This post originally appeared on Groundmotive.net.
There are countless ways of understanding God’s nature. New atheists such as Daniel Dennett, for example, reject a variety of theisms that defines God as a supernatural agent who desires humanity’s worship. Peter Rollins, a self-identified emergent Christian defines God as “that which we cannot speak of [and] the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking.”* Rollins finds inspiration in Christian mystics such as Meister Eckert, tending away from anthropocentric understandings of God like the one Dennett rejects. Like Dennett, Rollins aims to disturb conventional theism while, unlike Dennett, maintaining a semblance of orthodoxy. Jack Caputo, taking these ideas a step further, conceives of God as an “insistence” with little agency in the world other than the ability to disturb and haunt our actions.
Conceptions of God play a critical role in shaping our moral lives; some theists practise an escapism because their God shuns the world, while others become champions of social causes because that is what they believe God desires of them. This post will work backwards, so to speak, considering how our daily attempts to act ethically can shed light on God’s nature. To this end, I will employ virtue ethics’ approach to moral life, a school of ethics that emphasizes virtues, opposed to an emphasis on the need to follow rules (deontological) or an emphasis on the consequences of one’s actions (consequentialism).
In a nutshell, virtue ethics claims that we should always make decisions that encourage health. On a personal level, this means being concerned with one’s character, believing that if one engages in the daily practice of care, for example, one will be prepared to act caringly when a weighty ethical situation demands such action. Similarly, on a societal level, a subscription to virtue ethics would aim to develop life together in ways that encourage healthy relationships — for example, by building neighbourhood landscape that create opportunities to practice hospitality.
But what does this ethical school have to do with our conceptions of God?
Last Friday I defended my thesis. It went well, my examiners were gracious and insightful, helping me to better understand the issues and topics discussed in my paper. I was given the opportunity to prepare an opening statement which turned into a reflection on my thesis as a learning exercise. So, I thought it would be appropriate to share that statement below. Perhaps when my thesis is ready to deposit into the ICS repository I’ll share it here as well.
The things birth sets in motion seem to have an unlimited reach, extending far beyond the body that emerges from the womb. Few comparisons are fitting to describe the meaningfulness of birth. Over the course of writing this thesis I’ve had the opportunity to personally witness and experience the birth of two children, but also the birth of a mother, the birth of a father, and, ultimately, the birth of a family. This experience obviously “helped” shape my thesis in as much as it complicated the process.
Just as it would be remiss to overlook the importance of birth, I feel compelled to briefly discuss how this learning experience has transformed my relationship with religion. When you’re saturated from an early age in religious ceremony and discourse, as I was, the meaning of religious concepts and rituals can be obscured by how self-evident they seem. One can easily take one’s tradition for granted. My thesis brought this tendency to light for me especially as I grew to better understand some of the theory that underpins principles germane to religion, such as, forgiveness, confession, reconciliation, promises, freedom, and conversion. This personal transformation illuminated religious texts and practices that I find belonging in. In particular, I have become increasingly interested in how themes significant to my Mennonite inheritance such as pacifism, reconciliation, and forgiveness could benefit from an engagement with the philosophical tradition represented in this thesis by Hannah Arendt and Jacques Derrida.
Originally published at Groundmotive.net.
The other month I discussed the decentred nature of identity, attributing the decenteredness to the fact that decision-making-selves are different from, yet dependant on determinate actions. In a similar spirit, this post focuses on the liminal moment of decision and the tension that provides its (non)foundation.
Since reading St. Augustine’s Confessions in undergrad, I’ve struggled to understand conversion. What happens in the moment of repentance, for example? How is any decision made at all, for that matter?
Although most activities involve little decision making—my fingers flow quite unintentionally across the keyboard—decisions do at the very least seem to occur. We observe them most clearly when our routine is rudely interrupted, when for example, a slow moving elderly women impedes one’s commute. Moments of confrontation call us to account for our otherwise habitual actions, requiring a decision—do we stop to help carry her luggage or jump to the other side of the stairs?
Jacques Derrida argues that every decision must pass through a crucible of the undecidable. By this he means that although a responsible decision should be a well-considered one, action never waits for reflection. At the moment of confrontation, when the elderly woman queues ahead of us, the question “what should I do?” is already a response and an action taken. The immediacy of action leaves no time to reflect. One is responsible even before she wants to be. As a result, decisions always occur in a moment of ignorance, in non-decision. No amount of time or reflective resources would solve this dilemma—the problem is inherent in the phenomenon itself. As Derrida citing Kierkegaard writes, “The instant of decision is a madness.”
This article originally appeared on Groundmotive.net
Ethan Vanderleek, a fellow junior member at ICS, contributes to the upcoming edition of Perspective an excellent article titled, “Some Truths about Christian Prayer.” Quoting Merold Westphal, Ethan writes, “Prayer is the posture of a decentered self.” I confess to knowing very little about prayer, for this reason I’ll focus my discussion on the second half of this quote—the nature of a decentered self.
To illustrate what one might mean by a “decentered self,” let’s follow Derrida by examining the nature of a confession: “I confess.” When an unrepentant criminal confesses, for example, identity changes, the “I” becomes a repentant “I.” But there is a problem here. Given these two separate identities, how are we to decide which one actually makes the confession? Is it the repentant or unrepentant “I?”
A closer look at the moment the unrepentant self repents reveals something very strange. An unrepentant criminal by definition does not confess. Who then authorizes or initiates the confession? If there has been no confession, then the repentant criminal does not exist, at least not as such, and therefore cannot initiate the confession. So the confessing “I” is neither the unrepentant criminal nor the repentant criminal. Derrida claims that a fabulous gap resides in this liminal moment of responsibility in which both identities are inexplicably present and absent. Whenever we assume responsibility, whenever we act, make a decision, or confess, we enter into this space, our past and future selves are simultaneously present and absent.
That which originally seemed very definitive—the “I,” the decision-making self—is in reality quite indefinite. Two possibilities emerge from this ambiguity.
Tomorrow begins The Star of Redemption reading group at ICS. When Dean first suggested Franz Rosenzweig’s book, I was completely unfamiliar with the name. The short foreword to The Star by the translator, who was a student of Rosenzweig’s, presents the intriguing life story of this wonderful thinker.
Franz Rosenzweig was born December 25, 1886 in Cassel, Germany, as the only son of a well-to-do, assimilated Jewish family. It was during the war and his assignment to an anti-aircraft gun unit at the Balkan front, that Rosenzweig started to write The Star of Redemption, on army post cards (umm I’m struggling to write an MA thesis in the quiet of a library on a Macbook Pro, I can’t imagine attempting such a feat in the middle of a war using post cards and pencils).
Rosenzweig is another shining light in what seems to be an endless procession of German scholars clustered around the time of the World Wars. Reading his biography and introduction, which is really an autobiography of his philosophical thought, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Hannah Arendt, another Jewish German thinker whose life’s passion was sparked by the horrors of war, this time World War II.
I’m encouraged and motivated by all the work being done by students and faculty at the Institute. ICS encourages scholars not slackers #SNS.
Our students are just killin’ it! Check out the list of ICS Junior Members presenting or publishing their work so far this year (and check some of these papers out in Institutional Repository)
- “Holy Blood, Menstruation as a Signifier of the Holy: A Study of the Ritual Purity Codes of Leviticus 15.” Advanced Degree Student Association Theology Conference at Toronto School of Theology, March 14th 2014.
- “Back to the Rough Ground! Into Life!: Anti-Philosophy as Christian Philosophy.” Society of Christian Philosophy/Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology Conference, Trinity Christian College, March 27-29, 2014
- “Propositions, Art, and Truth: Zuidervaart’s Critique of Wolterstorff,” Society of Christian Philosophy/Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology Conference, Trinity Christian College, March 27-29, 2014;
- “Gadamer and Praxeology: The Hermeneutics Debate Revisited,” IHS Research Colloquium, George Mason University. Washington, D.C., November 2013;
- “Quantification, Sein and Univocity: A Response to Peter van Inwagen’s Critique of Martin Heidegger,”Philosophical Perspectives on Theological Realism, Erbacher Hof. Mainz, Germany, August/September 2013;
- Review of Heidegger and Philosophical Atheology, by Peter S. Dillard. Praxis;
- “Philosopher” and “Anthropomorphism” in Lexham Bible Dictionary.
- “Songs of Solidarity: A New Approach to Liturgical Music and Community Cohesion,” 20th Annual Graduate Interdisciplinary Conference, Concordia University, Montreal, March 6, 2014.
- “A Particular Collision: Arendt, CERN, and Reformational Philosophy,” Society of Christian Philosophy/Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology Conference, Trinity Christian College, March 27-29, 2014.
- “The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in a Christian Context,” in Christian Higher Education. Volume 13, Issue 1, 2014: 74-87.
- “Ontology and Living Death: Solitary Confinement in Prisons and Monasteries.” Penn State Graduate Conference in Philosophy, March 1-2, 2014;
- “Mysticism and Madness in Prison Awaiting Death,” 20th Annual Graduate Interdisciplinary Conference, Concordia University, Montreal, March 6th, 2014.
- “This Thinking Individual: Conscience and Subjectivity in Søren Kierkegaard and Hannah Arendt,” Ryerson Graduate Philosophy Conference at Ryerson University, Feb. 22, 2014.
- “Ephesians and the Household Code: a Conversation with John Howard Yoder,” Advanced Degree Student Association Theology Conference at TST, March 14th 2014.
- “Identity and Difference in Derrida’s “The Other Heading,” Traversing Traditions: A Polyphony of Thought, Ryerson Graduate Philosophy Conference, Feb 22, 2014.
The question, “How should we ‘do’ church?” has haunted my liturgical experience. Growing up as a PK I had the good, or not so good, fortune of experiencing a number of different liturgical communities. In undergrad David Cunningham’s book “Christian Ethics: The End of the Law” introduced me to the formative aspect of Christian liturgy and sent me on journey exploring Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and many protestant expressions of faith. In the future, I’d like to do a series titled “A Meal as Liturgy” or something like that. Until then, here are some thoughts I shared at my graduate school’s first chapel of the year, which happened to occur around a meal.
For me, sharing a meal can be an act of worship for many reasons. Two reasons that I find interesting and important include being thankful for food, and the fact that a meal seems to improve when it’s shared. I grew-up on a hobby farm, where food was something that we didn’t take for granted, not because we didn’t have enough, but rather being part of growing and harvesting made it difficult to separate this process from the actual act of consuming. I mean, as a young boy I learned how to milk a cow by hand. I hated doing it, the cow hated when I did it, but it had to be done, even when my father was away. After struggling to squeeze a bucket of milk out of a 1600 lbs animal it’s difficult to forget food’s fuller context.
To Serve and Cultivate. The farm’s blog can be found by clicking on the picture of that sharp looking young man.