Belonging as Illustrated by Simon of Cyrene

Belonging as Illustrated by Simon of Cyrene

This post originally appeared on the blog Groundmotive.net

Simon of Cyrene, as his name suggests, was a visitor to Jerusalem. His story is found in all three synoptic gospels but is noticeably absent in John’s account. Each gospel account begins with Jesus mocked and beaten by soldiers, after which he descends to Golgotha. However, as he begins his descent, the soldiers force a man from Cyrene, Simon, to carry Christ’s cross on his behalf.

I want to draw your attention to three aspects of this story. First, Christ needs help, he depends on Simon. Simon, in a sense, saves Christ’s life. Without help, it seems, Christ would have died even before he was able to begin his march towards the place of the skull. Second, Simon is forced to help, although just a sentence or two in each gospel, each account makes sure to specify that Simon doesn’t have a choice in the matter. Finally, it’s noteworthy that the idea of carrying one’s cross is foreshadowed in the Gospel of Luke. In Luke Chapter 14, Christ tells his disciples that the cost of discipleship will require them to a) hate their family and ultimately hate their own life; and b) take up their cross and follow him. Although I don’t want to discuss the specific meaning of this verse here, I think it’s fair to say that Jesus, and Luke specifically, considered carrying one’s cross to be related to one’s sense of belonging to a particular family. With these three points in mind, let us consider a contemporary parallel.

Jean Vanier recently wrote an op-ed for The Globe and Mail that addressed the issue of assisted dying. Although some may be disappointed that Vanier doesn’t absolutely condemn assisted dying, I believe that he accurately describes a dangerous failure in our society that must be considered regardless of our views on this sensitive issue.
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The Pregnancy of Conversion

The Pregnancy of Conversion

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.”

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Naive Experience

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.

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The Decentered Self: Prayer and the Worst Violence

The Decentered Self: Prayer and the Worst Violence

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.

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Tragedy in Ecclesiastes

This post was originally presented as a sermon at The Commons and published on their blog.

Tragedy in Ecclesiastes

Last week Jen and I took Leland to visit his great-grandmother, Audrey MacDonald, for the first time. My grandmother has struggled with alzheimers for the last few years. Due to her illness, she has been confined to a wheelchair and even mundane everyday activities have become a struggle, including simple things like saying hello and goodbye.  

Although she may or may not have remembered that Jen and I were expecting, it was clear that she knew and was proud of her first great-grandchild.  Unable to ask, and in need of some assistance, she was grateful for the opportunity to hold the little ten pounder. In fact, when asked if Leland was getting heavy, she spoke, informing us, in a rare moment of clarity, that he wasn’t too heavy at all.

In the midst of similar challenges, yet at opposite stages of life, it was beautiful to see grandma and grandson greet one another in their own unique way.

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