Methodist Church Trial This Week! Or: Nihilism, Homosexuality, Pennsylvania, Oath-taking, and Satan

In Sophocles’ Antigone our tragic heroine demonstrates to us what is regarded as one of the greatest moral principles of the Western world:  when the laws of the state require one to do something against one’s own religion, or when following one’s own religious beliefs become categorized as against the law, the right thing to do is to follow your religious practices above the laws of the state.  The legends of Socrates and Jesus, and their traditions, confirm and validate this virtue in the ancient world.

But what to do when religion causes one to break religious laws?  Christianity has always worked through the tensions of what happens when doctrine become dogma, and when either become enforced—sometimes enforced despite of or in spite of contradictory doctrine or flying in the face of tradition.

This is what is being played out in the church trial of a United Methodist pastor from Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, Rev. Frank Schaefer.  Continue reading “Methodist Church Trial This Week! Or: Nihilism, Homosexuality, Pennsylvania, Oath-taking, and Satan”

Hierarchy in proofs of the existence of God

Yesterday was my last class session for Humanities 3: Philosophy and Theology. Our final reading included Locke’s variation (from the Essay) on the proof of the existence of God, which has naturally been a recurring theme in the course. He emphasizes throughout that God must be an intellectual being, because it’s inconceivable that matter could produce intellect — and an intuition struck me: is there a proof of the existence of God that doesn’t rely in some way upon mind-body dualism?

I threw the question out to both sections, and some interesting conclusions emerged. First, in none of the other proofs we discussed — Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes — was mind-body dualism so obviously crucial as in Locke’s. Yet it does seem that belief in some kind of spiritual reality is necessary for infinite-regress-prevention proofs (like some of Aquinas’s Five Ways) to be proving God rather than, for example, the Big Bang. The end of all his proofs is “And this, everyone agrees, is God” — but it’s ultimately mind-body dualism that makes it seem intuitively obvious that the first cause or prime mover can’t be material.

Second, and more essentially, it seems that all the classical proofs depend more broadly on ontological hierarchy, of which mind-body dualism is a decisive piece. God can be purely spiritual and yet produce matter because the spiritual is above the material and can therefore produce it, while the opposite could never be the case. And while Anselm’s proof may seem immune to this, he isn’t sheerly trying to prove the “existence” of that-than-which-no-greater-can-be-thought — he’s trying to prove that that thing is God, in the familiar and traditional sense. The definition isn’t just a clever move to be able to deduce existence, but to be able to simultaneously deduce everything else we know about God — and that depends on an ontological hierarchy providing “objective” standards for what’s greater.

This reliance on mind-body dualism and ontological hierarchy, more than any logical missteps in the proofs, may account for why they are so unconvincing to most people today.

“I like to think (right now, please!)”

Adam Curtis’s All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (part 1, part 2, part 3) is pretty excellent. It puts forward an ambitious and interesting thesis, which I think deserves more engagement from the anti-authoritarian left than this rather defensive response at New Left Project. To try and compress Curtis’s already over compressed argument into one thesis, he identifies the idea of a self-regulating homeostasis as a widely accepted common sense of our times, and one which makes it difficult for us to think about changing the world, either about what such a change would mean or what the role of power would be in accomplishing such a change. That New Left Project response is right to point out other traditions which influence the anti-authoritarian left and have more to say about power and radical change, but this doesn’t negate what I think Curtis is trying to do. The ideological assemblage he puts together has a certain coherence, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be exhaustive, I don’t think he’s denying that there are other elements which could be assembled in other ways.

This does, though, raise a problem with the documentary, and indeed with Curtis’s work more generally. I think he’s doing this kind of Foucaldian tracing of discourses, but I’m basically guessing, because he’s not very explicit about what he is doing. There are various things about the way the program is put together that imply certain things about the epistemology, although they’re also rather contradictory. Curtis’s signature method, the construction of a documentary largely from archive footage some distantly, some closely related to the point being made, emphasizes the intellectual configuration being constructed is partial. In particular, building the program around juxtaposition tends to push against interpreting the relationships between the elements as causal, which of course is emphasized by the jumps in time throughout the program. Continue reading ““I like to think (right now, please!)””

Entrepreneurial Academics

When I was in elementary school, I was part of a group of students who were tested to see if they qualified for the “gifted” program. Reportedly, my results were borderline, with the guidance counselor telling my mom — and her subsequently telling me — that I was ultimately not “gifted” but made up for it with hard work. Then, for the rest of my life, I heard a clear narrative of decline over and over: there was a time not so long ago, the story goes, when someone could graduate high school in Flint, then step into a job at “the shop” (GM) and be essentially set for life, with a virtually guaranteed job, generous benefits, and a pension. I watched as people tried to convince themselves that Flint could reinvent itself — by finding another institution that would provide them with the lifestyle that GM had taken from them.

This brings me to this guy. (Incidentally, I’ve shared several posts from The Last Psychiatrist, a blog I discovered yesterday and subsequently devoured — very much worth adding to your Google Reader.) Continue reading “Entrepreneurial Academics”

The “Apocalyptic Theses” and the preferential option

Via a pingback from Todd Walatka — which highlights a concern Brad once raised about the need for low-church ecclesiology to be taken seriously — I find this interesting insight on Nate Kerr et al.’s “theses”: namely, the liberation theology language feels tacked on. They quote Sobrino to the effect that the church’s mission to the poor preceeds the church itself, but as Todd says:

Saying that the preferential option is at the center and heart of the church’s mission (and is the mission) seems overstated within the general flow of the theses. It seems that the most basic mission of the church in the theses is to witness to the apocalyptic transformation accomplished by God in Christ, which may include the preferential option, but is not identical with it.

He then goes on to point out the specific lack of continuity in terms of liturgy:

Thesis 4 is indicative of the differences here. In this thesis, the danger of liturgy is to see a direct correspondence between our work and divine work, to see it as our (successful) seeking after God. The danger is an idolatrous misconstrual of our place in the event of God’s grace. Liberation theologians also offer very strong critiques of ritual and liturgy (see, for example, Segundo’s The Sacraments Today) but in a different key, and one that flows directly from the preferential option as the mission of the Church. Their central critique is not that liturgy raises our action too high but rather that it devalues human action by ideologically focusing our attention on the reconciling action of God in liturgy and away from the demand to build the Kingdom beyond the liturgy.

Thinking in more specifically theological terms, I wonder if what is at stake is a different concept of God’s freedom in Barth and in liberation theology. Where Barth’s concept of divine freedom is always thought in terms of divine transcendence, it seems to me that the liberation theologians — as represented by Gutierrez’s brilliant On Job — see God’s freedom as a kind of contagious freedom, one that drives us to take responsibility for our actions.

The freedom of transcendence is perhaps always a hierarchical mode of freedom, where God is free to be God and we’re free to acknowledge how unworthy we are of God (which then is supposed to have good effects, though the logic here seems reminiscent of the South Park “underwear gnomes”) — by contrast, the liberating freedom is a “flattening” freedom that empowers human action instead of just inexplicably forgiving it.

The problem of narrating a Fall

In my course on the devil, I have emphasized the contrast between patristic accounts of the fall of the devil (whereby he generally gets jealous of humanity) and Anselm’s radically ahistorical account in De casu diaboli. On the one hand, the more “mythological” patristic account makes more narrative sense, while Anselm’s represents more of an attempt to think through free will at its most radical and abstract. On this scale, Milton’s account in Paradise Lost is basically in the patristic vein, albeit altered by Milton’s Arian theology — Satan becomes jealous, not of humanity, but of the revelation of the Son, who seems to interpose another “layer” between God and angels, implicitly demoting them all.

In class today, however, I argued that the real action is not in the fall of the devil — which Milton never “directly” narrates, putting it in the mouth of an angel who himself was not present for the event — but rather the fall of Eve. What is interesting to me is the way Milton’s account of the fall of Eve reveals an inherent limit to “mythological” narratives of the fall, namely that the pressure of creating a comprehensible narrative creates a tendency to insert some kind of fundamental imbalance into the situation such that, in this case, Eve was bound to fall long before the devil entered the scene. The fact that Milton was such a clearly devout man who wanted to “justify the ways of God” shows just how irresistible this logic is (and shows Milton’s own integrity as a thinker, as well).

Continue reading “The problem of narrating a Fall”