Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Luther Day

Happy Reformation Day! ;-)  I'd post the picture of my family in front of the Wittenberg door but can't at moment.  Some of you may know that October 31 is not only Halloween but the day Luther nailed his famed 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg cathedral.  I first learned about Reformation Day when a church didn't want to celebrate Halloween and found another reason to do something when all the other kids in town were having fun.

My kids have about an hour and a half a week in the German gymnasium on religion, and I put them in "evangelisch" or the Protestant (which means the Lutheran/Reformed) section.  For the last two weeks they've watched American movies on Luther (which they couldn't understand because they were translated into German ;-) 

Luther's legacy is often formulated in terms of the Protestant "sola's": sola gratia, solus Christus, sola fide, sola scriptura.  Sometimes a fifth is added but it is more Reformed and less Luther.  One of the things McKnight is treating in his book is the fact that these origins have sometimes led Protestants to focus too much in their thinking on individual salvation, as if we are the center of what it's all about.  

sola gratia: "by grace alone"  On this one I think everyone (including Catholics today) agrees.  It is only because of God's grace that anyone can come to be in right relation with God.  No one can earn salvation.  It is a gift from God.  A good understand of grace in the NT, I would add, implies the necessity of an appropriate response to God's grace, which has been a weakness of Luther's system.

solus Christus: "Christ alone"  Again, I think everyone (including Catholics) would agree that it is only through Christ that anyone can be reconciled to God.  The debate is over what this means.  Two key debate points are over how this works (is God a slave to his justice or did he freely choose this path) and whether God saves through Christ many who have never heard of Christ.

sola fide: "by faith alone" Lutherans and Catholics have come a long way toward common ground on this topic as well.  The point at which Lutherans and Catholics have tension is exactly the point where Lutherans and Wesleyans have tension.  What do we say about those passages where God judges even believers according to their deeds (e.g., Rom. 2:6 and 2 Cor. 5:10), not to mention James 2:24?  For the Wesleyan tradition, deeds do not justify but they can be a key indicator of un-justification in progress.

sola scriptura: "by Scripture alone" What this really amounted to was "back to the Bible."  Luther only turned back the church about a 1000 years.  He didn't touch doctrines that reached their current form in the 300s and 400s, beliefs about things like the Trinity or the dual nature of Christ.  And of course, he felt free to decide which books belonged in Scripture in the first place.  2 Maccabees was rejected; James almost didn't make it; Romans is great.

This was, in my opinion, a high moment in Christian history, October 31, 1517.  There are important discussions and nuances to be made about all of these.  But Luther accomplished his initial goal: perhaps the best "discussion starter" in all history!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

McKnight's King Jesus Gospel 1

I was able to get a copy of Scot McKnight's new book, King Jesus Gospel over here.  My initial hunch is that it might be a very helpful book at this time.  I thought I would try to dawdle through it these next few weeks.

In this opening foray, Scot paints the picture of what he is addressing--American evangelism that is overwhelmingly focused on getting someone to make a decision, pray a prayer.  He recounts the story of visiting a man in the days of Evangelism Explosion (we Wesleyans did the same thing with Maxwell's stuff).  The key point was to get some stranger or near stranger to pray a prayer.

In the story he recounts, the deacon he is with misses all the social cues at someone's house.  They have gone to the home of a one time visitor to the church.  After prolonged persistence, the guy prays the prayer.  They leave.  The deacon celebrates--someone's been saved.  The man never darkens the door of the church again.

Then Scot gets real.  He figures that by conservative estimates, 50% of these decisions don't amount to much of significance afterwards.  Teasing American evangelical biases, he suggests that the correlation between evangelical "decisions" and solid faith later is about the same as the correlation between Roman Catholic children baptized and significant faith later.

Here's a poignant quote: "Focusing youth events, retreats and programs on persuading people to make a decision disarms the gospel, distorts numbers, and diminishes the significance of discipleship" (20).

So it begins...

Philosophy after Kant 2

... A second reaction to Kant was that of G. W. F. Hegel, whose sense of history we discussed in the previous chapter.  We can now process those ideas in terms of his reaction to Kant.  It is possible to see him as presenting a sense in which philosophy over time is indeed coming to know the world as it actually is, truth in itself.  Up to this point in history, such understandings have been partial.  The whole point of his thesis-antithesis-synthesis process is the refinement of ideas, with each synthesis removing partial untruths and synthesizing ideas that are purer.  Eventually, these ideas would reach the point of absolute truth, true knowledge of reality as it actually is.

It is fascinating that a person such as Hegel can have such an astounding influence on later thinkers when so much debate exists over what in fact he himself meant to say.  Nevertheless, we saw in the last chapter that Hegel in fact had that influence.  Karl Marx is of course the best known example, who took Hegel's ideas and applied it to his sense that world would eventually evolve into a society without class distinctions (see chaps. 12 and 14).  But his ideas also had a significant impact on many other thinkers, not least on biblical studies in the later nineteenth century through the so called Tübingen School. [1]

The name of Hegel's masterpiece is often translated as The Phenomenology of Spirit.  The word phenomenology has to do with the way things appear.  In Kant's language, the world-in-itself, as it is apart from us thinking about it, is the world of the noumena.  He thus used the word phenomena to refer to the world as it appears to us.  Therefore, when Hegel spoke of the "phenomenology" of Spirit, he was writing about the manifestation or the unfolding appearance of Spirit in history.

Indeed, in the twentieth century, Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) started a school of philosophy known as the phenomenological school.  Husserl tried to "bracket" consideration of things-in-themselves as Kant had understood them.  Our experiences were the things-in-themselves worthy of consideration.  So Husserl tried to analyze how our minds relate to objects as they appear in our minds and ignore Kantian questions about what they might be without minds looking at them.

Heidegger developed Husserl's approach and took it in an existentialist direction. [2]  Heidegger defies the traditional use of the word "being" as some external world distinct from ourselves and defines being entirely as a matter of being-in-the-world (Dasein).  Husserl was still very much focused around our intentions toward the world as it appears to us.  For Heidegger, the key issue is our concern or "care" (Sorge) about being in the world.  The goal is for us to take responsibility for our being in the world, to embrace our mortality and the cares of living.  It is for us to be in the world authentically.

The way in which these approaches flow directly into French existentialism is fairly easy to see.  In chapter 9, we saw that the French existentialists Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus were focused on inventing a meaning for your life, a reason to exist.  This is much the same as Heidegger's goal of us being in the world authentically.  We embrace the world as it is for us and choose an existence to embrace.  When people speak of "continental philosophy," they are largely referring to the phenomenological school and existentialism...

[1] See chap. 14, n. **.

[2] The personal relationship between Heidegger and Husserl has been a notorious topic of interest since World War II.  Heidegger was Husserl's student, and Husserl arranged for Heidegger to take over his post when he retired.  Heidegger even dedicated the first edition of his famous book Being and Time to Husserl.   At the same time, Husserl was Jewish, even though he had early on become a Lutheran.  Meanwhile, Heidegger publicly supported Nazism.  Some have accused Heidegger of doing nothing to try to help Husserl after the 1933 race laws in Germany removed all his academic privileges at the University of Freiburg.  Heidegger later indicated that the two had already split well before that time.  Thankfully, Husserl died in 1938 before Hitler's anti-Jewish agenda gained full force.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Philosophy after Kant

Alfred North Whitehead once said that the history of European philosophy was basically a series of footnotes to Plato. [1]  In a similar way, we might say that the history of philosophy for the last two hundred years is one long footnote to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).  We have already discussed the impact of his thinking on the key debates of philosophy.  In chapter 4 we met his understanding of knowledge.  In chapters 7 and 8 we processed the implications for what we might know about reality.

However, in this section we want to fill in some blanks about how his ideas played out historically in the key thinkers of the last two hundred years, most of whom we have already met at some point in this book.  We want to set up the context within which the key players of postmodernism emerged, the thinkers we will discuss in the next section.  By the end of the chapter, we want to argue again that a "critical realist" approach to the world is both justifiable and an appropriate Christian understanding (see chap. 8).

Kant, if you recall, was wrestling with the competing claims of rationalism and empiricism.  Rationalists argued that truth was a matter of clear thinking and tended to see our senses and experiences as potentially misleading.  Empiricists emphasized the importance of our senses in coming to truth.  David Hume took empiricism to its most extreme form, showing that ideas we have about thinks like right and wrong or about cause and effect have no real basis in our experience.

Hume woke Kant from his unexamined assumptions about such things.  His conclusion, as we have seen, was that the content of our thinking does indeed come from our senses and experiences.  But the organization of that content takes place according to certain innate categories in our minds--categories like space and time, cause and effect, and the moral law.  As a consequence, we cannot know the world as it actually is in itself (das Ding an sich).  We only know the world as our minds organize it.

For Kant, we had good reason to trust the way our minds organized things.  God was trustworthy.  Many of the philosophers who followed Kant were not so convinced.  Some were not so convinced that it made sense even to speak of a "world as it really is" in the first place.  Others thought we could know the world as it is by some other means.

Before we organize the thinkers we have in mind, a strong word of caution is in order.  One of the "truths" of which postmodernism has reminded us is that organizing specific, concrete people as I am going to do almost always--if not always--involves skew.  These thinkers probably were not consistent at every point.  They lived at specific places and times--contexts that colored and affected what they said and how they said it.  They may have changed their minds on some things over the course of their lives.

In short, categorizations like the following, often called typologies, almost always--if not always--skew reality as it is.  Beware of the either-or.  Beware of those who set up false alternatives.  Beware of "labeling," as we said in chapter 11.

The first thinker we want to consider after Kant is Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), who clearly reflected the influence of Romanticism on his thinking (see chap. 13).  If Kant argued that we cannot know the world as it actually is in itself, Schopenhauer believed that we could, just not through our reason.  Rather, our "will," the drives and desires in us, give us direct knowledge of the world as it is on an intuitive rather than rational level.  There is a pre-thinking, emotional intuition that gives us direct knowledge of the world as it actually is.

We are less likely to have heard of Schopenhauer than some of those he influenced.  For example, the psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung took cues from his sense that our rational minds were directed by the pre-conscious forces of our desires.  Further, Schopenhauer believed that the most significant motivation of our lives is our "will to live"--the drive to survive.  This idea was a major influence on Friedrich Nietzsche in the late 1800's, who argued that a "will to power" was our most basic drive, a drive to achieve, gain power, and dominate.  They then directly and indirectly influenced the existentialists of the 1950's we discussed in chapter 9, who believed that the primary human task is to determine who we are and why we want to continue living.

A second reaction to Kant was that of G. W. F. Hegel, whose theory of history we discussed in the previous chapter...

[1] Process and Reality (Free Press, 1979), 39.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Merkel's bailouts...

Two headlines caught my eye today in one German newspaper: "Hopefully, they know what they are doing" and "The Germans are becoming fewer and fewer."  I think I mentioned about a month ago that because Germans don't have much more than one child a couple, their share of Germany is in decline.  I don't think I ever posted a reflection on American immigration by way of Germany's issues, but I've found being here helpful in conceptualizing similar issues in America.

The main talk of the town, of course, is the German Chancellor's (Angela Merkel) attempt to hold the Euro and EU together by forgiving a substantial portion of Greece's debt.  Greece is hopeless financially, but the sense of the EU's leadership is that it will be less catastrophic on Europe's banks to write off some of their debt than it would be to let Greece fail.  In return, economic problem states in the EU like Greece will have to become more capitalistic.

I was reminded of the GM, Chrysler bail-outs in America--of course much less problematic.  They've paid their money back.  The US taxpayer lost nothing in the end.  In return, 1000s of people kept their jobs, countless companies (even beyond GM and Chrysler) stayed in business, and the US economy was spared the domino failure effect their failure would have caused. It seems to me like it was a good thing.

We'll see what happens here, where there will be no pay back, and there is always the fear that no amount of money could save the situation.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What is Art?

... As we attempt to synthesize the various perspectives on art in this chapter, we might start by addressing art in form and art in function.  In form, art is a matter of the human senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell.  So when we think of art, we think of things like paintings, sculptures, architecture, drama, novels, music, and good cooking. These all involve our senses--often combinations of senses.

However, for such things to be art in function, someone must perceive them to be art.  In that sense, something can be art to me that is not art to you.  Something can be art to its creator and not art to anyone else.  The key is that someone finds in something created by someone an embodiment of meaning or skill that is not literal or mechanical. [1]

Art is often a function of human emotion or pleasure.  The artist may express feelings about something.  An audience may have emotions as they experience a piece of art.  Art can of course also communicate rational truth, but it does so in a non-literal or symbolic way.  The painting represents a truth rather than simply telling it.  A novel creates a world that embodies truths or feelings without presenting the literal world.

Someone may consider something a work of art because it embodies skills that not everyone has.  Something evokes pleasure in the perception of the skill it embodies.  There can be an art to writing even when a person is writing about math or science.  The idea of a skill was in fact the original meaning of the word "art."  We might thus define art as the expression of something meaningful to someone in a skillful or non-literal way in the form of something perceived by the senses.

[textbox: Art]

Beyond this definition, are there criteria by which we might evaluate the value of art, especially as Christians?  Is beauty only in the eye of the beholder?  Certainly by our definition we cannot deny any individual the right to define something as art that only they find to be art.

Yet there is also something to be said for art that, as Tolstoy said, has an infectious quality.  We can suspect that the kind of art that is infectious in one time and place may not be infectious in another.  What one generation or culture finds appealing and desirable, another may not.  Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, admired today for its brevity and clarity, was not as admired in a day when more embellishment was the norm.  William Shakespeare's plays were considered unsophisticated to the elite of his day.  And Paul in the New Testament reveals that according to the style of his time, "his speech [is] contemptible" (2 Corinthians 10:10, NRSV).

But it is surely also by no coincidence that centuries of individuals have found the works of artists like Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) to be art at its best.  Is it because they have captured something about the order God placed into the world?  Is it because they have expressed some common dimension of the human psyche?  Is it because they were able to do things none of us could imagine doing?  Perhaps it is all these things.

Most Christians believe in beauty and (appropriate) pleasure for their own sake.  While many Christians throughout the ages felt the need to make Song of Solomon into a metaphor for Christ and the church, it was originally poetry about sex and love, plain and simple.  We find acrostic poetry in Lamentations and Psalm 119, where the first word of each verse intentionally begins with a different letter of the alphabet.  Lamentations 1, 2, 4, and 5 have 22 verses, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Lamentations 3 goes through the alphabet three times.

These and other artistic expressions in the Bible serve no rational purpose.  They are purely a function of beauty and artistry.  Many of the psalms are expressions of sadness or thanksgiving or anger.  The purpose of such psalms was not to communicate truth--they do not give a proposition to evaluate. [2] They are expressions of God's people with which we can identify.  We can thus agree with Oscar Wilde that art does not always have to have a purpose other than enjoyment or an expression of meaning.  Art most often falls in the category of adiaphora--things that are morally neutral.  

To be sure, from a Christian perspective, art can also have both positive and negative moral dimensions.  We can say with Tolstoy that art that tends to promote virtue in its audience has a positive moral dimension.  We can say with Aristotle and even Marcuse that art can be cathartic in a way that purges us of unhealthy emotions so that we can think or act with greater clarity or virtue.  For this reason, art that embodies sadness or anger is not clearly negative in effect.

But we can also say with Plato that art can be used to manipulate in a negative direction.  And we can find Marcuse's sense of art dangerous when it is the expression of an evil heart.  Art is an embodiment of evil when it is an expression of an evil heart, and art is negative when it embodies or promotes vice and evil in those who perceive it.

Most of us live in a culture where freedom of expression is a primary value, but freedom is never absolute.  In secular American culture, I am free to express myself in speech or religion if such things do not lead to violence or a violation of the rights of others.  Even from a secular perspective, there are limits to freedom of expression.

The limitations you want to put on others from a Christian perspective will differ in keeping with the view you have of how Christians should relate to the society around them, as we saw in the previous chapter.  Christians who see the world through a deterministic lens may want to force the rest of society to conform to their Christian values.  Christians who believe God has given us free will by contrast will lean toward allowing others to express themselves in negative ways, as long as it does not harm the innocent.

[1] We can of course by extension speak of God as the consummate artist in his creation of the world.  And we can always make metaphors of such things--our dog is an artist in the way she arranges her food around the kitchen floor.

[2] In such cases, words like "inerrant" or "infallible" do not really relate to the genre in question.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Protestant Liberal Thinking

Working on a textbox in conjunction with a section in the philosophy book on Leo Tolstoy's view of art.
Protestant Liberal Thinking
Although many speak today generally of something being "liberal" in a very broad sense, "Liberal theology" was the formal name of a stream of Protestant thinking especially in the late 1800's and early 1900's (not to be confused with the economic liberalism of the previous chapter).  Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) was the "father" of liberal theology when he sought to protect Christianity from the challenges of the Enlightenment by defining religion in terms of religious experience: "Religion is neither thinking nor acting but intuition and feeling" (On Religion).  In this regard the influence of the Romantic Era on him is unmistakable.

However, the height of Protestant liberal theology came in the optimistic spirit of the late 1800's and early 1900's prior to World War 1.  Albrecht Ritschl (1822-89) built on Schleiermacher's sense that religion was about experience rather than knowledge, but he sought to give that experience a more objective basis in the origins and history of Christianity.  He also saw it more as a lived out experience in community (ethics) rather than Scheiermacher's focus on an experience of complete dependence on God.

Ritschl found part of his objective basis for Christian experience in his idealized picture of Jesus as the supreme moral example of all history, a demonstration of the perfect human relationship with God lived out in community.  He did not actually believe Jesus was divine, even if in a unique class by himself.  Part of the job of the theologian for him was to strip the authentic substance of Christianity from its later accretions, such as the later creeds of Christianity.

Protestant Liberalism would then reach its peak at the beginning of the twentieth century, before World War 1 dashed its optimistic view of humanity to pieces.  Adolf Harnack (1850-1930) saw the essence of Christianity as "the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of humanity."  The essence of Christianity was thus to love your neighbor and what came to be known as the "social gospel," where the overwhelming focus of Christian faith is on helping others rather than on saving souls from damnation.

In many (though not all cases), the key figures in Protestant Liberalism did not view Jesus as truly divine. Even the pastor who started the slogan, "What would Jesus do?" (Charles Sheldon) saw Jesus more as a  moral example rather than as divine or as Savior.  Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that what was defective in the Protestant Liberalism of that time (or of the neo-liberalism of our own day) is not the focus on loving our neighbor, imitating Jesus, or promoting social justice.  What was defective was what they did not teach, rather than what they did.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Knowing God/Knowing God

I've been thinking through an important distinction that I think is very important when it comes to Christian formation and education.  I have often claimed that a person does not have to be studied to know (experience) God.  I've even argued that a person does not have to be trained to read the Bible to hear God speak through it.  These claims fit my revivalist background and are music to the ear of my tradition.

I'm also aware that these words tend to give an excuse to individuals not to know (knowledge about) God.  When I say you do not need to study to know (experience) God I mean things like the following:

You do not need to study to:

  • Know what God specifically wants you to do. (... like if God wants you to apply for a certain job)
  • To hear God speak to you through Scripture. (... some morning God affirms his love to you while you are reading Scripture)
  • To have a personal relationship with God. (... experience feelings and emotions in communion with him)
I have not always made the second half clear, though.  You need to study to:
  • Know the original meaning of a biblical passage with certainty.
  • Be able to critique how likely your own impressions of God's will and speaking are.
Make sense?


Romanticism was a movement in art and culture in the late 1700s and 1800s that emphasized feeling, intuition, and imagination.  It was a reaction to the Enlightenment emphasis on reason (the "Age of Reason"), as well as the cold, impersonal direction of the Industrial Revolution.

If the Scientific Revolution of the 1600's had made the world seem to be a mechanical, unfeeling place, the Romantics felt their way to something deeper and more mysterious about human life.  If God had seemed more distant and less certain by reason, they recognized the possession of the artist by a higher power.  If Kant had suggested we cannot know the world as it actually is, they responded that they could access the world as it really is through intuition.  If the Renaissance and Enlightenment had reached back to the classical world of the Greeks and Romans for examples, the Romantics reached back into the Middle Ages for shadowy tales of Arthur, Robin Hood, and the stories of the Brothers Grimm.

No doubt the popularity and influence of Romanticism derived from the fact that the common person could identify with it.  It certainly had its elite leadership, individuals like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) in Germany and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) in England (although Goethe denied that he was a Romantic).  But the staying power came from the fact that anyone could identify with its values and themes.  Paintings were less and less about representing truths--less about Jesus, Mary, biblical scenes.  Now they were expressions of feeling and imagination, ranging from scenes of everyday life to less than reverential treatments of religious themes.

Romanticism was thus an expression of cultural insecurity, a kind of escape from the "real world" to some other supposedly more real world.  It is no surprise that fear was one of the primary emotions expressed, and the modern horror film finds its origins in the Romantic Age.  This is the age that gave birth to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818).  The movement that birthed it in Germany was called Sturm und Drang ("storm and stress").  In Goethe's Faust, a genius has studied everything imaginable ("unfortunately theology as well") and at the end of reason sells his soul to Satan.

Individualism in its modern form owes much to the Romantic Age.  It is true that Descartes turned the lens of philosophy toward me as an individual thinker, but Romanticism glorified individual feeling.  It was the age of the French and American Revolutions, where any individual could disregard the time honored roles and rules of society (this is part of the reason Shakespeare emerged as a hero).  "Who am I and what do I feel about who I am?" became a question the elite now asked, while common people now felt empowered and embraced a common identity as a people (nationalism). These developments would set the stage for Freudian introspection at the end of the 1800’s.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Future of Seminary Education

Over at Patheos, they've asked a cross-section of their bloggers to respond to a series of questions on the future of seminary education.  I thought I would give you the kinds of answers I would give for Wesley Seminary at IWU.

What is the purpose of a seminary education?
The purpose of a seminary education is to equip a wide variety of "ministers" to participate as fully and powerfully as possible in the mission of God in the world.  There are a host of such ministries, among which ministry to a local worshiping community (i.e., a church) is the primary one.  There are also ministries to the sick, the poor, the imprisoned, to those in military service (chaplaincy, urban ministry, etc).  There are specialized ministry skill sets to particular age groups, locations, and demographics (youth ministry, classical missions).  There is the ministry of knowledge for those who resource the church as educators.  And seminaries might very well train a host of lay ministers and parachurch ministers.

What are the challenges seminaries face?
I see three primary challenges for seminaries in the days ahead, two practical and one ideological.  I am convinced that the biggest challenge seminaries have faced in the last decade is accessibility.  There will always be some who are willing to go live somewhere for three years but this number is in sharp decline.  The real demand for seminary education now is by some sort of distance education, whether it be online or through satellite campuses.  Cost is another major factor, especially in these economic times.

The ideological challenge is America's move toward a post-Christian society.  Whether one agrees with their thinking or not, evangelical seminaries remain in demand because their students sense something living there, something that might make a difference.  The question is whether these answers have staying power.  What institutions will future ministers perceive to be able to best address the issues that our culture is raising?

I want to throw in a challenge related to this last one, a complaint you hear often from pastors--"Seminary didn't actually teach me the things I needed to know to do ministry."  I don't actually think this is entirely the case.  I think the problem is more that seminaries do not typically do a good job of showing seminary students the relevance of what they are learning.  Seminaries usually lean heavily toward the theoretical and do less to exercise skills in applying theory to practice.

How are you preparing for those challenges?
Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University was founded with these trends in mind.  The university made a large commitment to the seminary so that it would be affordable.  The university is particularly good at online and distance education, and we have transferred these strengths to our MA and MDIV programs.  We have an onsite option, but the demand has clearly been the over 80% of our students who take two-thirds of their program online.  In two years, we have over 200 students.

The most distinctive feature of our program is the way we have gone about integration in our curriculum to address the perceived disconnect between seminary and ministry as it really is.  We require our MDIV students to be in a local ministry at least 20 hours a week, so many assignments are real church work.  We have folded Bible, theology, and church history into the practice of ministry courses (a third of each praxis course is "foundational").  Students also do spiritual formation every semester.

That's integration of theory with practice, foundations with practice, and the affective with the cognitive.

What is the future of theological education?  What will a seminary education look like 10 years from now?
Seminaries will continue to move toward distance education.  The online platforms get better and better and, while I do not think students want it, we are at the point where we could even have real time classes online where you could see all your fellow students.  Only niche seminaries will survive in the future without a significant distance component.

I believe seminaries will get more and more practical.  The days where professors are unaccountable for what they teach--meaning free to teach things perceived to be of no value by the students--are numbered. Whether we like it or not, seminaries are businesses in a competitive market.  Those seminaries that don't scratch the itch of some set of students won't make it.

One direction the above trajectories point toward is onsite ministerial training.  We already seeing the rise of large church ministerial training grounds here and there.  There's a good chance this trend will continue.

What new initiatives and/or creative conversations are shaping the life of your institution?
An immense amount of creativity went into the creation of the seminary and its fundamental design.  Our leaders continue to think outside the box.  We have started a Spanish version of the MDIV that is entirely in Spanish and two-thirds online.  We are in the middle of global conversations about the possibility of serving other constituencies around the world as well.  The leaders of the university are also dreaming another innovative plan for church planting where undergraduate students in various disciplines (e.g., nursing) pair up with ministry students (undergraduate or seminary) to plant new churches around the country and world.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Spend or Tighten

It is interesting, if a bit scary, to watch Washington play out some of the economic debates of the last century.  Keynes believed that a government had to take up the slack in private sector spending to get an economy back on track in a crisis, even though it led to government deficits.  Friedman believed that as long as the government was keeping a balance between the amount of money in the system and the gross domestic product, everything would right itself eventually.  Hayek of course believed in doing nothing at all other than balancing our budget.

I doubt if even one or two people reading this post knows enough about these sorts of things to have an educated opinion, despite our self-confidence.  But the consequences are potentially quite severe, aren't they?  If Keynes was right, then the push to balance the budget right now threatens to throw us into an even worse recession.  If Friedman/Hayek were right, then we will be in for some bad times, but the government should basically let us suffer through it and do nothing to help.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Top 10 clues you might be German

10. You have an uncontrollable urge to take your dog with you into restaurants.

9. You've never even seen the other people who live in the same house with you.

8. You find yourself putting your glass, plastic, and leftover food into separate trash bags.

7. Your kids get excited about liver and cheese sandwiches.

6. You take your own grocery bags with you to the store.

5. You know the names of fifteen different kinds of salami.

4. You find yourself sweeping your neighbor's sidewalk in disgust on Saturday morning because it's dusty.

3. You leave a tip next to the toilet in public restrooms for whoever cleans the bathroom.

2. You can't bring yourself to jay walk, even when nothing's coming and you're going to miss your train.

1. You can do things with the insides of a pig that no one else could imagine.

China owns the moon...

China is poised to set up colonies on the moon.

We certainly won't be there, given the current trajectory in American politics.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Marx's Critique of Capitalism

I consider Marx's philosophy of history ludicrous... frankly I think history considers Marx's philosophy of history ludicrous.  In my philosophy chapter on social and political philosophy, I boiled down his critique of capitalism to two points:
  • capitalism leads to the oppression of its workers
  • capitalism is inherently unstable and leads to crisis/economic failure
My gambit is that while there is potential truths to these critiques, capitalism does not have to lead in these directions if proper safeguards are put into place.

So it seems to me that governments with capitalistic systems have put two kinds of safeguards into place: 1) regulations that protect the rights of workers and 2) regulations that ensure the stability of the capitalistic system.  In the former category are things like child labor laws, minimum wage laws, and so forth.  In the latter category are anti-trust laws, FDIC, automatic market shut downs, etc.<

What I find ironic--and dangerous--about the rise to power of influences like those of Rand Paul (whose ideas are heterodox within the economist expert community), is that they in effect want to undue the very protections that evolved in the capitalist system in response to the real problems it brought in the late 1800s and early 1900s. We already experimented with this approach and the consequences weren't so hot.  The best economic period for most Americans was these last 60 years after so many of these protections were put in place.

Keynes, Hayek, and Friedman

My attempt to overview these three in brief:
John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) was perhaps the most influential economist of the twentieth century, and his perspective was that the government frequently needs to intervene into economic matters in order to avert or alleviate financial crisis. [1] For example, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama largely followed the advice of Keynesian economists when they spent massive amounts of money in the 2008 world economic crisis order to keep major banks and businesses from failing, while also pumping money into the system.   Although not all economists agree, most also believe that the New Deal projects of Franklin Roosevelt along similar lines helped speed the American recovery from the Great Depression.

Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) is often placed at the other end of the economic spectrum, although Hayek and Keynes did not disagree on everything. [2] He and the “Austrian school” of economics reflect a minority position among economists, but nevertheless one that has had significant impact. While Keynes advocated intense involvement of government during times of economic crisis, Hayek was more to blame government involvement for economic crisis in the first place.  A key cause of the Great Depression for Hayek was the fact that the Federal Reserve Bank (in the 1920’s artificially allowed more money into the market than it should have, leading to an inevitable contraction later.

While Hayek’s theories have occasionally had great influence, the Austrian School is considered to be “heterodox” by most economic experts, outside the mainstream.  Along with Keynesian economics, the other main approach to economics is the monetary approach, with Milton Friedman as its best known proponent. [3] Monetarism can be seen both as a development and critique of the Keynesian approach.  For Keynes, the key factor in a stable economy was to make sure the total of government and private spending are in equilibrium with the total demand for goods and services at any particular time and price level.  When the private sector stops spending, the government has to pick up the slack, even when it causes deficit spending.

By contrast, Friedman (like Hayek) thought governments more often than not compounded problems when they intervened in economic crises.  He did believe in government involvement in the economy, but it was largely to make sure the money supply always kept in equilibrium with the Gross Domestic Product (GDP—the total value of the goods and services produced in a nation).  In his view, this policy would keep prices relatively stable.  Since this approach is purely mathematical, it requires no value judgments on the part of economic leaders.  Nothing special should be done in an economic crisis because he believed systems would eventually reach equilibrium on their own.

[1] Keynes’ key work was The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936).

[2] Hayek’s key work was The Road to Serfdom (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1944).

[3] Friedman’s key work here, which he co-wrote with Anna Schwartz, is A Monetary History of the United States 1867-1960 (Princeton: Princeton University, 1963).

Monday, October 17, 2011

concluding paragraphs to social contract

OK, here are the two concluding paragraphs to my section on social contracts.
Nevertheless, the idea of society involving a kind of social contract between its members arguably remains a helpful way of conceptualizing the tension between individual freedom and the corporate benefits of a society as a whole.  Both biblically and historically, Christians believe that all human beings are loved by God and are thus significant and valuable.  And even from a secular standpoint, societies that consider all individuals within them to be meaningful members of their social contracts seem to prosper far more than those that repress or ignore some group or portion.  Historically, these ignored groups have a tendency to revolt and exact their revenge on those who ignore them, often subjugating the others in turn.

We remember that this same era of European history also produced utilitarianism, the idea that governments should strive to enact what brings about the greatest good for the greatest number.  In the light of social contract theory, we can modify this proposal to say that the people of a nation would ideally set down a relatively limited number of common rules with the goal of bringing about the greatest good for the greatest number without unduly sacrificing the freedom of other individuals within the contract.  How these basic principles play out varies significantly within those governments that practice this sort of social contract (e.g., will it include universal health care?).  But some variation on this form of government has become the ideal standard worldwide today, the “constitutional democracy.”

Separation of church and state

I wrote this textbox this morning:
A very controversial issue in American politics is the idea of the “separation of church and state.”  The first amendment to the Constitution says that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”  This basic right is usually referred to as “freedom of religion.”

However, there are differing interpretations of the “establishment clause” current in America today.  For some, it means that the government cannot be involved in anything religious at all.  Accordingly, those who interpret the clause in this way believe it illegal for any Christian symbols to be present in the houses of government (e.g., the Ten Commandments in a courthouse) or for prayer to be present in public schools.

The other interpretation is that the government cannot endorse any specific religion.  When interpreted this way, the key is that no one religion or religious viewpoint be taught exclusively.  Ten Commandments can be present in public forums if they represent traditions of law rather than an endorsement of Jewish or Christian religion.  Prayer can take place as long as it is generic or as long as prayer is offered from more than one faith.  Certainly if children in the schools want to pray, it would violate their freedom of religion to prohibit it, unless their prayer was proving disruptive.

Religious neutrality on the part of the government fits well with the notion of the Constitution as a social contract.  All individuals have the right to practice their own religion as long as it does not harm others.  The government thus serves as moderator rather than proponent of specific religious beliefs (while protecting certain more basic ethical principles).  This perspective was also forged in the religious persecution of Europe that drove so many to America (e.g., the Pilgrims) and that was also part of the history of American colonies such as in Puritan New England.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

America's social contract

I'm wondering if I should shift from writing so much here more to summarizing what I'm writing.  I've wondered if there is little interest in wading through my prose.  What do you think?

I've been writing a section in the philosophy book on "Social Contracts."  Here are a couple highlights:

1. I've long heard the name Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) but haven't known a lot about him.  I like this guy.  He took the side of the Arminians against the hard core Calvinists of Holland and lost.  He was imprisoned for life in 1618, but his wife and a maidservant smuggled him out in 1621 in a chest.

He went on to write some of the foundations of international law.  For example, it was he who first argued that the seas were international territory (he wrote this back in Holland before his imprisonment).

2. I have long thought that the best way to get to the bottom of what America should be in relation to many issues is the idea of a social contract.  This of course was the basis for American democracy in the first place, as the founders had the rare opportunity of creating a government from scratch.  Here are some ground rules:

  • One surrenders some degree of individual freedom when one lives together with others in society.  If you cannot remove yourself from a society, then you are bound to abide by its contract.
  • The default state of a member of a society is equal to that of all others.  
  • We agree to live by certain ground rules, a "bill of rights," if you would.  I won't steal your property if you don't steal mine.  I won't kill you if you don't kill me.  Etc.
  • We set up a third party, the government, to arbitrate disputes and protect our individual rights.  Contract violators (criminals) are either removed from society or rehabilitated to follow the contract.
  • What we have the government do for us depends on the kind of contract we arrange.  The only stipulations are that no arrangement can violate my basic rights as an individual.  If we want to pay taxes so that the government provides universal health care, we can.  If we do not, we don't have to.
  • I as an individual have to abide by those parts of the contract with which I do not personally agree, provided that the contract does not impinge on my basic rights. 
  • It is in the best interest of a society as a whole for its contract to benefit as many of its members as possible, present and future.  Some structures may not benefit me now, but might benefit me at another time.
To me, this framework of thinking cuts through a lot of mud.

Germany and Paradigms of Society

This is potentially for a textbox in the philosophy chapter called "Living Together in Society."

The history of Germany these last two hundred years is an excellent example of how the self-understanding of a society can change dramatically in a rather short period of time.  If we turn back to the year 1800, what we now call Germany was part of a collection of around 300 relatively independent states spread out over present day Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, etc (the Holy Roman Empire).

The almost one city countries of Luxembourg and Lichtenstein in Europe are left overs from that period.  Interestingly, even today the German cities of Berlin, Hamburg, and Bremen have a somewhat independent "city-state" status that no other German cities have.  These small states are artifacts of an age when rule was very much localized and city-oriented under kings and king-like rulers.

Who ruled what was more a matter of inheritance and marriage than a bounded area of land.  For example, the king of England in the 1700s and early 1800s was also the ruler of Hanover in Germany.  Governance thus was less about where a place was as who its ruler was.  Marriage was a way of unifying kingdoms.  Catherine the Great of Russia (1729-96) was German, as is the current ruling family of England.

Meanwhile, in 1800 there were other forces going on in the world that were also working in Germany.  Both France and America had seen revolutions that strongly pushed the right of the "common man" to govern himself (literally) without kings in charge, a fairly new idea in history, even if the Greeks had briefly explored it a couple millennia ago. At this same time, the German Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) apparently invented the word "nationalism" and argued that a people's identity grows best out of its geography and language (not its rulers).  He urged people living in the Holy Roman Empire to stop speaking French and speak their more natural language: German.

Herder's fairly innocuous ideas on history had an immense impact on German history through others who built on his ideas.  Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) made his Addresses to the German Nation in which he pointedly made it clear that the French and the Jews were not German and did not belong.  They did not trace their ancestry and language to the Germanic peoples mentioned as far back as the second century in the Roman historian Tacitus.  Of course, those tribes had long since moved on. What we are seeing here is the invention of the German "nation" as a social construct.

The Brothers Grimm began to write down German folk tales that were meant to reveal authentic German identity.  This was the era of Romanticism (see chap. 14), and in part it played itself out in Germany with music like that of Richard Wagner (1813-83), who celebrated an idealized (i.e., socially constructed) German past.  Georg W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) spoke of a zeitgeist, a "spirit of the age" that can reach a critical mass when a people comes to determine its place in history (see chap. 15). These forces climaxed of course in Adolf Hitler's (1889-1945) attempt to reunify all the areas he believed were German into a single people, as well as to expunge these lands of those he did not consider to be truly German.

The period since Hitler has of course been a rocky one for Germany.  After World War 2, Germany was divided into two countries, east and west, with the east under the control of communist Russia as part of what was called the "Soviet Union."  Two quite different understandings of society pervaded east and west.  The west adopted the democratic structures of the West and prospered.  The east adopted a modified version of Karl Marx's (1818-83) understanding of history (see chap. 15), where the end goal of society is for all property to be held in common.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, the two parts were reunified in 1990.  All of Germany is now a democracy and one of the key players in the European Union, a collection of a couple dozen countries in Europe. Nevertheless, this situation is no doubt creating a new sense of identity for Germany, complicated not only by the fragments of so many different earlier perspectives but by a massive immigration from the east that will soon take over the population of the country.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Occupy your brain

Trying to get a feel for this "Occupy" movement.  We saw the police out in big force in Munich today, where I guess there was a march.  Didn't see the march, but there was a lady sitting next to me on the bus with some placard about taxes.  I think she was late, might have missed it ;-)  The bus driver finally told us all to get off because he couldn't get any closer. She filed out with the rest of us.

My sense is that there are both some similar and some very dissimilar characteristics to the Tea Party protests of some time ago.  For one, of course, these protests are a lot angrier and in Rome went violent.  Of course I get the feeling that any protest in Italy is bound to go violent.  The Occupy protests are left (anti-capitalist) while the Tea Party protests were right (anti-communist).  Both are against corporate bail-outs, one for anti-capitalist reasons and the other for libertarian reasons.

I think the best course is in the middle.  The libertarian Tea Party approach leads to violent revolt by those who aren't self-sufficient.  The anti-capitalist Occupy approach runs everything into the ground economically (and burns a lot of cars in the process).

But I'm not sure where the centrists are.  Maybe we should protest the Tea Party and the Occupy people.  I'll make the signs.  Better yet, let's just go to Starbucks and talk philosophy.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Translation Recommendation for Wesleyan Church

The Wesleyan Church has used the NIV generally for decades, but as we now know, the old NIV is being phased out and churches are having to decide what to use now and what to put in their pews.  I have waffled on a recommendation, but one has finally crystallized in my mind.  I'm recommending the new NIV 2011.  Here are my reasons:

1. Continuity
There are many other fine translations out there.  Some Wesleyans, for example, were involved in the translation of the NLT.  The NRSV remains the version that most scholars use and that you will use if you go to Asbury.  The ESV is now very popular among Calvinist evangelicals. The CEB is a new translation that has many fine features.

But to decide in any one of these directions requires a new direction for Wesleyans, and it is unclear that any of these are so much better as to tip the scales in their direction.  Our people are used to the NIV.  Why not stay with it?

2. It is an improvement on the old NIV.
To be honest, I used to make fun of the NIV from a scholarly perspective.  It added words here and there, wore its theology on its sleaves.  It was also a product of its age, meaning that it used "he" and "man" all over the place when it isn't actually there in the Greek or Hebrew. A lot of people think that the new NIV is caving in to political pressure in taking most of this language out.  But much of the time, it's actually more accurate to go neutral.

In fact, I think some who pushed the ESV for this very reason were surprised to find out how much of that language it took out.  Much of the time, the Greek doesn't specify the gender, meaning that doing away with this language is actually more accurate.

I came across this example.  Someone was concerned that the new NIV of 2 Corinthians 5:17 reads, "If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come."  They thought the ESV was more accurate to say, "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation."  But the Greek simply says, "If anyone is in Christ, new creation."  The ESV here thus makes the original more masculine than it was.

There are numerous places where the new NIV has improved things that I used to critique.  For example, the old NIV of Colossians 2:14 read that Christ had "canceled the written code, with its regulations." The NIV incorporates good evidence from archaeological discoveries that have led almost all scholars to agree that what Christ cancelled here was "the charge of our legal indebtedness." The translation of 2 Corinthians 5:17 above in another example of taking into account some recent scholarship on 2 Corinthians.

Bottom line: The new NIV is a better translation than the original NIV, and it was headed by evangelicals with absolutely solid evangelical credentials like Doug Moo of Wheaton.

3. Even more Wesleyan now!
I would claim that the NIV was originally a product of the primarily Calvinist-evangelical powers that be, despite the fact that Stephen Paine of Houghton was involved with it.  In my opinion, the ESV has become the new baby of this power block.  The new NIV, interestingly, seems to fit better with Wesleyan theology than the old one did or than the ESV does.

Notice, for example, that the new NIV calls Phoebe a deacon in Romans 16:1.  The ESV, since it was produced by people who generally resist women in ministry, could not bring itself to do this.  So in the ESV, Phoebe is just a servant of the church.  Meanwhile, while Junia in Romans 16:7 of the NIV is outstanding "among" the apostles, in the ESV she is "well known" to the apostles.  The new NIV lets you decide if she was an apostle.  The ESV doesn't want to give you the chance to think something awful like that.

Let's be clear about this "gender neutral" stuff.  The NIV only uses "brothers and sisters" when that's what we would all agree the original meant.  It never adds women to the translation when they weren't there originally in the meaning. While a translation would not have to do this, certainly it fits well with Wesleyan theology.  Sometimes rendering the neutrality of the original requires changing a singular to a plural to make good English, but in some places this may actually be less of a change than translating with "he."

All translations involve a loss of meaning.  You simply cannot render the exact meaning of something in one language into another.  All translations are approximations and interpretations.  If we are really this concerned about precision, we had better stop using translations altogether and learn Greek and Hebrew. Fine with me.  We'll do away with all translations and read the real Bible. ;-)

I wish everyone could do a quick study of the way the NT authors use the OT.  What you'll find is that they definitely fall in the "dynamic equivalence" camp.  Think The Message.  They make the new NIV look like the King James.

So there's my recommendation to the church.  Let's stick with the NIV.  It's our tradition.  It's more accurate than the old NIV.  It's more Wesleyan than the ESV.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Development of Societies 1

Some of you may know that I have been dawdling through writing a philosophy textbook for over five years.  I have about 275 pages written.  The situation has gone critical to finish it, so you will probably see a fair bit of philosophy here until the end of the month.  I am currently working on chapter 13, called "Living Together in Society."  I have about half the material written.

I will probably put this section after a section already written called "Ways to Govern Society."
By all accounts, the earliest forms of human society involved extended families, which over time became tribes.  We see this in the account of the origins of Israel in the Old Testament.  The family of Jacob becomes over time the tribes of Israel.  Whether it is true in the case of Israel, tribes often trace their origins to an "eponymous" individual--a legendary, heroic figure from whom the tribe or group took its name.

It may take some difficulty for modern Westerners to get their heads around how recent an invention the nation-state arguably is in human history.  Some historians would argue that nations as we now conceive them are perhaps less than two hundred years old.  The default way of human thinking is local and "tribal," and it takes some effort for diverse social groups spread out over a wide area to think of themselves as a single group with a central point of governance that they embrace as their own rather than as an imposition of power on them.

Which came first, the nation or the people?  Arguably the people always come first, and the idea of a nation is a social construct, a way of looking at a collection of people that is not intrinsically based on who those people are. [1] It is a way of looking at a collection of people that cultures "create" and then put into effect by establishing certain power structures.  It is a set of glasses through which a people views itself, when it is quite possible they might view themselves in a different way.  It is a social construct that does not exist unless a group of people own and thus create it, as opposed to societies where it is clear that their leaders are "other," are different from them, who exercise power over them from the outside.

That is not to say that there are no concrete grounds for nation formation.  Location, language, common customs, common enemies--there are all sorts of concrete reasons why groups sometimes look beyond the local to form larger social groups. Historically, of course, the formation of social groups large enough to be called "empires" has more typically taken place because of war or military conquest, usually led by strong autocratic leaders.

[text box: nation-state, city-state, social construct]

It thus requires some cognitive effort on our part to think of ancient Israel more as a tribal collection, an "amphictyony" than as a nation per se.  For example, we should not think of the judges of Israel as being some kind of centralized leaders over Israel as a single entity.  These are rather charismatic leaders that some portion of the Israelite tribes gathered around in times of military engagement.

In the past, Western history was taught in a way that led many of us to think of Greece and Rome as islands of civilization in the middle of the barbarian, "bearded" world that surrounded them.  Of course this is how the Greeks and Romans viewed themselves.  We even find traces of this way of constructing reality it in the New Testament, such as in Romans 1:14 where Paul follows the convention of dividing the non-Jewish world into "Greeks and barbarians."

The result is that we have a tendency to think of places like ancient Greece and Rome in the same way we look at nations today.  But if we dig a little deeper, we find that the Greek and Latin words for places like Athens and Carthage are plural.  These cities were originally collections of tribes.  The city of Athens was originally hundreds of individual clans, which were combined to form 10 tribes in 508/7BC.  The city of Rome similarly consisted of numerous tribes. [2]  In the year 242BC, there were officially 35 tribes in Rome.

Prominent cities in the times before empires usually had their own kings--thus the idea of city-states...

[1] The classic work on the idea of socially constructed reality is of course, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (New York: Anchor, 1966).

[2] In fact, the very word "tribe" comes from the Latin word for three, since three tribes originally made up the city of Rome.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Another text box:
At the time of the New Testament, Stoicism was the most influential of the Greek philosophical schools, and some of Paul’s ethic may reflect Stoic influence.  The school itself was founded by Zeno of Citium (ca. 334-ca. 262BC).  His group became known as the Stoics because they met in the colonnade called the Stoa Poikile, in the Greek agora (marketplace).
The key idea of Stoicism is to “love your fate” (amor fati).  The universe is governed by divine Logos (Word).  It is the Reason or Mind that orders everything.  You can resist it, but it is pointless because the Logos determines what will happen.  We all have seeds of this overall Logos inside of us, logoi spermatikoi.  This is the “divinely implanted word” (cf. James 1:21).

The ideal is thus to live in accordance with the reason that is inside of you.  The Stoics believed that emotions were the enemy of reason and thus that a person should strive to eliminate all emotion, to achieve apatheia or an emotionless state.  Similar to Paul, a person should be content with whatever circumstances come their way (cf. Phil. 4:12).  We should strive for oikeiosis, to accept the situations of our lives as our true home.

Another contribution of Stoicism to moral discussion is the idea of adiaphora, things neither good nor bad, things that are neither appropriate or sins.  Cicero in the century before Christ and Seneca at about the same time as Paul were very influential Roman Stoics.  A mixture of Stoicism with Platonism called “Middle Platonism” may stand behind much of the New Testaments use of the word logos and may have influenced the way early Christians talked about Christ before he came to earth (e.g., John 1:1; 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:2).

Already in the chapter we have seen how the words “cynic,” “skeptic,” and “epicurean” have changed their meaning over time.  The word “stoic” today actually remains similar to the ancient Stoics and refers to someone who is very disciplined and rational, without much emotion.  On the other hand, the word apatheia did not mean what the word “apathetic” means in English.  To be apathetic in English has a negative sense, while Stoic apatheia implied no feeling at all.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Epicurus (341-270BC)

Wrote this textbox tonight:
For Epicurus, good and bad correlated directly to pleasure and pain, with pleasure being the highest good.  However, Epicurus was quite clear that pleasure was not simply a matter of sensual indulgence (e.g., sex, gluttony), and temporary pain can lead to much greater long term pleasure.  Pleasure for him was mostly about a peace that comes from the absence of pain and suffering.

Epicurus built on the atomist philosophy of Democritus (see chap.7), meaning that he believed everything broke down into small particles and that we simply disintegrated at death.  He thus taught that death was nothing to be feared.  Death is the end, and the gods do not reward or punish you after death.  Although he believed in the gods, he did not believe they were interested in humanity and thus were not to be feared.  We saw his famous formulation of the problem of evil in chapter 6.

Epicurus is known for a number of other key teachings.  One of the main ones was the so called “ethic of reciprocity,” a form of the Golden Rule.  Do no harm to others, and they will do no harm to you.  He was an egalitarian, and admitted women and slaves to his school as equal members, not as exceptions.

He questioned whether a person could be truly happy in the troubles of society, so he advocated removing oneself from political life (he was thus quite the opposite of Aristotle, who taught that humanity was a “political animal”).  His followers met in his garden and were thus known as the garden philosophers.

At the time of the New Testament, Epicureanism and Stoicism were the two strongest philosophical schools, and both emphasized ethics and how to have a good life.  Many are familiar with the famous quote of Horace, who was an Epicurean: “Carpe diem” (Seize the day).  Interestingly, Paul’s quote in 1 Corinthians 15:32 is not an Epicurean quote: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”  Paul is actually quoting Isaiah 22:13.  Some Old Testament scholars wonder if the book of Ecclesiastes was influenced by Epicurean thought, although this would require a rather late date for the book.

Outline of Hebrews

I don't know if I've mentioned here that I'm writing the study notes on Hebrews for the CEB Study Bible--a great privilege for which I'm very grateful.  I've been working on the notes this morning and finally put on paper my outline of Hebrews.  I recognize that this outline is in the minority (although I'm building on the work of others, especially Walter Überlacker and George Guthrie), but I think I can defend it.

I'm using popular rather than scholarly language here.

I. Sermon Introduction (1:1-2:18)
  • 1:1-4 Call to Worship
  • 1:5-14 Celebration of Christ
  • 2:1-4 Initial Warning
  • 2:5-18 Recounting the Story (Key Verses: 2:17-18)
II. Sermon Body (2:18-12:29)

A. The Argument (3:1-10:18)

1. 3:1-4:13 Faithful to the end
2. 4:14-10:18 Jesus, our high priest
  • priest by God’s appointment (4:14-6:20; central warning is 5:11-6:20)
  • superior priest (7:1-28)
  • superior sacrifice and sanctuary (8:1-10:18)
B. The Implications (10:19-12:29)
  • 10:18-11:40 The need for faith
  • 12:1-29 Enduring the Father's discipline
III. Letter Conclusion (13:1-25)
  • Closing Exhortations (13:1-17)
  • Closing Greetings (13:18-25)
There is a great deal to explain in this outline, but alas, I'm not writing a commentary.  I'm enjoying writing the notes.  I've thought so much about Hebrews that it is proving rather effortless.  Trying to be balanced, leaving room for varying positions and not falling off the log on many.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Couple hours of research...

A normal morning:
  • up at 6am 
  • left flat for the subway just before 7am with Tom and Soph
  • finished math homework (in German) sitting at a subway platform (ok, that part isn't normal)
  • dropped them off by 8am at Gisela Gymnasium (I love that they call them gymnasia like the ancient Greeks)
  • had coffee and pastry
  • set up in the room they've allotted me and a couple others
  • spent over an hour looking up things I want to quote in the library (most of which I have in my library at home but couldn't bring with me)
While Munich's library isn't as good as Tübingen's, it is so nice to have a research library at your disposal.  In Marion you have to use inter-library loan extensively to do scholarly work of any kind, which means the time factor is greatly multiplied.  Of course one day soon it will all be electronic.  The downside then will be the serendipity of finding books you didn't know about that happen to be next to the book you're looking for.

Those who know me well know that I am an intuitive thinker.  Scholarship is thus tedious because you have to spend significant amounts of time 1) enlisting primary sources in support of your ideas and 2) engaging the thoughts both of those who agree and disagree with you (secondary sources).  This is all highly appropriate.

From the primary sources, you sometimes find that your intuitions were wrong.  From the secondary sources you sometimes realize other ways of looking at the evidence that you didn't think of and you sometimes find that someone suggested your big idea 100 years ago.  I'm at the stage of my scholarly career that my intuitions at least seem more reliable than they were twenty years ago.  I'm less surprised and intimidated by the big guns than I used to be.

This morning I was plowing the land for quotes from Philo and Josephus on the temple, as well as tidbits from Shmuel Safrai and E. P. Sanders.  Here's a couple from Philo with which to close.  He is talking about the incident around AD39 when the Roman emperor Caligula tried to set up a statue of himself in the temple.  It is interesting to realize that this event took place less than ten years after the resurrection and Paul's believing that Jesus was the Christ.

"Still more abounding and peculiar is the zeal of them [Jews] for the temple...  Heaven forbid indeed that the Jews in every quarter should come by common agreement to the defense.  The result would be something too stupendous to be combated" (Leg. 212, 215, Loeb).

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Romney, Cults, and Presidents

There seems to be quite a lot of hubbub right now about Romney being a Mormon and whether or not it should automatically disqualify him from being president.  For me, the bottom line is what a person will do as president. As president, I am only concerned with a person's moral values in so far as it will manifest itself in his/her decisions.  As president, I am only concerned with a person's beliefs insofar as they will manifest themselves in his/her decisions.

Now these things do influence decisions, but most people have things backwards.  Our professed (or labelled) identities are no sure predictor of how we will act.  Humans are not primarily thinkers.  We are usually quite inconsistent.  Our real identities are revealed by our patterns of behavior and often have little to do with our professed identities (or the identities given us by the labels of others).

Is Mormonism a theological cult?  Certainly the official beliefs of the Mormons are unorthodox by historic Christian standards.  Jesus was not on equal footing with Satan when God presented his plan of salvation to them both.  It stretches the limits of the mind that The Book of Mormon is "another" testament revealed to some of the 10 lost tribes of Israel (read Native Americans) and delivered to a man who found golden plates in the 1800s on the frontier (that have now conveniently disappeared).

But sociologically, in terms of how how he behaves as an American, Romney seems within the normal spectrum of human weirdness.  It's unclear to me that the stranger elements of his Mormon background would have an effect on his decision making as a president.  It reminds me of how many were afraid of JFK's catholicism in the early 60s.  Romney makes no connection between his political positions and the eccentricities of Mormonism.  

The situation is quite different with someone like Michelle Bachmann, who explicitly indicates that her ideology is the central factor in her political positions.  Her ideas are a predictor of her decision making behavior because she so specifically connects her ideas with her intended decisions.  I personally think it is better for a president to be a pragmatist with good overall goals and a good working knowledge of how things work than to be an idealist.

This is not an endorsement of Romney.  I'm simply trying to present some perspectives that I find somewhat lacking right now among evangelicals in the public forum.

Catastrophes and God's Judgment 3

Thus far in this segment:

God and Catastrophes 1
God and Disabilities 2

Now Catastrophes and God's Judgment 3
We have to reckon with similar ambiguity when it comes to events as God's judgment.  To be sure, a significant stream of biblical thought--especially in the Old Testament--sees a direct correlation between sin and event.  For example, the books of Joshua and Judges assume that defeat of Israel in battle or its enslavement to foreign powers must imply that someone, somewhere has sinned.  When Israel loses in battle to Ai, it must be because someone in Israel has sinned--a man named Achan, as it turns out.

This way of thinking is called "deuteronomistic theology."  In the light of all Scripture, however, it is clearly only a partial picture.  In the thinking of Deuteronomy 28, the righteous do not suffer in the service of God.  Certainly people like Jesus do not get crucified.  Those today who preach a prosperity gospel do so from Old Testament passages that make a  direct correlation between serving God and material blessing and ignore the New Testament sense that those who serve God should not be surprised if they suffer in this world.

The fuller revelation of Scripture thus points to some serious refinements to deuteronomistic theology.  For example, Ezekiel 18 and Jeremiah 31 give one: "In those days they shall no longer say: 'The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.' But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge" (Jer. 31:29-30, NRSV).  Jeremiah goes on to give important verses on the new covenant God is going to make with his people, verses that Hebrews 8 quote extensively.

In deuteronomistic theology, the individual sinner may not be the one who gets punished--it could be his or her grandchildren. Jeremiah and Ezekiel point to individual punishment in the future, with whole groups not suffering for the sins of others.  In other words, Jeremiah and Ezekiel raise questions about the idea that an earthquake might kill a lot of people because of the sins someone else did somewhere else.

It is also important to remember that Deuteronomy and the other historical books of the Old Testament do not yet know of a significant life after death.  At this point in the flow of revelation, they understand that there is reward and punishment to come, but they think of it only taking place in the land of the living.  Thus sin must be punished in this world, either to the sinner or to the sinner's children.  These are instances where the New Testament significantly refines and clarifies matters.

The point is that the model of Christian thinking that connects catastrophic events with God's judgment faces serious questions in the light of all Scripture.  For example, those who see in the 9-11 tragedy God's judgment on America must face Jeremiah 31:30 above.  Such thinking, in effect, is saying that those people in the towers did not die for their own sins but for the sins of others.  Someone else ate sour grapes but their teeth were set on edge.

A better model is to see God's instructions to humanity as indications of lives that are more likely to prosper and involve fulfillment, while sin is a path more likely to bring pain and suffering.  It is not that God is a cowboy sheriff waiting to blow you away when you mess up, but God has given you ample warning of what happens when you follow a certain path.  Bad things happen.  And, yes, there usually is collateral damage for your sins.  Your children usually do pay for the bad choices you make and the sins of the fathers are passed down to the third and fourth generation (e.g., Deut. 5:9).

Certainly we cannot say that God never causes cataclysmic events in judgment on a group of people.  We are saying that great caution must be exercised with these verses from the Old Testament because they are not yet "fully cooked."  And the dynamics of thinking this way can hide a heart of hate toward others, when Christ has commanded us to love our enemies.  It is interesting that people were ready to attribute the 2011 tsunami in Japan to the fact that Japan is not a nation with many Christians.  But we did not hear this explanation later in the year when tornadoes ripped through the Bible belt of Missouri.

God does have a plan for the world, and God may have very specific plans for you.  His plan for the world is to see as many reconciled to him as will, although he forces no one.  And sometimes God does have a very specific plan for a Moses--a plan that God would have allowed Moses to nullify if he had so chosen.  God does not make us slaves to his will, however.  He walks with us and interacts with us.  If we fail to get into a relationship with someone, we have not missed "the one" he had planned for us to marry for life.

God does not micromanage the creation, but he has created it with freedom to choose wisely and to choose poorly.  He has created it with natural laws that run on their own.  Our pain and suffering is often a result of our own choices or the choices of others.  When he steps into the chain of self-running cause and effects is a mystery.  Surely he does.  But the question of pain and suffering is more about why he allows it, not why he directly causes it.

Next week: Why does God allow suffering?

Saturday, October 08, 2011

God and Disabilites 2

The second part of "God and Catastrophes," which I have deceivingly labeled, "God and Disabilities."  It is in there... wait for it...

God and Catastrophes 1
God and Catastrophes 2
... We are suggesting here something in between these two extremes.  We are suggesting that God largely does let the natural world continue in its normal sequence of cause and effect.  Sometimes the pressure in the tectonic plates builds up to such an extent beneath the surface of the earth that the plates slip and the reverberation shakes the surface so much that buildings fall on thousands of people.  Or maybe this happens under the ocean and a tsunami kills 10,000 people.

Sometimes a body of matter going down fifth street at such and such a speed comes into contact with a body of matter going down second avenue at such and such a speed.  Neither driver had evil intent, but one of them ran a stoplight by accident.  And now both of them are in the hospital.  Maybe one of them is dead.

We have argued that the deaths and suffering of these individuals is not evil because no one caused them to happen as a matter of evil intent.  We are now arguing that while God allows such things to happen, he rarely if ever directs them to happen.  Catastrophes are not generally God's punishment of some group for their sin or God trying to teach us something.  They are God allowing the normal sequence of cause and effect play itself out, this feature that he created as part of the world.

Again, we are not saying that God never causes suffering or catastrophe.  We are not saying that God never causes events as punishment for sin.  We are not saying that God never orchestrates or micro-manages your life or the world.  We are saying that God mostly allows human will and natural law to play themselves out freely.

Underlying this entire discussion is again the old debate between freedom and determinism, of love and autocracy.  Is God more interested in a world where people choose him freely or is he more interested in everyone obeying him?  The picture we are painting is one in which God has, in his sovereignty and authority, created a world that is free to be less than the ideal if it so chooses, and that such a world can be a good world.  And we are saying he largely treats the natural world the same way.

What about the Bible?  What does it say?  Because the Bible is not a philosophy book, it says things that seem to endorse both perspectives!  We have debates such as these because the Bible does not work out a systematic theology of evil, pain, and suffering.  Read in context, the books of the Bible are individual and separate pieces of revelation to address individual and distinct situations over the course of a thousand years in diverse ancient contexts.  It speaks far more locally, contextually, and proverbially than universally. [1] When we read the Bible as one book whose every verse speaks directly to me, we simply are not reading the words anything like they were originally understood.

So we read a verse like Exodus 4:11: "Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?" (NRSV).  We hear what God is saying to Moses. I am both the one who made you have difficulty speaking and the one now calling you to preach to Israel.  Go do it.  So the case seems closed.  Any birth defect or disability you get is directly orchestrated by God.

But then we remember what we wrote in relation to God causing temptation.  The earlier parts of the Old Testament do see everything directly orchestrated by God... but the later parts and the New Testament often do not. [2] Remember how 2 Samuel 24 says God did something that 1 Chronicles says Satan did? There is a development in understanding in the Bible on God as the direct cause of evil, with the more developed parts seeing Satan and other evil forces more directly responsible for evil.

Whether we like it or not, we cannot settle theological debates such as these with a single verse or one strand of the Bible.  We have to take the whole Bible into account.  We have to recognize where God is going in Scripture on an issue, not just where he started working with humanity.  And to systematize such things, we inevitably get into the kinds of reasoning that both sides engage in.  This sort of philosophizing has to process these issues in ways that none of the biblical texts do because we are looking for an overall perspective that fits with an overall understanding of God's character.  We do this sort of reasoning whether we admit it to ourselves or not...

[1] Proverbs are pictures of general truths.  They are not absolute, and they are not promises.  If you train up a child in the way it should go, it will generally go that way (Prov. 22:6).  But it is not the nature of proverbs to say that a child will never go astray despite parents doing everything in their power to train up the child correctly.  Proverbs just don't work that way.

[2] Another important insight is that God reveals himself in categories we can understand (otherwise communication would not take place).  The fact that God says this to Moses does not change our conclusion, since God would speak to Moses on a level Moses would understand.  The Bible's language about God is "incarnated" in the thought of the times and places its documents were written just as much as its language about other things.

Friday, October 07, 2011

God and Catastrophes 1

I think I'm getting close to finishing this strangely evolving series relating to the problem of evil and suffering.  I put in some headings to give a sense of the organization.

Where is God?
Questionable Explanations

What is evil?
Pain is not Evil
What is sin? 1
What is sin? 2

God doesn't directly cause evil and suffering.
Does God tempt? 1
Does God tempt? 2
God and Catastrophes 1 (today's)

Ultimate Questions
Why did God create evil?

Today, God and Catastrophes
So far, we have argued that evil has to do with intent to do wrong and to harm.  Pain thus is not evil in itself when it does not come in some way from someone's intent to do wrong.  We have argued that God allows evil to take place but does not generally cause it directly. In this section, we want to complete the circle and say that God allows pain, suffering, catastrophe and such, but does not generally cause it directly.

This notion flies in the face of a great deal of popular teaching about suffering, because many Christians comfort themselves in the middle of their problems with the idea that God is trying to teach them something.  Maybe God is disciplining them because they have not been paying attention to him.  Maybe he is getting them ready for something bigger that is coming.  Some Christians act as if God is behind the scenes orchestrating the minute details of their lives, down to which jello they picked for lunch.

Of course who is to say that God does not directly intervene in our lives?  Christians believe in miracles and God interjecting himself into the stream of human and natural cause and effect.  Christians are not deists, who think God created the world but is no longer involved with it.  In all that we are about to say, we are not denying that God can and may, from time to time, interject himself as a cause in the stream of otherwise "natural" causes and effects.

But there also seems something decidedly narcissistic and immature about the way popular Christianity thinks God is directing the minute details of their lives.  This view creates a world in which it's all about me and what God's doing in my life.  Sure, he's doing it for you as well--I'll let you share and be happy about it too.  But now it's my turn to share about what God is teaching me right now.

There is something curiously American about this approach to things, not to mention something curiously post-Freudian and post-Romanticism.  It is a symptom of modern introspection and psychology, atypical of other times and places in history.  It is a by-product of the world after Sigmund Freud, who taught us that who we are today is a product of key events that took place in our childhood, which has led the west to scour their individual past for significance.  It is a symptom of the hyper-individualism of the west.

Of course the Enlightenment of the 1700s went too far in the opposite direction.  Fascinated with the newly discovered laws of nature, some thinkers went so far as to say that God never intervenes in the world.  To them, the world was just one big machine that God created, wound up, and then gave a push to.  The rest is simply the pool balls bouncing off one another according to the laws of physics.  If we knew all the variables and the math, we could predict everything that would happen for the rest of the world.

We are suggesting here something in between these two extremes.  We are suggesting that God largely does let the natural world continue in its normal sequence of cause and effect...

Romans Devotionals out

The two devotionals I wrote to go with Paul: Solider of Peace are now out and available at Amazon:

I've mentioned before that the great thing about these is that they work like a layperson's commentary.  Each day's devotional is only about 500 words and includes summary, info you may never have heard, and application.  They're ideal for lay Bible studies, but I think they would also be great for sermon preparation in a series through Romans--lots of ideas you could jump off from.

I wish I could send the book these go with to every pastor, DS, and general official in the denomination, since my sense is that very few Wesleyans know much about what biblical experts have to say about Romans, let alone a Wesleyan perspective on such recent scholarship.  While I am no slavish follower of the "new perspective," there are a lot of obvious and probable corrections to old views that pastors of all stripes should know.

The Coming Kingdom

Continued from yesterday and the day before...
To a large extent, many of these questions are unanswerable.  We are plodding through them to get a sense of exactly what we are dealing with here, what the possibilities are and which are more and less likely.  As we continue this troublesome journey, we notice interestingly that Luke 21 has seriously toned down the immanent expectation of Mark 13.  For well over a century, most gospel experts have concluded that Luke likely used Mark as a major source when writing.  We can thus see Luke's mind at work in where he seems to edit Mark's text.

For example, if Mark and Matthew seem to blur the events surrounding the destruction of the temple with Christ's second coming, Luke has apparently edited Mark to focus almost exclusively on the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70.  So Mark 13:14 is somewhat ambiguous: "When you see the abomination of desolation standing where it should not be" (NASB).  After Luke's editing, it reads like this: "When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is near" (Luke 21:20). [1] Luke has made it clearer that this event took place when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in AD70.

Similarly, Luke has apparently removed statements in Mark like 13:19: "in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be" (NRSV; this verse should have followed Luke 21:23).  Luke also removes Mark 13:20: "if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved" (should also have appeared before Luke 21:24).  The effect is to limit the scope of catastrophe in Mark and Matthew.  Now we hear of the "times of the Gentiles" (Luke 21:24), a period during which the Gentiles will trample on Jerusalem in between the the time when the first part of the prophecy is fulfilled and when the kingdom will be restored to Israel at Christ's return (Acts 1:6). [2]

The impression we get is that we are not the first to wrestle with this question of when the kingdom of God will be here in full, when Christ will return to the earth to rule.  Already in Luke we see early Christians wrestling with what some call the "delay of the parousia," the fact that Jesus did not return to earth as soon as his first followers initially anticipated.  How did Jesus originally put it?  To what extent did Mark interpret it?  It seems impossible to answer these questions with any certainty from a historical perspective.

What we do have are the conclusions Christians have reached on these issues over the centuries. Does not the Holy Spirit come on the church at Pentecost?  Perhaps it is not what Mark himself had in mind, but does not the birth of the church through the Spirit constitute "that the kingdom of God has come in power" (9:1)?  Did not that generation see the destruction of Jerusalem and did not at least most of Mark 13 come true in their lifetimes?  What if the events of the second coming were "telescoped" into material about the destruction of the temple?

It is often said that when you look at things through a telescope, things that are far removed from each other may look right next to each other.  So it is often said of prophecy.  We also know from Jonah also that God reserves the right to "change his mind" on prophecy.  Predictions of destruction can be reversed because of human response--presumably, predictions of blessing can also.

We as Christians believe that Jesus inaugurated the rule of God on earth as it is in heaven.  The kingdom was starting on earth in his ministry.  We believe it came to earth spiritually with the pouring out of God's Spirit on the earth, beginning the age of the church, which has continued up until the present.  And we believe that the kingdom will become entirely literal when Christ returns to earth and sets up an eternal kingdom here.

This is a theological perspective on the kingdom.  It is the result of centuries-long Christian reflection on Jesus' words and the events that followed.  The earliest followers of Jesus probably did not have a full understanding of how God was playing it all out.  This is one of the blessings of having so many interpreters go before us.  We have inherited the answers God has bequeathed to the church through them... often when we did not even realize there was a question.

[1] The clarity of Luke's paraphrase here is one reason to conclude that Luke-Acts was written after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70.  The desolation of Jerusalem by armies is a massive interpretation of the ambiguous, "abomination that causes desolation standing where it should not be."

[2] The freedom with which Luke paraphrases Mark should not worry us.  All the evidence we have indicates that the New Testament authors felt free to paraphrase Scripture freely and interpretively, much as Eugene Peterson's paraphrase, The Message.  We should not be bothered that Luke is doing it to statements of Jesus, in effect altering historical statements.  Our sense of what is appropriate in history writing is simply not the same as theirs was.  Luke is giving an inspired interpretation of Jesus.