Archive for March 2013

Deep assumptions, core beliefs

March 28th, 2013 — 2:01pm

Re-posting from awhile back. I see the truth of Myers’ insight more every day.

The structures of our experience, especially the everyday, routine, invisible taken-for-granted structures, have a profound effect in shaping the way we perceive reality. The deep, often unarticulated assumptions that guide each of us are shaped by a matrix of usually unremarkable experiences channeled in specific directions by cultural institutions. Over time, especially as we are part of a community with the same pattern of experiences, a pattern of conviction and affections begins to take shape. Call it a sensibility or a consciousness or a prejudice or a mentality or a mindset: it is deeply ingrained, usually unconscious, and extremely powerful.

While we may hold explicitly to certain core beliefs, it is possible (and I would argue likely, in our time and place) for explicitly held core beliefs to be out of synch with deep assumptions, so that, when we have to react quickly or [in] a new situation, we often fall back on the deep-set assumptions rather [than] on what we actually profess. This is why, I believe, in our own time, the affinity between what Christians profess and how they act is increasingly vague and weak. (Ken Myers, “Cultural Discernment, Christian Faithfulness, and the Postmodern Multiversity”)

Comment » | Pastoral Pondering

Totalized criticism

March 27th, 2013 — 6:03pm

Once totalised, criticism merely evacuates itself of content and turns into a series of empty gestures. One cannot gain a truer understanding of the world by criticism alone, any more than one can make a dish of mince with a grinder and nothing to put through it. Totalised criticism is the modern form of intellectual innocence – not a harmless innocence, unhappily, for, by elevating suspicion to the dignity of a philosophical principle, it destroys trust and makes it impossible to learn. (Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology, p. 11)

Comment » | Biblical Authority

The art of politics

March 13th, 2013 — 4:33pm

Politics is the art of associating (consociandi) men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them. Whence it is called “symbiotics.” The subject matter of politics is therefore association (consociatio), in which 
the symbiotes  pledge themselves each to the other, by explicit or tacit agreement, to mutual communication of whatever is useful and necessary for the harmonious exercise of social life. (Johannes Althusius, Politica Methodice Digesta, §§1–2)

Comment » | Of Cabbages and Kings

Genesis cosmos and cosmology

March 13th, 2013 — 3:24pm

The splash continues from David Bentley Hart’s recent First Things essay, “Is, Ought, and Nature’s Laws.” Responses and related reflections have followed from Rod Dreher (here, here, and here), Alan Jacobs (here), Peter Leithart (here and here), Edward Feser (here and here), Steven Wedgeworth (here and here), and Alastair Roberts (here). Anna Williams notes some other contributions in her First Things roundup.

The discussion is a very old one about the existence and knowability of an objective moral order in the world. Are there objective, self-evident, universal moral truths and norms? Are these truths and norms accessible, and if so, by whom, and by what means?

Two claims have surfaced in the various posts. One is that there is an objective moral order in the world (“natural law”); but since not everyone agrees that it exists, the only way to argue for it is from scripture, from “thus saith the Lord” (in Leithart’s words, “the only arguments we have are theological ones”); the problem being that “only people whose imaginations are formed by Scripture will find [such biblical, theological arguments] cogent.” Those who don’t accept the Christian view of reality have no reason to find Christian ethical reasoning persuasive.

Others disagree, claiming that God’s creation (including the moral order of the world) is what it is, even if we never heard Him say anything about it. “As long as we exist within the creation,” says Alastair Roberts, “we are besieged by God.” To be in the created moral order is not only to be bound by it, but at some level to know it. Edward Feser is supremely confident about this: he believes “objectively true moral conclusions can be derived from premises that in no way presuppose any purported divine revelation, any body of scriptural writings, or any particular religious tradition,” precisely because human reason is part of the created order, teleologically oriented to it, and unable “in principle . . . to will anything other than the good” to which the created order itself is teleologically oriented. Objectively true moral conclusions can therefore “in principle be known via purely philosophical arguments” without resort to divine revelation.

What shall we say to these things?

My interest in the conversation stems in part from the fact that I’m finishing a sermon series in Genesis 1–11 in which I’ve tried to identify the big pieces of the Genesis cosmology. Two features in particular have stood out. First, Genesis tells us the cosmos we’re living in is deeply enchanted. Everything we perceive with our senses is freighted with unseen realities, not least the Word and Spirit of the Creator who upholds, fills, and animates all things – in Him we live and move and have our being. All visible things are full of deep invisible magic (if I may so express it), filled with the presence and power of the invisible God. On one hand, this supplies a basis for expectation and prediction as we engage the natural world and the flow of history: we rightly anticipate a certain order, because the visible realms are ruled by the invisible God. On the other hand, the world’s enchantment supplies a basis to expect the unexpected. The world has a wonderful (sometimes bewildering) unpredictability about it, for the simple reason that God remains wholly free in relation to His world – “He does according to His will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth” (Daniel 4:35).

Second, Genesis tells us our cosmos is deeply eschatological. Everything we perceive with our senses is freighted with ultimate purposes (the eternal purpose of God). As surely as there is a transcendent dimension to everything we observe, there is a teleological dimension to every creature and to creation as a whole. God made all things with a given nature for certain purposes (both proximate and ultimate), and part of the human adventure is to discover and work out these purposes.

These two big pieces – enchantment and eschatology, transcendence and teleology, the giftedness of the world and the givenness (or, as Ken Myers likes to say, the “grain”) of the world – are fundamental to the cosmology of Genesis. But I think the recent debates have reminded us to be careful of a misstep here. The world is not this way because Genesis says it is; the world is this way whether or not Genesis was ever written, and whether or not anyone ever reads Genesis. We must not confuse Welt and Weltanschauung; we mustn’t collapse the cosmos of Genesis into the cosmology of Genesis. The world is deeply enchanted and deeply eschatological whether or not we happen to look at it through the lenses of deep enchantment and deep eschatology. The way the world is doesn’t depend in the slightest on the way we look at the world (as my friend Peter Escalante puts it, “Reality isn’t up for vote”).

This isn’t true only in the realm of reality; it’s also true in the realm of human knowledge. As creatures who are part of (inextricably embedded in) the world as God created it, we know the world is enchanted and eschatological – we cannot escape transcendence and teleology, even if we devoutly wish to in the realm of our conscious reflection. Reality is what it is, and deep down we all know it. This is obvious when you listen to ethical discourse: all such discourse regardless of the participants operates on the assumption that some behavior is morally reprehensible, that there is some irreducible distinction between good and evil. Take away this self-evident truth, this sine qua non, and ethics ceases to be rational. People may differ radically in what they identify as moral or immoral, but they’re not in disagreement about the existence of morality itself. Thus moral reasoning is possible even between those who profess faith in the God of the Bible and those who profess no faith whatsoever. We Christians know objective moral truth exists because the Bible tells us so; but we need to remember that our unbelieving neighbor knows it too, whether or not he or she has ever opened a Bible. It comes with being made in imago Dei.

I think we need to recognize how high the stakes are in this ongoing discussion. If we surrender the metaphysical ground that man is made in God’s image and that as such he is (though fallen and in dire need of God’s Word and Spirit) both subject to and at some level aware of the moral order of the universe, we leave ourselves in a position where we can, in fact, only thump our Bibles – and worse, our biblically intelligent hearers will recognize that we have actually given up on what our Bible says. If they hear us cite the Bible, but see that we have no confidence that God’s moral order is operative within them and they within it, or that His moral order is known to them (in other words, if they see that we have accepted their moral autonomy as real), then we have yielded not just the authority of natural law but also the authority of the Bible. Needless to say, that would be a bad thing. We’ve ceded enough ground to the myth of a naked public square, to the myth of moral autonomy. We must not yield another inch to those who scorn either the cosmos or the cosmology God has given us.

Comment » | Biblical Authority

Visible and invisible

March 8th, 2013 — 12:22pm

If nothing exists beyond perceptible phenomena, then we can access only perceptible phenomena.

But if we can access only perceptible phenomena, then we can’t know (or say anything intelligent) about the existence, nonexistence, or activity of imperceptible phenomena.


Comment » | Science, Theology, and Priestcraft


March 7th, 2013 — 1:50pm

from “The Prelude,” Book Sixth
by William Wordsworth

Imagination – here the Power so called
Through sad incompetence of human speech,
That awful Power rose from the mind’s abyss
Like an unfathered vapour that enwraps,
At once, some lonely traveller. I was lost;
Halted without an effort to break through;
But to my conscious soul I now can say –
“I recognise thy glory”: in such strength
Of usurpation, when the light of sense
Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed
The invisible world, doth greatness make abode,
There harbours; whether we be young or old,
Our destiny, our being’s heart and home,
Is with infinitude, and only there;
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort, and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about to be.
Under such banners militant, the soul
Seeks for no trophies, struggles for no spoils
That may attest her prowess, blest in thoughts
That are their own perfection and reward,
Strong in herself and in beatitude
That hides her, like the mighty flood of Nile
Poured from his fount of Abyssinian clouds
To fertilise the whole Egyptian plain.

Comment » | Poets, Painters, and Playwrights

Irony and innocence

March 6th, 2013 — 4:53pm

Rearing children has a way of giving you all sorts of insight into adult issues. Let me juxtapose three recent experiences that, on the surface, have nothing to do with each other, but which taken together illustrate something I’ve been thinking about more and more.

First, I often find that it’s difficult to catechize my two-year-old at the same table with her brothers and sister, because they think she’s cute and hilarious, and she gets terribly distracted when she feels they are laughing at her.

Second, one of my other children recently had the experience – common enough among children, but grim to the one who suffers it – of watching a circle of friends reconfigure such that he or she was no longer in the “inner ring” but landed (due to no fault that I could discern) “on the outs.” It hurt a lot.

Third, I recently had a conversation with a young intellectual friend who said something like this: “For my generation, everything is ironic. We can hardly talk about anything without irony.”

Now how on earth, you ask, doth all this hang together?

Let me begin with a definition of irony. Irony is a form of humor, ridicule, or sarcasm expressed in words that literally signify the opposite of what is intended. So, for instance, I might greet a friend in a torrential downpour by saying, “Lovely day!” with a rueful glance at the skies. Unless my friend is a hopeless literalist, he’ll no doubt catch my meaning.

There are lots of great uses for irony. It can aid detachment from circumstances, people, even ourselves; it can open up new angles and nuances, and help us keep a sense of humor. But when irony goes mainstream in a culture, when it becomes a staple of the communicative diet, when it’s so common that we can no longer distinguish an ironically silly comment about something serious from an ironically serious comment about something silly, then we have reason to worry that irony is both expressive of and contributing to puerility in our thinking. Consider a few observations from the world of the young.

Children have a massive need for approval, for a sense of importance, and there’s no better way to feel liked than to make people laugh. No child wants to be mocked, surely, but most children like to be thought clever and funny, and if they can get a laugh once, they’ll try again and again.

Now think of children you know (or adults, for that matter) who are always trying to be funny. Think how annoying it can be, leading you to ask in exasperation: “Can’t you ever say anything serious?” This is where humor can lead: you’re never sure if anything that’s said can be taken at face value. Sarcasm, ridicule, and irony tend especially toward this: when regardless of subject matter we suspect someone’s making a joke, it’s hard to talk about anything seriously – you must either join in the joke or be made the brunt of it (if you don’t laugh along, you’re taking things far too seriously, which is itself very funny). The result is intellectual shallowness masquerading as a kind of scientific appraisal – we stand apart from things, size them up, coolly patronize them with tongue firmly in cheek. Soon virtually nothing is exempt for the simple reason that, if we exempt something, we risk becoming the butt of the joke. “God rocks” (wink, wink).

If irony slides easily into profanity, it is for that reason deeply political. There is no weapon more potent than irony (“love the haircut, dude”), because no one likes being mocked (perhaps a better word is profaned), and no one likes sensing there’s a deeper meaning known to the inner ring but obscure to oneself. It’s a terribly vulnerable feeling, like being the only one without clothes on.

Social masters of irony keep those around them off balance with inside jokes, layered meanings, knowing half-smiles, and friendliness that may or may not be sincere. You can’t question their motives or actions without immediately being targeted – in Joker’s words, “Why so serious?” It enables them to move in and out of engagements without ever committing or doing any of the other serious work of building a relationship. When everything is ironic, trust is an illusion. And (ironically) all of this can look very modest, humble, and self-deprecating.

Time now to connect these ruminations (following lunch with my young intellectual friend) to recent experience with my children. As a homeschooling dad, I probably haven’t done enough to prepare my kids for the fact that other kids will enjoy inflicting pain on them by means of humor. My kids spend all day talking with adults who take them and their interests seriously; they don’t have much experience with the playground dynamic of making oneself appear big (read: funny) by making others appear and feel very small (read: laughable). It hasn’t occurred to them that kids can’t take anything seriously when they’re with other kids, because that makes you a laughee instead of a laugher, and the quickest wit is king of the hill. In many ways, my kids are still artists caught up in the grandeur, excitement, and wonder of the world; they haven’t learned (yet) the cool detachment, the smirking appraisal, the “science” of the mocker.

I might use their two-year-old sister as an example, though. They see right away what happens to her when they laugh at her cuteness during catechism. Maybe as they watch me help her filter the distractions they will be equipped to deal with some of their own.

There’s a lot more to be said about this, but I think I’ll wait for a future installment.

Comment » | Life Together

Forgiveness and excuses

March 6th, 2013 — 11:25am

I find that when I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often in reality (unless I watch myself very carefully) asking Him to do something quite different. I am asking him not to forgive me but to excuse me. But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiveness says “Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology; I will never hold it against you and everything between us two will be exactly as it was before.” But excusing says “I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it; you weren’t really to blame.” If one was not really to blame then there is nothing to forgive. In that sense forgiveness and excusing are almost opposites. Of course, in dozens of cases, either between God and man, or between one man and another, there may be a mixture of the two. Part of what seemed at first to be the sins [sic] turns out to be really nobody’s fault and is excused; the bit that is left over is forgiven. If you had a perfect excuse, you would not need forgiveness; if the whole of your action needs forgiveness, then there was no excuse for it. But the trouble is that what we call “asking God’s forgiveness” very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses. What leads us into this mistake is the fact that there usually is some amount of excuse, some “extenuating circumstances.” We are so very anxious to point these out to God (and to ourselves) that we are apt to forget the really important thing; that is, the bit left over, the bit which the excuses don’t cover, the bit which is inexcusable but not, thank God, unforgivable. And if we forget this, we shall go away imagining that we have repented and been forgiven when all that has really happened is that we have satisfied ourselves with our own excuses. They may be very bad excuses; we are all too easily satisfied about ourselves. . . .

As regards my own sins it is a safe bet (though not a certainty) that the excuses are not really so good as I think; as regards other men’s [sins] against me it is a safe bet (though not a certainty) that the excuses are better than I think. One must therefore begin by attending to everything which may show that the other man was not so much to blame as we thought. But even if he is absolutely fully to blame we still have to forgive him; and even if ninety-nine per cent of his apparent guilt can be explained away by really good excuses, the problem of forgiveness begins with the one per cent of guilt which is left over. To excuse what can really produce good excuses is not Christian charity; it is only fairness. To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you. (C. S. Lewis, “On Forgiveness,” in The Weight of Glory, pp. 178–80, 182)

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God’s drama

March 5th, 2013 — 1:59pm

Would God give us a drama? He makes a Shakespeare. Or would he construct a drama more immediately his own? He begins with the building of the stage itself, and that stage is a world – a universe of worlds. He makes the actors, and they do not act, – they are their part. He utters them into the visible to work out their life – his drama. When he would have an epic, he sends a thinking hero into his drama, and the epic is the soliloquy of his Hamlet. Instead of writing his lyrics, he sets his birds and his maidens a-singing. All the processes of the ages are God’s science; all the flow of history is his poetry. His sculpture is not in marble, but in living and speech-giving forms, which pass away, not to yield place to those that come after, but to be perfected in a nobler studio. What he has done remains, although it vanishes; and he never either forgets what he has once done, or does it even once again. As the thoughts move in the mind of a man, so move the worlds of men and women in the mind of God, and make no confusion there, for there they had their birth, the offspring of his imagination. Man is but a thought of God. (MacDonald, “The Imagination”)

Comment » | Of Books and Beer

The end of education

March 5th, 2013 — 1:46pm

Repose is not the end of education; its end is a noble unrest, an ever renewed awaking from the dead, a ceaseless questioning of the past for the interpretation of the future, an urging on of the motions of life, which had better far be accelerated into fever, than retarded into lethargy. (George MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Functions and Its Culture”)

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