Category Archives: demodernisation

On ‘social constructs’ and other layers of the onion of Reality.


Hi readers,

ajuinYes, a new blogpost that isn’t advertising my super-obscure music but that actually goes back to my counter-cultural philosophising that goes in territory that escapes both the current left and right. (My music might be addressing similar subjects as certain future or recent blogposts -including this one-though, I didn’t call the new album ‘Beware of Plato’s cavemen’ for no reason…)

So where do I begin? Let’s start with my first experience with the term ‘social construct’. I can more or less remember my surprise the first time when I ran into the term in an internet discussion years ago, I suppose with a young American feminist. When it was asserted by my conversation partner that gender was a social construct, which seemed to mean, nothing but a social construct, I made the mistake of taking that term on face value. My first reaction was that, since I did not at all recognise the definitions of male and female she was pushing unto me, social constructs by definition are contextual and bound to cultures, subcultures or even smaller groups, and thus we had to both give our definitions to proceed the conversation with more understanding. But no, for some reason the contextual specifics of ‘social constructs’ were not to be discussed about, I had to accept her rather scary views of male and female that probably where derived from a certain American conservative milieu, but that were utterly alien to me as normative.

Side note: As a father a 2 little girls, lifelong friend of women and girls, and being married to a woman I know feminism is very important. A lot of sexism exists in this world that should not exist, and it destroys people. And I’m a natural egalitarian too,but even that doesn’t mean that I agree with everything that goes under the label ‘feminism’, and some things under that name make it only worse. Let’s also say here up front that I’m no adherent of ‘critical theory’ and that I consider it an insult to postmodernism (especially when it pushes very contextual US definition of race that even have hardly anything to do with race a univeral, but that’s another story), at least phenomenologically in the versions of it that have trickled down to me through internet discussions. But feminism itself is not my subject here, a philosophical exploration of the nature of Reality is.

So to pick up on my story again, apart from the cross-cultural disconnect there firstly is the observation that I still can’t escape the notion that any social construct will always be contextual, and might thus differ from context to context, and that the internet is full of people from very different context who will have very different versions of certain ‘social constructs’. I will consider that as a given here and won’t even argue for it, because it’s too obvious for me, and I can’t imagine a possible world where this isn’t true. But there’s more…

But to get to the point, there also is the fact that I as an oldfashioned philoophical Realist do not at all agree that there that are many things at all that are purely social constructs. And I’m not even going into the problem that it seems that some ‘social constructs’ become personal constructs in our hyperindividualist postmodernist society, which in the end will make communication completely impossible, which in turn just erodes the purpose of language if driven too far when people refuse to give their own definitions and listen to those of the other side in a discussion. So we will remain on the collective level of constructs today, let’s go just with the idea that the social construct is only the last layer of the onion of the Reality of that certain subject.

What do I mean with that? There are at least 2 other layers that I am able to identify that might play a role. The most important one is the plain material-reality layer, which I will call Aristotelean for now.  And then there’s the even deeper Platonist layer behind it. (see this post for more on these ideas) We’ll stick with the example of gender here to keep it a bit practical, but the principle is more or less applicable to all kinds of realities.

(Yes, this model might be a 3-way dialectic synthesis of 2 ancient and a modern epistemology, but it’s the only way for me to make sense of Reality. I’m not saying it’s the last word on everything, it’s just the basic framework for a view on Reality that still can be refined a lot.)

Note also that we’re firstly talking about descriptions of reality, but that some take it much further, and see their own constructs or translations of deeper layer as not merely descriptive but also prescriptive. This can get very problematic, also because it often is a layer confusion, but more about that later.

So the 3 layers that I will talk about now are:
1.) the Platonist layer, the a priori part, the Deeper Idea behind something, residing somewhere in a Metaphysical dimension or the mind of God or something like that, or the Tao or Buddha nature layer if we speak from other paradigms, the one which includes the teleological dimension too, and is usually completely denied by materialists and physicalists. The God/Goddess archetypes in certain forms of Wicca are also based in this.

The problem with this layer, as with all absolutes, is that we have no direct access to it, and that we only have translations of it in human modes of interpretation. So while I do think that it is important to acknowledge that there is a Deeper Reality behind male and female, I will hesitate to say anything definitive about it. I almost always disagree with people who think they have something to say about it anyway. Which is why I disagree with C.S. Lewis on gender roles for example… His assertions about gender roles are based in his claims about the Platonic layer of the reality of gender, with which I disagree.

It’s not because something exists that we can say definitive things about it, and these layers of Reality are beyond us, even though they are the source of our Reality as much as the observed regularities we do call the ‘laws of nature’.

(Let’ also for completeness notice here that there is a variation of prescriptive notions of reality that is purely based on the Divine Will, which is very important in certain traditions. Which is where philosophical Nominalism becomes dangerous, but that’s yet again another story)

I know some people will dismiss this layer altogether,because it doesn’t fit into their worldview, but even they have to consider that this layer is heavily assumed by a lot of people, and cannot be translated to ‘social constructs’ in their worldview. We can disagree about whether something is just a social construct or not or even how much of it is, but if we don’t realise that for the other things are a much deeper reality than that we will not even be able to communicate. And even dismissing this layer as an illusion doesn’t mean that the 2 other less otherworldly layers that follow are not at least equally important…

2.) The ‘mundane world’ reality, which I’ve called Aristotelean by lack of a better term. The thingness of the thing that is residing in the physical reality of the thing itself, and not in some world of ideas. There is the reality of people being male and female (or non-binary) that is rooted in the material reality of our bodies, in their differences, in hormones, etc… No matter how much we say ‘mind over matter’, in the end this layer is much more accessible and clearer than the a priori first layer, and while partly under influence of the a posteriori third layer it still is the only actual substantial one. An important part of reality resides in our material dimension.

3.) The outer layer of the ‘social constructs’ of a given society or other human context here. These are a posteriori constructions residing in our common thoughtfield. It is a way to make the reality more concrete in societal norms and pictures, sometimes in not so healthy ways if we take our example of gender and the roles associated with it. It is a layer of interpretation and application, and one that can differ very much from context to context. Let’s also note again that the second and third layer are intertwined and do influence each other. This still doesn’t mean that there’s only one layer. It would be very naive to put everything in either the ‘biological reality’ or “social construct’ category while dismissing the validity of the other category altogether, yet it seems very tempting to do so for some people…

If we keep thee different layer in mind we see several problem that can arise.

Like I said the third layer is a translation and application of the second layer into our human cultures. But most translations that we make of the Aristotelean layer (not to mention the Platonic one) into social constructs are incomplete and unbalanced. They might for example stem from a very narrow sample of the described reality that is seen as normative by a chosen group. In certain milieus extraverted men are highly favoured over male introverts for example, even though those personality traits have nothing to do with sex or gender at all. There is nothing unmasculine about an introvert and deep thinking or even deep feeling man at all. There is a variety of personality types among men and a similar spectrum among women. So linking preferred personality types to some kind of gender essentialism is always bad for those who don’t fit in, for reasons that have nothing with non-gender-binary identity at all. This can be hard for people finding their identity when the roles are mere descriptions, and much worse when they are meant to be prescriptive…

Actually whenever we turn from descriptive to prescriptive there always is a danger already… But I suppose that’s too obvious to go deeper into now.

A last big problem that I will address is the confusion of layers, which is a problem especially in combination with being too prescriptive, and it also makes communication impossible when people assume a certain thing to be in a completely different layer. (Which very often happens in discussions about gender between a certain kind of ‘conservatives’ and a certain kind of ‘progressives’ for example)

A lot of people in more ‘conservative’ mindsets have claimed insights into what I called the Platonic layer throughout the ages to justify mere social constructs as absolutes. Some modernist on the other hand have tried to exaggerate dubious cultural differences (also social construct layer) on biological differences (Aritotelean layer) while that was only half of the story. On the other hand, there are certainly actual differences between men and women (and a minority people who fall outside of the duality) that are located in deeper layers of Reality than just social constructs too. And then there’ the whole ‘gender is only a social construct that ha nothing to do with biological sex’, that’s only confusing stuff even more. Especially because there is nothing left at all to turn to if the constructs one grew up with turned out to be more than problematic and have to be discarded because they did both not correspond enough with reality on the one hand while they did  also create a reality that was very destructive on the other hand. If there’s no deeper reality to which interpretations can be adjusted, not much is left than constructing something by oneself.

Another example of this layer confusion within Christianity can be found in how we read the line from Paul in the bible about ‘doesn’t nature tell us it’s a shame for a man to have long hair’. Any post-enlightenment thinker who has read enough blahblah from the people in recent centuries about ‘natural this’ and ‘natural that’ will interpret ‘nature’ as a deeper layer of at least Aristotelean nature, but from the context it’s clear Paul is talking about what we’d call culture rather than nature, and thus just referring to social constructs of his time and culture. As a man with long hair I have met some weird Christians who told me that my long hair was unnatural and against Gods created order though. (Luckily not often)

I think this was enough for a rant about what I think of when I see the word ‘social construct’.

What do you people think?

peace

Bram

 

The Animist side of Christianity


“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.” – C.S. Lewis -the voyage of the Dawn Treader

dawn treaderRecently I encountered an article on Facebook from ‘the week’, a to me unknown publication, which argued that Paganism might be making a comeback in the US. Now while a compelling case could be made for this idea, I must say that with this specific article even my Pagan FB friends didn’t seem to take the article very seriously. I could also remark that the word ‘come-back’ is a bit weird since ancient European or Mid-Eastern Paganism has never been present on North-American soil as a majority religion. Not even in the pre-Columbian  Viking settlement, since Leif Erikson was  actually an Orthodox Christian, but that’s besides the point

Although no-one seemed to have been particularly impressed by the article in the the interesting and quite respectful Facebook conversation it created on my wall, and I’m not going into all the issues here (write your own blogpost about Paganism and scapegoating if you feel inclined to do so, I will surely read it and probably even share it!), there was one thing that caught my eyes because I’ve been meaning to write about for a while now. And that ‘thing’ is the first difference given in the text between a ‘Christian’ worldview and a Pagan one: in Paganism, according to the text, we have a ‘world full of agencies’, as they call it:

“As seen in the ancient Greek, Celtic, and Norse traditions, the pagan idea most alien to the modern worldview is probably the belief that the entire cosmos is animated by agencies.”

I must confess that the word ‘agencies’ sounded for a second like they were talking about dull bureaucratic entities, but since those are never very animating in any sense of the world that can’t be what they meant. What they do mean something like a world animated with spirits, or a world full of persons, some of which are humans. In other words, basically they’re talking about an Animist worldview.

And here comes my main point: while some people might not like the idea of an Animist worldview (some of which are connected to Modernism, others probably to fear of the unknown), this is not at all something that needs to be opposed to Christianity. But indeed i’s rather something antithetical to modernism and its philosophical forefathers, and thus also partly to the forms of Christianity that either helped forming modernity or in a secondary move also those that have been shaped by it.
It probably starErasmus 2ted with Erasmus or even Scotus and was very prevalent in the Renaissance tendency to get rid of everything viewed as ‘superstition’. And so in Christian modernism (which includes a lot of protestant traditions) we find a fear and adversity to any even remotely animist idea. A commenter on the first post of the series on ‘faerie’ on Dr. Richard Becks  experimental theology blog gives us a nice example of this resistance to ascribing any animist dimension to this Reality we live in:

When we re-enchant the World, what are we doing? Part of the Reformation’s emphasis was to strip the world of fantasy, not of spiritual. Peasants no longer had to fear that an irate saint of the local bridge would drown them if they did not drop a florin in the toll-box. Of course, the agents of the so-called Enlightenment took the critique without their source. There were no such things as spirits, devils, angels, gods etc. nothing that man’s “ever-watchful eye” could not prove.

(Note that the guy is going way too far for a pure reformation or actually any small ‘o orthodox Christian’ worldview. Luther himself would be quite shocked to hear that there are no devils for example…)

The main fear here, apart from a modernist control issue and a humanist ‘man conquers nature’ ideology, is probably that of idolatry: that the ‘agencies’ if we acknowledge them will become too important, and that they might take the place God only deserves. This is a valid concern, and people who do acknowledge those realities do sometimes fall into this trap indeed. But an argument out of fear of consequences is never a good way to accept the reality of something.
I will also add here that strangely enough the same concerns are never uttered towards human power, systems, and Winkian Powers like Mammon, while those are recognised and their claims to legitimacy are sometimes uncontested. No matter if they are seen as personal or not, their influence stays the same, and keeps us from God and from seeking first the kingdom and Hid righteousness all the same…

So it might go completely against the grain of a lot of modernist Christianity, buDyingDryadt it certainly is my intuition that recognising this ‘Animist dimension’ of the created world is not really a heterodox oddity of some ‘progressive’ green modern thinker, lost in basckwards synchretism and making up stuff that has no basis in either the bible or Christian tradition or something else fringe and new. I’d rather say that it is just a part of Christianity, even though it might be hidden for eyes that cannot see it. It is very clearly present in the bible, and moreover has been often voiced by the Christian tradition.

And I’m not only thinking about angels in heavely realms here… (I do believe that Charismatic Christianity and Pentecostalism were among other things part of a movement of the Spirit to bring this and other spiritual dimensions back into modernist Christianity, lest it be rendered completely impotent as a dead muggle religion, that often has been moved only in the private space altogether.)

As one of my Facebook-commenters said: “I might be simple-minded, but, how could you read the Psalms and not be basically OK with animism?”. There are lots of verses in the psalms that seem to ascribe agency and the capacity of worshipping God to animals, trees and the elements of nature. When I was a kid one of my favourite songs was about trees that clap their hands for God.

We do take this as pure metaphor as moderns. I don’t know if that’s the best way of viewing it though. There is a rather animist worldview in the background of most of the bible that we just dismiss as moderns. The problem for Christianity is not that the world isn’t full of living beings, but that the are not to be seen or treated as divine in themselves. This is the danger of animism.

zone50But I would say that it’s quite clear most moderns outside of the New Age and Neo-Pagan niche are not at all in danger of divinizing nature, thus and giving so much respect to creation that it diminishes our respect for the Creator. Au contraire mes amis, most of us can need a healthy dose of realisation that Nature is Alive. That we humans are not everything. And also that God Himself is Present and Neo-Paganism (as well as New Age, but also the rise of Charismatic Christianity on the other side) is indeed an answer to this reductionist modernist desacralisation and disenchantment. Smashing the mystery out of Christianity (something that goes back at least to the reformation), is a good way to sterilise religion and in the end kill it from within. Too much Bultmann-manouvres and Christianity dissolves completely…

I’m not saying anything new here. The pre-modern church has always believed in intelligent non-human agents in the cosmos and in nature. Even the Pope seems to agree with that, which can be read through the lines in his ecological encyclical Laudaro Si (read it here Did you ever think of a time when we would read Papal encyclicals on the internet?). The title alone is a strong reference to the Animist dimension, as it is a quote from Saint Francis’ canticle of the sun.

The canticle (just as psalm 148 for example) is a perfect place to see how the Animist dimension is fitted into a Christian worldview. The elements and the creatures (yes, even death) are seen as persons, fellow creatures that all are made by the same Creator, and that all worship the same Creator. And while it starts very certainly with an affirmation of a very Monotheist God-centered Christianity, all the other things are fitted neatly in there too. So let’s meditate on this text and psalm 148 for a while to close our thinking about the Animist dimension of Christianity… (This translation comes from wikipedia. )zonnelied

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.
To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure sickness and trial.
Happy those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve Him with great humility.
Amen

So what do you think?

peace

Bram

Concerning the ancient controversy of the universals and the location of Love, Goodness and Justice within the Divine.


PlatoWhenever one takes lessons on the history of either Western philosophy or theology that includes the medieval period, they will encounter the ancient discussion about the universals. Long words with too much syllables that give a lot of possibility to be misunderstood were and are still employed in such debates, so it’s easy to lose sight of relevance in such matters… And yet something seems to tell me that hidden beneath a lot of dust, endless lingo and adventures in overcomplicating the point there is something very important. That’s why I have decided to dedicate a blog-post to some of the discussion and weigh in on some aspects of a very ancient discussion it in my unique Bram-way.

For the uninitiated who haven’t had basic philosophy: the question is whether the universals do exist somehow and what their relation to the particulars. Universals are universal characteristics here, particulars are the individual things that we encounter around us.  So the question could be asked: does the dogness (universal) of a certain dog (particular) have some separate existence or not. This whole way of thinking might seem quite silly, but with some more abstract universals as goodness and Truth it might become more interesting, as we’ll see later if you manage to finish this post.
I will try to only use as much lingo as is strictly needed, although I probably can’t help mixing up jargon from different worlds as I often end up doing..

To oversimplify I will give ahondn overview of the discussion I will go back to the example of dogness of a dog:
The most important players are Platonic Realism which would say that all dogs derive their dogness from the Platonic Idea Dog. For Plato that Idea would exist somewhere in the world of Ideas. All particular dogs are just like imperfect 3D-printouts of that Idea into the inferior matter of this world and nominalists who say that universals do not exist and are just words in our heads, and the dogness of the dog is just something we call it and actually corresponds to no reality beyond our words.
An in-between position of more moderate Aristotelian realism or conceptualism does also exist, which locates the universals in the particulars. (The dogness of the dog is present inside all dogs). Educate and/or confuse yourself here, here and here.

(Note that ‘Realism’ has an almost opposite meaning here than when used in a modern context. Scientific Realism as an epistemology is more like the opposite of Platonic Realism. Well long live language and its abilities….)

So where do I start? I suppose best just with my own view, which can be described as a postmodern mix of basically Aristotelian and Christian Platonist Realism: I’d propose that there are natural and abstract universals that are located in the things themselves or at least in this world in some way, but much more interesting, that there are also Higher Universals too that are located in the character of the Creator. And there I have to add a probably more (post)modern layer where all of these are most likely to be interpreted with our human minds and thus described into human language and brought into a thoughtfield, which is a more manmade ‘worlds of ideas’ that has not much connection with Plato’s world of ideas, even though it might exist in some mental astral plane . I don’t claim to have much knowledge about such matters though..

The ‘world of ideas’ as just a set of thoughtfields
Lets first start with that last one, where I probably differ from classical thought most and make up my own clumsy mishmash: There is a world of ideas in our individual and collective minds, (in thoughfields probably more or less a la Jung) which is like I said not at all a Higher World as Plato envisioned, but something on a mental plane that is derived from our human thoughts. Part of it just consists of constructions of human interpretations of the material world. It’s not even one world, but there are countless one, every culture and time and group has such a world, and it’s derived from our collective and individual minds.
Rosetta_StoneThis is also probably the closest that I get to Nominalism, but even then I don’t say anything is ‘just words’ with no existence. I do still think these things have an existence of sorts on some kind of mental plane.
These thoughtfields are always a needed intermediary between us and Reality: we look at Reality and interpret it and construct pictures of Reality in human languages in a mental world. I do not believe we have unmediated access to Reality, it is always interpreted.

But that’s probably not even half of what’s going on in there. We as humans are highly creative beings, that can create new stuff inside the thoughtfields. There are a lot of things that do originate in there: all of our cultural movements and purtekstballone ‘social constructs’ belong to this same world of thoughtfields, from useless abstract discussion about the nature of the universals, and all of theological systems to dubstep and unjust caste systems. (or even thoughtform entities, but that’s another story) And things don’t stay there. We actualise them and bring them into the material world. All things that we make or remake in natural reality are nothing but a translation of what we make first in the world of thought too btw.

Natural and abstract universals
This might have been a weird beginning, but now I’m going to get more classical  with the natural and the abstract world. for the ‘natural universals’ or properties of natural things like species of animals, plants or minerals for example I’d just follow the Aristotelean line that for example the horseness of the horse is found in all horses together. (My theoretical dog needed some rest so I summoned a theoretical horse for now…)
I can probably add something about the DNA of living beings or the chemical composition of minerals but that might go too far for now, and then I did remove the question of universals from philosophy to the natural sciences, which might be a valid thing here…

A side-note: this is where I would probably disagree with putting stuff like gender Venus of Willendorfcompletely in the ‘social construct’ category, which would be in the terms of my post like saying that it only exists or at least is derived from the thoughtfields. Gender is indeed to a certain degree a thoughtform-concept that varies per culture, but it’s still built a higher construct upon a reality that’s found within material nature, and translated and given form within every human culture. The starting point is the biological world, and not the thoughtfield; so I’d see all cultural expressions of gender not as pure social constructs, but as better or worse translations of the biological Reality of sex that is found in the particulars, or in other worlds in us individual humans.

When we go to the abstract universals (characteristics of logic, mathematics, equations, etc..) I suppose that they are just part of a less obvious ‘dimension’ of reality that is probably more transcendent in nature. I’d still say that they’re just part of Created nature anyway, and do not really reside inside of some Higher Platonic world of ideas (which I do not believe in btw, if that wasn’t clear yet). They just belong to a less tangible dimension of the natural reality we live in, and they will probably be discovered by most sentient species independently from each other, and then probably described in completely different terms and formats. But like earlier, they too cannot be reached directly with the human mind though (except for maybe some very simple ones, like basic geometric forms as a triangle) and will always have to be translated into languages that we humans understand with words and numbers and symbols and so on, and placed into our thoughtfields before we can access them.

Higher Universals: Love, Truth, Beauty, Justice…
Up till now we had something of a moderate postmodern Aristotelean realism (I guess) for what I’ve called the ‘natural universals’. But that’s still only half of the story, and we haven’t had the most important half yet. And here I will turn to a form of  Christian more or less neo-Platonist Realism:

My view on what I will call the Higher Universals (stuff like Love, Goodness, hqdefaultJustice, Truth and Beauty, and even Life and Being itself too) is that they are not primarily a part of this created world,  but that their source is ultimately found in the character/nature/attributes of the Creator Godself. (yes, I conflate some terms that are used very precisely for other things, and that often are used for different things in different traditions.  I just mean that these things are a part of the Being of God, not just of Creation. All more precise terms might have more detail than we humans can be certain about anyway…)
But again, in this form of ‘universals’ they are just Absolutes. And while I do believe that Absolutes do exist (bad bad postmodernist that I am), I do not believe we can ever reach them, by definition.
They cannot be accessed directly by humans because they are in a completely different Realm, and have to be translated to every context and language. Which might look very different depending on the particulars in which they are given form.

icon of the sermon on the mountStill if we look with the right mindset and open eyes we can see glimpses of them everywhere, and we as Christians need to live a life that contextualises and brings them into the concrete world, incarnates them even. Jesus as the Incarnation was the most perfect translation of the Higher Universals into a human being like us.

Realism and not Nominalism
That I end up on the side of Realism and not Nominalism might be more significant than we realise at first sight.  If you read the internet you will find certain people who denounce Nominalism for different and sometimes even opposing reasons, which I will not go into now. (You can read about Luther and Nominalism here -don’t skip the commments- for example, or about Ockham and Nominalism here. (Yes that’s the razor guy)
Foto0067So what is the problem with Nominalism here? From what I’ve read about Nominalism and from some discussions with people who know more than me it seems safe to say that Nominalism expects us to say that there are no real realities behind what I’ve called the Higher Universals. And this is where it gets dangerous: If we do not locate them inside if the Being of God, they have to be located elsewere. This will have them to be located in the will or decrees of God. And then we open up the door for people who say that anything (even ‘hate thy neighbour’) can be good whenever God decides it to be good (Ockham the razorguy seems to have  thought so, but I won’t go into that here now). And here we come into a ridiculous and dangerous domain where nothing makes sense that is to me completely unacceptable.

This is why I find it very important to note that Love, Goodness and the other of the Higher Universals are located in Gods Being somehow, not Gods will or something created. God IS Love (1 John). Love is a part of God, not a creation of God that could have been completely different and utterly unrecognisable in another world. People could be blue and even the value of pi might have been different if God wanted to create things differently, but Love and Justice have an Unshakeable Source, and will always be contextualisations of the same Attributes of the eternal Creator, even in the weirdest world possible.

God has created a world that was good in His eyes as a reflection of His character. Every inch of goodness within creation refers to the Creator. Every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of Creation. This means that nothing good or true (or even beautiful) in our Reality is ever arbitrary. No law in the bible is arbitrary, but somehow they are contextual ans sometimes for us incomprehensible translations of the Higher Universal of Justice into a historical context that often comes across as strange and counter-intuitive to us moderns.

Since God as the Creator is universal, there is a Trace of Justice in every just law in every society except for probably the most wicked unjust corrupted ones. QxouqThere is a Trace of Goodness in every genuine act of goodness everywhere, no matter how imperfect. There is a Trace of Beauty in every expression of beauty made by humans that truly captures something, as well as a lot of very vapid Traces of Beauty in nature. There is a Trace Truth in every human idea that expresses something true.

All of these, no matter how many layers and worlds of interpretation, in their imperfect way, do point to God somehow. Even then we Christians have to go beyond those Traces, and incarnate the Way of Christ more directly in a lost world in deeds and in explicit words. We are to embody the Higher Universals as much as we can.  “Be perfect for I am perfect.” Says Jesus in the middle of the Sermon of the Mount. The whole point of the Sermon on the Mount is to align our character with the character of God.
Part of salvation is conforming to the likeness of God, and to partake in the Divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), not only for our own sake but also to manifest in our particular way the Higher Universals more and more in this fallen and troubled world that is in need of more Love, Truth, Beauty, and so on. We can only fully become ourselves if Christ lives in us and God shines through us.

Let’s close this post with a quote from E. Stanley Jones’ Christ of the Mount that summarises what I’m trying to say here:

Moreover, if we are to be perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect, then the same moral laws that govern God’s acting must govern ours. In other words, the moral laws are not rooted in the shifting customs of men, but they are rooted in the very nature of the Divine. This gives us a stable moral universe and it means that moral distinctions have ultimate meaning. Moral laws are not based on the divine will, but on the divine nature. They are not whimsical, for God is not whimsical. They are dependable and orderly, for God is dependable and orderly. I can morally respect a God who will act on everything he requires of man. (E Stanley Jones, the Christ of the Mount)

This post was way too long, and my anarchist and unacademic approach to philosophy is probably quite sloppy… But I had to write this somehow…

What do you people think?

Peace

Bram

Atheist Faith in Reason as a Relic from Theism…


believe_800My problems with modern atheism are completely different from what most atheists assume they are. I say that not only as a Christian, but my inner atheist completely agrees with that, and is often the most frustrated part of me when I’m reading the ‘new atheists’ for example.

I actually don’t have much problems with people accepting accepting the possibility of atheism (the belief in absence of God). But a negative belief in God is not at all the only thing most modern atheism is about. Most of it is more built on a foundation of  a positive belief in reason, logic and science, which are often given a likewise inerrancy as fundamentalist Christians gives to the bible.

And I wile already have a problem with an an absolute faith in human reason when looking from a Christian paradigm (I think modernists on all sides, from Christian fundamentalists to new atheists have way too much unsubstantiated faith in it), I must say that in a paradigm without Rational Creator an unspoken belief that human reason can come to infallible truths is completely out of place and utterly naive. I will explain later what I mean with that.

My other problem with atheism is the assumed materialist worldview that from my experience not that very plausible. I won’t be easily gaslighted into the idea that the supernatural world does not exist. (I do even think that the way in which the universe manifests itself in such an non-magical way to most modern Western is some sort of magical trick, but that’s another story.)
I won’t even go into the problem that reason and abstract thought are way too transcendent and immaterial for a consistent materialistic worldview now, that might be for another time.

To explain why I have a big problem with combining materialism (the idea that the matter that we can observe scientifically is all there is) and absolute rationalism, and think  such a combination completely untenable and tautological I have to put onDSC03152 my atheist hat and explain this more from the inside…

(I put on my atheist hat now, which is actually an orthodox Pastafarian colander..)

To start we assume that there is no Rational Creator God behind this world. I do explicitly mean a Rational Supreme Being here that is behind the universe/multiverse as Creator and Sustainer here, and lower gods, spirits or body thetans are completely irrelevant here.
So whatever the source of all this is what we see and know, there is no such thing as a Creator! This means that we humans are just a species of apes wandering around on a tiny rock planet circling around a yellow dwarf star. We evolved without any plan into what we are somehow in a universe that wasn’t made for us. All of our reason and logic, and everything based on them is this just a by-product of processes in which our forefathers adapted themselves to their environment in order to survive the law of the jungle.

If  those ideas sound completely counter-intuitive to you, as a believer for example, I still ask you to try to consider the paradigm that I’m proposing here for now and try for now to climb into it and see the consequences of it.  (This is always the best option when encountering another worldview btw.)

When it comes to trusting our human reason we clearly have 2 problems :

– There is no reason at all to trust that the universe itself is fashioned in such a way can be reasonably understood by any rational being.
– Neither is there any reason to trust that the reason of our evolved brains has any way of accurately describing the world we live in, even if the universe would by some magic -otherwise than the will of a Rational Creator- be rational and intelligible to an actual rational being.

So once we let go of the notion that there’s a Rational Creator behind the Universe, which we might do because it indeed seems to be a bit of wishful thinking, we should be very very careful with trusting our own reason. There is no guarantee at all that there is any chance that  our reason and logic will really be able to nail Reality for us.
If we’re really intellectually honest we will have to be very humble intellectually, and letting go of the idea Rational Creator (or even believing in an irrational Creator if anyone wants to go there) also means that forms of modernist faith in reason and empiricism are nothing but naive relics of theism, and its faith in a rational universe that stems from a belief in a Rational Source behind the Universe, as Christians, other monotheists, Platonists and Hindus would do.
There simply is no reason to trust human reason very much, let alone think that our thought systems built on it can be absolute, objective or have any degree of infallibility…. The universe is a place not made for humans, and there is no guarantee except for wishful thinking that we will be able to really understand it. Reality can be bended into a lot of explanatory frames, which if good enough will all work.

But we’ll never be able to really pin down Reality.

Science indeed does a good job in making explanations and offering working models about the parts of Reality that are most accessible to us, but even those are approximations and will never be more than that. Yes it can be trusted up to a certain point, but always in the utmost humbleness and scepticism. It’s not because something works that it is true. The Ptolemaic geocentric cosmology was rationally sound and worked too.

Add to that the placebo-factor with the Newtonian law that something that’s in a certain state will remain in that state until enough energy is used to change the state (a brain or a society will remain in a paradigm unless it really can’t otherwise) and people stay in imperfect paradigms all the time because they can’t otherwise. Well, and every paradigm is imperfect anyway. Just get used to it.

So let’s go back to my basic point:  believing that reason al logic will ever enable us to completely understand the Reality in which we find ourself is nothing but a relic from the optimism of a theistic worldview that believes in a Rational Creator. We delude ourself with self-conceit if we trust too much in our human reason. The universe is basically absurd, and any certainty about the nature of the universe and our own rationality in another way is wishful thinking.

As atheists, Nietzsche and Camus were certainly onto something. The new atheists and any rationalist or logical positivist are just holding on to naive leftovers from theism in their reliance on how much both our reason, logic, and the intelligibility of the universe itself can be trusted.

(I take my hat in my hand and wonder if it it still belongs on my head when saying the following:)

And here I cchaosan only fall back into the  metaparadigm beyond chaos magick. (If you don’t know what I mean by that, please read this post here.) Groundless postmodern paradigm shifting combined with the power of belief to find the best working worldview is the only thing that remains for me here. Yes, I can use belief in reason as a paradigm, but it’s still a make-believe game that needs a lof of belief from my side to really make it work. 

I couldn’t go back to belief in reason here. I can’t go back to belief in progress. I can’t go back.  Reality is absurd and not made for us, and having faith in human reason and logic or in the rationality and intelligibility of the universe is utterly a form of self-deceit, but it’s a nice placebo.
Choosing the most soothing paradigm and remaining in it for as long as it’s lasting is the only solution to not slide into madness though.

(I put off the atheist hat now)

But I still go with Lewis, and not with Lovecraft. We are slightly irrational and confused beings in a world that has a Rational Source, and not more or less good and normal beings in a world that is utterly irrational, alien and dark behind the facade.

In the end I might be a notorious paradigm shifter, but I’m not (and have never been) a completely groundless postmodernist, rather a probably slightly crypto-Platonist/Aristotelian Christian with a healthy dose of humbleness about human capacities, so I still have the option to believe in reason and logic (even though they are in no way absolutely reliable). By the way, I’m a Christian because of Christ, and glimpses of a Love more Real than this whole universe. Not because of rational arguments and apologetics.

This might still be a very conscious choice though, because both possibilities seem equally plausible, unlike an enlightenment atheism that relies on an almost absolute faith in reason, logic and science in a materialist universe. That’d be, if I actually do follow reason here, too absurd even for a completely absurd universe.
I’m not naive enough for that.

So what do you think?

peace

Bram

 

 

On the dangers of our centrated thinking


One of the most critically satisfying phrases in the modern era was the reductionist phrase “nothing but” as in “that’s nothing but a typical Freudian Electra complex at work” of “that’s nothing but a typical Marxist class struggle” [etc.] (Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christian)
“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.” Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.”
(C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)

AnkocToday’s post is one of those things I need to write down so I can link to it later, instead of having to give this explanation every time… The Brian McLaren quote above doesn’t only describe the problem I’m talking about quite well, but it also might foreshadow some later thoughts on some of the things that ‘the emerging church’ promised to go beyond without any such thng ever happening. (The problem sometimes is even more perfected in American ‘progressive Christianity’ as far as I can see…)

The term ‘centrated thinking’ in the title is borrowed from Piagets theory of psychological development by lack of a better word to describe it elsewhere, but I will use it in a much broader sense. Let’s first start with the wikipedia definition for those who are uninitiated in the theory or have forgotten it bPiagety now:

In psychology, centration is the tendency to focus on one salient aspect of a situation and neglect other, possibly relevant aspects. Introduced by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget through his cognitive-developmental stage theory, centration is a behaviour often demonstrated in the preoperational stage.

Yes, I do know that Piaget is speaking about small children in the pre-operational phase here as he calls it, but the same thing he described but manifesting in other forms is also happening all the time in adult human thought. We always look at the world through a certain lens. We are not omni-present to look at a situation from every side, cannot calculate all angles in, and would not have the time and energy to do so even if we could.

So very often people tend to frame their thoughts through a very specific lens, finding only one aspect or dimension of reality important or even real, and ignoring or negating all the rest. Often the idea is that whatever lens they have is the most important thing that explains everything, while all the rest is just irrelevant.
This has something to do with out human hunger for a simple explanation for life, the universe and everything. (Well, duh, 42!)
The ancient Greek philosophers for example were busy looking for the archè or principle on which the whole of existence was based. For Thales of Miletus it was water on which everything was based,his pupil Anaximander thought it was the Anaximandermore vague ‘indefinite’ or apeiron, while Anaximenes would say that it’s air. (Yes, all 4 elements have been seen as archè by one Philosopher or another in those days, and they were first combined by Empedocles as the 4 elements we know now, but that’s another story) Pythagoras on the other hand posited that everything was based on math and numbers.

Not much has changed since the centrated woldviews of those ancient bearded guys on their faraway Turkish or Greek coast… Freud said that everything in human behaviour is based in sex, and both communists and ‘capitalsts’ have fallen for the dangerous idea of Marx that reality should first and foremost be framed in terms of economics. And then there are more postmodern theories that have the archè of our humanity based in language, or power dynamics, etc…

Let me repeat that nothing is wrong with looking at the world through a certain lens and thus ignoring other parameters or whole dimensions. It’s unavoidable even, and we need to do this if we want to be able to understand the world around us at all! The more parameter we leave out, the more we can focus on details and really look at what’s going on.

But we should NEVER forget that it only is a lens. Power games are only one of the many things going on in human relationships and certainly not always our main motivator. Economics are one dimension of our reality, but to say it’s more important than other things is not reality but a choice. A very dangerous one. And so on…

If we forget that any of these centrated ways of explaining reality and our human existence are just possible lenses that focus on only certain dimensions of existence, we get in trouble easily. There are always more factors that can be looked at and probably even more that we aren’t even able to see, and reducing any issue to just one angle is always doing violence to the complicated reality we inhabit!

Nuance, and looking to all viewpoints and stories is always needed. And evidently it is always dehumanising to reduce people to just one aspect of their being and then completely fold their identity into that aspect, no matter if it’s sex/gender, race, culture, status in power/privilege, whatever… People are always more than that, and cannot be reduced to any of those. Relationships and human motives always based on more things than we know.

So I have to end with a warning about a certain line of thought that’s pervasive in certain social justice circles nowadays. No matter on what side of the line they are, dehumanising someone as an ‘oppressor’ (a common way to centrate human animalfarmidentity on in certain contemporary circles) and then dismissing them as a human being that has nothing to contribute is as dehumanising as the things the whole attitude wants to erase. Things that should be erased indeed, if we are to treat others like humans, but animal farm revolutions are NOT the way

Humans are always more complicated. Reality is always more complicated. We need centrated theories because that’s how we operate as humans. But we also need to see them for what they are, and to never take any theory at all as comprehensively describing Reality, humans, or God (yes, the same problem is very present in modernist and other theology too, but I don’t have the time here to go into that). We’ll only do violence to whatever we describe if  we think that our centrated theories describe all there is…

Always stay humble, be open to learn, and be open listen to everyone in a certain issue. Open your eyes for nuance, and don’t forget that the world is often not black’n white, nor grey, but it has many colours, some of which we can’t see. (Which doesn’t mean they aren’t important.  Bees can see ultra-violet marks of flowers for example)

What do you think?

Peace

Bram

See also the following posts:

Lust is not about sex but power and control?
The unhelpfulness of words like ‘conservative’, ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’.
The virus of evil: animal farm revolutions and the cycle of violence…

 

 

What can Christians learn from neo-pagans and ‘magickal’ traditions?


esoMatt Stone at curious Christian recently asked the question “Can Evangelicals Learn from Occult Traditions?” on his blog. It’s a questions that deserves way more comments and discussions than he did get. In it he did refer in his post to a book with a similar title called ‘Can evangelicals learn from world religions’ by Gerald R. McDermott that I haven’t read but that looks very interesting.

McDermott wrote a superb book entitled, “Can Evangelicals Learn from World Religions?” The text explored the ways theologians of the likes of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin had historically engaged with Pagan philosophers of the likes of Plato and Aristotle and asked what a similar exercise might look like today. In the process McDermott explored aspects of Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism and Islam that Christians, evangelicals included, could profit from … even if only to rediscover forgotten aspects of their own tradition.

I do believe that every tradition, Christian or otherwise, is most likely to have things we can learn from, and things we should not learn at all. So I would definitely answer the question with ‘yes’, and for my own post (which is also part of the March 2015 Synchroblog – What I Appreciate About [Other Religions] I will broaden it a bit “What can evangelicals learn from neo-Pagans and ‘magickal’ traditions?’.

I’ve been having online conversations with neo-pagans, witches, other ‘occult’ folk and newagy types for a while now. A lot of my prejudices, weird stereotypes and outright lies that some Christians told me about them were shattered there, and I did meet a lot of wise and interesting people (as well as negative creeps and dangerous idiots, but Christians, atheists or Muslims do have those as well…), and I did learn a lot of things from them.

(Yes, I might have entered conversations and places that wouldn’t have been safe without Divine protection and the gift of spiritual discernment, but hanging out with other people, even Christians isn’t without risks either and might require the same amount of discernment and Divine protection actually…)

So what could we learn from Occultists, neo-pagans, wiccans and others who practice magick as a part of their religion?

1. Recover some of what we’ve lost in modernity
Modernity as we know it is a strange place for Christianity to find and contextualise itself, and getting too modernised can be quite dangerous for the Christian faith even. (Which is true both sides of modern Christianity, fundamentalism and liberal Christianity, although often in opposite ways)
A lot of modern Christians for example are quite handicapped when it comes to the ‘invisible world’ after what the enlightenment did to our culture. (See also Thoughts about the spiritual ecological naivete of modern Westerners for a more thorough exploration of that problem)
There is much more than meets the eye and can be dreamt of in our modernist philosophies, but even if we try to go there can can really struggle with finding ways to understand and conceptualise it from our modern paradigm in a way that makes sense…
Yes, we lost a lot in the age of disentchantment that protestantism and the Christian renaissance-humanism of Erasmus started and that has been influencing us for roughly 500 years now, creating a very non-supernatural world for us. (Which might ironically be the biggest magical trick ever , seeOur nonmagical modern world as the biggest magical trick ever…)
But Christianity is deeply connected with the supernatural world, and has a lot of claims that are quite useless in a purely naturalist/materialist paradigm. Which is not so strange; Christianity as we know it has pagan and Jewish roots, not enlightenment ones, and was born inside of a much more enchanted world than ours. And no matter how hard we try, we won’t make much sense of a lot of the gospel writings without an understanding of a world that is more than our modern materialist one.

Pentecostalism and Charismatic Christianity are probably one of the ways in which the Spirit sent us a correction of this disenchanted false worldview, but sometimes even those religions are through and through modern in a photonegative way. And here it can be interesting to connect with those who have retained their connection with the supernatural. (Yes, I know neo-Paganism and Wicca are mostly modern reconstructions, but we still can learn a lot from how they try to make sense of the Spiritual world in modernity sometimes.) I also think that the thoroughly postmodern chaos magick and its chaosunderstanding of paradigm shifting could have taught the emerging church a lot that it needed to not fall into the rigid and very dogmatic bounded-set neo-left-liberal trap that it ended up in… Which doesn’t make sense for a disappointed postmodern oecemenical evangelical as myself…
(See also: Some postmodern paradigm-shifting: from C.S. Lewis to chaos magic and back…)

2. See who the other really is without prejudices
In some Christian circles there are very scary views of ‘the occult’ that are worse than fiction, and that should be placed in the library net to stuff like the medieval maleus maleficarum. Some people even paint a view of non-Christians being just different groups of demon-influenced groups that all work together to hinder Christianity,  mostly in the form they regard as ‘the one true faith’, liberal Christians or even churches who have a slighly different view on god knows what bible verse might even be on the other side too with all of the other evil infidels… Which does not mean that there’s a lot of dark stuff going on among the magickal folk, but sometimes what Christians think occultism is is complete nonsense. (Take this Carman song as a good example)

We should never forget that as Christians we should care for the truth, and not spread lies about anyone, not even about Satanists. (most of which follow Anton Lavey and don’t believe in the entity Christians call Satan anyway) So it is always etremely inmportant to listen to people and let them self-identify instead of spreading wild stories and conspiracy theory. And even if we completely disagree with what someone believes we should not distort it if we describe it.

A lot of Christian descriptions of ‘occultism’ are not just slander but just outright ridiculous. Frank Peretti in his ‘darkness’ books for example lets new agers, devil-worshipping Satanists and atheists work together to oppose Christians (of a very conservative American variety). I’ve you’ve ever met people of any of those groups, the chance that they will work together and have common goals with the other 2 groups are not bigger than with fundamentalist Christianity. No atheist will like new-age or satanist superstition more than Christian superstition. A Satan-worshipper will not bother with secular atheism andd look down upon fluffy new-age BS. And no Newager in his right mind (hmmm) will get involved with either inverse-Christian Satanism or a worldview that excludes the supernatural…

Most of these people are not concerned with opposing Christianity, except where it hinders them in being who they are and doing what they want to do. If people are opposed they will try to stop that opposition. But non-Christians who agree with the Christian ideas about God and that want to oppose that God are quite rare. Most have totally different ideas about God/gods/the Divine/whatever… and are not interested in fighting with a misconception although they might fight the power of Christianity when in power, or criticise the things they see wrong in it (sometimes rightly). People generally do not want to attack a God they don’t believe in. Opposing God as Christians see Him is meaningless and out of the question for most non-Christians. There is no specific anti-God conspiracy!

So it can be very interesting to just talk with people like neo-Pagans, Wiccans, and others and let them explain what they believe and practice in their own words. FB groups like the Pagan and Christian moot or Watchtower are very interesting here for example.

It’s true there are a lot of people in and far beyond magickal traditions that are not very positive towards Christians. But that’s often because Christians have been very negative towards them. The least we can do as Christians is try to listen, try to understand who they are. They are all humans like us, and a  lot of them want to do a lot of good in their own way. And there’s really a lot of people in those communities who have been hurt and are still regularly hurt by Christians  who spread all kind of weird accusations about them. Nothing Christlike about that, we can do a lot better, guys!

3. Acknowledge the parallels and learn from them
This will probably be my most controversial point here. But yes, studying magick (even if it’s in theory in my own case) as a Christian can open our eyes to certain parallels between certain beliefs and practices within Christianity and paganism or magickal/occult traditions. (Let’s not forget here that most Western Occult traditions are derived from Christianity btw., except for paganism, Wicca,chaos magick and the like… )

Yes there are parallels between ‘energy healing’ and faith healing, and there is a lot more to say about ‘Divine energies’ (an Eastern Orthodox concept). Jesus seems to be doing forms of ‘magick’ in some of his miracles.  We can even see shamanic motifs in the gospels. (this bible study by ‘Captain Longpost’ on Marks gospel on the Pagan and Christian Moot forum is recommended for everyone.)

A lot of magick is done with the invocation/evocation of deities or other entities, and our Christians prayer can be seen as in the same category. We are oathed to Christ, the incarnation of the Creator of the Multiverse, and we do find our spiritual power and authority in Him.
This does not mean that other gods do not exist btw, we only do not regard them as gods to worship as Christians. My view about them is that they are more on angel/archangel level than the same species as the Supreme Being anyway…

But there also is a grey zone with human power that most people don’t believe in… A lot of magick is about projecting strong will (think also about ‘the secret’, ‘the law of attraction’ and even pop-chaos magick sigils) and recognising this can help us discern where Christians move outside of Christianity to revert to human magick. Without being focussed on God miracles are not something to be impressed by, and not something that needs to even be connected with Christianity at all. Just magick… And some ‘name it and claim it’ stuff very easily rolls into these kinds of magick, with a lot of miracles and rock’n roll going on…

…while Elvis has left the building already…

What we should never forget as Christians
We should not forget that as Christians, we are ‘oathed to Christ’. We are to root ourselves in God, the Ultimate Reality, Ground of Being, Creator of the universe through the incarnated and resurrected Christ, God-with-us, and through His Spirit in and around us. It is important to see this as a Reality, not just an article of faith to intellectually accept. Heaven and Earth are full of His Glory, as the ancient Hosannah-hymn says. In Him we live, in Him we move, in Him we have our being…

We live in a Spiritual world that is bigger than we can understand or grasp, and more Real than we can perceive with our senses. The material dimension is only one part of it (although not unimportant to us embodied beings, and apparently to God, who incarnated in one of us!).

One of the most-neglected but most-needed gfts of the Spirit might be the discernment of Spirits. I do think we should all ask the Holy Spirit for a bigger dose of that, and not only when we participate in interfaith dialogue with world religions or magickal folk, but also within Christianity. A lot of stuff, from theology to miracles does have other sources than the Holy Spirit, sometimes human, sometimes darker than that. And we often don’t recognise that at all…

shalom

Bram

This post is part of the the March 2015 Synchroblog – What I Appreciate About [Other Religions].  Be sure to read the other participants too::

10 old traditional and/or biblical Christian ideas that are sometimes mistakenly seen as ‘progressive’…


Foto0067Before we close the year with some lists of the most-read stuff of 2014 and an evaluation of my project of demodernisation (and de-Americanisation, see also here) I will post this one last long and maybe to some controversial blogpost. This time we’ll talk about certain basic Christian ideas or at least ancient minority positions within Christianity that are sometimes regarded as new and ‘progressive’ ideas and thus tied to a new and ‘progressive’ form of Christianity which is incompatible with either the old-fashioned nonsense of the past or the true ‘conservative’ Christianity, depending on which side of the false dilemma one finds themselves. Which is very problematic actually…

I’ve seen the combination of the words ‘progressive Christianity’ gain more and more influence over the last years on the English-speaking internet. The term itself is like other words including ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ a term that I find utterly unhelpful and quite ambiguous .  I’ve also seen a lot of very different and sometimes quite contradictory interpretations of what ‘progressive Christianity’ is supposed to be, some of which were interesting to me, and others which weren’t at all… It seems that the expression became more popular (at least in the blogosphere) when the ’emergent’ brand lost its prominence, and that it also took over some of the content of that label, especially in the form of its ‘updated protestant theological liberalism’ (which frankly doesn’t interest me at all as a moderate anti-modernist).

(The main reason that I’ll never use the word ‘progressive’ to describe myself is that I completely reject the modernist myth of ‘progress’, which seems to be the root of the whole idea of contemporary progressiveness. But that’s another story that would only derail this post)

All of this does not mean that ‘progressive Christians’ don’t  have a lot of interesting things to say. A lot of the stuff that progressive Christians believe in and want us to talk about (but not all!) is very important to me too, or at least stuff I agree with… The problem here mostly the false dilemma that some see that I’ve mentioned already: the mistaken idea that ‘progressive Christianity’ (or ’emergentism’, or liberal protestantism, or…)  is a new and better and modern thing (or postmodern or contemporary or whatever word  is used to describe both their chronological snobbery and modern-Western cultural imperialism/neo-colonialism) , something completely distinct from what came before disconnected from it, and better than anything before it anyway.

While the opposite is true: most of the prophetic things that ‘progressives’ have to teach us are quite old, and they are important truths that have a long history within Christianity. Some as a minority-view, some as the majority-view in other times or other Christian traditions. Some normative outside of modernism even…

Let’s also talk here  the confusion of terms with some of the other words besides ‘progressive’ before we start. I’ve written before about the term ‘conservative’, which only means an impulse to conserve a certain tradition. For example the American use of the word ‘conservative’ has nothing to do with ‘conservative Christianity’ as some kind of ancient basic orthodoxy, but with some fairly recent (last 200 years mostly) forms of protestantism tied to the political old-school liberalism of the founding fathers and the American constitution (which has nothing to do with Christian orthodoxy at all!)

Fundamentalism as a Christian movement has not much to do with a basic Christian orthodoxy either. It’s more an early 20th century reactionary antithesis to liberalism, emphasizing not at all the core of historical Christianity but some areas in which they disagreed with liberal theology of that time, which gave a very unbalanced view of what the ‘fundamentals’ of Christianity were that did not follow basic Christian orthodoxy at all. So while fundamentalism might be a photo-negative of classical liberal theology, it still is thoroughly modern in a lot of ways.  (see also this post for my problem with the bad photo-negative copy of it in American anti-fundamentalism, which is itself tied completely to what it tries to escape from)

So let’s list some of the ideas that are rejected by some or all American conservatives and fundamentalists, while embraced by progressives and thus seen as ‘progressive’ (or ‘liberal’)  by a lot of people. Those ideas are not new nor progressive nonetheless but have been part of the rich and diverse history of Christianity from the early days and can be traced back to the bible itself.   Most of them can be solidly defended from a basic orthodox reading of the bible.

(Note also that some of the things that are very important to the current ‘progressives’ are absent from this list because they just don’t fit in the list. Some are new for the modern age or just repackaged old heresies or non-Christian philosophies adopted by liberal Christianity. Rejecting the supernatural -spirits, angels, the afterlife- for example is not a new idea that people  could only come up with after evolving to a new step and entering the modern age. The Sadducees, who were more conservative than the Pharisees, already taught this and Jesus and the NT writers could have easily followed them, but they rejected it in favour of the views of the Pharisees…
But my exclusion of certain progressive ideas from this list doesn’t have to mean that I either agree nor disagree with any of them, just that I did not include them. I probably have forgotten a lot of stuff that could fit in this list….)

1. pacifism and Christian non-violence
I always assumed that pacifism or at least a tendency to non-violence were part of basic Christianity from my reading of the gospels, and especially the sermon on the mount. (I say this as a pentecostal kid living in a post-Catholic Belgian culture btw.) I know that some see it as an ideal that doesn’t always work, but even then, with enemy-love as one of Jesus commandments I could not conceive of Christians who would completely dismiss the idea in favour of militarism.
Great was my shock when I explored the internet as a young twenty-something and discovered Christians (mainly from the US) who completely dismissed the idea of Christian non-violence as dangerous and naive and placed it under the category of ‘liberal nonsense’. Such a view is completely a-historical and completely ignorant of the words of Jesus himself.
Christian non-violence does have a long history. It was prominent in pre-Constantinian times and while it wasn’t the majority position in later times (Even with ‘just war’ doctrine most wars would be seen as illegitimate btw… You can’t defend any of the American wars of the last half century with just war theory for example!) it has popped up regularly in the history of Christianity among groups or people who wanted to take Christ seriously. We see it appear already with the first Christians -who rather died that killed for their faith- over St. Francis of assisi -who went to meet the Sultan unarmed to talk about Christ in the middle of a crusade- and the line goes all the way to the Quakers and Anabaptists, and the modern Christian peacekeeper teams.  Christian non-violence is a deeply biblical idea that has been held in different degrees by a lot of people who took the New Testament and the words of Christ very seriously!

2. Anticapitalism
Recently the pope said some things about capitalism that were not received well by some American evangelicals. But contrary to what some people thought he did not say anything new and did only reword catholic doctrine that was already popetrickleaffirmed by the popes before him. What he said was quite logical for most non-American Catholics and other Christians also. I’ve never understood why capitalism is such a holy cow to certain (mainly American) Christians. It is a very modernist economic idea that has not much to do with classical Christianity but is tied to historical liberalism, and it can devolve very easily into economical and social jungle-law Darwinism, which is the opposite of anything a Christian could ever defend. So while it cannot be linked to the bible being a modern invention, it also goes counter to some Biblical and historically Christian ideas. Look at this list of quotes from the church fathers for example.
I once wanted to write a series about Christianity and capitalism but never got further than this first post  I also have written a post called Abundance is the enemy of capitalism. starting from the biblical idea of abundance as a part of shalom, which is opposed to the capitalist basic principle of scarcity…

I can also add that there is nothing new or ‘liberal’ about vaguely ‘socialist’ ideas and ways of living. The church of Acts was quite ‘communist’, as well as most monastic orders.
And let’s not forget that the only false god that is called by name in the gospels is Mammon, of with Jesus says that he cannot be served together with God…

3. ‘Green’ lifestyles and ecological awareness
If God is Creator (which all Christians including all evolutionary Creationists affirm – as far as I know) , and we are to love God above all, some respect for His creation seems to be very logical to me. Taking care of creation is also a commandment in genesis (unless you see ‘ruling’ as a very oppressive dictatorship, but I would say that we aren’t to do anything to nature we wouldn’t want rulers to do with us…) It always was logical to me that Christians should have a lot of respect for nature as the work of Gods hands, although it might be that this impulse was fed more by my (almost post-)catholic teachers in school than in my pentecostal upbringing.

Premodern people did live a lot closer to nature. Jesus spent a lot of time in nature praying and meditating throughout the gospels. Our modern disconnect with nature is far removed from the world of the bible, but respect for nature as Christians is a tradition that goes back at least to (again) Francis of Assisi, and probably the Celtic Church.
There is no good reason for us to condone destruction of Gods creation in favour of our idols like ‘the economy’ or ‘progress’. None of these does have to have any of our allegiance as followers of Christ…

I could also refer to Pope Francis here, who is rumoured to write an ecological encyclical in 2015  and repeat that there’s nothing progressive at all about conserving nature. If there’s anything at all that deserves to be called ‘conservative’ if that word has any meaning at all, it’s conserving the creation in which God has put us…,
(The same is true for most of the other ‘progressive’ views of Pope Francis. They are -like most things in this list- not new at all and actually quite ‘conservative’ in that they have a long biblical and traditional history)

4. Not taking the first chapters of genesis as literal history
And then for something completely different: I can’t be the only one who has noticed that the debate about a literal reading of genesis does mainly live in fundamentalist and evangelical circles, while it is more of a non-issue in most other classical orthodox denominations, including the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church. Which already should say something about how ‘progressive’ the idea of a  non-literal reading of the first chapters of the bible actually is I guess.
There have been a lot of readings of the Creation story throughout church history, some of which were literal while others were completely allegorical. Augustine for example, while writing about ‘the literal interpretation of genesis’ assumes that the seven days where metaphor and that the whole cosmos was created at the same moment…

Even Charles Darwin himself did not think that his ideas of evolution were incompatible with his Christian faith. He did lose it over the cruelness of  nature though.

5. Rejecting the idea of hell as eternal conscious torment for all non-Christians
Another debate that is as old as the history of the Church is the fate of those not in Christ. While universalism has always been a minority position, belief in hell of some sorts seems to be a majority position, the details vary a lot throughout church history. Some of the church fathers seem to tend to very generous inclusivism or even in the direction of hopeful universalism, with some like Origen even arriving at full universalism. (Which means that Christ in his death and resurrection was able to save all from hell, not at all that all religions are the same or so…)
Another part of the discussion is the nature of hell. C.S. Lewis seems (in line with more orthodox church fathers) to see hell as being cut of from God, the Source of all life. Other orthodox thinkers see hell as the same place as heaven, where the undiluted presence of God is unbearable to those who hate Him.

Another alternative idea about the fate of the wicked is Annihilationism (the wicked are just annihilated and cease to exist after the judgement), and old and in origin Jewish idea that has been made popular in more recent times by the seventh-day adventists (also followed by the Jehovah witnesses by the way) for mainly biblical reasons.

6. Rejection of an exclusively ‘penal substitution’ view of the atonement in Christ
And another important discussion, but here the evangelical default itself is historically a more recent minority position: penal substitution atonement as we know it (Jesus saved us by taking Gods wrath upon Himself on the cross) is only as old as protestantism. For the other 1500 years and in other traditions very different ideas existed about how Jesus saved us by his life, death and resurrection. We even see this in the famous Narnia story, where Lewis follows a classical ransom-version of Christus Victor atonement: the sinner (Edmund) is freed from slavery to death and sin (the witch) because Jesus (Aslan) took his place and defeated death and sin in the resurrection… Note that this still IS substitutionary atonement, but not at all penal substitution. (If I understand correctly the idea of penal substitution as some protestants teach it is regarded as abhorrent and even heresy by a lot of Eastern Orthodox thinkers)

I am of the opinion myself that no theory of atonement will ever explain everything that happened so we need a lot of them together to have a more complete picture. Some popular versions of penal substitution, especially when elevated to the level of ‘gospel’ do sound very troubling to me though…

7. Egalitarianism in marriage and women preachers
As a Charismatic I became convinced of egalitarianism between the sexes for biblical reasons. I don’t see how a couple can be ‘one flesh’ as genesis says and still have one who always have to lead and another who always has to follow. I also am convinced by the bible more than by Christian tradition  of the importance of women in every role in the church., Jesus is quite ‘feminist’ (anti-sexist might be a better word) himself compared to his culture, like in the story of Martha and Mary for example, and the early church had a lot of women in a lot of positions, up to the female apostle Junia and the businesswoman Lydia who had a house church in her house.

It’s nonsense to put this kind of egalitarianism away as ‘liberal’ or claim it as solely ‘progressive’. I’ve seen women preachers in African pentecostal churches, and you can say a lot about those, but ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ did in no way apply to them. I’ve never had any interest in the liberal ‘we moderns know better than those dumb bronze-age desert people’ reasoning, and it still doesn’t convince me at all.
I do believe in the need of equality and mutual submission in marriage though for biblical reasons and from experience. I’ve met a lot of women who were used by the Holy Spirit through preaching, and denying that would feel quite a lot like blasphemy against the Holy spirit. God does use women in a lot of roles, and calls individuals for very different things, regardless of their sex.

(Let’s also repeat here that I don’t believe that any idea about ‘biblical manhood’ that does not fit with the fruits of the Spirit as described by Paul has any legitimacy at all. None of that stuff is biblical, it’s just unhealthy cultural stereotypes that are made legitimate by abusing bible verses.)

8. Rejection of the idea of the ‘rapture’ (and of dispensationalism as a whole)
Let’s be short here: the idea of ‘the rapture’ isn’t even 200 years old, so it’s from the same time as a lot of liberal theology. Traditionally most Christians have been amillenialist but there are more interpretations of biblical eschatology that make more sense than the dispensationalist one.
Nothing progressive about rejecting the rapture or dispensationalism, it’s just what every Christian before the 1800’s and most non-evangelicals since then did, whatever their eschatology was…
Some forms of dispensationalism do seem to border on heresy for completely different reasons too though.

9. ‘Mysticism’
Mysticism is a hot word in certain circles, and one that has a lot of different interpretations. The most basic meaning is to experience the presence of God yourself as a believer. It’s nothing new though, there runs a deep mystic tradition through both Eastern and Western Christianity which was already very important in the first centuries of Christianity with the desert fathers and mothers.
What does seem to be new and endemic to certain corners of contemporary progressive Christianity is that mysticism does in some way exclude the idea of supernatural beings. This is completely contrary to a lot of older Christian mystics who did encounter angels, demons and other ‘supernatural entities’ as if it were the most normal thing one could do…

10. Not framing the trustworthiness of the bible as ‘inerrancy’
The bible is very important for Christians for a lot of reasons, and it is one of the means through which we can encounter God. The bible is a library of books that are seen as inspired by God by Christians (‘God-breathed’ according to Paul in a very well-known verse) but the fundamentalist notion of ‘innerancy’ of the literal text of the bible goes further than how Christianity classically saw the bible. It did not by accident come into being around the same time  as the Catholics invented papal infallibility, a time when modernism eroded any faith in trustworthiness of the bible, the Christian tradition or Christian authorities.

This went further than the trustworthiness that premodern Christians ascribed to the bible, and gave rise to the modern ‘new atheist’ reading of the bible which is as far removed from the message of the bible as the fundamentalist one. (They are closely related anyway as purely modernist traditions)

So while I do affirm the trustworthiness of the bible (something that isn’t in the historical creeds btw!) I don’t think we should go looking for scientific or other details that are just not there. And we should not fear contradictions or paradoxes. God can speak truth through things that are not 100% historical as well. We have differences in the 4 gospels, and different theological agendas, even the church fathers knew that, but it wasn’t a problem until modern times (and it still if for the Orthodox and most Catholics…) so maybe we want the bible to be something that it isn’t meant to be.

In the end, the Word that became flesh is Jesus Christ, and the bible is here to point at Him, not at itself… It isn’t a paper pope and if it becomes an idol that distracts from God it’s really sad, not?  We should always seek God and Jesus in the bible, otherwise studying it won’t be of any worth, as Jesus says to the Pharisees somewhere…

So we come to the end of my list of things that are  not at all new to Christianity and can’t be claimed to be exclusively tied to ‘progressive Christianity’, whatever that even may be. Note again that the list is by no means exhaustive, and that I probably overlooked very important ones…

(I didn’t include much that goes against the republican ‘Americanist synchretism’ that some  American conservatives seem to believe in, with America as some holy entity that is more special for God than other countries or cultures. For non-Americans like me such things are too irrelevant and illogical to even address… Neither did I address double predestination for example, which is seen as heresy by the Eastern Orthodox and rejected by most non-protestants…)

So what do you think?

peace

Bram