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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Nasty Eleven-Letter-Word

I was talking with a couple of friends this weekend and someone dropped the word "empowerment". Which got me thinking. It's not really a word I am particularly fond of but I hadn't taken the time to work through the reasons for my dislike. So here is what I came up with.

We usually hear the word "empowerment" in one of two contexts. Either someone is talking about one social group (race, gender, orientation, political party, religion etc...) needing to be empowered by society. Or someone is talking about a specific individual "finding empowerment". Of these two usages I prefer the second one but overall I think the word ought to be dropped from the language entirely. Before I go into the two usages though, let me talk about the word itself.

"Empowerment" is a noun, I suppose. It's a sort of action that is objectifiable. But it is also intrinsically passive. One receives empowerment, if you get power for yourself you have not "been empowered" you have simply "gotten power". Of course there are a few pop-psychology books which talk about self-empowerment, but even there, a single entity is acting as both the subject and object of the phrase; thus when I engage in self-empowerment, I receive power I got for myself. So "empowerment" is not a word which can (or at least ought to) be used in the context of one increasing their own power, it is a passive word. 
In the first usage (empowering a social group) I don't think the word can be used without contradicting the intentions of the person using it. Specifically, if I said that some group needs to be empowered that can only be because they currently lack power. It is possible that I would make the claim in a sort of off handed way claiming that some group or other really ought to have power, but that is unusual. Usually when the word gets used someone is talking more about taking power from another group (usually a majority of some sort) and giving it to another group. A sort of redistribution of power. Which is condescending. Really condescending. If I were to walk up to you and say "You know what you need? You need power, so lets take some from that guy over there and get it for you." You cannot really talk about empowering anyone without suggesting that a) they don't have enough power and b) they can't get it for themselves; someone else has to get it for them.
Not only is that insultingly condescending in a social context but it lacks a certain amount of historical viability. At the present I can't think of a single social group which currently has power which they did not either inherit, get from God, or get for themselves. People just don't do third party swaps on power.
In the second usage (empowering an individual) I have less of an issue with the use of the word but only because people almost never mean what it actually means when they use it. Properly understood, the phrase "You need empowerment." means something like "You don't have enough power, and you can't get it yourself so you need to find someone to get it for you". But in actual usage it generally just means "you need more power." Which may or may not be true in a given situation, but either way it is a case of misusing the language and potentially conveying an assumed superiority.
Of course there are times when it is quite appropriate to talk of empowering someone. Deputies are empowered, they don't have police power, they can't get it for themselves, it has to be given to them. Children are occasionally empowered by their parents who quite properly have more natural power (moral, physical and legal) and can, on occasion lend or give it to them. And God is omnipotent. So ultimately all power in existence is a result of divine empowerment, quite properly so.
The problem is when groups of naturally equal power (especially legal or moral power) start to talk about empowering one another. When this happens the relationship between the groups must be artificial and strained from the outset. One is the group with the power and however they feel about that (guilty, proud, justified, unjustified) they will see themselves as different both in capacity and quality from the other group (remember "empowerment" only happens when the receiver can't get the power for themselves).
Or am I wrong about this? These are just my reflections on why I dislike the word so much (my other thought was that I don't like it simply because power is almost always the wrong thing to focus on in any relationship) they may be way off base. Please let me know either way.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Love of God

There's a wideness in God's mercy
I cannot find in my own
And He keeps His fire burning
To melt this heart of stone
Keeps me aching with a yearning
Keeps me glad to have been caught
In the reckless raging fury
That they call the love of God

Now I've seen no band of angels
But I've heard the soldiers' songs
Love hangs over them like a banner
Love within them leads them on
To the battle on the journey
And it's never gonna stop
Ever widening their mercies
And the fury of His love

Oh the love of God
And oh the love of God
The love of God

Joy and sorrow are this ocean
And in their every ebb and flow
Now the Lord a door has opened
That all Hell could never close
Here I'm tested and made worthy
Tossed about but lifted up
In the reckless raging fury
That they call the love of God

- Rich Mullins

I don't have much to add, but this one does a good job of summarizing my experiences over the last two years or so.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

You Stupid-head!

I have a suspicion, and it has been growing these last few weeks. I suspect that we are losing the art of disagreement. We just don't know how to disagree anymore. As I have thought about this over the course of this last week (My reflections were kicked up a notch after a conversation I had on Dave Schmelzer's blog) I have begun to firm up this suspicion into a full blown theory.

Before I go full bore into this idea, let me lay my cards on the table: I love debate. I love discussion, argument, seminar, dialectic. The back and forth of competing ideas in an effort to discover truth makes me all tingly inside. Seriously, I remember in  college I would drop nearly anything to sit down at a table and launch into disagreement with a classmate over some bit of arcane theological minutia. And if that weren't bad enough, I tend to romanticize debate. The deeper an argument goes, the more likely I am to see myself sitting in a dimly lit pub surrounded by beer, reference books, pipe smoke and some hearty meat pie type dish. I've got it that bad. The thing is, that in a good debate, there are rules and etiquette. In fact in all of my best conversations, there has been respect on both sides and while I don't always convince my opponent/partner or become convinced by them, I do nearly always leave a) on better terms that I began and b) wiser and better able to understand them.

My experience suggests that there is no real difficulty in having an enduring, deep friendship with someone who is nearly %100 wrong about almost everything important in life (or even with Calvinists). But I find that I am somewhat unusual in that regard. Most people I run into these days don't seem to be at all comfortable with the suggestion that someone else might be wrong. This is true both within and without the Church. In both spheres, sacred and secular, there are usually two possible outcomes from this discomfort. A person who is uncomfortable with other people's potential wrongness will either 1) ignore the wrongness and do his best to pretend that everyone agrees or 2) ignore the person they think is wrong and treat them more as a category of person rather than an actual individual. To overgeneralize; people who identify as liberal (both secular and theological) tend towards the first approach while people who identify as conservative (secular and theological) tent towards the second.

And I would like to suggest that neither of these is a particularly good way to go. In fact I think that both of these approaches are based on a wrong assumption. The assumption that being wrong makes you a stupid-head; or in more adult language, that being wrong devalues a person.

In the first approach people have trouble with disagreement because to say that someone is wrong about something is to say that they are, in at least one way, less of a person. Because these people do not want to give the impression that they actually think of anyone as less than themselves they are forced to ignore any and all points of strong disagreement. I think everyone is generally familiar with this. Five people are having a conversation and someone makes some strong political statement.... conversation stops.... two people look really nervous... one of them speaks up and says something like "not everyone would want to go that far" and everyone looks at the original speaker. If he is a first approach kind of person, he backs down. "No of course, just sometimes I feel that way, but it could be anything really, I mean politics is nuts anyway right?...?" and things go back to comfortable. Nobody really disagrees with anybody else, not when they are friends.

But this is absurd. People do disagree. And that doesn't begin to affect their value as persons. In fact if we go back to an older understanding of value and recognize that each person has infinite value and that they have it simply by being a person, the whole problem disappears. We are messed up infinitely valuable people trying to figure life out. Of course we are going to disagree, often about incredibly important things. So what?

The second approach accepts the same wrong premise, that being wrong decreases the value of an individual, and therefore concludes that everyone who doesn't agree with them is a little less than they are. In the church, this manifests as spiritual pride (what C.S. Lewis called one of the ugliest of all sins); in the secular realm it's just normal pride (not a whole lot better really). And this is another group we are generally familiar with; it smacks of condescention and it tends to kill any community or relationship.
I would suggest that we need to relearn the art of disagreement. The ancient Christian saying "In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, Charity" is far wiser than any approach we tend to take today. Disagree, argue, but do it in love. Do it with humility. This, at least, might serve as a starting point if we really do want to "seek the truth in love".

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Do I know you?

 I heard recently that English is the largest language in the world. That is to say that we have the largest vocabulary. Mostly, this is a historical accident. Modern English was really common when the wold "shrank" thanks to media and the internet, and as a result we have been plagiarizing words from other languages non-stop (I think it also has a lot to do with the globe-spanning British Empire). That being the case, my attention was recently drawn to one of our greatest deficiencies. We only have one verb for "to know". Which is odd. And unfortunate. Both of the other languages I speak, have at least two verbs which reflect what are, in my opinion, two nearly completely different concepts. But English only has one, and as a result we have a bad tendency to confuse those two concepts. Even more unfortunately there are significant theological implications behind the concept we are using. I'm not sure how this one works out in Greek and Hebrew (little info check all you linguists out there?) and there is some natural overlap between the two concepts which I will get into a little later, but this distinction is worth exploring either way.

   "To know" - bilmek (Turkish) - wissen (German) - means to know about, to have information. You would use bilmek  to talk about information. In fact the Turks went ahead and incorporated that word when they coined a new word after the computer was invented (a "bilgisayar" is a knowledge/information processor). So you would use bilmek when you have information about something: I bilmek that my wife is beautiful, I bilmek that my car is a honda, I bilmek that 2+5=7. On the theological level, there are certain things we bilmek about God: He is Love, He is Truth, He is Good and so forth.

At the same time, "to know" - tanimak (Turkish) - kennen (German)- means to know relationally. You would use tanimak to express your acquaintance with or knowledge of someone or something. We are usually using the word this way when we say "yeah I know him" or "oh I know suffering". It implies intimacy and relationship. So I tanimak my wife and my son.  This meaning is a little harder to communicate in English because it tends to be a secondary usage, we assume that you need to know about bilmek someone or something before you can know tanimak them.

    And that is where I think the problem begins. I would suggest that in terms of our relationships, tanimak knowing is actually much more important than bilmek knowing. I am willing to grant that there has to be at least a little bilmek knowing going on in order to have any tanimak since it is would be impossible to have a relationship with someone you know absolutely nothing about. But I think that it is a very , very little bit. Some of the most frightening passages in the bible, involve God saying "I never knew you". But it would seem really silly to suggest that God means "wow I didn't know you existed, how about that". I think we all understand that he is talking tanimak knowing here, not bilmek knowing.
    And this is why I find it so very strange that Christians in America are getting so up in arms about the relative importance of so many theological facts. Nearly all of them are bilmek facts. When we say that someone needs to know Jesus, aren't we saying that they need to tanimak know Him, not that they need to bilmek know Him? After all bilmek knowing is all about quantity; how many facts do I know about Him, while tanimak knowing is all about quality; how well do I know Him? To place bilmek knowing over tanimak knowing would suggest that entry into the kingdom tao is based on being able to pass a theology test. Which is ludicrous.
  This is one of the reasons I am so excited about the general relational approach to theology. If it isn't clear by now, I am all about truth, I think it's really important. But may I suggest that in the realm of theology we ought to test our theological conclusions against our body of tanimak knowledge before our bilmek knowledge? I would suggest that it is more important to ask whether each new conclusion is consistent with the God I know tanimak than whether it is consistent with my body of bilmek knowledge about Him. Hopefully I can do both.
    Let me add one final paragraph in defense of bilmek knowledge which I'm afraid I may have cast in too negative a light. Bilmek knowledge is still incredibly important. If I tanimak know someone, and I love them, then I ought to want to bilmek know as much about them as I can. I love to learn new things about my wife and my son. I bilmek know that my son doesn't like chicken  and I bilmek know that he loves firetrucks and being outside. I bilmek know that my wife cries when she watches Disney cartoons and I bilmek know that her knee is the most ticklish spot on her. These facts, these bits of bilmek knowledge delight me, they deepen my tanimak knowledge of them. So bilmek is important. But look what just happened, now you bilmek know things about my wife and my son, but you still don't tanimak know them. So in English now, do you know them?

Monday, May 16, 2011

There's Still Too Much Bathwater in with that Baby!

This post is a continuation of my reflections on postmodernism and premodernism.

  Postmodernism is a tricky word to define. For a number of reasons. Primarily because it is essentially negative: Instead of supporting some approach or theory, it seems to define itself by what it is not - postmodernism is not modernsim, and (presumably) it is not premodernism either. If you ask postmodernism what it is, any answer you are likely to get will eventually boil down to: "well, whatever it is, it's not that anyway". But don't take this as a necessary criticism; there are a number of things that are best defined negatively (God being a primary example - most of our definitions for God involve saying what He is not rather than what He is). After all, as C.S. Lewis pointed out :“We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.” So if modernism made a wrong turning somewhere, then by being negative, postmodernism is probably moving in the right direction.
    So what is it that postmodernism is rejecting when it rejects modernism? Well usually I hear postmodernists talk about rejecting modern assumptions about reason and knowing things. Along with several other modernist pemises, postmodernism usually claims to reject the modern claim to know things. And certainly, knowing is a subject that modernism was (is?) intensely interested in.

  I was reminded recently that one of the major differences between the enlightenment and all the western philosophy that came before it was an enormous shift in priority from metaphysics (questions about being) to epistemology (questions about knowing). Before the enlightenment, people certainly thought about epistemology but most of the time they answered their epistemological questions through the lens of their metaphysical answers. Really this was (at least initially) a shift in priority. Before the enlightenment, most thinkers would have said that you needed to have a good understanding of metaphysics if you wanted to really get a handle on epistemology. Thus metaphysics was prior to epistemology. The enlightenment, starting mostly with Bacon and Descartes, switched the formula around and started claiming that before we can get anywhere with metaphysics we need to have a handle on epistemology. Thus modernism sees epistemology as prior to metaphysics.
  So what does all of this have to do with postmodernism? Quite a bit. I am beginning to suspect that many of the problems I tend to have with postmodernism stem from its failure to go far enough in rejecting this modernist assumption. Two weeks ago I might have said it goes to far; now I'm thinking it doesn't go far enough. Specifically, it seems to me that postmodernism accepts modernism's  premise that epistemology is prior to metaphysics. Given that postmodernists generally want to define the movement as a rejection of modernist assumptions, this strikes me as odd and on reflection as extremely problematic.
  Postmodern scholars seem to spend a great deal of time looking at language and cultural biases and various mental limitations in order to create arguments that the modernists were being pie eyed, foolish idealists when they went around making the audacious claim that we can know things. They focus a great deal of effort "debunking" the epistemological theories of the important modernist thinkers in order to build their own epistemological theories. In fact, epistemology is so big in postmodern circles that a number of people have reflected that metaphysics seems to be dead.
  So postmodernism does not actually reject modernist assumptions; it just rejects modernist conclusions. In the place of those conclusions, some postmoderm thinkers have concluded that we have to find different ways of knowing (others have said that we just can't know things but I'm not going to focus on them here). Knowing though experience, emotion, narrative and instinct have all been suggested as alternate epistemological solutions to the problems that arrive when we think of epistemology as prior to metaphysics. The biggest of these problems is that post modern epistemologies are almost always too limited. They will offer some incredibly valuable way of knowing which the modernists rejected, but then they go and reject the modernist way of knowing (reason). So they tend to end up with less rather than more. Or sometimes they will accept reason as one way of knowing things but then they will make this odd suggestion that all the different ways people go about knowing are completely distinct and that as a result, contradictions aren't important.
  Let me be really clear here. Premodernism did not make this mistake. Actually, premodernism didn't make either of these mistakes. Where the modernist says that reason is the only way to know things and the postmodernist says that there are many ways of knowing but none of those ways can influence one another; the premodern understood that knowing is like a rope with multiple strands and that each strand needed to work with each other strand in order to build an accurate picture of the truth.
  I suspect that postmodernism is making this mistake because it is working from the "bottom up" rather than from the "top down". By asking about epistemology first, by failing to reject enough of modernisms assumptions, postmodernism limits itself to the how without a what. May I suggest that if we started talking about what life actually is, it would make questions of how a lot easier to handle.

Monday, May 9, 2011

A Life Lived Together

 I'm re-posting this from a question I asked on another site so you tea sanctuary people please bear with the redundancy. These are a few thoughts I put together as an answer to why I am so interested in the idea of intentional community, especially in the United States. I am thinking that I will expand each of the three threads into it's own post later on. The introduction I wrote for my original comment is not really relevant in a stand alone context so I have created a new one for the sake of this post.
 I have been fascinated with the idea of intentionally forming a holistic community, mostly so that I could be a part of it, for something like six years now. For a number of reasons I have recently had the opportunity to begin working through my reasons for why I thought that an intentional community is such a great idea. While there are quite a few, I find that I am personally persuaded by three threads of thought: historical, philosophical and theological. While I hope that each of these threads is, in itself, enough to justify the pursuit, they have all played a part in bringing me to my own position of the subject.

   Historically people do not live or operate in isolation. In fact it is only in the last 100 or so years that we have developed enough technology to "sustain" isolated lives. So far as I can tell, we in America have treated this use of technology as a good thing. We talk about becoming more independent or reliant. Only in the last 30 or so years have people begun to question the value of achieving this level of independence. As that warning has grown, I have become convinced that isolation and merely voluntary interaction with other people is one of the negative rather than positive side effects of the scientific revolution. I believe that we are essentially social beings, which means that we cannot experience a fulfilled life (kingdom tao) outside of interdependent relationships (though in a few unusual instances God might call someone to rely solely on Him for the fulfillment of this need - Adam was not one of these unusual people).
The problem now is that the technology and the wealth already exist. As a result, we are not basically dependent on other people, at least not on people outside the nuclear family and work. All other relationships are purely voluntary. This means that rather than the more natural interdependence which existed and kept people fulfilled in the past. We are in a position which calls us to choose voluntary interdependence. But this is a choice we must make if we want to fully enter the tao.
  Philosophically I want to re-stress this concept that we are essentially social beings. I believe that the most basic unit of society is actually the family (not the individual) because the family is the smallest possible self-sustaining unit. This transition from an enlightenment individual focus, means that all relationship types need to be shifted up a notch when we consider their importance: friendships ought to be as important as we usually think family is, acquaintances as importance as friendship, social organizations (neighborhood, city, state, country) all need to make a similar shift. What I am trying to get at is this idea that there is no such thing as a fully healthy individual in isolation. Healthy individuals only exist in relationship to other individuals filling different roles. Although I may have implied differently above, there really is no such thing as voluntary interdependence. We simply are interdependent, by nature. Just as we are oxygen and food dependent by nature. Thus "voluntary interdependence" is about as redundant as "voluntary dependence on oxygen". It only needs to be said because so many people in our culture have incorporated "oxygen deprivation" into their world view.
  Theologically I believe that interdependence begins, and is modeled in the Godhead. God is love, C.S. Lewis interprets that as a statement of God's relational nature. Before all other things are created, God the Father is in a love relationship with God the Son, which is so powerful that the relationship itself, the love, is a further person: God the Spirit. 
  I believe that this essential relational nature is part of what was incorporated into the Imago Dei when God created Adam. That creation was "not good" yet because man was alone, God had only created half of a human. So the creation of Eve (and with her, family) created the first full humans; we come in pairs.
I believe that Jesus purposefully built interdependence into the church and made it integral to the tao. Paul is especially clear on this point; even our union with Christ is not based on just the two of us. We are members (plural) of his body. "Christ in us" means that we are joined together in Him. 
  My intention to form an intentional community is based on my intention to live a fuller life, an abundant life, to live according the tao which is the Kingdom of Heaven. And I believe that that kind of life is a life lived in voluntary, interdependent community with others.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

"Forgive and Forget" or "Forget and Forget"

  It struck me the other day that our culture doesn't know how to forgive any more. This is a little odd because we talk about forgiveness a lot. So far as I know it's still one of the kindergarten virtues; share, say please and thank you, forgive. So let me offer that as my excuse for not noticing it sooner.
  Don't get me wrong, I don't mean to say that we all hold grudges and that relationships cannot be reconciled after an "unpleasantness", that happens quite frequently (though still probably not often enough) but I don't think that it happens through forgiveness. Today if you do something to upset me I seem to have two real choices; I can acknowledge that you really hurt me and I can let that come between us, maybe even retaliate, or I can pretend as though nothing happened and make a point of minimizing the whole event even if you do think to apologize. I think that most people in our culture identify that second point with forgiveness, the sort of "act as though nothing happened" mentality. When we want to "forgive" we have to convince ourselves and everyone else that no harm was actually done; sometimes we understate the damage, sometimes we explain it away, sometimes we just stop talking about it altogether.
  But that is not what forgiveness is. In fact I want to argue that this "ignore it and it will go away" mentality is an incredibly foolish, dangerous and even harmful thing to do. The first and primary problem with this approach is that it is, at bottom, an attempt to deny reality and denying reality just doesn't work in the long run. In fact, if memory serves, Screwtape heartily recommends that humans build up a habit of trying to convince themselves of something they know to be false. He claims that it will make us either give up on the virtue altogether or, even worse, establish a habit of living in two contradictory worlds with no bearing on real life. Reality is a horrendously stubborn thing: if someone hurts me, it hurts. It just does. If I try to deny that it hurts I'm only going to end up hurting worse in the end. This is most evident with physical injury. If you break my leg, the only way I can heal is to face up to the fact that my leg is broken and go and get it set and put in a cast. If I try to deny the injury so that you and I can still be friends, I'll end up walking on the leg and only make the injury worse.
  Probably the most blatant version of this false forgiveness happens on Facebook. Someone insults or upsets me. So I "un-friend" them. But later I want relationship back; maybe I just need more allies in monster backyard, or maybe I am genuinely curious about their lives, or I want to show off my own. So I send a friend request, or they do, and it is accepted. And nobody ever says anything about it again ... until the next time.
  And we do this sort of thing all the time in real life as well. How often have you heard "it was nothing" when it was something? How often have you explained away a verbal barb just so that you don't have to confront someone, so that your relationship with them will still run comfortably. Or, the worst version of this, how often have you just stopped talking about something altogether and acted as though it didn't happen at all. I'm not talking about being easy going, or being slow to take offense, those are good things. I'm talking about when that comment really does hurt and you pretend it wasn't said at all because it would be so awkward to confront the person. You might even have used the word forgiveness; "I've forgiven him so I'm not going to talk about it at all".
  Let me say again, this is not forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn't have some magical power to reach back into the past and change things. What happens in this morally dangerous world actually does happen and no amount of forgiveness can undo it. And we know this, at least we know it when reality hits us hard enough. If my car is stolen, I can forgive the thief 'til I'm blue in the face, and my car will still be gone. Forgiveness is not pretending that nothing happened. Forgiveness is admitting that something did happen and then refusing to let it get in the way of relationship. "You hurt me, but I forgive you" does not mean "you hurt me but I will pretend it didn't hurt", it means "you hurt me but I still want to have a relationship with you."
  Forgiveness is essentially vulnerable on the part of the forgiver and humble on the part of the apologizer. It is incredibly uncomfortable and difficult and when I think about it I'm not all that surprised that we have managed to forget how to do it. I have even seen people apologize and then become angry when they are forgiven: "who does he think he is saying I really hurt him but it's OK, he forgives me, does he think he's better than me?" It even feels awkward to be asked to genuinely forgive, even when we are willing to. It would almost be more comfortable if the other person would have just not brought it up.  I suspect that some of that goes back to our failure to have a healthy understanding of hierarchy but I'll save that for another post.
  In the meantime I would love some feedback; do y'all think that we really forgive? That we acknowledge truth and then refuse to let an injury get in the way of our relationship? And isn't this a more difficult but beautiful concept? Isn't a relationship much, much stronger if the parties can admit to being hurt but insist on maintaining community with one another anyway. Only weak relationships cannot handle forgiveness; strong relationships demand it and grow stronger for it.