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Posts from the ‘Philosophy’ Category

A Word for God

[A paper for my Intercultural Ministry class at Trinity, responding to this case study from Paul Hiebert.]

Ivan threw up his hands. “What is more important-” he asked his colleague, “that people think of God as ‘ultimate reality.’ or that they think of him as a’ person’ with whom they can communicate? Each of these, by itself, is a half-truth. Yet somehow it seems to me that we must choose between two words that carry these two meanings when we translate the word God into Telugu. What shall we do?”

After joining the Union Bible Society, Ivan had been asked to assist in a new translation of the Bible into Telugu. After settling down in the city of Hyderabad, he began to work with Yesudas, a high-caste convert who was also assigned to the project. Together the two had worked out many of the difficult problems they faced in translating the Bible into this South Indian language. But the most stubborn one remained unsolved. What word would they use for” God”? The choice they made was critical, for the nature of God lies at the very heart of the biblical message. To use the wrong term for “God” would seriously distort the Christian message. But although there are many Telugu terms for “god,” none conveyed the biblical meaning.

At first Ivan suggested,” Let’s use the term deva. That is the word the people use when they speak of ‘god’ in general terms.”

But Yesudas pointed out, “The devas are the highest form of personal beings, but they are not the ultimate reality. Like all things in the universe, they are maya, or passing phenomena. In the end, they, too, will be absorbed into the ultimate reality or Brahman. Moreover, they do both good and evil. They fight wars with each other and with the demons, commit adultery, and tell lies. Finally, in Hinduism ‘all life is one.’ In other words, gods, humans, animals, and plants all have the same kind of life. Consequently, devas are not fundamentally different from humans. They are more powerful and live in the heavens. But they sin, and when they do, they are reborn as humans, or animals, or even ants.” Yesudas added. “Hindus claim that devas often come to earth as avatars to help humans in need, but because there is no difference between them it is like kings helping their commoners or saints helping their disciples. We, therefore, can use neither deva or avatar, for both destroy the biblical meaning of the ‘incarnation.'”

“If that is the case, why not use the term parameshwara?” Ivan suggested. “That means ‘highest of the deities.'”

Yesudas replied, “Yes, but this carries the same connotations as deva. In fact. all Telugu words for ‘god’ implicitly carry these Hindu beliefs! We have no word that means a supreme being who is the ultimate reality and the creator of the universe. Moreover, there is no concept of ‘creation ‘ as found in the Bible. The world itself is an illusion that does not really exist. ”

Ivan took another approach to the problem. “Why not use the concept of brahman itself? After all, brahman is ultimate reality-that which existed before all else and will exist when all else has ceased to be.”

Yesudas objected. “Brahman,” he said, “may be ultimate reality, but it is a force, not a person. True, some philosophers speak of sarguna brahman, of brahman in a personal form. But even he is only a manifestation of nirguna brahman, which is an insular, impersonal force. It makes no sense to say that nirguna brahman reveals itself to gods and humans, just as it makes no sense to say that a dreamer speaks as a real person in his dream. Similarly, humans have no way of knowing about or communicating with nirguna brahman. Moreover, nothing really exists outside of brahman. The heavens and earth are not creations that exist apart from it. They are projections of brahman in much the same way that a dream is a projection of the dreamer. So, in fact, we are all simply manifestations of the same ultimate reality. This destroys the biblical idea of a creator and a real but contingent creation.”

“What shall we do then?” asked Ivan. “Perhaps we could use the English word God or the Greek word Theos and introduce it into the translation. In time the word would become familiar, and it would not carry within it the implicit Hindu theology found in Telugu words.”

“How can we do that?” asked Yesudas. “When we preach in the villages, no one will understand those foreign words. We must use words the people understand . Isn’t that what the early church did when it took the Greek words for ‘god’ and gave them new Christian meanings?”

Ivan counterd, “Even if we do use deva or brahman and try to give them a Christian meaning, they will still be given Hindu meanings by the Hindus. And since the Hindus make up ninety percent of the population, how can a small Christian community maintain its own definitions of these words when the linguistic pressures for accepting the Hindu connotations are so great?”

“Well,” said Yesudas, “we’re back to square one. Should we use deva, or brahman, or ‘God’? We have to use one of these.”

The two discussed the matter for a long time, for they knew that their choice would influence both the evangelistic outreach of the church and also the extent to which the church would understand and be faithful to the biblical concept of God in the next fifty or hundred years. Finally they decided to . . .

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How can we translate words from one culture and language to another? The answer is less straightforward than it may seem. There is a word in English for “hand,” so there must be a word in our destination language that means the same thing; just find that word, substitute it in, and repeat for each word in the sentence. But languages do not work this way, and words do not work this way. This is the problem faced by Ivan and Yesudas, translators working with Union Bible Society to produce a New Testament translation in Tegulu, a south Indian native language.

This “most stubborn problem” must be solved in some way, because “the nature of God lies at the very heart of the biblical message. To use the wrong term for “God” would seriously distort the Christian message.” But the problem is not solved easily. Ivan “threw up his hands… what shall we do?” he asks, exasperated, leading them to “discuss the matter for a long time.” In the Tegulu language, they have two words that come close to the English word God. Those words are Brahman and deva. The word Brahman communicates “ultimate reality — that which existed before all else and will exist when all else has ceased to be.” This sounds like the Christian concept of God. But, critically, it leaves out the personal aspect of God. Christians believe in a God who answers prayers, who has thoughts, who has a discrete will, who even experiences something analogous to emotions. The word deva communicates these aspects of “God” that Brahman does not. However, devas are “not ultimate reality, but passing phenomena… they “do both good and evil. They fight wars with each other and with the demons, commit adultery, and tell lies.” They also “are not fundamentally different from humans” because “all life is one” in Hinduism, so they can be demoted to humans in reincarnation just as humans can be promoted to devas. Yesudas notes that this relationship “destroys the biblical meaning of the ‘incarnation.’” The words Brahman and Devas are reciprocal failures to convey the English word “God.”

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Photo by Varun Tandon on Unsplash

What deeper issue is at stake in this dilemma? The first is the location of meaning in a word. Do words have intrinsic meaning? Or do words take meaning only in their use in a sentence? If words have meaning in themselves, then our language has a sustained set of meanings that are combined according to these meanings. But if words do not have meaning in themselves, then any word can be anything. At this point, many are prone to employ a colorful argument: if words don’t mean “what they mean,” then all language is impossible and nothing means anything! But this slippery slope ignores that people employ words in consistent usages. Even if the meaning of a word is located outside the word, in its use in a clause, it does not for that reason become wholly meaningless and its communicative function wholly arbitrary.

For example, the word “bump” has changed because it has taken a metaphorical usage among social media users. Before, it meant something like “to knock something or someone aside by physical contact.” But now, it has gained an additional meaning that goes like, “to highlight something from the past that had faded from memory.” If meaning is located inside the word — whether the theory is (1) Platonism, where the word’s meaning exists as a universal highest form, or (2) theological neo-Platonism, where the word’s meaning exists as an unchanging concept in the mind of an unchanging God, or (3) Kantian linguistics, where we deduce that the word’s meaning exists as the result of transcending the noumenal realm through universally-accessible reason — whatever school of thought is taken, they cannot explain that words meanings change in time. Instead, they generate an ethical imperative: you must not change the meaning of words.

In contrast to these essentialist linguistic schemes, a nominalist scheme denies that words have meaning because this meaning cannot be justified ontologically. (In the Medieval period, this had more startling metaphysical implications than just linguistic implications). But I think that these nominalist understandings are also reducing the problem of language. By denying that language has any foundation at all, it escapes the trappings of the other responses, but it fails to provide any constructive answer of its own. Language doesn’t have meaning… so… what? What then? Rather than answer the problem incorrectly, it withholds an answer at all.

My (and my numerous Greek and Hebrew professors’) way of navigating through these extremes is to claim that lexical use is real, observable, and enduring within a cultural context. A good lexicographer will try to catalogue all of these uses, and that’s… that. Their work is done. There is no hunt for an objective meaning to the word, as that is unnecessary, and there is flexibility allowed for change in meaning of a word over time, as that is necessary. (It does take much more work than offering a single definition).

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Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

How does this perspective bear fruit in the dilemma that Ivan and Yesudas face? They do not need to concern themselves with finding the correct translation because the proper focus is to find the correct lexical use. Thankfully, the Bible contains many sentences in which the lexical use of “God” implies an attribute of God in context. Consider God’s appearance to Moses:

Exodus 3:13 Moses said to ____, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The ____ of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

14 ____ said to him, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

In this example, the reader receives new contextual information about God: the passage can imply many of the same things that the Tegulu term Brahman implies. And yet, because God is speaking, it implies some of the characteristics of deva. Consider another example, from James:

James 1:17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the ______ of the Heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

Here the translators must render a Tegulu word for the English word “Father,” which faces the same complications as God because the target culture may interpret “Father” as a biological and material figure. However, when reading this word according to its use in the sentence, the reader gathers that the “Father” does not change (the Brahman tendency) and yet shows his personal agency by giving gifts and by “choosing to give us birth” (the Deva tendency). These examples demonstrate that the lexical use of a word defines its meaning for the reader, even if the word itself does not communicate anything (and even is replaced with a blank).

This works for the simple reason that “God” is always used in some lexical way. There is no sentence with the word “God” and no other words around it. Sentences require an actor and action, and from these we can always learn something about God. What do the Biblical writers predicate of God? We can learn much from this. Similarly, no preacher to the Tegulu speaking population will ever use the word “God” devoid of some context in their preaching. If the Jewish concept of God is basically opposed to the Hindu conception of God, then we should not expect any word to correctly translate the English “God” into Tegulu. In fact, the Jewish concept of God functions as a polemic against exactly the type of conception of God that the Tegulu speakers believe in, such that without the preacher also polemicizing against that conception of God, the audience will not understand the Jewish idea. Rather than fixing our attention on translating the English word God into a Tegulu equivalent that accurately codes our beliefs about God, the translators must popularize verses like Exodus 3:14 and James 1:17, to mention only two. By popularizing these sentences, the lexical use of God as both personal and transcendent will begin to take hold in the minds of the Tegulu speaking people.

There are additional ways to popularize this lexical use. I suggested an example in my discussion board post where we learn the poetic or literary forms that the Tegulu use (they may use in-rhyme more than end-rhyme, or find alliteration more exciting than meter, or something) and popularize the preferred lexical use in that literary form. My favorite example does this into rap from the Twitter account “Augustine of Hiphop.” He raps,

It follows from the faith,
Na it ain’t no eccentricity,
His whatness and his thatness,
they the same: sweet simplicity.

In addition to using the Biblical text to popularize the correct understanding of the meaning of “God,” missionaries like Ivan and Yesudas should consider these additional phrases.

All things considered, how should they translate the word “God”? Brahman and deva would take the same amount of corrective preaching to reach the lexical use of the English word “God.” But instead of trying to shift the lexical categories for these words, a better approach would use “God” as a calque – or better, use Adonai or Jehovah as loanword proper noun names for God, and the Tegulu speaking people will start fresh in understanding the transcendent, unchanging, personal, responsive God who we represent with this silly little English word “God.”

Four highlights from “Getting Simple Right” by Milton Friesen (Comment Magazine)

Loved reading this essay in Comment magazine. You should read it too. It will take about 30 minutes. Link.

On minimalism:

There are many ways for simplicity to become a harmful form of minimalism. Minimalism, characterized as the efficiency- and control-driven expression of modernity, means getting rid of overlap, redundancy, ambiguity, uncertainty, and complications. The impulse is to pare things away until all superfluous elements have been removed. But if you don’t know what is vital and you reduce the living complexity of something, it becomes more fragile. A fragile entity is vulnerable to unexpected disruptions. It turns out to be very difficult to simplify a living thing without doing great harm to what makes it alive. There are strong parallels with human organizations.

On bureaucracy as a mindset:

Size is commonly invoked to explain bureaucracy—that you need to be big to be bureaucratic. Think of a government, or a major corporation. But these dynamics are not about size, per se. If it were, only the big players would face the risk fragility through the wrong kind of simplification. The challenge is that you don’t need to be big to be fragile. A group of any size can—and often does—fall prey to this same way of thinking. More than a hundred years ago Max Weber, in Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, argued that while we may claim that our particular organization, as a social structure, is unique or different because it is a charity or a school, such organizations are actually not that different. He claims that whether we have in mind a church, military unit, or business organization, it is the spirit of the impersonal and the efficient, the bureaucratic, that may pervade them all. Their functional ideal, said Weber, is that they operate “without hatred or passion and hence without affection or enthusiasm.” Bureaucracy is an attitude, a spirit, a sensibility. It was this spirit that Hannah Arendt flagged in her controversial evaluation of Eichmann as a banal civil servant enacting horrors from a bureaucrat’s desk.

On mission statements:

Amid the complexity and challenge of organizational leadership, it is easy to make the fatal mistake of thinking noble statements of mission, purpose, or vision are sufficient to protect you from harmful constraints or peer pressure—that the words somehow are what give you focus. The most natural and powerful state for an organization is realized when your actions and your statements are so integrated that even if it isn’t written down, you and those you lead just live it out. This is, of course, both rare and difficult in our all-to-normal times. Far more common are managed simplifications that use formal methods as a means of selling their legitimacy. Such compromises will inevitably lead to organizational erosion over time. Success can cover that up for a good while, but the mask won’t bear weight for long. Simplicity is not saying your mission statement louder or longer or getting it written in granite on your building. Who cares. If you need a bumper sticker to tell people how great you are, you probably aren’t.

On Monasticism and fruitfulness:

Bosch argues that the monks did not set out to change or preserve Western culture and spirituality per se but in pursuing a clear purpose together over time, by taking on a particular organizational form and ethos, they ended up doing just that. This is not the place for a review of the rich, long, and varied life of monasticism as an organizational form, but this form suggests very important insights. Convents and monasteries practiced a form of organizational simplicity rooted in clarity, purpose, stability, wholeness, correction, fitting of roles, natural cycles of time, and many other dynamics that enriched both their common life and the lives of those around them. This kind of simplicity was a buttress against the various cultural temptations that permeated other organizations and structures around them. They failed and faltered as well, but there is a substantive core that persists even today. The dynamic of simplicity with fruitfulness is an elusive dynamic for organizations even today.

Complicated Ethics

In this post I want to complicate (express frustration at) (bemoan) (dunk on) the overly simplistic views of ethics that I call “Freshman Year Ethics.” I will try to avoid big words but as a philosophy student I am literally trained to do the opposite of that.

My three main points: that all ethical decisions are situational, that action and consequence cannot reasonably be separated, and that an ethical decision should be understood as the best possible choice, not the correct one

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Unrelated, but I need a photo so the shareable link looks worth clicking. The sweetest place on earth.

First, that all ethical decisions are situational. Growing up in a very conservative church culture, “situational ethics” was a dirty word. The radio shows I listened to, and the politicians I could understood, bemoaned moral relativism which opposed the Bible. Obama was the chief culprit behind the destruction of American Values and the Traditional Family and The Moral Fiber of This Country, because he doesn’t stand for Absolute Truth. Around then, some lefties wanted situational ethics classes taught in public schools. By teaching young, impressionable students morality as situational, I was told, such ethics classes would lead a whole generation away from Christianity. Don’t you know? Murder is never right! Lying is never right! Sexual immorality is always wrong! Forget about the situation!

What does that miss? A definition of what “murder” is, what “lying” is, or what “sexual immorality” is. The first one: “murder” is an ethically-charged way of saying “killing.” Killing is just a brute fact of the matter, but murder is a claim that a certain killing was morally wrong. Killing someone in a morally wrong way is murder. But when is it morally wrong to kill someone? Always? We seem to believe that self-defense is a good exception. If someone attacks you, and they have the capacity to kill you, and you’ve used all possible non-violent ways to deter them, then sure, kill them. Another exception is accidental killing. The reason we label car accident deaths “vehicular manslaughter” instead of “murder by car” is that the killing was not intentional, so we say that the killer cannot be held morally responsible in the same way as a true murderer. In these cases the brute fact of “I killed them” is true but the ethical claim “I murdered them” is not. Another exception is going to war, which usually involves killing. Over the past thousand years Christians have developed a Just War tradition that gives clarity on when entering a war is justified, and then once in the war, what actions can be justly taken. Maybe the deaths in Just Wars are killings, not murders.

But wait a second, you say. “Going to war” is not one action. Going to war is millions upon millions of actions. Let’s list a few. 1. An eighteen year old drops out of high school to sign up. 2. An enlistment officer uses a certain tone and messaging to convince recruits to join. 3. The generals decide to cut electricity in a city they are invading. 4. One solider uses a civilian as a human shield when fighting breaks out, but that civilian was already directly in the line of fire anyways and so was already highly likely to die. 5. The army decides to bomb a building housing enemy combatants, but only five of the seven people who decided on the bombing were aware that the next-door building housed civilians. 6. Remotely piloted drones hit a doppelganger of the intended target, but interestingly, the intended target happened to also be within striking distance, and he dies too. 7. …

We could keep going. There are millions of actions nested in “going to war,” which is why we cannot answer the question “was War X right or wrong” without massive oversimplification. What we perceive to be one decision often is a large number of decisions held together by our perspective on the situation. We make one choice, but what if there were 15 hidden choices within that choice, some of which were up to us, but others of which were out of our control? How do we account for these unchosen aspects of our choices? For this reason, all ethics is situational ethics, because all ethical decisions are made by people, and people are always in certain situations. All ethical decisions are situational.

(I only addressed murder. Lying is the morally charged way to say “not telling the truth,” which also is okay in some cases. Jokes. Parables. Misspeaking. When Hitler wants your sworn allegiance but you have decided to assassinate him for unrelated ethical reasons. Again, not telling the truth in a morally wrong way is lying. Sexual immorality is just another way of saying “sexual badness,” so that will face the same problem. Yes, you should not practice sexual immorality. But having sex is not itself immoral. Sex, in a morally wrong way, is sexual immorality. The same holds for theft, slavery, arson, libel, etc.)

Second, that actions and consequences cannot be separated. Two big schools of ethical theory are deontology and consequentialism. Simply put, what aspect of our decisions holds its morality? Do we locate the morality of a decision in the action taken, or in the consequences that result from that action? Kant says that lying, stealing, murdering, etc., are wrong not because they make others’ lives worse, but because the actions are wrong in themselves. Even if, somehow, stealing my phone would make me a better person (which honestly may be true), you still should not do it. Even if killing Leopold II of Belgium could have saved ten million Congolese lives, still a no.

On the other side of the debate, consequentialism would say that the consequences matter, not the action taken. If stealing the internet connections of everyone involved in Pizzagate (probably 200 people) could have produced .0001% more joy in the rest of the populations lives (370m people), then even though it would have been 20% less joy for them, we should have done it. 200 x 20 = 4000, but .0001 x 370m = 37,000. Therefore society would have been about 37,000/4000=9.25 times better off with those modems stolen. If numbers like that are unavailable—and they are never available—just think about it generally: we ignore the action itself and focus instead on the consequences.

What if actions and consequences are not so different? What if we stopped peddling that egregious dichotomy and recognized the spectrum between?

There are two ends of the spectrum. On the one end, you have cases that you know with 100% certainty the outcome of your actions. For those cases, the moral analysis of Kant and Mill should be exactly the same, because when a consequence is the necessary outcome of an action, we say that the action is tantamount to the consequence. If I have full certainty that killing Fred will land his children in foster care, I am not just killing Fred, I am putting his children in foster care.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have consequences that are highly uncertain. Could John Calvin have predicted that his concept of vocation would be secularized into profession, the driving force of industrial capitalism? No. He could not have. But it was the consequence of his action.

In between these extremes of total certainty and total uncertainty, we have a million degrees. Did George Bush know the War in Iraq would result in the formation of ISIS? Probably not exactly, but he could have known that eventually we would have to leave, and that regime change always creates a power vacuum, into which horrible people are drawn. So, maybe he is somewhat responsible. But not for everything that happened.

To complicate things further, not only is there a spectrum of our ability to predict consequences, but there is also the bundling effect from above. Our “single moral decisions” are usually a bundle of moral decisions, and the spectrum of predictability applies to each one of them. I envision all sorts of consequences left in the wake of my decisions, but the further those ripples move, the less I can predict what ripples they will have of their own. So then, we should be held responsible both for what—all—we chose, and the consequences to the extent that we knew them.

In 1797 Kant was asked a question that often is used as a case-in-point. A knife-bearing murder knocks on your door, and when you answer, he asks, “is your son home? I’d like to kill him.” You have some options. You could lie. You could tell the truth. You could tell the truth and then body slam the murder to the ground. Which would you choose? For Kant, lying is forbidden even here because it breaks the moral law. But my objection is, isn’t telling the truth tantamount to killing your son? If you know that this murderer has a greater capacity to kill you than you him, and your son is home, and there is no way to warn your son, then answering yes seems to be morally wrong. You can claim to be passively rather than actively killing him, fine, but he still dies and you have still participated in his death in a way that, without your participation, he would not have died.

In other words, I think we should take a wider-angle-lens view of actions. Our actions are never “in themselves” because actions always have consequences, and to the degree that they are successfully predictable, we should consider those consequences along with the action taken.

So who is right, consequentialism or deontology? And what about those Virtue Theorists who say a person’s inner state and motivations are what really matter? Maybe the most Christian answer I can give is that the Bible relentlessly affirms all three parts of the action as relevant factors: motive, the “before” step, action, the “during” step, and consequence, the “after” step. This is why reading modern ethical theory back onto the Bible is always a mistake. And so, I think that Christians can have genuine disagreements about how exactly to fiddle with the ethical priorities between motives, actions, and consequences. (There is a better way to hammer out the system than vaguely saying, “let’s use them all.” But at minimum, let’s use them all.) Actions and consequences cannot be separated. 

Third, that ethical truth should be understood as a best possible choice, not a correct one. Something that the Situational Ethics Will Destroy God’s Chosen Nation of America crowd got very wrong was that situational ethics does not mean totally situational ethics. There is a continuum of worse and worse things that, at a certain point, we all agree are wrong. On the good side we have Mother Theresa’s ministry to the lepers in India; walking the proverbial old lady across the street; donating $20 to charity; picking up litter on your walk through the park; and smiling at strangers in a non-creepy way. Then in the middle you have taking a single penny from the tips container so that the cashier doesn’t have to arduously scrounge up coins; wearing a shirt you agree with but that makes your friends uncomfortable; being sassy back to the person who unnecessarily told you to hurry up; and downloading the audio of Youtube videos that were not monetized and are not copyright, like song covers with 120 views. On the far side you have spraying non-violent protesters with full-power fire hoses; stealing millions of dollars of diamonds in an epic heist with your girlfriends; subjecting the native Irish population to a Protestant Ascendancy that takes their land and selectively eliminates primogeniture for them but not the colonizers; human trafficking; and ultimately mass genocide like in Rwanda, the Shoah, Srebrenica, East Timor, etc.

Nobody disagrees that those first things are moral; nobody disagrees that those last things are immoral. The disagreement lies in the middle things, those ethical decisions that cut both ways across our basic moral intuitions. How do we decide those? We would do much better to look to the Wisdom Tradition like in Proverbs than to a one-size-fits-all meta-ethic like Kant or Mill or Bentham. These middle issues may require complex knowledge, like what digital intellectual property means, or, when boundaries are crossed in unspoken cultural assumptions, or, whether rudeness comes from deep in the heart or from a surface level response we have conditioned ourselves to have. Kant can’t help us on those. And so we must move on, past what could pejoratively be called Freshman Year Ethics. We need to accumulate an enormous body of ethical principles which we can structure together into a system. Was the action intentional? Was it truly meant or mostly reflexive? Would the person have acted differently in other contexts? Does prejudice play a role in the person’s thinking while they make the action? Would this decision be made behind the veil of ignorance?

Paul does this in Romans 14. When presented with a dilemma in the local church, he brings up a new ethical principle and applies it to the situation. Don’t do something that would cause a weaker sibling in the faith to stumble. Don’t eat meat sacrificed to idols in front of them if you know they will get super freaked about it. But, crucially, Paul does not say that neither side is right. We know which side he was on, because he calls one side weaker and the other side stronger, rather than the one side looser and the other holier, or some third way of phrasing it.

So I don’t want to imply that there is no right answer. Unlike the caricature of situational ethics I have described above, I think that situational just means “complicated” and not “non-real.” We agree on the extreme goods and bads. So, there is moral truth! But where do we draw the twenty dimensional boundary line between them? It is so complicated that in these non-obvious cases, that we may want to talk of “morally best” choices rather than “morally right” ones. The right moral choice is always the best one. Ethical truth should be understood as a best possible choice, not a correct one.

Conclusion

Some ideas that have been influential in the history of ethical theory were important at the time but have since been ripped to shreds. There are no strict deontologists anymore, and barely any strict consequentialists; only a million cross-contaminated positions between. We cannot afford to oversimplify the debate into these frameworks, or we risk holding some people back from doing what is right, and letting some others off the hook for doing what is wrong.

Do not spare yourself the hard work of thinking carefully about ethics. Do the painful labor of examining the motives, actions, and consequences involved in the decisions you make. Be okay with people disagreeing, while still holding firmly to your conscience, because you could be right. Do what is morally best. Embrace this complexity, live in it, and celebrate such a God-given task: to live wisely, and so, rightly, in our time.

Four contradictions in government

Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. But. Klein does not and indeed cannot give a solution to these problems. Why is that?

There are four contradictions in American government (and the 3rd and 4th are true of all Western democracies).

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The first contradiction is between constituted and constituting power. Or in less legalese terms, between the constitution as a written document and the government which must enforce that document in ever-changing circumstances. We have amendments in theory, but given our polarization they are impossible. How can we continue to hold to this document with so few modifications even though everything has changed? The uniquely American legal theory of Constitutional Literalism, which is so clearly bankrupt at its core, cannot help us if there are no modifications to the text. For example, that we have the Senate is the result of the Great Compromise which got small states to sign the new constitution; but the founders ideally did not want some small states to have more representation. They wanted the elite ruling class to ignore everyone equally, and make decisions independent of the popular policy will. But we cannot change this part of the Constitution to accommodate our new needs or values. The tension here can be summarized as Constitutional Literalism + no new amendments = a broken and forever breaking system.

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The second contradiction is between local representation and the whole will of the democracy. If we want local representation, then we need individual politicians, but to have individual politicians requires FPTP voting (apparently, I guess, because America). Here we find the root of the 2 party system which is always a poor caricature of the actual will of the people. Here we also find the difference between American legislatures and the European parliamentary model. However, if we want to have their more broadly representational model, we have to leave localism and conceive of ourselves strictly as one nation, which is the opposite of our current direction. We cannot make this move as long as our poor political representation model is in place, because it itself reinforces these localistic tendencies. So, since neither will budge first, this remains a contradiction.

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The third contradiction is between the values we hold dear as Americans, and the goals we have for our government in realizing those values. According to David Labaree, and he is talking about education here, we want “1. democratic equality (“education as a mechanism for producing capable citizens”), 2. social efficiency (“education as a mechanism for developing productive workers”), and 3. social mobility (“education as a way for individuals to reinforce or improve their social position”)”. However, these goals are immediately in tension, and nobody has yet to devise a political philosophy that achieves all three. This is why our dismal education system always resembles our equally dismal political system: they reflect the same value trade-offs, which are always a lose-lose. This is even the title of Labaree’s book, “Somebody Has to Lose,” which seems to be permanently true in all Western democracies.

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The fourth contradiction is between our nation as a biopolitical body and as one that “recognizes” “all people’s” equal status under the authority of the State. While we pride ourselves on multiculturalism and the inclusion of minorities, these are only included insofar as they assimilate (which the majority gets to decide). For example even though African Americans are 15th or whatever generation Americans, they are treated as equal to or less than 1st generation immigrants by the biopolitcal majority. This is also true of all immigrants. We paper over this reality with stock phrases like “all men are created equal” or “We the people” but we cannot define who the “all men” or the “We” are. Per Agamben, this is because the basic function of national sovereignty is the production of biopolitical life, and so homogeneity is required. To constantly add to the racial diversity of the nation is to undermine the idea of a nation, which requires racial differentiation. If you are only an American insofar as you are not Mexican, then what happens when Mexicans become a part of America? etc. for all nationalities. Thus the problem of nationalism is unsolved and indeed unsolvable.

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These four reasons are why Klein does not provide an answer to the issues he points out.. We can tinker with the current arrangement all day long (e.g., for #2, state-grouped parliamentary representation). But until we re-conceive of what we want from government, and so then create a new politics from scratch, we will never solve these problems.

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Two recent posts about apologetics

Here are two recent statuses from my Facebook about apologetics method. This topic has become important to me lately, and more so as I’ve been gearing up to finally read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. My blog may begin to focus on it more as well. My goal in the long term, I guess, is to think of apologetics in terms of theological anthropology — how should we share the truth of the gospel, given what it means to be a human being? — but we’ll see how that goes. For now here are the two posts; click the links to see comments from some of my friends. (More pushback on the second one).

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(unrelated: first snowfall of the Winter was the very day we left for a Fall retreat at camp.)

 

1. About presuppositionalism (here)

It has taken me an entire college degree in Philosophy to realize that “presuppositional apologetics” is just Christian Philosophy but done in an annoying way.

The presup tactic is to expose the other person’s unspoken assumptions, and show how those assumptions make their non-Christian answers a foregone conclusion. “I don’t believe in God because I only believe in the 5 senses” is exposed by the question “can you know that the 5 senses are reliable using the 5 senses?” which implies that the person does not have good grounds for disbelieving in God. They had to chose that starting point (the 5 senses) and of course their conclusion is atheism; but we could have just as easily chosen any other starting point (“I believe in what seems rationally intuitive” or “I believe what my traditional community tells me”) and get any other number of results.

What I am just now realizing is that, in addition to being the most annoying tactic a person can possibly use during an in-person conversation… this is not much different from the extremely annoying dialectic that Socrates used. “Why?” “Why?” “Why?” “Ah, I see that we’ve reached bedrock, but do you have reason for believing this particular claim?”

The presup method is not much of a method at all. It is just Christian philosophy. But can’t we be so much more straightforward, so much less annoying, and so much more clear by just stating our epistemic grounds right at the beginning, instead of waiting for the other person to imply theirs and then question it into existence?

 

2. About religious epistemology and the Apologetics Industry (here)

So many times I have heard folks associated with the apologetics industry argue that we need a “cumulative case” approach to proving Christianity. Maybe one argument does not convincingly lead to the conclusions we want, but it almost does; another argument also almost does; so do these other ones over here, and look over there! More arguments that almost work.

But obviously, two 50% convincing arguments do not make a full truth. Nor do four 25% convincing arguments, nor do four-thirds of a 75% convincing argument, or even one-hundred ninety-ninths of a 99% convincing argument. If every single argument can be ruled out as flawed in some clear way, then they all fail. Full stop.

The solution to this does not seem to be “make better apologetics arguments” seeing as that has not worked well to date, but rather, “rethink apologetics methodology” or “rethink religious epistemology altogether.” This is why presuppositionalism has become the standard brand of Christian philosophy, along Plantinga’s lines.

But there is no reason why that has to be so. Why can’t there be other ways of understanding religious epistemology? Paul Moser in The Severity of God and his other books seems to have a viable competitor, and one that lines up more closely with the faith that apologetics tries to prove.

I am working on a paper right now (literally right now) on this topic and while writing it, it has become more and more obvious that there is an entire Apologetics Industry that feeds on bad arguments and shallow epistemology by failing to reckon with any new developments in epistemology since… say… the 1700’s. Why do we give them so much credit? And why are they, of all people, the ones whose work is popularized so that it reaches the common student in youth ministry?

This underscores the point I made in the post a few weeks ago about presuppositionalism: that what we need is not a shortcut method that leads to our conclusions, but a full-fleshed Christian philosophy that unashamedly grounds itself in the Gospel of Christ — both in content and in method.

Helping a student understand the existence (and presence) of God

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With my group of middle school campers this week, one pulled me aside during the day to talk about his struggles and doubts with faith. Let’s call him Aidan. Aidan had a really hard school year with grades and sports and family life, where it seemed like a lot had fallen apart. He felt like God had abandoned him, but then got around to questioning if maybe what was happening was that there is no God at all.

This is not an uncommon train of thought. I have asked the exact same question at times over the years. If it wasn’t for a really solid background in Christian Apologetics, I would have certainly become an atheist. (Instead I continued to believe in God while writhing in pain over his abandoning me. Doesn’t feel much better.)

So as we talked, it became clear that several different issues were mixed up in Aidan’s thinking. And I wanted to sort them out, one by one, before answering any of them. The first question is why God would abandon me if God is good. The second question is, implicitly, can God be real even if we do not experience him? The third question is, does God exist at all? And a fourth lingering question is, how can I trust God if he has abandoned me before?

In order, these are the answers. First, there are a number of good reasons God could have for leaving us on our own for a season. Sometimes God knows that we are proud and wants to humble us by allowing us to see the fruit of life without him. Other times, God will lovingly withdraw himself from us so that we can grow in faith in different ways than those we have already grown in. Some call this “pruning.” A tree can bear good fruit, yet need to be cut back so that it can bear better fruit. Similarly, in our Christian lives sometimes we are doing well but God has unseen horizons for us to cross. He must allow us to fall so that we can rise in Him. (All of these answers, of course, leave out the most common answer of all: that we have no idea why God does what he does, but in retrospect he works it all out). These “dark nights of the soul” are bitter but common. David experienced it in Psalm 42. Mother Teresa described a period lasting fifty years like this. So too can God use it in our lives to further what is good.

Second, yes, God can be real even if we do not experience him. I drew two pictures for Aidan on my cabin chalkboard. Here they are:

Does God exist?

Y-N

Can God be experienced?

Y—————N

And the point that I was trying to emphasize was the further space between Yes and No in the second question. The existence of God seems to be a binary. Either he exists or not. But there is a whole other dimension to the existence of God, in a pragmatic way, that sees God not as a truth but as a lived experience. Can I experience God? At times the answer to this is yes, and at times the answer is no, regardless of the actual existence of God. When a person believes God exists yet does not experience him, this is the dark night of the soul. When a person does not believe in God yet does experience him, this is what Charles Taylor calls being “haunted” by God. God is dead to you, yet his presence lingers on in your life. These two mismatches between reality and lived experience are very uncomfortable. Nobody likes them. So while the actual question of the existence of God can be argued all day from the merits of scientific evidence and philosophical reasoning… the question of the presence of God is elusive to these types of argument. This is so true that I even said to Aidan that there have been points in my life “where I have experienced that God is not real… even though he is.” The phrasing is intentional.

The answer to the third question, on the existence of God, is that yes, God does exist. We know this because of a demonstration called the Kalam Cosmological Argument. In this argument we find that everything that begins to exist has a preceding cause. (A preceding cause is something that comes before and leads to another thing happening. Also, it cannot just be the thing it causes, or else it isn’t really a “preceding” cause at all). Because of new developments in astrophysics the past 100 years, we know that the Universe began to exist. So, it must be true that the Universe has a preceding cause. What could be the Universe’s preceding cause? Well, the Universe is made of matter, time, space, and energy. And the preceding cause to these properties cannot be the properties themselves. So whatever is the preceding cause of the Universe, it must be immaterial, outside of time, not bound by spatial dimensions, and not just energy (must be a being). These fit the classical description of God, and at minimum imply that atheism cannot be true. It doesn’t get you all the way to Jesus, to the Trinity, to the Bible being true. But this argument does offer strong support than there must be something beyond the physical world and the five senses.

Can I trust a God who has abandoned me? This fourth question is much harder than the others. My own past is riddled with situations (some still sting today) where it feels like God has abandoned me. In my youth ministry in junior high. In my school as an eighth grader. Once, as a junior in high school, I lost a really important student council election that I had invested a lot into. In that moment, I prayed that God would give me the emotional courage to handle the loss well. I did not handle the loss well, at all. Why would God not agree to a prayer that is so obviously the right thing? Why would God abandon me when all I asked for was his comforting presence? More recently, through a bizarre turn of events, I have landed on academic probation at school and I’m not sure anymore how the future looks for me. This is unsettling because of how obvious God’s direction was of my college choice and program choice. He wanted me here. So why does it now look like that may not be true anymore? Has God abandoned me halfway through?

And, again, I’m not sure that this question has an answer in words. Or in categories. Maybe the answer to this question is one that must be a lived experience. That our relationship with God cannot play out in theory, it must take place in time, in history. And so the answer to the question, “Can I trust a God who has abandoned me” is not actually an answer but instead an action: to trust him anyways and see what happens.

Of course, in my life, I have seen in retrospect that God works out all things according to the good of the those he has called. That each of those times I had felt abandoned had been for a greater purpose and ultimately for the glory of God. While my feeling of abandonment was real, that I had been abandoned was not real. God was there, intervening even in times of his silence to prepare me for the season of life that was next.

As I tried to communicate this perspective, I would ask Aidan how he was feeling, and what his thoughts were. Over the conversation it became clear that I had left my own voice behind and was speaking from a different voice. One richer than my own, one fuller than my own, one more graceful than my own. And this voice, while materially coming from me, was the Spirit of God intervening to give Aidan exactly what he needed to hear. He would later share with our cabin — nay, with our village — nay, with the entire camp — that in this moment he felt moved in a new way to follow God and live for him. Something clicked in a way that gave Aidan hope for the future in his faith. He wants to find a youth group in his town so that he can be mentored by people who love God and so that he can learn more about the Bible.

What more could I ask God for?

Biopolitics and Race

The difference between European countries and the US on race is that the former do not have it.

racism shades

At least, not in the same way that we do. Where European countries — say, Romania, as was the case in a conversation I had today over the book scanner at the library with a Romanian — have nationality, this does not mean the same thing as nationalism in the US. What we call Nationalism in the US is not really nationalism.

In Romania there is a strong identity, (“being Romanian”), that is understood biologically. My friend Jon. He has a Romanian face. Romanian blood. Romanian DNA. In this way, his very nature, his biological life itself, is bound up with a group of other people into the nation of Romania.

Importantly, the nation of Romania and the State of Romania are not the same thing. Within the boundaries of Romania there is another group of people called the Roma — he used the term Gypsy, although someone told me once that that is a really loaded word. The Roma are another group. A person in that group could be said to have a Roma face, Roma blood, Roma DNA. Yet they live within the State of Romania, not the State of Roma, which does not exist.

These two separate concepts — (1) the nation and (2) the state — refer to (1) a group of people who are associated together by common biology, and (2) the governing structure that occupies a certain territory within really, really specific boundaries. Like, wars happen if those boundaries get crossed. The boundaries are really important. The land too.

But something strange has happened in the course of history. I’m not sure when it happened, or if it was destined to happen. But at some point these two separate concepts blended together and became the same thing. This is called the nation-state. Clever name. The nation-state is when a state gives up the territorial definition and instead tries to define itself by the biological life of its people. Instead of saying, “Romania is this land mass,” the governing authorities began to say, “We, the ethnic Romanians, are Romania.”

The connections to Thor: Ragnarok are too obvious to pass up. Loki takes the set of antlers from the death god (whatever his name was) and resurrects him. Death-god comes back to life, fights a massive 1v1 against Hela, destroying the entire city of Asgard. Then, repeatedly, at least five times — a truly nauseating number of times to hear the same sentence in a film — the lead protagonists all declare that “Asgard is not a place; it’s a people.” Of course, they have to say that, because the place has been destroyed. But in their minds, if all the citizens of Asgard got onto a ship and landed somewhere else to plant a new city, that would be Asgard. The nation-state defines itself not in terms of its territory, but its people.

The same is true of all the European countries. The bloodiest century in recorded history was the 20th century for exactly this reason. States were able to mobilize their young men to war because those young men believed that they are their State, biologically.

volk recruitment poster

What is the problem with all this? Why is this not the best system? Better put, why does this always spiral out of control into a ghastly, totalitarian death-machine? Because biological identity is not flexible, but who lives under the jurisdiction of a government is very flexible. A Roma person cannot change their face, their blood, their DNA. But their location can change. And they are the minority in the place they live now.

Key today is immigration and refugees. Refugees cannot decide their biology. That isn’t flexible. But the place where they live is, clearly, something that can change. Especially when their country descends into war-torn Failed State chaos. They can run away. But the problem with running away is that the State in whose jurisdiction they will later arrive has defined itself in terms of the nation, the biological life of its people. And so the refugee cannot truly assimilate. They cannot actually “become” a part of that new State, because they cannot possibly become a part of the Nation that resides there.

You can change states. But you can’t change nations. Sounds pretty 50-50. Except that there are no states anymore. Only nation-states. So, it’s really 0-100, and everyone living outside their home nation-state loses.

Enter the United States of America, land of the free and home of the brave. A nation of immigrants. While European states can define themselves in terms of the nation, and so can group themselves by face, blood, and DNA collectives… The US doesn’t seem to have much going for itself in terms of nationhood. Is there a “nation” to the US? Is there anything physiologically or biologically that can be called “American?” What would that look like? I can sort of tell you if someone is German, but can a German tell if someone is an American?

This is because, again, the US is a nation of immigrants. The British came over, also the French, also the Dutch, latter Germans and Italians, and even later Polish, Ashkenazi Jewish, Russian, Slavic, and so on. And over time everyone mostly integrated with each other and now I have no idea what my ethnic heritage is. I’m probably German, maybe some Irish? Am I British? I usually tell people that I am Swiss, but I made that up. Who knows? 23andMe has probably already collected data from some relative of mine and is now creating a probabilistic map of my entire Genome. Wonder if they could just tell me without my paying the $129 fee…

And yet, this has not really forged much of a common American identity. It has almost totally excluded the African-American population from the integration process. Plus all Native Americans. And it has led to us using terms like “White” and “Black” instead of “British,” “German,” or “Italian,” “Gambian,” “Ghanan,” or “Cameroonian.” We have a general sensation that the US is “mostly white,” but what is whiteness? Is it just having light skin? Because many, many people in Europe have light skin but would recoil at being tagged together with similarly-skin-colored Europeans of other national backgrounds. Meanwhile, white Americans are the descendants of those same groups, and have no issue with it.

To put the problem shortly. There is a deep contradiction in the way that the American State defines itself. It has abandoned the land-based understanding of statehood. So, you would think that the other option is to have the understanding of statehood be some biological national identity. But, alas, there really is no way to understand American identity biologically.

Not that our country hasn’t tried!

eugenics photo burden

This is the same problem facing all Nation-States. The US just tries really, really hard not to resolve the tension. Want an example of a country that has tried to resolve the tension? Let’s go with the most obvious one. Germany in WWII. Definitely a nation-state. Defined itself explicitly in terms of the nation, the biological life of its people. The term they used for this was Volk, which just translates to “People.” But it could not be avoided that Volk cannot be everyone, or it would be a meaningless term. To define who is the nation is also to define who is not the nation.

So, they had to define Volk, and this definition did not include the Jews. They did not share in the same face, blood, and DNA as the Germans. So, they were not included in the Nation-State. Which is really, really bad if the German government has labeled you The Problem. As someone who is not a member of the nation-state, you have no citizenship within its jurisdiction. And since you have no citizenship, i.e. you have no part to play in the national scene, you do not “exist” in the same way that a German does. You are not “alive” in the same way that a German is. In the eyes of the Nation-State.

(All of this comes from Agamben, by the way, not me. Here is a primer video).

So, the United States is not returning to the land definition of the State. But it also doesn’t have much of anything to go on as far as defining who, biologically, is in the nation. So that decision remains capricious and arbitrary. Don’t get me wrong — that decision is made every day when the Black body is deemed outside the nation, and thus expendable. This racism is palpable. There is an Us-vs-Them mentality in the minds of many of my also-white friends. While my friends would never say something as forward as “Black people do not deserve life,” there is certainly an underlying mentality that sees the Black body as different and therefore incompatible with (white) American life. That same mentality, transposed from my normie friends to a police officer with a gun and 0.4 seconds to respond, leads to death.

why is color separating us

The United States absolutely has the power to make arbitrary and capricious decisions about whose life is on the inside and whose life is on the outside of the American body. And while European governments may have the semblance of national-biological identity to them, they are just as arbitrary and capricious. Every country in Europe besides Portugal has a separate national identity somewhere within its jurisdiction. Should the gun be drawn and Camps be built again, these national-others would be the first to experience the destructive force of the now-militarized police. Nobody really has any basis to decide who, biologically, is “in” and who is “out.” That is legal fiction used by atrocious rulers to keep their power. And anyways, when one of these countries invades another country and sets up shop, everyone in the occupied country faces this fate.

Something like “race” was necessary to develop because it mirrors the European concept of “nation.” In the biopolitical nation-state, whoever holds power must decide who is in the nation. Without some construct like a common identity based on the people who had always lived on that land (Hence Nazi “blood and soil“), a new identity had to be formed, somehow. For most Americans this is probably as simple as “my ancestors have always lived here.” But African Americans, and certainly Native Americans, have been here just as long if not longer than your white ancestors. Than my white ancestors. Yet, they are excluded from being considered part of the nation-state. They are seen as a thorn in the nation’s side. And so the biopolitical machine will seek to remove them.

Romantic and Modern Visual Art

[A term paper in preparation for my study abroad next month in Europe.]

To the Classical artist, there was no tension between representation and expression. As they focused on the object of their composition, representing it as it appeared through shape, perspective, plane, figure, and color, they sought to capture its true objective essence, expressing its form as it is. These tendencies come from a broad philosophical mindset in the Enlightenment period that prioritized reason and objectivity. As the Enlightenment mindset gradually broke down, so too did its art forms break down.

First, as objective expression was abandoned, the Romantic movement sought to represent their world through subjective emotional sentiments. They concerned themselves with the human element implicit in all things, rather than the highest Ideal aim of Reason. If all artists seek to find what Goethe called “what holds the world together most deeply,” then the Romantics “saw the path to this knowledge as lying not through the rationalism of science, but through exploration of their own, subjective perceptions, thoughts, and emotions” (621). While this did provoke a brief counter-movement of Realism, it would not be long before the second of the two pillars of Classical art would fall: representation. By the time of the Post-Impressionists, Cubists, Surrealists, and Dadaists – all of whom can be fairly tagged as “Modern” – visual art did not seek to express emotion in and through the real appearance of a subject, but in spite of the reality of that subject. Hence, Van Gogh: “I use color in a completely arbitrary way to express myself powerfully” (698). As Modernism progresses into the mid twentieth century, its artists increasingly left behind representation and objective expression.

What enabled these changes in visual art? How did representation and expression come to be opposed to one another? This paper will contrast Romanticism and Modernism by discussing first their perspectives on the world in general, then the major themes in each movement’s visual art, and finally one exemplary painting of each era.

Romanticism

The Romantic period emerged in response to many of the excesses of Enlightened thought. Enlightened thinkers like Rousseau and Locke considered all humans essentially alike, only differing in how civilized and ordered, or uncivilized and disordered, they were. Hence, a universal Reason and common rationality which all man could inhabit together. The tendencies of Romanticism were first seen beginning with the Sturm und Drang movement in Germany, then later blossoming into an entire period. This thought prioritized the particular over the general and expressing the inner emotions over the outer sensations. This is true on a personal level, but also collectively as societies:

As Goethe and Herder argued, peoples such as the Germans and the French had different spirits, which found expression in everything from the folktales told around their peasant hearths to the architecture of their greatest buildings. These writers advocated a return to nature, to the simplicity of the common people, and, as many of the Enlightenment authors had also urged, to sentiment. Out of these ideas would come the artistic, musical, and literary movement known as romanticism (589).

As Romanticism spread, it came to define the subjects and perspectives of artists in Europe. This mindset began to be seen in visual art with landscape painting, depictions of heroism, dramatic brushwork, light-dark contrast, and sad or suffering subjects. Romantic tendencies “[overturned] long-established stylistic practices and unsettles its audiences” (603); this was an intentional effort to provoke the audience (though not close to what the provocateurs of the twentieth century would attempt). They “put new emphasis on their audiences’ emotional reactions and tried to connect with them on a visceral level through a succession of vivid images,” with wider, less precise brush techniques, greater (and less real) coloring, and sharper lighting contrasts, all in an effort to “[ridicule] reason, preferring to celebrate life in all its glorious disorder” (621).

One exemplary Romantic painting is Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830).

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The main subject, the Goddess of Liberty, stands atop a pile of bodies killed in the July Revolution. Horrifically, these twisted bodies together form a landscape characteristic of the Romantic period. She stands before the rebels – the people – waiving the national flag to symbolize that in them, and not the government they oppose, rests the heart of France. Delacroix has depicted a scene which would be sad, even devastating to experience. The white cloud of smoke behind Lady Liberty both centers the painting on her and alerts us that the scene is in motion, not still as classical art had largely been. The cloud also creates a misty, hazy look that was characteristic of the period.

The first pillar of Classical art to fall was objective expression; here, Delacroix has gone far out of his way to express the subjective, emotional quality of the people in rebellion, in mourning. However, the second pillar remains: the picture represents something, and it uses specific (if imprecise) techniques to capture the scene.

Modernism

Though the next hundred years of art – which I will recklessly skip in order to limit this paper to six pages – saw the Romantic school close, its tendencies lingered into later art. Post-Romantic artists would continue to sacrifice representational clarity on the altar of emotional expression. What caused these changes to continue?

First, Modernism “represented a conscious break with earlier styles of art” (696). The mid nineteenth century “historical turn” would eventually “join hands with the religious and artistic movements of the period” (623). Artists would study not just the techniques of old, but the entire progression of movements leading up to the present day, and so begin to react against the old art forms for the sake of reaction. In any context, this effect radically spirals out of control into nihilism, because “originality” cannot be a good in itself. Second, and third, and fourth,

Modernism has many other, complex roots. Modernist artists, writers, and composers sought to capture something of the fractured, frantic, and whirling existence they associated with urban life in the fin de siècle. They sought to give artistic expression to what was often perceived as the destruction of traditional certitudes by heady advances in science… deliberately sought to assert the value of their work by differen-tiating it from the unchallenging, sentimental compositions, artworks, and literature that were being churned out in ever greater numbers to satisfy the demands of burgeoning middle-class audiences. (697).

In this setting, Modern visual art used techniques like “the expressive use of brilliant color and coarse brushwork” and “strong colors, shapes, and departures from realistic representation” (696), the “pure play of color, light, and shape” (697), “deliberately [violating] the traditional rules of perspective and plane, [reducing] its distorted figures to the essentials of shape, and [placing] them at unconventional angles to one another” (698), and “wholly abstract compositions of lines and colors in a grid pattern” (750). With these techniques the Modernists began to push beyond both pillars of classical art, into non-representation and subjectivity.

One exemplary Modernist painting is Picasso’s Girl with Mandolin (1910).

girl with mandolin

Here, the titular subject faces away (perhaps?) from the viewer as she plays her mandolin. The background, not to mention the subject herself, is composed of the famous cube forms from which Cubism takes its name. The painting is monochromatic, with differing tints and shades of tan.

Girl with Mandolin is representational – of a girl, with a mandolin – but does not seek to depict the subject as she would appear in reality. Indeed, Picasso ten years earlier had said “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them” (698), which clearly has remained his style a decade later. Her face and neck are a continuous block with two different widths; her eye is level with her nose; her breast, shoulder, and right arm are disjointed and attached at unnatural angles. Clearly this is moving beyond representation, and with it, Picasso seeks to express the subjective impression with which the Girl leaves him, rather than how she is herself.

Conclusion

The Classical movement’s twin emphases of representation and expression were gradually abandoned as they became opposed to one another. This occurred when expression became not an expression of the objective item being painted, but of the emotions underlying the item, and ultimately an expression of the painter himself. Now representation and expression stand opposed, and in order to resolve the opposition, artists increasingly favored the expressive end. Now the opposition is brought to its nihilistic conclusion, as non-representation and subjective expression together reach the mindboggling anti-synthesis that is late Modern visual art.

In both Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People and Picasso’s Girl with Mandolin, we have seen the turn to subjective self on full display, but it is only with the latter piece that non-representational art (if that is not already a contradiction in terms) begins to be seen. What can come after non-representational art? Now that these changes have taken place in the development of visual art, can they be reversed? Or should we seek a new form-of-art, one in which the art’s representation and subjectivity cannot be separated from each other?

Bibliography

Grafton, Anthony and David A. Bell. The West: A New History. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2018.

Maturity, a Twostep

In the first step we cut out things that do not belong.
  • Do you domineer conversations? Cut it out.
  • Does your humor make others uncomfortable? Stop it.
  • Did that social faux pas need to happen? Never again.
In the second step we add things that do belong.
  • Can I be more encouraging to others? I should start that.
  • Could my jokes be funnier? Let’s improve them.
  • Would my generosity help people? Time to give.

The twostep of maturity is a complicated dance. As in the real twostep, our feet feel awkward moving in the same direction at the same time. It takes time and experience to learn. But you know what is even more awkward? Moving one foot forward, again and again. Likewise in life it is easy to fall into phases of cut-cut-cut or add-add-add.

two step image

When we keep eliminating things, but do not replace them, we become empty inside. Instead of becoming a fuller, more alive person, we become the hallow shell of the lesser person we once were. Remember that stoic, emotionless guy you met in 8th or 9th grade? That could have been you. It was me. Being in control of your emotions does not mean killing them. The mistake is that to mature is to cut out bad emotions. Sure, do that. But without replacing them with better emotional states, you have not grown.

The same is true of seasons of adding. We can add all kinds of new character traits or habits. But in time we will have accumulated the baggage of old ones that should have died, hard. When I receive harsh criticism that seems out of place for “how mature I am” generally, this is the problem. In total I have grown, but in this one area I have not eliminated the old way.

We dance the awkward step-step-restep until, by their grace, someone comes by to help. They show us how to dance life. By watching them, we see new things to cut, new things to add. This, by the way, is mentorship. Teaching others by example how to grow.

Enter David Hume.

Hume wrote a book in the 1740’s called “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.” The book focuses on the limits of what we can know. In the first chapter, he includes a great meditation on what it means to be a human being:

Man is

•a reasonable being, and as such he gets appropriate food and nourishment from the pursuit of knowledge; but so narrow are the limits of human understanding that we can’t hope for any great amount of knowledge or for much security in respect of what we do know. As well as being reasonable, man is

•a sociable being; but he can’t always enjoy—indeed can’t always want—agreeable and amusing company. Man is also

•an active being; and from that disposition of his, as well as from the various necessities of human life, he must put up with being busy at something; but the mind requires some relaxation, and can’t always devote itself to careful work.

Here are three different dimensions to our lives: thinking, socializing, and acting. In each dimension we bump into limits, at some point. We can’t know everything, we can’t always have good company, and we can’t always work. Our minds are finite, and as Hume will argue later, knowledge cannot be certain. (I’ll also add that socializing can drain us of action, and action can drain us of socializing. So those limit each other.)

balance heart and brain

He continues:

It seems, then, that nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable for the human race, and has secretly warned us not to tilt too far in any of these directions and make ourselves incapable of other occupations and entertainments.

‘Indulge your passion for knowledge,’ says nature, ‘but seek knowledge of things that are human and directly relevant to action and society. As for abstruse thought and profound researches, I prohibit them, and if you engage in them I will severely punish you by the brooding melancholy they bring, by the endless uncertainty in which they involve you, and by the cold reception your announced discoveries will meet with when you publish them.

Moderation is not something that we, as Americans, usually care about. If something is good, gimme as much as possible. If something is bad, keep it away. But seeking moderation is still helpful in all kinds of ways.

There is a difference between values and virtues. A value is something that you always want. Joy is a value — if I can have more, I’m taking it. Hope is a value. Peace is a value. Love too. Each of these is, itself, good.

Virtues can be overdone. Patience is a virtue because you should not be patient with everything. We exercise patience when a child throws food; we do not express the same patience with an adult. Courage is also a virtue. You can be too “courageous,” which we call recklessness. Running into battle without a shield is not courageous. It is reckless. So we need to have enough courage, or we are a coward. But not too much courage, or we are reckless.

David Whyte is one of my favorite poets. He says maturity “is not a static arrived platform, where life is viewed from a calm, untouched oasis of wisdom.” I agree, though for different reasons than Whyte meant. We seeking moderation in life, but our margin for error is thin. A little too much, or a little too little, and failure is inevitable. Maturity is not achievable because moderation is elusive.

An asymptote.

The golden mean.

Knowledge, socializing, acting — Hume says that these are all virtues, not values. We can only want them in moderation, never too little, never too much.

He ends with a summary:

Be a philosopher, but amidst all your philosophy be still a man.’

Now that is a quote for a philosophy major.

My first take-away from Hume is the obvious one: don’t be a Brain. Have a brain, and use your brain, but do more than that. Feel things, be sociable, create something, and be adventurous. Live a little.

The other, more circuitous take-away is that you must add and subtract to find this balanced life. If you cut-cut-cut out the negative sides of yourself, then on exactly 50% of virtues you will err. Likewise with adding.

We dance the twostep of growing older because in it we grow closer to the balanced life.

Certainty, God, Lived Experience, etc.

moonrise kingdom girl

As I veered wildly toward Atheism about two years ago, something key to the Christian life had been lost that I didn’t realize until later. I finally now have the categories to understand and explain this idea. It used to be vague and nebulous, but now it is clear.

The Christian Life is not phenomenologically possible without confidence in the existence of God. There are a couple of things to break down here. First, The Christian Life. This is the lived experience of being a Christian. Not the beliefs of Christianity — those are one thing. Instead, this is talking about things like the rhythms of prayer, fasting, Sabbath, and study. The community in which one lives. The subtle attitudes that emerge from believing the truths of Christianity. If the Christian message is true, how does that impact my day-to-day behavior, and how I engage in the ordinary things of life?

This is what the gross word “phenomenologically” means. Eliminate the suffixes. Phenom. Ology. The study of. The way that things appear. Truth questions can be asked separately from lived experience questions. My reading of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age lately has opened my mind up to this whole topic of study. What do things actually look like in practice?

moonrise kingdom blurry

If a belief is “not phenomenologically possible,” then nobody can live like that. The belief does not work in practice. The truths can all be there, the premises confirmed, the logic holds, the argument sound. But if it cannot translate into real action, what does it translate into? My newfound favorite example of this is Calvinism, and by that I mean Determinism. Determinism is not phenonemologically possible, meaning that you cannot live as if Determinism is true. If Determinism is true, then you have no motivation to do anything. There is not meaning in life. There is not meaning in anything. Also, since there is no free will, there cannot be moral responsibility for things that happen. Who is responsible for my sin? God, of course, because he decided I would do it. But no Christian, no matter how Deterministic they are, actually lives like this. They avoid sin as if they are an Arminian. They evangelize like they are Arminian. So, Determinism is not phenomenologically possible.

Confidence in the existence of God is important. The Bible is straightforward on this.

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. Hebrews 11:6.

An important point here gets misplaced sometimes.

moonrise kingdom adults

As Christians, we are not supposed to have faith in the existence of God. We do not “have faith” that he exists. No, the Bible treats the existence of God as a basic given, and then moves from there. We “have faith” that Christ’s work of atonement can be applied to our account. That is what we have faith in. There is no real reason that we should feel justified that the crosswork of Christ would mean anything in relation to us. But that is what faith is.

The existence of God, along with “believing that he rewards those who seek him,” are treated as basic givens that must be true in order to have faith. But faith is not just “believe in God + believe that he rewards.” It is something greater than the combination of the statements in Hebrews 11:6. Something like “drawing near” which is an action, not an idea. Nonetheless, those two ideas must be true for faith to happen.

The Bible never seriously poses the question, “does God actually exist?” because it doesn’t need to. God is all over the place. He sends fire, he communicates directly to people, Moses got to see him (but only backwards?), prophets speak in his name and are correct. Prayer withholds rain from the sky for three and a half years, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, and himself from the dead. God has created the world. God has put conscience in all people (“the gentiles are a law unto themselves”). The Jewish religion continues in perpetuity because of the promises of God.

Similarly, in The Christian Life, we cannot entertain the idea that God does not exist. Get it figured out. Decide. Does he exist or doesn’t he? Look at the Kalam Cosmological argument. The Ontological argument. How about the Teleological one? Recall from your own personal experience the work of God in your life. Become an Atheist, or resolve to be a Christian. But the worst of all options is to remain in perpetual uncertainty. Evaluate the evidence once, and then put the counterarguments out of your mind until, a few years later, you decide to reopen the case file.

moonrise kingdom narrator

I say this because all the great aspects of The Christian Life are impossible in the absence of such confidence. Without believing that God exists, you cannot have faith. You cannot experience the power of the Holy Spirit. You cannot encourage fellow Christians in the way of the cross. You cannot testify to the goodness of God, must less experience it yourself. You certainly cannot evangelize. How could you persuade someone to draw near to God if you aren’t sure he exists? You won’t. You’ll just give up on evangelism. You cannot exercise the giftings of the Spirit in the context of the local church.

At least, I didn’t. And I’m sure that my experience was not unique. Atheism may be true. But if it is, then you cannot also phenomenologically live the Christian life. And Christianity may be true. But without confidence in one of its most basic premises (“God exists”), it cannot be lived.