Tag Archives: theology

Link Wednesday 5: SCOTUS Ruled; Now What?

It’s amazing what a few days away from the office can do to clear your mind. I just got back from Wisconsin this Sunday after visiting family. Wow did a lot happen since I wrote last. SCOTUS delivered their big decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. There was much despair. And there was much rejoicing.

In Evangelicalism, conversations moved to what needs to happen in its community regarding the decision. Amidst this background, I came across two very interesting sets of questions from very different points of view. They arise from the same tradition and use the same text.

Kevin DeYoung
Kevin DeYoung
Kevin DeYoung of The Gospel Coalition issued “40 Questions for Christians Now Waving Rainbow Flags.” Here are some of the questions he asked:

  • “3. How would you make a positive case from Scripture that sexual activity between two persons of the same sex is a blessing to be celebrated?”
  • “7. When Jesus spoke against porneia* what sins do you think he was forbidding?”
  • “11. As you think about the long history of the church and the near universal disapproval of same-sex sexual activity, what do you think you understand about the Bible that Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther failed to grasp?”
  • “12. What arguments would you use to explain to Christians in Africa, Asia, and South America that their understanding of homosexuality is biblically incorrect and your new understanding of homosexuality is not culturally conditioned?”

Matthew Vines
Matthew Vines
Matthew Vines, founder of The Reformation Project, issued a rejoinder, similarly titled: “40 questions for Christians who oppose marriage equality.” He asked such questions as:

  • “3. How many meaningful relationships with lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) people do you have?”
  • “12. Do you believe that same-sex couples’ relationships can show the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?”
  • “17. Did you spend any time studying the Bible’s passages about slavery before you felt comfortable believing that slavery is wrong?”
  • “18. Does it cause you any concern that Christians throughout most of church history would have disagreed with you?”

Each set of questions demarcates communities. I won’t comment on the virtues and vices of either. I assume my readers are educated. I will reiterate something, though: one faith, one text, very different questions.

Amanullah De SondyAfter I read these, I was listening to a podcast with Amanullah De Sondy. He was discussing his book, The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities, on the New Books Network. There he made some keen observations about religious communities.

One of these has to do with the appropriation of texts. He asked what a text looked like outside the perspective of hegemony. In other words, if you are not part of a dominant class—whatever social marker that is—how does that affect how you envision a text or sayings? Both DeYoung and Vines are speaking from a place that may or may not be wrong. Which is in a more privileged position? Does privilege vary from situation to situation? If texts had as stable of meanings as we might like them to, there probably wouldn’t be as many interpretive traditions (=denominations, sects, religions) as we have today.

De Sondy’s comments had me thinking how much theology and legal reasoning try to make sense of native ambiguity in texts: ambiguity they recognize and wish to elide or naturalize into a preferred reading for their community. This ambiguity, however, is what I find so inviting and exciting about religious studies.

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass
To illustrate interpretation outside hegemony, my friend and classmate, Samantha Nichols, wrote a post about the 4th of July. She included a speech by Frederick Douglass (delivered in 1852, before the Civil War) on the discourse surrounding the holiday:

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.

What I am highlighting is that you cannot escape your life circumstance and how that colors your interaction with texts (among other things). Sometimes my circumstances prompt me to ask certain questions that people with other social markers ignore, and vice versa. Part of your life circumstances is the groups to which you belong and the groups you reject (for more on this, see my post on community).

I ask this to my reader: how do you arbitrate between two people who understand themselves as faithful to the same tradition, but have different life circumstances informing their interaction with the tradition? I conjecture that it’s probably whatever person’s views most closely align with your own. These debates, while ostensibly about who is most faithful to an original text, at least lend themselves to drawing battle lines: these sets of questions allow persons and communities to identify and align themselves with these two men to achieve certain aims.

*porneia is a Greek word. While this could simply be regarded as a rhetorical move to dismiss the opinions of people who do not know the language in which the New Testament was written, the fact that the New Testament was written in a language other than English seems to invite attention to what is happening in the original language. However, you could also just as easily say that the vast majority of people do not live out their religion by any reference to exegetical and theological tools like Greek—I think it worthwhile to mention that you would need to decide how much that religion is defined by official/institutional means and how much of it is defined on the ground by living, breathing believers.


My Weird Thoughts on “Religion”

(~1200 words. tl:dr riffing on Bruce Lincoln, religion consists at least of discourse, practice, community, and institution)

Here I would like to share my views on “religion.” It got pretty long, so I am breaking it into parts. This first part will cover classic definitions of religion, the instability in terms, and the concept of “discourse.”

1. Classic Definitions of Religion and Instability in Terms

Religion has classically been defined as:

  • The feeling of absolute dependence (Friedrich Schleiermacher)
  • Belief in spiritual things (E. B. Tylor)
  • A systematic belief and practice system that unites a community (Emile Durkheim)
  • A way of placating higher beings which control the universe (James G. Frazer)
  • A feeling of awe in the presence of the holy (Rudolf Otto)
  • An illusion or neurosis (Sigmund Freud)
  • An agent (“opiate”) that deadens peoples’ minds to accept their station rather than improve it (Karl Marx)
  • A state of being grasped by an Ultimate Concern (Paul Tillich)

Bruce Lincoln Source: University of Chicago
Bruce Lincoln
Source: University of Chicago
Let’s test some of those definitions. I consider myself religious, but don’t feel particularly dependent on God during data entry (contra Schleiermacher); I’m not really aware of material things, much less spiritual things, before my coffee has kicked in (contra Tylor); my mind doesn’t feel particularly numb when I’m thinking about religion (Marx could be brilliant at times and at other times preposterous); Buddhists who rely on self-power (some rely on beings to help them, such as Amitabha) aren’t placating higher powers.

Furthermore, I strongly insist that religion is colored by your time, place, and other identity markers. If you learn about the Five Pillars of Islam, or the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path of Buddhism, or the Shema Yisrael of Judaism, do you think you have really encountered those religions in all their varied splendor? Is Christianity reducible merely to the Sinner’s Prayer? Do the previous general beliefs account for the subdivisions within each tradition which sometimes go to war with each other (literally), even when outsiders see each party as part of the same tradition?

You probably haven’t encountered a tradition until you’ve experienced a living, breathing member of that tradition, and then, one person does not represent an entire tradition. In the end, I don’t find religion to be a stable category. Here are some social factors that interplay with religion, so that even within the same tradition religion is never the same: gender, race, class, ethnicity, nationality, politics, economics, culture, family, age, region, education, ability, dietary habits, athleticism, or customs. Just as with religion, I don’t see how these nodes of identity can be defined apart from these other factors.

2. Working, Constructed Definition of Religion

Russell T. McCutcheon Source: Twitter
Russell McCutcheon
Source: Twitter
But saying that religion is hard to define doesn’t really help much. So what do I mean by religion? I approach studying religion from a constructivist and social perspective. That’s not the only way to analyze religion (I analyze religion theologically, too, but that’s within another context), but that’s how I approach it academically. I will employ some help from history of religions scholar Bruce Lincoln. He has written extensively, particularly on how communities in general (not just religious ones) form and maintain their cohesion. What follows is his minimal definition on religion, riffing off of Durkheim (who I also like). While I won’t say religion is merely these four things, it is at least these four things (taken from Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After September 11):

A. “Discourse”

By religious discourse, Lincoln means truth claims that do not appeal to experience, experimentation, or human thought but that appeal to sources outside the human political (and other) interests. Many times this goes by the name of “revelation,” “scriptures,” “holy writings,” “sacred sayings,” “prophecy,” “oracles,” etc. Elsewhere, Lincoln remarks that discourse consists at least of myth, ritual, and classification used to construct, maintain, replicate, deconstruct, and/or reconstruct society. I will discuss myth here, ritual in the section on “practice,” and classification in the next post under “community.”

In his helpful primer, Studying Religion: An Introduction, Russell McCutcheon also offers a helpful definition, building off of Michel Foucault: discourse involves “the series of material as well as intellectual conditions, practices, institutions, architecture and conventions that make specific types of thought and action possible.” In other words, discourse is all about the background noise that influences your thought and action.

Source: michel-foucault.com
Source: michel-foucault.com

Source: demotix.com
Source: demotix.com
While Lincoln sees discourse employing myth, ritual, and classification to achieve its ends more overtly, it can covertly (or just less overtly) achieve its ends by means of “spectacle, gesture, costume, edifice, icon, [or] musical performance.”

So what are some examples of these subtle methods of discourse? If you think of a church setting, a costume can consist anywhere from a dress suit to clerical robes. Gestures can include raising one’s hands in Christian worship or bowing down on a prayer rug facing Mecca (which would also involve the icon of the prayer rug).

A word on “myth”

Roland Barthes Source: magnumphotos.com
Roland Barthes
Source: magnumphotos.com
Myth is typically used in a disparaging way toward beliefs you consider legend, fable, or something that just isn’t historical. Lincoln first explains myth by referencing Roland Barthes’ concept of myth: it involves ideas divorced from their original contexts/settings/histories and projected into a timeless story, or given “mystificatory” (that which obscures its origins) content. However, Lincoln develops a unique model of myth, by comparing it to the concepts of fable, legend, and history before plotting them on the axes of truth claim, credibility, and authority:

Fable Makes no truth claims, holds no credibility, and commands no authority
Legend Makes truth claims, holds no credibility, and commands no authority
History Makes truth claims, has credibility, and commands no authority
Myth Makes truth claims, has credibility, and commands authority

Adapted from Lincoln, Discourse, 23.

When Lincoln speaks of credibility and authority, he doesn’t measure it on the story/narrative itself, but on how it is received by a community. This means that the history of one group can be the myth or legend of another group (compare how typical American and British histories treat the American Revolution). In his book, Authority: Construction and Corrosion, Lincoln defines authority in the following way:

When these crucial givens [“right” speaker, speech, and setting] of the discursive situation combine in such a way as to produce attitudes of trust, respect, docility, acceptance, even reverence, in the audience, or – viewing things from the opposite perspective – when the preexistent values, orientations, and expectations of an audience predispose it to respond to a given speech, speaker, and setting with these reverent and submissive attitudes, “authority” is the result

Lincoln’s work can apply to religion as traditionally conceived or to social phenomena in general.

That’s it for now on my thoughts on religion. As you can see, I owe a lot of gratitude to Lincoln. It is also painfully theoretical. I apologize, but felt I needed to establish this before I start getting concrete. If you have questions of where I fall on something concrete, email me at ilostmyprayerhanky at gmail.

I will post tomorrow or Monday on the second part. I may include how I think my initial thoughts on gender and sexuality relate to religion in that second part, or I might make a third part.


What I Learned This Year

Here are some things I’ve learned this year in school:

  • I am capable of a lot of work when I put my mind to it, but I also recognize my finitude. I have sometimes taken on too much to the detriment of my family. This will require that I plan my time better in adopting a consistent sleep schedule and study plan. My family deserves better than I gave them this year.
  • I had an inkling of this, but it got fleshed more out in my research of Gordon Kaufman’s theological method: all theology is constructed, from beginning to end. It does not exist “out there” to be discovered and exegeted but emerges out of a thinker’s use of sources. This means that one is responsible for what one says; one cannot just blame something on God.
  • Because of what I discovered with Kaufman, I am giving Christianity not another try, but a different try. I will be actively engaged in the process, not just uncritically accepting certain things. In a sense, Christianity exists “outside” the person because it is a social phenomenon. However, Christianity does not exist above and beyond the individual, because it is always embodied and expressed by individual persons. It shows up socially, too, social or political movements. I’m still working out what this even means.
  • I’ve come to realize more and more that I cannot universalize my personal experience and call myself a responsible person. I don’t call what I do “common sense,” “the way things are,” etc. I own what I do, say, and believe to the point that I recognize I have to demonstrate to others how I’ve come to some of my conclusions. I can’t take for granted that people share certain elements of experience with me to come to the same conclusions. And so this gives me room to hear other people’s stories and how they’ve constructed meaning on their journeys and not dismiss them out of hand; those are their experiences, as important to them as mine are to me. True dialogue can occur after each person recognizes this in the other, once we accept that we are not the same, and then attempt to find shared spaces or possibly create them.
  • There’s a world full of religions (one could just as easily say cultures since “religion” and “culture” intersect so seamlessly sometimes) that have worked for peoples to organize their societies. It’s interesting to learn how diverse understandings of religion arbitrate the relationship between church and state, individual and group, secular and sacred, what actually constitutes “religion,” male and female, or beyond binaries in more recent thought.
  • The word “religion” means something obvious to everyone else besides religious studies scholars. Ninian Smart outlined seven elements that most religions of the world have at least some of: doctrine, ethics, narratives/myths, ritual, experience, material culture, and institutions (here is a picture showing the interrelations of six of those dimensions, minus material culture). Some religions will denigrate others for not emphasizing what they emphasize. Some emphasize ritual and minimize ethics and doctrine, while others do the complete opposite. Both wonder at each other as a foreign, exotic “Other,” which is nonetheless wrong. Religion can also be defined in other ways: functionally, essentially, descriptively, and normatively.
  • There are lots of smart people in the world. I no longer feel the impulse to be the smartest in the class or see myself in competition with others to do better. I’ve adopted a more cooperative attitude that feels better. When I treat my classmates as fellow scholars or collaborators rather than as competition, we all benefit. I don’t glean nearly as much as when I share with others and they with me in a dynamic relationship. I just do my best and hope for the best.
  • Facebook and other internet activities waste a lot of my time. So does Netflix. Not to say these aren’t wonderful things in limited quantities, but they kind of contribute to me being a more passive than active person, making my brain feel kind of mushy after indulging for too long.
  • After reading an article by Richard Godbeer (his writing is as cool as his last name sounds), I encountered the idea that discourses of sex are always present in every sex act. One never “just has sex”; one is playing a script, like it fulfills a biological need or emotional desire, acts as a means to bond with a lover, a duty to fulfill, a peak experience with another involved, etc. He was drawing his ideas from Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality in three volumes, some of which I’d like to read this summer. The class I was in, Sexuality and American Religion, has actually given me some ideas of possible minors I’d like to pursue alongside the major of religious studies, like gender or sexuality studies and their presence in religions.

That is all I can think of for now. If I think of other things, I’ll edit this post and add them. Ask questions or comment if you want.


Religion after Enlightenment

I have just begun Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age at the recommendation of John Schmalzbauer and Andre Snavely. This has to do with my research question, “How can religion take modernity seriously and also function in modern society?” Or, “What does religion look like in the aftermath of modernity?” There seem to be a few assumptions going on in this question. The first is that secularity, modernity, plurality, or whatever you want to call it is here and it is not going away. Secondly, and perhaps quite erroneously, it envisions an agreed upon vision of what modernity or “the Enlightenment” entails. Schmalzbauer and Snavely have been instrumental in highlighting that this is not the case, and that I will need to wrestle with multiple definitions of “modernity,” so modernities, Enlightenments. The third assumption seems to be that religions should take modernity seriously, maybe even more so than their historical traditions.

Names that have come up so far in the “secularity” discussion are Charles Taylor, Hans Joas, Jose Casanova, and Henry May. These are the first scholars that have come up, and I am sure they will not be the last. The struggle I am having is narrowing down what I understand as “modernity.” What is it? Is it as indicated above, a multifarious concept that I will need to parse before arriving at my own spin of it? Does it necessarily involve secularity (and this word can have at least three different nuances, as I have found already in Taylor’s work) and pluralism? Should I just focus on one secular context—my own American one—so as to keep my project doable?

These questions interest me. I do not know why they capture my imagination so, but they do. I have a concern, though. Will this put me in the realm of theology more than in that of my career goal of “modern religious thought?” Are those two even separable? I guess that concerns me because I surmise it would be far harder to find a position at a public university with a theological pedigree than with a religious studies one. Even though this is a concern, I will venture forward and keep the conversation alive with my professors, taking their counsel seriously.


So How about That Fall (not the season)?

I’ve been thinking about the Christian doctrine of “The Fall” off and on again since my post on the problem of evil. As I grew up, Jack Chick (remember those comic book style evangelistic tracts?) had a pretty big influence on my 10 year old budding theology. According to him, and many others, evil entered the world after Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden. Through that act, the universally human propensity to sin, humanity’s total depravity from birth, the corruption of creation, the relational strife between all people, etc. came into being. I’d like to hone in on the corruption of creation. Maybe another question might help clear up this corruption nuance: why is “Mother” nature such a raging bitch?

For the sake of discussion, I’m laying out how I see my former Evangelicalism portraying the corruption of creation, and then list some questions I have for it. We are told in the Genesis account that there was no death before Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience. We are told that God saw his creation as good. Humankind, the apex of God’s creation and the last entity created, was called “very good.” Supposedly (this is never explicitly stated, but a pretty safe assumption based on what’s said in Genesis), every creature was vegetarian, because there was no death.

Now, once disobedience entered the world, evil did, too. Death and decay entered in the wake of perfection. The favorite verse of misogynists states that there would be pain for women in childbearing. Man was cursed to work the ground by the sweat of his brow (some have attempted to work out a theology of work pre-fall. You can look it up. I have no desire to spell that out here, and I find it terribly unconvincing). There would be gender wars, wars between family members, clothing had to be made by butchering animals (hehe, or fig leaves if you prefer). Now the following is never stated in the Genesis or other accounts, but I have heard it promulgated in enough places to consider it an Evangelical/Christian belief: all natural evil stems from the Fall. By natural evil, I mean natural disasters, sickness/disease, survival of the fittest among animals, and other unnecessary pain that is part of nature.

Here’s a bit of a detour. What is evil? I have heard it said by Augustine that evil is the privation of good. That probably applies most easily to moral evils. Theft would be the privation of the good of ownership. Murder would be the privation of the good of life. Dishonesty would be the privation of honesty. Allegedly, that makes evil a nonentity so that God is absolved from creating evil, given that he is the creator of all that exists. But what does that definition do to the very real entity of natural evil, like boiling hot magma enveloping the city of Pompeii? Let’s say God isn’t involved in every natural disaster that happened, but just lets it happen because that’s just the way things are after the Fall; does that indicate that he deprived his earlier creation of its intrinsic goodness? Or to put it another way, did tornados/earthquakes/volcanoes/floods/hurricanes/famines exist before or after the Fall? Did the very good creation contain those natural disasters intrinsically? Did God create these phenomena afterward to teach humanity a lesson, so that there were actually two creations, one very good and the other also very good, but good at being bad?

Some, like John Hick (soul-making theodicy [defense of God’s justice in the face of evil] here), have brought up the fact that gravity most certainly existed before the Fall. And if cliffs just happened to exist, and there was hard ground 200 feet below them, a tumble might take its toll on one’s self-actualization. The potentiality of toe-stubbing also probably existed pre-Fall, too (I don’t recall if these are his exact examples, but if not, booyah). But again, such instances have to do with someone’s clumsiness or obliviousness. Let’s say Adam and Eve built a shanty on the edge of the Nile. Would it be destroyed by the yearly flood cycles, or would floods simply not have existed yet in a perfect world?

What I’m aiming at is did God create natural evil (I guess before or after doesn’t really matter), or does the notion of natural “evil” tend to speak against the existence of God as we understand him—all powerful, knowledgeable, and benevolent? To put it ambiguously clearly, should we change “God” to “god”? Or a third option, does he put it there to test people? Or does he have some unstated purpose in this, and we just have to float through life making up meaning as we go? Or is he not all that benevolent? When I had a kid, I wanted to make the world the best I can for him. That world I speak of is limited to my sphere of influence, in that I can only do so much toward it, by providing an income, sagely advice (hehe, we’ll see how sagely I am when I have to deal with his probably hellion ways), loving acceptance, direction, and just being there. Enter my broken record: where’s the all powerful, wise, and good God in this world that extends beyond the one I control? Do I need to redefine things as they pertain to God? For that matter, is God even extra-linguistic, have an existence outside language games?

I discussed the existence of tornados with one of my friends, and asked him if they came from creation or after the fall. He said they aren’t really considered evil until human beings start getting (enter my putting words in his mouth) impaled by foreign objects. I’ll grant that. Let’s say all natural disasters existed before the Fall, floods, volcanoes, earthquakes, blizzards, tsunamis, what have you. Adam and Eve simply didn’t care because none of those (save maybe floods) would have touched their existence in the Ancient Near East. But what about the carnivorousness that seems intrinsic to lions, and the herbivoreness that seems intrinsic to gazelles; why were the poor latter created with nerve endings? It honestly serves no purpose than to give them horrendous feeling while they’re being eviscerated by the former. Did pain receptors only magically appear after said Fall? What about cognitive bias? What about the ability to drown? Were lions intrinsically motivated not to eat our only human parents alive at the time? In fact, if carnivorousness existed from creation, and God created all the species that exist now (which isn’t the case), how many species died per day after creation? Shouldn’t there have been a pretty quick mass extinction through food shortage? And why the hell were mosquitoes created? There’s no way they weren’t annoying everything in existence before the Fall. If God exists, at best he has a sense of humor at others’ expense. I’ll admit, it’s pretty funny to witness someone swatting at “nothing” as they walk through cobwebs and attempt to fling good Charlotte from her body, but why do such insidious beasts exist at all in a very good creation? Maybe evolution is a result of the fall, and that’s where all the annoying and terrible creatures came from!

There are a few possible answers to all of these questions. One of the possibilities would be adjusting our definitions of the Western concept of God from being all good, powerful, and wise, to not being all or some of those to the nth degree. Process theism has done this to some degree. Another option is that he exists, but chooses to hide very convincingly. Another option is that our senses and everything derived from them (i.e., science) are misleading. Another possibility could be admitting ignorance/agnosticism, and not engage in conjecture about things which are unseen from those that are. Perhaps God will, as Robert M. Price has stated it (I forgot if it was here or here), put on a seminar on the other side about how and why things really are, particularly for those curious jokerpantses like me.

As always, if you got something to say drop a line in the comments section or my email at ilostmyprayerhanky AT mail to the g DOT com. I like conversing. I don’t gots all the answers. You probably don’t either. If you do, I’ll save you some time: you’re a moron and there is no point in us shouting each other down, or each of us bending over to have a pooping contest to see who gets stained first. However, in dialogue, we get more than we had before. It’s like steak and beans, but better.