Forever Young

N.B. This is the latest addition in my “old man yells at crowd” theme. I am a cantankerous old soul.

Social media exploded as an international and cross-generational phenomenon in the late-aughts. We began to see more and more people embrace these platforms, being offered as public-private diaries, with many choosing to air online their grievances and exultations for their circles of acquaintances. Even now, I can’t help but be embarrassed frequently by the posts I thought were appropriate for the medium during my high school years; I frequently make use of Facebook’s “Delete Your Post” option on my youthful indiscretions. All that to say, in our naïveté we assumed our digital footprints would wash away with the tide of time, only to find after a decade that, no, all those silly posts still exist.

One additional aspect of social media’s dawn is less playful. (Note: whatever I say in the text to come has already been said better and before in this Boston Magazine piece, which appeared while I ruminated on this topic.) As social media’s reach expanded over time, and as this expansion coincided with my own formative, transitional years from high school through college, the experience of stumbling across informal death notices, i.e., twenty or thirty of my friends posting fond remembrances of the dearly departed, became more frequent. I don’t know whether there’s a statistical uptick in deaths of those who are between the ages of 15 – 24; in fact, data suggest the opposite. My perception was that deaths became an unwelcome intrusion into the normal rhythm of life. Perhaps the perceived increase is the result of our college years being the time in which we experienced our greatest increase in the size of our social circle. Another factor is surely that the statistical irregularity of a teenager’s or young adult’s death invites us to see ourselves in the uncommon occurrence.

In any event, unexpectedly, social media became not merely one’s corner of personal expression but also the place where others publicly mourn your death, inasmuch as a social media page is a public space. Whether in lieu of attending a funeral or reaching out to the bereaved, or perhaps accompanying those interpersonal acts, posting digital eulogies grew more prevalent over time–the result being that we were often seemingly the last aware of an acquaintance’s (or, worse, a friend’s) death.

I find social media an intensely harmful aspect of modern life; I’m not sure I could be more down on the phenomenon. Social media tends to reinforce our disposition to be incurvatus in se–turned in toward our self. We are naturally obsessed with ourselves, and social media exacerbates this problem by rewarding vanity, even vanity in the form of performative eulogies. How does this pertain to the grieving process?

Our capacity to grieve (and for grief!)[1] is limited within and around us by our digital landscape. Our ability to grieve well depends in part on the support system surrounding us, but the degree to which we have replaced our embodied connections with digital networks is the degree to which we have hampered our ability to grieve properly–that is, in a manner commensurate with our natural capacities and needs. Public-private diaries, and the rapidity with which the algorithm dispenses our posts, work against the slow, difficult, tremulous process of grief. I am three years removed and still processing the loss of my nephews, for example, though I have no expectation of “getting over” their deaths and have been reticent to grieve online.

Regardless, in addition to smothering our process for grief, the digital age places triggers or mechanisms for grief at our fingertips, in some cases catching us unaware, as when we forget the anniversary of somebody’s death and Facebook gently reminds us of the death notice from a previous year. Whereas earlier generations may have photographs or memorabilia of the departed about, that at least would have to be physically hunted for, while the deaths of our friends and family were commemorated online, and in at least a few instances their online profiles are still available, a few clicks away. They are perpetually memorialized in the recollection of their closest friends and family, who either recycle the deceased’s self-presentation (i.e., the pictures they themselves used online) or reuse their own digital pictures of the deceased from happier times. In either case, as grievers process through a medium that explicitly works against grief, the grieved-for can be caricatured into their own self-presentation:  the most readily available images of the deceased are the images they themselves chose for the public, which are (for most of us) chosen because they appeal to our vanity, and this modeled persona, our being-for-others, becomes our postmortem instantiation in the world. Whether it is simply so that we become our remembrance after death, I’m uncertain, but the particular way in which the self-manufactured digital self becomes or comes to replace others’ perceptions of self is especially problematic, inasmuch as incurvatus and being-for-others becomes coextensive.

The comparative perpetual youth of our deceased friends and family, as they appear to us “younger than they ought,” disallows our grief, insofar as we fail to grapple with distention and decay. I’m reminded of Agee’s A Death in the Family, a semi-autobiographical account of a boy’s grappling with his father’s death. The father’s family remarks throughout the work how full of vigor he was, but it’s the presentation of the corpse at the family home that finally silences the groaning. The reality of the corpse undoes the idealistic portrait of their minds.

Nevertheless, I don’t want to continue bemoaning this phenomenon. We would do well to divorce our selves, our digital selves, and our self-conceptions; that polygamy serves nobody when the end has come. What could be done? Short of utterly obliterating the digital space–a wholly unrealistic expectation? I would suggest we entirely remove the deceased from “public spaces” and construct a kind of digital graveyard, as morbid as it sounds. These already exist, but more often than not they’re behind paywalls. With social media’s ever-increasing reach into our lives, however, we run the risk of obliterating somebody’s existence, at least as far as their acquaintances are concerned, because their existence is constituted by their digital presence.

With respect to the grief process, it would undoubtedly be healthier for most of us to refuse to grieve online. Is there a healthy way to grieve online? I’m not sure, but I don’t believe there is.

[1] It’s a contentious position, but I’m partial to the idea that technology–particularly social media–harms our ability to process our emotions appropriately, whether through rewarding vices or through curtailing the process required to process well.


The Priest, the Dog, and the Silent God: Selections from Shūsaku Endō’s Silence

I watched Martin Scorsese’s take on Shūsaku Endō’s Silence a few weeks ago, and I immediately checked the book out from the library to read the source material. It’s as moving as the cinematic version. This was my first exposure to Endō. His is certainly an expressive style of writing–terse, action-oriented but deep in the narrator’s psyche, overwhelmingly religious (unsurprising, considering the narrator).

The following are a few selections from the book. I won’t waste many words contextualizing the scenes. They speak for themselves.

First, Rodrigues has been imprisoned but has come face to face again with his thorn in the flesh. Kichijirō, who helped ferry Rodrigues and Garrpe from Macao to Japan, had apostatized in the past, when the persecution broke out in earnest, only to return and to repent and then to apostatize again, betraying Rodrigues to the magistrate, who has imprisoned Rodrigues:

When the man looked toward the priest, their eyes met. It was Kichijirō. For a moment a spasm of fear cross that face and Kichijirō retreated backwards a few steps.

‘Father!’ His voice was like the whining of a dog. ‘Father! Listen to me!’

The priest withdrew his face from the window and tried to block his ears against the sound of that voice. How could he ever forget the dried fish, the burning thirst in his throat. Even if he tried to forgive the fellow, he could not drive from his memory the hatred and anger that lurked there.

‘Father! father!’ The entreating voice continued like that of a child pleading with its mother.

‘Won’t you listen to me, father! I’ve kept deceiving you. Since you rebuked me I began to hate you and all the Christians. Yes, it is true that I trod on the holy image. Mokichi and Ichizo were strong. I can’t be strong like them.’

… The priest closed his eyes and began to recite the Credo. He felt a sense of joy in being able to abandon this whimpering fellow in the rain. Even though Christ prayed, Judas hanged himself in the field of blood–and had Christ prayed for Judas? There was nothing about that in the Scriptures; and even if there was, he could not put himself into such a frame of mind as to be able to do likewise. In any case, to what extent could the fellow be trusted? He was looking for pardon; but this perhaps was no more than a passing moment of excitement.

… ‘Father, father!’ Seeing that the priest had come to the prison, Kichijirō was again pleading in the darkness. ‘Let me confess my sins and repent!’

The priest had no right to refuse the sacrament of penance to anyone. If a person asked for the sacrament, it was not for him to concede or refuse according to his own feelings. He raised his hand in blessing, uttered dutifully the prescribed prayer and put his ear close to the other. As the foul breath was wafted into his face, there in the darkness the vision of the yellow teeth and the crafty look floated before his eyes.

‘Listen to me, father,’ Kichijirō whimpered in a voice that the other Christians could hear. ‘I am an apostate, but if I had died ten years ago I might have gone to paradise as a good Christian, not despised as an apostate. Merely because I live in a time of persecution . . . I am sorry.’

‘But do you still believe?’, asked the priest, doing his best to put up with the foul stench of the other’s breath. ‘I will give you absolution, but I cannot trust you. I cannot understand why you have come here.’

Heaving a deep sigh and searching for words of explanation, Kichijirō shifted and shuffled. The stench of his filth and sweat was wafted toward the priest. Could it be possible that Christ loved and searched after this dirtiest of men? In evil there remained that strength and beauty of evil; but this Kichijirō was not even worthy to be called evil. He was thin and dirty like the tattered rags he wore. Suppressing his disgust, the priest recited the final words of absolution, and then, following the established custom, he whispered, ‘Go in peace.’ With all possible speed getting away from the stench of that mouth and that body, he returned to where the Christians were.

No, no. Our Lord had searched out the ragged and the dirty. Thus he reflected as he lay in bed. Among the people who appeared in the pages of the Scripture, those whom Christ had searched after in love were the woman of Capharnaum with the issue of blood, the woman taken in adultery whom men had wanted to stone–people with no attraction, no beauty. Anyone could be attracted by the beautiful and the charming. But could such attraction be called love? True love was to accept humanity when wasted like rags and tatters. Theoretically the priest knew all this; but still he could not forgive Kichijirō. Once again near his face came the face of Christ, wet with tears. When the gentle eyes looked straight into his, the priest was filled with shame.[1]

Second, in the immediate wake of Kichijirō again apostatizing and the martyrdom of a Christian prisoner. Rodrigues is stunned by the silent stillness of god after these events:

The white rays of the sun beat down dazzlingly on the open courtyard. Beneath its merciless rays there lay on the ground the black dye which was the blood from the body of the one-eyed man.

Just as before, the cicadas kept on singing their song, dry and hoarse. There was not a breath of wind. Just as before, a fly kept buzzing around the priest’s face. In the world outside there was no change. A man had died; but there was no change.

‘So it has come to this. . . .’ He shivered as he clutched the bars. ‘So it has come to this. . . .’

Yet his perplexity did not come from the event that had happened so suddenly. What he could not understand was the stillness of the courtyard, the voice of the cicadas, the whirling wings of the flies. A man had died. Yet the outside world went on as if nothing had happened. Could anything be more crazy? Was this martyrdom? Why are you silent? Here this one-eyed man has died–and for you. You ought to know. Why does this stillness continue? This noonday stillness. The sound of the flies–this crazy thing, this cruel business. And you avert your face as though indifferent. This . . . this I cannot bear.

Kyrie Eleison! Lord, have mercy! His trembling lips moved a while in prayer, but the words faded from his lips. Lord, do not abandon me anymore! Do not abandon me in this mysterious way. Is this prayer? For a long time I have believed that prayer is uttered to praise and glorify you; but when I speak to you it seems as though I only blaspheme. On the day of my death, too, will the world go relentlessly on its way, indifferent just as now? After I am murdered, will the cicadas sing and the flies whirl their wings inducing sleep? Do I want to be as heroic as that? And yet, am I looking for the true, hidden martyrdom or just for a glorious death? Is it that I want to be honored, to be prayed to, to be called a saint?

Third, Rodrigues has now found the apostate priest whom he went to Japan in search of. Ferreira convinces Rodrigues to commit the “formality” of apostasy, to step on the fumie, in order to show mercy and love to the suffering prisoners near them. On their way to the fumie,

‘You are now going to perform the most painful act of love that has ever been performed,’ said Ferreira, taking the priest gently by the shoulder.

Swaying as he walked, the priest dragged his feet along the corridor. Step by step he made his way forward, as if his legs were bound by heavy leaden chains–and Ferreira guided him along. In the gentle light of the morning, the corridor seemed endless; but there at the end stood the interpreter and two guards, looking just like three black dolls.

‘Sawano, is it over? Shall we get out the fumie?’ As he spoke the interpreter put on the ground the box he was carrying and, opening it, he took out a large wooden plaque.

‘Now you are going to perform the most painful act of love that has ever been performed.’ Ferreira repeated his former words gently. ‘Your brethren in the Church will judge you as they have judged me. But there is something more important than the Church, more important than missionary work: what you are now about to do.’

The fumie is now at his feet.

A simple copper medal is fixed on to a grey plank of dirty wood on which the grains run like little waves. Before him is the ugly face of Christ, crowned with thorns and the thin, outstretched arms. Eyes dimmed and confused the priest silently looks down at the face which he now meets for the first time since coming to this country.

‘Ah,’ says Ferreira. ‘Courage!’

‘Lord, since long, long ago, innumerable times I have thought of your face. Especially since coming to this country have I done so tens of times. When I was in hiding in the mountains of Tomogi; when I crossed over in the little ship; when I wandered in the mountains; when I lay in prison at night . . . Whenever I prayed your face appeared before me; when I was alone I thought of your face imparting a blessing; when I was captured your face as it appeared when you carried your cross gave me life. This face is deeply ingrained in my soul–the most beautiful, the most precious thing in the world has been living in my heart. And now with this foot I am going to trample on it.’

The first rays of the dawn appear. The light shines on his long neck stretched out like a chicken and upon the bony shoulders. The priest grasps the fumie with both hands bringing it close to his eyes. He would like to press to his own face that face trampled on by so many feet. With saddened glance he stares intently at the man in the center of the fumie, worn down and hollow with the constant trampling. A tear is about to fall from his eye. ‘Ah,’ he says trembling, ‘the pain!’

‘It is only a formality. What do formalities matter?’ The interpreter urges him on excitedly. ‘Only go through with the exterior form of trampling.’

The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’

The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.[3]

Finally, Rodrigues has been remanded to a house away from the people in Kobinatacho, to live as husband to a widowed woman. His thorn in the flesh appears yet again:

‘Father, I betrayed you. I trampled on the picture of Christ,’ said Kichijirō with tears. ‘In this world are the strong and the weak. The strong never yield to torture, and they go to Paradise; but what about those, like myself, who are born weak, those who, when tortured and ordered to trample on the sacred image . . .’

I, too, stood on the sacred image. For a moment this foot was on his face. It was on the face of the man who has been ever in my thoughts, on the face that was before me on the mountains, in my wanderings, in prison, on the best and most beautiful face that any man can ever know, on the face of him whom I have always longed to love. Even now that face is looking at me with eyes of pity from the plaque rubbed flat by many feet. ‘Trample!’ said those compassionate eyes. ‘Trample! Your foot suffers in plain; it must suffer like all the feet that have stepped on this plaque. But that pain alone is enough. I understand your pain and your suffering. It is for that reason that I am here.’

‘Lord, I resented your silence.’

‘I was not silent. I suffered beside you.’

‘But you told Judas to go away: What thou dost do quickly. What happened to Judas?’

‘I did not say that. Just as I told you to step on the plaque, so I told Judas to do what he was going to do. For Judas was in anguish as you now are.’

He had lowered his foot on to the plaque, sticky with dirt and blood. His five toes had pressed upon the face of one he loved. Yet he could not understand the tremendous onrush of joy that came over him at that moment.

‘There are neither the strong nor the weak. Can anyone say that the weak do not suffer more than the strong?’ The priest spoke rapidly, facing the entrance. ‘Since in this country there is now no one else to hear your confession, I will do it. . . . Say the prayers after confession. . . . Go in peace!’[4]

Both book and film are unnerving experiences. There’s a lot to think about here.

[1] Endō, Shūsaku. Silence. Trans. William Johnston (New York: Picador Modern Classics, 1969), 122-4.

[2] Ibid, 127-8.

[3] Ibid, 182-3.

[4] Ibid, 202-3.

The Polarity of Freedom and Destiny

I’ve noted before the appeal of existential philosophy on the basis of the seriousness with which it treats human decision. Our decisions and our choices are really our decisions and our choices. There is no externality, to which we can point, that can absolve us. We have chosen to act in one manner or the other, and we must own the consequences of that decision. De Beauvoir rightly points out that this predicament is exacerbated–not mitigated–if we were to assume the “death of god.” In such a scenario, we are radically “abandoned” to our own lives; “if God does not exist, man’s faults are inexpiable.”

Of course, this existential position tends to undercut another tradition within which I grew up. I was raised in a Christian tradition which was, while not explicitly Calvinistic, certainly assumed prominent features of Calvinist theology, particularly the hypotheses of god’s foreknowledge and active predestination. These assumptions were more so drawn out as I transitioned to high school and college, as one would expect, and they were reinforced by the upsurge of the “young, restless, and reformed” movement, which was marked by a new fascination with Augustine, Calvin, and Edwards on the basis of recommendations from people like Piper, Driscoll, and Chandler.

These two different threads ran together in my atmosphere and collided toward the end of my collegiate career, leaving me a bit confused. I wanted to hold on to our radical responsibility (a radical responsibility now, in some measure, mitigated) while at the same time maintaining a quote-unquote orthodox Calvinism. You don’t try to balance antinomies for long before one of them gives.

Tillich was likely the first serious attempt I came across to incorporate the existential structures of our being into a Christian conception of the world. Although I had read some Kierkegaard and some Dostoevsky, neither of these were afforded the privilege of writing downstream from existential philosophy; they were forebears.  Tillich, on the other hand, arose in the height of the existential movement and was thus able to incorporate its insights into “Dasein”.

In his Systematic Theology, Tillich described the human condition as one consisting of a number of “polarities,” features of “being” which pull us in opposite directions, as it were–a nod to the basic dialectical structure of reality. These polarities are understood as contrasting pairs of forces:  subjectivity vs. objectivity, form vs. dynamics, and freedom vs. destiny.

The polarity of freedom and destiny speaks most directly to the entanglement of existential philosophy and a robust conception of god’s will. If god wills that history unfold in a certain manner, how can the means through which this was accomplished be held ethically responsible? People amount to puppets. On the other hand, if we are radically responsible for our actions, there is no recourse, no external force upon which we can shift the blame of our actions; there can have been no god who forced our hand.

For Tillich, what is basic to humanity is living under the structures of the polarities he mentioned, including the polarity of freedom and destiny. That is to say, to be human is to live by means of freedom mitigated by destiny and to live by means of destiny mitigated by freedom. Humans are a kind of in-between creature–with a true subjectivity but still objectified, lacking the perfection of freedom that belongs to god himself but not utterly destined like a mere thing:

Our destiny is that out of which our decisions arise; it is the indefinitely broad basis of our centered selfhood; it is the concreteness of our being which makes all our decisions our decisions. When I make a decision, it is the concrete totality of everything that constitutes my being which decides, not an epistemological subject. This refers to body structure, psychic strivings, spiritual character. It includes the communities to which I belong, the past unremembered and remembered, the environment which has shaped me, the world which has made an impact on me. It refers to all my former decisions. Destiny is not a strange power which determines what shall happen to me. It is myself as given, formed by nature, history, and myself. My destiny is the basis of my freedom; my freedom participates in shaping my destiny.

Only he who has freedom has a destiny. Things have no destiny because they have no freedom. God has no destiny because he is freedom. The word ‘destiny’ points to something which is going to happen to someone; it has an eschatological connotation. This makes it qualified to stand in polarity with freedom. It points not to the opposite of freedom but rather to its conditions and limits. Fatum (‘that which is foreseen’) or Schicksal (‘that which is sent’), and their English correlate ‘fate,’ designate a simple contradiction to freedom rather than a polar correlation, and therefore they hardly can be used in connection with the ontological polarity under discussion. But even the deterministic use of these words usually leaves a place for freedom; one has the possibility of accepting his fate or of revolting against it. Strictly speaking, this means that only he who has this alternative has a fate. And to have this alternative means to be free.

Since freedom and destiny constitute an ontological polarity, everything that participates in being must participate in this polarity. But man, who has a complete self and a world, is the only being who is free in the sense of deliberation, decision, and responsibility. Therefore, freedom and destiny can be applied to subhuman nature only by way of analogy; this parallels the situation with respect to the basic ontological structure and the other ontological polarities.[1]

There’s obviously a lot to unpack here, but I’ll save some of those thoughts for a later date. I keep returning and returning to Tillich. We’ll get back to these themes eventually.

[1] Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology, Volume 1 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951), 184-5.

The Scylla and Charybdis of Bourgeois Theology: Charting a Course

Intelligence Squared: US is a debate-style podcast that centers around one motion under investigation. Typically, IQ2US (their preferred shorthand referent) doesn’t put out content that’s particularly interesting. There are a lot of episodes on economics and global politics which, while important, are boring as far as I’m concerned.

A few weeks ago, however, I finally listened to the debate surrounding the motion “The More We Evolve, the Less We Need God.” Two pairs debated each other, one side arguing for the motion and the other against. In favor of the motion were neuroscientist Heather Berlin and “public intellectual” Michael Shermer. Against the motion were Deepak Chopra, well-known in part because of his spiritual relationship to Oprah, and physician Anoop Kumar.

This debate was an enlightening exchange for a number of reasons, but the reason I want to key in on relies not so much on the minutiae of argumentation but on the general spheres that the two sides represent. IQ2US will typically put a question to task and assign respondents who, in large measure, represent widely held beliefs in respect to the motion under review. That is to say, you can rely on IQ2US to put people on stage to represent the majority-held “horns” of the argument; rare is the radical. Of course, the accepted field of debate for IQ2US’s audience will be different than for the general American audience, but we will look at that more in a moment.

Their tendency to use mainstream spokespersons is what made this particular debate so interesting. On the one side, you have a pair of strict materialists. The neuroscientist and the skeptic both argue that there can be no god–and no use thereof–because there is no immateriality. Consciousness, even–that intending-toward which demarcates humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom–is the result of the bio-neurological processes of the brain. One will eventually explain all things through the rigorous analyses of the sciences, and to revert to god-talk is merely to make use of a “god of the gaps,” an unacceptable acquiescence to ignorance. All fairly mundane, as far as scientism is concerned, and representative of a growing cultural trend.

On the other side, you had Deepak Chopra, famous “new age”[1] doctor and occasional dabbler in metaphysics. (Kumar’s contributions to the structure of the debate were relatively minor, and they can safely be subsumed under Chopra’s larger project.) Chopra defines from the beginning what is meant by the word “god” when he and Kumar speak of god. “God” is “the consciousness in which all experience occurs.” Consciousness/god is the potentiality and actuality of every and all experience. There is no external being who stands beyond experience; “god” is, to abuse Tillichian terms, “the ground of experience.” There can only be god qua consciousness, potential and actual. Succinctly:  “God is our highest instinct to know ourselves.” Through consciousness and through it alone, we know ourselves.

Now, to explain the title. There’s a point in The Odyssey wherein Odysseus must make a choice:  be willing give up six men to death or risk losing his entire ship. He’s to pass through the Strait of Messina, and on one side is the six-headed monster Scylla, who will snatch six sailors at will–and if you tarry, she’ll snatch six more. On the other side of the strait, a sea monster named Charybdis would appear three times a day, destroying everything within her reach at these points. There would be no escape were you to be caught in Charybdis’s terror. Odysseus chooses the guaranteed loss of six versus the potential loss of his ship and crew in toto.

Along the lines of our phrase “between a rock and a hard place” or “on the horns of a dilemma,” the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” has come to represent choosing the less-worse of two awful options. Treading a middle ground would not do; you’re as likely to wreck on both accounts simultaneously than to avoid either. As far as IQ2US is concerned, the horns of this dilemma (what is god, and what is its use?) are simple:  god is either a wholly irrelevant myth or merely the sum total of all consciousness.

With reference to Christian orthodoxy, neither one of these options are appealing. Fortunately, I would wager that the popular understandings of god have not yet devolved there. The ideas articulated by Chopra and Berlin are still too radical for most. Elements of strict materialism or vacuous new age mysticism may be incorporated into popular thought, but they won’t be assimilated wholesale for some time.

Nevertheless, history seems to demonstrate that the ideas fermented in the upper echelons of culture tend to trickle down. For the moment, Berlin and Chopra’s projects are limited broadly to the bourgeois strata of our society:  well-educated, self-satisfied, little experience with material poverty. Such an environment breeds a view of god which strips the divine either of substance or of existence. Who needs a god in the comforts of wealth? The American upper classes have determined either that god does not exist or that god’s existence derives solely from our experience of consciousness; making your way through the middle of the strait merely invites an attack from both sides.

These are the Scylla and Charybdis of bourgeois theology. These are the relative positions of debate. Because this is the case, we need to consider developing an articulation of theology that broaches one or the other construction in order to speak intelligibly to the culture. It’s no secret that the nation’s Christian heritage[2] is withering, which means that the cultural cache of Christian thought can no longer be relied on to create common ground. To borrow again from Tillich, we must develop an apologetic theology that takes seriously the location and direction of our culture’s theology.

In hopes of not stretching the metaphor too far, we should wonder which bourgeois position corresponds to the Scylla and which to the Charybdis. That is to say, which threatens the destruction of Christian doctrine wholesale, and which merely threatens certain aspects? It may be the case that both positions are so threatening that we have no other choice but to remain aloof, in a certain sense, to the dangers that loom on either side. However, that would have to be a last-case scenario, having exhausted all other options. Such a posture bespeaks the fundamentalist impulse of any theology worth considering; it’s Balin’s Tomb.

Grant that we have an obligation to consider one side or the other. Which side risks a total loss? Which risks less? For my money, I’m far more wary of Chopra than Berlin. As much as Dawkins- and Harris-inspired ideologues drive me insane (which is what Shermer seems to represent), Chopra’s project would do far more lasting damage to future attempts at theologizing and evangelism. By Chopra’s radical redefinition of god as the ground of experience, he maintains a spiritual flair to “god” while at the same time utterly stripping “god” of anything transcendent. I have found myself closer to Berlin in certain respects,[3] and I’m fairly certain that we can articulate a post-materialist theology more easily than a post-rudderless-mysticism theology. We can’t forget, however, that whichever route we choose will be fraught with hazards. Obviously, neither position are ideal carriers of Christian theology, but I do not believe that we are at the point where we must revert (a la Dreher) to strictly Christian communities and raise the drawbridge. Because these positions are still largely restricted to the higher classes, the church has some time to prepare adequate responses for whatever form materialism and new age mysticism may take in popular culture.

[1] Whenever you read “new age,” whether here or elsewhere, you can substitute “bastardized concepts of Buddhism and Hinduism in a Western context,” and you won’t be far off.

[2] Don’t read more into the phrase than intended. The predominant religious and cultural influence in this nation has been some version of Christianity, and only an ideologue would bother denying this. This historical foundation has been eroding for generations, and the erosion has accelerated of late. That is our “new normal,” and it is not necessarily good or bad.

[3] This proximity is most clearly seen in this piece on Aaron Hernandez.

Revelation, Salvation, and the Kingdom of God

One often conceives of heaven as a kind of individualistic eternal bliss or, worse, as a kind of anti-hell. One can look forward to a time where all their needs and desires are met, where they will be reunited with lost loved ones (human or otherwise), where the pools are full of chocolate pudding. Salvation is reduced to an immortal satiation. None of these things are necessarily untrue (except for perhaps the pudding pools), but none of them constitute the heart of “heaven” talk insofar as the testimony of scripture is concerned.

Rather, per the explicit hope of the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apocalyptic literature, the eschatological hope, towards which the world is lurching and straining through the re-creative work of god by virtue of the resurrection of the Son of God, is the dwelling of god with man, the reconstitution and perfection of Eden as a universal reality–uninterrupted and unadulterated communion between god and humanity, amongst humanity, and between humanity and the creation. Such is the thrust of Revelation 21/22. Such is the imagery at the core of Isaiah 60 – 66. Such is the implication of Jesus’s proclamation and demonstration that the “kingdom of god is at hand” (cf. Mk. 1.14-15, Mt. 4.23-25).

The older I become, the more I grow tired of trite and insubstantial visions of the world-to-come. I long for the advancement and realization of the kingdom of god, because this is the only meta-narrative that has the force to make sense of the world as it is and as it should be–and the substance to effectively ground hope in something other than wishful thinking. There’s too much suffering and pain in our lives to urge people to hope for something less than the utter eradication of evil (cf. Jer. 50/51, Rev. 18/19), to wish merely for what amounts to fairies and puppy dog tails.

Tillich also understands the centrality of the kingdom of god in Christian theology. He also places the encounter with god at the heart of this kingdom. “This ultimate salvation is also the ultimate revelation, often described as the ‘vision of God.'” In his words:

The Christian message points to an ultimate salvation which cannot be lost because it is reunion with the ground of being. This ultimate salvation is also the ultimate revelation, often described as the ‘vision of God.’ The mystery of being is present without the paradoxa of every revelation in time and space and beyond anything fragmentary and preliminary. This does not refer to the individual in isolation. Fulfillment is universal. A limited fulfillment of separated individuals would not be fulfillment all, not even for these individuals, for no person is separated from other persons and from the whole of reality in such a way that he could be saved apart from the salvation of everyone and everything. One can be saved only within the Kingdom of God which comprises the universe. But the Kingdom of God is also the place where there is complete transparency of everything for the divine to shine through it. In his fulfilled kingdom, God is everything for everything. This is the symbol of ultimate revelation and ultimate salvation in complete unity. The recognition or nonrecognition of this unity is a decisive test of the character of a theology. [1]

For Tillich, the comprehensiveness with which one sees the kingdom of god is “a decisive test of the character of a theology.” That is to say, one can judge the merits of a theological system by the degree to which, it sees, god’s presence imbues the universe. “God is everything for everything,” in his words, and to fall short of this encompassment is to present a less than adequate vision of god.

As far as Tillich is concerned, salvation is wholly impossible without an infinite kingdom. Because we are entirely situated creatures, all of our relations to the world need to be restored alongside of our persons, because to leave a relation unredeemed would be to leave part of ourselves unredeemed and also to limit the kingdom of god in some manner. You get the sense, reading Tillich, that he conceives of the everything that exists–everything which has being by virtue of their “being found in” god, the “ground of being”–is constitutive of the kingdom of god; there can be no limit. Hell, therefore, cannot exist, because it would necessarily limit the positive rule of god; annihilation also seems to be off the table: how can something which one existed no longer have being? Tillich offers a radical perspective on the kingdom of god; everything partakes of this water of life.  “The divine [will] shine through” everything in the kingdom of god.

Obviously, this conception bristles against traditional evangelical intuitions. Hell must exist, because of sin and evil. Tillich doesn’t seem to retain room for a kind of purgatorial hell, in which the kingdom of god awaits perfection until the souls of the unrighteousness are purified. Rather, the revelation of god as such results in a kind of purification, as though the bright divine light of life shines through creation and removes impurities and unholiness. His is an interesting perspective, to be sure; it’s more defensible than the “God is love; therefore, hell isn’t real” line of argumentation. Nevertheless, I struggle with these kinds of universalisms, even those which find the source of their life in the powerful and intentioned love of Christ. It doesn’t do justice to the reality of evil present in the world. (Of course, one could say that this position doesn’t do justice to the reality of goodness present in the triune god. See some streams of Orthodoxy.) It’s a position to be weighed against the evidence of the biblical text, the history of dogma, and the tests of rationality and sentimentality.

[1] Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology, Volume 1 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1951), 147.

On Heresy

If you’ve spent any amount of time in the theological ghettoes of social media, you’ll have certainly come across threads in which “Heresy!” or “Heretic!” is bandied about with a frequency far disproportionate to its normal, everyday use. For various reasons, the term’s usually wielded by more conservative theologues; simply, the “conservation” impulse inherent in conservative streams of thought spends more energy manning the fences of orthodoxy than similar impulses in liberal streams. Nevertheless, “Heretic!”, especially in the digital context, functions primarily as an opprobrium, a “caveat lector.” I think this represents a departure, ironically enough, from the traditional modes in which accusations of heresy were used.

To justify that position, however, requires that we take a step back and look beyond the scope of our current moment. First, I’ll characterize this moment of the church–a church simultaneously present and absent, physical and digital. Then, I’ll offer two understandings of heresy: one prior to today and the one in use at the moment. Finally, I’ll close with a couple of correlative thoughts on the matter.

We are fortunate to live in the time of mass media. The benefits to the world from easy global communication are immeasurable, and we each have access to a world of knowledge at the tips of our fingers. For the church, this digital proximity has engendered a sense of the global, transcultural body of Christ. For that, we ought to be thankful. Modes of Christianity–theological paradigms, church structures, social witnesses–which would have remained invisible within our local context, are now immediately available thanks to the advent of social media. Questions we would have never thought to ask, ways of being in the world that would have never occurred to us–these are now shifting our perceptions and our expectations of Christian life.

All of which can remain largely abstract, as far as it goes. For the most part, such questions remain ethereal but for the genuinely interested. Nevertheless, this perpetual presence affects those of us whose minds have been shaped by the cell phones in our pockets. Now, we exist simultaneously in two worlds:  our local, embodied environment and our digital sphere. The phone constantly pulls us from one environ to the other. It disrupts our physical bonds, distracting us from the person in our midst. The immediacy of the flesh-and-blood relationship we have with those with whom we worship on a weekly basis competes with the pseudo-intimacy of our social media relationships, those cultivated strictly through–or mediated through–an online forum, in which one can carefully and artificially manicure their being in a categorically different manner than one’s embodied presentation to us.

An artificial intimacy crafted online has the capacity to assume duties that, properly exercised, belong to the person near you. The local church, as the local gathering of people belonging to Christ, promotes a type of personal co-involvement only achievable by means of extensive communion, of being-near and living-near. When we speak with another person, when we communicate with them and read their body language as we hear their voice, we “comprehend” them in a manner impossible merely through artificial channels. Worshipping alongside, serving alongside, living alongside–the people with whom we share our lives from week to week to month to year become more real to us than an avatar ever could. The difficulties of real life relationships, the frustrations, the complexities–in other words, the very things that can be filtered out, muted, and otherwise ignored online–must be worked through, or the relationship fails. The temptation to replace the embodied relationships of your local context with the digital mutual following of the internet weighs heavily. Whereas the person in your midst has an obligation, simply by virtue of their shared involvement in the world with you (among other reasons), to love you, to help you, to counsel you–your online community is under no such obligation, although such an obligation may be felt by virtue of pseudo-intimacy.

In terms of the church, your local collection of believers–the ones with whom you’ve bound yourself to the apostles’ teaching and to each other (cf. Ac. 2.42ff)–has obligations that reach merely as far as that body extends. In other words, the life and worship of a certain church are coextensive with, in this case, its discipline. Mutual submission is the fundamental political character of the church. Members of the local spiritual body are obligated to each other by Christ, and so, when a member of this body transgresses the limits appertaining to this body, the body (through whatever mechanisms it chooses for itself, such as an elder board, diaconate, or whatever) is obligated to treat the matter.

How, then, do these ecclesial obligations change or appear to change in our new context? For one, felt obligations are augmented by the entrenchment of social media in everyday life, precisely because of the pseudo-intimacy that grows from our second, digital lives.

For another, and I believe these two causes are connected and feed into each other, the conception of the ‘body of Christ’ as a ‘spiritual body’ gives credence to the idea that we are equally-bound to discipline and exhort the avatar brother as we are the enfleshed brother. I would suggest that such considerations are prompted by a naive, or perhaps sentimental, perspective of Christian brotherhood. Exercising spiritual authority–for the act of discipline in local context functions as an act of authority–in a digital context relies on a view of the spiritual body that effectively disembodies it. The structures of the local church do not bear, because this kind of conversation takes place outside of the bounds of the local church; it transcends both bodies.

Which is precisely the problem. Divorcing spiritual authority from authority structures is fertile ground for authoritative abuses. One may, and frequently will, retort that such spiritual authority derives from Scripture. In application, however, a functionally anonymous figure appears from the digital landscape to mandate that another person submit–not merely to Scripture (if their interpretation is correct) but to the authority of this anonymous individual rather than to the spiritual authority vested in Figure X by the church body to which our example belongs. In other words, the Scripturally-mandated means of authority are subverted, replaced by a disembodied voice.

I’ve focused so closely on church discipline because the act of declaring something heretical or somebody a heretic is an act of church discipline. That is, historically speaking, to be named a heretic was coterminous with excommunication; somebody declared outside the bounds of orthodoxy was ipso facto declared outside the bounds of the church body. Functionally, to call somebody a heretic was to censure, as it were, with the effect of removing them from the worshipping body, from receiving the elements of communion, etc.

It was never simply a statement of disapprobation (“You shouldn’t believe that”) nor, in its proper use, the voice of a single individual (“I don’t think you should believe that”). More, at least as far as its etymology was concerned, it was not limited merely to “wrong belief,” as it has traditionally been taken. αἱρετικός, at least as late as the apostle Paul, meant “one who causes divisions” in Titus 3.10, which suggests the emphasis being not so much the false doctrine itself but the political effect within the body of Christ, subverting the unity essential to its proper function. To call one a “heretic,” therefore, was not to say, “You hold wrong doctrine,” full stop, but to say, “Your profession of this doctrine undermines the credibility of the church; therefore, you’re removed until you repent.” In other words, “Heretic!” was a far more serious charge than we experience today, one in which the offender was barred from the life of the church.

In the digital discourse, “Heretic!” means not “This person is now being placed under church discipline” but, typically, “I strongly disagree with this person’s theology”. Among more grounded theologues, particularly those who have spent a fair amount of time in pre-Reformation theology, to call somebody a heretic may retain its original force, such that it says you believe they should come under church discipline. But the structures of evangelicalism especially do not lend themselves to censures of any effect–any effect, that is, other than the autonomous exclamations of “Heresy!” that attend to any theology thread worth its perusal. In the absence of strict structures of authority, at the very least those of the local church (not to mention those that transcend single congregations–i.e., a regional presbytery), the only recourse for those for whom the digital competes with the physical is the “caveat lector” mentioned above. That is to say, informal mechanisms of opprobrium, obloquy, and stigmatization are the means whereby a contemporary church stripped of its governing authority (by competition with the digital space) can enforce the boundaries of proper church life.

By warning all within earshot that a particular author or individual is heretical, the hope would be that others would avoid falling into the same trap (per 1 Cor. 5), but it fails insofar as the purpose of church disciple–formally exercised–is primarily the restoration of the offender, not the protection of others. Such digital excommunication fails to achieve the intended effect precisely because its pseudo-intimacy fostered in social media has not, before things became difficult, engendered the kind of hands-on, risky love necessary for reconciliation. Abiding through difficulty in addition to living-near and being-near, which are both essential to a healthy church, are precisely those features inherently missing in digital intimacy, such that discipline carried out over the internet lacks the purposeful, aiming-for-which necessarily undertaken in a (healthily) structured church’s discipline. Digital discipline serves merely as “Caveat lector” rather than “Oramus pro tibi, amamus te.” And that loving consternation properly issues forth from a heart shaped by physical proximity in worship, in service, in life.

2017 in Five Books

Quite the year was 2017. In the midst of a tumultuous political season (what with statues and whatnot being torn down), the rest of the year felt like a whirlwind; it seems like only yesterday we were celebrating last year’s Christmas season. Despite the whirlwind, I was able to carve out some additional time to read this year, totaling to 43 books to date. I may be able to finish one or two before the year’s up, but I can chalk up 2017 to a (mostly) successful reading adventure.

That said, here’s my five favorite books (in no particular order) from the last year.

5114p4t32wl-_sx298_bo1204203200_1. John Hollander, The Figure of Echo: a Mode of Allusion in Milton and After (1984)

Hollander’s work first came to my attention after reading Richard Hays’ The Faith of Jesus Christ. Most of Hays’ argument depends on the kind of reading that Hollander describes and practices in The Figure of Echo. Hollander takes note of the mythical figure of Echo in her original story (a mountain nymph who makes herself known only by repeating the words of others) as well as her use in literature thereafter, especially in Milton. A book written by an English professor for literature scholars, The Figure of Echo can enrich your reading habits if you have the patience to walk through it. In nuce: there’s more to the sentence than the words on the page.

41uadtpj4yl-_sx325_bo1204203200_2. Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2009)

Murakami is a Japanese author who, obviously, also runs. One of the curious things that happened this year is that, while I increased the amount of time I spent reading each week, I also increased the amount of time I spent running each week. Reading and running are both intensely private acts. Joining a reading group or a running club still does not overcome the essentially solitary nature of both activities; you can be spurred on by your comrades, but the embodied experience of both running and reading (and writing) all belong to you alone. Murakami understands this. His memoir follows his growth as a runner, which, insofar as Murakami is concerned, mirrors his growth as a writer. The simple prose of Murakami’s book magnifies the complex experience of the interior in running and reading and writing.

173433. C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: a Myth Retold (1956)

Lewis’s Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the myth of Psyche and Cupid, told from the perspective of Psyche’s older sister Orual. Orual in large measure despises the gods for how she’s been treated throughout her life, and Lewis carefully treats us to the perspective of one whose own perspective has been skewed inward by a life of selfish preoccupation with one’s own priorities. Till We Have Faces was Lewis’s last novel, and the complexity of structure and content is clear. To distill some of the essence of the work, hear the words from the priestly character: “Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.”

51mc3o-2bqgl-_sx323_bo1204203200_4. Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men (2005)

The Coen Brothers adopted No Country into what is perhaps the most true-to-book adaptation I’ve watched. McCarthy’s work swaps between deeply introspective, deeply subjective sections and utterly exterior, utterly objective chapters. It’s difficult to summarize succinctly the story that McCarthy is telling in No Country for Old Men. It is, in equal measure, the story of a treasure discovery gone horribly wrong as well as the story of an “old man” out of place in the new world. It’s the intersection (almost, but not quite, because Sheriff Bell is always a step behind) of the old way and the new, of convention (Bell) and absurd evil (Chigurh, whom Moss misunderstands as “Sugar”), of life and chance. The book is incredible. If you’re not going to read it, at least watch the film.

220px-structure-of-scientific-revolutions-1st-ed-pb51618we2bvgl-_sx320_bo1204203200_5. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) // Peter Bergman & Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: a Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1967)

I understand that it’s a little unfair to include two books under the same heading, but both of these works should be read together. These two have continued to entrench the “critical realist” epistemology that Nicholas Wolterstorff first introduced to me–and that N.T. Wright has continued to exemplify in his own scholarship. Kuhn and Berger/Luckmann both, in similar but different-enough ways, point to the importance of the community in constructing “knowledge.” For Kuhn, communities (scientific communities specifically, but the application is clear for communities broadly) by and large function according to “normal science.” The time comes, however, when “normal science” fails to answer the questions that are being posed to it, and from the margins emerges “revolutionary science[s],” which will fight for ground by purporting to best answer the new questions. Whichever science wins will then become the new “normal science,” by which a community engages the world. Berger and Luckmann proffer a similar view, whereby the individual is born not as a tabula rasa but as one whose view of the world has been shaped by the relationships and signs and explanations given to them by their community. How one views their family, their workplace, and the broader cosmos are all informed by/directed by/nudged by their community. These two works together shed light on how knowledge is achieved.

Such is a year in review.

Until 2018,