Sunday, June 17, 2012

My Father's Wisdom: Character

Ken Blue (Dad) with the kids @ The Charis Project

As we get older we realize that wisdom that people gave us when we were younger is actually true. There are things that wise people have told me that I believed because they made sense and I respected the person who said it. I could repeat it to others with conviction in my voice (those of you who know me face to face know that I can say nearly anything with conviction in my voice.) And saying some of these things were good ways of giving others the impression that I also was wise. But the really good stuff shifts over time. It changes from merely being a wise saying with the experiential realization that it is actually true.

One of the really good nuggets my father gave me. He phrased it as a realization or rather a conjecture. He said to me, "It really seems as though God is not all that concerned about achievement. God seems to be more interested in the development of character."

Character is more important than achievement. Yah, that sounds good, almost a platitude. It is the sort of thing you say as a consolation for frustration or failure. A good piece of soothing opiate for the masses.

And then you live more years and observe others and yourself. You see people achieve without character and how empty and dangerous they are. You see people grow character and how it changes them, makes them deeper and more solid.

I have had success, achievement, failure and frustration. It has been in the failure and frustration portions that my father's bit of wisdom comes to me and reminds me to take heart. It is not a consolation, it is an imperative in disguise. A call to endurance, not to capitulate and just say, "Well I failed, I guess I get character." Rather to say, "Here is a decisive opportunity for me to grow that which is really important. The other bits and distractions have fallen off for a moment. What I do now gets at the core of me."

It has taken some really unpleasant times for this to come home to me. And I really would not like to repeat them. However, coming through, having had that bit of wisdom from my father, I have gained measures of character that I didn't realize were available to be had and so never realized how valuable they were. My wife will be happy to back me up on this. And living in my own skin has taken on a different flavor. The development of character means being more truly and fully you in ways that you didn't know that you were missing. This affects everything about you and is visible to the people around you. You become stronger and more gentle at the same time. You become both more creative and more grounded. You become more like the person you really are and didn't realize you hoped you could be. Once this realization takes hold hardship takes on a different meaning. Instead of being something you dread, you begin to welcome it as the catalyst that can propel you toward the person you can now see yourself becoming.

Far from being a consolation, my father's bit of wisdom has taken the sting out of suffering and the fear out of failure. Far from being disempowering, those words reset the stage for me to risk and endeavor to achieve more because in the worst case scenario I will get to become more the person who I have glimpsed it is possible for me to become.

My father mentioned God as well. This character thing goes even beyond our quality of life here and now. God has no intention of letting a bunch of little children (and I mean that in the pejorative sense) run around with his authority mucking things up, we are already doing that. The reason why God cares more about character is that is what prepares us to partner fully with our heavenly father in working for the redemption of this world. From this perspective, there are fathers with starving children in Mali that are far farther along than me. In this development of character we are being formed into the sort of creatures that God can trust with his authority.

Remember my father's wisdom and become more and more the person you couldn't dare to dream you might be and together we will build the house of our father, a place truly fit for the sorts of people God calls all of us to become.

Oh, and, thank you Dad.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Reality, Models, And The Legitimation Of Evil

Last day of finals tomorrow.

The Last Judgement, detail of satan devouring the damned in hell, by Fra Angelico c. 1431.

I apologize for the language below. This is an early attempt at getting this stuff out and this is more-or-less the sort of language I think in. This is what it looks like before I have become so comfortable with it that I am almost able to use words that make sense to actual humans.

There are three things that I want to draw out of that last post on 'The Problem Of Evil." Now, these three are not necessarily the most directly significant to that post however they are foundational to that which was directly important.

These three things are: the fundamental historicity of reality, the model building nature of theology, and the way the standard approaches to the problem of evil are actually functional justifications of evil.

I have been thinking about this notion of fundamental historicity for quite some time and am yet to develop language that accurately and adequately conveys what I am trying to get at. It would not surprise me if someone else has done this. But I haven't read what I am trying to get at. There is some of the Marxist influence of "real history" in the notion but without the Hegelian dialectic. I mean something beyond the statement that "history matters." Something more along the lines that concrete history is the fundamental stuff of reality. This is not the claim that we must study history to have a proper education but that the stuff that happens is the only stuff that really is. But neither is this a physical reductionism because I include in this anything that happens whether it is susceptible to a physical reductionist analysis or not. An upshot of this is the radical limitation of our capacity for knowledge of reality proportional to actual reality. Another upshot of this is that it is what actually happens in concrete history that really matters.

Yet a further upshot of this is that theology is less a systematizing of truth than a construction of models that attempt to simplify features of reality that we happen to have access to. It is just as much mental model construction as theoretical physics is. We build idea models that attempt to draw simple lines between the features of reality that we observe. Like constellations in the sky. I would hold that this is what the biblical authors were doing just as we do it today (and this is not, in my mind, a problem for the authority of scripture.) What this means is that theology is never in the fullest sense true. It can be more or less powerfully explanatory but it is always a simplification, an abstraction from reality. It will never be the case that a theology of salvation (soteriology) will be the same thing as whatever has been effected in history. The model and the concrete historical reality are completely different orders of being (while at the same time the model has actually entered into the reality of history, by nature of it's happening, but as an abstraction it is irrevocably other than and is unable to ever equal the reality it purports to explain.)

Now some will say, "well sure that is true and tritely so." To that I reply, "then act like you believe it." Theologians ought to take on the criticism that many attack scientists with. That is the holding to dogmatic buttresses rather than searching for counterfactuals. In other words, test the model. Try to break it rather than ignoring or dismissing features of reality that are problematic. This is how actual understanding of the reality that is really out there develops.

And third, the big fault of the traditional approaches to the problem of evil is that they assert that here is a legitimate place for evil in the structure of this world. With the aim of justifying God (or building a model in which God is no-longer legitimately culpable by our standards) in light of the undeniable presence of evil, the traditional approaches take evil as in-principle given and in so doing reflexively justify evil. If God is justified in "allowing" (or whatever term makes you happy) evil then evil itself is given a legitimate place in the model's understanding of reality. My shift from this in the previous post is to take evil as a historical reality within a progression of history rather than an in-principle reality within a steady-state logical model.

So there it is. A lump of ideas that mean quite a bit to me but I am not sure if they make any difference or are even comprehensible to any one else.

Any thoughts?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Problem Of Evil

Cambodian Sex Slaves
In this June 8, 1972 file photo, 9-year-old Kim Phuc, center, runs down Route 1 near Trang Bang, Vietnam after an aerial napalm attack. (AP Photo_Nick Ut)

Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp

Armenian genocide
The world is a mess. It is filled with evil and brokenness. From the dive motels in San Diego to the backstreet slums of Mumbai, from the policy makers in Washington DC to the God Emperors of red dirt African countries the world is like a meat grinder feeding on humanity. Embracing chaos and futility we have become a serpent eating its own tail.

You have seen the films of people being beaten, you have heard the 911 calls of children screaming in fear that their daddy was coming and then silence, you know the reality of rape, the living death of slavery, and the indifferent retribution of institutional murder. This is all real. Don’t hide. Don’t pretend it didn’t happen. Don’t pretend that it is not happening right now as we sit comfortably by. This is the world we live in. This is the world that we allow.

Now, lets talk about the problem of evil.

First off, let us recognize the obvious: evil is a problem. It is first a problem for those who experience it. It is second a problem, at least a discomfort, for those who see it. It is third a problem for belief in a wise, powerful, loving deity.

Now, allow me to disabuse you of a stupid vile lie. Evil is not a concept. It is an historical, existential reality experienced to one degree or another by the totality of humanity. This is an important point to make. The natural habitat of discussions regarding the "problem of evil" is academia. Theological and philosophical journals. University seminars. Faux intellectual gatherings in coffee houses. Timidly poked at by youth groups and bible study groups. The discussions are generally engaged in by people sufficiently free of the grosser effects of concrete evil to have the leisure to have such discussions. And, having had my own time in such situations, the discussion is much simpler to have if actual evil as experienced by humans is reduced into a semantically contained term that can then be logically manipulated to explore different theories. The problem that should be obvious it that what is being discussed is a concept and not the actual evil that is the actual problem in the actual lives of the actual humans.

Keeping that in mind, if you forget just go ahead and remember that somewhere in your neighborhood a child probably is being molested as you read this, let us look at the discussion.

Evil is a practical problem and it is also a philosophical/theological problem. There is a strong sense in which the philosophical/theological discussion of evil is a stupid waste of time. By far the dominant witness of Christian scripture is that evil is something to be resisted, attacked, fought, and overcome rather than discussed. Discussion does not actually feed starving people or protect someone from being hacked to death with machetes. Nonetheless, we have the book of Job, which is entirely devoted to discussion of the problem of evil. Also, our actions in this world are significantly affected by our understanding of reality. So there is a place for and value to discussion. However we must always remember that we are actually discussing babies being raped and not an abstract concept.

The theological problem of evil arises when we see the evil in the world and try to believe in a powerful, wise, and loving deity. If we drop one of those three factors the theological problem disappears. Either God is not powerful enough, or not smart enough, or not loving enough to stop Pol Pot from killing most of Cambodia.

There are classic Christian traditions that have gone for each of these options depending on which factor they were most willing to lose. The absolute sovereignty, "God is in control" tradition lets go of a loving God. The free-will position significantly modifies the power of God. There is even a tradition that God is figuring it out as he goes along. Interestingly enough, that third is by far the minor position historically speaking. Christians have been more comfortable giving up God's power or love than giving up God's wisdom.

Briefly, here are some of the basic problems with the first two (the third is so rare that I don't really care to address it.)

If God is in control then all that happens is the effective will of God and every particular about the actual happenings of this world are his intended actions, thus his responsibility, thus God does evil. The response to this is that from God's perspective it is not evil. And to that I reply, from Hitler's perspective Auschwitz was not evil. This reply is more rhetoric than substance but it points in the direction of substance: if God's perfect will is done now then what is there to look forward to in heaven where his perfect will will continue to be done?

If evil is the result of free-will then we are completely responsible for all of it. Not just the bits we have individually done but all the bits that we have allowed to be done and implicitly endorse by the products we buy, by the people we walk past, by not going to the danger zones and stopping it. As far as this goes I am more amenable to this position than to the first. But, it does not really let God off the hook because it was him who gave us free-will to start with and thus implicitly endorses our free-will.

I think that the theological problem of evil presented in the classical mode is intractable given the actual incidence of evil in the world. I believe that part of the reason for this is the conceptual playing ground. It places an abstract model of God, humanity, and evil as primary. It implicitly rejects these as primarily concrete historical realities. (Here is quite a decent post on both the value and the practical inapplicability of models. It is specifically dealing with scientific modeling but the same principles apply here.)

I think that one of my biggest problems with the classical approach is the way it seems to be attempting to justify evil, that is to give it an acceptable place in this world. One should never justify evil. Evil is always evil and never good. And as such attempts to justify it should be regarded as supporting evil.

The writer of the book of Job essentially concludes that God doesn't do evil but that the situation is just too complex for us to fully make sense of. However, that author does paint an interesting picture of God fighting mythical chaos monsters as an illustration of God's will toward the world and humans. I think that the key thing here is the fight. It is the historicity of fighting.

As I have indicated elsewhere, I tend toward the position that God has formed this world out of chaos and commissioned us to participate in the completion of this forming. I mean this in a historically concrete way. Out of chaotic dissolution God has brought a significant degree of order and has brought us into being to be his means of completing this ordering. The key here is that this is ongoing in concretely historical terms. It is a project not yet complete. The classical modeling of the problem of evil assumes a steady-state philosophically abstract/eternal structure already in place. It is lodging livability complaints about a building that is still an active construction site.

Evil really is evil. This world is still a mess. But we have been commissioned and empowered by the master builder to participate in his project, to realize his master plan. As we do this in the concrete historical actions of our daily lives, in the shit and the blood of this incomplete earth, as we bring light and life and set both the slaves and the slavers free and bring true reconciliation between rapist and raped and both feed the hungry and create the systems that keep famine from happening, then we are actively solving the real problems of evil.

Some further thoughts on some of the things I have said in this post can be found here.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

I Like It, But I Am Not Quite Sure What To Do With It

 I was recently speaking to a close friend of mine and they told me about this dream they had.

Now, I am not entirely sure what to do with dreams. However, I found it, at the very least,  vividly illustrative of some features of life-after-death that would not surprise me. With their permission I have related the dream here. Worst case it is just some weirdness to be dismissed, best case there are some pictures and structures in here that may open doors in your mind and soul that bring freedom in ways that only features of a story can.

So I'm beginning to have a recurring dream about my own death

It goes as follows:

I am arrested for treason and killed via injection. Some times I get away for a bit, then get shot, dragged in and injected. Other times I just go with it. For the first few times I knew for certain I was about to die and I really wondered what I was going to find on the other side, or if there was actually anything there. The first few times there wasn't. Things just went black.

Then the last time I had this dream I knew it was going to be different. The reason I was not actually over to the other side, for lack of a better word, in the previous dreams was because I had not gone brain dead. As long as the brain is functioning, it will filter out perception of the afterlife.

I knew this time it was going to work all the way.

I get injected, go into paralysis
feel as the various biosystems shut down
finally I realize the brain is about to go
then it does and everything is black
then quite as if it was totally natural
I come to on the other side
this is where it gets really interesting
I woke up in the back stage area of a theater
wearing 16th century British attire
along with a few others dressed the same

Here is the key thing.
NOTHING fundamental had changed.

The only thing different about the after life is that we could not die again and were now stuck with accepting reality for what it was. Also, we could see through each others thought processes and realize that all the same emotional dynamics were in one had actually changed, gotten better, worse, wiser, stupider, and most of all no one was at peace because, and this is the really important part, we all still had complete freedom and responsibility.

The big change was that we now had no pretense of morality or right and wrong to justify anything we did or didn't do.

We started fighting and arguing and I realized that we had been stripped to the barest essentials of junior high level emotions and retardation because these emotional process and not some abstract notion of morality are what actually direct our actions
we could no longer hide it
guilt did not exist
right and wrong could not be used as a justification
only schoolyard shame
It wasn't a question of if we should or should not do something because it was good. It was a question of what people would think if we did something. This is what underlies all actions.

This all confirmed for me that fear is not tied to survival as people would assume from an evolutionary stand point, because we were no longer physically alive. It is tied to the soul, it is tied to interpersonal emotions.

God was no more present or not present than in the physical world. We just saw him as a constant, which is to say we ignored him because he was in the room with us instructing us on what we were actually dealing with.

As I remember it the big conflict in the rehearsal room was when to go live on stage.

And here is where it gets insane.
We had to strip, as in take off the clothes we were wearing, and go on stage to do a live sex show. (Not to read into it too much but the going on stage part in my opinion was about our new bodies and the sex show part has to do with entering into a level of intimacy that would just seem obscene to our current sensibilities.)

The big take away from all this is that our impression of the after life being Heaven or Hell or whatever are wrong.
It's all Hades or Sheol.
Everyone goes there and it is a continuation of everything we did or didn't do in this life. Unlike the common religious assumptions about the afterlife like both places being where we have no responsibility/freedom, and we either are made perfect or burn for all eternity, we had complete freedom and all pretense was stripped away.

The evolutionary process of making us more perfect however was fully in effect
I realized that the growing would never stop and we all had a long way to go.

The idea that we are still free in the afterlife, that we are not relieved of our freedom, but that we can no longer hide from it or hide it from ourselves, and that our passing is a transition to a deeper development of personhood with the crutches of this world stripped away.

I find the picture invigorating and it drives me to want to accept more responsibility for my own actions and inactions to better prepare for that next phase.

What do you think of it?

Friday, June 1, 2012

A Big Enough Story

She deserves shoulders to stand on
I have a day job that almost pays the bills and that has me traveling much of the time. I am CEO of The Charis Project, working like crazy to establish a model for self-sustaining care for at-risk children that transforms the surrounding communities to the point that the children are no longer at risk. I am working out a theology that drives human participation in cosmic redemption. I try to be a present husband and father to my wife and four children. I claim no particular moral fortitude in any of this. At one level this is just the work I see that needs doing.

On the other hand, I could have a much easier life if I dropped a few of these things.

Children learn to live in the stories that their parents create. Parents create these stories by the words they say to and around their children. But more so they create these stories by the life they lead, by how they live their lives. We build the universe our children live and grow in.

If we live a small life we provide our children with a small universe with near horizons. They will learn to live in this story. They will learn to settle the way we have settled and they will not know that they have settled.

C.S. Lewis talks about sin in terms of being satisfied with too small pleasures. "Reality television," a new iPod, sex without commitment, making the next rung on the company ladder: pleasures too small to sustain life. But, pleasures that fill a small universe. Symptoms.

It is one thing to tell our children that they can do anything. It is a completely different thing to lead by example. To build a larger universe, to create a larger story we need to live in a larger universe. We need to not just talk about it but we need to actually interact with it. We need to, by our actions, push back the horizons.

It is not enough to not watch "reality television." It is not enough to only have sex within a committed relationship. We need to start living in a larger story ourselves. However, what is required is something that goes beyond ideology. Another way to put this is that we need to live beyond ourselves.

In order to actually build we need to act in the concrete. This action cannot be transient but must be committed. It cannot be random but must be intentional. Whether that action is deciding to find a way to fund an orphanage or doing stand-up comedy to give people freedom and hope.

(It may be that most any concrete action that brings benefit can push the horizon as long as the stated and true reasons for that action extend beyond the action itself. When we do not act merely to act, but rather for the sake of something greater that is still embodied in the action itself.)

My parents gave me a big universe. I grew up in a world where people's lives were transformed by a power greater than my parents because my parents acted. I grew up with a father who gave more than he had for the sake of not just an abstract notion of truth but a truth that hit the ground and set people free from crippling abuse and lies. I grew up with a mother that decided that her measure of success was the quality of humans she let loose on the world.

I do the things that I do because I owe it to my children to provide them with a big enough story for them to come fully alive in. I owe it to them to turn them loose on a universe big enough for them to find pleasures great enough to bring life in abundance.

Rather than bemoaning the decline of the youth, let us push their horizons, let us give our children a universe and a story in which they really can do anything then they will not be satisfied unless they are really doing something.

What concrete actions can you take to make your children's universe bigger? I want to hear them.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...