Silly scholars denying the existance of guilt

In my attempt to devour everything Girard in our local library, I picked up a book called “Violent Origins”, edited by Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly. It is not a typical book, but rather edited transcriptions of talks given at a 1983 conference. Girard contributes one essay on scapegoating and participates in the back-and-forth panel talk.

The editor also describes another person who was invited along this way: “We are also privileged to have the commentary of the working anthropologist, Renato Rosaldo, which gives the impressions of an “outsider”.

In the transcription of the panel discussion, Rosaldo tries to argue that the idea of “guilt” is a Western idea that doesn’t apply in other cultures. He uses an earlier example of a tribe of headhunters who go out of their way to symbolically portray their victim as non-human before murdering them. Girard argues with him that this is a blatantly obvious case of mental gymnastics to try and gloss over their own guilt.

I can’t reproduce the argument here (it’s long and is mixed in with other topics), but when reading it, I was astounded at Rosaldo’s reasoning. I mean, you can’t make this stuff up!

No, I’m not going to grapple with this at all. Sorry. I’m just going to dismiss it.

“How can you stand next to the truth and not see it?”

It doesn’t matter how clever your language, denying the existence of conscience works about as well as denying that your head is mounted on top of your shoulders.

Seth Godin and pastoral burnout

Riffing off a conversation with a pastor friend of his, the frequently-very-wise Seth Godin posted this yesterday:

This was sort of shocking, at least to me:

I was talking to a religious leader, someone who runs a congregation. She made it clear to me that on many days, it’s just a job. A job like any other, you show up, you go through the motions, you get paid.

I guess we find this disturbing because spiritual work should be real, not faked.

But isn’t your work spiritual?

I know doctors, lawyers, waiters and insurance brokers who are honestly and truly passionate about what they do. They view it as an art form, a calling, and an important (no, an essential) thing worth doing.

In fact, I don’t think there’s a relationship between what you do and how important you think the work is. I think there’s a relationship between who you are and how important you think the work is.

Life’s too short to phone it in.

Now of course I completely agree with his point that life is too short to be on auto-pilot and not be passionate about anything (loved ones, work, hobbies, etc.)

But I want to take a closer look at his anecdote for just a moment.

A PASTOR just phoning it in? Shocking, right? No, it shouldn’t be. But at the same time you aren’t going to find a lot of pastors who will admit this. It’s part of their burnout-inducing tradition not to.

Seth just says “spiritual leader” with a “congregation” but I think it’s pretty save to say this is a pastor in a Christian church. It’s most certainly not a group of Muslims and she’s highly unlikely to be Jewish. She’s pulling a regular paycheck from her congregation which assumes a fairly well-developed institution, not the local neo-pagan group meeting at a stone circle.

Seth’s pastor friend is a woman. There are only a few Christian groups that allow women pastors and most of them are high liturgical traditions. That is, contemporary non-conservative Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians. (Yes I know there are women pastors in low church traditions too, especially charismatic ones, but their reasons for existing and function is SO different, you really can’t group them together for most discussions.)

A central weakness of the high liturgical traditions is that it’s easy for the pastor to slip into a position where they just go through the motions: The read the selected scripture passages and prayers for the day, they give a very short sermon on a topic already chosen for them by the calendar, etc. Maybe they make the rounds visiting the sick every Thursday. They serve in lots of other ways too, but it tends to be rather structured. Holding a pastorate in these churches is closer to a nine-to-five than an “all consuming fire”. Now I’m not bashing these folks at all. This is just a potential weakness of “doing church” this way. Now we’ll look at the flip side. Seth’s friend is actually able to “phone it in” sometimes and still go on. That would get her fired in plenty of other places.

A vast number of Christian churches in America are not like this at all. In fact, at their roots and founding they are explicitly REACTING against exactly what the pastor in Seth’s story is talking about. They left the cold “going through the motions” church to go and be passionate about following God, just like what Seth is talking about here.

In many of these traditions though, the pastor is supposed to be super-human. (Almost always he) is always on. He has to single-handedly run a two-hour show on Sunday, take 20 hours to prepare for his hour-long sermon, coordinate with the worship leader, make sure the potluck is getting pulled off right, wake up in the middle of the night to go fix the plumbing in the church basement, counsel engaged couples and drug addicts back to back all day during the week, not to mention raise his own kids! And that’s just the beginning. And this whole time, he is supposed to keep up a happy demeanor and a smile on his face. Because he is called. Because he is so stoked to be living for Jesus. His work is SPIRITUAL work. It’s more important than anything! Rah rah rah!

To make matters worse, some traditions emphasize something along the lines of “everything of the holy spirit must be spontaneous”. Prayers are no good unless out of the depths of emotion. If you’re really good you can preach a whole sermon you made up on the spot without notes. To these folks, the high liturgical traditions are complete anathema! What could be more cold, dead and unspiritual than reading a prayer out of book? So even when the pastor feels exactly like the one in Seth’s story, he has got to pretend extra hard that he’s still really passionate about everything. In fact, it’s in his job description.

What happens? Burnout. A LOT of it.

“I guess we find this disturbing because spiritual work should be real, not faked.” Yes, don’t we believe this? But most spiritual work is just that: work. Hard work.

Godin seems to keep his personal faith intentionally vague. I’m not sure if he’s aware of these church leadership social dynamics or not.

Blessed is the man (or woman) who can serve in this capacity without ending up in a padded room. Somewhere in here, reform is needed, eh?

The Bible is true, but still literature

The one thing the Bible is not is what it is so often thought to be – a theological outline with proof texts attached.

Asked to define neighbor, Jesus told a story (Luke 10:25-27). Likewise, Jesus’ aphoristic command “Remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:32) shows that he believed that truth can be embodied in concrete examples or images as well as in moral propositions.

-Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature, p.9

Ryken’s book starts out well, but after a couple chapters I couldn’t continue. It’s all good information and his examples are clear, but the thing is just so darn boring I couldn’t stand it! 200 pages could have been condensed into a 20 page essay and nothing would be lost.

I think I’m going to skip it and move on to the (more highly recommended by folks I know) The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter.

A Girardian take on Obama’s State of the Union address

I must admit, I’ve really been diggin’ Girard lately. I was excited to discover The Raven Foundation, a group of folks doing pretty much the same thing and (more importantly!) figuring out how to apply it.

From a recent blog post over there by Adam Ericksen, here is an interesting take on Obama’s recent State of the Union address (emphasis mine):

The political rancor in Washington is obvious to anyone who watched last night’s speech. And yet there were moments of unity. Obama talked mostly about the economic crisis and America’s historically tenacious desire to overcome similar obstacles. He mentioned that other nations, such as Japan and Germany, are working hard to overcome economic disaster. The President claimed, “China’s not waiting to revamp its economy. Germany’s not waiting. India’s not waiting. These countries aren’t playing for second place. Well, I do not accept second place for the United States of America.”

That was one of the few times Republicans and Democrats united in applause. But please notice, the unity that momentarily washed away the mimetic conflicts was based on a common enemy: those other countries that are beating us.

This is a negative, false unity that is very dangerous because it is mimetic; it cannot be controlled. The unity we find in the division and rivalry with other countries actually reinforces our own divisions and rivalries.

Darn straight.

The simple solution to slavery in the bible

The Bible (and the God of the Bible) often get tomatoes thrown at them for seeming to legitimize slavery.

Never mind the fact that Christians have been at the forefront of the abolition of slavery throughout history, it is true that the Bible does not go out of it’s way to condemn slavery at every possible turn.

Why? Whole books have been written on this topic, but here I think Fearsome at the BHT gives the best simple answer I’ve ever heard:

I think that if anyone had come up to Jesus and asked him about slavery, he would have said something along the lines, “Moses wrote the laws concerning slaves because your hearts were hard.” So in other words, the slavery laws in the OT are like the divorce laws–they are the regulation of a common evil in order to mitigate its effects.

Mastery over the hidden causes of things is NOT the whole truth

Earlier interest in magic might have been of a more religious or spiritual nature, but the renewal of interest in it near the enlightenment was rather different. It’s aims were often the same as science.

Even the late medieval and early modern panics over witches did not generally involve actual belief in magic; the fear, rather, was a diabolism, murder, and demonic illusion. It seems perfectly obvious to me, though, that in the post-Christian era something more like real magical thinking has come back into vogue, albeit with a modern inflection. I am not speaking of popular interest in astrology, Wicca, runes, mystical crystals, or any other New Age twaddle of that sort; these things are always with us, in one form or another.

I am speaking rather of the way in which, in modern society, technology and science (both practical and theoretical) are often treated as exercises of special knowledge and special power that should be isolated from too confining an association with any old habitual pieties regarding human nature or moral truth (these being, after all, mere matters of personal preference).

That is, we often approach modern science as if it were magic, with the sort of moral credulity that takes it as given that power is evidence of permissibility. Of course, our magic – unlike that of our ancestors – actually works. But it is no less superstitious of us than it was of them to think that the power to do something is equivalent to the knowledge of what it is one is doing, or of whether one should do it, or of whether there are other, more comprehensive truths to which power ought to be willing to yield primacy. We seem on occasion, at least a good number of us, to have embraced (often with a shocking dogmatism) the sterile superstition that mastery over the hidden causes of things is the whole truth, while at the same time pursuing that mastery by purely material means. -David Bently Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, p.233

Our magic works, but our understanding of the underlying mechanism does not mean that manipulating has no moral implications. Think genetic engineering, selective abortion, or eugenics. Just because we understand something about DNA does not mean that it’s OK to manipulate it now. Morals surrounding that mechanism do not dissolve when the mechanism is revealed. A psychologist who studies the brain may be able to come to a reasonably accurate electro-chemical understanding of lust. This does not grant him a license to lust. As Hart says above, we are operating off that “mastery over the hidden causes of tings is the whole truth”.

The real talent leaves the wicked

When the righteous triumph, there is great glory, but when the wicked rise, people hide themselves.

Proverbs 28:12 (ESV)

Here, Leithart makes a great observation about this verse:

When the wicked achieve primacy (are raised up on high, as stars in the heavens), then it is dangerous for glory to be seen.  Men go into hiding.  This is an important dynamic of political history.  Wicked rulers suppress talent and energy by pushing men into hiding.  They may hope to achieve glory, but they achieve the opposite – a drain of glory.

Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, they both promised a glorious empire, a crowning human achievement. What happened? The righteous, along with most of the smart folks went into hiding – smacked down by the oppression. Instead of a glorious state they get a big disappointment. The same thing will happen again.

God’s love diluting his will?

Hart’s discussion on the modern deification of self-will has all kinds of interesting implications:

Certain theologians began to worry that to grant any of God’s other attributes – his goodness, mercy, rationality, and so on – priority over his will could not help but dilute a proper sense of the majesty of divine freedom. A few particularly extreme formulations of the voluntarist position even seemed to descrbe a God whose will is somehow supreme over his own nature, and seemed to suggest that this God’s acts toward created reality should be understood solely as demonstrations of his power, and nothing else. By this logic, the laws of nature and of morality could no longer be said to reflect who or what God is, or to communicate any knowledge of this nature or character, but should be seen simply as inexplicable decisions emanating from the unfathomable abyss of his will. Here explicity, for the first time in Western thought, freedom was defined not as the unobstructed realization of a nature but as the absolute power of the will to determine even what that nature might be. One might even say that, in this view of things, God’s essence simply IS will. And if this is what freedom is for God, then this must be what freedom is for us as well.

David Bently Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, p.225

I know that Calvinism rejects “theological voluntarism”, which is being described above. However if you listen to the rhetoric you hear from some reformed corners, I wouldn’t blame you for getting confused. Keep your eye on the ball (who God IS), not what, in all his sovereignty, he SEEMS to be doing or at least seems to be letting happen.

Desert fathers redux

In the last few pages of his book, Hart turns to the future and isn’t particularly optimistic. He brings up the desert fathers who retreated into the wilderness right as the rest of Christianity was rising over the empire. This is curious. Do they have a modern day equivalent? He says, no, not in the sense rising of ascetic monastic orders. However, withdrawing from everything but love may be the only thing that could weather the collapse and storm some folks are proposing. Interesting to consider anyway.

[The desert fathers] might be viewed as the final revolutionary moment within ancient Christianity: its rebellion against its own success, its preservation of its most precious and unadulterated spiritual aspirations against its own temporal power (perhaps in preparation for the day when that power would be no more).

-David Bently Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, p.241