The Taser's Edge


(Yet) A(nother) Response to Ross Douthat

Part I: A Furious Few Days in One Small Corner of the Interwebs:

The article that kicked it off:

The responses that rolled in:

And finally, far less Facebook-ed:

 

Part II: My Own Response

The worst of the responses to Douthat have failed to hear his argument. To be clear, contra Uffman and Butler Bass, he is NOT making the decades-old evangelical argument that the American mainline churches’ drop in attendance since the Cold War era is due to those churches’ lack of Christian conviction, values, faithfulness, etc. Not even the Southern Baptist Convention (shrinking symbol of American evangelicalism) leads with that argument any more.

The heart of Douthat’s op-ed instead comes at its end:

What should be wished for…is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence…the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.

The only response that I have read that really hears this final point is AKM Adams. And it’s on this point that Douthat is completely right.

Part III: An Oddly Illustrative Juxtaposition

During my time at Duke Divinity, I served a year-long internship at a rural North Carolina United Methodist Church. Other populations have their Rotary or Kiwanis or Knights of Columbus, but rural North Carolinians have the Ruritan Club. Members get together a couple times or more each month, eat well, raise funds for various causes, sometimes join together in volunteer opportunities.

Almost every active member of the church was a Ruritan (or the spouse of a Ruritan), and almost every active Ruritan was an active member of one of the local churches. The two populations were virtually interchangeable, but what this meant is that the church could have no discipleship-oriented activities, service projects, classes, small groups, Bible studies, or worship services while the Ruritans were meeting or having an event.

For the lay and previous pastoral leadership of this particular congregation, this was not a problem. My own read is that this was not a conflation (as one might want to assume unfairly of rural North Carolinians) of being a good American and being a Christian. The conflation was between being a person who cared for others and being a Christian.

They are not the same.

Part IV: An Old Hope
The Episcopal Church in particular, but also other mainline denominations such as the UCC, as well as parts of the PCUSA, the UMC, and the ELCA (and sorry if I’m leaving out any) are just like the Ruritans. There are plenty of good things to be said about Ruritans, and there were plenty of good reasons for liberal Christians to be a non-violent witness at the Chicago G-8 Summit this year.

But because I’m a Christian, I am fool enough to believe that by the Holy Spirit, when a Ruritan serves a pint of Brunswick stew to another Ruritan, it can be Christ serving Brunswick stew. And when an Anabaptist Catholic Worker refuses to return the blows of an overzealous riot policeman, that can be Christ loving the world once again.

There is a difference in the Christian’s way of being in the world, because of what we believe about the triune God in the world, and because of the particular way that particular God has sought out our particular selves. This particularity is called the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God help us if we lose it, no matter how much our churches may shrink or grow.



A Theological Twanscript

Please follow James K.A. Smith and me, but know first that we don’t actually know each other.



I Pray that You Will Fall Out of Love

M. Scott Peck, in The Road Less Traveled, doesn’t believe that “falling” in or out of love is really love at all. And he’s convincing (although it didn’t take much for me). Here, he makes an analogy between a couple continuing in love and a young child’s slow developmental discovery that it and the world are separate beings:

Just as reality intrudes upon the two-year-old’s fantasy of omnipotence so does reality intrude upon the fantastic unity of the couple who have fallen in love. Sooner or later, in response to the problems of daily living, individual will reassert itself. He wants to have sex; she doesn’t. She wants to go to the movies; he doesn’t. He wants to put money in the bank; she wants a dishwasher. She wants to talk about her job; he wants to talk about his. She doesn’t like his friends; he doesn’t like hers. So both of them, in the privacy of their hearts, begins to come to the sickening realization that they are not one with the beloved, that the beloved has and will continue to have his or her own desires, tastes, prejudices and timing different from the other’s. One by one, gradually or suddenly, the ego boundaries snap back into place; gradually or suddenly, they fall out of love. Once again they are two separate individuals. At this point they begin either to dissolve the ties of their relationship or to initiate the work of real loving.

To me, although it might be depressing to some, it is incredibly hopeful that “falling in love” is not love, and that “falling out of love” is actually a requirement along the way to “real loving.” This makes love about growing up, not about being “young [and stupid] at heart.” It also makes love about taking personal responsibility. If love just “happens,” then we bear no responsibility, take no ownership, and neither are we responsible if we never love or fail to love. But if love is work, a taking up of responsibility, a part of maturation and growth and human adulthood, then it is the greatest work of our lives, worth every ounce of sweat and tears along the way.

If you are in a relationship right now, I hope and even pray that you fall out of love soon.

Finally, what about that “ego boundaries snap back into place” line? Surely (you may be thinking) the ego is exactly what’s getting in the way of so many relationships, with self-centeredness and all that. While selfishness is indeed a problem, the reality is also that you cannot love someone until you recognize them as an other. If you do not recognize their otherness, then you are not loving them as yourself, but only as if they were yourself, and you will inevitably try to control them, to assert your power over them. That is, you will be “loving” a lie; to see the other as yourself is an unreality. The other person is an other person, and only when you see the space between you can you embrace.

Ten out of ten people agree, sex with someone-not-yourself is just better.



Secularities

(You are now entering Post 3 on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. The Table of Contents for all the posts is found here.)

In Taylor’s Introduction, he lays out three secularities. The first two are other people’s interests. The third is his own.

1. “The first [secularism] concentrates on the common institutions and practices–most obviously, but not only, the state. The difference [between secular and non-secular societies] would then consist in this, that whereas the political organization of all pre-modern societies was in some way connected to, based on, guaranteed by some faith in, or adherence to God, or some notion of ultimate reality, the modern Western state is free from this connection…” (Taylor 1-2).

This first secularism becomes more fascinating later as Taylor goes on to talk about the boundedness of all systems in secular thought. At one time (as above) members of a society could not understand themselves without reference to something outside themselves (not only the divine, but one another, and the world around them). Today, not only does political theory need no reference to some form of “ultimate reality;” but an individual human being is self-created, without the help of background, family, tradition, larger society, let alone God (Hauerwas in my head: “The story of modernity is the story that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story”); and contemporary scientific cosmology certainly has no need to refer to anything beyond that which is study-able (aside from all those different universes out there).

2. “In this second meaning, secularity consists in the falling off of religious belief and practice, in people turning away from God, and no longer going to Church” (Taylor 2).

This is the most common understanding of secularism as we use the word in conversation, whether we see secularization as human progress toward a more enlightened and less superstitious future or we see it as something to be mourned and resisted.

[Aside: Perhaps most fascinating about this quote to me is that Taylor capitalizes “Church.” Thus far, Taylor does not seem to want to be doing theology, but he slips into it sometimes. Why not “no longer going to church?” It’s an argument in the form of a capitalization. Yes, Taylor is Roman Catholic.]

3. “Now I believe that an examination of this age as secular is worth taking up in a third sense, closely related to the second, and not without connection to the first. This would focus on the conditions of belief. The shift to secularity in this sense consists, among other things, of a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace. In this meaning, as against sense 2, at least many milieux in the United States are secularized, and I would argue that the United States as a whole is. Clear contrasts today would be the majority of Muslim societies, or the milieux in which the vast majority of Indians live” (Taylor 3).

This “conditions of belief” is a fascinating term, because it means that secularism is about how we experience life, not just how we theorize about it. It sets the tone for the rest of the book too. Can Taylor convince us that he is able to get inside the hearts, minds, and lives of the pre-Moderns and that he understands in the same way those of us living in the West today? (For me, 90 pages in, YES.)



Secularism and Me

I’m someone who would like theologians to stop pretending that all theology is not also autobiography, and so I’ll embark on a long trip with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age in this way…

I have traveled and lived and still travel and still live in circles where secularism is a problem, and a scary one. There are theological aspects, spiritual aspects, sociological aspects, political aspects to this, and to draw a Venn diagram would not work. But I can outline some of them.

In case any of the following beliefs sound fringe-y, they are not. You have your lawn mowed, your mail delivered, your water meter read, your hair cut, your latte made, your paycheck signed by people who hold these beliefs. You are biologically related to and in many cases descended from people who hold these beliefs.

Yes, I do know and love and am loved by people who believe that it is illegal to pray in United States public schools in 2012. Some of these folks also believe that it is important to the Gospel of Jesus Christ that United States money is printed with “In God We Trust,” and that the central statement of the Pledge of Allegiance is “under God.”

The secularization of society for these groups of people is the transitioning of the United States into a post-Christian nation, a descent into godlessness and chaos. A secularized United States is terrifying, because there is no order without God’s order, which is Christian (or at least North Atlantic, Judeo-Christian-inspired) order.

There is a more critically considered version of this, which I’ll call the First Things-ian view of secularism. First Things is the magazine founded by John Richard Neuhaus, who marched with MLK, who authored one of the most brilliant books ever written on being a pastor (Freedom for Ministry), and whose last days were spent as a neo-con (or not quite that). First Things is basically the magazine through which well-considered conservative (and/or traditional) Judeo-Christian political thought travels. It’s a magazine that helps you think better, but which you might also find yourself throwing across the room in anger/mystification.

The First Things-ian argument is that secularization is the corroding of the traditional values which aid all human fluorishing. These values are shared and universal. (For a First Things thought from earlier today to illustrate this, click here. For a problematizing of the universal claims that the Christian religion makes and has made, click here.)

For me, discussing how I relate to secularism and secularization is one of those (many) areas where I feel my lack of a coherent and contiguous narrative of history. But here is my understanding, embedded in my sense of history: the United States is much more accurately described as a pagan culture than as a secular culture (or as “pre-pagan” rather than “post-Christian”). God and gods have not been removed from public discussion and society at all. Christianity was one among many cults in the religious marketplace at its beginning, and it is so today. This “new” world is not something to fear (as both groups described above would tend to believe, although the latter hides it better), but it is still God’s world, populated by God’s children, all of us in need of conversion by God’s love through Jesus Christ.

There are some differences between these worlds, 1st and 21st centuries, of course…

Charles Taylor argues that having no god is an option for large masses of people in a way that it has never been in human history. Or, as he puts it in his Introduction:

[T]he change I want to define and trace is one which takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.



Reading Together: Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age

A friend of mine had the crazy idea that a group of people should read this very intimidating (776 pages of dense philosophy, history, critical theory, sociology, theology, and more plus 100 pages of endnotes) book together. When everyone weighed their lives, it ended up being just me and him.

You can certainly still hop on the train if this is interesting to you, however. Here’s one possible reading plan that Brian cooked up. I don’t know his personal rate of reading, but I’m going slightly faster than what you see below:

  • Week 1  – Introduction 1-24
  • Week 2 – Chapter 1 pt 1 25-bottom of page 75
  • Week 3 – rest of chapter 1 till page 130
  • Week 4 – finish chapter 2 and 3 158
  • Week 5 – chapter 4 159-211
  • Week 6 – chapter 5-6 212-269
  • Week 7 – chapters 7 and 8 270-321
  • Week 8 – chapters 9 and 10 322-376
  • Week 9 – chapter 11 377-422
  • Week10 – chapter 12  423-472
  • Week 11 – chapter 13 and 14  473-537
  • Week 12 – chapter 15 539-93
  • Week 13 – chapter 16 through 656
  • week 14 – rest of chapter 17 and 18 656-710
  • Week 15 – remainder of the book

————————————————————–
My Blogs (Supposedly) on the Book:
1. Secularism and Me – Introducing my reading of the book by talking about my own background, about what secularism means to those in the American culture in which I grew up.

2. Secularities — Taylor defines “Secular” early on, so I will follow him.

Brian’s Blogs on the Book:
1.
Why read “A Secular Age”? – Brian is much clearer than I am on that question. In part, he writes, “My hope is that Taylor will help us understand better our own ‘situatedness’ that affects how we (the we is to be taken in the broadest sense) talk about Religion, transcendence,  and ethics and how Christians think about things like prayer, church authority, and the sacraments.”




Waiting for God…in Advent?

Several weeks ago, I started searching for an Advent devotional. I’m currently not attending a church that really does Advent (or at least not how I would do it in the me-starring, Ted-Geisel-penned If I Ran the Church, which of course has a blurb by “God” (God-in-the-image-of-me) on the back, saying how great it is), so this year is demanding a lot more individual effort than the past couple.

I had been leaning toward buying Richard Rohr’s Preparing for Christmas and then I went in a very different direction when some Facebook friends let me know that Adam Hamilton had a new Advent devotional (The Journey) out, and it was free for Kindle. (Yes, I believe Richard Rohr and Adam Hamilton are both among the best living Christian teachers.)

Aside from my interest in the past couple years of reading an Advent devotional in Advent and a Lenten devotional in Lent (mostly because I am still barely getting a clue what these seasons are about), I also stole from some monks (from monk-kind, none of whom I know personally) the idea of always reading devotional literature alongside Scripture.

On top of that, I have a theory (not a unique theory, but one I didn’t learn in seminary) that Christian theology is not Christian theology if it isn’t done devotionally. So I read some stuff devotionally that most people don’t want to read at all.

Layer on layer on layer, I’m currently devotionally reading Psalms, Proverbs, Luke (which may have just become my most-personally-connected-with-Gospel, replacing John), Adam Hamilton, the Apostolic Fathers (Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch in the past couple days), and…Simone Weil’s Waiting for God.

I say “…” because that’s all this post is about. I continue wanting to write something about the Occupy Movement. (Is it already dead as of this writing?) At the same time, I realized this morning how much I still have to learn about the transfigurative properties of Advent when it didn’t occur to me until 100 pages in that a book entitled and about Waiting for God is exactly about Advent.

These two things (Advent and OWS’s call for justice) are connected. Waiting for God, for Christians, is the heart of Advent, is waiting for the coming of the Kingdom of God, which is the coming of Peace, Love, and Justice. Simone Weil understands this (from her essay, “Forms of the Implicit Love of God” in Waiting for God):

Christ does not call his benefactors [in “The Parable” (we hope) of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25:31-46] loving or charitable. He calls them just. The Gospel makes no distinction between love of our neighbor and justice…We have invented the distinction between justice and charity. It is easy to understand why. Our notion of justice dispenses him who possesses from the obligation of giving.

Do you have an Advent devotional this year? Think of Weil’s words. Hold them up before God. Wait…and hope.



Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography) by Errol Morris

I was elated when I heard that Errol Morris was coming out with this book, even when all I knew about it was the title and the author. (Fog of War is only one of the must-watch documentaries Morris is responsible for.) And the book exceeded my expectations.

Believing is Seeing is not so much about photography as it is about whether objectivity is possible (or desirable), about what and how and whether we can know, about history and memory, about how our expectations create our observations in things small and enormous. It’s not even that I agree with all his arguments (and, in fact, I found myself dissatisfied at the end of perhaps half of his photo essays), but he is an original thinker who helps others think, and that makes this book worth reading and re-reading.

There are six essays, each based around a photograph or set of photographs which have caused problems of interpretation, often with the help of mass media, but just as often with the help of historians and other scholars. Then Morris gathers interviewees and experts and other data and begins thinking through the puzzle.

The photography is great, the history is great, the interviewees are great, the anecdotes are great, the analysis is great, the prose is great. What more do you want? Excerpts?:

I also remember reading an account of October 28, 1962–the last night of the Cuban missile crisis, when many knowledgeable people thought the world would end. Khrushchev had not yet capitulated and Kennedy was poised for nuclear war. Khrushchev was in Moscow, Kennedy in Washington. We know what Khrushchev was doing from the accounts written by his son, Sergei. Khrushchev was so worried about the possibility of nuclear war that he spent a sleepless night and then announced his decision to remove the missiles from Cuba over Radio Moscow the following morning so that it could be broadcast to the entire world without delay. On the same night, Kennedy was down by the White House pool with his aide, Dave Powers, and two girlfriends watching Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. What a story. Hepburn, heir to some unspecified throne, dreams of being free of the obligations of state, but in the end knows she must return to the requirements of the monarchy. That die, too, was cast. It was a fantasy within a fantasy within the reality of the White House.

and, in a later essay…

A photograph can capture a patch of reality, but it can also leave a strange footprint: an impression of an instantly lost past around which memories collect.

The best way to get a taste of this book also happens to be about JFK. Last week, on the anniversary of the President’s assassination, Errol Morris created a short documentary for The New York Times called “The Umbrella Man.” The way the documentary winds around, altering your mind and surprising you in the process, is the way each essay in this book works.

Here’s the link to the NY Times “Op-doc.” Here’s the link to buy Morris’ book. Here’s the link to his website. Get clickin.’



Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar

There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest. Other times I can barely recall the exact features of his face and must bring out the photographs I keep in an old envelope in the drawer of my bedside table. There has not been a day since his sudden and mysterious vanishing that I have not been searching for him, looking in the most unlikely places. Everything and everyone, existence itself, has become an evocation, a possibility for resemblance. Perhaps this is what is meant by that brief and now almost archaic word: elegy.

That’s the opening paragraph of Anatomy of a Disappearance. Good writers go their whole lives without writing sentences like those. Hisham Matar wrote a novel-full (at least one, as I haven’t yet read his In the Country of Men).

When I first heard about this book, it was being spun as a literary mystery novel, which is dead wrong. A different author might have written that 700-page political thriller, but this is a dream and a meditation on the question raised in that opening paragraph:

What does it mean to live when your whole life is an elegy for a missing man, one whom you might never really have known?

It’s not a question with which intense wrestling accomplishes more than sweat and injury. But the “answer” seems to be that if your life is an elegy, then you live, and that is your answer. And if you’re a writer, you write. In Anatomy of a Disappearance, narrator Nuri el-Alfi’s father is a wealthy political dissident who is kidnapped while abroad in Switzerland. The book’s author’s own father was an anti-Gaddafi activist who disappeared from Cairo in 1990, apparently by pro-Gaddafi forces. The narrator tries to live, and the author writes.

While it’s tempting to think that there must be a close correlation between this novel’s protagonist and its author, that’s misleading. I know this because not every survivor of a terrible crime can write. Read this book. It’s what fiction is meant to be.

As for me, I’ve already reserved Matar’s first novel from the library.