Thursday, November 29, 2012

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Paul Among the Moral Philosophers

Occasionally, as a Bible college student, I get to read and think about the Bible. ("Is he serious? Is he joking? I can't tell." Neither can I, friend. Neither can I.) In our ethics class last week I said that "law" has nothing to do with Christianity. I probably shouldn't have said that, mainly because it's almost definitely not true. But one of the reasons I did say it was because of these letters that Paul gave us that say stuff like "against such things there is no law." Life in the spirit is, in some sense, lawless, even though it is a life that fulfils the law.

Another passage that seems to back up my wild statement is 1 Corinthians chapter 6. There, Paul quotes the Corinthians (who may have been quoting a saying of his own) when he writes that "All things are lawful for me." This was the Corinthian justification for their dalliance with prostitutes. In light of this, we might expect Paul to say "Actually, no, not all things are lawful for you, and sleeping with prostitutes is one of those things." He doesn't. Twice he repeats the phrase "All things are lawful to me", and twice he (implicitly) reaffirms its truth. Paul, the man who has become all things to all people, will not budge on his insistence that, to paraphrase Zizek, if Christ has been raised from the dead then everything is permitted.

If we want to think of Paul as a sort of moral philosopher, we therefore cannot think of him as a proto-Kantian who set out to formulate maxims that could become universal laws. Can we think of him as a utilitarian? Perhaps, though in such a severely qualified way that it will render the description almost meaningless. Paul's first response to "All things are lawful to me" is "But not all things are helpful." His second response is "But I will not be dominated by anything." These words "helpful" and "dominated" are given content in the proceeding verses - content which centres around Christ and membership in his body.

For Paul, sleeping with a prostitute is not helpful because it is out of step with the particular telos of life in Christ. Being a member of Christ's body means being conformed to a concrete shape, a peculiar form. To become a member of a prostitute's body is to be de-formed. This is related to Paul's desire not to be dominated, for Paul's understanding is that what dominates us is what shapes us. When Paul says that he will not be dominated by anything, he almost misspeaks, however. Yet if he does misspeak, he puts things right only a few verses later when he says that "You are not your own; you were bought with a price." The key ethical question for Paul, then, is, who is creating us? Who is forming us? Which is another way of asking, who is our master? Who is the one we are imitating?

I was wrong in that ethics class. Law has everything to do with Christianity...provided it is understood that Christ is the telos of the law. If Paul was indeed a moral philosopher, his reasoning began and ended with the person of Christ and the call to be a member of His body. Ethics for Paul named the imitation of Christ, manifested in the life of the church by the power of the spirit and to the glory of God.

One consequence of this is that we don't tell people how to live like Christians, which usually takes the form of rules and laws. We show them with the hope that they will imitate us as we imitate Christ.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Sex and Human Nature

Earlier this year, Alain de Botton wrote a piece on Marriage, Sex and Adultery. In it he says this:

...contrary to all public verdicts on adultery, the real fault might consist of the lack of any wish whatsoever to stray. This might be considered not only weird but wrong in the deepest sense of the word, because it is against nature. A blanket refusal to entertain adulterous possibilities would seem to represent a colossal failure of the imagination, a heedless disregard for the glorious fleshy reality of our bodies, a denial of the power that should rightly be wielded over our more rational selves by such erotic triggers as the surreptitious pressing-together of knees at the end of a restaurant meal, by high-heeled shoes and crisp blue shirts, by grey cotton underwear and Lycra shorts, by smooth thighs and muscular calves -- each a sensory high point as worthy of reverence as the tiles of the Alhambra or Bach's 'Mass in B minor'. Wouldn't the rejection of these temptations be itself tantamount to a sort of betrayal? Would it really be possible to trust anyone who never showed any interest at all in being unfaithful?

In other words, the desire to have sex with someone who is not your wife or husband is with the grain of the universe. David Simon -- the man who created The Wire and who is therefore pretty much always right about everything -- expressed a similar opinion in a recent post about the reaction to yet another high profile figure caught with his pants down...although he expressed it in slightly more colourful language:

This is just sex. This is nothing more than the odd, notable penis or the odd, notable vagina staggering off the marked path and rubbing against the wrong tree. This is just people.

According to Simon, to be a person is to be, by nature, adulterous. In one sense, what de Botton and Simon express is a form of Christian anthropology which takes with utmost serious the doctrine of the Fall. Nature, as we now have it, is depraved. Unfaithfulness is one of the givens of creation. To somehow be impervious to this fact of nature would be inhuman, which is why, according to de Botton, such a person probably shouldn't be trusted. They would be, in some way or another, unnatural.

Nevertheless, in the end of his piece de Button praises this unnaturalness:

Too many people start off in relationships by putting the moral emphasis in the wrong place, smugly mocking the urge to stray as if it were something disgusting and unthinkable. But in truth, it is the ability to stay that is both wondrous and worthy of honour, though it is too often simply taken for granted and deemed the normal state of affairs. 
That a couple should be willing to watch their lives go by from within the cage of marriage, without acting on outside sexual impulses, is a miracle of civilisation and kindness for which both ought to feel grateful every day. 
Spouses who remain faithful to each other should recognise the scale of the sacrifice they are making for their love and for their children, and should feel proud of their valour.

As congenial as this sounds to a Christian understanding of marriage, the language of "sacrifice" that de Botton uses to praise those who remain faithful is a language that Christians cannot accept without significantly different understandings of its content. If monogamous marriage is a “sacrifice” it just so to the extent that it is the relentless giving over of self to another which is in harmony with the true form of God and the true form of His creation. It is not, as de Button suggests, the foregoing of adultery for the sake of “love” or “children”. The faithful life of one man and one woman together is therefore not a “sacrifice” of one thing (the natural) for another (supernatural) but a sign that in and through Christ the natural has remained loved and called by God and is in the process of being made new. Faithfulness, not unfaithfulness, is with the grain of the universe.

De Button and Simon begin -- as Zizek would also like to begin -- from The Fall. But that is not where the Christian story begins. It begins, rather, with Deus triunus and with creation as an expression of the divine life. And in another sense, it begins again at Easter, when God raised Jesus form the dead.

"The glorious fleshy reality of our bodies" is not revealed by the high-heeled shoes and smooth thighs of a woman who is not my wife, but I am sleeping with her. Nor is the human person on display when a penis or vagina staggers off the marked path. We have, however, been given a form that is truly human - the form of Christ. The marriage relationship is one of the ways we have been given to imitate that form. As Stanley Hauerwas says, we have to learn how to be human. Human nature does not come naturally to us. It is a grace. But with God, nothing is as natural as grace, which is why we can have hope even in the midst of our greatest infidelity.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

What It Means to be a Christian

In A Dialogue Between a Theologian and a Lawyer, Stanley Hauerwas was asked this question:

What does it mean to be a Christian? Is it a community of practice? A community of faith that believes in certain things? Do you think you can be a Christian or claim to be a Christian if you really don’t believe in the faith but you believe in the community?

His answer is, well, the kind of answer you'd expect from a high church Mennonite:

Well, I’m not one to take my subjectivity that seriously. The idea that I might know whether right now I am exhibiting deep faith in God, I wouldn't have the slightest idea and I don’t find it interesting. The question is: What do my enemies think? I always say one of the most important questions you can ask a theologian is “Where do you go to church?” because the liturgy is central to the intelligibility of the language we use. So I am not that impressed by justification by belief. It seems to me that the Protestant focus on thinking that you need to believe very hard that God exists and therefore that makes you a Christian shows a kind of desperateness that fails to indicate that what it means to be a Christian is to be embedded in practices that are so determinative you cannot imagine that God has not redeemed the world in Jesus Christ. And that sounds like a belief, but it is much more embeddedness in a whole language and community that exemplifies the language that makes our lives intelligible.

Hauerwas's answer flies in the face of Protestant wisdom. The subject that Hauerwas cares about is not the individual but the church. He is not much interested in what Stanley Hauerwas believes or doesn't believe. He is interested in what the church believes, i.e., what the church says and does, with his own life intelligible as "his own life" only as part of that particular community.

This would be an interesting understanding of Christianity to bring into an Irish context, where there is sometimes a tension between evangelicals who have a personal relationship with Jesus and their Catholic family members who don't seem to care too much about what they do or don't believe about God but who know that being part of a local faith community is good for their souls.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Abortion, Wealth, and Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes is one of those books that I don't know what to do with. Indeed, it's one of those books that the church doesn't know what to do with, as its truncated appearance in the lectionary testifies to. Of course "All Scripture is God-breathed", but some of it is more God-breathed than others. Actually, breath might not be a bad description of Ecclesiastes, with this being one possible translation of the Hebrew word hebel - breath, wind, absurdity, transitory, vanity, meaninglessness. We find Ecclesiastes absurd, and so we ignore it, or use it -- like law -- as the foil for the gospel.

But what if this book is useful for training in righteousness? What if the Teacher has something to teach us? More specifically, what if he has something to teach us about wealth and abortion? The Teacher says this: It would be better to be an aborted child than to lack nothing except the ability to enjoy anything. In other words, as wrong or as cruel as we think abortion is, the aborted child is better off than many of us who think that abortion is wrong and cruel. This doesn't make us wrong about abortion, but it does make us wrong about the kind of life that we want children to call "good", the kind of life that it is worth not being aborted for. It is not our life of relentless, insatiable acquisitiveness, but a life capable of enjoying the gifts God gives, which include children.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Those Who Ignore History

To paraphrase Verbal Kint, the greatest trick the Enlightenment ever pulled was convincing the world that the past doesn't exist.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Monks, Clocks, and Capitalism

In (I think) Living in the End Times, Slavoj Zizek talks about the power of capitalism to absorb everything into itself so that even that which was once anti-capitalist can be transformed into that which sustains capitalism. His example is environmentalism, which has now been embraced by capitalism with the creation of a new market that deals in green products etc.. 

Two weeks ago I linked to a post in which the relationship between marriage and capitalism was under the microscope, with the latter absorbing the former into its logic. If you thought that was a bit weird, then read what Neil Postman has to say about the relationship between clocks and capitalism:

The clock had its origin in the Benedictine monasteries of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The impetus behind the invention was to provide a more or less precise regularity to the routines of the monasteries, which required, among other things, seven periods of devotion during the course of the day. The bells of the monastery were to be rung to signal the canonical hours; the mechanical clock was the technology that could provide precision to these rituals of devotion. And indeed it did. But what the monks did not foresee was that the clock is a means not merely of keeping track of the hours but also of synchronizing and controlling the actions of men. And thus, by the middle of the fourteenth century, the clock had moved outside the walls of the monastery, and brought a new and precise regularity to the life of the workman and the merchant. "The mechanical clock," as Lewis Mumford wrote, "made possible the idea of regular production, regular working hours and a standardized product." In short, without the clock, capitalism would have been quite impossible. The paradox, the surprise, and the wonder are that the clock was invented by men who wanted to devote themselves more rigorously to God; it ended as the technology of greatest use to men who wished to devote themselves to the accumulation of money. In the eternal struggle between God and Mammon, the clock quite unpredictably favoured the latter.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Virtue of Virtue Ethics

If it's done nothing else, Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue has given me the ability to understand why this paragraph by Sam Wells gets ethics rights:

Virtue ethics puts habits in the place where commands used to be. Let's take marriage for example. Rather than saying 'Do not commit adultery', it says 'eat together every evening.' With eating together every evening, somebody has to go shopping, somebody has to prepare the food, somebody has to clear up afterwards, somebody has to say every single time: 'Should we put flowers on the table?' When the phone rings: 'Shall we answer it?' Every single gesture is actually building up a marriage or reducing it. Every single time you must decide to arrange food on the plate or to dump it down in front of your partner. All of those things can be done with care and love, they can be done punctually or they can be done aggressively. If you get eating together in the evening right, you've got a marriage. Even if you don't commit adultery, there are a hundred other ways to destroy a marriage. You might not even notice that your marriage is falling apart because, you think: 'We kept the rule so it's not our fault, I haven't chased anybody.' Living virtuously becomes about developing a habit, in this case, what it means to eat together every evening.

The Non-Truth of Self-Evident Truth

The great thinkers and speakers that I know have at least one thing in common: they keep repeating themselves. Their sayings and stories become like the classic tracks of an artist, which, while perhaps reinterpreted or redeveloped in new performances, will forever remain constitutive of who they are. What Like a Rolling Stone is to Bob Dylan, The Prodigal Son is to Jesus, or the Niels Bohr story is to Slavoj Zizek. In other words, continual originality is overrated.

Stanley Hauerwas is another who repeats himself. One of his classics is the track America is the only country that is founded on a philosophical mistake. That mistake? The concept of inalienable human rights. Alasdair MacIntyre calls it a "pseudo-concept" which we have as much reason to believe in as we do witches and unicorns. The reason he has no time for it is this: there are no self-evident truths.

I probably agree with Hauerwas and MacIntyre, but my question is this: How do we know that it's true that there are no self-evident truths?

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Things I've Read

Blogging is so much easier when you just read the stuff written by other people and post it on your own blog.

Reformed Christian theologian Kevin Hargaden wrote two excellent posts on some of the liturgical symbols of the modern state: the flag and the poppy. With these symbols citizens remember the dead and hold onto eschatological hope. The church, however, has been given different symbols. We've been given bread and wine to remember a different kind of death/dead and a different kind of hope. 

Perhaps the problem with the Presbyterian Church in Ireland -- if I can be so bold as to begin a sentence like that -- is that it doesn't remember that we've been given these symbols. I'm currently attending (?) a Presbyterian church in Belfast, and have worshipped in Presbyterian churches in the past on roughly ten Sundays. As far as I can remember, not once did I participate in communion during those services. If the church is to resist the narrative of violence that underlines the state's authority and makes our subservience to it intelligible, we can do little more than to remember what we've been given.

Jordan Mattox has written a good piece on Pete Rollins and the movement he is associated with. His conclusion is on target:

Like the new age movement, Rollins movement seems a perfect fit for the guilty and anxiety-ridden liberals. If he wants to break from the system, I am not certain that the answer will be found in theological therapy of this kind. Theology then becomes a way to deal with the anxiety of being human and that is not the telos of Christianity.

Which brings me back to Kevin, who can be quoted as saying that what Ikon and its kind need to do is read more Karl Barth. Rollins's aphorism that to believe is human, to doubt is Divine is, at best, self-serving. At worst it is how not to speak about God. Basing your doctrine of God on Jesus's cry of "My God my God, why have you forsaken me?" is like basing your justification of violence on Jesus's clearing of the temple. The words and the action need to be seen as part of a much larger narrative that tells the story not of doubt and fear and -- never far behind -- violence, but of faith, hope and love.

Finally, Daniel Kirk posted this on his blog. If you are what Hauerwas calls "an animal that has learned to pray", then do please pray as I consider what my next step is going to be.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Out of the Mouths...

Theologians and their corresponding children's songs...

Karl Barth:

Jesus love me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

John Howard Yoder:

He's got the whole world in His hands.

Stanley Hauerwas:

I may never march in the infantry
Ride in the cavalry
Shoot the artillery
I may never fly o’er the enemy
But I'm in the Lord’s army

Richard Hays:

Father Abraham had many sons
Many sons had father Abraham
I am one of them, and so are you
So lets all praise the Lord

N.T. Wright:

Who's the king of the jungle?
Who's the king of the sea?
Who's the king of the universe,
and who's the king of me?
I tell you J.E.S.U.S.

Charles Hartshorne:

Every move I make I make in You

John Wesley:

I've got the joy joy joy joy down in my heart

Monday, November 5, 2012

Modern Marriage Through a Marxist Lens

Over at the Political Theology blog there is a post on marriage that is worthy of your internet time. It's message is this:

Marriage functions, within capitalism, as an instrument that reproduces the conditions of production.

Now there's a sentence to suck the romance and excitement out of marriage if ever there was one. Mattox is not pessimistic regarding marriage qua marriage, however. The climax of his argument is this:

Marriage is not the problem, but when it becomes a replacement for the promise of salvation and the community of the Church, it threatens to destroy our souls.

One implication of this is that far from high divorce rates indicating a decline in the "value" or "sanctity" of marriage, they are actually an indication that our culture has too much faith in marriage. When one particular marriage doesn't deliver on the promise to save us from meaninglessness or loneliness, we have obviously married the wrong person and therefore must try again, otherwise we forfeit the possibility of salvation and risk dooming ourselves forever. Marriage is too valuable and too sacred for a bad one to be tolerated. But as Mattox says, all of this places a weight on marriage that it cannot bear.