Dealing with Anger: Pessimism or Contentment?

In class today I showed the students Alain de Botton’s presentation of the philosophy of Seneca.

I think Seneca (as interpreted by de Botton) is genuinely insightful. The richer and more successful we are, the more prone we are to anger and frustration. Anger is the result of having our expectations frustrated. We want the world to be a certain way, for events to go a particular direction. We see this phenomenon not only on the individual level, but in nations through history. Revolutions tend to come not when things are at their bleakest, when people have the least. Instead, they come when things are looking up. When things improve, those improvements almost never keep pace with expectations of improvement.

Seneca’s solution is to lower our expectations. Well, more than that. We should not just lower our expectations, but grow in pessimism. We should recognize that the world is a hard place. A little imagination every morning (Stoic devotions/quiet time?) will help us think of all manner of things that can go wrong in the day. When we learn to expect bad things and those bad things sometimes don’t happen – hey! we can be happy!

The strategy of low expectations or pessimism makes sense. But I’d rather go another direction. I prefer going with Paul’s “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” Paul would have agreed with Seneca that the world was not necessarily a happy place. Things frequently went wrong. Yet when he’s in prison not knowing whether he’s going to live or die, Paul doesn’t act like Seneca suggest suicide or melancholy. No, Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord, always; again, I say, rejoice! I can do all things through him who gives me strength. I have learned to be content in any situation, whether well-fed or hungry.”

Paul’s way of life was centered on Jesus. He knew the Jesus way was not the way of easy, dancing happily through the lilies. He knew Jesus had said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” His way of handling the disappointments, sorrows, and sufferings of life was not to practice expecting the bad; it certainly wasn’t to give up and embrace suicide. No, Paul’s way with Jesus was to find the source and purpose of his life in Jesus. As I find my content in Christ I can find a way to not only deal with frustration, but also to channel the anger that comes from the gap between the way things are and the way they should be into something positice.

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Reading For the Sake of the Bride

Here in the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, we’ve been encouraged to read Steve Harper’s recent book, For the Sake of the Bride. Bishop Huie is preparing us to have discussions in the various districts.

I’ve just finished the book & have a few reflections:

  1. The need to be centered on and driven by love is essential – but often forgotten or redefined out of existence.
  2. I respect Harper’s admission that all the biblical material that relates to same sex activity is negative – AND the contextualization of that (particularly in Romans 1) with the universality of sin. I’m careful to do that as well whenever I teach or preach from that text.
  3. I, too, have learned much from E. Stanley Jones. I barely knew the name when I began at Asbury Seminary and reckon learning more of his work to be one of the high points of my education there.
  4. I especially like the way Harper & ESJ center on Jesus. I know no other way to be Christian. We rarely go wrong when we center on Jesus. Sure, we might recruit Jesus as an adjunct to our own causes, but that often collapses Jesus into an idealized version of ourselves.
  5. Humility is essential. As one with a philosophical temperament, I know I can be wrong. As John Wesley noted, I currently believe (a) all my beliefs are correct, taken individually (otherwise they wouldn’t be my beliefs) and (b) that it is highly unlikely that all my beliefs, taken as a whole, are correct (given my track record of having to make corrections). I have a high capacity for doubt. Jesus is all I hang on to.
  6. Unlike Harper, I am not convinced that marriage can be moved beyond the traditional model of gender complementarity. (Phillip Blond and Roger Scruton give a secular argument for gender complementarity in marriage while simultaneously endorsing gay unions and urging churches to approve them.) Now on the one hand, the sociological hand, my doubt is clearly misguided. It is a sociological fact that marriage can be anything a particular society causes it to be. We currently have same-gender marriage in at least some states (and countries) so it is an undeniable fact that same gender marriage is a reality. My doubts on the possibility are from the direction of theology and the biblical approach to marriage. It is clearly obvious also that both Christians and others who hold to the gender complementarity understanding of marriage have often done marriage poorly. The prevalence of abuse, infidelity, and the like make a mockery of claims to honor the “sanctity of marriage.” (Harper doesn’t use this argument in his book.) Doing a thing poorly is different from not doing a thing; I’m just not at a point where I can see same-gender “marriage” as marriage.
  7. Harper makes much of the concept of “dualistic thinking,” but he ties it so closely to the mere act of differentiation that I don’t see how it can stand. We can say, “There are two SIDES in the current debate. We need to transcend the dualistic thinking of SIDES and do LOVE instead.” This isn’t setting aside dualism, but trading one dualism for another. The old SIDES (both of them) are “non-love,” the new is “real love.” The end result he wants, which he clarifies toward the end of the book, is that the problem of dualism is that it results in hierarchy. That may be the case. Though rejecting hierarchy in the abstract strikes me as impossible (we have to order perceived goods as we live our lives), the rejection or at least reduction of hierarchical thinking is often a good thing. I think his case might be strengthened if he explicitly argued in favor of differentiation (many) instead of rejecting dualism.
  8. Finally with regard to core claim of his book, I think he is correct that the only way forward is to meet & talk. His mention of the creeds of the early church is important here. If I had written that section I would have made more of the fact that creating those creeds took a lot of time. What we use as the Nicene Creed began at the Council of Nicea in 325 but most of the final article wasn’t added until 381. Even then the issues continued to be debated. We complain about working on this issue for 40 years. We lack the capacity (patience?) to imagine that reaching a decision about some issues can take a really long time.
  9. Moving outside the book: I don’t have a position of much authority in the church. I’ve never been a delegate to GC or JC, and lack the political astuteness (and patience) to imagine being such. Even so, though I am one who counts myself as a member of the Confessing Movement and supportive of the church’s current position, I have no desire to approach the matter legalistically. I don’t want to go hunting for those who’ve got it wrong. (Maybe Gamaliel was on to something.) I don’t think our hierarchical polity helps us here. There is so much power and control from above (on this and other issues), that our relationships are warped. Our current Discipline pushes us toward a “one size fits all” approach, leading to the fear our side might lose: we take losing in this kind of system to be losing everything. We also have the problem of trust. Before the issue of homosexuality even comes to the table we don’t trust each other: Pastors don’t trust DSs or bishops, DSs don’t trust pastors or churches, churches don’t trust pastors or cabinets.
  10. Moving farther afield, I think we need to do more work on the question of “orientation.” It’s become a primary concept in this debate. Orientation may be a useful concept, but if it’s limited to issues of sexuality and framed in the context of determinism, I don’t find it tenable. I find a variety of “orientations” in myself and cannot take these to be automatically good or bad merely on the basis of their being my orientation.
  11. Finally, and here I go back to Harper’s book, though he frames the book as a “third way” in the debate, I’m afraid that I’m still looking. Saying that we should love each other and talk together is opposed to the way of controversy aimed at winning. Saying that we adopt the notion that sexual immorality is the thing to be avoided, and that sexual immorality is defined as sex outside of marriage, and making the move to see same gender marriage as acceptable, is not a third way. I can’t help but read it as a position that requires complete capitulation on the part of the traditionalists. If there’s another way to read this move, please chime in.
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Jesus and Culture

Yeah, I know; given the title of this post I could write just about anything. I’m only going to touch on one aspect here.

Sometimes we complain about how biblical scholars give us a Jesus who looks nothing like us, a Jesus so enmeshed in his own ancient Jewish and Mediterranean culture that we don’t know what to make of him any more. The salvation that Jesus preached isn’t just the “be forgiven so you can go to heaven when you die,” or “God is nice so you be nice too” messages that we’ve heard since childhood. Since we’ve failed to eliminate his kingdom language, there’s an irreducible political tinge to all Jesus did and said. His salvation redeems/creates a people who will live according to God’s agenda in the midst of constant cultural opposition from multiple directions.

One of the things we can get from that biblical scholarship that highlights Jesus’ culture and those that neighbored it, is a clearer sense of the contrast Jesus created. Jesus spoke of being “light in the midst of darkness.” We’ve too easily applied that as a self-congratulatory “we’re right, and you’re REALLY wrong!” Well, maybe we are, and maybe you are, but even more, the light and dark language is a language of contrast. When we look at Jesus in his culture, we see that though he was making moves that advanced the cultural game plan, they were not at all the moves anyone expected. He stood out.

I believe paying closer attention to Jesus and the way his life contrasted with his culture can open our eyes to the ways our Christianity fails to contrast with our own. When we see some Christians who are culturally indistinguishable from various parties in our culture (we might think in terms of political parties here), something’s not right. Perhaps if we learn the difference exemplified in Jesus, we can learn to expect one in our own lives – assuming we plan to walk in the Jesus way.

Yes, I know the problem here. Assuming God has an agenda for our culture, for our society – an assumption many Christians have made through the centuries – there’s a chance that some Christians might align with that agenda and to some small degree enact it. In that case there will be at least some aspects of culture that are aligned with what God wants. To put it briefly, God wins! Because of this, just as we cannot simply assimilate to our culture and remain Christian, neither can we simply adopt a totally contrarian attitude. The primary thing is neither “go with culture” nor “go against culture.” The primary thing is “Go with Jesus.”

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Not Islamic?

In last night’s speech the President said,

Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state.

I’m going to limit my comments to the first thing the President makes clear, since I find the claim less than clear.

If we were to approach ISIL folks (and survive the contact in some way that would allow us to report on the results) and ask, “Are you Muslim,” I have no doubt they would answer in the affirmative. I take it to be indubitable that they consider themselves to be Muslims – to be an Islamic group. In fact, it appears that they take themselves to be truer representatives of Islam than the other groups out there. They are so faithful to Islam that they have declared themselves to be the new Caliphate.

When I see Christian groups standing for and doing things that I take to be antithetical to Christianity, I am inclined to say something like, “They’re not really Christians.” Considering the actual ways purported Christian groups have acted over the past two millennia, I can think of many ways of not being Christian.

But what’s the difference between not being a Christian (when one takes oneself to be a Christian) being a Christian poorly? To what degree can my understanding of real Christianity, orthodox as I am, be taken as definitive of what it means to be a real Christian? I would think that my assessment of real Christianity has more credence than the assessment of non-Christians. I’m an insider: I have a commitment to Christ, to the Christian community (considered more broadly than just my own United Methodist Church), and to the advancement of Jesus’ kingdom. I have a stake in what is really Christian, a stake non-Christians usually don’t. When I see some group, Westboro Baptist, for example, acting in a way (in fact, apparently, defined by these actions) in a non-Christian way, I would like to say, “Those people aren’t Christians.” I’d go further and want to say, “Because those folks aren’t real Christians, you should not get your idea of the nature of Christianity from them.” From this angle it’s a variant of “Don’t look behind the curtain!”

If I were a Muslim, I’d surely not want my friends and neighbors (and children!) to think that the ISIS (or ISIL or IS or whoever they are) represent real Islam. I’d be much more comfortable saying they are obviously something else altogether. I know Islam; that’s not Islam. The President’s claim is coming from a perspective like this, even though he is not a Muslim. Like President Bush before him, President Obama speaks as a hypothetical Muslim. He does not want to believe that real Islam beheads journalists, crucifies religious opponents, or flies airplanes into buildings. Since I have Muslim friends, I don’t want Islam to be like that either.

What if the ISIS people are genuine in their claim to be Muslim? What if what I want – and what our presidents want – is irrelevant? My reading of the situation is that we are dealing with a conflict internal to Islam. We outsiders have wishes and desires – we want peace & safety – but we don’t get a say in what counts as real Islam. In the way some Christians stand against the practices of Westboro Baptist, some Muslims will stand against the ISIS conception of Islam. Time will tell which Islam becomes the real Islam, and which is considered Islam done wrongly.

It is surely the case that there are phenomena that are not Islam. Muslims would likely be the best to discern that these phenomena are not Islam, but as I, a Christian, would be better at discerning that a given phenomenon was not Christian. But as with the Presidents, sometimes my evaluation leans toward the factual, sometimes to the wishful thinking (or, more nicely, the hortative).

Finally, the general point I am making is that we need to sharpen our practices of predication and evaluation so that we allow the difference between not doing a thing and doing a thing poorly.

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Books (a Friday evening rant)

Books enable scholars to extend their reach. A single teacher can only have so many students. When the teacher writes a book, what that teacher has to say can be passed on to many students. Book may be expensive, but they rarely cost as much as the teacher who wrote the book.

Now we are going bookless. Books cost too much and the students can’t afford them. Now we offer free resources on the internet. Those free resources can be so much more than just a book. They can include not only text to be read, but audio to hear and video to see. And, compared to the books we used to use, it’s all free.

Well, maybe not. What about the students who can’t afford the hardware needed to access the online text, audio, and video? What about those who have the hardware, but cannot afford the subscription to get the internet piped into their homes? Well, that’s why we have computer labs on campus. If they cannot access their material at home, they can do it on campus. But when we make that big campus-wide shift away from books to internet content (free content!), do we strengthen our network so that it is more reliable? Do we up the bandwidth and speed to handle the capacity of more people demanding more from the network?

The free online content is easily available to many people simultaneously. Well, when they can afford the access. And when the electricity is working. A book – the old fashioned kind made out of paper – can only be used by one person at a time. But once one person has used it, the book can be passed on. It takes on a life as it imparts life. And books work when the power is off, amazing things that they are.

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Dismantling Education?

I keep hearing the observation (prediction?) that higher education is being disaggregated (most recently, here). What is meant by this is that the sources of the learning that add up to any given degree/diploma/certification are not going to come from a single or even small number of institutions. One will typically, it is said, take each course from the “best” teacher of that subject, wherever (and whenever?) that teacher might be located. There may be a covering institution that awards a degree based on completing a set degree plan, though few, if, any, courses are taken at that institution.

One brake on this model is that most of us are used to thinking of education happening in the social context we call school. But it is also the case that some of the success of the online/MOOC model comes from people knowing what to do with it given their previous understanding of what school is and out it works. Doing an online class is a move in the social institution we call “school,” or, more narrowly, “college.” Perhaps this is why so many of the young people I know strongly prefer face to face over online education.

But what happens when the school goes away? What happens when the institution in which online education “is a move” is no longer there? I’m wondering about not only the step of disaggregation, but of social disembedding. In what social context will the various moves that currently aggregate under the name “education” find a new home?

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“Liberal” and “Conservative”

We use these words, “liberal” and “conservative” quite a bit and in multiple contexts. From where I stand, I see them used most frequently in theological and political contexts. They are not as helpful as we think, since we often fail to recognize that they operate on two different levels.

The first order use of these terms refers to substantive traditions. The liberal traditions in both political and theological thought are complex and have multiple forms. There are competing visions of what it means to be a liberal. This is also true for the conservative traditions in politics and theology. This first order usage is not the primary way we use the terms, however.

More commonly we lapse into the second order usage. We think of a liberal as one who is open to change and new experience. A conservative is one who wants things to stay the same. This second order usage is perfectly fine – but if we’re unaware that it’s different from the first order usage, we can run into some confusions.

Think about this. Are most participants in the American liberal political tradition liberal (open to change) or conservative when it comes to maintaining Social Security? Are most in the American conservative political tradition conservative (closed to change) when it comes to Obamacare?

Because of these confusions (and others), some have suggested a moratorium on the use of “liberal” or “conservative.” Some say they have become meaningless. I wouldn’t go that far. Rather, I’d prefer that we pay attention to our use of this language and try to be clear.

Paying attention to the ongoing arguments that constitute and advance these complex traditions in both realms, politics and theology, will do us well. It will also do us well to recognize that there are elements of our communities, churches, ideologies, etc., about which we would do well to be liberal, as in open to change, and other elements about which we would do well to be conservative, as in working toward maintaining what we have.

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