Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Raising Leaders by Lowering Standards

Here is some exciting news in the world of education. Harding University is proud to announce that if you are not up-to-snuff academically, you have nothing to fear. They will just make classes easier. In an effort to combat the plummeting test scores on general Bible exams, the university has decided to take what had previously been two classes (Old Testament and New Testament) and divide them up into four, slower-paced survey courses. Now you can spend twice as much time to learn the same amount of information, proving as usual that education on every level is habitually tailored to the needs of the lowest common denominator.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

In Other News

In perhaps the worst red herring maneuver in the history of religious PR, the Catholic Church is publicly wagging its finger at Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi for allegedly engaging in consensual, heterosexual intercourse with a prostitute. The AP reports that the pope has reminded public officials that it is their job to set a good moral example for the people.

And while the Vatican is busy ignoring its own faults, on the home front, Alabama governor Robert Bentley is left to apologize for...well, for telling the truth basically. (That is, after all, the cardinal sin of politics.) Reuters includes the following quote from the governor's incendiary speech delivered this past Monday:

But if you have been adopted in God's family like I have ... and if you're saved and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister...If we don't have the same daddy, we're not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother.

The governor of course backpedaled in the days that followed, apologizing for expressing this essentially universal Christian conviction in so inappropriate a venue as a church. Shame on him.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Ancient Idiom

I think I would like to read a study of ancient idioms, or at the very least have a catalog of such idioms. I think a reference material of that sort would have real (though limited) applications for scholarship. It may be that one exists, and if it doesn't I certainly wish it did. (If nothing else, it would make a very nice coffee table book for intellectual elitists and passive-aggressive snobs.)

I am reading through the letters of Gregory Akindynos in conjunction with my work on fourteenth century hesychasm, and, in the course of one of his letters to an unknown recipient, he writes, "In fact, I beleive that a man would have to be made of stone, if after associating with you even briefly, he does not become your friend..." I was immediately struck by the fact that the phrase "would have to be made of stone" had translated so well across chronological and cultural boundaries such that it should seem right at home in a modern text. My immediate suspicion was, I admit, that the translator had taken liberties with the text and translated an ancient idiom into a modern one. To my shock and delight, when I checked the Greek "made of stone" was right where it ought to be.

At the same time, in the next letter in the collection, addressed to the hieromonk Gregory, Akindynos writes, "You seem to be Egypt to me, as the saying goes." The two idioms placed in such close proximity (in this collection) was striking to me. If I think about it, I realize that the first is based on analogies to permanent features of reality (viz. the coldness and hardness of stone) while the latter is attached to transient cultural attitudes (viz. contemporary perceptions about Egypt). Still, that some cultural idioms should remain fresh and relevant through time while others become totally incomprehensible intrigues me.

(In case you were wondering, Akindynos thought the phrase "You seem to be Egypt to me" sufficiently ambiguous that he needed to explain it: "for you rarely produce something, but what you do produce is always something noble." I have my fingers crossed that "Egypt to me" makes its way back into the repertoire of modern idiom.)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" and Other Fictions of the Human Imagination

Our culture is obsessed with rights. In declaring our independence from Britain, the colonials enumerated the universal rights to which all people are entitled: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We believe (somewhat naively) that our whole society is founded on these rights, and we have used violations of these "universal" rights as the grounds for chastising, boycotting, and even invading other societies regardless of whether or not they share our conception of these rights. Moreover, Americans by virtue of their presence between, for the most part, 30 and 49 degrees north latitude have an extra endowment of Rights outline in our Bill of Rights. We can say what we want, worship what we want, own guns, and so much more.

But, if I may be presumptuous, God doesn't care about your rights. I dare say He doesn't even recognize them. Why should He? You didn't have a life before He made you, and no matter how much you claim the right to it, He can dispose of it as He wills without consulting you. He has no problem telling us that we cannot say what we want, that we cannot worship who we want, that we cannot shoot who we want if they are on the property that we "own." I will even go so far as to suggest that maybe God isn't bound by the Eight Amendment.

This all came up in a discussion of women's roles I am presently having with a non-believer. He is quite insistent that we cannot base rights on biology and that therefore women are entitled to preach. He is right, insofar as women are just as entitled to preach as men are. The whole concept of entitlement, and therefore rights, is totally foreign to the Christian religion. In the Christian system, you are not entitled to exist. God created you out of a free act of His loving will without compulsion or external influence of any kind. He didn't do it because you are entitled to it. He did it because He willed it. My views on the reality of free will aside, you aren't entitled to liberty either. In terms of sheer capability, He could have made you no less mindless than an ameoba. You certainly aren't entitled to pursue happiness, at least not apart from the ordained path of that pursuit.

Christianity is about surrender, more specifically about surrendering to a God who was first willing to surrender to us. The difference is, Christ's surrender was real. He was everything and became nothing. Our surrender is illusory. We give up only the pretension that we have anything on our own, that others and, more importantly, God owes us anything. The question of gender economics acts as a microcosm for the whole problem of Christianity and rights. The avant garde belief that ontological equality precludes economic particularity betrays that the whole issue has been clouded by a modern conception of rights. The idea that you are entitled to do or be certain things by virtue of some intrinsic value has led the church to believe that to "deny" women these "rights" is to somehow comment on their value. We have no value except that which divinely imputed to us, and we are entitled to absolutely nothing. Everything which we are or do respectively as distinct sexes--and, more generally, as created beings--is entirely gifted and directed by God. The very act of introducing "rights" into the discussion is a rebellion against our purpose.

Any intrusion of "right" into Christian practice should be excluded outright and replaced with more Christian concepts like duty or purpose or, God forbid, divine intentionality. If we treat others with dignity, it is not because they deserve to be treated with dignity, any more than you or I deserve to be treated with dignity (and if we reflect honestly on our own lives, I hope we will all see that we do not). We treat them that way because it is how God intended us to treat them so. If we intervene to correct injustice, it is not to prevent an affront against the abstract notion of universal rights. It is because we have a duty to a just God. Most importantly, we undermine the very nature of our salvation if we make a point of demanding our rights because we believe we are intrinsically valuable. Whatever value I have, I have by God's good pleasure and redeeming power. I and everything exist through His good will, are free through His good nature, and are happy through His good grace. Rights, so far as I am concerned, are an artificial fabrication of the human mind and a truly pernicious false god.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Darker Side of American Pregnancy

Continuing a trend, I found a New York Times article on infertility and abortion recommended in another blog and wanted to recommend it here as well. There are some startling statistics quoted in it which play into the writer's larger, grimmer picture of the state of pregnancy in our society. It is surprisingly low on bias and rhetoric, though all the while being starkly realistic about the status quo. I found the conclusion to be both true and, in its implications, disturbing:

This is the paradox of America’s unborn. No life is so desperately sought after, so hungrily desired, so carefully nurtured. And yet no life is so legally unprotected, and so frequently destroyed.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Salvation: Embracing a Means Without an End

In the course of an unrelated Internet search, I stumbled upon an interesting entry in another blog. The poster argues, with notable acuity, that positing a creative consciousness does not solve the problem of human purpose. In fact, he asserts, it leads inevitably to purposelessness. I agree with much of his reasoning, but there is one flaw which seems to undermine his ultimate conclusion. It is here:

If the extension of the question of purpose continues on in an infinite chain of reasons that all depend one each other, then there is no motivation for everything as that would imply an end to the chain of reasons.

I do not object, necessarily, to the suggestion that an infinite chain of dependent reasoning is flawed. I certainly doubt anyone would argue along the lines of his example that the creative consciousness created us like a nail to attach to boards and that the creative consciousness needed to nail the boards together to build a cosmic treehouse and that...ad infinitum. There is, however, an underlying problem with the reasoning, particularly the way the poster views concepts like "purpose."

The warrant for the entire argument seems to be that purpose can only exist if there is an end and that end is not fulfilled in creation. I would argue that the idea of an infinite being (which, for the sake of argument, we will assume the creative consciousness is lest we need to posit a further creative consciousness above each temporary one) precludes any ultimately finite ends. The purposes of creation would need to be infinite to correspond to the one purposing them. More importantly still, the suggestion that an endless purpose lacks motivational force seems to be radically disconnected from the more basic elements of the human condition. Our thirst for purpose is infinite, and purposelessness runs contrary to our most deep-seated desires. Even if you want to argue that humanity has fabricated deity in order to construct a more transcendent purpose, that still reveals ultimately that we have an eternal desire for purpose that corresponds quite neatly to the prospect of an infinite purpose.

I realize that I am about to drift away from a critique of nihilism and into a sermon, but the application is necessary to demonstrate the viability of the Christian religion on this point. Properly understood, soteriology is the appropriation and actualization of an infinite purpose. In the Eastern tradition, salvation is spoken of as an infinite ascent into deifying light. It is a purpose which inexhaustibly renews itself, and thus indescribably fulfills the infinite human thirst for purpose.

In short, my objection to the aforementioned reasoning is that not only would an infinite being necessarily create with an endless purpose but the endlessness of that purpose corresponds well to humanity's desire for purpose such that there is no need to fear a lack of motivation.

Monday, January 10, 2011

An Encouraging Letter

While I was digging around for my quotes for Christmas, I stumbled upon this very interesting and encouraging letter from Pope Benedict to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. It was sent on Nov. 30, the feast day of St. Andrew, from whom the Constantinopolitan see claims to derive its apostolic authority, but as I found it around Christmas time I wanted to put off sharing it until after Epiphany. I would encourage you to read the whole document (it isn’t very long) by following the link above, but the following excerpt gives a good feel for the tenor of the letter:

In a world marked by growing interdependence and solidarity, we are called to proclaim with renewed conviction the truth of the Gospel and to present the Risen Lord as the answer to the deepest questions and spiritual aspirations of the men and women of our day.

If we are to succeed in this great task, we need to continue our progress along the path towards full communion, demonstrating that we have already united our efforts for a common witness to the Gospel before the people of our day. For this reason I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Your Holiness and to the Ecumenical Patriarchate for the generous hospitality offered last October on the island of Rhodes to the Delegates of the Catholic Episcopal Conferences of Europe who came together with representatives of the Orthodox Churches in Europe for the Second Catholic-Orthodox Forum on the theme "Church-State Relations: Theological and Historical Perspectives".

Your Holiness, I am following attentively your wise efforts for the good of Orthodoxy and for the promotion of Christian values in many international contexts. Assuring you of a remembrance in my prayers on this Feast of Saint Andrew the Apostle, I renew my good wishes for peace, well-being and abundant spiritual blessings to you and to all the faithful.

On the one hand, I realize that these sorts of political niceties are probably exchanged with shocking regularity between these two sees—not to mention other various Christian primates. Yet, on the other hand, having directed so much of my academic pursuits toward the late medieval period (when mutual excommunications were flying, Catholic were sacking Constantinople, and the Orthodox populous were rioting in response to overly-conciliatory plans for reunion) it seems to me that even political nicety, however devoid of substance it may or may not be, is a considerable step for these two great, historic churches.