Saturday, November 29, 2008

My First Session of SBL - Religious Experience

Our first session of our first annual SBL was on Religious Experience. The project was looking to see if they could locate Religious Experience within ancient texts. The presenters are part of a project that had published its first book, so the energy was both giddy and cautious. They were children in the ecstatic joy of creating. My first impression was they were fighting and engaging of the ghost of William James. He has to be the starting point, but could he also be the departure point as well? The strength and weakness of his work was breaking down religion as a unit of religious experience. He then pushes the distinction as a category of religious lifestyle. Experience by its nature located in the individual, even if the experience is shared experience such as worship. The dangling question is does a Christian mystic have more in common with Buddhist mystic or a non-mystical Christian. It is clear that he shares something with both.

The first up was Colleen Shantz of St Michael College. She set the stage for the discussion by asking in her well thought out paper about what the project was looking for in ancient text on what constitutes religious experience. What I heard was the curse of the old Cartesian dichotomy, which opposes the individual with the group. The more I have mediate on it, the more I see that an individual can only exits in a community. The individual can locate herself in the group. Descartes wrote in response to the divide between the Protestant and Catholic. She answered the charge that there is no religious experience without culture that many use oppose the category of Religious Experience. Both her answer and the criticism lie in the bed of Cartesian dualism. Funny, if you think about those who oppose a study of Religious Experience on the grounds of Culture being primary, do so out of their own Cultural blindness. If you do not oppose the individual to the group, then their criticism fades into background. The question it raised for me was the how does experience relate to the rest of ones life, or does it construct the whole of ones life. When talking about Religious Experience, the temptation is to just look at intense mystical experience or to point out the whole of religious life as equal to the intense mystical experience. The problem for the person who has this experience is how to communicate it to others. As Karen Armstrong pointed out that while the mystics claims that their experience is beyond words, they constantly talk about the experience. What her paper left me was what do we miss out of our own cultural blindness? Tomorrow I will look at the three other papers, and what the session fired in my imagination.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

SBL and the life of the Christian Mind

We are back from SBL in Boston. Most of the sessions I attended were profound for me, though I missed many I would have love to have seen. We saw some of the seasoned scholars as well as many of the newer young guns. I will comment on the diffent sessions in the coming days, and for now I will limit myself to general impressions. The area around Hynes Convention Center was thick with the swarm of bright minds enegaging the Bible. I look though the thousands of eyes as I try to understand the whole of the annual SBL meeting. I look for the face of Christ in all I met, and I was surprised by what I found. And life moves on.

This morning I got up thinking that we all are born into the question of human life. I hesitate calling it the "human condition," as that is so loaded a phrase with no particular meaning. I think of life in terms of a question. We are born and as we learn the language of our parents, community, and the ever growing circle others, knowledge and being, we confront this question at every turn. Whether as a baby seeing the various unnamed shapes, to hearing the voices of new and previously known others, we are asked what are we to make of it all. We try to bring the shapes into ourselves by the use of language. It is the question that we must begin with everyday and almost every moment, with the temptation being to avoid it by means of giving an already given answer. The false self is the false answer. We are always called to bring the shadow impressions into our understanding. And life moves on.

I saw scared scholars unsure of themselves and wanting to play the game they think that is real to move up the career ladders by meeting the right editors and befriending the famous scholars. I saw scholars burning with curiosity, passion and suffering for their work. It showed it sweat of their scholarship. Others tired of the games of the Academy, and disgused with the whole enterprise. I met many people and thought of the sweep of history's hand upon the person, the group, and life. SBL gathered voices from around the world all in search of the question to the bible. I got to thinking that that small strip of land bridging Africa, Europe, and the Middle East which we call Israel has to be the most studied piece of real estate in human history. Yet, it still holds tight to its secrets. The whole remains impentrable if by nothing else than by the size and scope of the project. I felt this myself as we had to always make choices as to which sections to attend. Each morning we had to choose from all of the plethora and since I am more interested in the whole, it was difficult. In the coming days I am going to post of everyone of the sessions I managed to attend. The impressions they left me and what shapes I learnd to decern from the background. And life moves on.

We went to Dr. David M. Scholer memorial. He was my wife's mentor in her PhD. The stories attempting to summerize a life where both touch and too small to capture the man. The beauty of them lies in the endeavor to remember and give voice to the individual human voice lost to this life. His life moves on with God, within the memories of his daughter, and wiht the love he gave. The measure of his or any life is how profoundly they proclaimed love and give away. The pierced living hand of God sweeps across us in love, and then it is up to us to respond. Boston again taught me the glory of life in Christ as life moves on.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

SBL day One (Society of Biblical Literature National Conference, Boston)

The first day of SBL conference in Boston, and Lace and I are getting the feel of the land. We had to learn the commuter rail system and the T subway. Most the meetings are closed. We are staying with friends from in West Chester and had our first great adventure with Boston’s Mass transit. Both the commuter train and the T subway broke down and it took us 2 hours to get to the Hynes Convention center. I have been reading the Desert Fathers. I have been inspired to be aware of others as a spiritual practice. Searching for the Face of Jesus in everyone I engage. I have been surprised as to how helpful people have been. Does it have to do with my practice searching for Jesus? I am uncertain, though I am inclined to say no. I have only been to Boston only in passing and have found the people friendly. What I have noticed is how much I have to work in myself in the practice. To search for Jesus in the face of others reveals how unkind I am. I see the search for love that we all are engaged in. I wonder if longing shapes us as human being. What we long for defines us.

It is interesting to be here as the markets still are crashing. SBL is center ground of academic theology, and the question for me is does academic theology have questions that can help us illuminate the crisis we face today. I am inclined to say yes, if we can bridge the some of the insightful mediations with the current modern thinking. We do have to figure out how to get out of our own ways as theologians. We limit conversation by defining it within specialties and surrounding it with terminology. If theology is to matter, it must widen the conversation. It has to find simpler language to convey the complexity.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Principalities and Powers: Our addition to Hollywood, Wall Street, and Washington

I have written before about power before looking at the principalities and powers as seen by Matt 22.15-22. (Power I and Power II)Distinguishing the three world powers in the story, I went on to look at the powers represented by money, popularity, and control. These meditations have continued to preoccupy me, especially in the current environment. What came to me is that those three powers are easy to identify in our culture by the geographical names we given them. The powers of money we sum up by calling it Wall Street. The power of popularity we call Hollywood. Finally the power of control or Government, we call Washington. Wall Street, Hollywood, and Washington are the powers the Pharisee tried to capture Jesus with their riddle of paying the Roman tax. These powers have their own spirit and are part of what Paul called Principalities and Powers.

When I was at Fuller, there was a concerted effort to use the power of Hollywood to proclaim the Gospel. If get Hollywood to make the right movies, television, and music, then we could convert the culture into a Christian culture. There were initiatives to engage Hollywood by opening up dialogs, programs for Christian screenwriters and actors. Another camp claims that any attempt to convert the culture is fools gold and that we should make every effort to avoid culture. If we engage Hollywood and the power of popularity, then Christians open themselves to be corrupted. The allure of Hollywood and fame are powerful. I remember meeting a roommate’s friend, who came to Los Angeles to peruse a career in Hollywood, and called the chasing the career as her ministry. I was never quite convinced about her conviction of ministry, though I could see her longing for fame. About the question, I realized both camp gave Hollywood the power. The power to convert if Christians harness it or the power to corrupt Christian if they got too close both reveals a trust in that power, rather a trust in the power of the Trinity.

I have seen similar attempts or beliefs about use the power of Washington, or the power of Wall Street for the proclamation of the Gospel. If we could get Christian politicians or Christian businessmen, then we can convert the whole. Christian politicians will give us Christian policies and then the Kingdom of God would be at hand. Again, Washington and the power of government are thought to be were true power manifests itself. I remember once attending a program about a missionary program. The missionary shared about an African pastor experience of preaching, and founding churches and helping people pull themselves out of poverty by various methods. He end his story by asking us, and he called us the “princes and princesses of the Church” to help. Why did he call us the “princes and princesses of the Church,” because we have the riches. Again, we believe true power comes from money.

If we have learned anything from the last month, it is that these powers are not true power. Wall street is in meltdown and Government seems powerless in the face of this. As I wait the birth of my child, I understand true power. Life is sustained by the Holy Spirit, and Jesus said render what is God’s to God. If we are to experience power, we experience it by loving our neighbor.

Part I
Jesus answers the Public, Economic, and Political powers
Part II Jesus represents the true Power


I have gotten word that I was accepted to Christian Century's network of Blogs. Looking at the various others in the network, and I am humble at being in such a community of thinking Christians. I am grateful for the recognition.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Christian thought, Cold War, and Manicheanism

As I have been surveying the current theological and intellectual world, I have noticed the good guy/bad guy motif. President Elect Obama is viewed as either Savior or Demon. The fact that he is probably neither hangs like an insult to both sides. Both sides seem to think that the middle lacks conviction and really the other side hiding. Conservatives and liberals view anything out of their ideology as really belonging to the other side.
This thinking has prevalent throughout the culture, both in theological circles and in secular culture as a whole. Red States/Blue States are put as diametrically opposed, as are Government and Business, Socialism and Individuality (or if you care community and consumer). Once divided as such, the other whether republican or democrat, Church goer or secularist, "Taste great" crowd or "Less filling" crowd stands as light against dark.

There seems to be a great divide between us. I am hardly the first to point out this Manicheanism in our current worldview. The question I want to raise is how did Manicheanisn come to dominate our culture? First things first, I should begin with a definition of Manicheanism. It is based on an ancient religion that saw the world divided by two waring Gods, a good God and a bad God. The religions founder, Mani 210–276 CE was from area of modern day Iran, and borrowed from Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Elcesaites, and even Buddhism. While it is hard to pinpoint the exact beliefs of the religion, it has come down to us as a belief in a clash good and bad (light and dark) Gods fighting for control. It also, and this is important, a clash between the good people of the light and the bad people of the dark. A person is either good or bad in their being. This stands in opposition to the Christian view of humanity, where all are sinners and only by God's grace are we redeemed and sactified. This is important as in orthodox Christianity, a bad person can be transformed into loving person. In certain Christian circles this fundemental insight has been forgotten and replace by a functional Manicheanism, where the Devil is raised to the level of another God fighting Jesus and the armies of the lightl. There was good reason that the early church rejected the tendencies of Manicheanism. In Manicheanism, there is no room for forgiveness, grace, or redemption. Agian, you are either good guy battling with the good God against the bad guy and bad God.

Back to my question of how did Manicheanism arise in our country. What comes to mind is the Cold War and the fears it bred in our thinking. I still remember the fear I grew up that at any point the USSR was going to launch a missle strike. Movies like Red Dawn and The day After reenforced my fears of the bad guys ready to kill the good guys. For over forty years the US and USSR faced of with each other, and this conditioned us to think in terms of us and them. Further in the spy games the two sides played, there where revelations of trusted people actually working for the enemy. People could be closet enemies. Forward to today, and that thinking is still in us. We have grown up thinking in terms or Right guys and Wrong guys. The legacy of the Cold War entangles our theology, politics and worldview.