Thesis Defence

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.

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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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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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The Mystery In Ephesians: Part 3, Paul and Deconstruction

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Part 1, Part 2

A final noteworthy point, in consideration of household codes, is the fact that the call to peace between Jew and Gentile mirrors Paul’s later call for peace between husband and wife; child and parent; and master and slave. Yoder argues that the household codes promote peace and, at the same time, undermines its own hierarchical structures. In the same way, Paul applies the principles revealed through the mystery of Christ to the barriers dividing Jews and Gentiles, arguing that they are to be dismantled when they fail to establish unity, the very principle on which they were founded. Given Yoder’s argument, there is a clear parallel between the performative function of the household codes and the work of the mystery, which Paul is called to administer.

Household codes embody the tension between unity and the temptation to undermine destructive modes of identification. On the one hand, household codes as explained by Yoder, have an inner egalitarian logic that undermine hierarchical power structures, while on the other, they promote cohesive relations between members of society. Paul negotiates a fine line, arguing that Christ subverts identity structure, and encourages believers to identify as a determinate group or person. A well functioning community requires its members to make determinate decisions regarding ethics and identity. Without these decisions, the unity Paul desires to see made present in the world would remain an abstract principle. Yet, these determinate actions must also be suspended when they fail to live up to the principle of unity, which they endeavor to embody. Thanks to the power of Christ, movement is now possible between determinate actions and the principles they make present. Identities are not decreed by fate or immune to change, rather they must be negotiated in a context, responding to historical needs of a community or individual. Continue reading

Conversations in Hamilton: Preliminary Remarks

Conversations in Hamilton: Preliminary Remarks

If you take the time to explore the building just off James St. North on Cannon, you might stumble upon a fantastic little community called The Commons. It was at The Commons that I met Matt Thompson, a kindred spirit who persuaded me to join him on a trip to Baltimore to hear John D. Caputat an event hosted by Home Brewed Christianity. Last spring, Matt Thompson, Adam Getty and myself were rewarded, with not only the opportunity to hear Jack speak, but also a chance of sharing a beer with him.IMG_9165

After some discussion, we felt that it would be beneficial to open up the conversation to others at the Commons and in our networks.  Although we had originally planned on reading one of Caputo’s texts, we’ve opted to read Peter Rollins‘ book “How (Not) to Speak of God.

As a way of beginning, I thought it would be good to make some preliminary remarks on my own relationship to the text and thereby situate some of my own commentary.

Although there are many points of reference between Caputo, Rollins and myself, the point that brings us together is an admiration of Derrida and “deconstruction.” One way I’ve learned to approach deconstruction, through my work at ICS, is by thinking about the movement between determinate action and the principles that inspire it (Caputo often uses the words “name” and “event” to describe this dynamic). Attempts by law to respond to the call of justice is an example of the movement between determinate action (law) and principles that inspire it (justice). When injustice, like poverty occurs in a community, justice demands that we take responsible action. An action to this effect might result in a law that alleviates pressure on the poor by providing affordable housing. In this way, determinate action, in the form of law, brings about justice. Determinate actions, therefore, enable or reveal the presence of the principle. Yet, this action is always partial. As a community grows and changes with time, using the money allocated for affordable housing elsewhere, like rehab centers for example, might prove to be a more just course of action. This demonstrates that determinate action cannot replace the principle it attempts to embody.  The two are not interchangeable because actions are always determinate and particular, while principles, like justice, demand universality. As a result, we must always be willing to suspend the consequences of determinate action in the name of the principle that they attempt to follow. Deconstruction describes the necessity of both determinate action and universal principles while appreciating the call and response movement between them. As Christians we often try to articulate this dynamic by discussing the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Continue reading

The Mystery In Ephesians: Part 1, in Conversation with Yoder

On March 14th I’ll be presenting a paper titled, “Ephesians and the Household Code: a Conversation with John H. Yoder” at TST’s Advanced Degree Students’ Association Theology Conference. I plan on posting a version of this paper here in four parts.

As a preface, in addition to the influence of Yoder, my treatment of both the household codes and the mystery found in Ephesians, is informed by a tension schematized by Derrida in many different ways throughout his work. In both Ephesians and Yoder’s treatment of household codes, this tension is revealed between the need for a determinate identity and the need to hold identities open to reevaluation and change. In Ephesians, Paul encourages a mode of negotiating or living in this tension that fosters health rather than death.

“For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” Ephesians 5.23-24

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I have attended a number of weddings where couples include a reference to this verse in their vows, stressing that the woman shall submit to her husband. Ironically, more times than not, if my newly-wed friends were honest with each other, they would admit the inverse is true of the power dynamics in their relationship. Yet, I still find the inclusion of such a misogynistic sentiment a tad disturbing. These verses are associated with what biblical scholars call Haustafeln, that is, the New Testament (NT) household codes; and they have been an enduring conflict for biblical interpreters throughout the modern era. From abolitionism to women suffrage, household codes have garnered a variety of (sometimes contradictory) interpretations, having been read as oppressive and liberating. Since these verses continue to impact Christian communities, they require repeated readings that consider their past, present, and future relevance.

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