Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Elephant in the Room

I have to admit that in my descriptions of agnostic theology and a latent God there has been something that I've been avoiding—revelation.  For the most part, the avoidance has been accidental.  I just didn't happen to post on it.  However, I think there is a part of me that just isn't sure what to make of revelation, and so I just (unconsciously?) skipped over it.

I think the reason I struggle with revelation has to do with my understanding of human limitations/frailty/finitude/stupidity.  What I mean is that I'm not sure that how capable we, as humans, are of distinguishing the voice of God from voices in our heads.  We've all had the experience of hearing something and asking the person next to us,"What'd you say?" when really no one said anything at all.  If can't distinguish the voices of people physical present to us from noises in our heads, how can we possibly distinguish the voice of God from self-delusions?

Yes, I know that there are plenty of responses to that kind of skepticism (and at times I've been the one defending revelation), but I want to be clear about what I'm trying say:  The only claim I'm making is that revelation is hard for me to grapple with.

And don't worry, I haven't forgotten that revelation includes more than just God-spoke-to-me-in-a-dream kind of stuff.  There is, of course, the Bible (at this moment I'm imagining an ancient leather-bound book falling from the sky and landing with a staggering thud, throwing up an immense cloud of dust—as the dust clears, you can see that the ground beneath it is fractured, evidence of the book's great weight and power).  

The Bible has it's own set of issues.  To start, it didn't miraculously come down from heaven as a complete, bound book (like in the description above).  The Bible was written over a vast period of time by many different people.  The Bible was edited, reworked, added to, and subtracted from.  It was written from many different viewpoints and suggests many different (and sometimes competing) understandings of God.  It doesn't even make any claims about it's own authority (we can debate about 2 Timothy 3:16).  It is normative for Christian faith, not because God said so, but because Christians said so.

And to make it all more complicated, every book of the Bible began as the kind of revelatory claim I describe at the beginning—someone said God spoke to them (and other related claims).

Again, this all comes back to one big question for me—what do I do with revelation?  It's not that I necessarily discount or disbelieve revelation as a whole, but I think it is clear that sometimes "revelation" turns out to be wrong (David Koresh, for example).  How, then, are we to distinguish between true and false revelation?  

I started to list different possibilities and plenty  of examples and counterexamples, but I think it is better just to let the question stand because, honestly, I don't know.  Revelation is something that is hard for me to deal with because it doesn't fit neatly into the realm of my experience.  It is a troubling, up-ending, messy thing.  It turns my notions of what is and isn't upside-down.

And that is precisely what makes revelation an elephant in the room.  It is something that common sense says shouldn't be there, but it's there whether we like it or not.  So, I guess we have to talk about it....

Thursday, December 4, 2008

What Am I Doing?

As my first semester of grad school draws to a close, I have to ask myself: "What am I doing?"

When I started this blog, I was venturing out on  a personal journey into the unknown.  I was tired of being bombarded with half-baked theology from self-assured Christians who just knew that they were in the truth.  That didn't work for me.  I could see through it.  I needed to figure out what a humble Christianity might look like.  I needed a fresh start in my persistent search for God.

It's funny that after being on this journey for more than a year, I'm pretty sure I haven't gotten anywhere.  I didn't expect to have any of my questions answered, but I also didn't expect that I'd still be asking the same questions.  What I have learned, though, is that I am not alone.  Not only have I met many people who think along the same lines, I have learned that there have been Christians asking similar questions for the last 2000 years.  (Yes, I know that many of them were heretics—but not all of them!)

What everything seems to boil down to is that I am human.  So are you.  And humans, as it turns out, aren't really that big or strong or even that smart.  With that in mind, what can we really know about God?  What can we truly say about God?

So, I guess that helps me answer the question I began this post with: "What am I doing?  I'm striving to find God, to know God, to talk about God."

Over previous centuries countless people have undertaken that task, and I'm convinced that the same questions will be taken up again and again in the centuries to come.  None of us will find any complete answers, but that's no reason to stop the chase.  

I'll close with the words of a kindred spirit from the 5th century who helped blaze the trail ahead of me:
[God's] transcendent darkness remains hidden from all light and concealed from all knowledge.  Someone beholding God and understanding what he saw has not actually seen God [...] [God] is completely unknown and non-existent.  [God] exists beyond being and [God] is known beyond the mind.  And this quite positively complete unknowing is knowledge of [God] who is above everything that is known.
-Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Letter One

Friday, November 28, 2008

Talking about God

Recently I've been thinking a lot about what it means to talk about God.  It's almost funny that we, petty humans, even try to talk about someone so great—someone who is by nature ineffable and undescribable.  God is so far above/beyond our intellect and language that anything we say about God is at best insufficient and at worst flat-out wrong.

But that doesn't mean we should stop.  On the contrary, we must talk about God.  God is so ever present in our human lives that it would be disingenuous to remain silent.  It would be like ignoring an elephant in the room.

Yesterday, I ran across a passage in Mirror of Simple Souls by Margaret Porette (sometimes spelled Marguerite Porete) that expresses my thoughts perfectly:
For there is no God, other than he of whom one can know nothing perfectly; and he alone is my God of whom one cannot say a word [...] But I wish to speak of it, and I do not know what to say. But none the less [...] my love is such a mind that I had rather hear what is not true of you than that people should say nothing about you.  And that without a doubt is what I do.  I say of you what is not true, for everything which I say of you is nothing but untruth about your goodness.  But you must pardon what I say which is not true of you.
I agree with her—I would rather talk about our ineffable God and fail than remain silent.  I know that in my search for God I will say many wrong things, and I hope God will forgive my failings.  However, like Porette, I will continue to speak about God, even if it means I am bound to be wrong.

Then again, perhaps that isn't the best idea—Porette was burned at the stake as a heretic....

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Religious

Over the last few weeks and months, I've been trying to discern what direction I should head with my graduate studies.  Recently, I've begun to narrow things down a bit.  I think what I really want to explore is expressions of the religious apart from specifically religious institutions.  I find it fascinating that when people write and speak and think and hope and dream, so often religious elements are subtly present.  It seems that being human almost necessitates being religious.

Of course, that is a pretty broad claim—and I know people who would strongly object.  But to clarify, when I say "religious" I don't have in mind particular religions or rituals or doctrines.  What I do have in mind, however, is notoriously difficult to pin down.  When I say "religious" I mean it in a broad sense.  For instance, what I would identify as the "religious" part of Christianity would not only be the beliefs and practices (like going to church, taking communion, etc.) but also the desire deep inside that drives Christians to follow God in the first place.

The deep-seated desire that motivates Christians to follow God, I believe, exists in everyone.  Certainly it manifests itself differently in various peoples and cultures (and it can lead down some very divergent paths), but it is something common to all humans.  We all grapple with the religious because, at its core, the religious has to do with a search for meaning and identity.  It is, as one of my professors calls it, the "enduring presence and absence that is the mystery at the center of life."

This may seem a bit strange and possibly irrelevant to Chrisitanity, but it points to something interesting—because humans are inherently religious, that means that religious themes pop up all over the place.  The religious shows up in art, music, poetry, novels, architecture and in almost anything else that people create, and because it is all driven by the same deep-seated desire that everyone shares, that means that it is all potentially relevant to me.  If something by a Muslim novelist, a Mormon artist, or an atheist poet really strikes a chord in me, there is no need for me to discount it.  It is all relevant to me and my own search for God.

We are all engaged in the same task of finding meaning and identity, so I'm certain that there is a lot we can learn from others—even when we have drastically different outlooks.

*In case it wasn't clear, I don't use "religious" in the perjorative sense that many evangelicals do.  For me, the religious is something akin to "spiritual" (although that word can get me in trouble, too).  Maybe it is something like the "God-shaped hole in my heart" that I learned about in Sunday school when I was young.  Perhaps that's a crude way to phrase it, but I think I like it....

Monday, November 10, 2008

Reminding Myself that I Don't Know

Although I haven't written about it much in the last few months, agnosticism seems to be almost constantly on my mind.  I've been doing some thinking lately, trying to figure out why it is such an important concept to me, so I decided that I should reiterate (for my own benefit as much as yours) what I mean by agnosticism.  When I usethe word agnostic here on this blog, I'm not trying to call to mind all of the negative, apathetic, anti-religious, and sometimes nihilistic connotations that burden the term.  I'm not making any broadly sweeping claims about religion, God, or the universe.  By agnostic I simply mean a three word phrase, uttered out of conscious humility—I don't know.

For me, agnosticism is not the end of faith.  Agnosticism isn't a box that I check on surveys instead of a religion.  It isn't a term I toss around glibbly at 2 am in hip coffee shops, trying to show people that I'm enlightened.  It isn't something that can ever be an identity.  There are lots of things that agnosticism is not—but most importantly agnosticism is not the end.

Agnosticism is a beginning.

Imagine this situation: You invite me over tomorrow evening, we plop down on your couch, and you open up a bottle of cheap red wine, ready to enjoy a long night of lively conversation.  After the ordinary what-have-you-been-up-to-latelys and how's-life-been-treating-yous, you jump right in, asking my opinion on some of life's big questions:  Why are we here?  What is the purpose of life?  How can we know the truth?  Is there a God?

Assuming I haven't had too much wine, all of my answers will begin with the same three words: I don't know.  I begin my answers that way because it is the truth.  I am a human being, embodying plenty of possibilities and perils, but as limited as a shrink-wrapped potato.  No matter how much I am able to do or how much I fail, I am bound to this one body and this one mind.  Because I am a limited, fallible, finite human being, all of my answers have to begin with that three-word admission of humility.

But agnosticism is not an end.  It cannot be an end.  If I want to live and love and breathe, I have to find meaning.  I have to try.  After all, just because I don't know with certainty doesn't mean I can't make a good guess.

That is what agnostic theology is all about.  It starts with the humble admission I don't know, but it presses on from there.  None of us know, but we can't stop at that.  The world would be a large, mushy lump of nothingness if we let agnosticism be the end.  Just because we are limited human beings does not mean we don't experience longing and yearning for something greater.  

For millenia, humans have reached toward the heavens for answers, and agnosticism does not give impetus to stop.  Agnosticism has to be the beginning—a vocalization of our humanness which gets that truth out in the open—from which we then search and work and build.

When I write about agnosticism, I don't mean anything negative.  I mean something realistic.  When it comes to God and meaning and the universe, the fact of the matter is that I don't know.... 

But that's a beginning, not an end.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Change We Can Believe In

One of the things that strikes me about the 2008 Presidential campaign is how optimistic the whole thing is.

I don't mean that there hasn't been any negativity. Certainly the campaigns have taken a negative turn over the last few months. Additionally, many voters desperately fear what will happen to our country if their particular candidate doesn't win. But it's the opposite side of that fear that I find very interesting.

There is a notion that one candidate or the other possesses some extraordinary ability to transform our country. As much as anything else, this campaign season has been marked by hope. And it seems that what people are placing their hope in is change.

Yes, change has been the buzz word for the last year—and for good reason—but believing in change is a funny thing. Above all, it is terribly optimistic. Believing in change is believing in our ability (or our candidate's ability) to improve our world. It is believing in our ability to overcome evils—whether moral, systemic, or otherwise—and to transform things for the better.

But this belief in change is in tension with the idea of a fallen world. If all humans are ultimately disfigured by sin, to what degree is change actually possible? Sure, names and faces will change. Political balances of power will change. New systems and structures will be instituted and others will die out. But can we really change anything for the better? If so, how much better?

I don't mean to come across as cynical—I only mean to point out that if we truly live in a fallen world, then that is a reality we need to take into account. And that applies to more than just this election season. Social action organizations and human rights campaign face the same reality. In fact, any attempt to feed the hungry, quench the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and care for the sick and imprisoned is openly in tension with the reality of a fallen world.

Admittedly, I believe very strongly in social action efforts. I believe in the importance to working to improve our world. I believe in change.

But, is change really something we can believe in?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Bouncy Balls, Checkbooks, and Salvation

I spent most of this afternoon reading excerpts from various works by Medieval theologians.  It isn't always captivating stuff to read, but for some reason there tends to be at least one thing that really catches my attention.  While I was reading a portion of On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith by Hugh of Saint Victor (sounds a bit obscure, no?), I was struck by a passage where he explains how and why salvation works the way it does.  After describing our debt to God, Satan's dominion over us, and the way God's justice plays into all of that, he writes:
In order, therefore, that God might be placated by man, God freely gave to man that which he was in duty bound to repay to God.
After I read that line, I just stopped and stared blankly at the page.  Something about that whole transaction of giving and sacrifice and repayment seemed really odd to me.  Why would God give us something that wasn't ours just so we could give it right back to God?  It never actually belonged to us, so how could it repay our debt?  Why did God go through all that trouble—essentially giving the payment, not actually to us, but right back to to where it came from—when it would have been easier just to forgive the debt?

As I sat there with the book in my lap, still staring at the page, I realized that that strange transaction reminded me of something.  Remember when you were about six years old and Christmas came around?  You were old enough to know that people exchanged gifts that time of year, but you weren't old enough to recieve any sort of allowance—so what did you do?  Your parents gave you a couple of dollars and took you to the store so that you could by them gifts.  In purely economical terms, you didn't actually give your parents anything.  In fact, they really didn't even like the Santa eraser and Rudolph bouncy ball that you gave them.

But that wasn't the point.  Something took place at a level that went deeper than the transaction itself.  At the heart of it, it was about you.  It was to show you something, to teach you something.  Although the money and the eraser and bouncy ball were meaningful, they weren't what was really important....

I have to wonder if the same is true of the salvation narrative.  Surely God could have saved us in some other way.  Nothing forced God to become incarnate and die a terrible death for us.  But that's what God chose—not because it makes the most sense economically—because God wanted to show us something.  Perhaps the incarnation had more to do with teaching us about God's ultimate love and less to do with fulfilling cosmic justice.  

I remember wondering about salvation when I was young.  The transaction never seemed to line up right.  No matter how I rearranged things in my head, the balance sheet never quite worked out right.  Maybe the incarnation was about much more than cosmic accounting.  Maybe God cared more about us than a balanced checkbook.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Meaning in the Universe

While I was at work tonight, I had one of those random "big-question" conversations with a co-worker.  It turns out that we both share skeptical/cynical tendencies, but we also share a sense of hope and yearning for something greater.  While we were talking about human sacredness and our place in the grand scheme of things, she shared this vision of the cosmos with me (well, this is my paraphrase):

So here we are, living in a particular time among billions of other humans on this thing called Earth.  And Earth is just one of many millions of planets in the glaxay, which is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe.  Even the universe itself may be one of infinitely many universes in the multiverse.

And that makes us really tiny.

In this vast, swirling cosmos, untouchable and devoid of meaning for us, we are nothing.  On such scales of immensity, we are infinitely small.  But because everything else is so unreachable, this cramped little world of ours is everything.  In the face of such emptiness, our lives and world are infintely meaningful.  

And what does all of that mean for us?

"Don't be an asshole," she said.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Know Thyself

The first time I encountered the phrase "Know Thyself" was in The Matrix. At one point in the scene where Neo meets the Oracle, she points up to an inscription above the doorway (that reads, "Temet Nosce") and says, "You know what that means? It's Latin. Means 'know thyself.'" She tells Neo that if he looks deep within himself he will find out whether he is the salvation of humanity....

Strangely, a similar notion of self-knowledge has been coming up in some of my reading recently. Early on in Christianity, especially in the east, it seems that there was a concept that self-knowledge could lead to salvation. Although it's a bit foreign to me, I find it very intriguing. 

Essentially, it all boils down to being created in the image of God.  Because we were created in God's image, there is something inside of us that connects us to God.  If we truly develop self-knowledge, we will come to know the image of God inside of us—and that means we will know God.  Such intimate self-knowledge is deeply connected with purity of the soul and spiritual maturity.  It takes purity and maturity to know ourselves (and God), but it is through knowing God that we develop purity and maturity.  They seem to work in a profound spiral leading inward toward ever-increasing knowledge of God.

This knowledge of ourselves and of God is our salvation.  If we truly know ourselves, we will know God, and if we truly know God, we will love God.  That true knowledge of and love of God transforms our every action (we are able to see God in others and love them accordingly), making us more and more like God.  And that is what salvation is—being wrapped up, in knowledge and in action, totally in communion with God.

My reaction to this vision of salvation is both enthusiastic and skeptical.  The wonderful thing about this vision is that being created in the image of God takes on substantial meaning.  It goes beyond just giving me a basis for my self-esteem.  Instead, just by virtue of being human, I have a direct and profound connection with God—I have a part of God within me.  Being created in the image of God is something that can be acted upon and forms the basis for how I should live my life.

On the other hand, though, this is so drastically different than the pessimistic picture of human nature that I learned growing up Protestant.  If humans are as horrendously depraved and incurably evil as Luther and Calvin would suggest, how could we possibly find the image of God within us?  Has sin distorted the image of God within us beyond the point of recognizability?  

I have to wonder whether it is possible to know myself so deeply that I could find God inside.  How optomistic am I about human nature?  Do I really believe that humans still bear any recognizable image of God?  Or are we so corrupt that the image has been warped completely out of shape?

What would I find if I looked deep inside and truly heeded the words, "Know thyself"?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Inalienable(?) Human Rights

There are many injustices occurring in our world that need desparately to be fixed.  From poor working conditions to genocide, from torture to sexism—we, as humans, must enact change for the better.  There is no question about that.

But why do we need to act?

The concept of human rights is interesting to me.  Exactly what rights people have and where those rights come from are notoriously difficult things to nail down.  The Declaration of Independence asserts that people have the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  That's a good starting point, but there are many more rights to add to that list (but what to add may be trickier than you think).

But even if it is possible to agree on what rights we all have, we are still left with the question of where those rights come from.  The easy, Christian answer is that they come from God.  We are created in God's image and, thus, we are endowed with dignity and worth.

But what happens if the God that gives us rights is latent?  Does an uncertain God undermine our claim to God-given dignity?  Since we can't quite put our finger on God, are human rights just out of our grasp as well?

Is there some other place where we can look for human rights?  Or is there something altogether different that we should be looking for?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Am I Blind?

In my last bit of downtime before school kicks into full gear, I've been reading a lot on the internet.  I've been following the presidential race fairly intently, and recently I've been getting quite a bit of amusement out of the attacks back and forth.  Each new TV ad or speech gives the opposing party a whole new set of ammunition.  The more one side says, the more opportunities there are for the other side to point out faults.  

It turns out that it's a really good thing that I don't have any opponents ripping apart my every sentence.  If I were to be rhetorically torn limb from limb, two things would become aparent very quickly: (1) I am probably a blabbering idiot and (2) it is likely that my glasses aren't strong enough because I seem to have some serious vision problems.  The first of those revelations may or may not be true, but there's nothing I can do about it either way so I'll just let it be.  The second one, however, is really what I want to get at.

With all my talk about God's latency* (i.e., God being hidden and uncertain), it would be a very reasonable thing to ask whether I can really see straight.  Throughout my life I have met a good number of people who know God is there and have seen God act in their lives.  I've met many people who talk about God as though God is as concrete as a desk or a car.  For them, God is not followed by a question mark but by a period.

And they would be right to question my vision.  After all, the entire concept of a latent God is centered around my inability to see.  Although this criticism does not come as a surprise to me (heck, it's basically built in), it still makes me uneasy from time to time.  

I know that God is not so clear for everyone.  I've met many people (even Christians!) who readily admit that they don't see God.  Nonetheless, I sometimes fear that the fact that I can't see means that there is something wrong with me.

Perhaps I'm blind....

*[Since it's been a while, here's a quick refresher:  To say that God is latent is to say that God exists as potential.  It's the idea that God seems about to burst into the world with unmistakable power—but that it hasn't happened yet and there is no way to prove anything one way or the other.  The latency of God is what makes people doubt and what causes people to believe (as opposed to know).  It means that we are forced to live in this strange almost-but-not-quite world where God is hidden from view.]

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Winding and Narrow

It's been a while since I last posted, and a lot has changed in that time. I just married a smart and adventurous young woman, and we moved to the Boston area to pursue our academic interests in grad school. So, new marriage, new city, new schools—there's quite a lot going on right now....

In the midst of all the craziness, I took a short break yesterday to walk a labyrinth in an open green space just outside one of the academic buildings at school. It was a cool morning with heavy gray skies and a soft breeze, and as I approached the labyrinth I took a moment to read the sign posted at the beginning. The sign pointed out something that I had never noticed before—the labyrinth has only one path to follow, so there is never any worry about getting lost. Although the path is narrow and winding, it will always take you to the center.

It seems to me that the labyrinth is a more fitting picture of my spiritual journey than the idea of the "straight and narrow road." For better or for worse, I can't manage to walk in a straight line. I can hear God calling out to me, but I keep losing my bearings. I'll be walking one direction and then suddenly God's voice will seem to be coming from way off to the left. I turn to follow, but it isn't long at all before I hear no voice at all. I begin to feel dizzy and disoriented and slowly I veer off another direction until I seem to be heading the opposite direction from before. Finally I hear God's voice again, but this time it is coming from directly in front of me. And on and on I go like that, winding around constantly losing my way.

But the wonderful thing is that I am not afraid. No matter how disoriented I may become, I know that I will never end up utterly lost. All of the twists and turns are part of the path that will one day lead me to the center.

If there is a straight and narrow road, I haven't found it yet. Perhaps it is somewhere near the end of the journey. Perhaps it doesn't exist at all. Either way, I'll continue winding along the path knowing full well that I'm always walking toward the center.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Laying Claim to Love

"We love because he first loved us." 1 John 4:19

That is the first Bible verse I ever memorized. I was about four years old when my Sunday School teacher decided that it was a good time for us to start memorizing Bible verses, and she chose this one. It was perfect because it's short, simple, and it's easy to understand—we are able to love because God loved us first.

For most of my life, I understood that verse to mean that we as Christians are able to love because we received Jesus, who is the ultimate manifestation of God's love. And that shaped how I understood the world. I walked around my school's hallways saddened because I believed that all of my non-Christian friends were not truly able to experience love. "If only they would accept Jesus as their savior," I thought, "then they would finally know what love is really like...."

All of that was a mistake.

For some reason (that I don't completely understand) Christians decided at some point to lay claim to love. They snatched love away from the herd of human emotions, tackled it to the ground, and branded it with a red-hot cross. They claimed love as their own, believing that it was something perfect and holy—and exclusive.

The only problem is that the rest of the world didn't notice. No one realized that love had been stolen and that it now belonged only to a small band of religious fanatics. No one went around looking for it. Everyone just went on loving as they had always done before.

And that's because love didn't go anywhere.

For so much of my life I believed that Christians were better people than everyone else. I thought Christians were more honest, more loving, more hospitable, and more ethical. After all, isn't God sanctifying us now that we know Jesus?

As far as I can tell, though, Christians don't seem to be much different than anyone else. Sure, Christians are more likely to follow their own moral code (even that isn't the case all the time!), but that's only because other people have their own sets of morals. But as far as most of the basics go—like honesty, loyalty, compassion, and justice—Christians don't seem to be doing much better than anyone else.

This became very apparent to me at work recently. One of my multiple bosses is a Christian who is very up-front about her faith. She is constantly talking in pathetically veiled "Christianese," nearly always speaking in terms of believing and having faith (regardless of what the conversation is about). The only problem is that she is one of the most dishonest, manipulative, two-faced, selfish people I have ever met. Don't get me wrong—she always has good intentions, but it seems that she believes that the end always justifies the means.

On the other side is another one of my bosses, who is a staunch atheist. She is cynical, harshly realistic, and has no intention of believing in a god. But the funny thing is that she is very truthful, fiercly loyal, and exceedingly compassionate. She is the most thoughtfully ethical person I've ever met, always taking time out to evaluate her decisions. For her, the means are at least as important as the end.

I don't think that those are just two freak exceptions. Being Christian or otherwise doesn't seem to have much to do with being loving or truthful or anything else. I've met Christians and Mormons and Buddhists and atheists who are all very moral people. And I've met people from all of those groups who aren't.

It may seem funny that I started talking about love and then jumped straight into ethics, but I really believe that they are one in the same. Love is about much more than a fuzzy feeling inside—it is about giving people the respect and compassion they deserve. So, when Christians tried to claim love as their own private property, they were grabbing at all the other moral virtues as well.

To be honest, I think Christians missed. When they tried to steal love away from everyone else, all they ended up doing was creating a sad counterfeit. Love is not about telling people they are sinners. It is not about serving them in the name of your own agenda. It is not about manipulating others to achieve the ends you believe are right.

Everyone loves because God first loved all of us. God gave his creations the gift of love, so we're all capable of showing love—regardless of where we place our faith.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Casting Out Evil

Social work has hijacked my brain. It opened the car door, pushed me into the passenger seat, and tore off down the highway. It took me by force, taking me places I'd never been before.

One remarkable thing about social work is that it has taught me new ways to answer questions:

Q: Is it ever a good idea to drink a forty of beer before 9am?
A: Yes, if you're drinking the beer instead of a pint of whiskey before 9am.
Q: Is it ever okay to spend half your monthly income smoking crack?
A: Yes, if you used the other half to pay your rent for the first time rather than smoking all your money away like last month.
Q: Is it ever good to panhandle, illegally tamper with parking meters, and sell bootlegged porn on the streets?
A: Yes, if it means you aren't prostituting anymore.

The most important thing that I have learned from doing social work is that so much depends on context. If someone has smoked crack for the last 30 years and has spent that whole time alternating between jail and the streets, that impacts the very core of the individual. When people have little or no income, don't have a bed of their own, are addicted to drugs, and live in a community that values self-preservation over honesty and responsibility, it doesn't make sense to demand that they adhere to middle-class norms and expectations. Under circumstances like these, "good decisions" must be understood as decisions that are small movements in the right direction.

Now, that's just an extreme example, but the general principle applies to all of us. It doesn't matter whether we're from the streets of Skid Row or the mansions of Beverly Hills or anywhere in betweenfor any sort of useful value judgment to be made about us, our backgrounds and circumstances must be taken into consideration.

Before I go any further, I need to be clear. I am only talking about useful moral judgments. Since I can't make claims about moral absolutes with any certainty, I won't even try. Absolute Good may or may not exist, but there's nothing I can do about it either way. Absolute Evil may or may not be out there, but I can't do anything about that one either. So, I just want to focus on useful moral judgmentslike when parents, pastors or mentors provide moral guidance.

All too often, it seems that the "right thing to do" is horrendously unclear. It is exceedingly difficult to nail down a set of moral principles that always point us in the right direction. Growing up we are taught that lying is wrong, but many of us have been in situations where we can protect innocent people from harm if we tell a little fib. Should moral judgments about lying be based on the liar's intentions, or is it wrong in every situation?

And then there are issues like drinking alcohol. Some people consider drinking to be wrong all together, while others have no problem with it. Is drinking okay as long as you don't get too drunk? If so, how drunk is too drunk? Or is the problem really the bad decisions that intoxication facilitates? In that case, is it okay to get blitzed in your living room while watching TV but not okay to get tipsy in a bar where you might end up making out with a stranger? If there are so many different opinions and so many different circumstances to be taken into account, how can we ever decide what is right?

Although people cannot seem to agree on what is absolutely good and what is absolutely evil, it seems to me that we can probably come to a consensus on what is better and what is worse. We can probably agree that it is generally better to be truthful rather than deceitful, even if we can't agree on what is best in every circumstance. Likewise, we can probably agree that it is generally better to drink less rather than more, even if we can't agree on an exact rule about alcohol.

Not only are absolute good and absolute evil hard to nail down, they aren't particularly useful most of the time. Being compared to the standard of absolute good can intimidating. On the other hand, being compared to absolute evil can feel horribly condemning. I've met plenty of people who have made conscious decisions to resign to bad choices because they think: "Since I'm already a bad person, why should I even bother trying?" Although a few people may be motivated by being called evil, for most people it is simply a turn-offthey'll just go talk to someone else who doesn't seem to hate them.

Too often, good and evil aren't viewed as two extremesthey are viewed as the only options. People get the impression that if they aren't perfectly good, then that means they are completely evil. Since it is impossible to be perfectly good, then we'll always end up in the evil category. So where's the motivation to try to be better?

In reality, I believe that there is a continuum between the two extremes. No person is entirely good and no person is entirely evil, so when we're counseling someone about moral choices, the goal is to help them become better than they are right now. And we have to be realisticwe can't expect people who have spent their whole lives being deceitful to become entirely honest by tomorrow. Choosing the lesser of two evils is a step in the right direction, even if the decision is still an evil one.

When we discuss our decisions only in terms of good and evil, we leave out the possibilities in between. People aren't good at being good, and if we only have the two categories to choose from, we'll always turn out to be evil. And that isn't particularly encouraging. If our goal is truly to help people become better, then our vocabulary needs to allow us to be something other than just evil.

Since our goal is to become better, we need to have some concept of good as our point of reference. Good should be important because it is the direction we are heading, not because it is a tool we use to measure people with. It's usefulness lies in its ability to guide us in the direction we want to go.

On the other hand, the usefulness of evil is essentially that it is the opposite of good. No one is absolutely evil and it isn't a goal that we reach for, so it isn't very valuable to us most of the time. More than that, it is a concept that can be hurtful, discouraging, and repelling. If goal is to help people become better, slapping them in the face with their evilness isn't very helpful.

Morality should be about making better lives, and becomingbetter people—not about condemning people to the category of evil. Although we need both absolute good and absolute evil as end points for our continuum, our focus should be on continuing movement in the right direction. Regardless of how evil our starting point may be, our concern is with gradually becoming. In our personal discussions about morality, the word "evil," with all it's connotative baggage, is not useful.

If our goal is truly to help people move toward good, there is no place for condemnation. In our personal discussions about morality, we need to cast "evil" our of our vocabularies and focus on a more constructive dialog about making better decisions.

None of us will ever be perfectly good, but that does not mean we should point fingers at each others' evilness. If we are truly focusing on becoming better, we need to leave our condemnations behind and spend our energy taking small steps in the right direction.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Problem of Perception

Recently, I've been reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. The stated purpose of the book is to turn every reader into an atheist, so it is certainly making for an interesting read. While I'm not particularly convinced by any of his arguments so far (they keep devolving into rhetoric), they have brought up an interesting dilemma for me to chew on--the problem of perception.

In the book, Dawkins suggests that religion should be held to the same high standards as science. Religion, he believes, should be investigated as thoroughly and critically as any other discipline, rather than being given a get-out-of-jail-free card as is often the case. Dawkins harps on religion's inferiority to science, often sloughing it off as "superstition." While I have no intention of engaging Dawkins on this issue, I will use it as a jumping-off point. That distinction between science and superstition, which may be very clear to him, does not seem clear at all to me. I'm not sure that separating the two as qualitatively different is possible.

I think the main difference between science and superstition is the data that support them. Science is based on objective facts, precise experimentation, and logical reasoning. In science, everything is tested, retested, interpreted, retested again, reinterpreted, and then retested a few more times. Scientific facts are experimentally proven and create an ever-more exact picture of our universe. Superstition, however, is based on subjective experience and patchwork attempts to explain our lives. Superstitious truths are believed without evidence and in spite of any contradictions. There is a clear-cut difference between science and superstition, right?

I'm not so sure. Science is not always as "hard" as it's made out to be. Just because something is called "scientific" that doesn't mean that it is true. By it's very nature, science is based on observations and estimates. In order to test something, it must be observable (or else we wouldn't see anything to test) and it must be measurable (or else it wouldn't be much of a test at all).

Observation itself creates problems--observing a phenomenon means that we are interacting with it and potentially interfering with it. By watching something, we run the risk of somehow influencing its outcome. This "observer effect" can be minimized, but as long as we are observing something we are basically getting in the way. Measurement is also a problem because it is impossible to be exact. For example, if I hold my hand at arms-length and measure my thumbnail with a ruler, I see that my thumbnail is 1/2 inch wide. If I take a closer look, it turns out that it is actually 5/8 inch wide. But if I were able to examine it under microscope with a more precise ruler, it may actually turn out to be 37/64 inch wide. The farther you zoom in, the more precisely you can measure (assuming you have a tool that is exact enough). But there are limits to how close we can get. At some point, every measurement becomes an approximation.

What all of that means is that we are limited by the fact that we cannot know anything perfectly, absolutely, and without interference. To some extent we are always guessing. We are perpetually bound by our perception. Granted, the degree of our uncertainty varies depending on the subject. We can be more precisely certain about the interactions of atoms in a combustion reaction than we can be about the nature of God--but we still cannot know everything about either one.

I guess what this all boils down to is subjectivity. Because we observe and interpret the world around us, everything is warped by the lens of our perception. Once something passes through that lens and into our minds, there is no way for us to verify with certainty what it is like on the outside. In our human experience, everything is tainted by our finitude. There really is no way to tell the difference between "empirical" science and "fairytale" superstition.

So even if there is a qualitative difference between science and superstition, as far as we are concerned, they are one in the same.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Probable God

As you may have guessed, I'm still trying to figure out what this whole latency of God thing means. I continue to struggle with how to be an agnostic Christian (see my brief and flawed explanation here) and a faithful one at the same time. What does it mean to be uncertain about God but still believe in God? How does all of this crazy stuff work?

One of the things that troubles me the most is the inevitability of being a "relativist." Now, I have to admit that the main reason I'm afraid of being a relativist is because of my up-bringing--as a kid it was made very clear to me that relativism meant wishy-washy meant sinner meant hell-bound. So, as I reckon with the idea of God existing as potential, I'm forced to deal with my own relativism as well.

It recently occurred to me, however, that I am actually no more relativistic than my high school math teacher. Mrs. Salvidge was a brilliant older woman with a well-kempt puff of white hair on her head, who had the remarkable ability to be both tediously meticulous and engaging at the same time.

One thing that I hated, though, was the day she explained probability to us. Of course we all knew that the chance of rolling a two was 1 in 6, and we had all done plenty of boring word-problems that involved drawing colored marbles from a hat. But none of us knew what probability really meant until that day.

The way she explained probability was with a deck of cards. Holding up the cards, she asked us what the top card was. Students shouted out various guesses: "Six of spades!" "Queen of diamonds!" "Ace of clubs!" But the correct answer was: "It is any and all of them. It is two, seven, and jack of hearts all at the same time. It is each and every possibility--until you turn it over."

And that pissed me off. I knew that there is only one reality. Physically, the top card is a four of spades regardless of whether I have seen it yet. The values and suits aren't mystically changing around until just before I reach to flip over the card. There is only one truth--it is a four of spades.

However, since high school I have come to accept probability as a useful concept. It is how gamblers, real estate agents and venture capitalists make their money (I know there is more to it than luck, but calculated risk is really just a probability). But more than being a means for getting rich, probability is a useful term because of how descriptive it is. What is surprising, though, is that it doesn't actually describe dice or cards or colored marbles--it describes us as humans.

The truth behind any given situation is that we don't know what is going to happen. We can make guesses. We can estimate. We can take calculated risks. But we really don't know what is actually going to happen. What probability really describes is our perpetual lack of knowledge. Even if we've been counting cards, we can never be absolutely certain what the next card will be. The reason we talk about probability is that we don't know what the outcome is going to be--if we knew exactly what was going to happen when we roll the die, then there would be no 1 in 6.

As it turns out, latency is little more than probability--it is a term that describes us and what we don't know. In reality there either is or is not a God in the same way that the top card either is or is not the ace of spades. In both cases there is a reality that we just plain don't know for sure. Probability and latency both describe our uncertainty about that reality.

Don't misunderstand me--I'm not trying to calculate the chances of God's existence. I guess that what I'm really saying is that the strange concept of latency may not really be that strange after all. Yes, it is a term that describes an uncomfortable unknown, but it is surprisingly similar to something we've all dealt with in math class.

There is no way we can be absolutely certain about God's existence, so the best we can do is begin with latency. In our experience, God exists as potential. The truth about God is out there, but it is something we cannot know for sure. . . .

So, does God exist? It is probable.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Redemption of the World?

One of my former religion professors really didn't like the idea of propitiation. For him the concept of appeasing an offended God or dispelling God's wrath didn't make sense in the context of the New Testament. His understanding of God led him to embrace expiation instead--the idea of making amends or reconciling a broken bond.

Although this may seem like splitting hairs to some people, it really is a significant distinction. Propitiation evokes the image of an angry Old Testament God with a rapacious bloodlust--the only way to satisfy this God is through the ultimate bloodshed. By embracing expiation, my professor was effectively throwing out that Old Testament image of God in exchange for a God who blesses the peacemakers and seeks out the lost.

I understand God in a similar way. I believe in a God who is more concerned with reconciliation than retribution, who is more likely to pardon than to punish, and who cares more that justice is given to the lowly than that justice is served to the law-breakers. I believe in redemption.

But it recently occurred to me that I don't really know what redemption looks like. Growing up, I was taught that redemption had something to do with God forgiving me so I could get into heaven. Since we were fallen people in a fallen world, redemption meant being perfected (after we died) and living in a perfect world (heaven).

That's all fine and dandy, but is that all that redemption is? Is it really so individualistic? Is it only about me getting into heaven? What about the service of others in God's name? What about the reign of God on earth? What about the redemption of this life and this world?

I believe that the redemption that God has in mind is the redemption of the world--not just of individuals. It isn't something that clergy or conservatives or Christians have a monopoly over. It is God reconciling the world to Godself. Redemption is tied up intimately with the gospel of the kingdom: "Get ready! God's reign on earth is coming!"

But how do we get ready? What do we need to do? How can we contribute to a project (like reconciliation) that really belongs to God? What does the redemption of the world look like?

Can this world even be redeemed?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Where Do You Go When You Die?

I've been thinking about death a lot lately.

Well, I guess I've actually been thinking about aging more than death, but for me they are both wrapped up together. I'm beginning to reach a point where aging is no longer something I look forward to. My grandma is dying and my dad just celebrated another birthday--and it's kinda freaking me out.

I remember as a little kid, all you want is to be older. With each birthday comes more privileges, more freedoms, and more knowledge. The older kids are always bigger and cooler. As a kid, you idolize your friend's 16 year-old brother who gets his first car and starts going on dates. You wish you were a high schooler with a locker and text books like you see on your favorite TV shows. But once you are that 16 year old with a car and a girlfriend and a locker and text books, all you want is to be in college. Each birthday is something you look forward to--up to a point.

So, I realize I'm still very young, but I've reached the point where I don't have any birthdays to look forward to until I retire. There's nothing special about turning 25 or 29, and there is certainly nothing exciting about the tens digit getting higher. Each new birthday I celebrate brings me a year closer to death.

I don't mean to be morbid (I promise I'm not one of those people who thinks that being fixated on death is somehow sophisticated), but I'm beginning to wonder if my apprehension of aging/death has something to do with my uncertainty about the afterlife. My biblical studies have made it clear that the Bible is equivocal about the afterlife. Sometimes there is nothing, sometimes there is sheol (a state of partial existence that fades into nonexistence), sometimes there is heaven and hell, and sometimes it is just really unclear.

If you were to ask me about heaven and hell, I would have to respond, "I really don't know that there is much to say about either one." Sure, my agnosticism on the issue may seem like a cop out, but I really don't think we can be very certain about something that no living person can experience. But that doesn't mean that it isn't an important question--after all, that question is what makes me apprehensive about death.

We all want something to live for and we want our lives to be more than just a short-lived battle against entropy. For some of us, there is hope and meaning in the prospect of an afterlife. Because I was raised knowing that there is a heaven and a hell, having that certainty disappear on me is unsettling.

So, where do you go when you die? I'm just not sure that there is much I can say on the subject. I believe in God. I believe in redemption.

I just hope I'm right.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Disillusionment and Illumination

One thing I have noticed about many young Christians (myself included) is we are weighed down by a sense of disillusionment with the church. We feel put off by the dogma, frustrated with the leadership, and rejected by the conservative culture. There are too many questions that we're not allowed to ask and too many thoughts that we're not allowed to think--there may be freedom in Christ, but we've been stifled by the church.

It is because of my own experiences (as well as many discussions with friends) that I understand God to be latent. Despite a few personal interactions with God, for the most part God seems so far removed from normal life. Although God occasionally shows up in the small things, God seems totally absent from the heavier issues. My feelings toward "the God question" waver between hope and despair--and I know I'm not the only one.

I ran across the following poem by R. S. Thomas (as reproduced in Signs of Emergence by Kester Brewin) that really captures some of my darker thoughts. This poem is about disillusionment, futility, and questioning. . . .

The Empty Church

They laid this stone trap
for him, enticing him with candles,
as though he would come like some huge moth
out of the darkness to beat there.
Ah, he had burned himself
before in the human flame
and escaped, leaving the reason
torn. He will not come any more
to our lure. Why, then, do I kneel still
striking my prayers on a stone
heart? Is it in hope one
of them will ignite yet and throw
on its illumined walls the shadow
of someone greater than I can understand?

I don't know why I still search for God--but I can't seem to give up. So I continue to strike prayers like matches, hoping that the small lights will illuminate "someone greater than I can understand."

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Gone Baby Gone

As I was reading a book today, I was struck a possibility that I had never considered before: God might be gone.

I don't mean that God mysteriously disappeared or that somehow we misplaced our conception of God. Rather, I mean that God may have become fed up with certain parts of our world and simply withdrew from them. While we were busy preserving our institutions and self-absorbed ideations, God slipped out the back door.

This was not an act of exasperation, where God lost control of the world, threw a tantrum, and walked away from the mess. It was an act of power and an act of judgment. God declared that what we were doing was not okay, so instead of enabling our misdirected ways, God left. And I don't mean that God left the whole world to its own devices. Perhaps God has chosen to leave this misguided church or that corrupt institution, but God was probably intimately involved with some other group of people at the very same time.

And really, I don't mean to assert that God has actually left at all. I just mean that God could have left. And that God still can.

There is no reason for us to assume that God is involved just because a church calls itself Christian or an organization claims to be faith-based. And to a large extent, I think that most of us realize that. I don't know anyone who actually believes that God was involved with David Koresh or with Heaven's Gate. It is pretty apparent that God is not involved with everyone who makes that claim.

However, we tend to abandon that skepticism when it comes to anything familiar. We see churches along the streets of our cities and towns and we just assume that God is active there. Unless we have reason to suspect foul play (or unless we are particularly radical/hardline) we believe that God is there. In fact, it is almost unthinkable that God would abandon the flock--God is faithful, right?

Now, I'm not advocating skepticism toward religious institutions, nor am I trying to malign God's character. It just seems arrogant on our part to assume that God will bless any endeavor we do in God's name. Surely God has the freedom to choose where to be involved and whom to bless.

Since we are seeing problems on a large scale, both in our churches and in our culture, it seems important for us to face the possibility that God may be gone. Perhaps God has moved on past our current traditions and institutions. Perhaps we have wandered off the path. Perhaps we aren't as right as we think. Perhaps we need to examine ourselves critically and ask a hard question: "Has God left us?"

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Call It for What It Is

I wish I could go back to the way things used to be. Growing up I was taught the historic truths of Christianity--things that were undebatable and absolute. I read books and went to Bible studies that proved the existence of God and gave undeniable evidence for the Christian faith. I remember feeling humbled, fortunate, and empowered because I was one of the few who really knew the truth. I felt compelled to prove to both friends and strangers that Jesus is the way. And that's what was important to me--proving Christianity--and I genuinely believed that I could succeed.

Later on, I remember getting frustrated when things stopped being so clear. There were debates among Christians in my hometown about baptism, predestination and salvation that shook up my neatly framed theological world. I began to realize that the tidy little explanations that used to explain everything actually didn't explain anything at all. Things that I had once known with certainty started to become fuzzy and gray. The theological masterpiece that I had been given in my youth turned out to be little more than a simple paint-by-number.

What I've come to realize is that Christianity at its core is non-rational (i.e., not based on reason). That really should be an obvious statement, but it came as a surprise to me. If faith were something that could be arrived at through reason, those proofs from my childhood would have worked--but that's not what faith is all about. I can't step logically from cogito ergo sum to crucifixus etiam pro nobis.
I can't prove Christianity. I can't prove salvation. I can't prove God.

And that's frustrating. I could pretend that it's actually wonderful because it allows me the opportunity to show God how committed I am--or something like that--but that would be a lie. Really, I just find it frustrating. I don't like that faith is something I can't wrap my head around. I don't like that it's all shades of gray. But that's all I've got to work with--something that is unclear, uncertain, and unresolvable.

What it all boils down to is that all the evidence, arguments, and proofs in the world can't help me make the leap of faith. I guess I just have to call it for what it is: Christianity is non-rational.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Relating to God

When I think about God I tend to think in terms of relationship. I've always been taught to believe in a God who loves me and wants to be involved in my life. The image I have of God is of a benevolent deity who is concerned about my daily choices, actions and attitudes. Further reinforcing my relational understanding of God is my tendency to understand the world through the lens of subjectivity. The way I see it, any knowledge that I can have of God is available to me only by personal experience. There is no way for me to know anything about God objectively, so the only way I can know God is the way I know other people--through interaction. Because of my background and my personal inclinations, I often conceive of and speak about God in terms of relationship.

Relationships are funny things. Even though we think we know our friends objectively, most of what we know about them comes to us subjectively, through things like inference and personal experience. Sure, we may know how old they are, how many siblings they have, where they grew up, and many other objective facts, but when we say we know someone, those factual details aren’t really what we’re talking about. When we say we know someone, we’re talking about their personality, attitude, and character. We know how people would act in given situations by making inferences from past experiences we’ve had with them. We can vouch for people’s character because we’ve gone through difficult times with them. When we say we know people, we aren’t talking about things that can be tabulated in a spreadsheet—we’re talking about subjective, relational aspects of their personality and character.

It is through this kind of subjective relationship that we come to know God. Since we can’t really see God or have conversations with God, we don’t really have the option of knowing any objective facts about God. Our knowledge of God comes to us only by subjective means. I suppose that really isn’t a problem, though, because those objective details aren’t really important in the relationship anyway. Who cares how tall God is or what God’s favorite color is? What matters is God’s character—God’s commitment to faithfulness, honesty, justice, and love. And those are things that we can only know subjectively—through the experience of a life lived with God.

But there’s a problem: If we aren’t certain that God exists, how can we have any sort of relationship with God? If we’ve already acknowledged that God is latent—that in our experience God exists as potential—where can we go from there?

Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on how you look at it), the answer to that question is faith. If we want to try to know God, at some point we have to start by trusting that God is there. We must take that leap of faith with the hope that, if we operate from the assumption that God exists, eventually we’ll rack up enough experience to know God subjectively. We start by trusting that God is there, and as we journey through life we have experiences that teach us who God is—and these become the foundation for our relationship with God. The more we experience God, the deeper our relationship becomes and the more we understand who God is. God is increasingly revealed to us through relationship.

It may seem like we’re trying to build a castle on a toothpick—trying to build a solid knowledge of God on a risky little assumption—but that really isn’t the case. What we’re trying to do is to replace the objective assumption of God’s existence with the subjective knowledge of who God is. The assumption of God’s existence isn’t a foundation that we’re trying build upon—it’s the starting point of our journey.

But all this talk about relationships brings us to another important question: Is this latent God relational?

We can only hope.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Struggling for a Latent God

If I want to take a leap of faith and place my hope in our latent God, first I have to find God. Even if I am able to wade through the mucky uncertainties that faith creates, even if I am willing to overcome the hurdles that doubt presents, I still have to find God somewhere. If God is latent, is there any way to find God? Or am I doomed to be disappointed, with lots of faith to give but nowhere to put it?

Are we forced to find this God we want to believe in? If God is not readily evident, how does God become real to us? The God who is hidden from the world must somehow become visible if we are going to believe in God. If God is latent, is it up to us to make God manifest? Must we must struggle against the odds to bring God into our reality?

Perhaps in some way faith is how we find God. Perhaps faith is what makes God visible. This act of finding/revealing makes us into dramatic incarnations of God in the world. Through faith God becomes evident to us by becoming visible through us. The act of believing brings God into our world in a real way. Without faith, God is intangible. God is nowhere to be touched or seen or heard or felt. A God who is known only through hypothesis and conjecture is a shadow of hope, nothing more. But when we come to know God through faith, God becomes real and actual to us. As God lives in and through our lives, we become incarnations of God in the world.

If God is latent, existing as potential in the world, we must struggle to bring that latent God into our reality. Without faith, God remains distant and intangible, but by the act of believing God enters into our lives. It is through our struggle of faith that God becomes incarnate in us--and that is how God comes into our world.

Read my first three posts on this subject: "Acknowledging a Latent God," "Confronting a Latent God," and "Wrestling with a Latent God."

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Revaluation of Values

I'm not sure when I first ran across Nietzsche's phrase "revaluation of values," but I want to co-opt it to describe my journey over the last few years. I have experienced a change in outlook and attitude that stems from changing values. Everything has been revalued--some things that used to seem essential have faded into the background and other things that didn't used to register on my radar have become of paramount importance to me. In a recent email to a friend I attempted to list (in no particular order) my old and new values. Here is what I came up with:

-conservatism for the sake of conservatism
-being visibly pious
-affirming the absolute, orthodox truths of Christianity
-identifying rules to live by
-living by those rules and telling others that they need to do the same
-fitting God into a unified, comprehensive theological system
-reaching others for Christ

-spending my time doing things that are worthwhile
-meeting people's needs
-showing people love
-being realistic
-giving the benefit of the doubt
-coming to working conclusions rather than final ones

It is strange to think about the changes I've undergone. If the old Matt were to meet my current self, he would be thoroughly disappointed. He would probably call me something like a "wishy-washy, postmodern, socially-active relativist" and mean it as an insult. Although it may be a bit silly, it's still a little uncomfortable for me to think about. I am so different than I was just a couple of years ago it makes me wonder what happened. While I can recount the progression, I can't really explain why it happened. I'd like to think that somewhere deep inside I've always held these "new" values, but I'm not sure that's the case.

I guess it doesn't really matter. The fact is that I have changed. I've undergone a revaluation of values, and I hope it's for the better....

Friday, January 11, 2008

Finding Identity in Pluralism

The following is an essay I wrote for one of my grad school applications:

To say that we live in a multifaith, multiethnic, multinational society is to recognize its complexity and its diversity. Our society is marked by many competing values and beliefs, each one making truth claims. Because of their significant variety, there is pressure to be tolerant and accepting of all of the different options. While it may be tempting to view such inclusiveness as an imperative for living in a pluralistic society, this is not true. There is nothing that requires us to downplay our own beliefs or to honor others’ values. Although politically incorrect, it is entirely possible to reject all but one’s own beliefs as misguided, errant, and evil. The only true imperative for living in a pluralistic society is that of developing an identity, both personal and corporate, in relation to others in society.

In order for us to live and interact meaningfully within society, we must have some starting point. There is very little that we can say or do if we do not know who we are in relation to those around us. Without the guides of identity, there is no possibility of intercourse because we will have nothing to say and no way of interpreting what we hear. For us to truly live in a pluralistic society, it is essential that we develop a balanced identity that is defined both independently of others and in relation to others.

The core of our identity is formed by the convictions and values that we have inherited or chosen from among our variety of options. It is forged independently of those outside our particular tradition. However, our identity is not complete without understanding how it is that we relate to those outside of ourselves. We must establish relationships with other groups and cultures in order to demarcate the boundaries of our identity. It is only from the starting point of identity that we can truly converse with society.

The formulation of identity is an on-going process because the relationships that help define it are fluid. Because the people we interact with help us to create our identity, they have a tremendous impact upon us. Our exchange with them alters the way we see the world and ourselves. As a result we move from merely acknowledging diversity to valuing it. It is because of this level of respect for those who are different from us that we are able to carry on honest and edifying conversations with them.

As we dialog with a pluralistic society there is a tendency to become increasingly accepting of its various values and beliefs. To a large extent this is healthy and helpful for continuing identity formation, but we can take it too far. One of the potential pitfalls that we face in such a diverse society is the temptation to become overly inclusive. Inclusiveness for its own sake leads only to a pale gray end, where there is no room for opinion, and the conversation becomes nothing more than an endless repetition of “yes.” Without the ability to distinguish ourselves from others, this extreme inclusiveness can lead to a dramatic loss of identity.

When we acknowledge that we live in a pluralistic society, we face the challenge of finding our identity. We must strike a balance between our convictions and others’ influence in order to create an identity that will allow us to interact meaningfully with society. If we are to engage society, we must be attentive enough to hear what others say and we must also be confident enough to have something to say back.