The most boring question you can ask of any religion is whether it is true.
So says Alain de Botton, philosopher, writer, and founder of an organization called “The School of Life,” a kind of church for atheists. de Botton started the school out of a conviction that religions have a few useful traditions, rituals, and practices that are worth borrowing and adapting in the ongoing project of becoming kind and fulfilled and generally decent human beings. The truth of the matter doesn’t really matter. What does matter is whether there might be some useful things to salvage from these historical traditions as we continue the steady march of secular progress. Read more
I spent last night at Tuesday L’Arche prayer night. It was a celebratory night in honour of a new leader taking over here in the Lethbridge community, so there was lots of food and laughter, singing and smiles. I don’t get out to these prayer nights nearly as often as I would like to, but whenever I do, I am struck in a new way by the simple profundity of this community of people of all kinds of abilities who are committed to living together, sharing life and love, participating in the good news of the gospel of peace and hope. Read more
The news lately has regrettably been dominated by the exploits of (mostly white, powerful) men behaving badly. From the generally boorish and odious behaviour of Toronto mayor Rob Ford to the racist attitudes of Los Angeles Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling, it’s been some pretty unsightly viewing and listening. A few rambling reflections, then, on these and other matters that I’ve been thinking about lately… Read more
Sometime between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, I happened upon an interesting article called “Abandon (Nearly) All Hope” by Simon Critchley over at the New York Times philosophy blog. As the title might indicate, the author has little use for hope—at least in the way that it is conceptualized and applied in popular discourse. Hope is useful for little else than selling things to uncritical consumers or manipulating people into believing in all kinds of fanciful things for which there is no evidence. Critchley advocates Thucydides and Nietzsche as more worthy examples to emulate than the sellers of hope that we flock to by default. These thinkers understood that hope is for the weak and the easily manipulable, not for clear-thinking pragmatists. They understood that any meagre hopes we might be justified in embracing must be realistic. Read more
“Would you be interested in coming to give a short talk to a group of high school/university students?” The question came a few weeks ago and, as is my customary practice, I enthusiastically agreed without giving so much a passing glance at my calendar. How hard could it be, right? “What would you like me to talk about?” I asked. “Well, we’re wondering if you can speak on the topic, ‘What is the meaning of life?’” The meaning of life. Right.
This was followed by period of awkward laughter and dumb silence on my part. Not terribly inspirational, I wouldn’t think. Read more
I think that the main problem with our world right now is that there’s just not enough spirituality.
I had gone to a local café to get out of the office and try to get some reading done, but I quite literally couldn’t help but overhear the preceding assessment/diagnosis of the plight of the planet and its inhabitants taking place at the table beside me. It was a couple of university students, if their meticulously disheveled and painstakingly ironic appearances were anything to go by. The more enthusiastic of the two—the one doing most of the talking—had evidently taken a few introductory philosophy and religious studies courses, judging by the peppering of his discourse with references to Gandhi, Jesus, Plato, and the Bhagavad Gita (not to mention a reference to that most estimable of Zen masters, Phil Jackson). The other young man seemed more interested in the Shakespeare he was trying to read, but he seemed content enough to allow the spiritual wisdom to pour forth unabated from his friend. Read more
A meeting cancellation last night left me with the delightful predicament of how to fill a few an unexpected few free hours. Option A was parking myself on the couch and watching a hockey game, but that space was, lamentably, already occupied by my wife and daughter who were engrossed in a movie. So, naturally, I decided to pick up a book by David Bentley Hart 🙂 (I’ve written before about the delights and challenges of reading Hart before here). The Experience of God is not quite the test of one’s vocabulary (and the blow to one’s pride) as some of Hart’s other works, but it’s still not exactly the shallow end of the pool. Read more
We were sitting around the table on Saturday night with some good friends, and the conversation turned to philosophy. “Philosophy is kinda interesting,” one friend said, “but it can get frustrating. You can never prove anything. You just talk endlessly and go round and round in circles, but never come to any conclusions.” My wife then offered her customary response that tends to appear whenever the conversation veers into philosophical territory—a response borne out of years of laboured conversations with a husband only too eager to drift off into stratospheres of wild abstraction and impossibility: “Why don’t you just go beat your heads against the wall for a few minutes?! It would be about as productive as talking about philosophy.” Ah, my wife. A pragmatist, to the core. Read more
I’ve been spending some time in the first two chapters of Genesis over the last few weeks as we make our way into a summer worship series on creation. And one cannot read very far in the literature about the first two chapters of the bible without at some point encountering the predictable, tendentious battles between evolutionary naturalism and creation, science and religion, etc. It seems to me that those who get the most excited about these issues often quite badly misunderstand either the nature of science or the nature of religion. Or both. And this tends to lead to a considerable amount of heat and not a great deal of light being generated in public discourse on this issue. Read more
Back in my university days I took an undergraduate philosophy course on the problem of evil. We had been through most of the well-rehearsed responses to the question of how evil can co-exist with an all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing God. Each had their problems, of course. “But what happens if we just say that God is limited?” our professor asked, with evident glee. What if God’s kinda just making it up as he goes along? What if God’s a bit of a selfish jerk who isn’t nearly as concerned with human misery as we are? Or, what if he’s a nice enough guy, but he just can’t do much about evil? What if he’s doing the best he can with what he has to work with? What if he’s learning as he goes, just like the rest of us? Read more
Last week, I found a message from a reader of this blog buried off in some dark corner of Facebook-land that I hadn’t noticed for at least a month. It was a message that was both encouraging on a personal level, as well as provocative in the best sense of the word. As it happens, the powers that be in Facebook have thus far prevented me from responding to this message. Every time I try to reply, I get a message telling me that I cannot do so due to some setting in one of our accounts (I don’t have an email address for the person who wrote to me, so I’m at the mercy of Facebook). Rather than wading through the labyrinth of Facebook’s privacy settings, I decided to do the only rational thing and simply write a blog post in response :). Read more
I spent the morning after the triumph of life over death reading about the triumph of death over life.
Well, that sounds a little more dramatic than it actually was. What I was in fact reading was a fairly ordinary little book by David Webster called Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy. It’s hard to imagine a book with a subtitle that catchy being almost a complete waste of time, but it was. I was really looking forward to reading Dispirited after hearing an interview with Webster on the radio (he made some intriguing comments about contemporary spirituality and how it perpetuates selfishness, individualism, consumerism, etc.), but the book turned out to be a rather poorly written, sloppily edited collection of loosely connected rants against the increasing prominence of the (admittedly irritating) “I’m spiritual but not religious” claim. Read more
Our daughter belongs to a swim club, and swim clubs mean—hooray!—fundraising. Bingo, specifically. I have discovered that one of the (very few) benefits of spending five hours at the Bingo hall on a Thursday evening is the opportunity to catch up on a bit of reading (I was the “pay runner” last week, which meant that I basically sat around waiting for people to yell, “Bingo!” before springing enthusiastically into action). Last Thursday, I brought along a book that had regrettably slipped to the bottom of the veritable mountain of unread books on my desk—Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? Read more
So, this one has been making the rounds in the social media universe… Apparently, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has “defeated” the world’s leading atheist evangelist Richard Dawkins in a recent debate at Cambridge University. Quite handily, in fact—324 votes to 136. The resolution under discussion was “religion has no place in the 21st century.” Apparently it still does. Rowan Williams has saved the 21st century… or at least the day. We can all take a deep breath and relax. Religion will be around for a while.
I know a man who is watching his wife die. Slowly. Dementia. It hurts to hear him tell the story of how she once was, how she is now, hurts to hear about how on “good” days she recognizes who he is and doesn’t ignore or get angry at him. It hurts to think about how what is looms large and menacing over what was, always lurking, always threatening to steal life and joy from the past, robbing even memories of their sustaining power. “She can’t speak anymore,” he says, “so we have to communicate without words. Sometimes she squeezes my hand.” Read more
The story of Christmas is little more than one enormous fiction. So I was grimly informed by an essay from a while back that I chanced upon today. Emmanuel, “God with us,” the “humble king” and all that—just pleasant illusions that we entertain ourselves with each year on our naively hopeful and recklessly irresponsible way to the mall to anesthetize our miserable selves with shopping and candy. Read more
Part of this morning’s sermon preparation involved thumbing through Charles Taylor’s magisterial work, A Secular Age. That sounds unbearably pretentious, I know—as if it is my regular practice to consult dense works of philosophy for my weekly sermons. As soon as I finish with Taylor, I’ll get on with the rest of my weekly tour of really, really smart people who have written really, really long and impressive books that I understand perfectly, and will wonderfully and relevantly and seamlessly synthesize into an easily digestible sermon for Sunday. Sure.
Last night as bedtime approached, my daughter was sitting at the kitchen counter casually thumbing through one of those Bibles that has a “Where to Find Help When…” indexes in the front. It’s quite a resource. Whatever your problem—“Sleeplessness” or “Difficulty in Witnessing,” “Tempted to Envy” or “Choosing a Career”—there are 3-5 verses conveniently listed to address it. The Bible as self-help manual, apparently. Or something like that. It’s an approach to Scripture that irritates me, in many ways, and breaks any number of exegetical/hermeneutical principles along the way, but I suppose these things must occasionally do some good. I guess. Read more