Sunday, June 8, 2008

Tony Jones and The New Christians

We last left Tony in chapter four, The Theology Stupid. Today we pick up in chapter 5, After Objectivity: Beautiful Truth.

Tony notes that emergents place a high priority on interpretation and thus conversation. The more interlocutors, Tony suggests, the more likely we are to come to a better interpretation, and the closer to truth. (That's right--truth.)

Now some who listen in on conversations that take place here, whose identities lay safely hidden behind online handles that provide a safe haven from which to launch vitriol and self-righteousness, which shower down like dirty bombs causing injury to the name of Jesus and contributing to the uglification of the Church, some such as these I say, may think:

But, c'mon; multiplying stupidity will never add up to intelligence. Hundreds of inept interpreters sitting around on couches, sipping lattes from s-bux and pontificating on blogs and in books about social justice after they just drove their hummer the 1.5 miles to the coffee shop is no more likely to get you closer to the truth or to a better interpretation than two such imbeciles chattering away to each other on facebook.

It’s like the C student who comes to me and asks if he could write a couple of extra papers to raise his grade. How do you tell him, without crushing his spirit, that more average work will not eventuate in an above average grade?

I get the point of the naysayers (although I don’t think I’ll ever get the ad hominems and inflammatory rhetoric such folk characteristically employ). But here’s the difference between what Tony’s saying and my imaginary student. Emergent Christians speak and listen. And they are forever extending the boundaries of conversation.

It’s not unlike Wikipedia. While I advise my students that consulting Wikipedia when writing a philosophy paper is as useless as consulting a dictionary to discover the meaning of words when writing such a paper, there is a dynamic at work in the writing of Wikipedia that is absent in the case of my student. And the difference is network. Wikipedia is open to all via the world wide web and experts with access generally do not allow misinformation to last very long on Wikipedia before it is revised and corrected. Likewise in the conversations that animate emerging. Hearing the voices and stories of others can have the effect of enlarging your world and sometimes making you think “you know, I’ve never quite thought about it that way before. That does seem a more faithful reading than mine, now that I think about it.”

I’m going to keep this short and invite others to throw in. But let me pick up on just one more aspect of this chapter—beauty.

Tony tells a story of a young boy who after hearing a lecture and discussion on the (im)plausibility of the Virgin birth went up to the lecturer and declared that he himself believes in the Virgin birth. The speaker asks him why and he says “Because it’s too beautiful not to be true” (p.160).

I’ve said this many times on this blog, but it bears repeating. If I were asked why I believe in the Christian story, why I believe in a Creator God who pursues his fallen and perverted creation with the urgent love of a mother or father, I think I’d be tempted to answer as the boy. I really can’t help but believe it. I think when you really, truly sense that you are a “crooked soul trying to stay up straight”, when you sense that you are sick and in need of healing, when you sense that you don’t have it all together and stand in desperate need of love and forgiveness, when you recognize that both you and the world you live in are broken and you feel deep down in your bones that a better world and a better you are possible, then the Christian story overwhelms you with its beauty. There’s a fittingness to it. It fits your experience of yourself and the world. It’s too beautiful not to be true. Messy? Yes. But beautiful in its messiness.

What do you think about that? What do you think about beauty or aesthetic qualities as indicators of truth? Is it the case that in math and science we discard one theory in favor of another sometimes because the replacement theory is more elegant, more aesthetically beautiful than that which it's replacing? Granted, the replacement theory is generally expected to have more explanatory power. But is there nothing to the idea that elegance or beauty is truth indicative?

Well, that's enough for now. I'll blog about the final chapter next time. But let me say here that while there have been places in Tony's book where I’ve paused and thought “I don’t know about that” or “That seems a little self-indulgent to me” the major chords being struck in the book and in emergent are ones that resonate very deeply with me. Very deeply indeed.


Maria said...

I'm reminded (though it's a bit vague in my memory at the moment) of Jonathan Edward's writings on the beauty of God. It makes sense to me that better, or truer, theology would reflect the beauty of the One that it is trying to tell truth about. Certainly, as you point out, those who claim to speak for truth in ways that contradict the character of God do make Christianity "ugly." No matter how valid their points, there's something questionable at the heart when they are delivered with anger and vitriol.

I wonder, too, if the relation between beauty and truth gives us some ground to accept the beauty and truth in other religious traditions. For example, there is something so beautiful and compelling in the way Native Americans relate to creation that considering that might force us as Christians to dig deeper into our own tradition to discover how God's redemptive plans bear on all of creation.

Kevin Corcoran said...

Hi Maria,

I of course am a pretty big fan of common grace. I have no doubt that we Christians have much to learn from other religious traditions. Our God is a promiscuous God, promiscuous with love, promiscuous with grace and promiscuous with beauty!
If all truth is God's truth, I would suspect that all beauty is God's beauty.


Stephen Krogh said...

One of the principle reasons for my conversion to Catholicism was the beauty I found (and still find) in the church. I remember my first mass; I was invited by a professor, who was a gracious Catholic, after I had gone on some childish fundamentalist anti-Catholic rant. I had no idea he was a Catholic. He listened to my ramblings for about an hour and asked if I would join him that Sunday. My foot was far too deep in my mouth for me to utter a refusal, so I agreed.

I got to St. Joseph's Cathedral (in Sioux Falls) around 8:59 with a few seconds to spare and Prof. Roark was waiting for me. The first thing I remember as I walked into the church is the genuflecting parishioners. There is something about genuflecting even today that moves me in a meaningful way; I am not sure why. It is beautiful. For the next hour I heard hymns, which have been sung for almost 2000 years, and some for even longer (presumably the angels will be singing the 'Sanctus' from ever lasting to ever lasting). I was surrounded by statuary, stained glass, organs, alters, and any other number of artifacts, all beautiful in their own right. As I look back on that Sunday morning, however, I see something more beautiful, more true, more real than any of the hymns, the stained glass, the statues, etc. For, though they are wonderful to behold, they are more artifacts in a museum without the presence of He who gives them meaning. The real beauty of the place, which hit me hard enough that I still feel the blow, is the almost ineffable beauty of the savior of humanity, the author of creation, the purveyor of love, who was present (I now believe, though then I only thought that they believed it) physically and spiritually. Like the brave sojourner who finds his way out of the cave and sees the sun making sense of the forms he had only seen in parody in the cave, the presence of God makes statues praise, stained glass sing, and perhaps most importantly, it causes human hearts to repent, offer God's peace, and makes bread made by human hands, into the savior of humanity.

Bob said...

Hi Kevin,
Welcome back to the blog world. I think overall of in the long run beauty is good and true. But as I get older and hopefully more wise something can look beautiful and be false the trick is to discern the difference. Satan can appear as an angel of light.

Tones said...

Kevin -
It's great to read you again - welcome back! The Word of God (the Truth) can be very beautiful, and sometimes the Truth can appear very ugly. If one believes that the truth is that all of humanity will one day be reconciled to God, this may look very beautiful. If however, you believe that some of humanity will be eternally separated from God, well then this truth appears vile. Scripture, depending on what you study and how you study, can appear to support both theories. There are many beautiful truths taught to us in Scripture, and there are many truths taught to us in scripture that appear quite vile to many.

Kevin Corcoran said...


Very nice! I was hoping I might get you to elaborate on a couple of things. I assume you accept the teaching of RC re: transubstantiation. I'm just curious, was that a teaching that you accepted and had to grow into, as an adult convert, or was it a teaching that you sort of took on board and which fit right from the outset?

For you, what is it about genuflecting that moves you so?

Bob and Tones:

I agree that untruths can have a veneer of beauty about them and that discernment is always to be exercised. On one register the incarnation is anything but beautiful. One sign of genuine (not counterfeit) beauty is the degree to which it fits with the great truths of the gospel. So, for example, when one beholds a moment of forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, humility, compassion, bridge building, justice, hospitality, truth-telling, etc., and one “has eyes to see”, to such a one it will appear, I think, beautiful. And it will appear beautiful because it is beautiful. But, you’re right: what is beautiful can appear ugly and what is truly ugly can appear beautiful. Which is why we have to cultivate characters that are fit to recognize the genuine from the counterfeit. We do that, I think, by engaging in Christian practices of character formation and steeping ourselves in the Christian story.

Stephen Krogh said...


Regarding transubstantiation: I suppose I was agnostic in regards to the Lord's Supper as a Protestant. I didn't really think a lot about it; I just knew it as something we were supposed to do. When I first heard that Catholics and Orthodox actually believe that the bread and wine become Christ, I was skeptical, but not for anything more than that I was skeptical of any belief Catholics hold (I didn't know the Orthodox faith from anything, so I had no opinion, but is sounded suspiciously Catholic, so I rejected it). The turning point for me was when I started reading the church fathers. As far as they are concerned, there is no ambiguity on the matter, and I had to come to grips with the fact that I would either accept their teachings, or I would be forced at some point both here and hereafter to stand before the fathers and inform them that they had gotten it wrong in regards to the Eucharist; happily, I was not so bold (this may surprise you; my mixture of impetuosity, brass, and naivety often causes me to act in less than prudent manners, manners for which I have to apologize later). To answer your question then, while not initially a part of my faith, once I was exposed to the doctrine, I was compelled to believe.

As a side note, though I wholeheartedly believe in the real presence of Christ in and at the Eucharist, I am not so strong a supporter of transubstantiation. Because my church accepts it as doctrine, I will not teach or speak publicly against it, but (hold your breath for this one; you don't hear me say this often) I think St. Thomas Aquinas got a little ahead of himself regarding the actual doctrine itself. For the great systematizer it wasn't enough to accept the Eucharist for the mystery it is and so he, well, systematized it, perhaps a little unnecessarily so. There is nothing inherently offensive to me regarding transubstantiation, which is why I accept it with good conscience, but it may be an overextension of reason, a mistake Aquinas rarely made.

As for genuflection, I am not sure what moves me so about it. I've long loved the Catholic belief that our material bodies play just as important a role in our salvation as our immaterial parts (for lack of a better word. I know your views regarding what I've just said about the immaterial 'parts' of humanity, but you get the drift). Genuflection to me is beautiful, because it affirms just how physical and material we are. Before us sits the alter of our Lord, upon which Christ will be offered up for us in a bloodless sacrifice; we prepare our minds, our hearts, our souls (or whatever metaphysically you believe must be prepared), and as Catholics, we prepare our bodies. We affirm our physicality by kneeling before the Lord; this affirmation is beautiful in its humility, its honesty. I am sure I didn't think all of these things the moment I first saw someone genuflect, but having had five years to mill it over, I think this is why it moves me.