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
Have you ever thought about how utterly weird the Christian message about Jesus is?
The hope of the world, Christians claim, is a crucified Jew who was born of a virgin over two thousand years ago, lived a very peculiar and provocative life, taught and modeled a bizarre mixture of love, compassion, and peace alongside jarring and bewildering words of judgment and warning, was executed by a predictable combination of religious and imperial power while simultaneously paying the price for human sin and absorbing the evil of the whole world, cheated death (so his followers say) by rising from the dead, and claimed, in this whole package, to be the fulfillment of the very old, strange story about a very strange group of people whose mode of relating to God scarcely resembles anything we would recognize or welcome today.
On top of all this, his rag-tag band of followers subsequently tramped all over the known world proclaiming that this Jesus was (presently) alive and well, thank you very much, that his kingdom was at hand, that his church was called to invite all people to follow him, and that he would one day return to as the judge and Lord of history with the keys to eternal life.
Um. Ok. Read more
Does hell exist? Who goes there? Is it a literal “lake of fire?” How does what we believe about hell relate to our views about violence? About the nature and interpretation of Scripture? About people of other faiths? What does our view of hell say about our view of God? These are among the questions addressed in Hellbound?, an intriguing and, for some, controversial film that has been making its way around North America this fall. Read more
I finished Marilynne Robinson’s excellent book When I Was a Child I Read Books over the course of a weekend trip to Edmonton. Amidst a wonderful collection of very stimulating essays, one in particular stood out, and I wanted to record a few of the more interesting passages here. The essay is called “The Human Spirit and the Good Society” and deals with the perennially contentious issue of human nature. What does it mean to be a human being? What, if anything is a human being for? What are our origins and our destiny? Amidst the many competing religious and secular narratives out there, and all of the possibilities these narratives open and close for us, where do we go to hear the truth about these vital questions? Which narratives do we trust to describe us to ourselves. Read more
I’ve been thinking a lot about carrots, sticks, and formulaic faith over the last little while. I spent a good chunk of last week wrestling with the well-known (and often abused) “pray and you will be healed” passage from James. Among the questions I explored were, Is there a one to one correspondence between (the correct kind of) prayer and the experience of healing/blessing? Is faith a kind of formula where the input of x leads to the output of y? And, of course, lurking behind these questions are even bigger ones: What is the motivation for our faith? Do we follow Jesus because of what we can get out of the deal? Is our faith contingent upon the experience of blessing/goodness? Read more
Last night was spent at a local theology reading group hosted by a philosophy professor from the university in town. It’s an eclectic mix—a few professors, a chaplain (who was gracious enough to invite me!), history and philosophy students, Mormons, atheists, agnostics, and a handful of other positions on the way to or from faith, no doubt. The discussion was freewheeling, lively, and very stimulating. I spend a lot of time in “churchy” circles where I am supposed to be some kind of “authority” or, ahem, “expert.” It was nice to take that hat off for an evening and just explore some interesting questions with others. Read more
A bit of a mixed bag this morning, but here are a few things that have caught my eye over the last few days and have me thinking (and avoiding sermon-writing!) on this crisp September morning. These are mostly unrelated themes, but if pressed for a connection, I suppose I would say that they deal in turn with the nature of religion, the purpose of religion, and the practice of religion. Read more
Regular readers of this blog will know that the subject of my masters thesis a few years ago was the rise of “The New Atheism” (the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett) and that I interpreted this phenomenon not as the inevitable triumph of scientific rationality over superstition (as many of the authors were fond of claiming) but as a form of protest atheism against the evil in the world and against a God that they expected better from.
“They must not believe in God.”
These words from my daughter came after a conversation we had been having at bedtime about someone who she had heard yelling at their baby. For her, it was clear: someone who believed in God simply would not do something as monstrous as scream “shut up!” at an infant. People who believe in God don’t do such things, after all. Right? Read more
Steven Pinker has a new book out called The Better Angels of Our Nature and is currently doing the rounds to promote it. I heard part of an interview with Mr. Pinker on CBC’s The Current yesterday, and today read an article on the book from The New York Times. I’ve not yet read Pinker’s (apparently massive!) book, but as I understand it the basic thesis is that, contrary to what one might expect to hear from an evolutionary psychologist committed to the a view of the world that sees natural selection as the driving force behind human history, we are becoming more peaceful as a species. Read more
One of the things that we most desperately crave as human beings is meaning. We want our own individual lives to be meaningful, and we want our lives to somehow fit into some larger narrative of drama and purpose. We want our brief moments on this cosmic rock to matter.
Yet the very thing that we most want is the thing that is said to be lost in our postmodern world. Read more
Now that I have started to jog periodically, I have done what all good joggers do: I have created a playlist on my iPod full of bone-rattling, heart-pounding, anthemic rock songs to provide the requisite boost of adrenaline and inspiration once the legs start to feel like jelly, the breathing gets laboured, and the going starts to get pretty rough—for me, after about half a kilometre or so.
One of the tracks on my playlist is a song called “Nietzsche” by The Dandy Warhols, which contains the following lyric:
I want a god who stays dead
not plays dead.
It’s a fascinating line—one that could allude to any number of points and experiences on the psychological/spiritual/philosophical landscape in postmodernity. God is dead, but God won’t away. We want nothing to do with God, but we can’t live without meaning and the hope of redemption. We cannot escape the shadow God casts. Read more