Archive for August, 2011

(In which I get a little bit worked up about Gospel preaching.)

Do you REALLY desire to serve God?

What kind of answer is being fished for? As if coming up with a single counter-example obviously makes the answer “no” and the questioner a justified accuser? Of course I desire to serve the Lord, but it is always a mixed bag. With the apostle Peter it was a mixed bag. Mother Theresa was a conglomerate of desires and motivations, some holy, some dark. The Pope is both wise and foolish. Who serves God, just the angels? No. Sinners. That’s us. Really rescued ones too. My service to God is always tainted, for what I wish to do, I do not do, and that which I hate, I do (St. Paul).

The Lord does not need our service. He can make bread out of rocks (he didn’t). He can make bread out of air (he did). He doesn’t “need” us to bring in the wheat from the white fields since as if it were too heavy for him to cut down and lift. He can raise up children of Abraham from the stones on the ground. He can build a man that lives 1000 years out of a heap of dirt. The Lord must want something else. We only think our service and sacrifice is for Him. It is for us. For each other. What does He desire? He loves his children with an undying love. He desires that we, his little sons and daughters of God, turn our hearts to him. For such as this were we, are we, rescued.

Do not tell lies about God. Do not tell his children that their father does not love them. Do not imply that because their service can be proven to be trash, that they, by extension, are also trash. This is the rhetoric of the accuser. Do not be his mouthpiece. Speak the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the severing of a cold iron chain rather than a pep talk.

Leithart had a fantastic post yesterday on the philosophy of action. Here is some of it.

Is an adulterous one-night stand the same action as a night of marital love with one’s wife?

If we say Yes, what have we assumed?  We have assumed that the determinative dimensions of actions are the physical actions of sex.  To an outsider who didn’t know that one woman is a mistress and the other a wife, the action looks identical – same foreplay, same change of blood pressure and temperature, same climax, etc.  To put it more starkly: If we say that adulterous and marital sex are the “same” action, we have assumed a materialist view of action.  Action is defined by the physical facts of the case.

We have also assumed an individualist view of action.  The fact that one act is man-with-mistress and the other is man-with-wife is irrelevant.  Relationality is canceled.  What makes the action what it is is simply male-with-female.  Move this another step, and it’s easy to see that homosexual relations are “the same” as marital sex.

Only on an materialist and individualist basis do the two acts appear to be variations within a genus of action, two varieties of “sex.”  We can reach that conclusion only if we have stripped each participant down to his/her individual body.

If we deny materialism and individualism, then the two acts are not the same.

Now, the upshot: If this is true of sexual acts, then it is presumably true also of acts of force or “violence.”  Using deadly force to save a Hebrew slave who is being beaten to death is not the same as beating the Hebrew slave.  The two actions are not species in the same genus, but two different actions.   So too, carrying out a death penalty against a murderer is not another murder; it is an act of justice.  Fighting a just war against violent oppressors is not another act of violent oppression.

The thing that immediately came to mind as an extension of this insight is the nature of corporal punishment with children. By far the most common argument presented by advocates of “gentle discipline” is that spanking your child is a form of violence. If they hit their brother and then you hit them, you are a hypocrite. But this is not so. Only raw materialism could arrive at this conclusion – as if all instances of striking MUST be exactly the same. But they are not.

The metaphysical reality of a properly applied spanking from a loving parent to his child has almost nothing to do with a violent outburst of wrath against a brother over a stolen toy. Just like a night with one’s wife is thoroughly different than a night with a prostitute. Only on the very thin surface do they appear to be the same.

The best preparation for any task is the one done many years ago. They are familiar and deeply established. Being a good husband starts with watching how your father treats your mother, when you are five years old, when you can first remember. Being an excellent musician starts with thousands of hours of playing, the more distant in your past, the better. The real breakthrough that established musicality happened in the 500th hour, not in-between 2 and 3 PM yesterday, even if that was your 5000th hour.

I think this sort of talk can lead may men to despair, for they desire to “be someone” or accomplish something significant, but they are told it’s already too late, even if they are only in their twenties. It’s the eleventh hours, the train has already left the station!

But that cannot be so. Except in the measure of grace given us, which has a stability not dependent on the failings of men, we are not slaves to determinism. Constrained, yes, but many constraints are imaginary.

I did not say that the only place to start was years ago, just that it was the best place to start. The only thing you can do today is to stop waiting and do.

Someone asks: So do you believe that religious experiences are real?

Well, we are humans. Everything is always mixed – our hopes, fears, desires, and history are always tightly integrated into everything we do and I do not think there is really any such thing as a “pure” religious experience, though perhaps it can be close for some people on occasion. Even the writers of scripture who received inspiration and even direct instruction from God – they are not hermetically sealed away from their humanity. Their personality and intellect and history (family, education, culture) come through on every page. Yet despite that, I believe scripture is entirely faithful.

So yes, I believe that religious experiences are real in the sense that the creator God or other spiritual forces are interacting or affecting people on the ground, in time. It doesn’t mean that every part about the experience is in fact, the voice of God (or angels or demons), but it’s very possible that a significant part of it is. When someone prays to God and suddenly feels a “peace that passes understanding”, is it the work of the Lord or angels comforting our psyche and emotions? I will say, yes, it certainly could be. You may say that the same thing can be accomplished with a couple of White Russians. I will acknowledge that drinking will accomplish something of the sort, but it’s not really the same thing. Don’t assume you know what religious people feel like when you are not religious yourself.

When a person has a salvation experience of the “born again” variety, it is usually first described as an awareness of a great weight of sin upon them. Then, they are stunned by the way in which Jesus takes all this burden of sin away and leaves one free and reconciled to God. You may say that the first part of this equation comes about due to a preacher rambling on about “hellfire and damnation” and pushing the listener to feel guilty. Then, once they buy into the idea, they are offered a way out of it – some sort of confession and subsequent dedication of one’s life to service and church participation. One can see this religious experience through a lens of raw, manipulative psychology. I will be the first to say that I do not appreciate manipulative preachers (who, unfortunately, are not uncommon). Nevertheless, I believe this sort of message “works” because the underlying reality of our human condition is that we really ARE guilty of sin and long for and desire a savior. We may not be able to articulate it as some theologian would, but it is deeply rooted in our very being. Our conscience is not just a product of social conditioning (though it is that also) but when stripped down to the elements, contains an awareness of good and evil – the ability recognize love and justice – that transcends all of our life’s memories. This is at the heart of the salvation experience.

The preacher need not be manipulative to awaken this occasion in the hearts of his listeners. He needs only to do a barely competent job of communicating the good news of Christ for our spirits to be awakened. I think that the psychological manipulation comes into play when the preacher wishes to see a conversion experience NOW, or in a short time frame. For many, it will take time, sometimes even years. That’s OK. Their imagination needs to be awakened to grasp life in spiritual communion with Christ for it to be something they can desire specifically.

Their imagination you say? See, isn’t all this religious experience imaginary? No, some of it is imaginary because you are a person, a man or woman, and that is how your mind works. It is how your body works. This is the very medium that God is interacting with when he speaks to us. There is no other medium. Many people have often said that if only they could hear the audible voice of God (with their ears) they might believe he was there. I’ll admit that on some level, this would provide a sort of separation from your own imagination such that you could put your finger a little more firmly on what was of God and what was not. But that is not how He works or apparently the spirit world works. He is more intimate than that. “Sometimes your further than the moon, sometimes you’re closer than my skin.” pens the songwriter (Marti Smith). I don’t believe that hearing the audible voice of God would “help” the situation along near as much as some think it would.

Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head? To borrow from fiction, Harry Potter asks the same thing of Dumbledore during a vision. He replies, “Well of course it is happening inside your head, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?” Why indeed. Where else is it going to happen?

Some people who have had more “charismatic” religious experiences have been accused of emotionalism. Well certainly, there can be emotions run amok surrounding instances of divine healing, speaking in tongues, visions, etc. But once again, we are human. This is the medium. If God is going to speak to us, then it has got to happen to us, inside our own cracked heads. God may have spoken to you while quietly studying a passage in the book of Romans. Or he may have spoken to you while you kept vigil during Easter week in front of a statuary. Where else is he going to find you than where you are at this moment? Wisdom can discern what is of God and what is of man, but only so far. It is easy for us to twist everything, and we will – even the grace of God. But I will give the benefit of the doubt as often as I can.

When I sat down to write few notes about this, I really wanted to explore the broader field of religious experiences in general but here I am giving primarily Christian examples. They are, obviously, the first thing that comes to mind. This can be expanded though. The Buddhist emptying himself in meditation may have seemingly valid religious experiences too. So can the Muslim or the Hindu. When they do, what portion of their experience is the result of 1) Their own imagination, 2) The Lord, 3) Demons? I would say, mostly 1, sometimes 2 and sometimes 3. This could deserve a book-length treatment. Not today though. Oh well.

Photo credit (Miracle of the Cross of St. Thomas Aquinas)

I’ve been reading some of William James’s (apparently) classic work The Varieties of Religious Experience.

It seems that James’s position is essentially that psychology as a science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God or the validity of religious experiences. The secularist acknowledges their social and existential impact but denies the external reality of any of kind of religious thoughts. They are all assumed from the start to be an illusion. An illusion with a a rock hard foundation, yes, but an illusion nonetheless. James will not surrender this point and assume atheism before beginning his investigations. In the end, he concludes with a sort of agnosticism, but one that treats religious belief positively. Because you can not come close to proving that religious experiences are illegitimate, you might as well assume the possibility that they are real as you discourse and investigate other aspects of psychology.

Further investigation shows that James’s guiding philosophy is pragmatism. Ugg. Oh well. At least it was nice to read a scientific approach to a topic without completely writing God off from the beginning. His observations are worth considering. On a side-note, his beliefs seem to me to be further proof that Catholics can get away with believing just about anything without ecclesiastical authorities giving them any crap about it.

I was at a “Process Improvement” workshop yesterday where all human work was described as “processes”, everything that was done was “value”, and time spent doing anything that didn’t add “value” was “waste”. Every piece of the discussion was abstracted and made as generic as possible. Now, the presenter, some human resources consultant, seemed to be a sharp guy. I am not going to criticize this approach directly as I don’t really have anything substantial to say. I do want to ask a few questions though.

Should an organization ever grow so large that this sort of language is necessary, or used at all? Abstraction is necessary to talk about large ideas. Abstraction in the chain of command is required to steer a big ship, such as a large corporation or especially a nation. Still, I am skeptical that this is really the way the conversation should be framed.

People respond to people close to them, people they love (care about). This circle can only grow so large before it is impossible for people to care or be affected positively in an organization. It seems to me that, to the degree that we can decentralize and empower individuals at the ground level, that is the degree we will be effective at really changing and improving the world.

In government, the equivalent would be more local and regional control, less state control, and dramatically less federal control. Sure, the next town over might do something you wouldn’t do yourself, but that’s the point. They do a hundred things differently than you would do and in the long run, it is better for them. The effect of their bad management or decisions is contained. The effect of their good management and laws is dramatically amplified because of the much tighter-knit community. This has far more potential than any good law or mandate coming from an emperor two thousand miles away or eight layers above the command chain.

I don’t know a ton about military history, but it seems to me that, though generals talk to the journalists, take the falls, and win the fame, the army rises or falls on good lieutenant commanders. The navy sinks or sails on good captains, not admirals. On a related note, this is why so much foolishness surrounds the operation of mega-churches. If any organization on earth needs to be kept relatively small and local to remain effectively, it is the church.

This all lines up with Girard’s theory than we learn only be imitating others. We acquire the desires of the leader only when the leader is a proper model. When the “vision” or “mission” or whatever you want to call it is too abstract, such that every sentence has words like “processes” and “value” in scare quotes, then the leader has ceased to be an effective model. He/she is no longer anthropological. Following the leader then is left up to the effectiveness of our imagination – which is often hit or miss.

It appears that immediately after waking is the best time to write – when your purpose is not already acquired. Acquired, you may continue on through the night, but not the other way around.

I myself am an effective night-owl, but only when continuing to work on something began much earlier. When I try to start something new late it’s pretty much guarenteed to fail. Might as well watch TV, or better yet, go to sleep. On the other hand, after several years or trying to write a bit on this blog, I have realized that the bulk of my best stuff was written early in the day. Sometimes very early, when I coudln’t go back to sleep after the baby began fussing.

“I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” – W. Somerset Maugham.

In other news, when I am completely and utterly lacking in creativity, the pages of my notebook end up looking like this.