally to be as God intends—a world where lions lie down with lambs and swords are beaten into plowshares, where the hungry are fed and the broken hearted are lifted up—a materialist view of human nature can encourage us to eagerly long for and actively anticipate this embodied future that only God can realize. The way of Christ incarnate offers us this future. What it offers us is a new way to be human.

And, I might add, this future, this new way of being human, is one of the siren songs of emergent faith. And it’s a hopeful song, too. Those tired of singing the old world-desping, body-desping, social justice-rejecting, polarity-producing songs of our forebears, find this sort of song refresing, inspiring and deeply resonant.

But wait (I can hear the naysayer say), this sort of view denies that we’ve been made in God’s image. How can we have been made in God’s image if we’re not immaterial souls? Well, there are many ways that we human beings image God, and none requires that we be immaterial. We image God when we care for creation and contribute to the terrestrial flourishing of the created order. Indeed, this is what the Bible means when it speaks of our having been given “dominion.” To have dominion is to care for others, including non-human “others” like ocean and stream, octopus and salamander; to have dominion is to tend to the well being of all the earth.

We also image God when we live in loving relation to other human beings and invest ourselves in their flourishing and well-being. God is a Trinity, so it should come as no surprise that we image God in social and not just private ways. The tenor of the relation between the three persons of the Trinity is one of a harmonious and free exchange of love and joy. Engaging in acts of mercy, hospitality, love, kindness, and so on is to act like God. In fact, we image God best when we image Jesus, who welcomed the outcast, fed the hungry, gave sight to the blind, hated evil, and delighted in doing the work of the Father. We also image God in our suffering. God is love. To love is to open oneself up to suffering. And suffering love is God-love. When we lay down our lives for our friends, and yes, our enemies, too, we image God, who laid down his life for us in Jesus.

God is a society of three; so, that we bear God’s image in social ways ought not to surprise us. Moreover, it is hard to imagine how we might image God in the ways I’ve just described if we are isolated atoms or immaterial souls. In short, there is nothing in the doctrine of the imago Dei, rightly understood, that entails we are immaterial souls.

Skin and bone is what we are. Holy skin and bone. And what we've been set apart for is anticipating that new humanity, that new society of wholeness and flourishing. There's work to be done. And those of us called to that work get impatient when we're told that first we've got to figure out the right positions on a host of theological and philosophical-theological doctrines and issues. I don't think so. Not that I don't enjoy exploring philosophical-theological issues and doctrines (some of them anyway, some of the time). But I don't enjoy the social paralysis that endless debate oftentimes produces. And it's that paralysis that emergent types also loathe.

Okay, ‘nuff said. Tony Jones and The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier is coming up…..

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Lookin' Ahead to Tony Jones

Tony Jones--emergent guru and all around hipster--(whoever says Rob Bell put the hip in discipleship hasn't met Tony, a self-confessed mini-van driving, little-league coaching, boyscout-leading, 40 year old hunka-hunka burnin' love; Christianity's answer to Unknown Hinson) recently and very kindly sent me a copy of his new book The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier. Starting next week I'll be blogging about it. I'm about halfway in, and I'm lovin' it. It's one of those rare books whose title actually has something to do with its content. So far, anyway, it's largely a descriptive account of emergent, what the movement is growing out of, what it hopes to be growing into and how it all got started. He gives us the inside story as one of its midwives, someone at the bedside of emergent's birth and there for its first, shaky steps into the wild and sometimes less-than-hospitable spaces of 21st Century life. So, stay tuned for that. In the mean time, grab a copy of Tony's latest book and check back here soon. (Alright, admit it, you want more Unknown Hinson. Okay, here you go.)

[12:10 p.m. Saturday 3/29/08
Correction: I believe I mistakenly attributed a kindness to Tony which actually belongs to Keith DeRose. Since I had corresponded w/Tony about the interim I taught and a book project I'm putting together on emergent, I assumed the copy of his book I received in the mail had come from him. Actually, I'm given now to believe it came from Keith. Thanks very much, Keith! Sorry, Tony. You're still kind; just not responsible for this particular kindness.]

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Momma Killed a Chicken She Thought it Was a Duck

As many who read this blog know, I love rock-n-roll. I grew up listening to the likes of Bob Dylan, mainly because I had an older brother and he listened to Bob Dylan, in addition to the Beatles,The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Buffalo Springfield, etc. My brother's eight years older than me, so I sort of inherited some of his musical tastes.

In high school, back in the 80’s, I was a bonafide Dylan fan. And then my senior year a classmate of mine, Greg Massiello, said “If you like Dylan, you should listen to Larry Norman.” I had never heard of him. But I listened and was hooked. Norman was real, his lyrics raw—ghonerhia on valentines day; you're still lookin' for the perfect lay—, sometimes off-the-wall—walking backwards down the stairs; trying to get higher, higher—and often funny. Watch What You’re Doin’ went like this:

Momma killed a chicken she thought it was a duck
She put it on the table with it’s legs stickin’ up

Pappa broke his glasses when he fell down drunk

He tried to drown the kitty-cat turned out to be a skunk

You gotta watch what you’re doin’; don'cha know
you gotta watch wha you’re doin’

And then,

I knew a girl, as sweet as could be
But she fell for a man like chain-sawed tree

She listened to his lies, got fooled by his charms

Now she’s sittin’ with a baby in her arms

You gotta watch what you’re doin’….

Here’s Norman in 1988 with a classic, Great American Novel. Some of the lyrics are eerily relevant to our current political situation.

Here he is rockin’ out nine years earlier (1979) at Greenbelt.

I got to see him only once, in 1990 in Yale’s Battel’s Chapel. He had recently become a dad, as I recall, and he kept in the pocket of his jeans a tiny little baby's shoe. Sadly, like most of us, Larry was a complicated, mixed-bag of a human being. He was, I am told, bi-polar and he had great difficulties with relationships. His rocky relationship with Randy Stonehill is legendary.

Larry’s marriage (or marriages; I think he was married twice) didn’t last. But he soldiered on, through personal trials of various and sundry sorts and through bouts with demons that haunted him throughout his life. He died one month ago (I just learned yesterday) from a weak heart. It had failed him many times in the past. Last month it failed him for the last time. He was 61. What better song to end this post with, then this one, Goodbye Farewell.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Is the God of Christians the God of Muslims Too?

Back in November and in response to a letter by some 100 Muslim leaders, the New York Times published a letter drafted by the Center for Faith and Culture at Yale Divinity School, and signed by 100+ Christian signatores. The letter called for Christian cooperation with Muslims. Among the signatores of that letter was the President of Wheaton College and other school officials. Well, it’s now being reported that Wheaton’s president and the other Wheaton officials have removed their names from the letter. I’m interested in the reasons offered by the President for removing his name. Here’s what he says:

“The statement was not carefully enough crafted to avoid encouraging that basic premise of civil religion; i.e., that we are all worshipping the same God,” Litfin said. “As a matter of principle over the years, I have made it a point to avoid becoming complicit in this cultural premise, denying as it does the unique claims of Christ.”

Huh? The God of Christians is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus. The God of Muslims is the God of Abraham. Seems to me Christians, Jews and Muslims do in fact worship the same God. Now depending on which of these monotheistic faiths you embrace will determine which of them you believe either has some false beliefs about that God, too few true beliefs about that God or just too many beliefs about that God.

That Christians and Muslims have throughout history taken themselves to be worshipping the same God is evidenced in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles, where he attempts to refute the beliefs of a prominent Muslim philosopher, Averose; but Thomas’ refutation doesn’t proceed by simply pointing out that Averose is in fact speaking of a different God. QED. No, he proceeds by trying to show that what Averose says about God is false.

Suppose you and I are discussing Tom Cruise. We discuss his marriage to what’s her name (what’s her name?.....right, Katie Holmes…had to google that one), we discuss his commitment to scientology, his role in the spectacularly gripping film Magnolia, and his early performance in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Who is it we’re talking about? Who is it we’re referring to in our discussion? We’re talking about or referring to Tom Cruise, of course. But, suppose I point that Tom Cruise was not in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. And suppose you insist he was and that you really enjoyed him in that film. Seems to me we are in fact talking about and referring to Tom Cruise but you have at least one false belief about him. You believe he was in FBDO. You’re mistaken, however, because it was Matthew Broderick who starred in FBDO, not Tom Cruise. But notice: it’s not Matthew Broderick that we’re talking about, it’s Tom Cruise we’re talking about. And you are attributing to Tom Cruise something that’s not true of him.

Likewise, the fact that Christians, Jews and Muslims say different things about God does not entail that it is different gods about whom they say things. President Litfin is mistaken if he thinks that from the fact that Christians and Muslims have different beliefs about God it follows that they worship different gods. And for the life of me I can’t understand why he would think that acknowledging that Christians and Muslims worship the same God is to deny the unique claims of Christ. It isn’t. I believe that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Muslims don’t. I think they’re mistaken. They think I’m mistaken. How is this disagreement logically connected to the claim that we worship the same God? It’s not.

Let me go out on a limb here and make a conjecture. I conjecture that what really happened is that the President caved under pressure from Wheaton’s contributors. I bet that big dollars were threatened to be pulled if his name and the names of the other Wheaton officials did not come off that letter. If he in fact succumbed to such pressures or even felt such pressure, I’d like to know. At the very least, let’s be clear about this: no one must deny the unique claims of Christ by acknowledging that Christians, Jews and Muslims worship the same God. To think otherwise is to be ignorant both of history and of logic. I think we should expect better from a Christian college president.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

New Day

Whale Spasms Forth Frail Human
onto Stony Shore

Bone on Stone Exiting
Crushed. Pulverized.
Earth Contracts
Onto Moist Spring Soil
Bursts Forth Heaven Born. Again. Flesh Intact.
Death Shrinks.
Sorrow Flees.
It’s a New Day.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Day Not Mentioned

Today is Holy Saturday. The day not mentioned in any of the Gospels. There are the moving and distressing events of Friday. They get recorded. And there is the glorious event of Sunday. It gets recorded. But there is no mention of Saturday. Strange. What were the disciples doing on Saturday? We’re not told. I suspect that they were wandering around in shock, as if in a fog. Dreams crushed. Hopes dashed. A world ended. I imagine them enveloped in fear, sadness and sorrow. I suspect them confused, accused, feeling misused. The cacophonous noises of Friday now gone. The joyous shouts of Sunday not yet audible. It’s Saturday. A soundless, noiseless silent space. Such spaces are spaces of opportunity. Opportunities for encounter with God. A God who more often works in the hidden places than in the glare of spotlight. A God who more often whispers in the still silences than shouts in the clamor of bluster.

Saturday. Holy Saturday. A day whose emptiness stands in stark contrast to Friday, with its ample furnishings of pain and terror, and to Sunday, with its abundant overflow of joy and gladness.

Here is a poem befitting this day, this season; befitting disciples, past and present—mixed-up, perplexed, strung out, confused.

Far between sundown's finish an' midnight's broken toll
We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing

As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds

Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing

Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight

Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight

An' for each an' ev'ry underdog soldier in the night

An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

In the city's melted furnace, unexpectedly we watched
With faces hidden while the walls were tightening

As the echo of the wedding bells before the blowin' rain

Dissolved into the bells of the lightning

Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake
Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an' forsaked

Tolling for the outcast, burnin' constantly at stake

An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail

The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder

That the clinging of the church bells blew far into the breeze

Leaving only bells of lightning and its thunder

Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind

Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind

An' the unpawned painter behind beyond his rightful time

An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

Through the wild cathedral evening the rain unraveled tales

For the disrobed faceless forms of no position

Tolling for the tongues with no place to bring their thoughts

All down in taken-for-granted situations

Tolling for the deaf an' blind, tolling for the mute

Tolling for the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute

For the misdemeanor outlaw, chased an' cheated by pursuit
An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

Even though a cloud's white curtain in a far-off corner flashed

An' the hypnotic splattered mist was slowly lifting

Electric light still struck like arrows, fired but for the ones

Condemned to drift or else be kept from drifting

Tolling for the searching ones, on their speechless, seeking trail

For the lonesome-hearted lovers with too personal a tale

An' for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail

An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

Starry-eyed an' laughing as I recall when we were caught
Trapped by no track of hours for they hanged suspended

As we listened one last time an' we watched with one last look
Spellbound an' swallowed 'til the tolling ended

Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed

For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an' worse

An' for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe

An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

That’s Bob Dylan’s Chimes of Freedom, sent to me by Keith DeRose. Unlike Keith, who wisely makes the listening of that song part of his Good Friday, Lenten practice, I hadn’t read those words in a long time. I am so glad he reminded me of them today.

There's another poem I'd love to share with you, too. A stark, forbidding, spartan poem sent to me yesterday by Lori Wilson. It was written by Kester Brewin. Sadly, Kester removed that poem from his website before I could copy it. I've asked him to send it to me. If and when he does, I will post it immediately.

It's Saturday. But Sunday's comin'!!!

[The following Good Friday poem by Kester Brewin; Added Easter afternoon.]

Modern/postmodern, epistemology
and philosophy,
arguments about text,
all distant hazes in the cortex
as this one true sensation
becomes all reality:

the pain of metal against bone
and blood and bitter wine;
hung in agonizing mezzanine:
Father above, who sent
and created earth below who received,
both now turning in rejection,
aiming their crude technologies.
Pig iron and sacrifice.

There is blood.
I am finished.

Friday, March 21, 2008

BAraCK To The Future?

Earlier this week Barack Obama delivered what had to be the most important speech of his campaign and perhaps his life. He delivered it against the backdrop both of the Jeremiah Wright (his pastor) Youtube feeding frenzy and the surprisingly uncomfortable issue of race that persists as a politically divisive feature of american life.

There’s a lot I have to say about this speech and the polarized American political context in which it is situated. But I made a vow shortly after I began this blog to limit my posts to 1000 words. So, all I have to say about the speech won’t get said, at least not here.

Let me begin with Jeremiah Wright. Jeremiah Wright appears to be to a certain segment of the black community (and the black church community) what Jerry Falwell was and what Pat Robertson, James Dobson and others of their ilk (including the “pisseth against the wall” pastor) still are to a certain segment of the white community (and the white church community). Social and political polarizers are what they in fact are, but to their respective communities they are regarded as guardians of the truth and liberators of the marginalized.

If you are a member of the relevant segment of the white community, then the language of Wright is likely to strike you as anti-american, hate mongering, Farrakhan courting and dangerous. And there’s no doubt about it, Wright believes America is wrong, racist and evil. If you are a member of the relevant black community (or gay community or feminst community), then the language of Falwell, Robertson and Dobson is likely to strike you in just the way Wright’s language strikes the relevant segment of the white community. It will strike you as dangerously wrong, racist (or sexist) and evil.

One point perhaps more than any other that has been systematically overlooked in all the coverage that has followed on the heels of Obama’s speech, and the Wright vitriol on graphic display at youtube, is that an analogous sort of hate-mongering anti-american rhetoric to that of Wright's has been widely used in the past by Falwell, Dobson and other polarizers on the far right. Am I wrong to remember that some on the other side of the political spectrum of Wright have advocated that God RIGHTLY hates America and has given us 9/11 and Aids as punishment? Am I wrong to remember that some of the very individuals who spewed their gospel of bondage to hate and fear during the 80’s and 90’s were not only welcome in America but were even the invited guests of presidents at White House functions? Am I wrong about that?

My point here is simple: hate is an equal opportunity employer and how you hear the words of Wright or Dobson all depends on which pew in which church on which Sunday morning you find yourself sitting. Now for the record, from the pew on which I sit on Sunday mornings, I hear Wright’s rhetoric as all the things the relevant segment of the white community hears it as. And from that same pew, I also hear the rhetoric of Falwell, Robertson and Dobson as all the things blacks and gays hear it as. And that probably says a lot about my being a white, liberally educated, middle class man.

Well, anyway, MS Word informs me that I have just spent more than half of my 1000 word allowance . Perhaps I’ve spent enough on one post. Plus, I feel I have little to add to what has already been said in praise of Obama’s speech (it was spellbinding and moving, not mention honest, in ways few political speeches are these days). But I really did want to address two other issues related to the speech, i.e., the comparison by Obama of his relation to Wright to that of his white grand mother. The other issue I wanted to comment on is how someone could possibly remain in a congregation whose pastor preached sermons with which the member him or herself claims to disagree most vehemently.

But I’m going to leave that for another time and another place. I feel an overwhelming desire right now to head over to the Department of Secretary to do what I have been saying I would do for the past 8 years—change my party affiliation from Democrat to Independent. Because while the vision Obama has for this country is a vision that resonates with many of my deepest Christian commitments, I recognize that given the current political configuration there’s not a lot of on-the-ground change that will occur under an Obama administration. Then again, even if all he was able to accomplish was to restore to this country and to the presidency an image worthy of respect both here and around the world, that would be enough for me. So based on what I know now, I say, BAraCK to the future!!!!

But I say that with my eyes wide open. Eyes open to the fact that the kingdom of God--the only nation to which I will unreservedly and unconditionally pledge my allegiance, a nation without borders by the way--is a kingdom that will not be realized by any political party. And it won't be accessible for your 24-7 viewing pleasure at youtube either. No, I'm afraid you'll have to go instead to those small corners of our world and communities where that kingdom is lived and anticipated in all the invisibility of the ordinary. You'll have to cultivate different viewing habits if you hope to see it. But it is there. I've seen it.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Telling Stories

The following is attributed to Archbishop Rowan Williams in a talk on theology and science delivered last night (I think). I am attempting to confirm this attribution by someone I know who I believe was at the talk last night. Here's the quote:

Both Neo Darwinism and Christianity are telling stories. Christianity acknowledges that fact, Neo Darwinism doesn't.

By Neo Darwinism the AB has in his sites the likes of Dawkins, Hitchins and Dennet. There's something right about what the AB says (if in fact he said it) and yet something not quite right, too. Dawkins is a very good scientist and when he's talking science, he's not telling stories. He's offering compelling scientific explanations of natural phenomena. It's when he stops doing science and begins to say silly things that have nothing to do with science and he fails to notice that he has ceased doing science that he is indeed telling stories and indeed fails to acknowledge it.

Christianity is a comprehensive story. It's not, I think, nor does it purport to be, a naturalistic explanation of things. Which is not to say that it's not an explanation of sorts. But it is surely a grand story and acknoweldges as much.

That's my take anyway. Yours?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Atheist Delusion?

The attempt to eradicate religion, however, only leads to it reappearing in grotesque and degraded forms. A credulous belief in world revolution, universal democracy or the occult powers of mobile phones is more offensive to reason than the mysteries of religion, and less likely to survive in years to come. Victorian poet Matthew Arnold wrote of believers being left bereft as the tide of faith ebbs away. Today secular faith
is ebbing, and it is the apostles of unbelief who are left stranded on the beach.

That from a recent article in London's Guardian by John Gray which is sure to be of interest to readers of this blog. Gray argues in some detail for a point I tried to make here in Is Religious Identity the Enemy of Global Harmony? He takes on Dawkins, Dennet, Hitchens and the religious despisers of our day and shows pretty convincingly how they both live off the capital of religious history and embody some of the worst
features of fundamentalist forms of Christianity and Islam, in particular. My favorite lines from the article are these:

Religion has not gone away. Repressing it is like repressing sex, a self-defeating enterprise.

Definitely worth a read. And I'd be interested to know what you make of it.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Honest When You’re Telling a Lie*

Over at Quintessence of Dust, my good friend Steve Matheson has posted an excellent piece on an outfit called “Reasons to Believe” and one of its spokesman, a guy named Hugh Ross. Now, for the record, I had never heard of RtB or Hugh Ross before Steve brought them to my attention some time ago now. What I like about this post of Steve’s, and about his response to a comment by someone called ‘jsbangs’ and about Steve’s entire blog is the care he takes to sort out issues, make useful and helpful distinctions and set the record straight about the biology and science often at issue in debates about faith and science.

In this particular post, Steve takes Hugh Ross to task for peddling what is fairly obviously misinformation and outright falsehoods. What I’m interested in, however, is something Steve and I have often discussed with respect to RtB; namely, when HR makes statements like this

The assumption that the non-protein-coding part of the genome served no purpose caused researchers to abandon study of its features for nearly three decades. Then a team of physicists made an observation that revived interest. They noticed that the quantity of "junk" in a species' genome was proportional to that species' degree of advancement.

is he lying? What he says is false. But Steve recognizes the difference between saying something false and lying. And he thinks HR is lying. But is he? I have my doubts.

When someone lies they intentionally communicate a falsehood with the intention to deceive their listener. Communicating a falsehood and intending to deceive one’s listener though necessary for lying are not sufficient. If they were sufficient for lying, then actors qua actors would be lying every time they take the stage or go before the camera. So too all who play poker and have ever bluffed and all those who have ever played basketball and pump faked their defender and then driven to the basket. So, you’re not lying unless you communicate a falsehood with the intent to deceive, but communicating falsehood and intending to deceive are not enough to make what you communicate a lie.

I’m interested in this HR character and his outfit RtB which, as best I can tell, are guilty of perpetuating falsehoods in their apologetic endeavor to defend the rational integrity of theism. There’s no doubt they are purveyors of falsehoods. But is HR, in Steve’s words, guilty of an “outrageous lie”? Is he guilty of “outright fabrication”? Fabrication maybe. Lying? I'm not so sure.

Lying is morally blameworthy. HR is culpable too it seems. But not for lying. He is to be blamed for carelessness in research, misunderstanding, misattributing, misstating and misrepresenting facts, not to mention for making stuff up. But I don’t think Ross is lying. I think he’d need to be first of all a biologist and second of all a competent biologist. A quick glance at his website reveals that he is neither. His BA is in physics and his MA and Ph.D. are both in Astronomy. So what's going on in the case of HR and RtB?

Here’s what I think is going on. I think the apologetic agenda of RtB partly accounts for what HR “finds” in his research. And when something he regards as especially advantageous to furthering the cause of RtB is “found” (like the non-coding DNA elements Steve mentions in his post) HR’s enthusiasm gets the better of him and leads him to say such wildly implausible things as that a “veritable frenzy of research” (which is false) followed on the heels of a discovery by a “team of physicists” (false and false—that the team was a team of physicists is false and that there was the putative discovery is false). But those claims, though false, do not amount to lies I think. They amount to something for which HR and RtB are morally blameworthy (such as those things I mention in the paragraph above), but not lying.

What do you think?
*I take this title from the lyrics of Wilco's Misunderstood, a great song off a great album (Being There).

Monday, March 10, 2008

Is Religious Identity the Enemy of Global Harmony?

An American generation under 45 has glimpsed an interconnected world beyond race and tribe. They know its attainment will be elusive but, after a bleak season, they feel summoned by what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” And, speaking of experience, they know Lincoln came to the presidency with all of two years in Congress behind him, and a failed Senate campaign.

Those are the words of Roger Cohen in a NY Times Op-Ed piece today titled Tribalism Here and There. Cohen’s editorial, a sort of pro Obama piece that looks at the rise of tribalisms in the context of globalization, makes what I think are some very important points. Against those whose wide-eyed optimism links globalization with a safer, more connected world, Cohen notes:

Connection and fragmentation vie. The Internet opens worlds and minds, but also offers opinions to reinforce every prejudice. You’re never alone out there; some idiot will always back you. The online world doesn’t dissolve tribes. It gives them global reach.

What I found most interesting, however, was this remark:

The main forces in the world today are the modernizing, barrier-breaking sweep of globalization and the tribal reaction to it, which lies in the assertion of religious, national, linguistic, racial or ethnic identity against the unifying technological tide.

Only the worst sort of denial can fail to notice that tribalism, rooted in religious identity, has been the source of terrible intolerance and responsible for inflicting upon humanity scores of horrendous human atrocities. So familiar are we with religiously inspired violence that I see no need to parade before us the usual cast of examples.

However, I think it has become increasingly clear that evil and ugliness perpetrated against humanity is not the special inclination of those with religious identities. The killing fields, the Soviet pogrom, the rape of Nanking, the revolution in China and the world wars should all be sufficient to dispel the myth that somehow secularists are impervious to intolerance and evil. I think it was Anthony Appiah who once sagaciously noted that we human beings as such seem naturally impatient for harmony.

Though no doubt there are historical connections between religious identity and crimes against humanity, those connections are contingent, I would argue, and the solution to tribalism does not reside in ridding the world of religion or religious identity. Well, that's also what what I would argue. There have been and can be religious identities, i.e., communities with deep religious identity, without tribalism. Indeed if I had the time I would argue that the resources necessary for tolerance and a valuation of pluralism—e.g., an account of human beings as possessing inestimable and intrinsic worth, a recognition of human beings as thoroughly finite, frail and fallible, and an account of human beings as free—are actually to be found (perhaps surprisingly if you listen to the story told by the secularists) in theistic religions.

So, to Mr. Cohen I say this: while I agree that tribalism is no friend to universal harmony, ridding the world of religious identities would not a harmonious world make. And maybe, Mr. Cohen, just maybe, religion holds a key to the sort of universal harmony many of us—both secular and religious—long to see realized.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Greetings from Beijing

Greetings from Beijing!! This post comes to you via email and my good friend Steve Matheson. It seems blogs originating from home are inaccessible here. So, I have been unable to read or post anything.

Our days have been full since arriving on Wednesday. So far Rowan has taken in the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square; together we have visited the Temple of Heaven and the Great Wall. Our trip to the latter wore poor Rowan out, as he came back and slept for fourteen straight hours. After quite an ascent up the mountain and to the wall, Rowan was found to be in need of relief, and with no WC to be found… well…you guessed it…he was forced to pisseth against the wall, the Great Wall. I conjecture that his not yet being a man is to account for his continued presence among the living.

As you make your way up the lower part of the mountain toward nearly any segment of the Great Wall you are greeted by eager natives hawking their wares, which consist mostly of fake antiques, t-shirts and a variety of other souvenirs. Rowan had his eye on a sword and a couple of small lion figures. I had my eye on a small Chinese painting. So, on the way back down I girded my loins and readied myself to haggle. The sword was being offered at 620 RMB, which is roughly $88. It was a nice sword, but…um….me thinks they wanted to screw us. So, sensing that they smelled blood galvanized me into uber-bargaining action. I offered 30 RMB for the sword. You read that right, 30 RMB. The ladies selling it looked at me and giggled like school girls. 500 they wrote down on a piece of paper. No way; 50, I wrote down. This was greeted w/more snickers and noises I could only interpret as “foolish american, are you crazy?” 420, they wrote. 60, I wrote. Nothing doing. I started walking away. The two of them chased me several paces. They tugged and pulled on my sleeves. I said “boi yow”, which means “I don’t want”. 180 they wrote, desperation now evident in the noises emanating from their mouths. 70, I wrote. 160, they wrote. I walked. They chased again. I wrote 75. “Little more, little more,” one woman said. I walked. They chased. “Boi yow,” I said. “Okay, Okay.” Hold on! Was that English they spoke?—“Little more, little more” and “okay, okay.” Why, yes Virginia, I do believe it was. Hmm. Anyway, that was the end of that. What started out as an $88 sword ended up costing me $10 or 75 RMB. And I am quite certain a profit was still madeth by the women.

Ditto for my painting and Rowan’s lions. Both started in the 500 RMB range. When all was said and done, the painting was had for 50 RMB ($7) and the lions for 40 ($5 and change). It was quite an adventure and our local guides were thoroughly impressed with the deftness of my haggling skills.

The next day, while ambulating about Beijing and riding on the subway, I was struck with the following bright idea: surely, I thought, there must be clothes to be had here that will actually fit a man—how shall we say it?—whose stature is more typical of the Irish or…well…perhaps the Chinese. And such, if such there be I thought, would surely be more affordable here then at home. So, inspired by my previous bargaining success and persuaded by two very kind young Chinese women (who had been spending lots of time showing Rowan, me and two other American guests around) I was taken to a mall. The women said they knew just the store that would have clothes I like. Rowan said, “Dad, you hate malls; why are you going to a mall?” Son, I said, there is an ancient Chinese proverb: a purchase in China mall is like a dollar in american bank. So we ended up at this very large, very western-like mall where bargaining, sadly, is not practiced. Blast! But I must say the shopping experience was quite unlike anything in Grand Rapids. For there in front of my eyes were racks of clothes that actually fit—fit me. And—now I’m not kidding!—the “smalls” were actually too small! How different life is in China! Anywho, what turned out to be another successful shopping spree ended (rather quickly I was told by the women who accompanied me) with the purchase of a super-cool blazer/sport-coat with a European flair for 199 RMB ($28). I love China!

Oh, have I mentioned the food? Holy…skin and bone! The food is fantastic, and cheap. You can get a huge, tasty lunch for three or four dollars. The breakfasts, on the other hand, are a bit uninspiring even for someone whose normal breakfast fare is oatmeal. But lunch and dinner more than compensate. And Rowan is shocking everyone by consuming the spiciest of Chinese dishes w/nary a bead of sweat evident on his forehead and all the skill with chopsticks that the old man displays in bargaining. He did, however, let it be known that he was not very fond of the goose liver.

In a few hours (tomorrow for you) we’re going to visit the summer palace. Then, we fly out of Beijing bright and early Monday morning, and head for Hangzhou where Monday through Thursday I offer a series of four three hour lectures at Zheijang University. I’m very much looking forward to Hangzhou, whose weather is supposed to be a bit more pleasant then Beijing’s, which is very dry and heavy with pollution. The air so dry in fact that Rowan has settled into daily nose bleeds. And the pollution is so bad you can actually feel your lungs burn. It is said that breathing the air of Beijing is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. I believe it.

Well, I wish I could have included some pix for you, but alas I forgot the cord for the camera that’s necessary for transferring them to my computer. (At least I didn’t forget my camera!)

When I return, look for a post on autism and personhood to greet you. And maybe a few pix from what has so far been an incredibly wonderful experience! Indeed, more than the food, more than the bargains, more than anything, it is the Chinese people that impress me the most. They are the most hospitable, most generous people of any I have met. Their hospitality and generosity really do inspire me.

Peace to All,

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Pissing Away America (Don't worry: 'Pissing' is Biblical)

If you’re anything like me, you’ve asked yourself on more than one ocassion “What’s wrong with America?” Well friends, it’s right there in the bible. I know, I didn’t see it either, UNTIL NOW! (Watch the video below in its entirety--it's only four minutes long; you won’t be disappointed...well...on second thought, you probably will be deeply disappointed, but not in the fact that you watched it. And yes, I’m afraid it’s not a joke. I'm also guessing that he-who-must-not-be-named occupied the oval office at the time this sermon was preached.)

On a more serious note, things may be pretty quiet on Holy Skin and Bone over the next two weeks. I’m heading over to China on Tuesday to deliver a lecture on Pluralism, Relativism and Tolerance, and a series of lectures on Dualism, Materialism and Resurrection. I don’t know how accessible the internet will be while there, so, as I say, things may go quiet in these parts.

This is my second trip to China, and on this occasion I am delighted to be able to be taking my ten year old son, Rowan. Should be a lot of fun! (BTW: is there a better job anywhere on the planet than that of an academic? I mean, really? We may not make squat, but my-oh-my, the perks are pretty hard to beat.)

And let me tell you this, my friend-- while I’m in China, 'you better know I’m gonna stand up everywhere I go. Because 'I’m a man, not a male.' And btw, there is one Great Wall in China. So I'm thinkin' there should be plenty of opportunity for me to directly apply this sermon and so demonstrate my manliness. (Lord, have mercy on us all!)

Holy Laughter and Emergent/Emerging

I have often thought that the present phenomenon of “emergent” or “emerging” does not, at bottom, have a particular demographic, that it’s not really a twenty or thirty-something thing, for example. I have thought that there is what my friend Kurt has referred to as a psychographic and that emerging appeals to folks with a certain socio-cultural, emotional sensibility. The following comes from an 80 year old man. Perhaps you’ll be able to identify the author:

Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one cometh to the Father but by me," which, in one sense, seems to be exclusive: unless you're a Christian, you're not on the inside. You're on the outside. But Jesus doesn't say, "The religion founded in my name is the way, the truth, and the life, [and] what people say about me is the way." "Our way of worship, the Christian structure, is not the way," [he would say,] "I am. I am. If you want to know what life is all about, what it's supposed to be, where it's supposed to go, where it's supposed to derive its strength from, don't look at anything people say about me. Don't look at the faith that's been created. Look at my life, which is a life ultimately of sacrificial love."

Those are the words of Frederick Buechner, and I dare say I bet they resonate with emerging types. When speaking of his own learning to “speak the language of faith,” Buechner, recounting a story of a mentor of his, says that Jesus is crowned king in the hearts of his beloved amid confession, tears and great laughter. Why laughter? Here’s Buechner:

I think part of the laughter is the laughter of incredulity. Can it be true? Can it be true? Can it be true what they say? That there really is a God and that he was in Jesus and he loves us and forgives us and will make all things right again? That he really made the world, he loves the world, he will save the world in the long run? Can that be true? I can only laugh. Or maybe the laughter is divine relief: "Oh my God. After everything, it's true. I can only laugh. I can weep at the absurdity and beauty of its truth."

Reminds of these words from Switchfoot:

All will be made well, will be made well, will be made well, will be made well. Is this fiction? Is this fiction? Hope has given himself to the worst. Is this fiction or Divine comedy? Where the last of the last shall be first. Living is simple.

Whether it is fiction or Divine comedy I do not know. What I do know is that at the deepest of part of my being, the story—that grand story of universal redemption, reconciliation and healing, that all will be made well—I am deeply moved, swept up and carried away. I believe. And it's not a choice I make, to believe. Rather, I find between the deepest part of myself and that story a powerful resonance, and it calls forth from me, quite independent of choice, belief. It is as though something inside of me shouts: Yes! This is how it is. At the bottom of everything is life and love and wholeness. Is this fiction or Divine comedy? I can only laugh.

[If you want to read the full interview from which the Buechner quotes are taken, go here. For the full lyrics of Living is Simple, by Switchfoot, go here. My thanks to Christi Sprague for introducing me to that song at a time I really needed it, and to Tasha Golden for sending me the Buechner interview. C.S. Lewis once said, “Nothing, I suspect, is more astonishing in any man’s life than the discovery that there do exist people very, very like himself.” To which I add only this: nothing.]