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?
This reflection originated out of a request from The Commons to talk on my favourite apostle.
The New Testament describes the way Christ’s disciples become apostles. This word “apostle” means, literally, “to send away.” In order to send someone away, he or she must first be with you. The apostles must have been at some point in the presence of Christ before he dismissed them before he sent them away. And it is this event — the send-off — from which their title is derived. Typically Christians focus on being with Christ, following close behind him, being “Christ-like.” However, to be an apostle means something a little different; it emphasizes a departure from Christ, a commission.
My two adorable little boys follow Jen and me everywhere as they learn, grow, and mature. But a day will come when they must be sent out from under our feet into the world where, as Leland likes to say, it’s “too sunny”. The shift from child to young adult or disciple to apostle is a significant movement. Continue reading
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.
For a few years now the family has known that Grandma has cancer. When it was discovered the doctors gave her a few months. Although she’s still almost as spirited as ever it’s become obvious this last year that she won’t be with us much longer. It seems as though the extended farewell has given the family a chance to reflect more intentionally on our inheritance. In fact, we’ve decided to gather next summer to do just this. I thought that before we consider our specific inheritance, it would be helpful to try and define this word and understand the experience. What follows is my effort to do just that.
Naked we enter the world, and completely exposed we desperately need a dwelling place. The sheer fact that some of us have survived the labour of childbirth indicates that a dwelling place is available, that it sits in wait of children to swaddle. At birth, we receive a dual gift from God: a beginning and the means to make new beginnings. This dual gift is the condition of life. As St. Augustine writes, “that there be a beginning, man was created before whom there was nobody.”
This dual gift consists of one’s family, tradition, and heritage, the (inherited) components of a newborn’s dwelling place. Inheritance is something which we are given, something which we did not create nor control. Faith is necessary because of this inherited vulnerability. Such faith does not comfort or appease vulnerability but simply makes it more acute. Insofar as life is a gift, faith is unavoidable.
It seems to be true that we naively experience most of life’s activities, this fact is made strikingly evident in the lives of young children. A child’s struggle with the most menial tasks: sitting, rolling, grabbing something off a table in front of her, are all reminders of how much of life the average adult takes for granted. Adults for example, generally do not stop to examine the mechanics at work behind a hand movement, they generally do not even consider the fact that their movements stem from an intention. When things go wrong, when we develop arthritis for instance, all the mechanisms that make hand movements possible become a concern. Much of philosophy is devoted to considering the non reflective and often invisible aspects of life.
Some philosophers start this trail of inquiry at the most basic point, prying into the conditions of experience itself. Such projects, although they address what can be described as everyday experience, often become extremely complex. Considering and speaking of naive experience is difficult and complex for a number of reasons, one being that it is quite possible such experiences have never been made explicit. Many philosophers invent vocabulary to help describe aspects of life that may have never been considered. Beyond diction, philosophers adopt or invent rhetorical techniques meant to disorientate or shake their audience. Such shaking, whether gentle or not, wakes an audience from naive experience, revealing something that may have always been present but left unacknowledged.