Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A bit more…

So in class today we unpacked that reading. It seems Sartre is advocating absolute choice without moral attachment. When faced with a choice, doctrine helps us nothing since which doctrine to follow is a choice in the first place. He also contends that selecting a doctrine is a way to deceive ourselves into a sort of determinism. But here is the problem, how can we even tell that we have a choice to make unless we are informed in some way that a decision or action must be made.

So I can eat a salad or a hamburger. Sartre, I think, would say that suggesting that one choice is healthier than another choice is already making a choice about what things are valued to be healthy. Essentially each option should be weighted equally in Sartre's evaluation. My desire to honour certain convictions about what I deem to be healthy might actually be a self deception – bad faith.

But what tells me that there is a choice in the first place? What informs me that there is a problem that needs resolution? Unless some pre-existing compass can help me recognize that I have choice to make – I simply act without cause whatsoever.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Sartre and free will…

I just finished working through a portion of Jean Paul Sartre's first chapter entitled, Existentialism. It was assigned reading for one of my sociology classes. Sartre makes some interesting claims about reality and human action. He contends with a common perspective. The idea that, "Circumstances are against me. What I've been and done doesn't show my true worth…there remains within me, unused and quite viable, a host of propensities, inclinations, possibilities, that one wouldn't guess from the mere series of things I've done," is the only way people can bear their own wretchedness. In other words it's an excuse. And further more, "dreams, expectations, and hopes warrant no more than to define a man as a disappointed dream, as miscarried hopes, as vain expectations."

So basically we are what we do. We change what we do and we change who we are. Yet in that he states that the only way to put any value on what we do is through the process of others evaluating our actions. We can only be famous, for instance, as others define our actions as worthy of fame and recognize us in that way. But that is certainly not how individual actions are most often perceived. We usually consider that personal qualities like honour, happiness or compassion are intrinsic to human nature in some essential way. We often use the phrase, 'human nature' to talk about some essential element of the experience of self that is somehow universal to all human experience. Sartre would argue that that notion is flawed since it is defined in the interaction that we have with others. So Sartre advocates the idea that people exist first then they act and then they are attributed with essence or qualities. This is so clearly evident at funerals. We have a hard time talking about the qualities of a person without describing his/her actions as proof. So for Sartre free will looks like a blank slate upon which we act and as a series of informed, scheduled and defined actions that we can arrange in such a way as to construct the identity we desire.

My question then is – is that really free will? If the actions that I perform are what defines who I am and if those actions are under the evaluation and definition of others is the act of arranging my actions actually freedom or is it actually a type of inescapable coercion.

What then of the Christian notion of free will? Are we actually free to choose for or against God? Is this the sort of thing that the Scripture talks about when it suggests that slavery isn't optional but that the master is the only choice we have (Luke 16, Romans 7)?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

I’d be curious…

To read what your responses might be to these two videos. They are a documentary contribution from Mark Kelly. We watched these pieces in Class this week and found some very interesting perspectives at work Kelly's piece that could go a long way to support Durkheim, Marx and Freud's view of the nature and function of religion…

Check them out here and here

All I Really Need to know I learned in my spam box

this one is good...

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Is popular culture ruining our young people?

Last night in my sociology of religion class our professor Reg Bibby asked that question.

Here's my take…

To begin with this question essentializes both popular culture and young people. The question assumes that that popular culture exists as a more or les singular monolithic entity. Yet this is exactly what makes the question provocative.

I have for a long time tried to maintain some distance (I'll admit I am not always successful) from the temptation to attach value, either positive or negative to popular culture. There are aspects and trends that in certain ways seem to have beneficial aspects to society while even at the same time producing some seemingly ill effects. (eg. Cell phones – improve safety and accessibility but also impact the way conversation and relationships are maintained) The other thing that makes me leery to pass judgment on popular culture is because of how hypocritical it seems to criticize the new cultural directions when I participated and consumed, at least some of the those same general directions especially more so when I was young.

But don't confuse my lack of judgement on popular culture with a notion that popular culture is not purposeful or intentional. Quite the opposite. Popular culture has a specific trajectory. It is clearly, in a general sense, against the established culture and norms that exist. That means involvement or consumption of popular culture is participating in a direction that is set at least in part in opposition established values and cultural expression. So that means conflict. Now this is hardly the case in all situations and it is not necessarily strongly antagonistic. But popular culture wouldn't be popular culture if it wasn't different than any other culture. Because it is different, conflict is inevitable. This is not really such a bad thing. In the process of conflict social norms and values are either further entrenched or are modified to accommodate new cultural situations and ideologies. It is a refining process. Now some will say that the values that they hold dear seem to be on the losing end of the conflict and that is fair to say but not entirely objective.

As for young people, I have always maintained that individuals retain a great deal of agency within and over the social structures and mores they encounter. Participation is optional. This is formed, likely, from my upbringing in evangelical theology that strongly taught personal individual choice – especially as it related to spiritual commitment. While I still maintain that individuals are free agents within their world – I acknowledge – like most of the 'fathers' of sociology that the choices we have as individuals are limited. (We may think we are exercising choice in the toothpaste aisle but the reality is no matter how the store stocks the shelves our choices are limited.) As a result we are faced with limited options for our participation in culture altogether. (In the past elders of the church patrolled the town for young people going to the movies. This meant that the choice to go to movies was restricted to some extent and that the surveillance created implications on the type of faith one was able to live out. Today elders do not do that so youth go to movies at their whim and the allowance of their parents. The nature of the choice has changed but then so has the implications for faith.) I believe that teaching youth to have a critical eye for how they engage with culture is critical to establishing healthy faith as well.

Now to be clear there are many things that are trends in popular culture that I lament. But to be sure there are things that I think bear celebrating. But that is for another day…

Check out an interesting post Bibby has made On the Origins of the American Superiority Complex

Monday, September 22, 2008

Dearest Stephen,

Thanks for noticing! I just had my 'fundamentals' augmented a while ago.

Good Luck on the 14th of October,

Canadian Economy

Sunday, September 21, 2008

What is the difference…

…Between being a Christian and any other altruistic form of organized behaviour. Because let's openly admit that we are not the only ones who are more and more these days focusing our attention on how we can serve others. In fact if we are frank in our evaluation of our actions we might have to say that we do even pale on occasion to some of the more aggressive agencies (even religions) who are ardently seeking to meet 'the needs' of others. I have heard far too many murmurings about how Mormons 'put us to shame in the service department.' Yet in many of these same conversations we have elevated our own actions claiming that theirs are motivated by a sort of trickery that is intended to 'suck people in' to their religious community.

This morning one of the things conveyed 'from the front' was a well-worn encouragement to love. Love is after all the essence of discipleship. And love was according to him the difference that set Christians apart. The speaker went on to outline what love was. Essentially, to my disappointment, he described love as service. Serving others was love. It was a choice we had to make which resulted in an action which cost us something and benefited others. Seems good so far. And this really isn't about analyzing his speech.

What disappointed me is that love was defined as service. I think that this is common misconception. And the clarity of this concept is not insignificant. Service cannot be what differentiates 'us' (Christians) from 'them' because 'they' are doing the same thing that 'we' are doing. Handing out food at a community kitchen, clothing, shelter, addictions counselling, and the like, are all services and actions being successfully carried out by Christian and un-Christian agencies (organized or otherwise). And let me say that service is important but service is not love. Service is a part of love…

For love to be of any value it must be able to realign the realities of individuals who become in some way interdependent of each other. From the perspective of 'me' love must be sacrificial. From the perspective of the 'other' love must be integrated enough with the circumstances of life to offer actual help, comfort, and joy. We just cannot say that we are offering a street person love when we give them a meal. The relationship we have with them simply is not deep enough to benefit them actually. We may not fail in our sacrifice but our sacrifice might be as valueless as Cain's. And we don't do any favours to people when we suggest that service projects are actually expressions of love. We delude them into thinking that they are meeting the requirements that love demands.

Too often the parable of the Good Samaritan is misinterpreted I fear. Jesus intention was not to underscore the actions of the Samaritan as loving. It is plainly clear what the right action would have been for any of the passers-by to take. They should have helped the man. The Samaritan's actions did not really show love as much as they showed honourable duty. What make this story most poignant is that those people who should have has a natural connection/relationship with the injured man did not take the loving action that they should have. So the onus of love falls to those for whom the relationship is the strongest.

That is not to say that mission projects, service ventures and foreign aid programs are in valuable. Quite the opposite! But they should never be confused with love. Agencies can provide opportunities for us to exercise love but we should be careful that we not mistake participation in these activities and programs as fulfilling our mandate to love the world.

Sunday, September 7, 2008


Not really. Just one of those random encounters where life seems to double back on itself with curious circumstance…

So we are coming home from a week of holidays when the rear tire on my wonderful ASTRO blows out just on the outskirts of Vernon, BC. Stupidly busy traffic on the north bound 97 – Labour Day Weekend! The CAA tow truck shows up damming the one of the lanes of traffic while the desperate travelers curse the incursion to their day. In the middle of figuring out that she, the tow truck operator, really cannot help us. A lady pops onto the scene.

A break in my near desperate finagling on the phone and she raises a peculiar question.

"Do you happen to be the X-Mennonite youth pastor?"

I am.

So happens that one Kathy Suderman is driving along the adjacent service road and recognizes me from the videos I have posted. Her quest to get a picture that would get her son jealous gave me the most bizarre coincidence of pure levity in the midst of sheer frustration. I am afraid I was not nearly as conversant as I think my personality can live up to. But she was gracious and I, well, I appreciated the crazy intersection. Thanks Kathy.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Hey would anyone like...

to buy a T-Shirt with this logo on the front?

The Grief Service

She's fourteen. Earlier that day, I had encouraged her to lie on the ground and have her friend crack an egg into her gaping mouth. It was hilarious. Now she bounced up toward me towing her pal with her.

"Are you gonna do that grief service again tonight?" she asked almost nonchalantly.

"Grief service?" I was genuinely stumped.

"Yeah! Like you did last year at camp. You know the one where you like made everybody cry. Well I totally cried. And yeah I could really use a good cry tonight."

What was I supposed to say to that? No idea how to respond. The request is such an affront to all my sensibilities. Here is a junior high kid putting in a request for the evening chapel. She wants my 'speech' to make her cry. I was annoyed. I was baffled. Surprised.

A few mono-syllabic words blurted out in an attempt to 'throw her off the scent' and I made a speedy get away. But I have not been able to escape that haunting conversation since I first had it two weeks ago. It has been years now that I have wrestled with the device we commonly refer to as preaching. I have wondered about its effectiveness. Week after week, a man (usually) in dress clothes (usually) stands up in front of a bunch of people and presents a speech that he has prepared 'under the influence' of the Almighty. You would think that such an occasion would be highly transformative for those people who willingly and yes sometimes eagerly wait on the words coming from the pulpit. But the transformative power of those speeches is exactly what is so hard to gauge. And this is where my scepticism gets the better of me. Because although, as I am sure that teenage girl could attest to, can give opportunity for people to make various (even highly emotional) responses to spiritually related questions, it is really difficult to say whether the 'decision' made follows with any sort of significant change.

Perhaps that is not the intention of these 'speeches'. Maybe these talks are intended to do something else. Maybe they are meant to make the listeners feel good or better. That makes sense to me – at least somewhat. As a tool to create an emotional atmosphere, there is much effectiveness in preaching. In much the same way that listening to music, or seeing a piece of art creates a particular atmosphere and a certain emotional response. Preaching as an art form makes a fair bit of sense. It would explain the gravitational pull toward 'good' preachers. Oratory skills are still seemingly one of the most important tools in a pastor's belt. And if the result of preaching is to create an emotional response maybe we should not get so upset about the fear that preachers might be manipulating the emotions of the people they are talking to. After all that emotional manipulation may in the end amount to very little in terms of actual behavioural change. And we should not get too worried then if what is said isn't entirely accurate (in the same way that a Jackson Pollack isn't entirely accurate).

Creating emotional responses in the listeners is easy to do. Tell an appropriately convincing tale of loss or pain and people will identify. Craft your story telling to match your pitch and intensity to the corresponding emotional intensity and they will feel what you are saying. Craft your words to include some carefully chosen ways that your audience can identify your story with their own and pretty soon you can make them feel almost anything you like. Mood created – mission accomplished.

The problem is that preaching purports to be a lot more than just a glorified spiritual lava lamp. It usually claims to have some bead on the truth. It more often than not claims to be revelatory. And it is usually fairly precise on the behavioural modifications that are needed to comply with the content that is presented. That is where the whole manipulation question emerges. Are we using emotional manipulation to illicit a particular response? Are we causing people to feel certain emotions that are intended to lead them to certain conclusions? What about children/youth whose emotional control is far less precise than an adult's? Is it fair to do this sort of thing to them? Personally, I can't help feeling guilty about it each time. And here is the thing – kids go to camp listen to the speaker make decisions to change and then struggle to follow through. I don't care what kind of excellent follow up program you have – kids ability to meet the expectations of the decisions they make at a retreat or camp invariably fall short. Then you begin to wonder if these emotional pleas actually set kids up for failure instead of success because they prime the kids to crave the emotional triggers and leave them with little in the way of actual change. The faith journey then becomes this convoluted series of emotional decisions lived out in guilty failure only to be quenched in the next emotional experience. That kind of a cyclic pattern is typical (Neuroscience 2600 - Ian Whishaw) is more commonly known as an addiction.

It all feels shallow, hollow and small. Small in the same way a much anticipated and overly advertised product turns out to completely underwhelm the expectations. And the girl's request leaves me shuddering that I might actually have been or still am the purveyor of such a thing. And I can't find relief from it. But then maybe I am over-dramatising this whole thing. Do you need a tissue? There are people standing by…