Morality and community

Two factors render nearly all popular moral discourse meaningless and hopeless.

First, modernity and postmodernity assume the primacy of the individual and only then understand how individuals interact with one another. The community is more basic than the individual, thus any understanding of individuality is necessarily built upon the communal identity one holds or rejects. To start with the individual is to make any judgment of morality meaningless because the very categories of thought into which moral judgment can be placed are only possible within community. To start with community is to rest any judgment of morality upon the coherence and development of a community or the incoherence and destruction of a prior community.

Second, to build out a moral theory based on community requires us to understand traditions and the ways in which we are always participating in multiple competing traditions that define the narrative of our lives. Human lives will always be somewhat incoherent within multiple and competing traditions. The only way to find wholeness is not by defining right and wrong per se, but by understanding our part in the most determinative story and the most determinative community in which we belong.

Anselm called theology faith seeking understanding. This is a great way to get at the notion in which the stories we tell ourselves shape the understanding we are capable of coming to. Modern Christianity has turned faith into understanding seeking control. Seeking control is a great way to embody the incoherence at the heart of a faith that thinks Christians can rule the world while worshiping a God whose world changing plan was to give up control in the humiliation of the cross.

Experience and Interpretation

I read an interesting blog post by Peter Enns that got me thinking. The first three sentences of the post are as follows: “God reveals. The biblical writers interpret God’s revelation. Those interpretations eventually become the Bible.” He goes on to illustrate what this means in terms of Passover laws. I appreciate much of what Enns has to say in his attempts to give normal people (especially from an evangelical background) a way to gain a new understanding and appreciation of scripture. This is not so much a disagreement with his post, but a challenge to the notion that humans and/or language could ever do anything other than provide an interpretive lens of ANY experience or ANY revelation, from God or otherwise. The same dynamic Enns argues for in the Passover laws is part of the process of ALL human experience, interpretation, language, and relationship.

To experience an event necessarily requires that the human mind run that experience through the structures of the brain that have developed over the life of the person. What any experience means to an individual (whether that experience is in the form of language or other apparent external action) is necessarily different from what that experience could possibly mean to any other individual. At the same time, the contingency of individuality means that the experience also cannot be wholly other than what another person would have experienced. Present experience is, therefore, always a dynamic interplay between the community that formed the individual and the uniqueness of that individual’s formation.

To then convert the stored memory of that experience back into words is necessarily to add another layer of interpretive shaping. And to hear/read those words is a at least a third layer of shaping. Interestingly, neuroscience even suggests that every time an individual remembers a past experience, that memory is re-recorded in a slightly different way. It would seem that even speaking what we believe to be accurate necessarily adds a layer of interpretation within our own brain as well.

It is, therefore, useless and atheistic to assume the Bible means anything without the presence and activity of God’s grace that opens our eyes and ears.

A Modest Proposal for ChrisTexans

It is a melancholy object to those who walk through the expanses of our state’s grand and glorious sanctuaries, when they hear a dearth of appropriately patriotic and spiritually enriching music. An anthem appropriate for the great state of Texas has never shared the ubiquitous appeal in our churches of a tune like the classically belted God Bless the USA.

To rectify the situation, I propose a new anthem become a standard tune in all American churches on the Sunday on or just prior to Texas Independence Day (March 2nd). Before following the link below to hear the proposed anthem, please consider the richness of its lyrical genius that sets it apart as a theologically nuanced classic for ChrisTexans (and Americans) all over.

1) 2nd Samuel 6:5 – David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.

Said anthem encourages the practice of dance as a sign of thanksgiving and praise to God. We too often neglect the bodily celebrations of greatness in the American church, preferring only to love God with our minds. Reclaiming a message of hope and celebration through dance is pivotal for the revitalization of our churches and our spirits.

2) Isaiah 51:6Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats; but my salvation will be for ever, and my deliverance will never be ended.

Said anthem encourages all eyes to look heavenward. Doing so will not only reveal the beauty of creation, but also brings forth the influence of those who have gone before us. That great cloud of witnesses is present in our lives today, empowering faithfulness and freedom if we but turn our gaze in the direction of God’s never ending salvation.

3) Genesis 2:2-3And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

Said anthem encourages the practice of sabbath rest. In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, we need consistent reminders that even God rested and blessed the practice of rest so that we might refocus our selves and our energies on God through that disciplined practice.

4) Acts 13:26My brothers, you descendants of Abraham’s family, and others who fear God, to us the message of this salvation has been sent.

Said anthem encourages the embodiment of the apostolic tradition by the incarnational reality that it was created by one who has been sent. We do not take our call to spread the message seriously enough in the church and would be well served by the example the artist has embodied.

5) Mark 4:22For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.

Said anthem encourages mystical ruminations on the mysterious nature of God’s divine plan. When we take for granted that we have a perfect understanding of what God has done in our lives and world, we miss out on the hiddenness of God’s splendor that is more beautiful than we can even imagine; the hiddenness God seeks to reveal to us in Christ.

And finally, hear the sounds and words that will forever change and shape your practice of worship by clicking here.

/s

#teamtryANYthing

I’ve reached the point where I have to say something to advocate for a less violent future. It is way beyond time to try something, ANYTHING to end the senseless tragedies of mass casualties in our schools. What I desire for the future is an end to all the violence; but right now I’d happily settle for a world in which no student ever shows up at a school with a gun and the intent to kill as many others as possible. Restricting sales of assault rifles may limit damage. Adding armed guards and metal detectors may enable a faster response. Neither has anything to do with preventing an armed student from showing up in the first place.

There is no more time for mere words; it is time to demand that we and our leaders try absolutely anything to prevent armed students from showing up in the first place. I have my thoughts about good and bad ideas, but the time for being picky was around 15 years ago. I now just want us, as Americans and humans, to try ANYTHING so that this does not have to be the new normal.

I hear it said all the time that it’s a people problem, not a gun problem. Fine. Here are 13 things that might make a difference by teaching people or holding them accountable. None would take away a single gun from anyone who can currently own one. I’m open to any other ideas anyone comes up with to ensure no student ever shows up to school with a gun and the intent to kill as many others as possible. I’m all in for #teamtryANYthing

  1. Demand mental health funding for:
    1. research into understanding the specific cause(s) of these particularly heinous crimes. If we don’t understand all the factors that lead to these acts, it will be that much harder to prevent another occurrence.
    2. providing easy access to mental health resources for every parent and child involved in public schools. Therapy, trauma counseling, and training in coping skills, for example, ought to be a staple offering for every parent and child BEFORE tragedy strikes.
    3. having trained counselors in every school who see every child at least once a year. Call it a check in or an evaluation or whatever you want – have someone on every campus who visits with every student and offers scientifically and therapeutically tested assistance to anyone who needs it.
  2. Develop school programs on family violence and healthy relationships –
    1. Bullying is not nearly as involved in the lives of school shooters as media coverage implies, but it would be perfectly reasonable to fund and develop far more effective ways of training students how to cope with and ultimately stop bullying.
    2. Domestic violence is incredibly common and affects at least 25% of the population. A priority should be placed on training students in how to recognize abusive relationships and what to do if they notice patterns of abuse in their families, friendships, or dating relationships.
    3. Lack of family togetherness gets blamed often for violent behavior. We could create the expectation or even specific programs for paid time off to be spent with families.
    4. Free family therapy or relationship counseling could also go a long way to strengthening bonds at home. This could be mandated in every insurance plan and/or offered by all school districts as part of the student’s learning resources.
  3. Create societal media expectations that restrict the potential for the notoriety that some criminals desire. We could start with never printing a shooter’s name or photo. We are complicit in future crimes every time we give in to the desire to know everything we can about the perpetrator, thus making crime seem more glamorous for the next shooter.
  4. Remove all real or perceived barriers to researching gun related crimes and specifically earmark federal and state funds to do such research. We cannot accept being overall more worried that research might be done that might get results that might imply causality that might lead officials to take action that might restrict access to guns than we are that children are dying.
  5. Create nation wide laws to:
    1. hold gun owners accountable for the safekeeping of their guns. Some sort of minimum standard of safety – maybe a locked door or a safe – could be required for storage purposes. Those not in compliance could be held liable for what happens if the guns are stolen or used without permission.
    2. hold gun owners partially responsible for crimes using their weapons if they gave access or permission to the perpetrator. We may all have a right to own guns, but no one has an unrestricted right to lend it to someone else. A right to own guns should mean a responsibility to ensure they are not used illegally.
  6. Require better records for gun purchases:
    1. Create a federal background check system for gun purchases that can be easily accessed by any authorized seller. Ensure quick and easy ways to verify a buyer’s identity and any criminal history that may disqualify them from that purchase.
    2. Make a national purchase records database and require any transaction involving a firearm to be registered there. We could require a broker for all person to person gun sales or hold individual gun sellers accountable for ensuring they record sales of personal guns.

I don’t care if you like these ideas or have your own. Get out. Advocate. Push. Argue for whatever you want, but for the love of all that is holy don’t stop until we try something, ANYTHING as a country to stop the violence in our schools. Maybe it isn’t about the guns, but it damn sure is about something.

#teamtryANYthing

Partisan Grace

A friend recently asked why there was no room for the Christian notion of grace in conservative politics these days. Conservative policies seemed to him unnecessarily harsh to those without power and wealth. Whether or not that is an accurate criticism of conservative policies, I actually think he got the question backwards. Grace’s place and meaning in a liberal or conservative ideology obviously depends on how exactly you define grace, but for a working definition I’ll assume something like ‘unmerited favor’ or perhaps more generally the kindness to offer something not earned.

The project of modern liberalism carries within it the rejection of community defining expectations that are required in order to form the kind of relationships in which grace is a possibility. Put differently, the presence of grace is only possible in a community in which expectations of one another are concrete enough to go unmet; liberalism rejects any such expectations other than, perhaps, that a live person stay alive. You can still offer to give to one another out of pity or obligation or duty or whatever other motivation, but when there is no such thing as merit in the first place, the gift can’t be unmerited.

Conservatism carries with it expectations, some implicit and others explicit, that there is some concrete and measurable standard for what life ought to be and thereby what an individual life ought to look like or contribute to the common good. When the expectations of what an individual ought to have contributed are not met, giving anything to the person who does not merit the gift is an act of grace.

In this way, it is liberalism and not conservatism that has no room for grace. However, there are two realities that must be made explicit so that naming the problem and seeking a remedy do not simply deepen the ideological divide.

1) Liberalism as we know it is a response to the kind of conservatism we know. Liberalism’s rejection of community defining standards is actually a rejection of the lack of grace found in conservatism for many different kinds of people who don’t fit the model of what life ought to be (not that conservatives all agree on the specifics, but there is at least a tacit agreement that there should be things about life we take for granted). Liberalism as a theoretical project strips meaning from grace; but liberals as they actually exist are in many ways the embodiment of the grace that is seen to be lacking in conservative practice.

2) No one is entirely liberal or conservative and our lives make no sense without the presence of both. We always inherit a world of expectations and assumptions that we did not create and that we spend our whole lives working through, accepting and rejecting various parts at different times. Without a brand of conservatism to reject, liberalism means nothing. Without the force of liberalism, conservatism cannot respond to the inevitability of new experiences, technologies, and relationships in the dynamic world in which we actually exist.

Grace in the Christian life is about finding the creative tension whereby we can do both at the same time. We have to become a) a strongly defined, tight knit family of God in which we drive each other, through encouragement and accountability, toward meeting the high expectations of the new life Christ offers; and b) humble and open servants who exist precisely for the sake of those who are not yet inside that family; who never think ourselves so smart or clever as to think we know the exact size and shape of new life in Christ; and who see that we too receive every good gift not because we have earned anything but through the action of God’s grace. Put more simply, we have to a) conserve our identity in Christ and b) seek liberation from everything except the love of God and what that love entails.

Christians have to be conservative enough not to replace ‘the traditions and peoples in which we come to know God’ with ‘human rationality,’ but liberal enough not to think we have a complete definition of what life in Christ looks like. Christian grace only makes sense at the intersection of this tension.

Community is more basic than sin

Sin and righteousness are not helpful categories for understanding a faithful life because these categories presuppose the existence of a community that is capable of being broken and mended; exactly the kind of community that is lost in the radical individualism of modernity. We can’t get rid of concepts like sin and righteousness anymore than we can get rid of Jesus. But if we want to be faithful to the gospel message, we have to first learn to see and experience the kind of community that is presupposed by the entire world of the bible – only after learning to embody that kind of community life will concepts like sin and righteousness be capable of meaning anything.