Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Political discussions about rights

I’ve been reading up on economics and theology lately, and it reminded me of a larger issue in our culture that I’d like to wonder out loud about.

Alasdair MacIntyre, in his magisterial After Virtue, argued that many of our current political debates are intractable because we have no common moral framework from which to argue.

My question is: do you, dear reader, agree with this? He uses this idea to explain why debates about abortion, for example, devolve into screaming matches. That is, because our method for determining what a basic right is is just ultimately our feelings or intuitions, when people have differing intuitions it is impossible to persuade the opposing side to change.

This would even true, I think, when debating with a utilitarian of the most rigorous kind, because even utilitarians take “the greatest good for the greatest number” as a moral absolute, a right.

So: are we stuck in an interminible shouting match based on competing emotions? Or do we still have a common moral framework, in the Western world (or, to make things simpler, Canada or the USA)?

Crusades Revisionism: Give it a Rest

Once again someone out there is trying to rehabilitate the crusades as entirely acceptable, this time I noticed it via Craig Carter who quotes Rodney Stark approvingly:

“the Crusades were precipitated by Islamic provocations: by centuries of bloody attempts to colonize the West and by sudden new attacks on Christian pilgrims and holy places.”

Well, it was nice of the religious and political hierarchy of Christian Europe to look up from their burning of witches, putting of Jews in ghettos, and holding of inquisitions for the Cathars just long enough to remove the mote of religious persecution from their neighbour’s eye. As far as “bloody attempts” to colonize the West are concerned, if step back further, the West under the guise of Rome and Greece colonized Western and Central Asia long before Mohammed’s armies got their start. Before them, Xerxes tried to colonize the West for Persia. So taken in the wide-angle view, this is just a part of the ongoing struggles between various groups for control of each other’s territory. To play a game of whether Central Asia or Europe started invading the other first is a bit silly. The crusades were a poorly conceived waste of blood and treasure in a Quixotic quest to control the Holy Land for the followers of one who promised the destruction of its holiest sites and who explicitly said that he wouldn’t always be worshipped in Jerusalem anyway.

Everything is Ideological… and Everything is Labelled

Kester Brewin has a post about a new campaign brought to you by the “atheist bus” people. In this effort they pick up on a complaint made by Richard Dawkins that labeling children as belonging to any particular religious, political, or ideological group is somehow tantamount to child abuse. Of course we can all see the extreme examples of this, the kids of Westboro Baptist come to my mind as horribly mistreated props in Fred Phelps insane efforts. It seems easy enough to spot the dangers of the extremes.

A brief aside: I want to make it clear that I went to public schools and I fully intend to send any children that I have to public schools – what I am about to say is not any sort of pitch for homeschooling or Christian private schools. That said, it is impossible not impress one’s values on one’s children – and yes, this is an observation that homeschoolers and private religious institutions frequently make. Even if I differ with their solution, their analysis is fundamentally correct. The very value of religious choice – a characteristic of neo-Durkheimian and post-Durkheimian societies – arose out of the Westphalian system and its aftermath. Prior to this turn, one’s church was embedded in one’s identity with community, social order, and nation – Durkheim’s opponents after all were French Catholic Royalists. (Some more in-depth discussion here.) Thus religion was part of a broader construction of identity that could not – or ought not – be disentangled.

Insofar as evangelicals are, by definition, always trying to add to their numbers, both from non-Christians and Christians disaffected by their own church, it can be argued that contemporary evangelicalism is a product of neo-Durkheimian society itself. Nonetheless, giving individuals unfettered religious choice is a sort of late-Western value. (One that might have some ancient antecedents, but I haven’t the time to go into that right here and now.) At any rate, a commitment to at least some form of neo-Durkheimianism is something that the British Humanist Association (creators of the new campaign) and Western evangelicals share – whether or not either group is aware of it. Kester Brewin himself expresses his support for some kind of neo- or post-Durkheimianism stance towards religion by saying,

“Parents do not and should not see their children as blank canvases that they should not make any mark on. If they did there would be no education. It is the responsibility of every parent – and every society – to do its best to pass on the history and story of the family or culture they have come from – as long as this is then followed by an invitation to freedom beyond it.”

What the British Humanist Association is trying here is a classic trick that Žižek is often fond of pointing out: the effort to appear non-ideological or post-ideological as a way to smuggle some a priori ideology into an argument. For Žižek everything is ideological (on YouTube you can find his explanation of the ideological underpinnings of toilet design – I’m serious) and any attempt to appear non-ideological should be greeted with a great deal of suspicion as the “non-ideological” rhetorical trick often works since it allows one to accuse one’s opponents thusly: “Why are you being ideological about this?! I’m just proposing something here and now you’ve put your ideology in it.”

This ad campaign is an excellent example of the process: there is an advocacy for a particular sort of meta-religious attitude that at first appears to be non-ideological since is appears to be against imposing any sort of religious labels on children. As I’ve demonstrated above though this is an expression of a particular ideological stance – that religious choice – previously delegated to adults, should be extended to children as well. By saying that there should be no religious/political/ideological label on children, one creates and new sort of meaning for the word “children” that now means not only “younger persons” but also “pre-ideological.” Of course “pre-ideological” is a label that concerns ideology.

By saying that children should not be labelled by their parent’s ideology one is both applying a new label and making a statement about what said parents ideology should be.

Are We Not Men?

Don DraperReading Eye Weekly I came across this article about the disappearance of manliness. It appears to have been spawned by a film based on the exploits of a loutish sort of blogger named Tucker Max who freely admits that he is an irresponsible, mocking drunk whose sexual habits are a recipe for STIs. Writer Edward Keenan  points out that Tucker Max is a hero to a cadre of young men and that is a symptom of, “the slow, steady disappearance of manliness — and with it a popularly accepted, socially worthwhile role for men — in North American culture.”

Now being written in an alt-weekly, you know that this article is not going to be a simple pining for the “good old days” of yore. Keenan recognizes (rightly, in my opinion) that the old-time patriarchy had plenty wrong with it as well. I commend to you Mad Men or the UK version of Life on Mars if you start getting nostalgic for a time when women “knew their place” and so on. What happened though is that as women broke out their old roles confined to homemaking and child-rearing, men have sort of given up. Says Keenan:

“[M]en in increasing numbers have just decided to kind of drop out of the whole battle of the sexes thing and play videogames (or beer pong, or fantasy football, or Dungeons and Dragons, or just their iPods) instead. When women decided to stop taking orders from The Man, men decided to stop being The Man and focus on being The Dude. As women have realized that with great freedom comes even greater and more frustrating responsibility, men have increasingly realized that they can chase their bliss and reach self-actualization without owning up to any responsibilities at all.”

Keenan goes on to suggest that this isn’t because men have stopped being men, they’ve just continued to be men but in a more useless way:

“It’s not as if men have dropped many of the old annoying characteristics of manhood. They are as competitive as ever, they are as lustful as ever, they still shun emotionalism and embrace codes and statistics and structures. It’s just that all the socially redeeming things that used to accompany those easy-to-spot external characteristics — things like a sense of honour and a feeling of responsibility to something greater than oneself, be it family or society at large — have been shrugged off like so much paternalistic baggage.”

This is true in virtually every expression of 21st C. North American masculinity – video games along could be a case study: There’s competition, gratuitous cleavage, dispassionate killing, and of course any good first-person shooter game will break down the numbers after each round – how many kills with each type of weapon, how many head shots, accuracy and so on. Blogs, ahem, aren’t much better, WordPress, like any good blogging platform has all manner of statistics, many of which can be published to the actual home page of one’s blog so that one might boast about them.

It might be worth noting at this juncture that Keenan is careful to point out that these are of course tendencies and not universal truths, but that tendencies, like how men tend to be taller than women are not to be overlooked. There are of course slacker women and career-climbing men out there, but increasingly it seems like both of these are exceptional cases. Keenan has numbers: Women are more likely to attend university, more likely to graduate, and more likely to go into professional schools like law or medicine.

Keenan argues that we have our definitions wrong, that when we today speak of masculinity, we think of “shallow displays of toughness and vulgarity, of an obsession with balls (of various kinds) and breasts and booze and brawn” while earlier generations would have probably associated masculinity with responsibility to their families and communities. Moreover, one should not contrast masculinity and femininity: “Men haven’t avoided manliness to become more like women — if they had, we’d have no problem, really. They’ve avoided it to become more like children.”

Some Theses About All This:

  • We cannot go back – even if we would want to. Young women – even many of those who I encounter in evangelical church settings often have solid careers that I do not see them forsaking for 1950s family roles. Moreover, there’s a reason I put Don Draper up at the top of this post – there was lots to dislike about the “good old days” and certainly lots of men were reprehensible cads. No nostalgia, please.
  • Traditionally masculine values such as courage or responsibility have been subject to all kinds of abuse. My great-grandfather returned from Passchendaele physically (and likely psychologically) wounded – and for what? To protect the lands of Belgium’s monarchy? To stop Germany from threatening British naval hegemony? World War I was a complete waste of blood and treasure at the behest of incompetent upper class twits like Douglas Haig. Men were often just as exploited by the old patriarchy as women. If I had to choose, I’d rather my generation of men and our sons grow up as video gamers than as imperial cannon fodder.
  • The recent past is not the whole history of gender relations: for most of human history most men and women worked side-by-side in predominantly agrarian societies. That is not to say that gender didn’t serve as a means for the division of labour, but it would have been incoherent to say that one sex “stayed home” and the other “went off to work.” Even with the advent of industrialization, many women worked in factories (mainly in textiles). As the nature of work continues to change it is anachronistic to suggest that there are fixed gender roles regarding work. Who does what work is always up for negotiation.
  • Men dropping out and women picking up the slack goes a long way in explaining the so-called happiness gap. I am referring to the fact that since the 1960s women have reported being less and less happy with their lives while men’s happiness has generally increased. Obviously if men are focused video games/bands/the internet while women work on their careers while still doing the bulk of the household chores/child-rearing it’s no secret who will, in the short term at least, be happier.
  • The cohort of boys born in the late ’70s and onward and who had grown up in North America probably had, on average, the best material childhood and adolescence in human history. We enjoyed the best toys, games, and gadgets ever. Boys playing with the tin or wooden toys of yesteryear had mediocre simulations of real trucks or real soldiers or whatever. We had Nintendo, we had toy cars that became robots, we had, in short, playthings that were better than “real life.” It’s no wonder we don’t like the idea of growing up, it’s a downgrade from childhood. Girls meanwhile were still being exposed to the intense pressure to be physically attractive while simultaneously being expected to run for student council, play sports, and get into a good university. For girls growing up didn’t remove those pressures, but at least it afforded them a sense of autonomy.
  • If men are afraid to compete with women when women are on an equal footing, well, it should be obvious which is the weaker sex. Men were not defeated or victimized by feminism, rather we appear to have unilaterally surrendered – you can have the perfect kids and the great career – but we just unlocked the bonus level on this game. Is it any wonder, given the way we behave, that women want daughters more than sons? While some cultural conservatives want to depict men and boys as victims of feminists or something, my generation – men now in their 20s and 30s – did this to ourselves.

A place for public debate

While watching syndicated news networks last night to follow the Congressional health care vote, it dawned upon me how shallow all the discussion was. I know, I know, this is not news. But it is news to me, since I don’t usually watch such networks, and haven’t for a very long time.

Reflecting on this a little more, I realized how intellectually impoverished our society really is. Where can the public go for real, substantive, effective debate? The press only allows for sound bites. Important issues are considered impolite conversation in mixed groups. Election-time debates are usually never that, but an hour long ritual where people repeat the same arguments they repeated on the last election cycle, with more recent political errors (and there are always enough for every party to use against the other) inserted to replace the ones from the last term.

What do we have left? The Internet?

Searching for a political home

A long time ago on this blog we discussed the sociology of belief surrounding politics and religion, or more concretely, why it is that so many religious and political beliefs seem to come as a “package deal” (when a person believes x they also tend to believe y, even when there is no necessary logical connection between to the two).

This is something I’ve had to revisit in different ways over the past few years, and I’ve decided that I think the motivation behind the “package deal” mentality is ultimately rational, and probably based on the social nature of human beings: we have to trust people to function, and that includes trusting others in belief formation. At the same time, beliefs formed in this way ought to be held as corrigible if they are only held for that reason: if an individual in such a group comes up against a good argument against the social consensus of that group, then that individual is obligated to look into the issue more directly.

And this brings me closer to my point: I’m not sure where I fit on the contemporary political spectrum. I have a few political issues I’ve made my own through studying them fairly thoroughly (just war theory, abortion, gay marriage), and my opinions would tend to lead me, socially speaking, to support the Conservatives (or, if I were American, the Republicans). But, at the same time, I have seen enough intelligent criticism of the right wing on matters of geopolitics and economics that I find it fairly difficult, cognitively speaking, to just trust the right wing because I agree with them on other matters.

What do I do?

Anything but inevitable

From Philip Jenkins’ modern classic, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (2nd ed.):

Any knowledgeable observer in the 1790s would have concluded that orthodox Christianity had reached its last days, and of course, this sensible opinion would have been absolutely wrong. In the early nineteenth century, orthodoxy and tradition made a comeback, as did the papacy and, indeed, the Jesuits. The rationalism prevailing in many Protestant churches was overwhelmed by a new evangelical revivalism, which received an enormous boost from the revivals that began in 1798. Far from dominating the American scene, Unitarian-Universalists today comprise around .02 percent of the U.S. population. So thoroughly was eighteenth-century liberalism obliterated that many modern writers tend to assume that its ideas were invented anew by Victorian skeptics and rationalists, or perhaps grew out of the controversies over Darwinian evolution. Then as now, the triumph of secular liberalism proved to be anything but inevitable. (11)

The meaning and criteria of "the essentials"

Dan kicked off our discussion about essentials with a proposal: given the Apostles’ Creed, what else should be required as essential Christian doctrine (or, what would be wrong with using even this as the standard for “essentials)?

However, if I may, I would like to take a step back and ask a couple logically more basic questions. That is: 1) What exactly are we saying about when call a doctrine “essential”?, and 2) What is the criteria by which we include doctrines in the essential category (and so come up with something like the apostles’ creed)?

It seems that the term “essential”, at least among conservatives of various stripes, serves double duty: it signifies the boundaries of the Christian church, and of salvation. Thus in tandem with answering any question about what is “essential” one will have to at least consider the issues surrounding the historical claim of extra ecclesiam nulla sallus. Most contemporary Christians, at least, have softened this claim to “ordinarily no salvation outside of the church”, and I think that is a right instinct. An example of a liminal case might be Apollos in Acts, whose preaching was technically incorrect, or at least incomplete (knowing only of Jesus and nothing of the Holy Spirit and the events of Pentecost), but who was not regarded in any way as a false teacher. Similarly, one could imagine liminal cases today, with people who profess (if they are even conscious enough to do so) technically incomplete or incorrect doctrine (how many congregants in the average rural church could explain the ousia/hypostasis distinction?) but who nevertheless seem to have an ardent love for the Lord and display the fruit of the Spirit in their life. Nevertheless, while recognizing the importance of this qualification, the modern ecumenical discussion is basically between leaders of churches and is often directed at the goal of having a common teaching ministry (where pulpits could be exchanged without violating conscience), and so agreeing on what the essentials are and agreeing on the content of them is (pardon the pun) essential. Someone in a teaching position in the church is morally expected (even by scripture, cf. James’ epistle) to have attained a higher standard than the average congregant, and certainly to have reflected enough on doctrine to have a settled opinion on such matters (which places them more firmly in the category of the morally culpable if they reject true essential doctrine). So, sum up the discussion so far: essential doctrine is doctrine that defines the boundaries of the true church, the community of those on the way to eschatological City of God.

The second basic question, and perhaps the most important one (in my humble opinion), involved in this discussion is the criteria by which essential doctrines (in distinction from non-essentials) are identified. It’s here where I think things really get interesting.

Obviously, immediately the issue of theological authority, and correlative theological methodology, becomes directly relevant to this discussion. How one identifies essential doctrine will be dependent on what gets to define the criteria. Now, as in many ways this is the most divisive question of all in the modern ecumenical debate, one could perhaps get hopeless about the possibility of Christian reunion in the present. However, there is possibly still a chance for reunion in advance of resolving all these questions, if we can take for granted that most Christians have some theological authorities in common. For example, between conservative Roman Catholics and conservative evangelicals there is common agreement that the Apostles are the foundational authority of the church and define its doctrine, even while those parties disagree on whether the current Magisterium exercises an authority equal to that of the Apostles (being their successor). This allows for at least the possibility of rapprochement. Obviously, among denominations that are even closer in theological heritage, like conservative Lutherans and conservative Anglicans, the possibility of coming to agreement on what the criteria for essentials is is even greater.

My tentative ecumenical proposal at this stage is the following: let us assume that the Apostles get to define what are essential doctrines and what are not. This will immediately exclude some of the most radical of experience-based types of Christianity, but some starting point is unavoidable (and which one we take will be inevitably biased depending on the one suggesting the starting point), and I personally think those forms of Christianity are the least like the first century Church in comparison to all the other denominational variations. Furthermore, I think such forms of Christianity as inherently uncorrectable, since they claim direct divine authority for whatever they experience to be the “Spirit’s leading”, and it is impossible to question whether they have interpreted a self-interpreting experience correctly, unlike mundanely researched exegetical positions.

Since this post is getting long, I will leave off here for now. The next logical step is fairly obvious: what did the apostles teach was essential doctrine, insofar as “neutral” grammatico-historical research is concerned?

Worship in Something and Something IV: Words, Words, Words

This is a continuation of my series of disjointed posts on worship. The previous ones can be found here, here, and here.

In a previous post in this series I recall mentioning that I had played on a few worship teams in various churches. I haven’t shared too many observations directly from this experience, but this time I’m going to jump off from one of them: You know what you should not expect in a contemporary worship song? An extended instrumental or solo of any type. The only one that I can think of in a popular worship tune is the four bars or so of lead guitar in Stuart Townend’s “In Christ Alone.” In that case one could even suggest that this riff mainly exists to imply the vocal melody for the verses that ensue.

The only time you can expect a large expanse of instrumental without any singing is as a backdrop for the pastor and/or worship leader to talk and/or pray at the beginning or end of a song. Why is this? Well, one of the explanations that I have heard is that instrumental music would somehow be “indulgent” – there had better be some words to go with all that music – as if the words are the content and music is just a sort of optional form. Contemporary evangelical worship always seems to need to some kind of verbal content, or else the music is apparently of no value.

One of the mostly obscured murals in Geneva

One of the mostly obscured murals in Geneva

Now, step back with me nearly half a millennium. What did Calvin do to the cathedral in Geneva? That’s right church historians, he (or at least his followers) whitewashed it. A few murals survive, but for the most part the interior is blank. So it goes that most protestant churches have fairly austere interiors to this very day. Even if many protestants today think the Geneva cathedral was overkill, we nonetheless follow its example.

What do these two things have to do with one another? In the case of instrumental music, the problem seems to be that main message of the music ought to be verbal (even in the charismatic case where most of the congregation does not know what exactly is being verbalized). Anything not supporting this verbal message is seen as a distraction at best and self-indulgent at worst. In the case of doing away with religious icons the charge is even more serious – they are surely seen as unnecessary at best, perhaps idolatry at worst.

Protestants like to be all about The Word (you know, sola scriptura), but they are also fond of words. You don’t really need to have music if you aren’t going to be singing some words on top of it, you don’t really need some pictures on the walls, they might distract you from the same words being either sung or spoken. Words, words, words, to borrow a line from Hamlet, colonize the entire worship experience for Protestants. While there is nothing wrong with speaking, hearing, or reading words in church, I submit that it is possible to over-prioritize words in worship.

On a practical level let me say that not everyone is into reading and/or listening. There are those of us who vastly prefer a picture, or music, or just the ability to get up and do something as a means to internalize what we learn. I must hasten to point out here that this is not an excuse to not listen to the preacher. One cannot say, “Excuse me, but I’m going to leave for the sermon, I don’t do auditory learning.” On the other hand, many Protestants like to emphasize good teaching, and what is the point of good teaching if it is not accessible.

On a more abstract level abandoning things like images/icons, movement of any kind (aside from standing at the points indicated), and instrumental music is part of our dis-incarnation or excarnation of worship. Who cares about our bodies or our senses, what really matters is our disembodied minds which apparently need only words for instruction. We are on the way out (excarnating) as Christ is on the way in (he was, after all, the incarnation). That way lies gnosticism.

To me this smells a lot like Cartesian dualism and not very much like anything you see church history prior to, say, the 1500s. (Yes, I know that I used Calvin as an example of this, and that he predates Descartes, but they were still operating in that same early enlightenment/late renaissance milieu.) Actually, let’s go further, think about the only bit of a church service that was specifically instituted by Jesus himself – communion. Everyone gets together and partakes in the supremely carnal (in its original sense – meaning of the flesh) acts of eating and drinking.

Now this is not to be a matter of either/or, but of both/and, since we would disregard our minds (embodied, disembodied, whatever) at our peril. But I think it’s fair to say that we need to think again about our physical, carnal selves – our bodies. We need to think about this beyond the sort of optional extras that are sometimes allowed (raising hands in worship) ask what is lost when we no longer think it right to look at an icon or listen to a tune as part of our worship of God.

On Theological Drift


Ah, yes, drifting looks like a lot of fun but what about theological drift? What I mean is statements like the one Keith made in a post a while ago:

All theologies seem to have a certain drift affixed to them.

If a guy can sit down and stomach something like a John Piper sermon, at the very least I know his temptation isn’t going to drift in [Brian McLaren’s] way.

Sounds sensible, right? Piper makes a very similar comment using the term “trajectory” instead of “drift” regarding Doug Wilson here:

Again you have the idea that if one starts off going in one direction, one tends to go that way. It’s downright Newtonian you could say. But does it apply to theology like it does in the physical world? As intuitively appealing as that seems, I do not believe that that is necessarily the case.

Charles Taylor uses the example of a preacher preaching hellfire to the congregation hoping that the congregants would be fearful enough to turn to God. One might be inclined to think all that hellfire talk is going to make a strong impression, really put the fear of God into people. The drift of such a congregation would seem not to lead to apostasy. But all the hellfire talk – or so Taylor posits – actually drives people into the arms of humanism, despairing of their salvation. Just as the same threat (and its attendant solution – indulgences) drove Luther to break with Rome.

I think it’s a fair question to ask a pastor or religious teacher or theologian where they think their theological project is going. I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to ask someone what they thought the logical conclusions of their thought was. That said, it is not sufficient to condemn a theology for its apparent trajectory or drift alone. The results of any given theological project can be difficult or even impossible to predict.