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Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today

A Week Without Email

A week in the woods is good for my soul. I look forward to my annual May camping trip and this year did not disappoint.

This year had an extra interesting wrinkle. The Sunday before I left on the trip, I gave a short homily about email entitled, “too much of a good thing”.  (It was the topic in our book series Sacred Everyday based Liturgy of the Ordinary).

I also did something for the first time ever: I set an automated away-message for email.

It was surprisingly liberating!

 

So now I am back in the office, catching up on emails, and I am having a blast reading the posts I missed from our writing team.  I wanted to share them with you as an encouragement and a challenge.

Bryan tells us that we don’t need to read every email (his professional opinion)

Katie wants us to practice presence with her favorite saint and mystic—Brother Lawrence

Dori addresses the need for HELP! in midst of chaos and order

Charlie gets deep about finding the divine in the descent into nihilism

Sara meditates on the ‘therefor, go’ – ness of it all  (just read it – trust me)

 

I hope that they help and inspire you as much as they did me. I love doing church as team!

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Jordan Peterson and the Past

I listened to a fascinating podcast yesterday where an older British intellectual (Philip Dodd) took Jordan Peterson to task on one subject after another. It was very argumentative and quite contentious – not to my irenic liking.

Jordan Peterson has risen to fame recently in a parallel way to “Make America Great Again” based on the same ‘things are out of control’ discomfort and backlash. This is a phenomenon that I am particularly intrigued by.

Peterson’s brand of ‘we have to get back to the preferable past’ reclamation project is the perfect blend of two things that I am very familiar with: The academic approach of Alasdair MacIntyre and the therapeutic manliness of John Eldredge’s “Wild at Heart” series.

Eldredge has a therapeutic approach to masculinity based loosely on Jungian archetypes (warrior, king, magician, lover) and thinkers like MacIntyre are trying reclaim Aristotle’s ancient Greek notions of virtue, ethics, and moral character.

When you combine “Wild at Heart” masculinity, with Aristotelian principles in ethics, and throw in a dash of ‘make culture great again’ … you get Jordan Peterson.

Peterson’s book is “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos”. The first six rules are:

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back
  2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
  4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world

None of these rules seem intrinsically bad. Rule 1 is very ‘Wild at Heart’. Rule 6 is very MacIntyre.

Now I have written a lot about MacIntyre and the problems of Aristotelian reclamation projects. Susan Heckman[1] has convinced me that the solution is not simply to (re)claim/(re)cycle/(re)purpose ancient, antiquated, or Aristotelian concepts from the pre-modern world.

 “MacIntyre’s approach exemplifies a disturbing characteristic of much of the communitarian literature: the romanticization of premodern societies that ignores the oppression and hierarchy that was endemic to those societies. Even Sandel (1984), despite his modernist leanings, sometimes falls prey to the tendency to glorify traditional communities. The narrative selfhood that MacIntyre lauds can only be obtained at a high price: the ascription of traditional roles.”

She explains:

“When it comes to the highly charged issue of the sexism and racism of the traditions he praises so highly, MacIntyre seems to abandon his interrelationship thesis. With regard to the Aristotelian tradition, he tries to deny the claim that sexism and racism are an integral part of this system of virtues.

… throughout his writings MacIntyre unambiguously asserts it is this traditional community we must foster if we are to return to any semblance of a moral life:

“What matters at this stage are the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us (1984).”

To thinkers like MacIntyre and Hauerwas and Peterson, we are descending further into an age of darkness.[2] Their answer is to (re)claim or (re)turn to some former understanding or expression of virtue and order. Hekman is right though – we cannot even attempt to do so without acknowledging and addressing the inherent racism, sexism, and disparity built into every level of the structures from which those romantic notions come.

This is the problem with Jordan Peterson’s notion of the past.

 

Three thoughts that I want to leave you with:

Don’t read Peterson – it is too predictable. Read instead Teaching Community by bell hooks and Church In The Round by Letty Russel if you want to understand and do something in our historical moment.

 

The future is going to be slightly like the past but largely unlike it. The world is really changing in some ways and this cultural shift requires not just a new mental framework (thus my interest in ‘social imaginaries’) but a new skill-set. In a land based culture, farmers develop a certain set of skills. As we move to a more liquid and fluid culture, sailors need to develop a different set of skills and knowledges. Both require strength and intelligence … but they are very different.

 

Peterson came to prominence for contesting Canada’s language directives to use gender-neutral pronouns for trans people. Now, leaving out the argument about the government telling us how to talk (a whole other subject) I just want to say that using ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’ is not that difficult and doesn’t take anything away from your masculinity.

It is a really easy change to make once you realize that language (and especially English) is always adapting and evolving anyway. Referring to people by their preferred pronoun is a gracious thing to do (Peterson claims to be a Christian and bases much of his thought on Hebrew Bible stories) and it models Christlikeness through Kenosis (self-emptying) as seen in Philippians 2.

 

 

[1] Hekman, Susan. “The Embodiment of the Subject: Feminism and the Communitarian Critique of Liberalism.” The Journal of Politics 54, no. 04 (November 1992): 1098–1119.

[2] In the consumer society of the 21st century, it is not enough to want to ‘get back’ to a former era of romanticized notions which utilize previous formulations of order and social coherence. We must follow Jesus’ example of interrogating the ‘as is’ structure of our given systems. Jesus employed tactics which subverted the assumed nature of the status quo to inspire people’s imagination about the way that things can be. The way that things are is not the way that God wants them. Things can be different. The gospel calls us to imagine that the world can be a different way. This is good news (evangelion) in the original sense.

 

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

End Times prophecy was a major focus in the first half of my ministry. My call to ministry came in 1991 and I was immediately caught up into cold-war epic readings of Biblical prophecy in the Old and New Testament (as we called them back then.)

I had them all memorized. I subscribed to End Times magazines. I watched weekly TV programs that read the news in one hand and the Bible in the other.

I was trained and ordained in a denomination that has the 2nd Coming of Christ as one of its 4 major themes. As a young pastor, I would lead weekend seminars to help people understand the timelines of our times,  complete with wall-charts.

If you are not familiar with this sub-culture of Christianity then you may not understand some of the news happening right now. You may look at the Evangelical support of the current President or the zeal over what is happening in Jerusalem right now and wonder what you are missing.

Last night, I got to hang out with some of my favorite conversation partners. This year we went through the ABC’s of Faith in Sunday school and 3 themes kept coming up:

Genre: Genre is by far the most important thing about the Bible that many people who claim to be ‘Bible-believing’ don’t know. Nothing matters more than genre when it comes to reading the Bible.

Simply stated, one must read a poem differently than history, prophecy differently than a gospel, a letter (epistle) differently than apocalyptic literature. When people claim, “the Bible says …” it can be a bit of a misnomer.

It would be like reading a newspaper and taking the weather forecast, the police report, the comic section, and the opinion column as A) equal and B) literal.

Revelation: I love the book of Revelation. I study it all the time. I am inspired by it and challenged by it and am constantly referring to imagery within it.

The only thing I dislike is what most people do with the book of Revelation.

  1. It is not a book about the end of the world.
  2. It is not a book about the 21st century.
  3. It is not a book that should terrify or intimidate us.

The early audience for that book would have taken great consolation and comfort from it. The sad thing is that we should be writing things like the book Revelation for our time – but don’t because we think that John’s letter is about our time!

Y2K: this event is emblematic of the apocalyptic mindset. As I said earlier, I became a bible-believing Christian during the cold-war era. Communist Russia was our biggest threat and ‘Christian’ bookstores and TV shows were filled with very specific projections about how current events lined up with biblical prophecy.

Not understanding that apocalyptic literature in the Bible is a critique of their time and that era’s order and a hope of future deliverance makes us vulnerable to panic in ours.

 

Now here is where things get wonky. You may think “so what – charismatics and evangelicals ignore genre and read things out of context – big deal.” But you are missing an important extra ingredient! The longer these things don’t come to pass the more that some have begun to work on them behind the scenes in order to help them come to pass.

The longer these prophecies go unfilled (in their reading) the more effort they put into helping fulfill them.

In my next post, I will tell you how a misreading of Daniel 9 “the prophecy of the 70 weeks” means that the Muslim ‘Dome of the Rock’ in Jerusalem is a major focus because eventually (according to prophecy) that temple mount has be returned to its former (and future) function for the Jewish people.

 

You might think that this stuff sounds silly, but I am hoping to let you see behind the scenes to how consequential this way of reading the Bible is to our current world. Imagine if you thought that all of this long-expected stuff was going to happen in your lifetime and that God has fore-ordained it (or at least foreseen it) before the foundations of the world. The Bible, seen this way, is a history book written before hand by an all-knowing all-powerful God.

Hopefully that helps you understand the evangelical support for the current President and this move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem. It’s not trivia – it deadly serious.

Everyone For Themselves

I am big fan of Identity Politics.  People’s politics should be informed by, and come from, their social location. What is the alternative? Ideology? No, our identities are socially constructed and so that identity needs to inform our politics.

I am also aware that while identity politics (IP) are great for politics –they are not a totalizing approach for every area of life.  There has been quite a loud outcry recently by some over IP’s overreach into every arena and how it has come to dominate nearly everything in a media era where optics are everything.

Today I simply want to look at why it feels like it is ‘everyone for themselves’ in our culture. This is part 4 of “Why Things Seems So Bad Right Now”.  [You may want to read ‘No Neutral Anymore‘ and ‘Fragmented and Fractured’ first.]

 

Identity Politics rose in the 1960’s and came to prominence in the academy though various branches of what comes under the umbrella of ‘theory’. Concerns of feminists, civil rights leaders, the gay community and other minority groups brought radical critique of society and its norms in the 60’s challenging the status quo and the underlying assumption that sustained the oppressive systems of institutionalized systems.

Identity politics gave voice to many who had felt silenced or marginalized by a societal norm that instantiated by codes of conduct, conformity, and control (often through threats and actual violence). By banning together under small but vocal banners identifying the group as connected through some commonality and loyalty (race, gender, class, etc.) individuals were able to create a larger platform for their concerns and garner political leverage for change. Changes included legal protection, the removal of discrimination and practice of exclusion, as well prominence in representation whether in the workplace, government or media.

 

There are at least four considerable critiques of identity politics that cover a wide array of concerns from distinct perspective and commitments.  There are points of overlap between the critics, but for clarity I will group them in the following ways:

  • Atomism
  • Essentialist
  • Communitarian
  • Consumerism

Atomism: Marc Fisher is a vocal critic of identity politics (IP) as an extension of neo-liberalism and its resulting expression of autonomous individualism. Critiques like his focus on the shortcomings of the atomized conception of the individual that come out of the Enlightenment. The breakdown of social bonds (like the family and tribe), religious institutions (prevalent distrust of institutions and leaders) as well as prevalent mobility/transience has resulted in a society of individuals who often do not live in the village they grew up in, feel free to believe or not believe the things that their parents do, and have no generational supervision as they pursue their desires for promotion/status/relationship/satisfaction in isolation and without accountability.

IP then is the natural offspring of this atomized concept of self where one’s own self-interest and particular concern are central and elevated.  In this view, a black lesbian (for instance) takes her own interests and demands special consideration and a privileging of her situation to combat the privilege that has been inherited and enjoyed by those who has historically conformed to societal norms and thus their experience has been normalized.

Essentialist: Judith Butler has a very different concern about IP that it is danger of essentializing individual experience as a common and too concrete category. There is not one experience that can be called the ‘female experience’ or ‘the view of women’. The danger here is that a whole group can be lumped together and their varying experience and perspectives codified as something concrete or essential. Gender is the way (or sexuality, class expectations, etc) and its performative nature means that we have been socialized and conditioned into gender roles and expectations even as we freely act within the menu of options that we believe to be available to us.

In this sense, identity politics risks essentializing an individual or group’s experience in an attempt to gain solidarity within the identified group for the purpose of political leverage with those outside the group. Those working for ‘gay rights’ ban together to narrate a common experience in order to gain attention and allies that are required if the protections that are being sought are going to be agreed to by the majority. This, in Butler’s view, is a temporary measure that cannot be allowed to be essentialized as ‘the’ gay perspective or experience.

Communitarian: This group has a sustained critique of IP, prominently vocalized by thinkers like Michael Sandel. Communitarians view the individual within a larger matrix of social, ethical, and political structures that bind us as a networked or linked collective of groups and communities. The loyalties of IP are to the individual and promote the agenda of one group often to the neglect of or detriment to the collective whole.

IP looks to elevate the experience of a neglected or marginalized group without taking into account the possible reasons why that may have come to be the case historically. Both gays and women are addressed within the construct of procreation and the furtherance of our society and species. Communitarians are clever in the conservatism – contesting not on the grounds of some revealed or universal moral order, but on the grounds of utilitarian pragmatism before transitioning toward moralized principles of the greater good over specialty interests and minority perspectives. [1]

Consumerism: In his book “Consuming Religion”, Vincent Miller interacts with a number of Marxists critiques alongside postmodern approaches such as Jean Baudrillard to expose IP as a commodity fetish within the ‘logic of late capitalism’.  Within a consumer context such as Western culture has entered into, everything including religion experience and IP, is commodified. Consumption is ultimately unsatisfying but the totalizing nature of Capitalist society has the capacity to absorb even the most virulent dissent. The capacity of the market to absorb criticism and protest, then adopt and commodified the concern, and finally appropriate its agenda is all-consuming.

IP can easily be addressed then by the ‘logic of the market’ by taking every specialty interest group or minority and tailoring merchandise, products and ‘swag’ for their purpose and for their rallies. People want to broadcast an image to ‘appear’ that they are committed to a cause.

“The market does not distinguish between ‘Feel the Bern’ bumper stickers or ‘Make America Great Again’. It just wants you to buy bumper stickers.”

Nor does the market judge if a consumer wants to pay $2 more for a cup of coffee to ensure that it is organic – shade grown – fair trade – single region. In the same way, the interests of IP and its constituent groups are commodified and reified within the existing structure. Adjustment is made to supply personalized, modified, tailored, stylized and customized products and services for ready consumption. All resistence, dissent and protest is absorbed and appropriated into what Guy Deborg refers to as ‘the society of spectacle’.

 

In summary, critics of IP share in common a concern for its limitations even while those concerns manifest in disparate directions of critique.

  • First, there is no way that a few contributing markers can signify the totality of your experience.
  • Second, it is possible that identification within one minority group or special interest will suppress and minimize the full expression of your ‘self’ as an individual.
  • Third, by choosing to focus on one or a few personal markers of identity, groups create division and adversarial compartmentalization that may work against the ‘common good’ or which may end up limiting or injuring a different sub-group.
  • Lastly, by choosing to focus on one or a few personal markers of identity, there is a danger of essentializing one experience in order to promote a common voice or narrative but which may be inauthentic and intimately inaccurate committing a fallacy of misplaced concreteness in an attempt to promote solidarity or consolidate support.

I hope that this quick overview has been helpful – if nothing else, I just wanted to address why it may feel like there is such discord and animosity in our contemporary environment.

 

[1] This critique is very popular right now and is making big news on social media for being part of the backlash during the most recent election. Jordan Peterson is probably the most visible spokesperson for this sort of critique. The first 5 min of this video (content warning) will get you up to speed.

Commissioned Together as Sons and Daughters

I love the ‘great co/mission’ in Matthew 28. We humans are invited into a co/mission with God and we are commissioned. What an amazing gift and grace we have been given. We partner not only with God, following that model of Christ, but we are giving Holy Spirit power to do so! This is incredible.

In Acts 2 (calling back to the words of Joel 2) when Holy Spirit is poured out on all flesh, we, as sons and daughters, speak the words of God (prophesy) for all humanity – and indeed all creation.

 

My former tribe (Evangelicals) are having a tough time right now. They are getting blasted from without over their extreme support for the current President. They are wrestling within over issues of race and domestic violence.

Then last week, one of their most visible leader-author-pastors, Beth Moore, released a sincere and devastating letter that has been sent to me numerous times by friends who thought I would be interested.

‘Women in ministry’ was my first and most consequential break with my former denomination. They voted to not ordain women but to instead consecrate them. I petitioned to have my ordination moved to a consecration since :
A) consecration is ‘biblical’ and ordination is not.
B) because I am convinced that we should be moving to greater levels of inclusion and empowerment … not regressing.

I read Beth Moore’s words with great concern. She is right and that it heartbreaking.

 

What makes the situation even more troubling for me is the contrast with my current ministry situation.

When I moved to Southern California for school, I attended a UMC school where my PhD Advisor and the Pastor at my church were both ordained women. I then got job at a UMC church where both my District Superintendent and my Bishop were ordained women.

Last year I joined the UMC again, this time in the Pacific NW, and again my new Bishop and my District Superintendent are ordained women. In fact, my church growth coach, my ordination mentor, my ordination coach, my area coordinator and my education  point person are all ordained women.

Every other month I sit in a multiplying ministry workshop where more than half of my peers are ordained women.

I can’t stress how big of difference it makes being in a denomination where women are empowered and equal. In fact, every time I share my basic lesson-learned on this topic a very bizarre thing happens:

  • People who are previously initiated let me know that my take-aways are obvious and that these ‘lessons’ should be a bare-minimum. They are right.
  • People who are not in an empowering environment stare at me amazed, or get tears in their eyes, or shake their head in disbelief. Their follow-up questions are profound.

 

I would share some of my lessons-learned but I fear they will be distracting to my larger point.

Here is what I really want to say:

  1. Do not settle for anything less than an environment of total acceptance, empowerment, and full ordination. The synergy is too rich for half-measures and compromises. Ministry is so valuable and so rewarding when everyone’s gifts are recognized.
  2. Do not tolerate complementarian views of marriage even in the name of not being divisive. It is does not bear the fruit of unity and peace that you are hoping for. Just agree to disagree and move on – but do not abide that verbiage or behavior in your congregations or educational institutions (no matter how badly you need the money).

I say all of this as a flawed product of a patriarchal system. I fall short at nearly every turn. I am trying and I am learning.

My encouragement to you is simply this: you can’t imagine how much better it is when everyone’s full personhood is recognized and affirmed. It changes so many aspects of spirituality, community, planning and dreaming, networking, accountability, gifting, and so many other aspects of religious life and sacred practice.

It is perfect? No. It’s human. AND that is the beauty of it!  It recognizes each person’s humanity and God’s divine purpose in and for that humanity.

If you haven’t read her letter, please go and do so.  I just wanted to chime in that there is a different and better way.[1] I am grateful for my sisters-in-Christ and partner-pastors who help me see a fuller picture of God and the divine work to which we have all been called.

 

 

[1] My favorite part of Moore’s letter is, “Many churches quick to teach submission are often slow to point out that women were also among the followers of Christ (Luke 8), that the first recorded word out of His resurrected mouth was “woman” (John 20:15) and that same woman was the first evangelist. Many churches wholly devoted to teaching the household codes are slow to also point out the numerous women with whom the Apostle Paul served and for whom he possessed obvious esteem. We are fully capable of grappling with the tension the two spectrums create and we must if we’re truly devoted to the whole counsel of God’s Word.”

 

No Such Thing As Neutral Anymore

This is part 3 in Why Things Seem So Bad Right Now. [Read part 1 and part 2 here]

One obvious effect of our communities living in closer proximity and having more access to a greater number of cultures and subcultures – even if that is only only on social media -is that you can not assume anything anymore.

One big change in our culture in the past 70 years is the loss of an homogeneous majority and thus an assumed ‘normal’. When you had a homogeneous majority, there were certain expectations and assumptions that one could make. Anything different was suspected as a deviation at worst or a variation at best.

You can no longer assumed that there is a ‘normal’. This can be disorienting to those who were formerly at the ‘center’ and enjoyed the privilege of not exerting energy on navigating issues of difference.

You can no longer assume that we are all beginning with the same frameworks or that we are all working toward the same ends. This must be negotiated and mediated. It can no longer be taken for granted as a neutral starting point.

There Is No Neutral Anymore.

 

I have written before about how important it is to realize that truth does not materialize out of thin air – what we call truth is constructed socially (or communally if you prefer).

Even if there was such a thing as ‘universal truth’,  our human access to that truth is:

  • partial,
  • provisional,
  • and perspectival

These confessions come with some pretty profound implications.

Meaning, then, is correspondingly understood to be:

Mediated

Located

Contested

Meaning is mediated because our understanding comes to us through inherited language, cultural behaviors, social expectations, and mental frameworks (paradigms).

Meaning is located because the same event or data may look very different or be interpreted differently be a different person in another place or time.

Meaning is contested because in a partial/perspectival understanding, no one interpretation gets a free ride or an automatic pass. Everything is up for review.

 

In the past, some have thought that meaning is obvious (not mediated), that it was accross-the-board the same for everyone (not located), and that the only negotiation required was at what level you wanted to conform to the truth.

This realization that meaning is contested and must be negotiated communally (or socially) can lead to disorientation and even result in agitation. However, once it is embraced, it can actually be comforting as ones expectations come into alignment with the world as it really is. Homogeneous majority is a mental fiction that had problems all along but never as pronounced as they are now.

 

There is no neutral (or exempt) position anymore. One does not simply get to sit back and poo-poo other’s perspective without providing an alternative. It is not sufficient to take shots at or poke holes in opinions that you disagree with. We live in the age of the cynic but it is unsatisfying personally and unhelpful to the common good.

Because our culture is so fractured … one has to make the claim or justify one’s position in the arena of ideas or the court of public discourse. Nothing gets off scot-free, no idea gets a free ride, and no position is exempt from examination.

There is no neutral anymore.

This is true in issues of economy, politics, military, ecology, morals, religion, civility, marriage, gender, sexuality, occupations and trades are just a few examples of categories that display this loss of fixed and stable assumptions.

The sooner we embrace this new way to conceptualize our participation in culture and society, the better we will be at developing new tools for navigating and practices for flourishing together.

Fragmented and Fractured

Yesterday was part 1 of ‘Why Things Seem So Bad’. Today in part 2 of 4, I would like to focus on how the fabric of our society is under stress and is pulling apart. Let me state this succinctly up front and then expand on it more.

We live in a time that seems very fractured and fragmented. The non-stop news cycle and social media only seem to inflame things. There are 4 ingredients to pay attention to in this analysis:

  • Cultural chaos
  • Communities in close proximity
  • Conflicting narratives
  • Remnants of previous era (past ideas without their historic setting)

In 1981 Alasdair MacIntyre published a book After Virtue that was so monumental that it is referenced (positively or negatively) by nearly everyone working on such issues. The book illustrates the futility of such debates but outlining the problem on three levels:

  1. First is that we have no “rational way of weighing the claims of one (argument) against another”.[1]
  2. Second, the arguments “purport to be impersonal rational arguments” that complicate “moral excellence and argument”.
  3. Third, each disagreement has its own historical situation and “cannot be resolved, because no moral disagreements of that kind in any age, past, present, or future, can be resolved.”

This triangle limits the possibility that we have any arena in which to address moral discrepancies in our culture. As MacIntyre has pointed out earlier:

“What we posses … are the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts that now lack those contexts from which their significance derived. We possess indeed simulacra of morality; we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have – very largely, if not entirely – lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.”[2]

A community’s character is formed by their “enacted narratives”[3] that allow the self to be formed and ones identity to emerge within the continuity (or discontinuity) of the self that is provided by a greater environment. This happens within an embedded or situated environment in which a narrative may be lived out. Our environment is so fragmented and fractured that it is producing a different and disjointed result than previous eras.

In chapter 9 of After Virtue, MacIntyre goes after the relatively unintelligible vocabulary in our modern situation that is nothing more than a series of remnants and fractured remainders from past systems and moral frameworks.

“A key part of my thesis has been that modern moral utterance and practice can only be understood as a series of fragmented survivals from an older past and that the insoluble problems which they have generated for modern moral theorists will remain insoluble until this is well understood.”[4]

Traditions are inherited and do not come to us in a vacuum but contain an element of their given nature. Antiquated notions cannot simply be reclaimed and integrated without a serious examination of the structures from which they arise and the cultures that gave birth to them if we do not desire to reinstall, reinforce, and re-instantiate the forms that gave rise to them. While the desire to return to some familiar pursuit of character formation may be comforting in a fragmented present chaotic era, serious critique is needed to question both the telos of desired outcomes and the source of projects adopted or reclaimed.[5]

In his prologue to the 3rd edition of After Virtue, written on the 25th anniversary of publication, MacIntyre (sounding like Dewey) says that it is within “acts of imagination and questioning”[6] that members or a group would be able to navigate the difficulties of a situation or decision where there is disagreement with another group.

Since there are no “neutral standards” available by which to judge the adequacies of any claim to truth, a rational agent may be able to determine a course of action and bring about a resolution where there is no clear standard by which to evaluate the superiority of one tradition over another.

Navigating in this arena is a dangerous enterprise. An awareness of our cultural chaos is vital. Hauerwas points out that we live in a ‘precarious’ moment:

“Life in a world of moral fragments is always on the edge of violence, since there are no means to ensure that moral arguments in itself cans resolve our moral conflicts.”[7]

He goes on to say that it is little wonder we “hunger for absolutes in such a world” [8] that robs us of sense of self or security that we have. The individual as a rational agent, the unencumbered self, and free actor are all illusions outside of a radically situated history and story of formation and participation.

He goes on to say  “our problem is that we live amid fragments of past moralities each, with good reason. Competing for our loyalty.” [9] We are, however, not simply post-modern islanders participating in and existing within an isolated inheritance. We are more like floating communities tied together by threads from our respective pasts and under constant exposure to new investigations by foreign expeditions.

Our era of inter-national, multi-cultural global connectivity has resulted in a multiplicity where no tradition or community exists in the kind of isolation that allows for stability and continuity. It is within this context that our formation of virtuous agents must conceive of frameworks and incubate embodied practices.  That is no easy task.

Tomorrow we will address one implication of today’s post: that there is no ‘neutral’ position that can be assumed anymore.

[1] Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 8.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 202.

[4] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 105.

[5] I would argue that the nature of Christianity is incarnational – so the past is not the sole determining factor for our present or future expression.

[6] MacIntyre, “After Virtue,” xiii.

[7] Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (SCM Press, 2003), 5.

[8] Ibid., 6.

[9] Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom, 4.

Why Things Seem So Bad (part 1)

This week I want to offer a 4-part series that addresses some issues behind the current state of affairs.

People are concerned about what they see happening right now. There are geographic divisions that seem increasingly pronounced. There are generational, political, and racial division that are inflamed at troubling levels. The news cycle, social media, and institutional corruption (banks, schools, churches, government, hospitals, Hollywood, Washington, etc.) provide a constant string of crisis and controversy.

Things seem to have escalated quite a bit in the past couple of years. Some people will say ‘every generation thinks things are chaotic and out of control’ and there is some evidence of that. However, we live in a unique era when there are the some distinct factors causing an intensification that is notable.

Change is a constant, we know that. Change at this rate, is not. We live in a time of exponential (not just incremental) change. It is no wonder that this environment breeds so much conflict and chaos.

One of the things that I would like to explore is the way that following 3 factors come together in a troubling way:

  • Consumerism
  • Globalization
  • Pluralism

The connection between those three might not seem clear initially, but it is the way that they come together in the 21st century that is relevant for our conversation.

Consumerism is so assumed that it often goes unnamed. It is as if we are on automatic pilot. Buying things has become second nature. I know people who claim to be Christians who can go a whole day (or days) without praying but can’t go a day without making a purchase. Capitalism is the real religion of the West. [1]

Consumerism makes us individuals – or is it that individualism makes us consumers? … either way, we have exposed the root of the problem. Speaking a language, participating in an economy, procreating and raising the next generation, and nearly every other human activity is a communal enterprise that requires cooperation and mutuality. Individualism is a mental fiction we have been sold that fails us at nearly every turn.

Globalization has brought our communities into closer proximity than ever before. We have never had this much access to or contact with one-an-other. It almost doesn’t matter where you live anymore, you have access to goods from all over the world. In fact, you do business with, go to school with, and stand in line with people from all over the world. You may all have different religions, worldviews, or notions of community and belonging. We live in age of radical connection and proximity …. but maybe not overlap. And therein lies the problem for our concern this week.

Pluralism is then a relevant factor that completes our trio. As individuals whose communities are in great proximity to each other, we have to develop an approach to one-an-other.[2] Some of us feel like we have does this well. Which is why it is so baffling why it cause some of our fellow citizens so much agitation and even anger. ‘Difference doesn’t need to lead to division’ we say, and if attitude or acceptance was the only issue we might be right. The problem is that the first two ingredients to trio are the wood and gasoline that make our current environment so flammable. Attitude (or our approach) is just the spark that makes that situation combustible.

Here is the most important thing to understanding our current culture:

Our society is a set of fragments – leftover remainders – of previous expression that may not be compatible with other or newer expressions.

Again – our society is a set of fragments, leftover remainders, of previous expressions that may not be compatible with other or newer expressions. More on this tomorrow. The examples of this phenomenon are endless once you know what you are looking at. Think about religion, Christian denominations, theories of educations, economics, politics, nationality and race, pre-1975 military, for-profit prisons, policing strategies, parenting styles, marriage equality, even grammar and texting language.

Here is a picture that I want to utilize for this 4-part series. It is a piece by my neighbor Jeff and it really speaks to me.

IMG_7259

Our circles (communities) have diversity and differentiation within them. Those circles are in close proximity to each other and are even connected … but without overlapping. They are not integrated. They do not bleed into each other. They are distinct from one-an-other.

What makes this proximity profound is that the newer circles are smaller and bolder but are foregrounded on other circles that are faded but still present. Those larger circles are older and not as pronounced but influential. They haunt the work. They are ghosts and shadows to the primary feature. They are echoes of the past who still exert their voice. Their influence has faded but their effect still remains. The current configuration and focus wouldn’t make sense without them.

Tomorrow we talk about the nature of these remaining fragments and how people who think about such things differ on the subject.

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[1] There are so many great  books on this, including For The Common Good by Daly and Cobb and What Money Can’t Buy by Sandel. I would also recommend the non-academic book The Suburban Christian by Hsu.

[2] I find this way of writing it helpful. It may seem clumsy at first but it will bear fruit later in the series.

Prolepsis and Future God

This 5 minute video presents 3 ideas that come together in a powerful way.

Here is my most adventurous and experimental theology.

  1. Christ as Prolepsis
  2. God as Future
  3. Process of each moment

Please let me know what you think and how I can tighten up the concepts (as I will be presenting this to a live audience soon)

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