Category Archives: Reading

Christian Sense-Making and Peace-Making

The Christian call to be transformed by the renewal of minds is a call to re-narrate all aspects of human existence from the standpoint of Christian sense-making. Our challenge is to answer the question, ‘What does it mean for us to understand the world from the standpoint of God actively redeeming humanity through Christ?’ When we state it this way, the issue is not whether this act or that act is permitted for Christians, as if God, the divine taskmaster, cannot tolerate the bungling and compromising efforts of human finitude. (I suspect God is accustomed to this.) That is, the issue is not whether we can participate with government troops in the liberation of a starving people, or even whether we can always be puritanically nonviolent as we work in complex war-torn parts of the world or in business in our home town. There is no question that the space which the church occupies in this world is ‘complex space.’ Nor is it a matter of living in such an extremely bureaucratised world that responsibility rather than faithfulness is a more adequate paradigm of moral self-understanding. Instead the issue is how we can challenge the sense-making of life apart from God in Jesus Christ. The issue is how we can ‘sign’ that ‘the Lamb that was slain’ is the victor through whom all of history has received its intelligibility. The issue is one of re-reading, re-perceiving the world. The basic practical question for us is, ‘What are the opportunities to say that it is the bombs and the tanks that are out of step with what really drives the affairs of this world?’ The move beyond secular reason is not a move that ignores non-theological sense-making; it is rather on that refuses to regard such sense-making as either normative or adequate unless it can be translated into theological sense-making. It is a move that points out the entrapments, the oppression, the seductions, the temptations to which we are all subject. And since ‘all’ includes those who confess Christ as lord, the first moral act for us is an act of confession and repentance. In other words, the first act of sense-making (reason) is an act of faithfulness (ethics). – Echoes of the Word, 98-99

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The problem of knowing what to do with our confessions

When we confess our redemption through Jesus Christ we commit ourselves to a concrete social embodiment of the gospel. Nonconformity is therefore the hallmark of the Christian faith – although nonconformity must be carefully distinguished from non-participation. Nonconformity implies difference but not distance; exclusion yet embrace. I emphasise this matter because I se a discrepancy between what we confess and how we live. For example, we confess belief in non-resistance – although I think ‘peace-making’ would be a better word (Mennonite Brethren Confession, Article 13). Yet a growing number of Mennonites do not believe in peacemaking (let alone non-resistance) in any way that is different from other contemporary enlightened North Americans, who manage to make this conviction consistent with going to war when their nation calls them to do so. Unless our statements of faith help us with what it means practically to be peacemakers as Jesus’ disciples, this cannot be a credible confession.

We confess that our allegiance is to Christ’s kingdom and not to the state (Article 12), but it is primarily our state and not the church that is taking care of our medical needs, our education needs, and our security needs. Again, unless we can answer concretely what we mean when we say our security is not with the state, when in fact it is, we are not confessing properly. Continue reading The problem of knowing what to do with our confessions

Imagination, Epistemology, and Embodiment

The crisis of contemporary theology, I believe, is in the final analysis not a crisis of imagination. That is, it is not at bottom only an epistemological crisis. Today’s crisis of Christian faith is even more so one of embodiment. After all, what it is that we can know has to do with what we see, and what we can see has to do with the place from which we look. When we look from within the shroud of contemporary Western liberal rationality, we will have a hard time seeing the God of the Christian tradition. We will instead see a tribal god, one of our own creation, albeit one very different from any preceding tribe. And a god whom we create cannot save us. Such a god must be saved by us and by our intellectual strategies. Ironically the outcome of a tribal god is the very one the whole constructive imaginative project was intended to repudiate.

However, when our imagination is located within the rich Christian tradition we are not enslaved to the repetitions of archaic images and dehumanising practices. Human rationalities and human experiences change over time because we are living, pulsating, creative beings. Theological constructions must change because the God of Abraham and Sarah, of May and Paul, the God of Jesus Christ, is a living being who grounds and inhabits life itself. And this God who lives within the lives of human beings today has always lived. Unless our theological imaginations can ‘explain’ the ‘continuity of God-language’ convincingly in light of the biblical text and the tradition which has given us our understanding of God to begin with, it cannot meaningfully be said to be Christian theology. Perhaps even more important, the ‘explanation’ ought to be sought not only in the imaginative works of our best intellectuals, but also in the lives of the ones who have remained traditional enough to be able to open themselves to the transforming power of God – the God who has spoken through texts that the church considers authoritative, through the one whom the church calls Christ, and to the community which gathers regularly in worship. – Echoes of the Word, 46

Harry Huebner on Spirituality and Religion

In the beginning of September, after two years away from the university, I will begin a Master’s program at McMaster University. Because we will move in the beginning of August, this new chapter seems even closer than it actually is. Because of this, I have embarked on a quest to read some of the written texts by my most influential teachers at Canadian Mennonite University.

In various applications, I articulated my desire to pursue graduate studies as, in part, a desire to be challenged and changed so as to avoid being too easily pigeonholed in comfortable ways of thinking. If this is true, whither this effort to further delve into the traditions and ways of thinking in which I am already so thoroughly steeped? The answer is that I find oftentimes the most positive changes and most fruitful challenges come when we encounter new persons, worlds, and ideas with a strong and rooted sense of who we are and a deep appreciation for where we are coming from. That is, I suspect that a new program will better serve me the more rigorously I know what I have learned and hold to be true (at least, to the extent that I agree with my teachers). Continue reading Harry Huebner on Spirituality and Religion

Reading Comprehension — reading the controversial

Standardized tests are infamous for these little tasks: read a paragraph and answer some multiple choice questions. The SAT is a prime example.

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Though there are many problems with these tests, I think the worst seems to be that there is no risk in what one reads. Why? The content is not important to the reader. If the reader is to be successful, they must adopt a method of reading that delivers results (high test scores). They are not reading the content because they are interested or because they think it might be important.

And yet! what one reads in one’s day to day living, research, or internet surfing is of the utmost importance: it informs, challenges and strengthens our attitudes. Granted, various materials require different methods of reading. Still, one researches about what one is interested in, even if that is for remuneration. One comes across certain texts with certain goals. One is looking for something in the text. When we come across articles that make us angry, we are often already sure of what we will take away from the article. We tend to project far more into the text than what is often there when the topic is meaningful.

Think, for example, when you post a controversial article online. There are those who will like it and support it if it has certain buzz words and if it is linked to a certain ideology. And there are those who will dislike it for the same reasons. That’s not surprising. But what is surprising is that from the comments, it’s often extremely hard to figure out what exactly the article was really about. This is where we will find the largest gap between what the article says and what the reader comprehends. This is true not only of social media but also true of scholars and readers in general.

And shouldn’t this be the job of the reader, to understand the text whether they with it or not? For, if a writer can only ever write to those who already agree with them, then what’s the point of writing?

Perhaps a better task for comprehension would be to first find out the reader’s background, attitudes and allegiances in order to determine what they already agree with and what they don’t. Second, give them a lengthy text to read that challenges their position so that they have to spend a great deal of time with their foes. Third, give the student sufficient time to make notes and go back through the text for nuances. This forces the student to find what they think was important in the text. Finally, have the reader answer some questions aurally. Perhaps the results would be similar to the SAT, but I doubt it.  Any educators out there have experience with this?

The ability to comprehend material that one disagrees with is the ability to change your own attitude. In his Theses On Feuerbach, Marx famously said that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” There is a great deal of truth to it. But one must not forget that the word philosophy means to love wisdom. In other words, to learn to change yourself.

Yoder on faithful living and Marion on faithful seeing

Similarities between the theology of John Howard Yoder and Jean-Luc Marion may not be immediately evident. At the same time, I suspect that Marion’s work will become more helpful to my own theological work if I can tease out some of these similarities and put them into conversation with each other. One such similarity I think I’ve found is their shared conviction to act as if the world is God’s and is loved by God. Yoder often voices this conviction in terms of faithful living and Marion in the terms of faithful seeing. However, for both true sight and living well are so closely joined that they are almost the same thing. This is what I am trying to point towards with my quotations from Marion and Yoder below.

Before getting to those passages, I’d like to clarify one aspect of ‘true sight.’ Often true sight is a euphemism “for a beautiful vision to impose from above by authority,” to use Yoder’s words in just one of the many passages where he critiques such methodology. For both Yoder and Marion, an emphasis on seeing does not start with a large vision, but with the particular and with letting particular people, places and things speak with their own truth and beauty. Marion’s term “saturated phenomena,” speaks to this and to the excessive profundity of the world when we see that it participates in love before being. If it isn’t explicit I hope that this aspect of sight is at least implicit in the following passages.

“We are not called to love our enemies in order to make them our friends. We are called to act out love for them because at the cross it has been effectively proclaimed that from all eternity they were our brothers and sisters. We are not called to make the bread of the world available to the hungry; we are called to restore the true awareness that it was always theirs. We are not called to topple the tyrants, so that it might become true  that the proud fall and the haughty are destroyed. It is already true; we are called only to let that truth govern our own choice of whether to be, in our turn, tyrants claiming to be benefactors.” – Yoder, For the Nations

“The same distance designates the same world as vain or as ‘beautiful and good,’ according to whether the gaze perceives the distance through one pole or the other: from the world as vain or as ‘beautiful and good,’ according to whether the gaze perceives the distance through one pole or the other from the world, on the fringe that opens it to the excess of a distance, the totality appears to be struck by vanity; from the inaccessible point of view of God, at the extremes of distance, the same world can receive the blessing that characterizes it in its just dignity….

For another gaze – the gaze of God – boredom no longer arises; the gaze that can love strikes no longer with vanity, but prompts ‘goodness.’… [V]anity arises from a gaze that exceeds Being/being without yet acceding to charity, a gaze that discovers the world as being beyond Being/being without seeing it loved – by God…. Vanity comes from the boredom of man, not from the boredom of God; for God loves, and from the gaze of charity comes the ‘goodness’ of the gazed at….

That which is, if it does not receive love, is as if it were not, while that which is not, if love polarizes it, is as if it were: the indifference to determination according to ontological difference reappears as the responsibility of love…. To give the world which is, empty of love, for that which is not but belongs to the domain of love – there is nothing more reasonable and even advantageous.” – Marion, God Without Being

The Working Melancholic

Yet another naming of the world that really hits home for me.

Psychologically, present-day cynics can be understood as borderline melancholics, who can keep their symptoms of depression under control and can remain more or less able to work. Indeed, this is the essential point in modern cynicism: the ability of its bearers to work—in spite of anything that might happen, and especially, after anything that might happen.” -Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason

Woolf on “genius”

The rhetoric of Genius is a tricky thing. What constitutes genius? Some kind of transcendence where authorial context  need not be considered? What kind of spaces are required for someone create a work of genius? On this blog, I’ve read about the genius according to Proust and Madmen. All this is to say, the language of genius doesn’t sit neutral with me and it appears to carry some weight with both Joel and Gerald.

On the silliness and sadness of genius Virginia Woolf writes this piece describing what it might have looked like if a woman in Shakespeare’s day had had Shakespeare’s genius:

Let me imagine, since facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say. Shakespeare himself went, very probably — his mother was an heiress — to the grammar school, where he may have learnt Latin — Ovid, Virgil and Horace — and the elements of grammar and logic. He was, it is well known, a wild boy who poached rabbits, perhaps shot a deer, and had, rather sooner than he should have done, to marry a woman in the neighbourhood, who bore him a child rather quicker than was right. That escapade sent him to seek his fortune in London. He had, it seemed, a taste for the theatre; he began by holding horses at the stage door. Very soon he got work in the theatre, became a successful actor, and lived at the hub of the universe, meeting everybody, knowing everybody, practising his art on the boards, exercising his wits in the streets, and even getting access to the palace of the queen. Meanwhile his extraordinarily gifted sister, let us suppose, remained at home. She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers. They would have spoken sharply but kindly, for they were substantial people who knew the conditions of life for a woman and loved their daughter — indeed, more likely than not she was the apple of her father’s eye. Perhaps she scribbled some pages up in an apple loft on the sly but was careful to hide them or set fire to them. Soon, however, before she was out of her teens, she was to be betrothed to the son of a neighbouring woolstapler. She cried out that marriage was hateful to her, and for that she was severely beaten by her father. Then he ceased to scold her. He begged her instead not to hurt him, not to shame him in this matter of her marriage. He would give her a chain of beads or a fine petticoat, he said; and there were tears in his eyes. How could she disobey him? How could she break his heart? The force of her own gift alone drove her to it. She made up a small parcel of her belongings, let herself down by a rope one summer’s night and took the road to London. She was not seventeen. The birds that sang in the hedge were not more musical than she was. She had the quickest fancy, a gift like her brother’s, for the tune of words. Like him, she had a taste for the theatre. She stood at the stage door; she wanted to act, she said. Men laughed in her face. The manager — a fat, loose-lipped man — guffawed. He bellowed something about poodles dancing and women acting — no woman, he said, could possibly be an actress. He hinted — you can imagine what. She could get no training in her craft. Could she even seek her dinner in a tavern or roam the streets at midnight? Yet her genius was for fiction and lusted to feed abundantly upon the lives of men and women and the study of their ways. At last — for she was very young, oddly like Shakespeare the poet in her face, with the same grey eyes and rounded brows — at last Nick Greene the actor-manager took pity on her; she found herself with child by that gentleman and so — who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body? — killed herself one winter’s night and lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle.

That, more or less, is how the story would run, I think, if a woman in Shakespeare’s day had had Shakespeare’s genius.

From Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Chapter 3.

Context as Necessity

Often reading textbooks on Art History, philosophy, or even Music, a great deal of context is given. The work in question has to be situated. It comes from somewhere.

But I get the sense that when the climate of the times is described, the author implicitly suggests that the work wasn’t anything really special, or genius. One can easily trace its origins to the current ideas circulating.

When one presents a work like this, we cease to really see its transforming power. We cease to see it as a work of genius. And, I think, there are geniuses. When one reads a biography of the artist/philosopher in question, the transforming power of the work is almost always raised to a much higher degree because the work in question is seen in detail. When I look at it as one instance of one person’s work, as a sign of the times, I’m not really looking at the work as it was presented in its own context.

I can’t help hear Badiou’s voice in my head: an event is an ontological decision. One of his examples is the French Revolution. Once it is infinitely picked apart, no one can name it as unified event anymore, and if no one can name it as an evental site, it no longer holds any trans-formative power.

In sum, the way one views an artwork is a decision. I can decide to see Schoenberg as a consequence of the steady increase of the use of dissonance. Indeed, he seemed to say as much. But. One hundred years after Schoenberg, people often see his late work as the cut-off of what constitutes good classical music (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, then it ends…). And I can also say: “Ya, he wasn’t so great. You can easily see where he comes from. Sooner or later someone would have done what he did.” Here, (bad?) historical context is used as a weapon against the naming of a revolutionary work.

Be wary of textbooks and biographies that use context. Tracking the influence of a work is a difficult business, even if it is within context. So, “Context”, then, can be used either for the discrediting of a revolutionary work, or it can be used to show just how revolutionary the work really is.

(According to Merleau-Ponty) Engagement with the things is the way to truly let them be

“The effective, present, ultimate and primary being, the thing itself, are in principle apprehended in transparency through their perspectives, offer themselves therefore only to someone who wishes not to have them but to see them, not to hold them as with forceps, or to immobilize them as under the objective of a microscope, but to let them be and to witness their continued being – to someone who therefore limits himself to giving them the hollow, the free space they ask for in return, the resonance they require, who follows their own movement, who is therefore not a nothingness the full being would come to stop up, but a question consonant with the porous being which it questions and from which it obtains not an answer, but a confirmation of its own astonishment. It is necessary to comprehend perception as this interrogative thought which lets the perceived world be rather than posits it, before which the things form and undo themselves in a sort of gliding, beneath the yes and the no.” – The Visible and The Invisible, 101-102