Friday, June 30, 2006

The next lecture of the conference was given by Cheryl Bridges Johns, a Pentecostal (Church of God) theologian.

She gave a very general lecture on what salvation means in the Pentecostal traditions, but she used the very helpful lens of her attempt to engage liberation theology with charismatic traditions.

Her most striking statement--and the one that subtly undergirded all she said--was more-or-less as follows: "Those who are influenced by liberation theology tend to emphasize the plight of the poor, and affirm the dignity of the poor, while holding in contempt the religion of the poor."

One can immediately see her point. Of all the Christian traditions, Pentecostalism and Catholicism simply include more low-income and poverty-stricken people than the others (I suspect that's both in total numbers and in percentages.) Yet these are the two least "respectable" faiths in academia--particularly as they are expressed within less educated or less economically comfortable communities. You may remember the kerfluffle when Candidate Kerry attended Eucharist (cameraman in tow) immediately after the Vatican announcement that pro-choice candidates should refrain. One of the staff members of his church gave an interview justifying the priest's choice to serve Kerry Eucharist. He spoke glowingly of the intellectual and political sophistication of his church's members, and practically crowed, "We're not Saint Around-the-Corner."

Those faithful Catholics who are less sophisticated, less educated, and less well-off than this man, who find peace and strength and life at Saint Around-their-Corner, were found by him to be lacking. I'm sure he would look with equal disdain on those who attend Around-their-Corner Assembly of God. As far as such men are concerned, the poor should be helped out of both their material poverty and their religious superstitiousness.

Now, to be fair, my husband pointed out that Gutierrez, for example, would be aghast at such a statement; he once gave a sermon at Duke in which he advised that anyone wishing to help the poor should first live with them and . . . prepare for a shocker, here . . . ask them whether and how they should helped.

But Johns was going even farther in her lecture. She was suggesting that not only do the poor know something about what kind of help they need. They also may know something about our salvation that we need to hear from them.

How very provocative.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

I've just returned from the annual Center of Theological Inquiry conference in Sedona, Arizona, and will attempt to share with you my educational experience. (I have already shared my airline experience elsewhere.)

If you don't know anything about CTI, the short, short version is that it is one of many (Lilly-funded) efforts to bridge the gap between church and academy. It takes intellectually-inclined pastors and puts them together with high-quality, church-oriented scholars; presumably this strengthens the ties between both and affords a space for useful cross-pollination. The annual meeting features presentations from those scholars, centered around whatever theme that year's focus has been.

This year's focus was "Salvation and the Church." The lectures addressed whether and how the Church functions in God's salvific plan.

First up was Robert "Jentz" Jenson.

He used our experience of embodiment as a metaphor for the experience of being Christ's Body, the church. Just as, he said, we sometimes experience ourselves as indistinguishable from our bodies, while at other times we experience ourselves as a soul/mind having a body, so also the Body of Christ sometimes experiences itself as indistinguishable from Christ's living presence and other times experiences itself as a Body directed by its head, Christ.

Unpacking that a bit . . .

Our bifurcated experience of embodiment:

Imagine a world-class athlete, swimming the race of his life in the Olympics. He is one with his body. It does exactly what he wants it to; but he doesn't have any awareness of it as separate from his essential being. His mind and soul and will are tied so intimately together with the performance of his body as a body that it does not seem to him that he has a body. He simply is himself, and his self is an embodied one.

Now imagine a world-class scientist with a physically degenerative condition. Her mind and soul and will are simply on a different track than her body. Her body is falling apart--it's not obeying her will, it's not aiding in the performance of her essential being. She is still herself, but her body seems not to be part of that self: it is "other" than herself.

Now, it's important to realize that both experiences are intrinsic to the human experience of embodiment. You are your body, and you have a body. Both statements are wholly true, at all times. But your experience may highlight first one, then the other reality; or your life may seem to include only one (at least, up until death). But neither one is more essentially true of humanity than the other, even though they seem to be contraries.

In the same way, Jensen claims, the church experiences herself, the Body of Christ, sometimes as being Christ's living presence, sometimes as being headed, directed, or even chastised by Christ as her head.

So, like the athlete whose body is in perfect continuity with his will, the Church is in perfect continuity with her head, Christ, and thus experiences herself as Christ-in-and-with-the-world. Since Christ's presence is a saving presence, the church can even experience herself as a saving presence.

But, like the scientist whose body functions (and dis-functions) apart from her will, so the Church is NOT in perfect continuity with her head. She experiences herself as broken, wayward, imperfect, and being corrected. In that case, she is herself being saved--the salvific presence is enacted upon her.

Both of these, according to Jenson, are wholly true at all times; but it is natural to our experience as the Body of Christ that one or the other seems to predominate at any one moment.

My concern with this lecture--which I found thoroughly persuasive, as far as it went--was that in trying to unite the two poles of embodied existence in such a tenuous way (in effect: well, it doesn't look it, but it's true anyway) would lead to incomprehensibility, especially for those whose own theology emphasizes one or the other pole of bodily existence or soteriology.

And, lo and behold, one of the attendees was "provoked" ("But, I mean that in a good way!") that Jenson used headship language of Christ.

Imagine that--headship language of Christ!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

"I am certainly the most fortunate creature that ever existed!" cried Jane. "If I could but see you as happy! If there were but such another man for you!"

"If you were to give me forty such men, I never could be so happy as you. Till I have your disposition, your goodness, I never can have your happiness."
(Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)

Among all of Austen's strange ideas, this is the one that must be strangest to her twenty-first century readers. That someone's happiness must be dependent upon his character, irrespective of the accidents of history which it produces? That it is not the circumstances of one's life but the disposition of one's soul that determines happiness?

An opinion piece in last week's Time magazine suggested that it was unsurprising and unproblematic that studies show childless couples and empty nesters to be happier than parents in the midst of childrearing. It is normal, the author suggested, to be happier when relieved of burdens and able to pursue one's wishes unencumbered by dependents. Children are a burden, he says--no use pretending otherwise. Sure, they give a certain sublime pleasure to their parents, but those pleasures are few and far between, and easily overwhelmed by the unpleasantness of caretaking.

What a self-absorbed view! What a shallow experience of happiness! I can feel pity for those parents for whom the demands of caretaking are so overwhelming that moments of joy are not possible. And I can feel nothing but awe for those parents who find joy in caring for children who will never attain independence and "full" adulthood, who will always be in need of care.

But what about those unexceptional cases represented by these studies--the "normal" parents of "normal" children, who appear to equate happiness with freedom from burdens, from inconveniences, from dependents and caring? In short, from difficulty of any kind? I suspect that Austen is right (and she takes her cue here from the ancients: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas)--that it takes a certain moral fiber to be able to be truly happy. And that moral fiber, if one has it, allows for, or rather produces, happiness irrespective of the immediate presence of pleasure and the absence of pain.

In another book, one of her heroines experiences a moment of joy that is too intense for celebration--she describes it as rather solemn and sobering. Those who have had such moments should not be able to mistake pleasantness for happiness. Perhaps the best reading to be given the studies referenced in the Time opinion piece is that those who were polled failed to distinguish between the two.

But how sad, nonetheless.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Well, France has the Eiffel Tower

We've got the Grand Canyon; Turkey has Pauline archeological sites.

It's only fair that Namibia get to exploit it's newly discovered tourist niche:
Celebrity Baby Hospital

How would that be counted in your GDP? Tourism? Or medical services?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Proof That Brilliance in One Field

. . . (say, physics) doesn't lead to any particular knowledge or wisdom in another field (say, economics or politics or anthropology).

Or maybe it's proof of the imperialist imperative of science.

Humans Must Colonize the Universe!

Whichever the case, I was amazed at the sheer fantasy involved in Hawking's prescriptions and predictions. 20 years to a viable settlement on the moon? 40 years for Mars? Hawking is clearly a scientific genius but an economic neophyte and a sociological idealist.

Exactly how much would a settlement on the moon cost? And we're supposed to pay for it . . . how? And how justly will the benefits and the costs be distributed?

Hawking's program is the classic example of a spendy, sexy, scientific solution to an anthropological problem. Our problem is greed and oppression, not lack of available resources. Our problem is selfishness and short-sightedness, not insufficient opportunity. More opportunity and more resources will not reform the character of the people who dispose of them.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Way back in the Twenties and Thirties, social and biological scientists were looking at fertility rates and noting that the "lesser" ethnic and racial groups reproduced more than the "better" ones. In the words of one respected scientist, "Fertility decreases as one rises the hierarchy of being." (Translation: non-whites reproduce like rabbits because they haven't evolved quite so far away from their animal roots as have whites.)

It was, obviously, a convenient way of marking class, social worth, and intellectual responsibility, as well as encouraging certain behaviors in the respective populations. So, one could encourage immigrants, blacks, and Catholics to reproduce less in order to attain better social status; and one could also encourage limited, planned reproduction among the well off, both so that their "better" genetic stock would be maintained and so that they would not descend into rabbit-like production. The two-child family was both a status marker and a social responsibility.

Today's social scientists are a little more subtle in their efforts to manage reproduction, but there is still a certain social program implicit in various apparently scientific or merely demographic "news" items.

Case in point: The Liberal Baby Bust.

Note the markers of scientific rigor: these comments are based on (cue reverent music) statistics.

Note the lack of even a pretense of charity towards difference: conservatism, patriarchy, Mormonism, and religious fundamentalism are as good as identical, and are highly correlated with high fertility, while progressivism, secularism, feminism, and freedom are all of a piece, and all in danger of extinction-by-reproductive-attrition.

Note the unstated implication: two-children families are once again affirmed to be the most progressive, most intelligent choice.

Foucault was right: the modern nation-state has no need of force. Social programming can be achieved far more effectively and efficiently by the judicious use of a little gentle propaganda.