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Monday, June 27, 2011

Let's Talk about....

I have found myself thoroughly immersed in a conversation about premarital sex this week. Which is not normal for me. Most of my life can be divided into two sets of conversation on this topic: a) the set of conversations with conservative Christians who like to say "premarital sex (and most other kinds as well) is bad, the Bible is very clear about this" and then never want to explain why; and b) the set of conversations with everyone else which generally revolve around how nice it would be to be having more sex with very few holds barred (point of order - I have discovered that it is flatly impossible to write or talk about sex without using an obscene number of accidental double entendres; so enjoy them, they aren't on purpose). This second set also only rarely talks about why sex is so great, they just assume it is.

Not the Religious Type (where I have been getting so much of my jumping off point material of late) just posed a question about sex, namely "How do you Navigate Sexual Ethics". The discussion has been so fascinating, and dovetails so well with my recent post on morality that I thought it would be worth bringing it over to heaven and earth questions to see how y'all feel about the issue. So, while this is, in itself a relatively short posting, it requires a bit of background reading since I would ask you to go check out the original here.

I am personally really interested in your takes on the threads of conversation I have been having with Bill Sergott, Otto, and Jane. Specifically, do you think that there is a good reason that Christians are so generally down on sex outside of marriage? And do you think that all sex has intrinsic metaphysical significance?

Let me copy my most recent comment to Otto as a teaser:

 Bill Hoard - I find your distinction on integrity confusing. As I understand it, one of the reasons we ought to be careful about giving our word is the understanding that things (feelings, circumstances etc...) change. Conversely, it is precisely because we recognize the dynamic aspect of reality that we do give our words. What point would there have been in my giving my wedding vows if I expected to always feel towards my wife, all the same emotions I felt on our wedding day? The vows would have been superfluous. Furthermore, if I didn't think that staying together were, by nature now that we are married, the best thing for me and my wife, why would I have said my vows?

  If I understand you properly, you are saying that the "wounds" other people give us are only real insofar as we recognize or "give them power" as being real. But I disagree. When one person (husband or wife) cheats on the other, they genuinely wound their spouse. Treating those wounds as illusion both demeans the value of relationship and, so far as I understand from my psychologist and counselor friends, gets in the way of full healing. One of the first steps to healing is to recognize a hurt as real and then move towards the wholeness that God offers. I do not think that trusting God means seeing ourselves as we are not. I know that I am sinful, wretched and prone to hurt the people I love. I know God plans to make me into a glorious son who will someday be worthy of the grace I have already begun to receive. I know the process of that transformation is often painful. But it strikes me as counterproductive to think I am already cured. A cured person wouldn't do the things I do and wouldn't need the healing and training I still need. How can we receive grace until we recognize that we really do need it?
  I do think that divorce may sometimes be necessary, but never for things like "maturing" or "growing apart". Here I agree with a principle you referred to. The "laws" are there for the good of those to whom they are given. (I think this is clearest in Jesus attitude towards the sabbath but it shows up in other places as well) so when some unusual set of circumstances require us to set aside the letter in order to follow the spirit, we ought to be prepared to do so. But I think we are being to quick to claim our "ox is in a ditch on the sabbath". C.S. Lewis gave a helpful analogy for divorce when he called it an "operation" and reflected that "some think it so terrible that nothing can be worth it's terrible cost, other say that sometimes it may be warranted to save the life of the patient but all agree that it is more like amputating your legs than pulling a tooth" sadly I don't think we are all agreed about that anymore.

 If you are using the title "true love" to refer to someone who is easier to get along with, more attractive to and attracted to someone than their spouse, I will be happy to grant that it may occasionally be applied (though there are so many factors involved that I doubt it is nearly so often as people make out). My point was that regardless of any of those factors, it is never OK to break my word and injure my partner just because I have found a "better" one. We are more than breeding animals.

 Finally, in response to your comment that each person is can only be responsible for one person -  themselves; I completely agree. But I want to point out that, contrary to popular assumption, we can each think, pray and reason about what actions are right in what circumstances. Whether the actors are ourselves or others.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

What do you Mean by That?

  I have been thinking a good bit about jargon recently. As with so many other things I categorize jargon as neither intrinsically good or intrinsically bad. It is just a thing. Certainly it can be used poorly and it can be used well. My thought for this post is to make some overly broad generalizations about when jargon is helpful and when it can be harmful.

  The really great thing about jargon is that it saves time. Generally, jargon shows up as a way of expressing some relatively complex, recurring thought or statement into a single word or short phrase. In order to be jargon and not just new vocabulary, this has to happen in a somewhat specialized context. If I coined a new word to talk about some aspect of grocery shopping it wouldn't be called jargon; it would just be a new word since everyone goes grocery shopping. On the other hand, if I came up with a term for some arcane literary process, and it managed to catch on in the field of literary critisizm, then that would be a bit of jargon. This is why jargon can be so great. Instead of having to give this long, technical definition or proposition, I can use this one piece of jargon and everyone who is familiar with the concept will immediately know what I am talking about.

  Everyone who is familiar with the concept.

  And herein lies the problem. Too often, we use jargon when our audience is not at all familiar with the concepts it represents. So instead of helping communicate the jargon is a hindrance. This downside is obvious and we see it all the time. Teachers and professors do it, and Christians are terrible about it; but really anyone with any technical expertise can get us with it. Contractors and car people do it all the time too. Of course, depending on the audience's pride, they are generally not going to ask for an explanation because they are embarrassed for not knowing the terms before hand. (Any of you guys out there ever nod sagely when your mechanic tells you that the pifflethwattle is shot and if you don't bananafringe your tintbannder the whole gutrude may have to be replaced?).

  And that leads to the second danger of jargon: jargon can be used to deliberately obfuscate something. I generally suspect that mechanics do this to me counting on my pride to let them charge me for stuff I don't know anything about. But maybe I am just to suspicious. Either way, jargon can certainly be used as a tool to gain an edge of power over a situation or another person.

  But what strikes me as the most dangerous effect of jargon is the way it can obfuscate meaning to the person  who uses it without their ever realizing that they have no idea what they are talking about. If I have any expertise it is in two areas: Christianity and Philosophy. In both of these areas I am forever catching others and myself using terms that we ourselves aren't entirely clear on. Generally these will be terms that we have heard often enough that we understand how they ought to be used but which we have never really investigated. Think about it; do you know what it means to say "I claim the blood of Christ" or "this is a question in Meta-ethics which is linked to the concept of goodness qua positive being"? You tintinnabar needs some real bananfringing.

  I think that this is the worst way that jargon can go bad because it allows for self-delusion. If you are accidentally using language you audience doesn't understand, it is unfortunate but correctable. If you are deliberately obfuscating something, that is a problem but at least you know what you are doing. But when jargon goes wrong in this third way, you might say something completely accurate without having the least idea what the truth is. Students who do this, get A's on tests without being educated and tragically don't even know that they are ignorant. Philosophers who do it miss out on the wisdom they are seeking and, because they used the jargon correctly, they don't know where they went wrong. Christians who do it are probably in the worst shape. They have no idea what they are talking about but they think that their phrase is their answer.

  Let me challenge you to try something I do every so often. Stop using jargon for a while, try a week. Don't use any word unless you actually know what it means and are pretty sure that a middle school student could understand it. Don't ask God for "grace and peace" ask Him for what you want. Find out whether or not you know what you are talking about when you claim that "sanctification is a work of faith". Do you think you could explain the egocentric dilemma to a ten year old? Let me know how it goes.

Monday, June 13, 2011

No More Fun for You! Is Morality Still Worth Talking About?

  Are people really interested in being moral anymore? I taught my first section of ethics at CCBC this last semester and, while the students were great, it struck me that there was not much interest in questions like "how can I be moral? What would it mean to be moral? What does real morality look like?". As I have asked around I have found this to be a relatively common attitude. Some people are generally interested in morality as an abstract concept and are eager enough to compare ethical systems and debate hypothetical moral dilemmas but I don't hear many people at all who are specifically interested in becoming more moral.

  I suspect that there are quite a few reasons for this (if I'm not making it up entirely) and I am positive that I would not be able to identify all of them if I tried. What I would like to do is talk about my understanding of what it means to be moral and why being moral is such an important thing and then ask any and all readers if my thoughts match theirs and what they perceive to be those of their peers. My thought is that one of the reasons for the decline in interest is a misunderstanding of what morality is. I guess I think that if more people defined morality the way I do, they would be more interested in being moral.
  So as I understand it, morality is essentially the road map to living a good life. I pretty much equate "being moral" with "being righteous" with "being holy". Another way to say it would be that morality + experiencing God = Joy. In the same way, I would define immorality as something like "living poorly" or "not living well at all".
  The idea here goes back to a lot of my teleological worldview. I believe that there is an "end" for each and every person, that is, that is that there is a way of being which is fundamentally in line with our own natures. I identify that way of being with tao, the good life, righteousness and of course being moral. I have mentioned elsewhere that I believe this way of being can only be accessed or achieved by joining/submitting our lives to the life of Jesus, but that goes beyond the scope of this post. The point here is that I am keenly interested in morality because as far as I can tell, the "perfect" ethical system would essentially function as a description of the perfect, fulfilled way of being. It would describe the kind of life that anyone in his right mind would be desperate for once he heard it.
  Of course the problem is that we are not in our right minds most of the time. I point out to my students that 99% of the time, the right decision is pretty much obvious. The great peculiarity of human nature is that we are capable of choosing what is not in our own best interest. We are able to, and tragically often do, choose misery over joy. As Dr. Kreeft says, "We are nuts! Were crazy! We have all of these chances to choose Joy and so often we take misery instead; it didn't work out last time but maybe this time will be different".
  But I think most people (at least most of my students and many of the Christians I know) think of morality as a set of rules they have to obey or they will get in trouble. Sometimes the trouble is undefined and sometimes it is basically "God will be grumpy with you" with all that that may entail. I think most people think of morality as a burden to keep them from fun rather than the map to joy. Am I wrong, or have you found that to be the case?

Monday, June 6, 2011

And His Face did Shine as the Sun

Let me begin with a bit of a warning on this one. Well, two warnings actually. First, this is a reflection on something I know very little about and second, these are generally unfinished thoughts. As a result I am really craving responses to this post; both from those of you who know a good deal more about the topic than I do and from those of you who haven’t even heard of this way of thinking before. Am I going off the deep end? Have I even begun to understand the things I’m talking about? What would be a good next step to take?

About three years ago I watched a video at my pastor’s house. It had this guy talking about two ways of thinking about the spiritual life. He called them “bounded set” and “centered set” models. As I understand it, these models began as mathematical models (where as far as I know they still serve some great mathematical function) but someone (I’m still trying to track down who) worked out how to apply them as spiritual worldviews. (Update - According to Steven Hamilton, the model was developed as a theological/missiological outlook by Paul Hiebert at Fuller and then got into the vineyard movement through John Wimber)
I completely ripped this illustration off of  Dave Schmelzer's "Not the Religious Type" Blog. An excellent read and well worth visiting  

So if I understand correctly, the bounded set spiritual model views all people as divided into two camps (sets), in or out; and usually a person’s position in this model is determined by whether or not they have a sort of mental assent to some series of propositions. In usually means that the person will go to heaven some day and out means that they won’t.  The centered set approach denies the in/out distinction in favor of orientation. The important question in this model is whether or not a person is oriented towards the center (in my circles this means oriented towards Jesus). In my experience centered set people actually get a little confused when you ask them who is going to heaven; not because they want to dodge the issue but because the question is not the point  (they usually answer by pointing out that Jesus loves people and that loving Jesus is the point in life and well, it seems like people who love Jesus will probably be with Him forever and that sounds like heaven so…). In this model it is not so important to get people to cross lines and form new mental assent lists as it is to get people to notice and love Jesus, to orient their lives towards Him.

O.K. So I really like the centered set approach, at least I like it so far as I have understood it. I would have to say that as recently as 5/6 years ago I definitely had a bounded set worldview and that I am still trying to replace it with a centered set worldview in all parts of my life. That project is actually really difficult though, I find the old outlook always popping up in places I never thought to look for it.

And that was an enormous preamble but I think I needed it to set the stage for my recent thoughts about the centered set model.

One thing that strikes me about centered set thinking is that the center is really bright. Mathematically a center is a point.  And I think that that is appropriate. We believe in the God who is. The God who is more real than anything else, He is That from which reality is derived. He is personal and is a particular, so it makes sense that He would be represented by a point in this model.

But He is also very bright.

In my experience it is generally quite difficult to pick out the exact center of a dazzling light. And if Jesus is the Divine Light, so powerful and overwhelming  that looking directly at Him in even His full physical glory (to say nothing of the radiance of His full Being) generally causes people to fall down “as dead men” I imagine that picking out the exact center of His radiance is going to be decidedly difficult.

In terms of centered set modality, I think this means that as we draw nearer and nearer to Jesus we are going to have to be ever correcting. I suspect that we are going to be forever mis-identifying the center. I don’t think that it is especially hard at the outset to move in the right direction; the light is very bright and not too difficult to differentiate from darkness. In fact His light is so bright that I often find it shining into “other” philosophies, religions and “ways”, and many people have begun by seeing His light in those places, it is what gives them their spiritual attraction and glory.

So if we start out moving towards the light, we may be able to stay on our initial trajectory for some time, always pointing towards Jesus. But after a time, as our “eyes” begin to adjust to glory, as we begin to experience Him, we will generally find ourselves making corrections. What looked like it might have been the center keeps turning out to have been a little off course. And so we make a shift, in relational terms as we get to know Him better  (tanimak) we begin to know Him more fully (bilmek).  I think this explains the multitude of religions (far from the center) of churches and denominations (nearer the center) and of the variety of personal beliefs among the great saints and mystics who come so very close to God in this life. I think that it is what C.S. Lewis was describing when he talked about myth in the Perelandrea as "gleams of celestial beauty falling on a jungle of imbecility" or when the young Calormen recognized Aslan as the light he had been seeking under another name. This may also be why Jesus prayed so fervently “that they may be one, Father as You and I are one”. 

Nearer to the center we are closer together; there is unity; even if we arrive from different directions.