Saturday, 2 May 2009

The Story of God : An Evangelical Apologetic for Process Theology

The following is a summary of "The Story of God" by Michael Lodahl the professor
who is overseeing my honors project. He and I do not see eye to eye a variety of Issues, however I do agree with him on many others and regardless of the tone of this paper I wish to emphasize my great respect for him.

“We are construction workers and not only interpreters of [God’s] future.”
-Jurgen Moltmann

In the Story of God, Michael Lodahl seeks to introduce Christian theology by setting it within the context of the biblical narrative; he draws his reader not only into a better appreciation of theology, but into the very story about which he is writing. He sets out to do this in such a way that those who are not professional theologians can access it and to does so with special emphasis up the Wesleyan –Armenian tradition.
The book holds in tension the two streams from which it feeds; the narrative of the bible, as well as doctrines that are extrapolated from this narrative. Thus Lodahl is able to explicate how the narrative informs doctrine and conversely how doctrine shapes the way we approach the story that we are called up into as participants. The book espouses a theology that holds human agency at its center.
The book itself is divided into seven different parts. These parts reflect a movement through the protestant canon as well as an important doctrine related to each part of the story, for example, part IV is titled “The Jewish People in God’s Story: The Doctrine of Covenants.” This shows us the place in the story, then the doctrine that accompanies this piece of the narrative.
The book depicts God interacting with creation by relationship. God is not just the author but also the main character within the story itself. It also places humanity within the story, not just as ones acted upon but also as ones who can act. God is most certainly the leader, but we have a say. This is a central argument of the book, and one that influences many of the interpretive moves Lodahl makes. He states “God is not bound like a slave to some predetermined master plan…our Redeemer can repent or turn from one plan of action to another if the humanly created situation dictates it.” Chapter eight is titled “ Human ‘Response-ability’ and sin,” this is a perfect example of how Lodahl is “telling God’s story” with special attention to humanity’s ability to respond and change the story. In fact human agency is what necessitates the formation of Lodahl’s process theology in response to Theodicy.
The first part of the book deals with the “How God’s Story Gets Told.” There are four chapters in this part, each of them corresponding to one element of the Wesleyan quadrilateral, scripture, tradition, reason and experience. Lodahl begins talking about Scripture by tying together history and story, saying that “the biblical faith is rooted in historical events…” this is important to Lodahl because God is at work for our salvation in the very history of our planet, it is again this setup that allows most fully for human agency. This historically rooted biblical faith is concrete in the people of Israel, and in the person of Jesus Christ as found in inspired (pnuema breathed) scripture.
Chapter two is about tradition. Lodahl says that “Tradition is not only something we inherit, as a body of historically accumulated interpretation of scripture, but also something we may contribute to…” Lodahl describes the Wesleyan tradition that informs this book as being interested in Christian perfection. He asserts that Wesley’s understanding of holiness encourages ecumenicalism, a universal attitude toward other Christian traditions.
Chapters 3 and 4 describe the next two sides of the quadrilateral; reason and experience. Lodahl first outlines the various arguments for the existence of God, from the cosmological argument to Anselm’s ontological argument. He explains that none of these things give absolute proof for God, but rather give a “measure of support or justification to those who are already believers.” The fourth chapter explores experience, extremely important to how Lodahl explains our relationship with God. He recounts the story of John Wesley at Aldersgate, when his heart was warmed and he was given assurance of his salvation. From this Lodahl says that experiencing God is a “deep and decisive giving of ourselves to God.” By the Holy Spirit that was in Jesus works to draw us into God’s story. This leads to ”certain attentiveness to lived experience, a true openness to learning in and from the world around us.”
The second part of the book begins Lodahl’s project of working through the biblical narrative. Here Lodahl tells the story of God’s creation, but also uses this story to unpack various doctrines that are incorporated in and tied to creation. Lodahl’s process theology, though thinly veiled, is apparent from the start, when he suggests that a more well rounded way to approach the creation story is as “creatio ex amore” as opposed ex nihilo. It is out of love that God creates, an interpretive move spurred on by Theodicy. Human agency is the answer to theodicy, and Lodahl describes the human divine power interaction as such: “then the Creator truly is love, and divine power is not a ruling fist but an open, bleeding hand. “ This divine gift of agency is granted to humanity, being made in God’s image and thus we are sustained in order that we may make and be accountable for these decisions. It is only within this framework that there is an ability “to love.”
Part three engages the tragedy of God’s story: sin. Lodahl examines the consequences of our disobedience to a “loving seeking God.” This sin is the inevitable consequence of human agency. Lodahl shows how the shift of worship from Creator to creature infests our webs of relationships, and leads to a denial of responsibility. In this part Lodahl not only re-affirms human response-ability, but also describes God’s role in this story, as a “lead character” not merely the author. It is because of this role that God limits his own power and knowledge in order to allow for us to take action. He concludes by quoting Frederick Sontag; “His power is fully adequate to sustain himself against uncertainty.”
In the fourth part Lodahl describes God’s covenantal relationship with Israel. It is one of “human rebellion and divine redemption.” In looking at the story of Israel, he also gives a glimpse of Israel’s God. Lodahl uses images of God changing God’s mind, asking questions and even repenting as a way of showing the apparent discontinuity between the biblical narrative and the classical metaphysical characteristics commonly associated with God. This frames God, not as a distant deity but rather as a passionate and persistent God of relation and of Grace. The Covenants represent that love and Grace for creation. Through Noah, Abraham, Moses and David God is working to bring the people of Israel back to faithfulness. God sets them apart, takes them out of Egypt, and relents to allowing them a King. Through each of these we see God’s willingness to change coarse and “repent.” This again gives credence to the agency of humanity, that we humans participate in a give and take relationship with God. Abraham was called upon to pick up and move towards the future on nothing but the promise of God. This displays a God to which the future is unknown, but even “without a map” we are to trust God on the basis of our relationship and God’s promise. The prophets are ones who speak the truth of God’s desire for participation and faithfulness among God’s people.
In the fifth section Lodahl explains the great “twist” of plot in God’s story, the Person of Jesus Christ, who lives out the story of Israel. In this section Lodahl works through the paradoxes of Jesus Christ: Christ’s humanity and Christ’s divinity, the crucifixion and the resurrection. It is apparent that Lodahl sees it fitting to emphasize the humanity of Jesus Christ, even in the section on his divinity. It could only be for love that God would take on the fleshliness of incarnation, birth, baptism, and death that we may know and enter into relationship with him through the human being, Jesus Christ. Yet “in order to be our redeemer at all” Jesus Christ must also be God; a God that Gregory of Nazianzus describes as “assuming” all aspects of humanity in order that they might be healed. Lodahl places the chapter on Christ’s resurrection before the section pertaining to Christ’s crucifixion. He does so in order to highlight that the resurrection of Jesus is the beginning, the founding event of Christ’s Church. In the following chapter concerning crucifixion Lodahl outlines the various atonement theories, from penal theory to Gustav Aulén’s Christus Victor. Each of these seeks to explain the central belief that by Jesus death we are healed.
The sixth part of the Story of God pertains to the Church, the ones called out. Lodahl shows how we are communally sustained in our relationship of grace with God. He opens with the Church’s birthday; Pentecost. The Pentecost event represents an un-doing of Babel. Where humanity was once scattered and torn apart, the Spirit intercedes and binds us into God’s church. In Christ ethnic, cultural and linguistic boundaries are overcome. , Lodahl explains the doctrine of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, as well as the Trinitarian worship. Keeping with his overall emphasis on human response, he explains that the sacraments are ways that God “gets in touch” with us physically. In taking the sacraments, we can be physically brought up into the story. We are initiated into the Kingdom by baptism and sustained Eucharist. These are the central images of the church to proclaim that salvation is found it Jesus. Lodahl describes various ways the church has seen our reconciliation to Christ, in the end he states that the human response to divine grace should never make us forget we do not save ourselves. In this recognition, we can be sanctified as the people of God. As we live out our calling we are able to move past theoretical debates and distinctions and move towards a Gospel that reaches into our lives to challenge us.
The last part of Lodahl’s book is about eschatology. Here we see Lodahl’s process theology most acutely represented. Lodahl explains the two connotations of the Greek word telos. The first meaning is “the end;” the point of finality, the buzzer at a basketball game. Lodahl acknowledges this, citing Heb. 1:10-12, but Lodahl is more compelled to speak of telos in terms of God’s goal. It makes sense that Lodahl would be drawn to this vision, the future is not yet written, but God can have a vision or a goal for the undisclosed future we are making with God. Lodahl states that “eschatology is not simply about what we are waiting for God to do; eschatology is about the divine vision…which is, at least to some extent, entrusted to us.” Lodahl writes also of divine judgment through this lens of human agency, that we each must be able to give an account of our lives. God is a just judge, who remembers that we are but dust and commits judgment into the hands of Jesus. Lodahl also maintains the Wesleyan conviction that each will be judged according to the light given to them.
The Story of God is a defense of Process theology from a biblically based Wesleyan perspective. Lodahl’s theological persuasion can be summed up in his own words: “ Even more important to God than our salvation is our moral agency…” The Story of God works through the narrative of the Bible, using that moral agency as its lens, and the culmination of this project is a theology of participation.

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Michael Scott; A Horrible Player: The Office Through the Lens of Wittgenstein

The show is an artful composition of awkwardness, each line vacant of a laugh track drips with irony and embarrassment. NBC’s The Office is a comic portrayal of how language plays its part in society, bringing the audience into moments of pure, unadulterated tension and keeping them there. In order to create this tension they write characters that are totally incapable of assimilating into generally accepted socio-linguistic patterns. In the later works of Ludwig Wittgenstein, he shatters his previous assertion that meaning is reference. Instead, the Wittgenstein of Philosophical Investigations claims that meaning is use. This essay will argue that the reason Michael Scott and the rest of the cast of The Office is awkward is due to their inability to properly participate in the language games that make up “proper behavior.” In their breaking of these systems the audience deems “normal” or “common sense” the show creates hilarity. Thus it is necessary to explore the components of language that give it meaning within the late Wittgensteinian framework.
In Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein lays out a new way to understand meaning distinct from his previous ideas in the Tractatus Logico-Philisophicus. In this earlier work Wittgenstein describes philosophy as elucidation. In a manner, he is building a bridge with language to what is real, or true. This takes the form of his logical atomism by using the idealized language. From this, what we can say we can say clearly; what we can’t say we show- namely the relation between things. It is this seeking of the discrete that pares language down to a one to one relation between the reference and its corresponding label. Quine calls this one to one relation the “Myth of the Museum.” It describes an exhibit that is labeled by a plaque or sign. In this “myth” the entire meaning of a word on the sign corresponds to the reference, that which is being exhibited.
Learning a language then is the matching of objects with the assigned, static word, which denotes that object. This process could be done with through ostension, a wonderful example of this is a flash card. The picture portrays the object or action which is labeled by the word on the other side of the card. The learner thus connects the image with the word.
If meaning is thus affixed, the clarity of language should be achievable. Words will set out certain relations between proposition that make up the complexities of the world, and because those words are of a concrete nature both parties who speak that language will therefore be capable of comprehending those complexities. This, however, is not the case and The Office is a prime example of the critique Wittgenstein has of his own earlier framework.
Michael Scott is the epicenter of the drama in the show because he tries to say things (and subsequently do things) that are beyond his comprehension. Even in situations where he is able to decipher the dictionary definitions, he is often unable to understand the specific utilization of those words as they are being used within the particular context. Nuances are lost to him because words do not have a one to one concrete correlation, but as Wittgenstein describes in Philosophical Investigations, are parts of webs of relation that construct meaning via use. Wittgenstein asserts, “One will point to places and things- but in this case the pointing occurs in the use of the words too and not merely in learning the use.“
Wittgenstein explains that language acts as webs and systems of tensive symbols, each use set within the context of each other use. These are called language games and each one of these different games are not set apart by distinctly articulated rules, but rather are held in cohesion with rules that are ambiguous and yet intuited. Wittgenstein describes the rules of these games as follows: “ But we say that it is played according to such and such rules because an observer can read these off from the practice of the game- like a natural law governing the play.” In order to find the meaning then, it is necessary to find its use, not its flashcard. One does this by entering into the game and watching those who play by its “rules.” If one were to watch a game of women’s Lacrosse, it is clear that there are a great number of rules, which are enforced. Seemingly every two minutes a whistle blows and the field resets, the girls get into a different formation and the game starts back up again. It would not be simple to learn the rules of Lacrosse simply by being told them. Once one watches for long enough the game starts to look familiar and one can start to recognize movements against the common flow and layout of the play. This is precisely how one is able to learn language, “Don’t think, but look!” Language however does not have a referee that runs out and blows a whistle (even if grammar wishes to do so.) It is not the whistle that then signifies a miscalculated throw, or a misused word. “ But then the use of a word is unregulated, the ‘game’ we play with it is unregulated- it is not everywhere circumscribed by rules…” Wittgenstein also talks about these language games in terms of a picture that is blurred. Even in such a photo the shape and form of the person is apparent. He asks, “Is it even always an advantage to replace an indistinct picture by a sharp one? Isn’t the indistinct one often exactly what we need?” Not only is the indistinctness of language game parameters apparent, it is necessary in order to provide a language, which can contain the possibility of communication. The various nuances of language are given to us by the various uses of words, not by their fixedness but rather by their mobility.
The Office uses the indistinctness of language to provide a backdrop for humor. The show presupposes the initiation of its audience into certain language games that make up our societal norms. This includes how words are used in certain contexts, and what words, phrases or intonation are inappropriate in a given situation. The audience was rarely given the “rules” to these language games, but have almost by happenstance, been thrust into playing them. After a period of time it becomes so natural that the game is essentially invisible, until someone exhibits a behavior that cuts against the grain of these systems. Wittgenstein points us to the “behavior characteristic of correcting a slip of the tongue. It would be possible to recognize that someone was doing so even without knowing his language.” It is also possible to know that someone ought to be correcting a slip of the tongue, but the characters in The Office do not even know that they have violated anything. The audience is thus left squirming, not for a distinct reason, but rather for an indistinct violation of the intuition. It is not unlike watching a horrible game of soccer played by five year olds. It is clear that the kids who are scrambling about aimlessly are not fully able to participate in that thing we call soccer, and humor arises from this parody of what a match should look like. When I was playing on a local recreational league team in first grade I saw the kid with the ball and full on tackled him. My father had to pull me aside and persuade me that this particular game did not allow for my rather narrow skill set. The problem with Michael Scott is that he is 40 years old and has lost the cuteness factor of the above-mentioned five year olds. Subsequently we laugh at him because he is pitiful and ridiculous.
Setting the show within an office extenuates the audacity of these misuses because language games of the work place require “professionalism.” This professionalism presupposes a certain vocabulary, thus when Michael calls things “gay” he gets himself into problems with the company. Oscar is actually a homosexual and is thus rightfully offended by Michael’s inability to discern how to use language within this professional context. In order to fix the problem Michael forces Oscar to “come out” publically. This results in Oscar calling Michael “Ignorant, insulting and small.” While Michael may be all of these things this situation is brought to a head because Michael is inept at seeing how the language game functions, he does not see the contour of the blurry person, he sees a radically different shape, or what is more likely, is that he is playing an entirely different game all together.
Another example of how Michael Scott is unable to differentiate between language games is in the episode titled “Back from Vacation.” In it Michael gets back from a trip to Sandals, Jamaica, where he learned several phrases and behaviors that he wants to bring back to the office. Here it is appropriate to cite Wittgenstein proposing “Of course, what confuses us is the uniform appearance of words when we hear them spoken or meet them in script and print. For their application is not present to us so clearly.” While here Wittgenstein is speaking about the uniform appearance of a word, it is equally possible to talk about the uniform sound of a word. Even if two people pronounce a word the same way that does not mean that within each other’s language game the word means the same thing. This is precisely Michael’s problem; he tries to get the entire office to say “HEEY MAUN” While this was a word that made overweight and sunburned American tourists happy while on vacation, it is not something that makes sense to say within the context of a work environment. Michael also uses the phrase “island living” while bundled up and shivering in his parking lot in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Michael is here trying to transport meaning as if it was static, but the audience can see that he is mistaken.
While Michael Scott is predominantly the source of comedy because of his inability to play language games there are also moments where Michael starts to make sense. Almost seamlessly Michael will move from being incompetent and embarrassing to being a skilled salesman. This is because sales, and some other skills, are actually games that Michael knows how to play. In one episode Michael takes a client out to dinner, while most of the experience is almost painful to watch, when it comes to the actually sales part of the meeting, he comes roaring to life with tremendous skill. This simply highlights that Michael is not just bad at most socio-normative language games, but is good at games that are foreign and more obscure.
Many of the other characters in The Office are unable to participate in the language game of the audience. In fact the only two who are exceptionally skilled at playing the language games are Jim and Pam, who bait the others into saying and doing things that are obviously ridiculous. This comedy of errors is not unlike the Three Stooges; only instead of physical stupidity, there it is a comedy of verbal errors.
The framework that Ludwig Wittgenstein sets up for understanding meaning as use gives us a lens to see our world differently. Rather than a language that is constrained to a direction denotation of reference we are given a complex web of relations that allows for rich webs of meaning. In The Office, we have seen how these language games are played and governed by “natural laws” that make the audience aware that Michael Scott is unable to participate in these patterns correctly. In describing the show one might describe being anxious or fidgety, these are also symptoms of our own language games regulating what we see as “fair play.” While The Office is seemingly void of academic complexities, it displays a comedy of linguistic miscalculation that might have even made Wittgenstein himself chuckle.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Saving and Hoarding...

If one were to take every instance where the Bible speaks about money and cut it out, the book would be in tatters. Over and over again Christ calls us into the riches of Grace, but in following Jesus we must also remember his words, that the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. In the Gospel of Mark, Peter proclaims Jesus as the “Messiah.” Here the readers heart leaps, finally, someone gets it! But Jesus, rather than commending Peter, gruffly tells him to shut up.
Peter in this passage envisions the messiah as a warrior, a conqueror. It is like Peter is telling Jesus, “You are the one who is going to beat up Rome!” Yet this is not the nature of Jesus’s ministry; he does not come to conquer by killing, but rather by being killed. The next time that Jesus is called “Son of God” it is by a Roman centurion. In Mark it is not in the power of Jesus that we declare him Lord, but rather in the brokenness that he was willing to consume for our sake.
We as Christ’s church must not forget that it is not in Strength, power, and influence that we find the heart of God, but in those who this world forgets. If we find our end in the security of power and money in this world, than we are declaring Jesus wrongly, just as Peter did. If, however, we see money as a means by which we can give up all the power and glory the world offers, walking humbly, doing justice and loving mercy, then we find our end in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
When we store up money in order to feel powerful and safe, we hoard. If we put money aside so that we may better serve Jesus Christ, recognizing that all we are and have belongs to him, then we are saving. Drawing black and white lines about how much is too much is not doing it justice. There are poor who hoard and rich who save, but as the privileged we must remember how much more susceptible we are to find security in these things. For those who are poor and neglected there is no façade of protection. The danger for us, who have been blessed abundantly, is that we can tend to have false confidence in our own abilities.