Sunday, May 28, 2006

Intellectual consequences

Returning to the topic of ministry and postmodernity . . .

The consequences of the collapse of the modern and the reaction to that has intellectual, social and emotional aspects, and there are significant spiritual consequences as well.

The central feature of the intellectual reaction was expressed by Lyotard: "Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives" A metanarrative (sometimes master- or grand narrative) “. . . is a global or totalizing cultural narrative schema which orders and explains knowledge and experience." When looking at the history of science, such ideas have been called paradigms and the change from one major paradigm to another in one field a scientific revolution. Such a shift follows the increasing difficulty of explaining physical phenomena using the older paradigm. This is true for metanarratives in general – when a particular great story seems to stop working, people tend to find others.

Our perception is never completely naive -- we always bring some baggage with us when we examine and evaluate the world we look at. For example, I have a friend who teaches biology at a local college, who has spent years studying the plant and animal life of this area. I can look some water in a pasture in the hills to the east of here, and see a large puddle that will dry up to a mud flat as summer approaches. My friend sees a vernal pool, ringed with wildflowers, the water containing tiny animals that may exist nowhere else in the world. We have different experiences and expectations of what we will see, therefore we really see different things in the same place. How we perceiveve the world is affected not only by experience, but by expectations and desires. The old saying is more accurate when stood on it's head: "believing is seeing." And the most powerful way to affect all these things that we bring to perception is by stories -- narratives that tie together our experience and desire with meaning, embedding it into our memories and emotions. Change the metanarrative, and in a way you change the world.

One relevant example of a metanarrative is the idea of progress. After almost unlimited trust in secular progress starting in the 18th century and extending into the 20th, experiences over the past century seem to have destroyed the faith of many that we are on the way to anywhere we really want to be.

This distrust of metanarratives is reinforced by the observation that social elites often have used the promotion and manipulation of such grand stories as a form of masked social power. Reaction has led to the attempt to replace grand narratives with smaller, local, more individual narratives. The personal is preferred to the universal.

This presents challenges to Christians, Catholic Christians in particular. Over the past two millenniaia, the Gospel has been the source of foundational metanarratives, first within Europeanan cultures, then globally. If one mistrusts metanarratives in general, one can specifically mistrust Christianity, often without really encountering its message and claims. Part of these ruling stories from the Gospel (and the Old Testament before that) is the idea that God is not on the side of the powerful, but on the side of the poor. The Christian message is not intended to protect the powerful but to subvert unjust power -- which makes it a "sign of contradiction" when compared to all the metanarratives that serve to keep things as they are and the powerless in their place.

That is why historical episodes such as the Spanish Inquisition continue to cause Catholicism trouble in this current situation. The proper apologies of the Church (which were overdue) and the revision of scholarly opinion on the Inquisition (which now appears to be that it was a much more limited and secular institution than often thought) do not seem to be relevant to the world in general. The problem comes from the perception that the Church, the bearer of the Gospel message, lent its approval to what, to 21st century eyes, was a program of ethnic cleansing. Arguing over who did what, when, does not address this problem: the identification with the Spanish Inquisition paints the Church as just another institution, and the Gospel message as just another metanarrative serving power, not to be trusted.

It is useful to consider just how this affects how both Catholics and non-Catholics see such issues as liberation theology (and the Vatican's reaction to it), clergy sexual abuse and misconduct, and neo-Gnosticism in works like The DaVinci Code.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

All Flame

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, 'Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?' then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, 'If you will, you can become all flame.'

from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

I couldn't resist

I am nerdier than 93% of all people. Are you nerdier? Click here to find out!

I could not resist taking this test -- the results are published here as fair warning.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Reaction

Back to the issue of postmodernity.

In saying that we are in a postmodern predicament we are discussing both reaction against as well as development from the modern. It is not a return to the medieval or a rejection of all things modern. Too often we use the analogy of a pendulum, implying that over time, things swing back to where they were before. Basic social changes such as the ones we are living through work differently – we react against some aspects of our lives while clinging to others, in particular economically driven changes. For example, some (inaccurately in my opinion) from time to time will assert that there is or will be a reaction against, and rollback of, the changes that came out of the feminist movement of the 1960’s-70’s. Various social phenomena are pointed to in support of that – but the percentage of women who work full time does not change, and is not expected to change. We are reacting against some parts of the modern world while clinging to others. If one is waiting for the return of the medieval world or the rise once again of the classical philosophers, one should either join the Society for Creative Anachronism or a university classics department, and get it out of one’s system safely.

Next: the consequences of the collapse of the modern.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Reveals to the nations his saving power

The lessons for the sixth Sunday of Easter:

  • Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48 (diff)
  • Psalm 98:1, 2-3, 3-4
  • 1 John 4:7-10
  • John 15:9-17
Why in the world should someone believe in God these days? We do not see the our world as "god-haunted" -- we have no problems explaining everything we experience in scientific terms, even those things we don't understand well. The things we can see and touch, these things we are sure of. God is a matter of personal opinion, at best.

When you look at the ancestry of the verb to believe you discover it does not mean to have an opinion about something. At its root it means to set one's heart on something. If we are to believe in God, we are to set our hearts on him, to turn our lives around to center on Him. But why would we do this? Is there an experience in this seemingly godless world that would make us thing that God is real?

There is -- the experience of being loved. The second lesson today is from the first letter of John:
Beloved, let us love one another,
because love is of God;
everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.
Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.
In this way the love of God was revealed to us:
God sent his only Son into the world
so that we might have life through him.
In this is love:
not that we have loved God, but that he loved us
and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.
When we say we have faith, that we will set our hearts on God, we are saying that the ultimate ground of reality, behind everything we see or feel or hear or touch, is love. If we do not know love, we cannot know God. And love is not something abstract, it is concrete, it is personal. We can believe that God exists, because somebody, somewhere, sometime, loved us in such a way that we could see that God could exist, that love really does make sense. Each one of us must have at some time, known that someone else valued us just for our own self.

Today's readings teach us three important lessons about God's love for us.
  • We can love, because God loved us first -- We were created out of love, and we were created to love. All of scripture tells the big story of God's love for His people, no matter what his people do.
  • Love makes us all equal before God -- In the first lesson, we hear Peter tell Cornelius, a Roman, that God accepts him just a fully as God accepts Peter himself. We are all equally dependent on God.
  • Our response to God's love is to do what He asks -- Jesus tells his disciples that if we love Him, to do what he commands and love one another. We are not to be passive receptacles of God's love and care. Our call is to lavish that same love and care on each other.
What can we expect if we answer this call to share the love that we first received? Loving as God loves is very inconvenient indeed, as it involves putting the needs of someone else ahead of our own wants. It necessarily involves sacrifice, and often the risk of loss and pain. Love is free, but it is not without a tremendous cost. But by giving others the knowledge that they are truly loved, we are making it possible for them to have faith in God. They can only see God if we make him visible in our own lives.

In his very first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), Pope Benedict XVI teaches about this:
We have come to believe in God's love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.
God has loved us from the beginning, that is how we know who He is. We must decide whether we will do our part to make that love real for the whole world.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Quote: Henri Nouwen

. . Every human being has a great, yet often unknown, gift to care, to be compassionate, to become present to the other, to listen, to hear and to receive. If that gift would be set free and made available, miracles could take place. Those who really care can receive bread from a stranger and smile in gratitude, can feed many without even realizing it. Those who can sit in silence with their fellowman not knowing what to say but knowing that they should be there, can bring new life in a dying heart. Those who are not afraid to hold a hand in gratitude, to shed tears in grief, and to let a sigh of distress arise straight from the heart, can break through paralyzing boundaries and witness the birth of a new fellowship, the fellowship of the broken. . . .

To care means first of all to empty our own cup and to allow the other to come close to us. It means to take away the many barriers which prevent us from entering into communion with the other. When we dare to care, then we discover that nothing human is foreign to us, but that all the hatred and love, cruelty and compassion, fear and joy can be found in our own hearts. When we dare to care, we have to confess that when others kill, I could have killed too. When others torture, I could have done the same. . . .

By the honest recognition and confession of our human sameness we can participate in the care of God who came, not to the powerful but powerless, not to be different but the same, not to take our pain away but to share it. Through this participation we can open our hearts to each other and form a new community.

from Out of Solitude.

Friday, May 12, 2006

The march of the modern

In previoius posts, we reviewed briefly the nature and sources of the dominant modern Western culture. The positive achievements of this modern world, the world of science and the idea of progress, are easy to see. There are technical achievements in medicine, manufacturing and communications, and social achievements in establishing a new ideal of liberty and individual rights that is, at least in part, approached in a number of places around the world. But there are negative achievements as well in this modern world. Starting with the French Revolution and stretching on to global climate change, we have learned of the social and environmental cost of the “modern” world.

One particularly interesting area of modern change is communications. Two hundred years ago, printing still used human power to run the press, and messages could only move as fast as you could move a piece of paper. Over the intervening time, our ability to communicate expanded drastically in both speed and capacity. This process resulted in the creation, in the 20th century, of mass communications, where one person, in the right place with the right resources, could speak to an entire nation at once. This had effects throughout human societies around the world, changing the way we create and maintain organizations, including religious organizations and activities. Protestant churches, the mainline denominations in particular, are very modern in character, and often model their organizations almost exclusively on corporate models. (In fact, after some historical examination, it could be argued that many Protestant bodies are products much more of the Enlightenment and industrial revolution than of the Reformation.)

The Enlightenment and the modern paradigm was an outgrowth of European philosophy and culture – European culture (which includes American culture) developed along with these ideas and structures. Other, non-Western cultures encountered them through colonialism, or 20th century mass culture. These non-Western cultures have adapted to the impact of the modern in various ways, often involving rapid change and social upheaval. The apparent successful adaptation to some Western ideas in much of Asia in the 20th century follows tremendous dislocation and conflict during the 19th century. Islamic cultures have generally not been as successful, even though there have been numerous top-down attempts to force such adaptation over the past century and a half. These failures are partly responsible for the apparent conflict between western and Islamic states at the beginning of the 21st century.

The Catholic Church struggled with these changes throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The French Revolution (the ultimate example of both the bright and dark sides of the Enlightenment), combined with Napoleon, caused damage that the Church in Europe has not yet fully recovered from. For example, the 1,500-year history of monastic life in much of Europe almost came to an end at that time. The attempts to wrestle with the intellectual challenges of the era led in many ways to the “Modernist“ conflicts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The centralization of control that started with Pius IX can, in many ways, be seen as a reaction to these political and intellectual stresses, as well as to the introduction of early forms global communications. Word now could and did get to the faithful by other means than the local bishop, which meant that the Church needed to find new ways to try to keep Christian teaching and ministry “on message”, beyond simply the control of the local bishop. (It is interesting to look at the First Vatican Council in this light.) By the end of the 19th century, the Church started its sophisticated reaction to the social and economic changes of the era , as shown by Rerum Novarum (1891) and the subsequent development of Catholic social teachings. In general, the Catholic Church has adapted to the modern era, with varying levels of success, but is less tied to these “modern” ideas than other Christian bodies. At times in the past, this sometimes seemed to be a problem — but in our new predicament this may be a significant advantage, along with the increasingly global nature of the governance of the Church.

Next -- after the modern, what?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Quote: Luke Timothy Johnson

The basic decision, after all, is to let God be God, to say 'yes' to the work of the Lord, which goes before the church's ability to understand or even perceive it.

from Scripture and Discernment

Links: 5/11/2006

Enough with the heavy culture -- on with some links:

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

So, what does "modern" mean anyway

There are few words that have been more popular in use over the last century than “modern”. (The main rivals, I think, have been “new”, “improved”, and “scientific” -- perhaps I have watched too many soap ads lately.) For the past couple of centuries, those of us in the West have been living in what is usually called the modern world, a system of ideas and social structures that has transformed the world, or at least the part of it we live in. In trying to analyze the current challenges to Christian belief, the Rt. Rev. N.T. Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham, England, outlined what “modern” means:

But, in case some feel left behind by all this jargon, what do we mean by 'modernity' and 'postmodernity', anyway? A quick thumbnail sketch is all we have time for. By the 'modern' world I mean, broadly, the western world from the eighteenth century to the present. The European Enlightenment at the intellectual level, and the Industrial Revolution at the social level, produced enormous changes both in how society worked, literally and metaphorically, and in how people thought. The large-scale shift from agrarian economies to factory economies had, of course, profound social consequences, of which some parts of New Zealand at least are, I am sure, very much aware. Those who learnt to think for themselves in the Enlightenment without fear of tradition, and then in the Industrial Revolution, those who learnt to make things for themselves rather than having to grow them, acquired a new confidence: they could take on the world.

Thus there grew up the modernist trinity: first, the confident individual who says, 'I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.' Secondly, there was certainty about the world and about our objective knowledge of it. We can look at the world and know things, and that is objective knowledge. (Someone said facts, like telescopes and wigs for gentlemen, were an 18th century invention.) Thirdly, and perhaps above all, there grew up a new mythology of progress; the belief that the world was actually going somewhere, was progressing, and was about to reach its goal. Reality was then conveniently divided up into facts and values; facts were objective, values were subjective. Or, in another of the great Enlightenment ways of carving up the world, there were the truths of reason 'out there' which the mind might be able to grasp, and the truths of the empirical world, the things that you could actually do business with. There was an ugly ditch, said the German philosopher Lessing, between the two of them. Split level reality, is what the modernist trinity purchased at considerable cost, and we have been paying that cost ever since.

The negative corollaries of all this are quite clear: the European world said we are no longer bound to traditional religions or ethics. We live in the real world, people said, and religion and ethics are a matter of private opinion. Part of the avowed aim of modernity was to get away from endless European wars of religion, by showing that religions were simply about what people did with their solitude, and that it was therefore absurd to fight one another about such beliefs. We have learnt to think for ourselves, and can use this ability to show up barbarity and superstition, to free ourselves from the tyranny of tradition.
This is from a 1999 lecture by Wright, and the whole thing is worth reading. More on modernity and the Church in the next post.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Our Predicament

I began my interest in this topic a couple of years ago, when I became interested in the phenomenon of Burning Man. I wrote a series of posts about it, including the perspective of one Evangelical pastor that has been to that festival several times. The final post in the series was to be my own reactions to BM in light of my own understaning of Chrsitianity. Well, I started following ideas about modern culture, postmodernity, the emerging church, and well, here we are. In many ways, the whole direction of this blog is a follow on to those posts -- an attempt to understand the current predicament we are in when trying to minister to others.

In my opinion, one of the realities that a minister must face is that we continue to live in a time of fundamental change and uncertainty. During much of the 20th Century, we experienced the consequences of the gradual collapse of “modernity” – the ideas and structures born of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution that are the foundation of the way we have all lived, at least here in the Western or European cultural world. Our “postmodern” predicament is that we seem to have no general replacements or successors for these ideas, with the result that we seem to be in a kind of “waiting room” between eras. We aren’t sure we know where we are going, but we do know we are going there faster and faster – and we do not trust those who offer directions.

Vocabulary is one problem when assessing this situation. The word “postmodern” has taken on many meanings, ranging from literary criticism to architecture to philosophy. The reaction of some to our current predicament, our uncertainty, is to say that there is not and has never been any certainty, only opinion and the attempt to impose these opinions on others by various means. The proper subject of philosophy or artistic criticism is no longer an examination of ultimate truth or beauty, but only of how we use language, and reuse images and symbols. This is an overly simplistic, but not entirely inaccurate way of describing the ideas of some of the best known “postmodern” theorists, such as Lyotard , Derrida and Foucault . We need to carefully distinguish between:

  • their assessment of the current state of our society, which can be uniquely insightful, and
  • their prescriptions for dealing with the challenges that our changing society presents us, which are often completely inconsistent with Christian experience and belief.
To use a medical analogy, while their diagnosis may be correct, we may not trust the treatment they prescribe. What we should concentrate on is not postmodernism, whether in music, art, or critical theory, but postmodernity, the predicament of living in a modern world in the middle of becoming something else.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Servants of the Word

As I mentioned before, one reason that I have not been posting as much is work on a long final paper for New Wine. Well, that paper is just about done, and a couple weeks late, but there you are. The requirement was 10 pages double-spaced, and I am probably going to hit 15+ pages, single-spaced.

The topic is the transition to a post-modern culture and its effect on ministry, with a particular look at the New Evangelism. The actual paper has a sizeable chunk of discussion of my own experience in ministry and New Wine, stuff I may pull from in the future for posts. But for now, the core material on what is happening culturally worldwide and the predicament we are in is what I will be putting up, in appropriately sized pieces. The title page of the paper includes the quote that gives the paper it's name: Servants of the Word

To nourish ourselves with the word in order to be servants of the word in the work of evangelization: this is surely a priority for the Church at the dawn of the new millennium. Even in countries evangelized many centuries ago, the reality of a "Christian society" which, amid all the frailties which have always marked human life, measured itself explicitly on Gospel values, is now gone. Today we must courageously face a situation which is becoming increasingly diversified and demanding, in the context of "globalization" and of the consequent new and uncertain mingling of peoples and cultures. Over the years, I have often repeated the summons to the new evangelization. I do so again now, especially in order to insist that we must rekindle in ourselves the impetus of the beginnings and allow ourselves to be filled with the ardour of the apostolic preaching which followed Pentecost. We must revive in ourselves the burning conviction of Paul, who cried out: "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel" (1 Cor 9:16).

Pope John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte, chap 40
The plan? First off, to look at just what "modern" means culturally, and to examine the signs that we are moving somewhere else. In particular, review the intellectual, social, and emotional effects of this transition, concentrating on the spiritual consequences of all this. There are some specific challenges and opportunities on the way, and some indications on the directions ministry may take as a result.

Basically, these are the topics I said that interested me at the beginning of the year when I moved to this space -- so there is no surprise here. Stay tuned.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


On with the links:

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Quote: Walter Burghardt, SJ

Our parishes and congregations often present a wide range of experience, income and education. You have to be able to use a vocabulary that everybody understands. This doesn’t mean that you are always using monosyllables. But most people will understand if you speak the language of ordinary conversation. Apart from the technical language, just talk to them so they feel that you are really talking with them. Somebody said to me that people don’t want to listen to homilies. My answer to that is that people don’t want to listen to bad homilies.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Links: 5/2/2006

How can you tell I'm back? Links!