Friday, February 27, 2015
Saturday, February 07, 2015
Thursday, February 05, 2015
Wednesday, February 04, 2015
Last month, at a local symposium on Christian faith and culture, I had the opportunity to listen to and learn from James K.A. Smith, a theologian and, lately, a valuable interpreter of the work of Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher whose writings have been very important to my own thinking. Smith's book How (Not) To Be Secular is a wonderfully helpful guide to Taylor's latest (and, quite likely, last) major work of philosophy and moral theory, A Secular Age--but I can't deny I found Smith's presentation and his book somewhat disconcerting, because it suggested to me that I may have misunderstood something pretty important about Taylor's philosophy. But I'm not sure about that, and I want to try to work out my thoughts here.
In my dissertation, I read Taylor's work primarily through a close examination of Johann Gottfried Herder, a late 18th-century German thinker who Taylor himself frequently seemed guided by--particularly in how he thought about language and meaning--but who also held to an ontological (in fact theological) conviction about the universe that appeared much stronger than Taylor's, or at least stronger than anything convictions that Taylor had chosen to share in his writings (I have to use the past tense, because I really haven't kept up on his work since the year 2000 or so). Herder's insistence that, through processes he labeled Einfühlung (a kind of empathetic listening to or "feeling into") and Besonnenheit (what might be called "reflective discernment"), the human mind was capable of naming and making poetic and moral use of certain organic verities which are immanently conveyed within and through all human history and language is, frankly, kind of mystical in a Heideggerian sort of way. But it also appealed to Taylor's desire to push back against a model of knowing which was committed to epistemological description, and instead think more communally and culturally about how we as persons know things, and what we can morally do with the things we know. Taylor's arguments about social and political life, from his moral anthropology to his claims about multiculturalism to his work on cultural toleration in his home province of Quebec, have all been shaped, I think, at least in part by Herder's particular approach to one of the essential problems of philosophy in modern pluralist societies: how to insist upon a unified standard of truth or identity or community while still respecting the fact of separateness or individuality? For Herder, the answer to that problem is found in an ontological claim that presents those aforementioned organic verities as reflecting the divine. Taylor doesn't go that far--as different scholars pointed out, Taylor's hermeneutics may be strong, but his ontology is weak. My conclusion was that Taylor's project gestured toward, but didn't fully lay out the terms of, what I called "immanent community": an idea that there can be, collectively realized from interpretive engagements with one's own historical and cultural traditions, bonds of attachment which are not merely localized expressions of morality, but authentic--if always evolving--connections to real moral truths.
Now given the tentativeness of much contemporary moral philosophy, that's actually an impressively firm communitarian conviction. Not Herderian in its religiosity, but certainly strong enough, I thought, to account for all the criticism Taylor received throughout the 80s and 90s from his more secular-minded colleagues. I'd hoped, when I heard that Taylor was working on a larger book to explore the sort of faithful "hunches" he talked about at the conclusion of Sources of the Self, to see him explore this theme of authentic-moral-communities-as-realized-through-affective-interpretation further...and perhaps, hidden (in plain sight?) within A Secular Age, that really is what he does. But from what I heard from Smith's presentation on Taylor and secularism, I wondered if my hopes were off-base. I came away from listening to Smith, and then from reading his book, wondering if Taylor's hermeneutics were actually "weaker"--or shall we say, less reflective and interpretive, less subjective or "Herderian"--and his ontology "stronger"--that is, more direct, more objective--than I'd long thought. That is, far from agreeing with Matthew Rose's interesting but ultimately rather silly attack on Taylor (which concludes that, by thoroughly and thoughtfully detailing contemporary secularism in terms of a self-enclosing "immanent frame," Taylor has made himself into "an apologist for...the secular status quo"), I'm finding myself intrigued by Smith's back-handed defense of him: that perhaps it would be "more consistent" with Taylor's own accounts of how we seek open ourselves up to the transcendent to push back against the sort of uncritically anthropocentric assumptions about human flourishing that undergird his arguments. Doing so, though, would, if not put the lie to, than at least greatly complicate my prior reading which presented Taylor's whole Herderian effort to work out a philosophical anthropology in terms of interpretively realized moral truths as a result of his determination to explain why subjecting the transcendent to the immanent (to make a twist on a very old and narrow theoretical joke which almost no one will get: the aim isn't to immanentize the eschaton, but to eschatize the immanent!) was a good thing, in that it historically allowed Christianity and moral philosophy to find a focus on "the practical primacy of life." Smith explicitly says that Taylor puts himself on the side of those "who might even say 'that modern unbelief is providential'"...and yet his treatment--as presented by Smith, anyway--of transcendence and the sublime seems to me to go beyond what I previously understood Taylor as saying: that--and here I'm using the words of Stephen K. White, another fine scholar of Taylor--"God as a moral source is now [in our secular age] inextricably entangled with subjective articulation."
I suppose I could just put all this on the shelf until that time, however many years hence, when I actually read A Secular Age for myself and come to my own judgments about what it ways, and what it means for how I should understand all of Taylor's previous writings. But in the meantime I've read something else, and it has intersected with my thinking about this philosophical problem in a complicated but, I think, interesting way.
Joseph Spencer is a Mormon philosopher and theologian; he's written a fine book--For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope--which looks closely at Christian and Mormon teachings about the virtue of hope, and connects that theme to the kind of transformative, utopian economic projects which, in our present capitalism age, almost no one can plausibly hope for, though that is what Mormons like myself are supposed to do. When I'd first encountered his work, I wasn't very impressed--but fortunately, I had a reason to re-read it, and when I did, a great number of connections seemed to leap out at me. In particular was Joe's investigation of the idea that far from being unreasonable to hope for things that are truly revolutionary, hope (at least as laid out by Paul and other New Testament authors) is in fact ineliminably connected to the unseen, unanticipated, and yet already assumed ideal. As Joe put it: "[Paul's emphasis] is, rather, an insistence that hope be oriented to the unseen but fully immanent anchor of the seen. Hope gains its strength neither from its rootedness in a constitutively invisible everywhere, nor from its orientation to an era yet to dawn, but instead from its attention to the complete lack of self-sufficiency invisibly inscribed in every created thing." Or, put more prosaically, and importing some Taylorian terminology: we here in the immanent frame of fragile belief and haunted doubts are called to hope for a transcendent event, not knowing in any sense what that transcendent event will involve or result it, but confident in its reality because that transcendent break-through is immanent to all creation.
Joe's arguments are narrowly focused; he doesn't present an anthropology of human existence, a history of religious belief, or an account of interpretation. But I found his narrow focus extremely illuminating in terms of this strange discontent I've had with Smith's presentation go Taylor's philosophical account of our secular moment. Joe's whole project is to get the Mormon faithful to think clearly about what it means--not just religiously, but also socially, economically, and ultimately (though he is ambivalent on this point) politically--to affirm a hope in something as revolutionary and ideal as a community where the ownership of private property (and thus the inequality which, in a world of both liberty and markets, would inevitably follow) is replaced by collective stewardship (and thus overall, if not absolute, equality). To say that you truly hope for the emergence of such an order of exchange and social relations is no easy thing. And by the same token, it seemed to me that the burden of Taylor's argument as I understood it was no easy thing--and that, perhaps, if my understanding of Smith's reading of Taylor is correct, and thus my interpretation was wrong, Smith is making Taylor's work a little bit easier.
I don't mean to suggest that Smith himself sees Taylor's teachings as simplistic or easy in themselves; he clearly recognized the obvious truth that they aren't. Nor do I think Smith is pulling "easy" answers out of Taylor's work--it's quite clear from Smith's writings that he sees the argument about how one is to understand the possibilities for acknowledging transcendence in today's secular world as demanding a great deal of attentiveness and thoughtful work, recognizing that God may be attempting to meet us in our social embededness, and in our own disenchantment. So no, it's not easy in the sense of telling all who doubt to look for a revelation which will overwhelm our own subjectivity. But I really do wonder if this presentation of the problem and our historical response to it isn't at least a little more straightforward than I'd originally believed. It reads to me as a kind of reception, not as a kind of co-creation. Part of what makes Herder's writings so maddeningly elusive at times is that he's attempting to describe how he can believe that we, in all our profound and very diverse historicity and individuality, are nonetheless actively realizing the singular meaning of things. It's a metaphysically heavy claim, almost Hegelian in its weight, yet one inseparably wrapped up with our own subjective cultural and poetic creations. To put it another way, I had understood Taylor, in light of how I'd understood Herder, as tying his moral realism to engaged acts of interpretation, because that engagement--with all its practical attention to human flourishing--in fact itself is the revelation that many feel haunts our secular moment. While now I wonder if actually we're best understood more as receivers than creators; that our engagement is more a matter of attending and waiting, rather than of sub-creation. (Smith's admiration for Rod Dreher's arguments about believers exercise the "Benedict Option" and waiting out the inevitable transformations around us--"waiting for St. Francis" as Rod has repeatedly put it--is perhaps revealing here.) Transcendence meets us, and we need to recognize it in its arrival...which I recognize as laying out a difficult philosophical (not to mention pastoral!) task, but still, it's not quite the same as saying, as I'd originally understood Taylor as arguing, that we are in the unenviable (or is it enviable?) position of needing to do the collective work to naming transcendence for what it is, and articulating the terms of our meeting of it.
Reading Joe's book put me in mind of an old discussion hosted by James Faulconer, a brilliant philosopher (and, I learned during last month's conference, a friend of James K.A. Smith) who, at different points separated by a decade or two, taught both Joe and I at BYU. Jim wanted to get people's thoughts about this essay by John Milbank, in which he explores what it would mean for Christians to seriously challenge the idolatrous marketplace which defines most of the fundamental social realities experienced by just about everyone in the modern West. Milbank's conclusion is to call the inhabitants of Western modernity (which, perhaps not coincidentally, is exactly the audience of Taylor's work) to exercise some hope in a gift economy--or what he has referred to elsewhere as "socialism by grace." My own response to Milbank is here, and I can't deny that it was somewhat intriguing, and maybe even a little gratifying, to realize that a full ten years on, the very same issues which are troubling me here were troubling me there. Milbank wants us to orient ourselves towards that transcendence which breaks apart what Taylor rightly calls--as quoted by Smith--the "terrible flatness....with [our] commercial, industrial, or consumer society." An order where production and exchange partakes of genuine love and authenticity, not the reductive grit of self-interest--an order where the economy (meaning here the whole panoply of modern life) is oriented around something higher something which in the Mormon traditions is labeled "consecrated." Joe wants this to, and Taylor and Smith are arguing about how we can make our ways to the point of being able to hope for and work towards such. Milbank, having laid out his arguments, turns towards the end of his essay to a serious of harsh attacks against the modern liberal state, contrasting it to the "liberality" that only a collectively received community may enable. I agreed with practically every step he made in that argument--but ultimately couldn't understand why he was so certain that there needed to transformation in the political (and by extension, I would argue, the interpretive) tools available to us in order to engage properly in the sort of hopeful work he claimed which Christianity calls us to. As I wrote towards the end of my response, thinking of all sorts of different populist political movements and reforms, "there are tools available to work towards the theological politics which Milbank assumes (rightly, I think) our belief in the Kingship of Christ to make incumbent upon us." I still believe that--and when I read Taylor and Herder, I thought I was seeing a way to understand how it is that such interpretive tools are also, despite--or perhaps because of--their decidedly quotidian, anthropocentric, practical character--immanent realizations of transcendence. And here I am essentially just quoting Martin Luther King, or Dorothy Day, or Tommy Douglas, or William Jennings Bryan, or any of the old Christian socialists: the bringing of people together into even such a crude instrument as a protest march or worker's union or a co-op is itself the kind of consecrated and transcendent hope which we believers ought to be about.
In the end, I suppose all this just can't get away from the simple fact that I am suspicious of anything which seems to point towards a quietist reception of that which will enable a transformation of our communities in and through which we live, rather that the always-interpretive struggle to build--and thereby transform--those communities. My taste for democratic governance is both agonistic and process-oriented, in that way: I think interpretive confusion is not only an entirely ordinary and to-be-expected way of life, but that it is in and through such interpretive confusion that moral meanings and truths and realities are named and made. Our every transcendent revelation will turn out to have been an always-already immanent and communal co-creation, I think. I suspect that not a single one of the phenomenologically inclined folks I've referenced in this too-long post--Herder, Taylor, Smith, Joe, anyone--would take issue with that formulation; they just might disagree with me on the interpretive work and hope bringing it about involves. Those more sensitive to the need for patient attendance upon that which may be interpretively realized have taught be a lot, over the years; I'm far more local and variable and (I hope) humble in my sense of where and in what form the transcendent might appear to guide us towards more equal communities than I once was. But at the same time, I'm still pretty convinced that such moments of transcendent justice will be, nonetheless, built. If it turns out that my best philosophical understanding of what such hopeful building consists of was wrong, well, it'll mean I need to some more thinking. I'm not sure it will change my mind, though. Maybe I'm just stubborn that way.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 2:04 PM
Saturday, January 31, 2015
Friday, January 30, 2015
This is a slightly expanded version of an editorial which appeared in the Wichita Eagle this morning.
This past Tuesday, when the Wichita City Council approved putting on the April ballot a proposal which would reduce the criminal penalty for adult possession of small amounts of marijuana to an infraction with a fine (essentially making it the same as a minor traffic violation), they did the appropriate thing. After months of work and much painstaking attention to detail, the many volunteers associated with the Marijuana Reform Initiative--some of which I'm happy to call friends, whose protests I have joined and whose petitions I have signed--had done exactly what the law requires, and the City Council recognized that.
It was interesting, however, as I sat in the City Council chambers and listened to the councilors’ comments (particularly as several of them spoke in what seemed to me to be a somewhat CYA-manner in regards to the "dilemma" before them), to be reminded how expensive and time-consuming and intimidating self-government can often appear to be.
Specifically, multiple members of the Council expressed consternation over the fact that the laws in question are “fuzzy.” Obviously, if the voters of Wichita approve this measure and the city government acts in accordance with it, instructing the Wichita City Police and city prosecutors to change their approach to this particular drug, the city will be in violation of state law, which categorizes marijuana possession as an offense deserving of a year in jail and a fine of thousands of dollars. (And or anything more than the first offense or mere possession, far harsher than that.) And yet, for them to simply dismiss this legally produced petition would also have been a violation of state law. Hence, their frustration.
But is a situation like this really one which calls for frustration? On the contrary, what we have here is rather simple: a group of citizens making use of the procedures legally available to them to directly initiate political action. As with any political action, taken by any means on any level of government, there always will be citizens organized–either directly, or through their elected representatives, or through various other established interests–to oppose them. That’s not surprising; that’s to be expected. It is the essential nature of mass democracy in a pluralistic society: many different groups, acting on behalf of many different agendas, using many different venues to pursue their goals. It’s combative and messy. For better or worse, under our present constitutional arrangement and with our present political culture, it couldn’t be any other way.
Does the fact that this particular political fight may involve the state claiming authority over drug laws and bringing an injunction against the city of Wichita mean that it’s different? More stressful, more irresponsible, and thus one to be especially avoided by our elected leaders? I can’t think of any principled reason why.
There are, to be sure, certain matters that probably shouldn’t cross from the legislative to the judicial branches of government or back again. (For example, I'm very doubtful of both the political wisdom and of the democratic benefits of attempting to force governments to recognize budgeting priorities through legal action, something we know all too much about here in Kansas.) But questions of criminal justice and penalties have, on the contrary, always involved fights in both legislatures and courts, and have been a particular target of direct citizen input and action for many decades. (Just think of death penalties cases, three-strikes-and-you're-out policies, mandatory sentencing, and many more.) This issue shouldn’t be any different.
(And I should emphasize, the issue here is not marijuana per se; the issue our often unaware attempts to shelter ourselves from democracy's messiness. To the extent that the fact we are talking about the personal possession of a small amount of a controlled substance here, I can only say, first, that this isn't--yet--about legalization, only sentencing reform, and second, as I wrote once before: "any defense of norms and traditions--especially prohibitory, paternal ones--has to be able to constantly respond to the changing, pluralistic flow of information all around us." Harsh penalties for a tiny bit of pot experimentation are contributing to a genuine social harm, that of mass incarceration. This is, in context, a good way to start pushing back on that.)
I am most definitely not saying that I think every city council ought to challenge the authority of every state law, in the same way that I don't think state legislatures ought to make a habit of challenging the authority of the national government. There are all sorts of financial and constitutional--not to mention policy-related!--realities to be considered, and they might often suggest an acceptance of the status quo, or even encourage the recognition that in certain contexts general approaches may be well superior to particular ones. Even Thomas Jefferson, an arch-revolutionary and fan of local government if there ever was one, allowed that such was sometimes the case. (It would be nice if the Brownback administration, which never seems happier than when it is, on the one hand, throwing ideologically-motivated challenges at the national government, and on the other, stealing authority from local municipalities, considered those same points as well.)
But even given all those considerations, it remains the fact that, in our pluralistic and federal system, conflicts between different governing bodies are, as they say, a feature, not a bug. The number of variables that can come to play in these conflicts are huge and unpredictable. (What would be the content of any such injunction which the state government could lay on Wichita, anyway? Would they empower state police officers to come into Wichita arrest local police who obeyed the new local ordinance? Would they strip elected Wichita officials of their authority and jurisdiction, and replace them with appointees of their own? How would Topeka pay for that, anyway?) Like it or not, going forward with this vote is a step forward in the always evolving process of democracy. Clarifying “fuzzy” statutes and forcing a change in political agendas doesn't happen spontaneously; they will inevitably require clashes and challenges, and when the opportunity for such arises, they ought to be welcomed.
The concluding comments of one councilor during the meeting clearly implied that “being a good citizen” is the same as “not being in conflict with the state legislature.” If we all lived in small, authoritarian communities governed by consensus, perhaps that would be appropriate. But instead, we live in an environment characterized by adversarial conflicts, mediated through diverse political and legal processes. That's often not a particularly effective way to carry out mass democracy, but it is the system we have. And consequently, I think those who suggest that a legally produced vote on a technically invalid ordinance is the wrong step, and instead that everyone involved should be obliged to just appeal to the state government and wait for a "thaw" in the conversation about marijuana in Topeka, misunderstands: going forward with votes which force a question over just what truly is valid is exactly how conversations like that move forward. The people have done their political part; I hope the City Council, depending on what Wichita citizens choose, will be ready to their legal part as well.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 6:26 AM
Sunday, January 25, 2015
[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]
This is a slightly revised and expanded version of a sermon I gave in sacrament meeting, on January 11, 2015, in Wichita, KS.
Recently, a thought got stuck in my head: do I really take responsibility for my own beliefs? That is, do I attend to what I believe, to determine what it is and what it means for me, and to decide whether I still believe whatever I used to say I believed or not? If beliefs lead to actions--and they don't always, but surely they do often enough--then the gospel of Jesus Christ, which calls us to action of behalf of our fellow human beings (and particularly the gospel as it is interpreted through Mormonism, which additionally calls upon us to build Zion), demands that we take the time to really think over, and get clear on, and be forthright about, both what we do and what we do not believe. And I really mean we there. I'm not talking about what our church teaches us to believe, or even about what we tend to say we believe in response to questions asked by others, but rather what we, looking inside ourselves, can honestly say we--not anyone else--truly hope and affirm.
Sometimes that level of self-honesty feels dangerous. And surely pursuing it is a more complicated and difficult and diverse task than we might wish. For one thing, there are a great many ways in which the individualism which this sort of introspection seems to presume can go wrong, and lead to self-centeredness and a disregard for the communities and histories by which we become capable of introspection in the first place. But in a small but crucial way, this quest for spiritual self-sufficiency is nonetheless the responsibility of every individual member of this church (as well as every member of any Christian church which calls upon its adherents to exercise faith in something larger than themselves). So let's explore that responsibility little bit here.
Nearly eight years ago, the PBS television show Frontline produced and ran a lengthy series on our church, titled simply “The Mormons”. At the time, this program was a big deal. It isn’t every day, after all, that men whom we hold to be prophets and apostles sit down for in-depth interviews with non-Mormon journalists. In particular I’m thinking of the interview Elder Jeffrey R, Holland gave, which began right of the bat with the interviewer asking, in essence, whether or not the Mormon church really was an “all or nothing” church. Now just about everyone knows--and certainly nobody knows better than those of us who are baptized members of this church!--that the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints includes many expectations that are far more demanding of one’s faith and one’s lifestyle than is the case with many other Christian churches. The interviewer questioned this, particularly in regards to the revelatory claims associated with the Book of Mormon and the beginnings of this church, and challenged Elder Holland directly: “Explain why there is no middle way.” And this is how an apostle of Jesus Christ responded:
I think [you're just] as aware as I am that we have many people who are members of the church who do not have some burning conviction as to its origins, who have some other feeling about it that is not as committed to foundational statements and the premises of Mormonism. But we're not going to invite somebody out of the church over that any more than we would [over] anything else about degrees of belief or steps of hope or steps of conviction. [Instead] we would say: "This is the way I see it, and this is the faith I have; this is the foundation on which I'm going forward. If I can help you work toward that I'd be glad to, but I don't love you less; I don't distance you more; I don't say you're unacceptable to me as a person or even as a Latter-day Saint if you can't make that step or move to the beat of that drum." We really don't want to sound smug. We don't want to seem uncompromising and insensitive.
On my reading of that passage, it includes two exceptionally important points. First, here is an apostle of the church testifying that his faith rests upon a sure foundation, a foundation which is necessary for him (and, by implication, for all of us) to move forward. Second, here also is an apostle of the church recognizing that not everyone in this faith community which he loves shares that foundation. Instead, many of them–many of us--are working through their--or our--own “steps of hope or steps of conviction.” And, he importantly adds, he fully accepts all such people as fellow members as they (and we!) go about making those steps, searching for their (and our!) own drumbeat by which they (and we!) can move forward in faith as well.
This is not, I think, simply pastoral concern. True, he concludes by saying that members of the church shouldn’t “sound smug...[or] uncompromising [or] insensitive” in how they interact with one another, but I don’t think he’s only thinking there about the fundamental Christian kindness and tolerance we all need to show to all of God’s children. Instead, I think he also has something grander in mind. One of the bedrock principles of the Mormon understanding of faith is that everyone, ideally, should be self-sufficient in their own testimony, or in their own beliefs. One of the very last statements recorded by Mormon, whom we hold to be the primary editor of the whole Book of Mormon, is very clear on this point:
Doubt not, but be believing, and begin as in times of old, and come unto the Lord with all your heart, and work out your own salvation with fear and trembling before him. (Mormon 9:27)
In this passage, we hear in the voice of Mormon a mirror image of the same inspiration which moved Paul to write in his letter to the Philippians:
Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13, KJV)
I see these scriptures as promising us that those of us who have covenanted to obey His commandments and take upon ourselves the name of Christ will be enabled to find salvation, and find the capacity to do those good things which He puts in us to do. But the route by which that salvation is made manifest involves us “believing,” putting our own “heart” into it, and “work[ing] out our own salvation.” And here is the point: how can we be believing in this way, and how can we do this work, if the steps we take towards that end are not, in fact, our own steps? Steps which fulfill us, encourage us, move us, inspire us, enrich us--all exactly because we have figured them out for ourselves?
It's for these reasons that I think Elder Holland answered the interviewer’s question the way he did. I think he was thinking, at least in part, about the building up of the kingdom of God on the earth. We, all of us who have covenanted to bring the teachings and the hope of Jesus into our lives, are the only ones available to do that building. So if Elder Holland, or if any of us, were to get into the business of looking down upon, or harshly judging, how we or any or all of our fellow members, in all of our different ways, are working out and stepping towards that sure foundation for our own salvation, then honestly, what would ever get built? I think the obvious answer is: not much. Building Zion, seeking to make our community one of the pure in heart, requires that each of us bring our own gifts to the project of building, rather than constantly leaning on or, worse, simply copying without much thought, the steps made and gifts offered by those around us. And this is even the case–maybe it is especially the case–when those steps and contributions seem less than certain, or seem to be characterized by questions and differences and doubts. As another apostle, Dieter F. Uchtdorf, recently said:
It’s natural to have questions--the acorn of honest inquiry has often sprouted and matured into a great oak of understanding. There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions. One of the purposes of the Church is to nurture and cultivate the seed of faith--even in the sometimes sandy soil of doubt and uncertainty....The diversity of persons and peoples all around the globe is a strength of this Church.
That diversity includes individuals whose stories are well-known, and deeply affecting. For instance, remember the man who, as the story is told in the Gospel of Mark, stood before the Savior and pleaded desperately for a blessing upon his suffering son.
Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief. (Mark 9:23-24, KJV)
This is, particularly to those of us who are parents, a heart-rending tale. Normally, I suppose, it is read as underscoring how absolutely essential it is to develop a sure faith in the saving power of Jesus. But look at what else this story suggests: it shows us a man owning up to the fact that he's not sure about something; that he hopes, but that he also has doubts. Rather than hiding his lack of faith, or falsely embracing a conviction in the hoped-for savior of his son which he does not truly or fully possess, he puts it all on the table before the Lord, in desperate honesty. This is someone who has something to offer the kingdom of God, something that is his own. His offering is not a borrowed one, not a copied one, but rather, as limited or as uncertain as it may be, it is an honest one, which comes from his own heart.
I'm not much of a fan of church books, generally speaking--I tend to think that the scriptures are demanding enough without us filling our minds with others' spiritual interpretations or recommendations about those same teachings and traditions we are all regularly called to attend to. But despite that, I have to say that Terryl and Fiona Givens's The Crucible of Doubt is simply a tremendous book, one that makes all sort of valuable points about this very topic. Let me call attention to two passages from it. The first comes after they cite a talk that Elder Boyd K. Packer gave to a meeting of regional representatives a quarter-century ago, a talk which warned about the tendency of the modern church to fall into "over-programming" its members, and "over-prescribing" spiritual remedies. Following this they write:
The catch with over-prescribing is the dependency it creates. In the spiritual realm, it is easy for Mormons to grow accustomed to viewing their weekly meetings not just as opportunities to serve and renew covenants but as their primary sources of spiritual nourishment. But...spiritual strength requires finding one’s own well from which to drink. We should recognize, first, that we are responsible for our own spiritual diet, and second [and this, I think, is the crucial point, especially in regards to accepting ourselves and those around us as we all take our own very different, sometimes doubting steps] that sources of inspiration are sprinkled indiscriminately throughout time and place. Mormons should feel empowered and inspired to fill our own wells with nourishing waters [wherever they may find it] (pg. 98).
The second is a wonderful (and worthy of remembrance!) story from the 19th-century church:
In Salt Lake’s old Thirteenth Ward, Bishop Edwin D. Woolley frequently found himself at odds with President Brigham Young. On a certain occasion, as they ended one such fractious encounter, Young had a final parting remark: “Now, Bishop Woolley, I guess you will go off and apostatize” To which the bishop rejoined, “If this were your church, President Young, I would be tempted to do so. But this is just as much my church as it is yours, and why should I apostatize from my own church?" That sense of ownership, or, better, of full and equal membership in the body of Christ, was Bishop Woolley’s salvation (pg. 103).
I hope the point of these passages, and all that I've said earlier, is clear. Building Zion, or just building a foundation upon which we may exercise faith and hope and charity towards our fellow human beings–as well as, don’t forget, towards ourselves–is a lifelong process. The result of that process, though, is felt immediately. It is the feeling which Bishop Woolley testified to--that, in making his own steps in and on behalf of his church community, he is making this gospel his own. In the end, as dangerous as it may sometimes seem to our ability to collectively feel as one, I don't think we can get away from the fact that we really and truly are individually responsible for finding and cultivating our own spiritual resources, and taking whatever steps we are inspired to take which will enable us to testify of our foundations, and enable us to call where we stand, and call the communities we are part of, something that is part of ourselves. When our spiritual sources--and I can think of dozens: movies, books, the spoken word, scholarship, satire, song, scripture, the sacrament, and more--don't seem like those which tend to be most common (and thus, we assume, most expected) in our congregations, it is easy to be feel intimidated. But that feeling must be resisted, or else our capacity to truly bring our own contribution and perspective to the table--as opposed to those contributions which we copy without any real feeling or belief from someone else--is done for.
Thirty years ago, another apostle, Bruce R. McConkie, gave what turned out to be--and what he surely knew, as he gave it, would be--his final sermon, "The Purifying Power of Gethsemane." It is a tremendous powerful testimony of the reality of Jesus's atoning sacrifice and of our need to hold to His words so to be cleansed from our sins. I remember this sermon very well--but not, I think, primarily because of the particulars of his doctrinal claims about Christ. In truth, there more than a few things he testified to in this sermon which I am personally unsure about, and even disagree with. But he spoke a few lines towards the end which have have thrilled and haunted me for decades:
[A]s pertaining to this perfect atonement, wrought by the shedding of the blood of God--I testify that it took place in Gethsemane and at Golgotha, and as pertaining to Jesus Christ, I testify that he is the Son of the Living God and was crucified for the sins of the world. He is our Lord, our God, and our King. This I know of myself independent of any other person.
I am one of his witnesses, and in a coming day I shall feel the nail marks in his hands and in his feet and shall wet his feet with my tears. But I shall not know any better then than I know now that he is God’s Almighty Son, that he is our Savior and Redeemer, and that salvation comes in and through his atoning blood and in no other way.
The deep power of the apostle's words here is that he could express conviction in something "independent of any other person." It is easy, I suspect, to fall back on the language of revelation, invoke Peter on the "more sure word of prophecy," or Alma on "perfect knowledge," and rest on the too-often casually repeated claim that, if we all just do whatever it is we're supposed to do, we will be vouchsafed the same testimony of Christ which Elder McConkie expressed. But that misses what comes first: the courage and self-awareness which this step--like any such step--invariably involves.
In the end, I personally am convinced that our hoped-for Zion community can be as much built up by almost any honest declaration of Christian faith, however limited or idiosyncratic, as it is by the testimony of an apostle. In fact, I think even being responsible and forthright about one's spiritual dependence--as the scripture says, "to some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God...[while] to others it is given to believe on their words"--is the sort of independent honesty which can build the kingdom. Why? Because, ultimately, we are Christ's hands in this work. And, hard as it may sound to say it, if what we have to offer by way of inspiration and conviction, to both our own weaknesses and to those of others', really isn't something that we have--and still are!--tremblingly working out for ourselves, but rather something which we have uncritically, robotically borrowed from someone else, then it is almost like we're not actually consecrating anything at all. The broken hear which we are called to sacrifice on the altar is always and only our own. That we may continually learn to be brave enough to do so is my prayer for us today.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 12:11 PM
Saturday, January 24, 2015
Thursday, January 22, 2015
It seems I'm getting better--the last one of these Citizens United protest meetings I spoke at here in Wichita, I took 15 minutes (or actually, only about 13). That was two and a half years ago; now, I'm down to 9 minutes, and threw in a short, ridiculously simplistic, and yet I think fairly accurate lecture on the history of American mass democracy to boot. It was a fun day. Many thanks to all the good activists here in Wichita who continue to make these important events happen! In the meantime, enjoy (and give me a break about my occasionally hoarse voice--I've been on sabbatical, and I'm out of practice). If you like this, check out Mary Ware's wonderful presentation also.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 6:54 PM
Tuesday, January 20, 2015
[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]
Wichita, KS, is the home to a wonderful bookstore, Eighth Day Books. (Which isn't my favorite bookstore in Wichita, but that's partly because my wife works at its primary rival.) One of the main reasons it's such a wonderful place is its sense of identity and vocation. It's much more than a "Christian bookstore," though it is that, and tremendously good at fulfilling that role in our community (see Rod Dreher sing its praises here, here, and here). But beyond that Eighth Day Books is the heart of a sub-community that has fascinated me ever since my family and I moved to Wichita nearly ten years ago. Traditionalist, usually (but not always) conservative, literate but only rarely academic, both reactionary and radical, Eighth Day grounds a motley, earnest, often brilliant collection of Christian thinkers and servers; even when I find myself somewhat perplexed by what I hear from some of them, I want to learn more. It's very ecumenical; the folks involved are Orthodox and Catholic and evangelical Protestant (and so long as they keep on letting me through the door, Mormon too); within their numerous overlapping circles, you can find schools, retreats, university programs and institutes, study groups, and more. Once a year, Eighth Day hosts an already-large-and-still-growing symposium, which this year was devoted to exploring the idea of "wonder" in a world where longstanding traditions of the civic place of Christianity have radically changed. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend one of the days of the conference this year, and I adored it. What I saw and heard around me this past weekend was an example of the sort of both strengthening and challenging local and cultural civic work which communitarians like myself have banged on about for years (but which we, in all honestly, have only rarely managed to contribute directly to ourselves).
Let me share some ideas prompted by three presentations I listened to. The first was the symposium opening provided by Erin Doom, the director of Eighth Day Institute (and yes, that is how you spell his name). Erin is a fascinating guy; I suspect he'd far prefer to be considered a lay theologian than a community organizer, but really he's both (and in fact, his efforts are themselves a testament to just how much working to make manifest and build up a community in a particular place is a type of Incarnational work). In presenting his vision of bringing together hundreds of people who, for reasons of curiosity or concern or just plain community attachment, wanted to spend two days learning, reading, and talking about the possibilities presented by our "secular age," Erin talked about a "dialogue of love" which is needed, one that can best be realized through a return to certain key ecumenical elements of the Christian tradition. For him (as well as for many others throughout history), these elements are scripture, icons, and liturgy--all of which may be seen as revealing a certain kind of radical localist perspective. What they have in common is an enduring presence--as stories which get adapted and interpreted but which also transcend the passing of time and fashions, as images which transcend their own replication and commodification, as seasons of time which transcend the manufactured pressures of socio-economic life. These are points of resistance to the pace and the profits of our contemporary capitalist and centralized world; they can become resources of retreat, for those who wish to either prepare to hold on to something old and good, or harness their strength to push for something new and good--or, really, both. Its a wonderful vision--made all the more persuasive because those in attendance at this conference, siting in an Orthodox cathedral in a mid-sized city in the center of the country, could see fruits of such all around them.
One of the headline speakers was Dr. James K.A. Smith, a scholar and theologian who had recently written a superb book explaining the philosopher Charles Taylor's monumental work A Secular Age. It was about that book, and Taylor's fascinating (if convoluted) historical, cultural, and literary excavation of the meaning of secularism in the modern (that is, post 1500 A.D. or so) West, which Smith came to speak about. I was delighted to hear him, because--as some of this blog's readers may remember--I've made rather grandiose promises about reading A Secular Age on more than one occasion in the past, and always failed. Taylor is easily the most insightful and, I think, basically right-thinking contemporary moral and political philosopher I know, and his work has been greatly important to me--but in this case, I really appreciated having someone smart, witty, and provocative explain his ideas to me. The most important concept which of Taylor's which he unpacked--and also productively complicated--for us is the notion that the emergence over the past half-millennium of the "buffered self" (a notion of individuality that is, in principle at least, resistant to being shaped or determined meaningfully by outside forces which might pour into one, because the core of that individuality is psychologically and morally removed and protected from the larger world) is closely entwined with the collapse of a robust sense of sociality. While Taylor doesn't claim, and neither did Smith, that these were two entirely distinct or causally related phenomenon, it occurred to me that, if we grant that the festivals and rituals of the pre-modern West existed at least in part to moderate those anti-social pressures generated by the maintenance of the divisions and roles of a religiously defined world, then it seems reasonable to assume that human passions and their supporting understandings are going to always be at least partly self-interested. In which case, perhaps it was the transformation of the social world of the first thousand years of Christendom into something less dependable, more dangerous, and more characterized by divisive opportunities--and here I'm thinking of everything from scientific revolutions to religious wars to the rise of capitalism--which made the desire for "buffering" oneself from the mysteries of the wider world so appealing. Point being, the modern self, mostly closed off to the transcendent but perhaps curiously open to glimmers of it as such can be realized within our "immanent frame" can't be persuaded to attend to higher, impersonal goods by simply invoking the promise of tradition: the break with such is perhaps so deeply entwined with ordinary practices both personal and social that it is foolish to imagine that some new apologetic is going to open up atomists to what communion has to offer. Anyway, Smith's presentation and book are things I'm going to have to think about and write about some more.
Finally, it was wonderful to see Rod Dreher back in Wichita, and his presentation--both the parts I agreed with, and the parts I didn't--didn't at all disappoint. He's already reflected on some of his thoughts about participating in the Eighth Day Symposium here; let me just focus on something he said about "wonder."
"Wondering" has two complementary, yet still distinct, connotations. You can wonder about something, and be prompted to ask questions that you normally wouldn't ask. This was the main focus of Rod's presentation on the mass media, and how assumptions about certain "myths" end up closing down questions about worrisome or suspicious events or developments that really ought to be asked. I don't disagree with Rod about this reality at all, though I strongly suspect he and I would disagree somewhat on just what myths really are regent in newsrooms around the country today. But how does that phenomenon relate to another, deeper sense of wonder: that of being struck by the wonder, the mystery, of life? One seems to point towards the seeking of answers to questions, while the other suggests something which is beyond answers entirely.
In his comments, Rod quotes one of the other speakers at the symposium, a Catholic theologian named Bo Bonner (who I've met, and I agree: he's a great, funny guy), who talked about how the most profound truths of the Christian tradition are wild and weird, and that if one is interested in preserving the kind of enchantment which Christianity once provided, in so many different ways, to communities all around the modern West, then it must be allowed to be wild and weird again. I don't think this is necessarily "weird" in the "keep Austin weird" sense (an attitude which is not entirely foreign to Wichita as well), though there is likely some overlap there; rather, I think it involves living in a tradition so firmly--which, please note, is not the same as living it "confrontationally," and maybe not even living it "evangelically" either--that you can know and demonstrate through one's own life choices all the little mysteries and questions and weirdnesses which are inherent to it. We tend to imagine "awe" as involving something grand and mighty, a miracle so imposing as to defy description, but maybe we need to remember that being awed and enchanted is characteristic of the many marvelous idiosyncrasies which may be seen, assuming we can show at least a modicum of charity for ourselves and others, in ordinary, local lived lives. Let's face it: Erin Doom is, in all likelihood, kind of a weird guy. And so is Rod, and so are you, and so am I. That weirdness, and the pleasant wonder and unexpected questions ("Why does she do that?") which goes along with it, is not going to be known--at least not in a manner which can bring us, in our places, to contemplate permanent things--if we have just one "myth," one story, to reductively explain away all our own motivations and hopes and dreams. And neither will it be known if our lives become so transient, so ambitious, so committed to material accomplishments that don't ever give ourselves (or the structures of our meritocratic economy never allows us) the time or the place to fully live lives that are our own.
Well, Eighth Day has its own weird and wonderful and "wondering-full" little place, here in Wichita, and it's a blessing and goad and delight to us all. There are bound to be such places, built by such people, where you live as well: small corners of genuine social realization, mysterious happenstances, worthy of wonder. Go out and find them. They'll be worth your time, I guarantee it.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 6:25 AM