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Posts Tagged ‘materialism’

I’m currently researching for a chapter in my thesis on Moltmann’s innovative trinitarian understanding of divine passibility (God, as Trinity, suffers). Kevin Vanhoozer is a contemporary impassibilist whose book Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship (2010) presents a meaty restatement of the classical theist (and, according to Vanhoozer, necessarily biblical) position on divine impassibility. One of the strengths of the book is Vanhoozer’s attention to words and definitions. He makes sure he defines his terms before using them (here, impassibility and emotion), which is too often left undone in other studies on the subject.

However, I just read Vanhoozer’s discussion of contemporary theory of emotion. He identifies two main theories. The first attributes emotion to bodily functions (“Non-cognitive (physicalist) theories”) and the second to the mind (“Cognitive (mentalist) theories”). Now, my lack of familiarity with the subject here may lead to some embarrassment on my part, but I just don’t get Vanhoozer’s rejection of the first:

“The physicalist view of emotions is not without significant problems, even apart from the issue of God’s corporeality [which camostar will not be addressing either]. First, such theories fail to acknowledge the importance of the influence of one’s beliefs on one’s emotions. It is not simply my seeing a snake that causes me to fear it but my belief that it is poisonous. Second, it is impossible to distinguish between emotions on the basis of physical sensations alone: fear, anger, and love alike may manifest the same physiological symptoms (i.e., rapid breathing). It follows that physical sensations are not themselves what we feel as emotions. Third, it is difficult to appeal to emotions as motives that explain a person’s behaviour if emotions are only bodily sensations. I do not shout at my neighbor because my heart is beating fast but because I am angry about what he did. Finally, while we regularly ascribe moral worth to certain emotions, it is difficult to hold persons praiseworthy or blameworthy for their sweaty armpits” (406-407).

Again, don’t treat me as an authority here, but I don’t see how these can be objections to a physicalist understanding of emotions:

  1. Why does Vanhoozer imply beliefs are non-physical? Obviously they arise in accordance with the environments that individuals develop within but this does not rule out the physicality of either those environments or the “cognitive” constructions that the individual develops. (By environment here neither do I make a distinction between nature and nurture. The environment is the individual and the individual is the environment. The distinction is nominal). Surely whatever beliefs are made up of that we identify as “cognitive,” for example memories, are a result of physical (at least if I’m reading this not as a Christian)* responses to the environment.
  2. Similarly, just because physical sensations are “smaller,” that is, occurring in the “mind” rather than the “body” like rapid breathing, the example Vanhoozer uses, they should not therefore be excluded from being physical sensations. Yes there is overlap between different emotions but to say that we can’t distinguish them physically is (a) to claim that the differences between them are unaccountable for physically, as if in the brain, too, the exact same thing is going on in both love and anger; and (b) comes close to the assumption that emotions are set categories anyway, whereas they developed pre/historically as organisms responded to their environments and, the same thing but accounted for in more recent terms, as human societies developed different socio-cultural contexts in which to be emotional. What if some emotions that used to be distinct are now “physiologically indistinguishable” and vice versa?
  3. Based on these first two objections to objections it should be clear now that shouting at a neighbour in anger can be accounted for in physicalist terms. It is a physical response as much as the heart beating is.
  4. Vanhoozer here shifts the argument. But just because we have socialised predispositions towards particular emotions, we cannot therefore make a theory of emotion conform to our ethics systems.

It looks like I’ve come down rather hard on Vanhoozer. That’s why I’ve titled this post as a question. The objections I have raised seem patent to me but I feel like I’m missing something of the complexity of the argument because of my unfamiliarity with the literature. It has otherwise been a very illuminating read so far!

*While not addressing questions of divine and human agency, my developing “Christian” understanding of physicalism accepts the classical theist “infinite qualitative distinction” (Kierkegaard) between God and the world. Through creation, God gives life to everyone and everything by the Holy Spirit, who in a very limited sense indwells them and guides them. In new creation, believers receive the Holy Spirit “properly,” in the same way Jesus received the Spirit, but for us as a deposit ahead of the resurrection. Included in Jesus’ divine sonship, we can live a life apart from the “physical,” though, in biblical terms, the world of sin and death, and instead live a life towards the new creation that God has brought in Jesus and will bring in Jesus.

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It may be a little indulgent but this post is intended to be a reference point regarding the conversations I have with people on ethics after metaphysics¹. Perhaps more indulgent is that this post is predominantly critical, contra my earlier resolution to do more positive up-building. Hopefully the critical nature will in some way be uplifting?

* * *

Firstly, with the end of metaphysics there is no objective basis for ethics. Metaphysics posited something beyond ourselves as a basis for ethics, traditionally God, although as thinkers got more critical of this tradition they came up with a non-theological, metaphysical basis for ethics (eg. Kant) before metaphysics was done away with completely. Whatever the objective reality beyond our physical selves was, it held some pattern for ethics, like loving others because they are made in the image of God or following actions through because in abstract terms they are right or wrong. Now, via science, what separates us from the animals has been relativised so that we are essentially no different from them. Further, what separates life from non-life, the animate (breathing) from the inanimate (breathless) has been relativised so that in the grand scheme of things we’re all just collections of atoms arranged uniquely. The laws of the universe are fundamentally a power-play, struggle for existence and survival of the fittest. There is no right or wrong. Why should we consider anyone beyond our own will to survive?

http://www.toonpool.com/user/398/files/ethics_333515.jpg

* * *

Secondly, ethical behaviour can be explained through evolution but evolution cannot provide a basis for it outside of itself. So (and this is crass because I don’t know my stuff) but say we care for others based on an instinct to preserve our species (Actually I couldn’t think of a good example, so critique it if you will but alternatively find me a replacement). We can say this is the case but we can’t say this should be the case. In our current, individualistic context, what interest do we have in something our instincts lead us to do when we can quite happily do otherwise than our instincts?

* * *

Thirdly, is there not a practical basis ethics? Just because we lack an objective basis for ethics we cannot dismiss that the operation of ethics, what it does, may be the real deal that all those airy-fairy metaphysicists missed with their heads in the clouds. Or maybe we can define it hedonistically: Because I have a desire for the good of others then it is good for me that I attend to that desire. The main problem I have with this is the subjective nature of a practical ethics. And if there are different ethical stances then the dominant will be sustained by power. Those who believe in equality will be fighting against those in power with antithetical interests. And if these egalitarians ever succeed then their vision will need be sustained by a continued power-play: Those opposing will have to submit to the laws of equality unless they can sway whatever power they have to do otherwise. If practicality is the basis for ethics then let those who wish to do unethically do so for their practical advantage! The other problem I have with practical ethics is that self-interest or other-interest, etc (whatever the basis for practical ethics), not rooted in a metaphysics, cannot go beyond itself. That is, if I do good for others in response to my own desires, for what reason do I respond to my own desires? I have a practical reason for ethics but I cannot call that reason itself good or meaningful. What stakes do I have in becoming happy? Because it is interesting and fills in time until I die?

* * *

In conclusion, this is just a statement of the way things are (as I see them) and I’d love to hear further thoughts on why we/you do ethics. It is not my aim saying there is no basis for ethics to criticise people for acting ethically regardless. People who reject a foundation for ethics may rightly choose to act ethically. I just want to encourage an honesty behind this acting ethically. And if life lacks meaning so what? I admire those who continue in it anyway out of curiosity or interest, even some unacknowledged affirmation of the value of life. Neither do I intend this critique to be an apology for metaphysics or Christianity, etc. I cannot say that someone who does not have a basis for ethics should have a basis and therefore should convert. My faith exists for greater reasons than a desire for a basis for ethics.

* * *

¹That is the general acceptance in Western academia over the last 200 years that there is no objective reality beyond material existence: What we have is what we have. There is no God, soul, spirits, afterlife, Beyond, etc…

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“I am here to tell you that in time, the mutator gene will activate in every living human being on this planet. Perhaps even your children, Senator” — Jean Grey

“I can assure you, there is no such creature in my genes” — Senator Kelly, X-men (2000)

* * *

People love progress. Progress is widely accessible in pop culture, for example X-men where certain mutant genes have allowed some people to develop superhuman abilities. Eighties movies like Terminator (1984) and Blade Runner (1982) imagine a future where we advance so far technologically that technology becomes independent and takes advancement into its own hands. Progress is found in the scientific world (which I know little about), in evolution where animals ‘progress’ from single-celled organisms to not-so-single-celled organisms and then they learn to live on land and they grow legs and some get wings and then finally some lucky guys and girls start finding out that they can access abstract thinking or whatever it is that separates the peoples from the animals. It is after crossing this point of separation that we can imagine the future possibility of the likes of invisibility or even, recently, immortality, and movies like Gattaca (1997) can imagine a society where only the best genes are passed onto the next generation through some technological interpolation.

But does a materialist perspective in any way allow for such a notion of progress? Is it possible to say that Homo sapiens is more evolved than Homo erectus? Is it possible to say that a domestic cat is more evolved than a bacterium? Is it even possible to say there is something which separates humans from the animals?¹ No to all the above. There is no point in evolutionary history where humanity steps outside its animal bounds. Technology does not provide humanity with an abiological means to a post-biological or post-evolutionary ends. If it did, then at what point did we transcend our biology? Use of tools/technology is contained within our biology so technology escapes ostracisation as abiological.

What is more, progress assumes an invisible universal measuring stick. All organisms can be measured against this to determine who is the most ‘advanced’. But the evolutionary measuring stick is not located in the universal but the particular, the environment. Species adapt not according to what is universally awesome, but specifically to what allows them to survive and pass on their genes in a particular environment. Thus X-men, which takes advantage of the relatively random process of mutation, falls prey to the same concept of universality. Mutants in X-men may have problems controlling their powers, and then there are far-reaching social consequences of their genes, but according to the universal measuring stick they have progressed not because they are adapted to their environment in such a way that secures survival and positive reproductive ends but they receive the possibility of mastery over the universal environment. Thus in the third movie, Xavier can refer to Jean Grey as a ‘level five mutant’. To this we can say with Senator Kelly, “There is no such creature in my genes”.

* * *

There are various ways in looking at progress in theology. Kierkegaard famously introduces his Fear and Trembling with a comparison between faith and philosophy:

In our time nobody is content to stop with faith but wants to go further. It would perhaps be rash to ask where these people are going, but it is surely a sign of breeding and culture for me to assume that everybody has faith, for otherwise it would be queer for them to be . . . going further. In those old days it was different, then faith was a task for a whole lifetime, because it was assumed that dexterity in faith is not acquired in a few days or weeks. When the tried oldster drew near to his last hour, having fought the good fight and kept the faith, his heart was still young enough not to have forgotten that fear and trembling which chastened the youth, which the man indeed held in check, but which no man quite outgrows. . . except as he might succeed at the earliest opportunity in going further. Where these revered figures arrived, that is the point where everybody in our day begins to go further.

(Retrieved online here).

Fighting the good fight

Kierkegaard is attacking the idea that we can start where others have left off. But we are in reality not a part of some external framework where this is possible. Yes we can learn and build on the discoveries and theories of those who have gone before us, we can consider ovens and then make microwaves, but these are external to what it means to be human. There is an a-temporal core to human existence. Thus Nietzsche can address his work within his work at the end of Beyond Good and Evil, “You have already taken off your novelty and some of you, I fear, are on the point of becoming truths: they already look so immortal, so pathetically righteous, so boring!” (Penguin Classics, 2003, p.221). Whereas he experienced and lived his philosophy, now it was overtaking him to exist in the external world of truth, the world where philosophical progress supposedly exists. Faith on the other hand, or Nietzsche’s existential struggles, exists between the subject and God, or existence. The subject, though a part of space and time, ignores any progressive meaning contained in the spatio-temporal to interact with the infinite/eternal, etc which transcends it.

* * *

¹If no, then you could probably also say that this inevitably leads to monism or, more familiarly, a kind of pantheism, where unity precedes difference. If there is nothing which separates a person from being a jellyfish from being a fungus from being the Loch Ness Monster (I swear she exists) because we are all contained under the category of ‘living’, then further there must be nothing to separate the animate from the inanimate, unless life is to be accorded some transcendental value.

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When I was younger I used to share a room with my also younger brother. (If you are quite possibly a straight, single, Spirit-filled female between the ages of 20 and 28, now would be a good time to stop reading). Sometimes we had cabbage with our dinner. Sometimes various legumes. The body often responds to such stimuli in a unique way, a way that my brother the next day often bemoaningly reported wrested him from his sleep in the early hours of the morning. Sometimes the activities of my own volatile gases were enough even to wake me myself up. This then is an attempt not only to wake myself up through processing a healthy philosophio-theological diet, but to fart loud enough that Rollins himself will hear it.

* * *

Pete's new title

On recently reading Peter Rollins’ new book, Insurrection and following his blog for the last year and a half (?) or so, some particular ideas at the centre of his message have stuck out to me. I hope I’m not too late to the party…

In many senses the title of this post is erroneous. The ideas contribute to some of Rollins’ theology, but they are yet just a small part of it. Moreover, it appears that Rollins probably makes use of them through his reading of Zizek, who in turn is probably borrowing from Lacan, although my skinny selection of past reads cannot confirm that. I’m still giving philosophy a go at the entry-level so I probably won’t be able to throw around any of those nice words such as ‘ontology’, ‘telos’ or ‘Heidegger’. Anyway, this is my summary of the two ideas as they appear in the chapter ‘Story Crime’ (Insurrection pp.81-108, all page references refer to the UK edition), with some support throughout this post from various posts on Rollins’ blog:

(a) We construct an image of ourselves as a mask or story we tell ourselves, which in turn shields us from confronting who we really are.

(b) Our true self and our actual beliefs are not those which are reflected in this image, mask, story, etc, but those that are seen externally through operative beliefs, ie. our actions.

In regard to these ideas, I ask the following questions:

(i) To what extent is it possible to construct a sincere image of ourselves, one that authentically communicates who we are?

(ii) What are the problems in defining our beliefs as our actions?

(iii) To what extent is it possible to ‘believe’ (ie. operatively) in God as love?

* * *

Far safer through an Abbey gallop,
The stones achase,
Than, moonless, one’s own self encounter
In lonesome place.

–Emily Dickinson

(i) To what extent is it possible to construct a sincere image of ourselves, one that authentically communicates who we are?

Rollins use examples of a New York mobster who robbed and killed people writing a children’s book from prison, a pre-WWII write up about Hitler’s residence in Home and Garden magazine, and everyday use of social networking as examples of images we construct of ourselves to avoid the guilt of who we really are:

We all have a story that we tell ourselves about ourselves, a story which we begin identifying with from infancy, and as long as we don’t think too much about it, we are able to maintain this story. But the personal narrative often has little direct connection to the reality of who we are.

(p.88)

Now what if Gotti (the mobster) was to, instead of writing a children’s book that communicates his humanity, compose a memoir concerning the various events he participated in, ones that would later justify to the public his imprisonment, and with that reflect upon his own depravity (to make use of orthodoxy here) and let his readers know what led him to commit such acts? What if Hitler, when the writers for the magazine article showed up, talked instead of his hate for Jews and his desires to work towards a master race? “I’m treating you as honoured guests because my image to the English-speaking world depends on you guys, but know that in my heart of hearts I desire nothing but power and revenge and will strip millions of their humanity to move towards my goal.” In the same sense, Pete outlines our duplicit approach to social networking: “On our profiles we list all the films that we want people to think we like while failing to mention some of the more embarrassing ones[…]” (p.93). Porn immediately came to mind, although I think Pete is more so exposing yours and my secret covering up of our watching chick flicks, or worse, movies with Hulk Hogan in them.

The 'What I really do' recent meme is a good example of the divide between fact and faux

The problem arises that as soon as you decide to communicate to someone about the reality of who you are, your communication is conditioned by what others will think, no matter which angle you approach it from. Pete gives a good example of this in his post, How to hide a lie in a truth (via the Marx Brothers):

[…]take the example of a religious leader who is part of a community that actively holds repressive/naive views regarding such things as gender roles, gay and lesbian rights, biblical interpretation and scientific reflection. If the religious leader actually holds such views themselves they will quickly attempt to justify the churches position in a variety of (often contradictory) ways. However there is a more interesting phenomenon whereby the leader fully and freely acknowledges the repressive positions held by their community.

What is interesting about this position is how their willingness to admit that they materially participate in a repressive community operates. For when one speaks to such a person one is generally led to think that they are not what they fully claim to be. The honesty causes one to think that they are other than what they are. We are led to think that their intelligence and ability to admit the dark underbelly of their community means that they are better than the community they are part of, that they should not to be overly identified with that community and perhaps even that they must be trying to influence it for the better.

If I take Pete’s idea into another context, I find it impossible to speak to others regarding my darker self as my very speaking to them is inextricably bound to the desires of my darker self: “I speak maliciously about people I love behind their back”, communicated in humility to someone I love cannot be removed from my desire for them to see me in a positive light apart from my actions. In a way it justifies my behaviour because they see me as someone with enough humility to admit to my faults and therefore have the desire to overcome them. Even going one step further and letting them know that you’re telling them in part because you desire them to see you as humble cannot defeat your possible motivations. To tell someone your confessions are a result of a desire to be seen as humble and honest just bumps the desire up a step with the step you take: You tell someone you desire to be seen as humble so you may very well be seen as humble, and if you take a further step and acknowledge this hypocrisy then you again bring the desire into play, and so on into infinity.

But sincerity is not just difficult in literal verbal communication — we are defined in the eyes of others by everything we do. If this is the case then can any action be performed with sincerity? If I have a heartfelt, Spirit-inspired message to relay to the congregation, is it possible to deliver it sincerely, without desiring to be seen as an insightful young prophet, or rebellious intellectual iconoclast, depending on the nature of the message? If a Red Cross collector is standing at the entrance to a mall, is not my giving to her complicated by the fact that she’s standing right in front of me and asking for money?

But what if even what we do in secret cannot be done with sincerity? I cannot find where Pete acknowledges this (there are a few similar passages but the example I was looking for I can no longer find) so I’ll just have to use my own example, based on what I’ve read of Pete so far. In the Red Cross example above, even if the woman, the mall and everybody around me is absent — I approach a donation box in a society-free vacuum, whatever — I still cannot donate in sincerity. My ‘good deed’, my giving of money to charity is conditioned by what I think of myself: “I am a good person who usually gives when there’s a need so I don’t feel required to right now” or “I usually spend my money on myself so I really need to change the way I act”, etc — thoughts such as these influence our actions because we construct an image of ourselves, not just for others but one that we ourselves see, to communicate to ourselves who we are.

To go even further, even considering actions in negative relation to the image we construct for others and ourselves is still a consideration: “I will speak in church because I don’t care what others think” or “I will give to charity regardless of what I think of myself”. Once these factors have been introduced it is impossible to act sincerely because they will always be considered consciously or unconsciously. Our motivations are legion, and we never engage in action for just one reason.

The material upto this point I feel has largely been in agreement with Pete, but just appealed to me in light of Jesus’ words such as “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8 NIV) and “These people honour me with their lips but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15:8 NIV). Now let’s go a little deeper…

* * *

“I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.” — Jekyll in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

(ii) What are the problems in defining our beliefs as our actions?

After giving examples of how we cover up who we really are, Pete expounds a true measure for who we are:

Our material commitments will show us which master we love and which we hate; not what we confess in our poetry and prose. In this way, it is often the people around us who will be better at judging what we really are love than we ourselves, for we are very adept at hiding from ourselves the truth of our desires.

(p.98)

A later sub-heading reads “Our practices do not fall short of our beliefs; they are our beliefs” (p.102). If you’re not sold on this idea, take the example from Pete’s cleverly named post, I believe in child labour, sweatshops and torture:

Take the example of buying chocolate from a corner shop. If I know, or suspect, that the chocolate is made from coco beans picked by children under the conditions of slavery then, regardless of what I say, I believe in child slavery. For the belief operates at a material level (the level of what I do) rather than at the level of the mind (what I tell myself I believe). And I can’t hide in supposed ignorance either for if I don’t know about how most chocolate is made it is likely that my lack of knowledge is a form of refusal to care. For the very fact that there is Fair Trade chocolate, for example, should be enough for me to ask questions about whether other chocolate is made in an unfair way[…]

In the West we are very prone to think that beliefs operate at the level of the mind, however what goes on in the mind has no necessary relation to the material realty of our operative beliefs (those that we enact). For example a person may “believe” that they are utterly safe in a roller coaster and yet be too terrified to ever step onto one. The point is that the conscious claim (I am rational and know that this is safe) is a mere story that covers over the operative belief (I will not be safe).

You can also watch this video, I deny the resurrectionwhich goes along a similar vein if you don’t quite yet understand, and the Irish passion of the short video makes it all the more worthwhile to watch.

Apart from the brilliantly challenging nature of these words, and their biblical resonance (eg. 1John 3:18; James 2:18; Luke 11:28), I think Pete makes some assumptions which need to be addressed. If we go back to the examples of Gotti and Hitler, this kind of reasoning leads here:

The truth of Hitler is not found in the story he tells about himself but in what drove him to such monstrous evils. The [Home and Garden article] is exactly the type of story Hitler would have told himself about himself in order to avoid facing up to the disgusting truth of who he was. And, of course, the same is true of Gotti […], whose truth is found in the desires and drives that are manifest in [his] actions rather than in the fact that [he writes] touching stories for kids[…]

(p.92)

Now I don’t want to discredit Pete because I think he’s just making use of Hitler as an example, rather than holding only to what he writes here. However, the immediate danger is that our worst actions, our greatest failings are the benchmark by which we ourselves and others define us. We are our lowest common denominator. It is easier to draw this conclusion with Hitler, as he spent a larger proportion of his life engaged in explicitly evil acts, and continues to stand as a point of reference to evil for many. I think Pete makes the mistake of defining Hitler completely by his evil though, dismissing his personal life as a front or cover up for who Hitler really is: “Here we must avoid the temptation to be fooled by the subjective story of the other” (p.92).

Hitler at home... from the untimely show 'Heil Honey'

An example can be taken from Robert Louis Stevenson’s book, The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the quote from which introduces this section in the post. In the novel, Dr Jekyll, a learned, well-respected, philanthropic member of society devises a way to live out his secret and evil desires behind the guise of his well-loved self. He concocts a formula that allows him to become a completely different person, Mr Hyde, and explore his evil self. Stevenson hints at Jekyll-Hyde’s homosexuality, masturbation, and the use of prostitutes throughout, things that were widely condemned in the era he was writing. It is in one of Jekyll’s reflections before his death not too long after that he says of himself and Jekyll, “Even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both”. Jekyll was the sexually unbridled and murderous, hateful, Hyde as much as he was his loved and respected self. And even though he acknowledges the possibility of being both, his ending reflections center on Hyde being someone completely different to himself, a separate self whose actions he was unaccountable for. Jekyll then moves in the opposite direction to Pete — instead of embracing his darker side as that which truly defines him, he takes refuge in his subjective self. But what if his possibility, that he is both depraved and a loving person, rather than either, a better representation of the truth?

Faith in the Kierkegaardian sense is a passion. This is one side of the tagline under heading on my blog. Kierkegaard railed against the idea that as people we were becoming more perfect through every generation, with advances in science in and other forms of knowledge. To have perfect faith, all you needed to do was read a summary of the people who had gone before you and all the philosophers who had asked the right questions (namely Plato and Descartes). But for Kierkegaard, true faith was in the experience of finding, rather than building on what those before you had done. You needed to start from the start. This can be read as a metaphor for our daily lives. Everyday we cannot build on who we already are but must experience faith anew as a passion. To put Pete’s example to use, some days I have bought fair-trade chocolate as I feel the importance of buying ethically and teaching others to do the same whereas other days I have bought evil chocolate usually because it tastes good, is accessible or it’s cheaper. By the way, just while we’re on the subject, if you buy fair-trade Cadbury or Whittaker’s, it’s still evil. This sounds like an awkward defence of my actions to the greater internet. But it’s really just an example to show that “Our practices do not fall short of our beliefs; they are our beliefs” only means that sometimes we believe certain things and other times we don’t. Human caprice means our beliefs can change weekly, daily, hourly even, and revert back to what they were previously. I can simultaneously hold the desires to wear nice clothes and live simply. What if the possibility to intellectually assent to a particular belief and act otherwise is not so much an indication of my own unbelief, but my human weakness, a failure to live up to my beliefs?

* * *

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” Ephesians 2:8 NIV.

(iii) To what extent is it possible to ‘believe’ (ie. operatively) in God as love?

Towards the end of the chapter, Pete touches on grace as a way of transforming who we are:

In grace we are able to accept that we are accepted and, in this very act of knowing we do not have to change, we discover the ability to change. It is in experiencing the license of grace rather than the legalism of prohibition that real transformation becomes possible.

(p.106).

His definition of grace is part and parcel with Paul’s in Romans:

[…] the law does not stand in opposition to sin but rather is interwoven with it. In other words, the law and sin do not exist at opposite ends of a spectrum but rather occupy the same space and stand opposed to a fundamentally different mode of being (that of love).

(p.103; cf Romans 7:7-8:17)

Pete’s use of grace as a factor in Resurrection life to address our sinfulness, way of life, etc, does not seem to me like he has gone far enough. In the first part of the book, Pete examines how structures in modern churches shield us from facing doubt, the fear of death and the meaninglessness of existence by providing certainty and meaning. He then examines how we also avoid our own guilt (p. 87ff), which the rest of the chapter addresses (ie. a lot of the material I have just worked through). One place that Pete alludes to but doesn’t directly address, however, is apathy.

A bit of a classic there

Yes the books we read on apologetics tell us that we actually believe in God against our hidden doubts, yes our worship songs help us to overcome our true fears of death (I particularly like this one, like I actually enjoy and value it, but I realise what role it plays), yes we listen to sermons to get a sense for meaning when we fail to find it in life, yes we avoid facing up to our guilt through the use of mask we create for ourselves and others… and yes we avoid our own apathy by speaking concernedly of horrible events in the world as they appear in newspapers, shedding a tear among friends for the neighbour’s family who is struggling financially, and posting videos on Facebook of KONY 2012. As much as there are structures in place to avoid all these things, we engage in structures to help us push under the surface the fact that deeply down we care mostly for ourselves.

What then does grace have to do with apathy? Grace is apathy’s corrective, the great elixir. Rather than acknowledging my own responsibility to care for the poor, grace allows me to actually care for the poor because I am cared for. In grace I am loved and so I will love others. Our responses to our apathy have hitherto been legalistic: I must pray for Christians being persecuted in the Middle East; it is the right thing to do. Grace allows us to desire to pray for the persecuted, out of God’s love and compassion for them.

But what if grace is a part of the structure that allows us to avoid facing up to our own apathy? I’m surprised at Pete’s orthodoxy here. He leaves a very large stone unturned. The problem with grace as an answer is in its very definition: A gift from God. To receive a gift, the giver must first give it. Nobody can choose to experience grace because the choice is completely God’s. Some people receive grace and lives are changed dramatically from that point onwards. Some come intermittently throughout their lives to a timely point of grace that allows them to move on. Some continue to strive to do good but what their experience of grace is scant throughout their lifetime.

In a response to Richard Beck’s critique of Insurrection, (It’s not the size of the wand that matters, it’s the magic that’s in it: A response to Richard Beck), Pete writes of the necessity of community in facing up to the death of God (the Crucifixion experience, entailing the embrace of doubt, meaninglessness, death and guilt): “My point is that we need Christian community both in order to help us undergo this event [the death of God] and to help us bear the weight of it”. Community, like grace is not something that can be achieved on the individual’s part. In an Arminian sense, community is something both which I seek and that seeks me. If there is no community for me to be a part of then I must give this whole ‘love’ thing a go for myself.

So, in conclusion, to love with God at the center requires grace, which can act both as a structure to avoid my apathy and is not something that I can choose for myself.

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