Tuesday, September 11, 2007

on jesus and politics I

In class today, we listened to a portion of a talk of N. T. Wright gave at the 2007 Christian Aid Act Justly Conference entitled "God's Restoration Program," which is available here. Up to this point in the course we have been talking a lot about Wright's understanding of story as a vehicle for worldview and have turned specifically to Wright's telling of the Christian story and what his telling implies about the Christian worldview. One of the issues that we have focused upon is how much Wright focuses upon creation and new creation, and his point that Christians, most notably, evangelical Christians have taken one part of the Christian story and made it the whole, and in the process distorted the Christian story. In short, when the gospel is boiled down to Jesus dying for our sins so that we can go to heaven when we die, what is missed, according to Wright, is God's purposes for the restoration of all of creation. Thus, Wright wants to understand not only Jesus' death but everything Jesus did within the larger narrative concerned with God's purposes for creation. Wright, of course, does not devalue the importance of Jesus' death and personal salvation but wants to understand it within its proper context. In fact, I would hazard to guess that Wright would argue that the preoccupation with Jesus' death and with heaven after we die is a distortion and devaluing of the gospel, which centers around Jesus' being the Lord of all of creation and his vocation to fulfill God's purposes for all of creation.

Anyway, in Wright's talk he spoke a lot about the Jubilee legislation in Leviticus 25 and how Israel was to be the the Jubilee people and how Jesus embodied the Jubilee program (cf. Luke 4). Near the end of class, one of the students, who always asks such good questions, raised the question about the relationship between Jesus and politics today. As I recall, the question was basically this. In the Gospels, we don't see Jesus really addressing political issues; Jesus didn't seem to get involved in the politics of his day so how can he be of help to us with respect to the politics in our day. I made a few stabs at answering her question, but we ran out of time and I wasn't entirely satisfied with my response in class. And given that it is such an important question, I thought a few blog entries on the topic would be appropriate and helpful. So here is the beginning of a response.

First, it makes complete sense to me that for many Christians when they sit down to read the gospels or hear the gospels read, they do not see Jesus really engaged in the politics of his day. I say it makes complete sense to me because that has been one of the most exciting areas of growth in my own understanding of the New Testament and the gospels in particular, namely, becoming increasingly aware of the political (not to mention the cultural, social, economic, etc.) dimensions of the gospel narratives. And so now, at this stage in my life, I would say that the gospels are almost thoroughly political from start to finish. Of course, this does not mean they are not also thoroughly religious (or any of the other dimensions mentioned above), simply that just like the world of Jesus' day the gospels do not operate with a split between the political and the religious, between the religious and the economic (and neither do we really despite our rhetoric of separation of church and state, but more about that anon). Consequently, I think Jesus did and does have a lot to say regarding politics. But before I begin to provide specific examples of how and to what extent a particular word and/or action of Jesus is political, I want to address this question: If, as many scholars would argue, the gospels have a significant political dimension and that Jesus' words and actions often had political implications, why is it that many of us in the church who have read these gospels over and over and are quite familiar with them have not seen this political dimension? Why does it appear to us that Jesus only talks about religion and not politics? I think there are a number of factors that contribute to this situation, let me offer a few of them.

(1) First, in the United States our religious and political discourses have been influenced and shaped by an overarching narrative or story (to use Wright's language) in which the separation of church and state is a principal value (Wright might suggest that the concept of the separation of church and state functions as one of the principal symbols of the United States). Thus, we have been taught to regard religion and politics as belonging to two separate spheres and so we often think about religion and politics as being quite distinct from each other, if not in all respects at least, in many respects. In part, this reality is reflected in the fact that the religious and political discourses have developed a vocabulary and a way of talking about things that is quite distinct from one another. For example, the word gospel is used in religious discourse but not in political discourse, but as I shall argue later, in the first-century Mediterranean world, gospel was a term that was employed in both political and religious speech (at least as we make those distinctions today for in fact the ancients did not make the same distinctions between religion and politics that we do in the United States today). In fact, I don't think it be wrong to say that gospel was a word that belonged primarily to the political sphere of the first century and that Christians appropriated this term. (Notice that I did not say that when the Christians appropriated the term they used it religiously whereas everyone else used it politically because the Christian usage, as we shall see, is decidedly political and religious.) The separation of the religious and political spheres can also be reflected in certain habits (what Wright would refer to as praxis). For example, many people would be offended if a pastor preached sermons that endorsed a particular presidential candidate or that argued that one should vote a certain way. Likewise, many people are offended if those in a political office make political decisions based upon an appeal to a particular religious tradition. We like our religion and our politics separate, thank you very much.

(2) Second, there are many church traditions past and present who, independent of the American ideal, have made and make a radical distinction between the Church and the State, that these are two separate spheres of authority, one religious and one secular, one private and one public. These realms are both ordained by God and each has its own distinct purpose and might we say ethics; consequently, we should not confuse these two realms. Thus, many who make such a distinction, would argue that Jesus concerned himself with the private sphere not the public sphere such that Jesus' sermon on the mount, which calls on people to love their enemies is directed at and describes how the Church should be in the world but that this is not a directive for the State.

As you can see, (1) and (2) reinforce one another.

(3) Another reason why we often miss the political aspects of the gospels is that they are almost exclusively read or heard in religious contexts, be it worship, Sunday School, small group Bible studies, youth group, private devotions, etc. Conversely, the gospels are rarely experienced in a political context. Thus, in our experience those stories are connected to a religious context and so their words evoke the religious dimension for life for us not the political. This, of course, is made even more pronounced by the separation of church and state, of the religious and political spheres of life described in (1) and (2).

More could be said about why we have missed the political dimension of the gospels and the political dimension of Jesus' life, but it is now time to identify those places in the gospels that exhibit a decidedly political dimension. See the next post.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

question . . . . . . on critical realism

What model or template could be used to make 'critical realist' decisions? This is an interesting question, and one that I am not exactly sure how to answer. I think I understand the question, namely, if we are going to operate with a critical realist epistemology, how does this affect how we go about making decisions; perhaps, what are the steps we take as we seek to make a decision? Well, I have a few initial responses.

The first response that comes to mind is to say that what I here Wright saying is that people on the whole naturally operate with a critical realist epistemology. That is, Wright is saying that what he describes as critical realism is the normal process of interacting with the world and arriving at conclusions. Note, for instance, Wright's illustration of driving down the road when suddenly the car begins to shudder (p. 43), and how one in this situation begins to come up with various hypotheses about what is going on, hypotheses that derive from the stories we tell ourselves about how cars and roads work. In other words, part of Wright's argument for a critical realist epistemology is the claim that this is what human beings do naturally, even if they have not sat down and analyzed it as he has. Thus, I might suggest that you yourself might already make decisions in this manner. Now, as I say that, I recognize that what you mean by "decisions" is slightly different than what Wright is talking about in coming up with an "explanatory story" to explain the shuddering of his care (has the council been digging up the road, has a tyre gone flat). Nevertheless, I imagine that both would be approached essentially the same way.

This leads to my second response, which gets closer to answering your question. According to Wright, critical realism involves a "spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known" (p. 35), this is what makes the process critical. He then goes on to suggest that this dialogue is one in which we make observations, we then offer hypotheses about our observations, and then those hypotheses are tested, that is, we go about verifying or falsifying the hypothesis through experimentation (recognizing here that the process of verification/falsification will differ based upon the nature of the object, question, or field being investigated). In short then, Wright argues for a process of hypothesis and verification, which is a spirally process because often our initial hypothesis has to be modified as we continue to make observations and submit those to critical reflection and testing. Wright then offers a definition of what counts for verification (42.2 = page 42; paragraph 42). Of course, in all of this we must be aware of the worldview stories within which we make our observations and test our hypotheses, since each of these are affected by the stories with which we operate. Sometimes, the modification of our hypothesis involves a modification of the larger story within which the hypothesis was made.

Somewhere Wright has a nice paragraph that essentially explains this process. I will look for it and update this post when I can find it.

So what would some of the others in the class wish to contribute? Do you have something to add? Have I read Wright right?

questions from students

Today, we were finishing up our reading on a couple of chapters from N. T. Wright's The New Testament and the People of God, and so I asked the class to write down one question they had about our reading of Wright that they would like further clarification on. We never got to the questions in class, but I looked at them afterwards and was quite pleased. I thought the questions demonstrate a real attempt to get a handle on what I think are some very valuable concepts and perspectives but which occur in a discussion that was not originally designed for undergraduates, most of whom are pursing a course of study other than religion and philosophy. In addition, the questions are really helpful because they provide me with some much needed input that helps me know where I need to put my energies. The questions are on notecard size pieces of paper, and so I have been carrying them around in my shirt pocket. At various times throughout the day, I will pull them out and look through them. Many of them do not lend themselves to an easy answer; nevertheless, my intention is to respond to all of the questions myself and to invite responses from others in the class. And so, I will begin to offer some reflects here on this blog, hoping that others will comment and so add to the discussion, and I also plan for us to tackle some of these in class. So the blog entries that begin with "question . . . " are those that address questions that students have either written down and handed in or asked aloud in class.

"God-Talk" in the Media

I ran across this piece today on Yahoo! Sports which concerns Lorena Ochoa, a member of the LPGA, who currently has won the last three tournaments she has entered and is ranked #1 in the world. She just recently won her first major championship, the British Open, which happened to be played at St Andrews, which is where I spent the last four years. She had been criticized for a long time because she hadn't won a major and this article touches on that. Notice her response:

The top-ranked Ochoa said she wants to continue to stay on top. And she brushed away criticism that it took her too long to win her first major.

"The wait was worth it," she said. "I wouldn't change it for anything. God has plans for everyone, and my first major was planned for St. Andrews."

So what does Ochoa's response imply about her worldview, especially with respect to her view of how God operates in the world? How might Wright's discussions on worldview and the worldview elements (story, question, symbol, praxis) help us with this question? How does Ochoa come to the conclusion that she does? Obviously, she does not tell us but what is implied in what she does say.

In the future, it might be interesting to reflect upon various references to God that one finds reported in the media (or that one overhears). So if you come across something like this, bring it to class or email it to me.

Monday, August 27, 2007

on epistemology

In our first class, we talked about ologies (e.g., biology, archaeology, psychology, and, my personal favorite, oology, which surprisingly is not the study of the letter o but actually the study of eggs). In particular, we raised the question, In what sense is theology an ology especially in comparison with the various scientific ologies. Is it an ology at all? My argument was yes, in this sense, that all human knowledge represented by the different ologies and their differences with respect to their different methods and different views on what counts as evidence, all human knowledge is based upon a single epistemological principle, namely, the nature of an object determines the means by which it can be known, its nature determines the means by which we can study it. As I have been reading and listening to Wright, I have noticed recurrent references to this fundamental epistemological axiom. In one of his recent talks on the resurrection (which can be downloaded as an mp3 here), Wright states that
Thomas-like faith in the risen Jesus transcends but includes what we call history and what we call science. Faith of this sort isn't blind belief which rejects history and science nor is it simply, which would be much safer, a belief which simply inhabits a totally different sphere, oh you can do your history and science down there and from time to time you escape into this other area called faith, and then you go back to and fro. No. This kind of faith, which is in fact like all modes of knowledge, defined by the nature of its object, is faith in the creator god, the god whose has promised to put all things to rights at last, and the god who as the sharp point between those has raised Jesus from the dead within history, leaving as I said, evidence that demands an explanation from the scientist like everyone else (49:10–50:00).
Of course, this epistemological principle does not tell you how to proceed with a given inquiry only that one's methods and views must submit to the nature of the object under investigation, but it does seem to me to get at the heart of the question concerned with the status of different modes of knowing and different types of knowledge — subjective vs. objective, or the language Wright prefers, namely, private vs. public.

So the question that one asks at the beginning of any investigation, be it theological, historical, or scientific, is, "Given the nature of the object, how then are we to proceed?" Of course, this involves one in a process of hypothesis, testing, and verification since many of our questions are concerned precisely with uncovering the nature of the object in question, with attempting to ascertain its inner logic, rationality or essence, that is, its logos (from where we get -ology). In other words, we often don't know what the nature of the object is, and so we begin by testing out our best guesses. In this course, we are not going to start from scratch; we are not, as it were, going to reinvent the wheel. Instead, as we look at the Christian Story in the Old and New Testaments, we are going to reflect upon that story from within the framework of a Trinitarian-Incarnational framework. In effect, we are going to see how orthodox Christianity has gone about the doing of theology, that is, has attempted to ascertain the logos of God.

of stories and toys

For Thursday, we will be discussing “Knowledge: Problems and Varieties,” the second chapter in N. T. Wright’s, The New Testament and the People of God, (vol. 1 of Christian Origins and the Question of God; Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1992), which I introduce here. In this chapter, Wright discusses stories and how they are carriers of worldviews. One of my hopes is to impress upon students that stories (be they fictional or non-fictional) are not flimsy little things but some of the most powerful things we encounter. I want to show how stories function and demonstrate that stories are serious business in part so that when I refer to, talk about, and characterize the biblical narrative as the Christian Story, I want my students to know that I am not in any sense reducing or relativizing its value and importance, quite to the contrary. This is a danger because story as a category has often been used in a dismissive sense to indicate something that is not truthful, or at least is not factual, as in such-and-such did not really happen; it is simply a story.

As I was thinking about the power of stories, I began to remember when Rebekah and I found out that Emma was going to be a girl, and how we were very concerned about how we were going to raise here, about the ways we were going to socialize her with respect to her gender. We wanted to raise Emma as a girl but with a different understanding and view of what it means to be a female and a girl than the one operative when we and our parents were children. In other words, we had no intentions of raising her as if gender were immaterial; we do believe that girls and boys are different. At the same time, we are also aware of how gender is constructed, of how one's understanding of what it is to be a girl and a boy, to be male and female, is informed and shaped by the values, symbols, and practices of the culture in which we live. Consequently, we were very selective and discerning about the things we exposed her to.

For example, when we purchased toys for her, we made sure to get a wide spectrum of toys, many of which are, in our culture, associated with boys. We did not get rid of dolls for we still wanted her to develop her nuturing and empathic skills (we have encouraged Thaddaeus' interest and love of dolls for the same reason), no we didn't get rid of dolls but we did introduce trains and Lincoln logs, and other such toys. And we were intentional about letting our family's know the sorts of toys we were looking for Emma.

We were also very selective and discerning about the sorts of stories we told and read to Emma. For example, we avoided the classic fairy tales like Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, all of which embody, support, and reinforce a particular set of gender stereotypes, a particular worldview of the respective roles of men and women including how women and men relate to one another, which went contrary to our own emerging views. Instead, we read stories in which women and girls were portrayed as adventurous, confident, competent, and intelligent; stories in which concerns about one's appearance especially with respect to the opposite sex did not play a part. So we read books like Pippi Longstocking and the Laura Ingalls Wilder books (though even here I spent much time editing as I read. For example, I edited out the recurrent references Laura makes to hating her ugly brown hair and her "naughtiness" (read "curiosity and adventurousness") in contrast to Mary's beautiful blond hair and "goodness" (read "passiveness and submissiveness."

All of this was born out of the conviction that stories are extremely powerful; the stories we tell (ourselves and others), the stories we surround ourselves with have the power to shape our values, thoughts, perceptions, and actions. Stories do not only affect the way we think, but the way we feel; the way we perceive, and ultimately the way we act. Wright remarks “Tell someone to do something, and you change their life — for a day; tell someone a story and you change their life” (40). In short, Rebekah and I understood early on, thankfully, that if we wanted to communicate and instill certain values and perspectives in Emma then we needed to find the right stories. If we wanted Emma to develop certain sensibilities, certain values and perspectives, certain ways of viewing herself, the world, and her relation to the world and to others, then we had to be intentional and selective about the stories she encountered.

This has not been particularly easy especially in a society that markets such defective stories so well (e.g., Disney). Moreover, I expect that people look with incredulity and suspicion upon parents who “censor” what their children read, especially when it comes to classic fairy tales that so many people have grown up with and come to love. After all, as I have heard some people remark, "they are only children’s stories." But that is my point exactly. Stories are extremely powerful, and childrens stories are one of the most powerful forms of literature on the earth, with the ability to shape our children's values, perspectives, and actions. I guess one of my main concerns is not so much that we expose their children to Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood, but that we do so unreflectedly. We assume that because it is childrens literature that it is somehow benign, never questioning the values and perspectives that these stories embody and so instill in our young readers and listeners, who have not yet acquired the ability to read in a critical and discerning manner. Stories are powerful, childrens stories (or better, the stories we read children) are extremely powerful; and so they should be chosen with discernment and read critically.

By the way, if you are still not convinced that stories are powerful stuff, then mention to people that you don't read Little Red Riding hood to your little girl, and see what sort of reactions this elicits. Or better yet, watch the look of horror on the face of your local librarian who, amid trying to foist book after book about Santa Clause upon your two-year-old, is stopped dead in her tracks when the said two-year-old looks up from the book she is reading and proclaims in a conciliatory tone, "Santa Clause isn't real." But this is a story for another day.

on learning journals

I mentioned in my first post that I had been doing some reading on learning journals. I would highly recommend Jennifer Moon’s Learning Journals: A Handbook for Academics, Students and Professional Development (London: Kogan Page, 1999). Moon’s book addresses both theoretical and practical issues. For example, she addresses the questions of how journaling relates to learning as well as how one might go about assessing journals in an academic setting. I have provided the Table of Contents to give you an idea of what it covers.

Part I. Journal writing and Learning
1. Backgrounds: some introductions to learning journals
2. Learning from learning journals

Part II. Journals: their uses and possibilities
3. The uses of learning journals
4. Journals in teaching and learning in higher education
5. Journals in professional education and development
6. Learning journals and personal development

Part III. Practical issues in journal writing
7. Starting to write a learning journal
8. Assessing journals and other reflective writing

Part IV. Using journals more effectively: journal examples and activities
9. Examples of journals
10. Activities to enhance learning form journals.