The Many and the Gone

Paul VanderKlay writes
“Pluralism, both contemporary and historical pushes us into skepticism.

Really? Isn’t this just a longing for Christendom by another name? It seems that the early church lived in pretty much of a pluralistic culture. The problem today is that while we live with our separate worldviews, we now have a different  emperor, a different encompassing narrative. It’s the emperor that you want to pay attention to.

Greeks and barbarians live cheek by jowl. The first deacons were Hellenist. The post-NT culture is rife with separate cultural frameworks, some like the Palestinian Ebonites got called out and expelled. But really, Alexandria thinks one way, Athens another, Damascus a third etc.
Our challenge is how to live across those gaps between different worldviews, different religions. The road is filled with their shrines.
Spiritually, the question of skepticism ties into narratives of the self, and especially of the self’! s knowledge, our tacit epistemology. There are two Christian responses: the self must die (that’s Benedict) and the smoldering wick is not snuffed.

That Smokin’ Hot Wife

There’s a meme  floating through the Evangelical church that wants to celebrate marriage, especially the physical and sexual. But the gift of bodily reality is easily seized by culture — in our sexualized culture, how could it not be? Mary De Muth explores some of the problems at Her•meneutics, “I’m Sick of Hearing About Your Smoking Hot Wife.

In another day, this entire business about “Smokin’ Hot Wife”would be labeled worldliness. At its core lies a certain turn of thought, an understanding of  sexuality as integral to personal well-being. As a married Christian I deserve good sex, so to speak; or, we were made for sex, etc.  And it’s not that Calvinists have stood on the sidelines here. We pretty regularly think of sex as a creational good. But at least for Evangelicals, such a stance is a trap: once you start there, you have basically surrendered on young adult sexuality (think of Tim Keller’s warning), especially given the conflict of the times, on homosexuality. If sex is fundamental to human well-being than prohibitions of all sorts start collapsing.

But that shift in stances, of course, is only the start.

DeMuth herself notes in passing the basic male privilege of it all, the sort that only rubs salt into the psychic wounds of women who have been abused.

And finally, there is the problem of time. The understanding of humanity as sexual creates an artificial narrative of constant sexual availability throughout one’s life. But of course, our libido does ebb and flow, Viagra not withstanding.

In a Christian understanding, sexuality is less the content of the relationship than its  context. This Age’s idolatry of the physical limits our freedom to be for others, and it certainly blinds us to the role (and acceptance) of time.

Faith in the military

Paul VanderKlay picked up on an interesting essay by Frank Bruni in  the New York Times. Does religion and specifically, Evangelical  Christianity, play too big a role in the military and generally in civic life? Clearly for Bruni, the answer is yes. He desires a God-free space, an American laicite . Whatever our love for things French or for simply the NYT, this is nonetheless an awkward issue for Calvinists who believe that all life belongs to God. But the underlying issue is important, particularly as it applies to the military.

When Blake Page, a fourth-year cadet at West Point packed his bags and left, less than six months shy of graduation, in protest of what he portrayed as a bullying, discriminatory religiousness at the military academy, we have a problem. An Evangelical problem.

To extent that they form a distinct social group within a military, this is a point of caution. Indeed, in one sense, it is entirely natural: the Evangelical sub-culture is among the most disposed to the military, to sending its sons and daughters to serve. So they naturally compose a disproportionate portion of the service. And this is actually a spiritual as much as a political problem. To serve, one must die to self, to the presumptions of one’s own culture.

There is also a civic danger, as well, that of mistaking the particular for the common good.

The framing of military duty by pre-existing social identities is not only a threat to individuals serving but ultimately to civil society, as well. At least civil society that aspires to be broadly democratic.

 

Christian nation? What could go wrong?

Part of a continuing discussion on a video about America as Christian nation, Paul VanderKlay writes

There isn’t any question that the US is inextricably linked to Christian culture in the west and the development of political thought that formed the US has heavy Christian influence. It is also the case that the US was deeply impacted by the Great Awakenings.

The problem with the Christian nation meme is not that of culture, but of priestcraft. Some one must go out and determine the nature of “christian” and so of the correct understanding of the phrase “Christian Nation.” Who does the interpreting makes all the difference. Even in the court case, the term Christianity was understood in a rather watered down form, viz. what appeals to all men of reason (so likely including the Unitarians). It’s kept loose so as to not obligate any one denomination. Now if we want to go beyond that vague civil religious we must necessarily have a Christian interpreter to properly determine the bounds of this “Christianity”. Rather obviously, that cannot be secular courts. So to make the idea work one needs something approximately like a set of Christian experts (a Sanhedrin? mullahs?) perhaps, whose determination sets the boundary for the nation.

In short, if you want a Christianity that is more than watered down congregationalism, you end up with installing something like a national church. And given the religious census, any appeal to a Christian nation tradition pretty soon ends up at Rome and not at the Baptist church at the crossroads.

Since we don’t know which Christian tradition ought to be normative, the founders were right to adopt a neutrality, a vagueness about the actual religious meaning of “Christian.” Let the denominational ideas duke it out and keep them out of the government.

And of course, by the court standard President Obama is eminently a Christian.  And if you twist doctrine enough, so too, is that Mormon fellow.

Greed and Capitalism, Part 2

[This is the second of two essay-notes on Greg Foster’s article  at The Gospel Coalition}

Paul VanderKlay highlights the same paragraph noted in the previous post:

Capitalism has not flourished most where there was a spirit of greed. It has flourished most where there was a spirit of stewardship—a sense that we are responsible to make the world a better place. That—not greed—is what produces a capitalism that thrives.

As far as I can tell, Foster  is actually arguing for something close to an “Optimal Capitalism”, a capitalism that works best. From his viewpoint, when capitalism has worked best it has done so by being grounded in a moral viewpoint. The utilitarianism that governs the transactional side (that is, the self-interest of the actors) rests on pre-existing moral assumptions. This is obviously not a stable relationship. Indeed, the historical difficulty is that the very nature of utilitarianism tends to erode this set of moral assumptions (religious or otherwise), as one can read in the hesitation of Christians throughout the 19th Century on the role of money and enterprise, Christians both leading enterprises and those in the Church.

But if the author is arguing for an Optimal Capitalism then he is likewise advancing a moral critique of current practices, assuming that present work is not especially optimal. Now an interesting question underway would be what determines this optimal outcome. What well-being are we striving for? Again, the business of utilitarianism and the “doctrinal” neutrality of business practices seems to recreate the conflict. Can moral precepts function as a boundary to capitalist endeavors? Is there some set of moral bright lines that ought not be crossed?

That is, if we assume the following, what then is our critique? How do we put boundaries on this behavior? What cultural or moral truths are evading?

Our political system has adopted many policies and practices that incentivize materialism, exploitation, and crony capitalism.

Lastly, I found that there was a certain drift to optimism that would be experientially unwarranted. The underlying notion of most market economies is that they are self regulating through competition. Yet at the same time we also find two sets of easily observed phenomena: the regular collusion among the actors led by their own self interest; and secondly the distribution of success along Pareto’s lines (the so-called 80-20 rule, where 20 percent do 80 percent of the business). Both limit the effective role of competition as self-regulation. Cooperation and co-option seem more the order of the day.

Ruin Porn

Paul VanderKlay ran across an interesting (and highly attractive) book, The Ruins of Detroit. As authors Yves Marchand and  Romain Meffre  explain

Detroit, industrial capital of the XXth Century, played a fundamental role shaping the modern world. The logic that created the city also destroyed it. Nowadays, unlike anywhere else, the city’s ruins are not isolated details in the urban environment. They have become a natural component of the landscape. Detroit presents all archetypal buildings of an American city in a state of mummification. Its splendid decaying monuments are, no less than the Pyramids of Egypt, the Coliseum of Rome, or the Acropolis in Athens, remnants of the passing of a great Empire.

Since this book (2010) the view has become even more commonplace. It should be noted, this is a vision despised by Detroiters themselves.

VanderKlay reflects

I can understand how Detroiters don’t appreciate the CNN perspective on their city. At the same time what it reminds me of is Paterson in the 70s where the “ruins” were 19th century but similar.

To me it is emblematic of Mary’s Song

The book in question is almost the definition of ruin porn. It is a kind of gaze, a pharisaical, “thank G-d we’re not like them” sort of look. It’s an outside narrative. So Detroit becomes a kind of playground of images, as if this story of abandonment and destruction were the sole story. Naturally, on the ground the view is somewhat different. There’s an anger at the outsider,  a self-contempt or even a perverse pride. But for many the inside narrative is more on the line of the verse, “For your people love every stone in her walls and cherish even the dust in her streets” (Ps 102:14). What is remarkable is that the implosion has actually brought people back into the city. A couple of places to catch up with that vision is with the blog Sweet Juniper  — read the posts tagged “detroit” for a feel. Or just go off and watch this video, Detroit Bike City.

Another place to look, is  Lemonade:Detroit

It is not that the city has not be savaged, but that such destruction is not the final word. The shape of hope is surprisingly personal. Like all hope, it is one at the individual level, at the stepping out, at the turning to the task in front of us. When we put another narrative in front of us, when we let others determine how we will live our lives because of their narrative (oh, you poor thing you live in ruins), we surrender ourselves. Hope restores us to ourselves. So even the very stones can again come together into something better.