Wednesday, February 28, 2024

What is justice? What is rational? The role of tradition and context

One narrative of the Enlightenment is that by the discovery of reason humanity was liberated from the bondages of tradition. However, things are more complicated and subtle. Reason and rationality must start from somewhere. There is no clean slate. 

These issues are explored in great depth by the philosopher Alasdair Macintyre in his book Whose Justice? Which Rationality?  

In a Précis he presents a helpful summary of the main theses of his book through exploring the narrative histories of two rival philosophical traditions, that of Aristotle and of Hume.

that no way of conducting rational enquiry from a standpoint independent of the particularities of any tradition has been discovered. There is good reason to believe that there is no such way.

that the problems of understanding and representing faithfully the concepts and beliefs of some tradition alien to one's own in a way that makes those concepts and beliefs intelligible within one's own tradition confront difficulties which can in certain contingent circumstances be overcome.

that rival traditions have rival conceptions of rationality and of progress in understanding, but this does not entail relativism or perspectivism.

that although these theses are themselves advanced from the standpoint of a particular tradition, that of a Thomist Aristotelianism, they involve a substantive and nonrelativizable conception of truth, and that in this respect as in others there is no inconsistency in making universal claims from the standpoint of a tradition.

Hence, traditions are not something to be easily and summarily dismissed. They cannot be escaped. Traditions can be used, critiqued, and modified. An intellectual tradition is the fruit of a long conversation. Tradition forms an important element of any intellectual endevour.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

The messy complexity of facilitating reconciliation

I was asked to write an endorsement for a book written by my IFES colleague, Augustin Ahoga, and published by Langham (in French). It is based on his PhD thesis.

Vers un modèle africain de dialogue interreligieux

Le cas de Vodun Xɛbyoso et de l’Église des Assemblées de Dieu dans la région Maxi au Bénin

Here is a DeepL translation of the title, subtitle and abstract.
Towards an African model of interreligious dialogue:
The case of Vodun Xɛbyoso and the Assemblies of God Church in the Maxi region of Benin

In this study, the author has developed an African research methodology for interreligious dialogue, based on an experiment in the Maxi region of Benin. This experiment was carried out among a verbomoteur people, in a vodun context, for the resolution of conflicts involving Christian communities.

Based on the experience of conflict resolution between the Evangelical Churches of the Assemblies of God (EEAD) and the Vodun Xɛbyoso, the author has formalised a resolution approach called the 'African Model of Inter-Religious Dialogue' (MADIR). MADIR is applied when an ethnic group splits into conflicting communities due to the introduction of another religious tradition. This is why MADIR's resolution principles are based on : "ethnic identity as a basis for dialogue" and "cultural history to re-establish mutual trust".

This book is for anyone interested in inter-religious conflict resolution or empirical research among the verbomoteur people, and anyone working in development structures that reach out to the rural world or the verbomoteur people.
I wrote the endorsement below (based on reading a DeepL translation). I really hope an English translation will be published.

This wonderful book is a benchmark in excellence for research at the heart of the whole mission of God. Dr. Ahoga skilfully and critically integrates insights from theology, anthropology, and conflict studies, with his own lived experience, careful fieldwork, and loving practice of the ministry of reconciliation. He presents an African Model for Inter-Religious Dialogue (MADIR), that is concrete and practical. Ahoga developed, tested, and refined it to resolve a complex communal conflict that resisted other approaches. Despite this specificity, the book deserves careful study by a wide readership. 

While scholarly and profound, the book is fascinating and easy to read. The model presented has significant potential to be adapted and applied in other contexts and for purposes beyond understanding and resolving conflicts in a community. The model could aid the development of contextual theologies and stimulate mission initiatives that are culturally sensitive and have a lasting impact to the glory of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


Friday, January 5, 2024

Grief, truth telling, prophetic imagination, and social change

I recently watched the movie Till with my family. It recounts the tragic death of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old African American, who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. Two men were charged with murder but acquitted at their trial. Later the two men confessed to the killing in a paid interview for a magazine article.

Most of the movie is about the grief of Till's mother, Mamie Till-Bradley, and how this drives her to activism with the NAACP and energises the campaign for civil rights. A key event is Mamie's courageous decision to view the tortured and battered corpse of her son, and then to demand a funeral with an open casket, so others can see what happened to him.

By coincidence, I am currently reading The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann. Its themes and ideas resonate with the movie.

“The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” - page 3

The consciousness of the southern USA [and Australia] in the 1950s was that non-whites had no civil or voting rights and that they should accept the system as it was. Nothing was going to change. Entrenched powers created, maintained, and enforced this social reality and consciousness. This consciousness can be identified with what Brueggemann calls the "royal consciousness", that was created, maintained, and enforced by kings of Israel, beginning with Solomon. 

In the 40th Anniversary edition, Brueggemann reflects.

 “I would now alter ‘royal consciousness’ to ‘totalism’...The term ‘totalism’ refers to a socio-ideological arrangement in which hegemonic ideology takes up all the social space and allows for no alternative possibility. Its claim is ‘total’!” 

A key dimension to this "totalism" is that it leads to a numbness about death.

"What I propose is this: The royal consciousness leads people to numbness, especially to numbness about death. It is the task of prophetic ministry and imagination to bring people to engage their experiences of suffering to death." (page 41)

Mamie did this. 

Friday, December 15, 2023

A personal reflection on Christian spirituality

This is a personal reflection on the first hundred pages of the book

In the Midst of Much-Doing: Cultivating a Missional Spirituality, by Charles Ringma (Langham, 2023)

I have some reservations about "Christian Spirituality" that are slowly being eroded. One reservation is the fear of subjectivism that neglects objective and universal truths stated concretely (albeit imperfectly) by Orthodox creeds and doctrine, based on Biblical revelation. A second reservation is the fear of spirituality and meditation leading to self-absorption, introspection, individualism, and a self-legitimation of consumerist desires and aspirations. Finally, I have a prejudice to choose activism over contemplation. This book does much to address my concerns and invites me to a balanced Christian spirituality. The following statement in the Preface resonates with me.

the genesis for this book was formed in the midst of my own unsustainable evangelical activism, which was further complicated by my somewhat compulsive personality. My search for a more sustainable spirituality was also influenced by some unhealthy theological concepts that I inherited from my Reformed tradition—particularly its election anxiety and paramount focus on personal piety, with little attention to nurturing liturgical and communal spiritual practices. 
My focus on personal activism was also unwittingly reinforced by naïve Western notions about our capacity to change the world because we presume that God is “on our side.” When we take on a calling that is well beyond our capabilities and resources, we may boldly set out to try to make things better in our society while treating God as an onlooker, a boss we are seeking to please, or someone who is there simply to cheer us on.  (page xxv)

If “Reformed tradition” is replaced with some of the churches and organisations I have been involved with over the past four decades this reflects my own experience. I have had three major burnouts, each accompanied by mental illness. In all cases, they were precipitated by unsustainable activism, driven by wrong thinking and distorted theology. 

Only over the past few years have I come to appreciate, and even celebrate(!), my uniqueness as an introvert, a scientist, and a Christian intellectual. I am easily drained by social interactions, uncertainty, noise, crowds, rush, .. but am energised by time alone, reflection, reading, planning, rest, Sabbath…

Central to the book is the “trialectic paradigm of the head (theological formation), heart (spiritual formation), and hand (missional formation).” These cannot be separated, isolated, or given relative priority. We need to engage all of them and integrate them into our lives.

“the fundamental theme that runs through this book, … is that mission is not just a task but a way of life… our missional calling is: to join and cooperate with God’s redemptive, healing, and transformative activity in bringing all things into the new creation.” (page 21)

What is Christian spirituality? It is a relief to learn that it is quite different to forms that I encounter and resist. In particular, it is Trinitarian. The Spirit is not some vague source of mysticism that will affirm our own fantasies and desires but rather the presence of the Father and the Son, bringing to mind the teaching of the Son.

Christian spirituality is motivated and shaped by a life devoted to following Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. (page 25)

key definition…: a missional Christian spirituality is a way of life in Christ through the Spirit that animates our love and service to others. (page 26)

Ringma identifies seven marks of Christian spirituality: a way of life, cruciform, sustained by the Spirit, communal, spiritual disciplines (Sabbath and self-care), for the life of the world, and being sent. 

Evelyn Underhill said that Christian spirituality has “everything to do with the political” (page 33). I found this surprising as I tended to think of her as a mystic who was disengaged from the “real” world.

Underhill also strikes a helpful note of realism, reminding us that in the grand purposes of God—the restoration of all things in the new creation already begun in Christ—we are “to take our small place in the vast operations of His Spirit.” In this, she highlights the importance of knowing our particular calling and giftedness so that we can function out of who we are and what we have already received. Thus, our missional spirituality does not depend on us alone, but has everything to do with the ways in which we have been gifted and called. This implies that we will need to embrace both our calling and our limitations. As a consequence, ministry is not a “grinding” activity, but rather joyful and purposeful service—which is also costly. (page 35)

This is amazing for me to read. It is liberating. I wish I had internalised this forty years ago. Being a low-energy academic introvert is not a flaw, curse, disability, distraction, or self-indulgence. It is part of my calling and giftedness. This includes my privileged family and academic background, education, and professional experience. This includes my love for learning, science, and nature. As well as my passion for justice and concern for the marginalised.

As a Christian intellectual, I enjoy reflecting on the world (politics, economics, science, technology, culture, and education) and trying to understand it through multiple lenses including theology. I enjoy sharing those reflections through writing, teaching, blogging, and my work with the Logos and Cosmos Initiative, within the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. I receive positive feedback and affirmation from others for these activities. Thus, I find the passage below helpful and encouraging to put my efforts in the broader context of missional spirituality.

In contemplating the face of God through prayer, solitude, reading, and reflecting on

Scripture and our world, we cultivate friendship with God and we seek God’s will for our time. This will involve a hermeneutics of both text and context. Understanding our world will also involve the work of exegesis, theology, and the historical and social sciences. In our contemplation of the world through the cycle of action and reflection, we seek to understand both the goodness of God in our social fabric and institutions as well as the idolatries of our society and culture. Amidst this interplay, we seek to discern how God is inviting us to participate in God’s passion for the healing and reconciling of all things through Christ. (page 83)

Henri Nouwen notes how time with God is not inward looking and selfish, but rather gives us fresh eyes to wonder at those we love and care for.

Following the desert father, Evagrius Ponticus, Nouwen says that contemplation is about seeing “things for what they really are” and moving from “opaqueness to transparency.” Thus, the “contemplative life is a life of vision.” This new way of seeing involves seeing all things bathed in “the Creator’s love” and in the light of “the hand of God with us” in all that we are and do. However, this way of seeing life and the world is not based on a few extraordinary moments, but a whole way of life that is possible when the “God within us recognizes God in the world.” Nouwen observes that when we see “ordinary life with its daily routines and responsibilities with a ‘deeper vision of life,’” it has consequences for how we see others. He writes, “our time of being with God gives us new eyes to see the beauty and gifts in those for whom we care.”

Contemplation is not escapism from our struggles or from the suffering in the world, but actually the path to a deeper engagement with the world.

A key summary of Nouwen’s understanding of contemplation is that “the movement from loneliness to solitude is not a movement of growing withdrawal, but instead a movement toward a deeper engagement in the burning issues of our time.” (page 104)

Thomas Merton has a similar perspective. Contemplative prayer enables us to see the world as it is, in all its created beauty and the ugliness of human sin and idolatry.

Merton makes it very clear that contemplative prayer is not simply for monks, and he further emphasizes that it is not a way of escaping from life’s realities. In fact, the contemplative is always “searching . . . his [her] own heart” while at the same time plunging “deep into the heart of the world.” This form of prayer and reflection “does not blind us to the world, but . . transforms our vision of the world,” so that we can see the love of God upholding our world and gain insight into the “falsity and illusion” of much of life, along with “exposure to what the world ignores about itself—both good and evil.” (page 106)

I had the completely wrong idea about Teresa of Avila. My views were coloured by the discussion about her “ecstatic” experiences. However, she was actually a very practical person, being influential in "the Catholic reform movement, with Teresa of Avila’s emphasis on the “journey to spiritual marriage” and its outworking in “growth in love of neighbor,” " (page 115)

Ringma’s summary puts things in perspective. 

While it is possible for the Christian mystic to get marooned in the eddies of one’s own spiritual experiences, this is not the hallmark of the Christian mystical tradition. Rather, its orientation is rooted in the inextricable connection between the love of God and the love of neighbour. As such, there is a direct link between mysticism and ministry, (page 116)

Mysticism (contemplative prayer) focuses on internalising God’s love for us. But a genuine experience of that love through the Spirit cannot but overflow into a love of others, particularly those whose God’s heart breaks for, the lost and the marginalised.

Finally, I love the following quote:

The Jesuit philosopher and spiritual director, Father Thomas Green, while emphasizing the transcendence and otherness of God, notes that “God is really the most sensible person that I know” (Prayer and Common Sense, 9). What he means by this is not a denial of the mystery of God in the life of faith, but that living the Christian life is also about responding to and living normal life realities. He notes that “this world—and our human experience—is not a dream, to be rejected as illusory or unreal. Rather, we are called to see it from a new vantage point, in a new light” 

This book has already had a profound impact on me. I commend it to you.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of the book from the author, who is a fellow "holy" scribbler. 

Thursday, November 16, 2023

What do Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr have to do with one another?

This month at the theology reading group we are discussing Bonhoeffer and King: Their Legacies and Import for Christian Social Thought. It is a volume of eighteen separate essays and edited by Willis Jenkins and Jennifer M. McBride.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived at different times and in different contexts. Bonhoeffer lived, wrote, preached, resisted, suffered, and was executed in Nazi Germany in 1945. King lived, wrote, preached, resisted, suffered, and was assassinated in a racially-segregated USA almost a quarter of a century later, in 1968. Coincidentally, both were killed at the age of thirty-nine years and four months. Both took a stand against injustice and resisted tyranny, ultimately at the cost of their lives. Both were completely driven by their theological convictions, with a focus on costly and radical discipleship, and the Sermon on the Mount.

Both had communitarian perspectives on life and politics. Here is an example, from King.
“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be... This is the inter-related structure of reality.” 
 Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail

Note, that this mutuality resonates with the apostle Paul's perspective on the church as the body of Christ, as described in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12:25-26:
But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
Although there are similarities between King and Bonhoeffer, there are some significant differences. Foremost, Bonhoeffer as a Gentile and a child of privilege had the freedom to choose to take the path of suffering. In contrast, King and his forebears did not have a choice. Suffering was forced on them because of the colour of their skin. They were enslaved, beaten, lynched, discriminated against, and denied civil and voting rights. Yet in that enforced circumstance they had the choice to take the path of the cross, to suffer with dignity, to forgive their enemies, and to turn the other cheek (page 158).

A second difference was their theological perspective, including their interpretation of the Bible. King embraced his education in liberal Protestantism, claiming it more "rational", sometimes distanced himself from orthodox belief, and interpreted much of the Bible in terms of the social gospel. Bonhoeffer had a higher view of Scripture and embraced orthodox creeds. Note Bonhoeffer was against the tide of his time, when Germany was awash with higher criticism and liberal theology. Although, Karl Barth was a kindred spirit.

Both were preachers who carefully crafted sermons with aesthetic appeal and anchored in Biblical texts, metaphors, and theology. There is a nice chapter on "Preaching and Prophetic Witness," by Raphael Warnock, currently pastor of the last church that King pastored, and recently elected to the USA Senate.

A chapter, "King and Bonhoeffer as Protestant Saints," by Stephen Haynes, ends by quoting the first two stanzas of the poem, "A Dead Man’s Dream" written by Carl Wendell Hines Jr. as a tribute to King.
Now that he is safely dead,
Let us praise him.
Build monuments to his glory.
Sing Hosannas to his name.

Dead men make such convenient heroes.
For they cannot rise to challenge the images
That we might fashion from their lives.
It is easier to build monuments
Than to build a better world.

So now that he is safely dead,
We, with eased consciences will
Teach our children that he was a great man,
Knowing that the cause for which he
Lived is still a cause
And the dream for which he died is still a dream.
A dead man’s dream.

Friday, October 20, 2023

The futile quest for certainty in treating mental illness

Last week at my church we started a five-week course on Mental Health and Pastoral Care. It is being facilitated by a team with different experiences and expertise, including medical, psychological, pastoral, theological, and personal. I like this as mental health is complex and multi-faceted. My role is someone who has struggled with mental health for most of my adult life and has consequently read and thought widely and interacted with a diverse range of sufferers and carers. Previously, I wrote a post giving a theological perspective on mental health and gave a sermon on the Wisdom of Weakness.

A central idea in the course is that of the four-dimensional character of mental health, and the importance of an integrated perspective. 

This is captured in the figure below from Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries.

A specific case of mental illness provokes two practical questions. 

What are the causes of this specific case of mental illness? 

What will be the most effective treatment plan that will lead to healing? 

These are natural and important questions. The problem is that in most cases the answers are not clear.

In contrast, consider most physical medical problems or when technological device fails. An expert can determine the cause of the specific problem: an infection in the left ear, a broken bone in the right arm, an electrical fuse has blown, or the spark plugs in the car engine are not working. Furthermore, the expert can propose and implement a treatment plan that will solve the problem. Given the advanced state of our knowledge, we can be almost certain that the diagnosis is correct, the treatment plan is appropriate, and that the problem will be solved. This certainty reflects the wonders and blessings of science and technology.

The problem is that the success of the sciences in some domains has led to hopes, expectations, and a myth that similar certainty and success are possible in other domains of life. However, the problem is that human brains are much more complex than ears, bones, cars, and electrical circuits. The relationship between consciousness, brain, and body remains a mystery, and people are embedded in networks of human relationships (from family to global cyberspace) and have long and complex personal histories.

This quest for certainty is driven by healthcare professionals, big pharma, governments, and patients. On the positive side, this quest reflects our humanity in our desire to alleviate human suffering. On the negative side, there are significant benefits: financial, professional, social status, and political to be gained by offering certainty, even when it is not justified. In the case of psychiatry as a science,is the issue of its professional hubris are discussed in this book review.

This quest for certainty is also driven by human desires for quick fixes to problems.

One problem with the diagram above representing the four-dimensional model is that some people, both patients and professionals, will want to locate a specific case of mental illness as being at a specific point on the diagram. For almost all cases that is simply not possible. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Origins of the modern quest for certainty: part 3

We live in an uncertain world. Some things we can be certain of: death, taxes, gravity, the sun rising,... Furthermore, science has been successful at establishing "laws" that describe many aspects of the natural world. Yet, certainty is elusive on so many areas of life, including in our understanding of some aspects of the natural world. Certainty is an idol that is crafted and worshipped by a cast of characters, in politics, science, technology, business, church,...

The yearning for certainty may be a characteristic of humanity. But where did the idea that we could have such certainty come from?

In a previous post I quote extensively from Miroslav Volf's engagement with 

Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity by the philosopher Stephen Toulmin. He traces the quest and all its unhelpful consequences back to Rene Descartes. Here is another author from a completely different field engaging with Toulmin. Malcolm Miles, in his book Paradoxical Urbanism: Anti-Urban Currents in Modern Urbanism (pages 50-51).

the Discourse was written [by Descartes] and published during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), a conflict between Catholic and Protestant dynasties and ideologies in which Descartes was a gentleman observer at the Emperor’s court. That is why he travelled in Germany and found himself in a stove-heated room.  ...Stephen Toulmin writes of this period that, 

‘rival militias and military forces consisting largely of mercenaries fought to and fro, again and again, over the same disputed territories … in the name of theological doctrines that no one could give any conclusive reasons for accepting.' [Toulmin, p.55] 

 Around a third of the population of the land which now constitutes Germany and the Czech Republic were killed, either directly in fighting or through famines resulting from the destruction of crops, or in the displacement following the burning of villages and towns. Both sides committed atrocities. Toulmin asks, ‘In this blood-drenched situation, what could good intellectuals do?' They could maintain Renaissance humanism, or

withdraw. Or, 

Might not philosophers discover … a new and more rational basis for establishing a framework of concepts and beliefs capable of achieving the agreed certainty that the skeptics had said was impossible? If uncertainty, ambiguity, and the acceptance of pluralism led, in practice, only to an intensification of the religious war, the time had come to discover some rational method for demonstrating the essential correctness or incorrectness of philosophical, scientific, or theological doctrines. [Toulmin, p.55]

This is the reason for the Discourse. But Toulmin identifies another

response in the idea of Cosmopolis, a fusion of two systems: that of cosmosthe natural world and natural sciences, with polis, political and social organisation. Cosmopolis unites these ideas in a single ideal as a means to resolve the separation of the natural from the social and political world. 

Toulmin argues that Cosmopolis figures in the rise of nation-states in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, replacing dynastic feudalism; and in the rise of natural science in the same period. Both seek stability, and the nation-state constructs it in the relations of states to each other while also constructing a hierarchy in their internal social structures, making modern political institutions on a seemingly non-contingent basis: 

It was important to believe that the principles of stability and hierarchy were found in all of the Divine plan, down from the astronomical cosmos to the individual family. Behind the inertness of matter, they saw in Nature, as in Society, that the actions of lower things depended on, and were subordinate to oversight and command by higher creatures … The more confident one was about subordination and authority in Nature, the less anxious one need accordingly be about social inequalities. ...

The comprehensive system of ideas about nature and humanity that formed the scaffolding of Modernity was thus a social and political, as well as a scientific, device: it was seen as conferring Divine legitimacy on the political order of the sovereign nation-state. In this respect, the world view of modern science … won public support around 1700 for the legitimacy it apparently gave to the political system of nation-states as much as for its power to explain the motions of planets, or the rise and fall of tides. 

[Toulmin, p. 128]

One could be certain about the motion of planets. They followed laws, ordained by God. Similarly one could be certain about social and political structures. 

As I argued before, there are significant problems with Descartes' ideas about universal truth and method. Humans are not cannonballs falling to earth or planets orbiting the sun. We are much more complex. The methods and certainties associated with mechanical motion do not necessarily translate to other systems: human, social, economic, and political.,