“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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Against Separation, Part 2

The United Methodist Church is a large, bureaucratic institution. “Connectionalism,” is one of our highest values, “congregationalism” one of the vices we most loudly decry. These aspects of our polity mean that what happens at the top really matters. When bishops set the discipline aside they act like Louis XIV – “L’Eglise c’est moi.” I don’t need the wisdom of the church. There is no account of wisdom, holiness, or justice, higher than my own conscience. Why submit to authority we deem ungodly?

When bishops act this way in the context of a connectional, authoritarian polity, their lesson is not lost on those over whom they reign. Maybe those who serve beneath them should listen to their consciences as well, against the church as embodied in their leaders. If bishops can ignore the discipline with impunity, perhaps we can as well. Why submit to authority we deem ungodly?

Where will it stop? The presenting issue, our conflict over what do to about competing accounts of human sexuality, is not going away. If we separate, our separate bodies will only retain the purity of our “justice,” “truth,” and “holiness” for a short time, before cracks appear. If we separate and build tall fences, walls, or moats around our bastions of purity, we and our people are still immersed in an American culture infatuated with sex and dulled in our ability speak with nuance and care by a constant drumbeat of “love,” “affirmation,” and “inclusion.” Our prior (generations long) marginalization of doctrine has eviscerated these good words of the needed connection to the Christian narrative and tradition that give them healthy substance.

But then the Catholics among us will say that separation is just what Protestants do. We divide. The Bible our standard? Truth our standard? Justice our standard? Not at all! Only our own private interpretation of these is the standard. Until we set aside our individualism, separation will be our story.

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Against Separation, Part 1

When I was ordained, Bishop Oliphint asked me and the other candidates a series of questions inherited from John Wesley. Methodists of various sorts have been asking and answering these questions for a couple centuries now. There’s nothing new here.

  1. Have you faith in Christ? Not, “Is the economy bad and you need a cushy, guaranteed job.” There may be (for a while) something called a “guaranteed appointment,” but if you’re not driven by the work of God in Christ, go somewhere else.
  2. Are you going on to perfection? We stray from this in two ways. First, we laugh it off. Perfection? Ha! There is no such thing. God made us finite. We’re fallible by nature. Wesley’s idea is quaint, but since I want in the club, I’ll say yes. Second, we accept the possibility of perfection but provide the content ourselves. We live up to our own standards, not God’s standards. It like the speaker I heard in one of our chapel events last year: “You can’t expect reason to win the battle against raging hormones.” We define perfection down so that it fits “our” reality.
  3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? Here we fine tune the second question, adding a qualitative dimension (“perfect in love“) and a temporal dimension (“in this life”). Love is such a great thing. We reduce everything to love, then define love as we like. Jesus didn’t just say, “Love one another.” He added the line, “as I have loved you.” That short line brings in the narrative of who Jesus is and what he’s done for us. Love isn’t just warm feelings of regard, mushiness, raging hormones, sexual attraction, or commitment (for as long as we can humanly manage). Love is defined by Jesus. When we add in the Jesus component, the “in this life” dimension starts looking a little dicey and we feel the temptation to scale back the requirements, to define perfection down. Ah, but there’s a third dimension here. Notice the passive voice: “be made perfect.” Perfection is a work of grace, a work of the Spirit. We’re not just passive recipients who do nothing; we are recipients of a grace we cannot earn, merit, or achieve, however.
  4. Are you earnestly striving after it? Striving after perfection is hard work when our lives are already so full. Busyness may be the biggest impediment once we’ve gotten the Jesus-vision of perfection.
  5. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work? Framed this way, it’s a 24/7/365 job, people.
  6. Do you know the General Rules of our Church? We know them in outline, though I think we’ve lost the function of the rules in early Methodism and shorn them of the contextualization Wesley’s (now largely outdated) examples gave them.
  7. Will you keep them? They’re easier kept when abstracted.
  8. Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church? Sure: we have to do make it far enough to be faced with these questions. Well, at least we have to take a class in seminary that stylizes itself as United Methodist Doctrine. But then sometimes we lapse into “we’re not a creedal or confessional church” and treat them only as quaint and dated landmarks from the past.
  9. After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures? Full examination is difficult, again given our busyness. Here we get the added dimension of putting them up against the scriptures. Notice that the question asks about harmony. “Absolute and total agreement” would leave less room for weaseling here.
  10. Will you preach and maintain them? Well of course we will – at least until they conflict with our conscience or beliefs.
  11. Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity? Again, we have to take a course in polity and discipline. Our polity and discipline are very conservative. In the 20th century we grew into a large, bureaucratic institutional church. Adding that on top of the authoritarianism we inherited from Wesley and we have what we call “connectionalism,” The worst sin against the church so conceived is what we call “congregationalism.” In the United Methodist Churches congregations exist, but they don’t just go off and do their own thing.
  12. Do you approve our Church government and polity? How would things go if we answered other than yes? What if we’re allowed to mention our reservations: Apportionments? Infant baptism? Episcopal authority? Identification of the practice of homosexuality as incompatible with Christian practice?
  13. Will you support and maintain them? This follows closely on the heels of the previous question. The spirit of the question includes an implied temporal dimension: “As long as you are part of the connection.” What’s not implied is a list of caveats: Until I become pastor a large church/become bishop/get famous and can reject them, ignore them, or change them with impunity.

There are more questions, but these are the ones that form my response to the separation implicit in the actions of those who inhabit the power structures of the church and increasingly explicit in the words of those who deplore the usurpation of General Conference authority.

A word that occurs nowhere in these questions yet is implicit in all of them is submission. As a good modern and a good American I hate the word – and the idea it stands for. I am an autonomous individual. I am well-educated. I have years of experience at my job and have done well at it. I have a well-formed conscience. It grates on me to have to believe or do what someone else tells me to do – to submit. Yet when I stood before the bishop, the annual conference – and even God(!), that is exactly what I said I would do. No one forced me to do it. I could have said, “This denomination, like every other I’ve investigated, fails to live up to my standards in some way, so I’ll go start my own.” I didn’t. I took the profoundly counter-cultural step of submission.

At least that’s how I took it. It wasn’t just the step of expediency: “I’ve put in all these years of schooling, taken on loads of debt (though I’m not yet embarrassed), and have worked my way through the system. It’s too late now to find another job (especially in this economy.” I submitted. I’ve continued to submit. I’ve even preached submission. I still don’t like it all the time (even doing something I like becomes less palatable when it’s framed as an act of submission), but I do it any way.

So – Bishops who have decided you know better than the polity and discipline of the United Methodist Church: Have you advanced to the place that you no longer need to submit? Is submission only for us lowly peons at the bottom of the System?

So – Pastors of large churches with big crowds and big bucks: Have you advanced to the place where you no longer need to submit? Are you bailing on us?

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Immune Systems, Individual and Social

I listened to Russ Robert’s interview with Moises Valsquez-Manoff (on Econtalk) yesterday on my drive to pick up my daughter. The conversation was about recent studies showing the role increased hygiene plays in the rise of allergies and auto-immune diseases. Apparently in at least some cases parasites (hookworms and malaria are two examples given) influence the human immune system to tolerate the presence of the “guest.” The immune system is weakened enough to allow the parasite, but no so weakened that the hose succumbs to the invader. This weakening benefits the host by turning it away from things that are not harmful (allergens in the case of allergies, and the host’s own body in autoimmune diseases).

I’m not a biologist, but here’s my understanding of how immune systems work. Taken most simply they have two functions. First, they differentiate between the body and the not-body. Put another way, a healthy immune system polices the boundary between what is me and anything that would be seen as a threat. Proper function here has two parts: successfully identifying real threats, and letting be anything that is not a threat. Second, having made this identification, the immune system seeks to neutralize the threat. When the immune system is successful in its identification of threats and in its attempt at neutralizing threats, the body lives on to fight another day.

Individual organisms have immune systems. I believe social systems have immune systems also – well, at least functions analogous to immune systems. A healthy social system has agents/routines/practices in place that differentiate between what is of the system and what is not. The healthy social system will also have a way to neutralize what it takes to be a threat so that the system can continue.

Let me shift course a bit. In a healthy social system there is bonding social capital that holds the system together. It binds member to member and makes the group cohere. The social immune system is one aspect of this form of social capital. The concept of social capital, popularized recently in the work of Robert Putnam, is actually of ancient vintage, first theorized by the medieval scholar Ibn Khaldun as what he called asabiyya.

Like some immune systems, the social immune system can fail to function well. As to the first task, it can fail by missing an attack from outside, or misfire by taking part of the social body as an outsider. As to the second task, the failures are more complex. Something correctly identified as a challenger can overcome the social system, destroying social cohesion. It can also rewrite the system’s ‘DNA,’ the ideology of practices, beliefs, and institutions that make it what it is. It’s also possible that the social immune system might practice overkill, committing evil against the invader (which is usually the people in whom the invading idea inheres). Xenophobia can be seen as the social immune system run amok. Akbar S. Ahmed has illustrated this last form in his discussion of the hyper-asabiyya of groups like Al Qaeda.

I know all this is very rough so far. I’m still working through these ideas, so bear with me. My goal is to think through the current chaos – and lack of social cohesion in the United Methodist Church and other mainline churches. If social systems have something like an immune system, and a church is an instance of a social system, what might it look like for a church to have an immune system? The Inquisition might come to mind. My assumption is that that would be an example of an immune system gone awry.

What if the social immune system is like the individual (biological) immune system? What if an absolutely strong immune system is actually bad for the organism as a whole? Complete social cohesion, even to the degree of xenophobia not only keeps others out (sometimes violently), but also keeps the system from achieving its goals. Take the church, for example. The church is called explicitly to philoxenia (hospitality), the exact opposite of xenophobia. To the degree we totally reject that which is foreign we fail in our mission. On the other hand, the church does need an immune system. There are threats that would deChristianize the church (the push toward xenophobia itself being one of them). How do we strike a healthy balance here?

What do you think of this use of metaphor? Is it useful? How can we develop it further?

Posted in Al Qaeda, Clash of Civilizations, Politics, Robert Putnam, Samuel Huntington, Social Capital, United Methodism | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

A Suspicion about Bubbles & Inequality

When I’ve read about retirement planning I’ve often seen references to savings earning a return averaging 8% a year (just recently I’ve seen the 6% figure used). That’s been tougher to find lately, as “safe” investments (federally insured accounts) are paying at a rate below the rate of inflation.

If one has piles of money lying around, one wants to find a decent rate of return, so what is one to do? One looks for some market area or segment that looks (the least bit) promising and plows the money in. The result is asset bubbles as prices are artificially inflated, surpassing the inherent value.

I suspect that as income (and asset) inequality continues, there will be a procession of bubbles as investors chase good earnings. If income (and assets) were more equalized, people at the lower end of the economy would be able to engage in more consumption, helping businesses. At the same time, a greater distribution of wealth would spread the saving across the economy, rather than just at the top. The combination of greater economic activity across all quintiles would do more for the economy than does the current practice of concentrating wealth in the hands of the elite.

Caution! This is only a suspicion on my part. I have no degrees in economics to base this suspicion on. What do you think of my suspicion?

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Discovering Your Real Self

We sometimes have the idea that our job in life is to discover our real self. This self exists independent of all our life experiences and the forces of society that intentionally and unintentionally make us over into something else. Christians who take this position might see this true self as the self created by God, yet distorted by sin and the pressures of living in a corrupt world. As we turn from our sin and rid ourselves of the influences of the corrupt world, the original God-created self can shine through. Those who don’t believe in a created self might attribute the origin of the real self to our DNA or some sort of fate.

Inasmuch as we’re human, we’re made in the image of God. Being made in the image of God gives us a commonality with all other humans. It is both past oriented (we have a common origin) and future oriented (we are invited to a common destiny). This common creation in the image of God means that all of us have a significant portion of what we are in common with others, whether those others be family, friends, or even enemies.

If we are of an existentialist bent, we will reject the idea of there being a self to discover. Rather than have some essential self that is there all along, our job as humans is to create a self. What we do makes us what we are. If I love, I am a lover. If I sin, I am a sinner. There is no self to which I must be true: I create myself as I go along. It is the existentialist within us that bristles at the notion that we ought to “hate the sin, love the sinner.” If I am what I do, then when you say you hate what I do (sin), you are saying that you hate me (the sinner). You may make a distinction, stuck as you are in your essentialism, but I, an existentialist, feel only hatred and rejection. There simply is no distinction between what I am and what I do.

I don’t find either of the accounts I’ve mentioned so far to be very useful. Approaching the problem phenomenologically, I from time to time sense a distinction, a distance, between what I do and my “real self.” This is where I can identify with what I read in Romans 7: Sometimes I know the right thing to do, having a concept of “right thing” not merely as something declared right by the forces of society or some bossy controlling God who is out to ruin my life, but as something even I consider right. I know the right thing but do it not. In this case the “hating the sin and loving the sinner” is not the stance of an external judge but my reflection on myself. I have a sense of a better life – both a better life in general and a better life “for me.” I want to change so that I can do all within my power to instantiate that better life.

I also don’t think there is some real self there for me to uncover. Not in a substantive sense anyway. My ontology is structured around the reality of story. I live in a story. I am a character in this story. This story is partly my own, partly others. On the grandest level, my story is part of the story of God. If there is such a thing as “discovering my true self,” that discover is not directed toward the self, but directed toward God. As I discern more clearly and truly God’s story and my role within that story, I, as a result, more truly discover my self.  As I become a willing participant in the story of God, as I submit my (partially) self-written story to God’s story, I become more the person God intended me to be. As I become the person God intended me to be, I find that result to not just be better for God, but better for me as well.

Some are inclined to dig within themselves to find the deepest insight into what God wants them to be. Popular as this is, I see it as a way too prone to self-deception. It is a way that too easily reasons, “I am this way, so this must reflect what God wants me to be like.” Alexander Pope famously said a few centuries ago, “Whatever is, is right.” I can’t say that either about the world or about myself. I know myself to be a sinner. I know the world to be marred by my sin and the sin of others. So is the fact that I am a sinner me “real self?” That I am a sinner is a current reality about me that I need to take into account, but it is neither the identity for which God made me nor that for which he intends me.

Christians take the story of God to have climaxed in history in the story of Jesus. Jesus went to the cross not thinking “whatever is, is right,” but with the apparent conviction that the world and its inhabitants were in desperate need. In Christ we see that God wanted to do something about my current identity as “sinner.” God’s desire was so great that he sent Jesus to do something about it.

In a sense I am called to recapitulate the story of Jesus in my own life. He said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” My taking up my cross will most likely look rather different than his taking up his cross. But if I do it rightly, my taking up the cross will be recognizable at some point as an echo of his taking up his cross. I will die with him so that I may truly live.

This notion of a life submitted to God is rather unpopular these days. We value autonomy (being a law unto ourselves) and condemn heteronomy. Heteronomy is for children, not adults. Once we’ve clarified our desires, we ought to seek what we desire, submitting to no one. If there is a story of God, that story is a story of oppression. We want the freedom to make our own story, now and every day.

As Christians, however, we turn away from the notion that we make (or ought to make) ourselves, that we are (or ought to be) a law unto ourselves. We look to God as the good Creator who loves us beyond measure and is wise far beyond our capacity. Entering into the continuing story of Jesus is good for us and the people around us.

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Beauty in the Eye?

Beauty in the Eye

Most of my students express the conviction that beauty is always and only in the eye of the beholder. In the face of differing accounts, assessments, and experiences of beauty, this position seems natural. I take the music of Bach to be beautiful while another takes it to be just so much noise. I look at the landscapes of the Hudson River School and find beauty while others look to Jackson Pollock’s work for their exemplars of beauty.

A downside to this subjectivist point of view is that we have to leave behind the intuition that there is beauty in the world. When we look at the sunset or painting, when we hear the song or watch the dance, we take ourselves to be experiencing beauty. We think that when we perceive beauty in these things we are perceiving something that is there. We might even have the experience of saying to a person, “You are beautiful” (or thinking that of ourselves). If, however, beauty is always and only in the eye of the beholder, such experiences are mistaken. There is no beautiful thing in the world. Rather, what we have are experiences of things in the world that we decide to call “beautiful.”

If beauty is always and only in the eye of the beholder we also lose another dimension of our talk about beauty. We imagine, perhaps, that one might be judged to speak truthfully one when says of a thing, “This is (or is not) beautiful.” Assessments of beauty, can, we think, at least sometimes be correct or incorrect. However if beauty is always and only in the eye of the beholder, then there is no right or wrong, unless we count lying as a form of being wrong. When asked, “Do you like these shoes?” I can respond, “Yes, they are beautiful,” whether I take them to be beautiful or not. In this case there is a gap between my assessment (“not beautiful”) and my words (“beautiful!”). When this happens it is my statement that is wrong, not my assessment. Since beauty is always and only in the eye of the beholder, my assessment (the “speaking of my eye”) cannot be right or wrong. It simply is, and is the sole arbiter of beauty.

There is another dimension of our experience of beauty that is called into question with this account. Some of us take time and effort to learn how to produce beauty. We – or, more likely, our teachers – may see that our beginning efforts in some craft fall well short of producing beauty. As we work in the craft we develop two things in parallel. We develop the capacities to discern beauty in terms of certain canons of the art at the same time (though perhaps not at the same speed) we develop capacities to produce the art. At the very beginning our capacities of discernment go no further than “I like that” or “I don’t like that.” As we train our senses, however, we learn to see, hear, and experience more than we did initially.

This notion of learning beauty is, I believe, an important pointer to why we so commonly believe that beauty is always and only in the eye of the beholder. As we have shifted from the predominance of production to consumption, we have lost the skills necessary to discern the goods internal to the practices of the arts. In fact, as nearly pure consumers, we have even mostly lost the notion that there even are goods internal to practices. Practices inhere in communities of practice. As our culture becomes more and more individualistic, we lose the notion of communities of practice in favor of the notion of lonely practitioners accountable only to themselves.

Andy Crouch wrote (and spoke) about the contrast between the experience of buying a CD and learning to play an instrument. When we buy the CD and first listen to it, our satisfaction is high. Since we own the CD we can listen to it over and over. As we listen over and over, our satisfaction tends to go down. We soon need to buy another CD to regain the level of satisfaction we had with the last CD. This pattern of consumption normally results in decreasing satisfaction over time. When we learn to play an instrument, Crouch says, our level of satisfaction follows a different pattern. While we may have initial excitement when we first begin, we quickly learn that we’re horrible. We heard beautiful violin music when we were at the concert (or listened to the CD!), but our first attempts sound to us and to our families like the wailing of a dying animal. Our satisfaction quickly becomes rather low. But as we practice, as we put in time learning the instrument, our satisfaction gradually grows. We have learned to produce beauty, not just consume it.

If Crouch is right – alas, I gave up my instrument in 7th grade – then we have an important insight into how we might recover a richer experience of beauty that can take us beyond ourselves. I know very little about painting, but I know what I like and don’t like. If I took time to study, perhaps even to learn to produce, my judgment will change. I will learn to be able to assess beauty in a more informed way, in a way that is more than just the equivalent of “I like it.” For us to regain this ability as a culture will require that we slow down and adopt the perspective of practices. This won’t be an easy shift – consuming is so easy and cheap, after all. I think it would be worth it, however.

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