Tuesday, December 17, 2013

In Preparation for Holiday Hibernation: Highlights from Fall 2013

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But when the hard winter comes, the river-animal tamer, then even the most quick-witted must learn mistrust; and verily, not only the blockheads then say, ‘Does not everything stand still?’
‘At bottom everything stands still’—that is truly a winter doctrine, a good thing for sterile times, a fine comfort for hibernators and hearth-squatters.
–Zarathustra in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 201.


Thanks, Nietzsche the Grinch, for trying to ruin Christmas peace with your yuletide cynicism.

At the risk of being a “blockhead,” I must admit that I am very much looking forward to hibernating by the fire for a week or two over the holidays. It’s been a successful semester on Ground Motive, and it’s time for some serious hearth-squatting stillness. Before collapsing in a heap of holiday cheer, it’s worth reveling in the accomplishments of the past few months.

Here are some of the high points of the fall semester on Ground Motive.


The DooyAward

I’m excited to announce that the first Herman Dooyeweerd Award for the Best Blog Post (better known as the DooyAward) has been awarded to Stefan Knibbe, author of “Rhetoric, The Other, and Boycotting Ender’s Game.” The award takes into consideration the quality of the content, the effectiveness of tone and delivery, and the overall reach, including shares, views, and comments. Stefan’s article weighs in with some insightful comments on a controversial topic with grace and a respectful tone. Regardless of whether or not you’re interested in Ender’s Game, this post delivers a compelling case for compassion and the power of stories. Congratulations, Stefan!


Honorable Mentions

Outlining some parallels between the great detective’s crime fighting strategies and Gadamer’s hermeneutics, this installment of Ground Motive’s Popular Mythology series seems to have struck a chord with readers and takes the lead on the number of page views. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the long awaited third season of the British TV series Sherlock starts up in the new year!

ICS Junior Member and prolific author of the philosophy blog Re(-)petitions Dean Dettloff made an appearance on Ground Motive with beautiful insights from an unlikely place. Posted just in time for Thanksgiving, Dean looked to the hip-hop duo Blackalicious for helpful advice on how to live in gratitude despite our consumerist culture.

Angie Hocking’s reflections on her ongoing street ministry at Church of the Redeemer in Toronto were both thought-provoking and haunting. This guest post holds up the mirror to us as readers in those times when we get too wrapped up in our own world and find it all too easy to forget that we share in a common humanity with all people, regardless of social status, income, or lifestyle.

Hector Acero-Ferrer, ICS Junior Member and born Colombian, shares a unique perspective on interreligious dialogue as a Colombian living in Canada. He explores the question of why Colombian Catholicism sometimes looks so much different from the Canadian variety. What are the hidden forces that shape religious tradition?

This post’s use of Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes and its surprising potential benefits for a robust understanding of human freedom raised a red flag for some readers. Because one of Ground Motive’s primary aims is to spark conversations about important topics in philosophy, religion, and social ethics, a controversial article represents an opportunity. So if you have an opinion on this article, don’t hesitate to add your thoughts in the comments. We’d love to hear from you!

Post with the Deepest Thoughts: What Buddhist Meditation Taught Me About Sin
In a moving reflection on spirituality and embodiment, PhD candidate Joseph Kirby suggests that Buddhist meditation and Christian spirituality might be deepened by one another. Perhaps engaging in such interreligious dialogue makes us realize the profound similarities we share with others by simply being embodied human beings.

Best Post About the Upcoming Conference Are We There Yet? Economic Justice and the Common Good (thereyet.ca): Economic Justice and…family reunions?
Don’t forget to mark your new 2014 calendars for the upcoming conference in Edmonton on May 12 and 13! It’s going to be a fascinating couple of days that will challenge you and make you think. Take a look at this post for some information on why this conference is so important and what makes it unique.

Best Post about Free Stuff: Building a World Where Knowledge is Free
This semester, the Institute for Christian Studies launched their Open Repository, full of previously hidden gems of research and scholarship. In celebration of Open Access Week, this article, along with an interview with ICS’s librarian Isabella Guthrie-McNaughton, highlights the benefits and difficulties of moving towards an open access model of publishing.

Most Thought-Provoking Interview: Don’t Be a Hero
As the first post of the semester, this interview may not have received the airtime it deserved. In this post, Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, author of The World is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good, recounts his experiences in Christian activism and cautions against its tendency toward valuing heroism over real-world concern for real people. He goes on to suggest alternate ways of thinking about how to approach Christian activism in this excerpt and in the second installment as well.

*           *           *

Thanks to everyone who contributed to Ground Motive this semester. It has been an exhilarating season of fresh insights and fruitful conversation. As we head into 2014, the Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics eagerly anticipates a new year of innovative research and inspiring ideas.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

The Search for Colombian "Q": Discovering the Hidden Source of a Spirituality of Hope

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By Hector Acero Ferrer

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to share some of my interfaith experiences in a session of a Muslim-Christian dialogue run by two very active interfaith organizations in Toronto. In the panel where I participated, youth and young adults were asked to talk about their particular encounters with other faith traditions in the context of a secularizing, globalized world. Since I was born and raised in Colombia, I was supposed to give an overview of the situation in Latin America, providing some context for my personal experience and for the way in which interfaith dialogue is done outside of Canada. As I started to think about the topic I panicked, as I had the same reaction many Canadians have when they hear the terms “interfaith” and “Latin America” in the same sentence: what can I possibly tell a group of Torontonians about interfaith when my own experience in the topic is so limited?

This was the first time I reflected upon the fact that I had appropriated a stereotype without further consideration: I assumed that Roman Catholicism was an overarching attribute of Latin American culture and, more to the point, that my own circumstances had isolated me from the input of other faith traditions. Although concerned about these prejudices and unfounded generalizations (especially coming from someone who claims to take philosophy and religion seriously), I began my analysis confidently, aware that it is common to all Colombians –every single one of them- to overgeneralize and exaggerate. In this process I found out that diverse faith traditions are still alive in Colombian territories, finding expression through radical Christian theologies, different forms of mystical spirituality, and an ongoing, insistent call to social transformation.


In order to further explore the encounter of faith traditions in Colombia, I should probably begin by mentioning Colombia’s current socio-political environment. Similar to many other nations in the so-called “Developing World,” Colombia is a country where many layers of conflicts and crises stem out of a single social contradiction: how is it possible to be so poor when we are so rich in all the resources that the world needs the most? This is not a new question, or one exclusive to this region, but it is certainly a concern that has oriented the “Colombian-experience” from the time of the Spanish colonial rule.

Claiming to be 90% Roman Catholic, Colombia is "officially" consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the birthplace of Liberation Theology (Conference of Latin American Bishops of 1968), and the location of the first office of the Spanish Inquisition in the Americas. Colombia is also the country where thanks to the traffic of drugs the meaning of "full of grace" and "full of sin" have collided, where the shrine for "Our Lady of the Assassins" is not only the content of a movie but a crude, escalating reality, and where the current well-being of its peoples is exchanged as the mortgage for an afterlife justice.

Although all of these seem to be extensions of the Roman Catholic worldview imported to the Americas by the Spanish colonizers, it is possible to argue that there is a plurality of faith traditions that have found their way into current faith expressions. When comparing the way Roman Catholicism is lived in Toronto to my experience at home I cannot avoid concluding that there is a source to my interpretation of Christianity, a second set of beliefs and practices that informed the ritualistic experiences in which I was raised, one that did not correspond to the Western worldview. In a similar way that Biblical scholars postulate “Q” as the missing source of information for the synoptic gospels, I was led to postulate a “Q” source in the Colombian case, a source identifiable with not only one, but a multiplicity of aboriginal worldviews.

Colombians’ strong emphasis on motherhood and the role of women in organized religion, the significance of rituals surrounding death, marriages, and welcomes, and the understanding of the church as an organization that should start the building of the Kingdom here on earth are not necessarily the foundational pillars of Canadian Roman Catholicism. It seems to me that all these are indicative of the profound multicultural context in which Latin American Catholicism continues to develop. What the Spaniard “Conquistadores” encountered in the lands now called Central and South American was a plethora of faith traditions (some of them more ancient than Christianity) that infused Romanism and produced a Catholicism with a renewed spirituality and strength, which we can trace all the way to Pope Francis,
“God makes God-self felt in the heart of each person. God also respects the culture of all people. Each nation picks up that vision of God and translates it in accordance with the culture, and elaborates, purifies and gives it a system[…] God moves everyone to seek God and to discover God through creation[…] God encounters us; God reveals God-self to us, God shows us the way and accompanies us[…]” (Bergoglio 2010, p,19)
The call to action, the profound concern for the poor, and the special attention to hospitality are all elements that the aboriginal peoples cherished and imprinted in the following generations of natives, blacks, criollos, and Spaniards in Latin American lands. It is now widely accepted that the cultural interchange that occurred during the colonization process of the Americas happened in more than one direction; what is not usually discussed is that the exchange is still alive after many generations. This very rich encounter continues informing Colombians silently on new ways of living out the gospel of Christ, of remaining hopeful, and of holding each other in trust as members of the same human community. Isn’t this interfaith at its best?

Hector Acero Ferrer is a junior member at the Institute for Christian Studies, currently focusing his research on philosophy of language and philosophy of religion.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Memes, Tradition, and Building a Culture According to Richard Dawkins

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These days, the internet is filled with memes. Everywhere we look online, we find some sort of viral picture of an ugly cat or a celebrity’s face that someone has written a new caption for or put their own spin on. Memes are everywhere in our online experience, and to be honest, they can be hilarious. However lighthearted it may be, this internet phenomenon illustrates a deeper dynamic that is always at play between an individual and culture. Though most of the time it is implicit and goes unnoticed, our individual creativity (or our ability to put a new spin on an internet meme) depends on our imitation of the culture we are already immersed in—without the “memes” that are embedded deep within our culture and language, we would not have any materials with which to create new ideas. Every innovation puts a new spin on an old meme.

In broad strokes, a meme is a self-replicating idea that propagates itself by means of individuals who take it up through imitation and transmit it to others who do the same. The term “meme” comes from the evolutionary biology of Richard Dawkins’ early work The Selfish Gene, in which he derives the term from the Greek root denoting imitation and uses it to describe a non-biological mode of evolution. In doing so, Dawkins shows a surprising resistance to thinking of human behaviour as simply the flow of genes and biological drives. He claims that though genes are an excellent example of self-replicating units (replicators), and much of human and animal behaviour can be described in terms of how genes compete for survival, there is no reason to think that genes as such have a monopoly on replicator status. “I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet,” Dawkins suggests. “It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind. The new soup is the soup of human culture” (192).

Significantly, Dawkins makes the strong (but, as he notes, speculative) claim that once memes enter into an evolutionary process through human culture, human behaviour no longer answers directly to biological evolution. In fact, the flow of memes in culture may have a noticeable effect on the flow of genes in a population. To illustrate this, Dawkins describes religious celibacy as a meme that affects what genes enter into the gene pool. In this case, the meme, not the gene, is the primary determiner of natural selection.

With an evolutionary theory of memes, Dawkins puts forward a hypothesis describing culture formation, in which a wide variety of ideas (memes) compete for the attention of the individuals who propagate them. This explains how traditions, culture, and perhaps even language come about. For Dawkins, a persistent institution or tradition such as a church consists of a nexus of memes that reinforce one another: “Perhaps we could regard an organized church, with its architecture, rituals, laws, music, art, and written tradition, as a co-adapted stable set of mutually-assisting memes” (197). So a cultural institution, a way of life, or a set of practices gets set up, in this account, as a self-reinforcing meme-complex. In this way, such a position makes it easy to tell a story of how culture came to be the way it is, without reducing it to competition between genes.

Despite Dawkins’ latent hostility toward religious institutions (evident in the fact that almost all of his examples of memes border on a critique of the legitimacy of truth claims of religious people), his speculative theory of memes represents an important insight that is (surprisingly) resonant with aspects of the work of Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt, and is important for thinking about ethical responsibility and culture.

In a somewhat militant and over-zealous tone, Dawkins ends his discussion of memes with what I find to be a key insight that deserves unpacking (and maybe a bit of rhetorical defusing):
“We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination…We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators” (The Selfish Gene, 201).
What Dawkins is getting at here is not all that different from Heidegger’s discussion of our thrownness into being with others and our inescapable cultural heritage. In an odd way, Heidegger makes precisely the same case in Being and Time as Dawkins does in the quote above. Heidegger explains,
“The resoluteness in which Dasein comes back to itself discloses the actual factical possibilities of authentic existing in terms of the heritage which that resoluteness takes over as thrown. Resolute coming back to thrownness involves handing oneself over to traditional possibilities, although not necessarily as traditional ones” (Being and Time, 365).
For Heidegger, “thrownness” means that we (Dasein) are already placed in a world even before we stop to think about the fact that we are a self at all. We’re fundamentally constituted by the world and by the rhythms of regular life that we see around us every day (which Heidegger calls “the they”). So in the spirit of Heidegger and in terms of Dawkins’ memes, we might say that our social lives are built out of the meme pool of our culture. Our individuality and self-expression is only possible by means of the meme materials available through everyday life in our culture.

One of Heidegger’s main concerns in Being and Time is that, though we are thoroughly constituted by our cultural heritage to the extent that we can only understand ourselves in its terms, we are not fully determined by it. When we revisit our thrownness into our culture and tradition in a “resolute” way, we hold ourselves distinct from it while being dependent on it for being an individual in the first place. In this way, we are able to hold ourselves at a critical distance from it, which gives us the ability to approach it with creativity rather than simply continuing on in its predetermined trajectory. When a person comes to grasp his or her individuality and takes responsibility for it apart from the pressures of “the they,” Heidegger says that this person has entered into authenticity.

To unpack the ethical implications of authenticity, Hannah Arendt, a philosopher, social critic, and contemporary of Heidegger, offers a perspective that allows us to consider the relevance of both Heidegger’s and Dawkins’ sense that we are not slaves to genes and memes. Arendt considers it imperative that, after the devastation of World War II, we come to grips with the fact that we are not fully determined by our culture, that we are paving our own path rather than one set out for us from which we cannot deviate. “[E]ach new generation,” says Arendt, “indeed every human being as he inserts himself between infinite past and an infinite future, must discover and ploddingly pave it anew.” (Between Past and Future, 13).

It seems to me that Arendt would echo Richard Dawkins idea, and perhaps even his passion, that we not consider ourselves dominated by the genes and the memes that constitute us. We have the freedom and the responsibility to build our own future because we are not predetermined by the workings of our bodies or our society. Though we owe our existence to genes and memes, the fact that we are not slaves to either of them means that we share in an ethical responsibility for shaping the future together.

Matthew E. Johnson is a junior member at the Institute for Christian Studies, focusing his philosophical studies on hermeneutics, aesthetics, and discourse.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

What Buddhist Meditation Taught Me About Sin

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by Joseph Kirby

When we get excited, our hearts beat faster. When we get embarrassed, blood rushes to our face. When we see something beautiful, we sometimes feel goose-bumps wash over our skin or a tingling sensation courses up and down our spine. We talk about feeling butterflies in our stomach when we feel nervous or in love. In fact, every one of our emotions – referred to with words like “anger,” “fear,” “joy,” “hatred,” “lust” – is also a nexus of physiological sensations on or within the body. Put in terms of an obvious etymology, “feelings” are feelings. It is, of course, very difficult to feel what strong emotions “feel” like while caught up in them. Try it – next time you are overwhelmed by anger, try to feel what that anger “is” in terms of the sensations careening up and down your torso, hammering in your skull. If you can manage it at all, you will likely discover something unsurprising: the sensation of being angry is extremely unpleasant. This is why, when we feel it, we try to get rid of it as fast as possible – which often means doing something unpleasant to whoever or whatever our anger is directed against. In this context, Buddhist meditation offers a technique for training your mind to do the opposite, a practice of sitting quietly and observing whatever sensations arise and pass away on the physical structure of your own body, without reacting. It is an attempt to follow the maxim “know thyself!”, but instead of working through the medium of language and discourse (as we do in philosophy), we work through the medium of sensation.


The aim of the technique can be described in biblical terms: “A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot” (Proverbs 14:30). Consider Werner Herzog’s documentary on the death penalty, Into the Abyss. Near the end of the film, we are introduced to Fred Allen, former captain of the Death House in a prison in Hunstville, Texas. His job was to make as comfortable as possible the last day in the life of a condemned inmate. After spending eight or ten hours with the inmate, giving them their last meal, accommodating their last requests, his job was to strap the inmate down to the gurney where lethal injection would be administered. After performing these duties on over 120 men, Captain Allen was called upon to oversee the death of a woman, Karla Faye, the first woman to be executed in Texas in over 130 years. About an hour before her death, Karla smiled up at Captain Allen and thanked him for everything he had done. These words affected him deeply. That evening, his whole body began to shake uncontrollably, and sweat, and he was wracked by pain. A few days later, he found himself visualizing one by one all the other inmates whose deaths he had taken part in – he called the Death House chaplain over to his house and told him he was finished, he could not do it anymore.

“A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot.” Captain Allen had felt bad about helping kill those 120 men, but he had repressed these feelings in order to carry out his job. These repressed feelings, however, had not simply vanished into nothingness – they remained, as a pain within his body that his conscious mind had trained itself to ignore. When he was finally brought to acknowledge this pain, it came out all at once, in the form of bodily pain, shaking, sweating, hallucinations. In theological language, we might say that hell is not some metaphysical afterlife to which some vengeful sky-god condemns those who breach his arbitrary commands; hell is the pain in our own body that we have trained ourselves not to feel. Meditation, in this context, would be purgatory, the concerted attempt to consciously suffer what our unconscious mind is already suffering. Socrates puts it well in the Gorgias: for those who have become habituated to lives of injustice, “their benefit comes to them, both here and in Hades, by way of pain and suffering, for there is no other way to get rid of injustice” (525b). The ontology of Dante’s Inferno is also apt: Hell is the revelation of what you have already become, stripped of all illusion, but also lacking all hope for change.

Perhaps this description of meditation as purgatory seems counter-intuitive. Go to YouTube and search for “meditation”: the videos will depict butterflies, gentle streams, tranquil forests, waves lapping gently on a smooth beach. Blaise Pascal provides a much better description of what meditation is like when you first undertake it: “all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber” (Pensées 139); why? because when they do, there arises “from the depth of [their] heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair” (Pensées 131). Most of us understand what he is talking about: cabin fever, unaccountable depression, the sense of meaninglessness that assails us when we pause too long from our otherwise incessant business. But like all emotions, these feelings of “weariness, gloom, sadness, etc.” are also sensations on the physical structure of the body, and the meditator, temporarily withdrawing from the “external” world, is able to get rid of the illusion that some external entity is to blame for them. What occurs at this point is something similar to the transition Heidegger recommends as the path towards authenticity, from fear of this-or-that object to ontological dread, rootless anxiety, the realization of groundless freedom. Unlike Heidegger, however, the meditator experiences this process in the mode of hope, knowing through experience that this dread is the result of passion beginning to ooze to the surface from the bones. In short, beneath the pain lies the forest of the YouTube videos, a metaphoric attempt to depict the nature of the reality that is calling from beneath, a reality that “gives life to the flesh”: the infinite compassionate love that grounds reality. This can be said more precisely: the sensation of ontological dread is exactly the same as the sensation of what one might call “ontological love” – with the only difference being that in the former, the feeling is refused, while in the latter it is allowed to flow freely.

If it seemed odd to speak of meditation as purgatory, perhaps it seems even odder to speak of meditation leading towards ontological love – given that the kind of meditation I’ve been talking about is Buddhist in provenance and we all know that Buddhism speaks of “emptiness” and “nothingness,” not “love” or “God.” But consider S. N. Goenka’s reflections on Jesus, which he speaks on the seventh day of his ten day retreat:
Is there any doubt that he was son of the God? He was son of the God. After all, what is God? Truth is God. Love is God. Compassion is God. Purity is God. And here is a product of truth, of love, of compassion, of goodwill, of purity. He is a product of that – he is son of God. Those qualities are important, and if we try to develop those very qualities in us, then yes – we are good devotees of Jesus Christ. Otherwise no, it becomes a blind faith, blind devotion, does not work, does not work.
I have found Tillich’s distinction between ontological faith and moral faith to be useful in describing the difference between Buddhist meditation and (Protestant) Christianity: “In the experience of the holy, the ontological and moral element are essentially united, while in the life of faith they diverge and are driven to conflicts and mutual destruction” (Dynamics of Faith). The faith that a meditator develops is without question ontological, seeking to reunite experientially with the ground of Being. According to Tillich, Protestant Christianity is primarily a moral faith, oriented toward fixing the brokenness of the world. These two kinds of faith tend towards mutual conflict and misunderstanding, but it is only through dialogue that both advance towards what is holy: moral faith corrects the complacence to which followers of ontology can succumb; ontological faith corrects the guilt and pride to which practitioners of moral faith can be prone. Could these two modes of faith, two modes of practice, not be likened to two legs, walking forward only when they work together, step by step by step?

Joseph Kirby is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Christian Studies, focusing on the philosophy of religion, politics, and ecology.

First photo by Dedda71 via Wikimedia Commons. Second photo public domain.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Perspectives from a Park Bench: A Guest Post by Angie Hocking

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by Angie Hocking

Recently, a prominent theological college at the University of Toronto unveiled a powerful work of art that got some attention, both on a local as well as national level. The piece is called ‘Homeless Jesus’. It is a life-sized bronze statue that portrays a figure lying huddled under a blanket on a park bench. The artist only identifies the figure as Jesus at his feet, which bear the marks of the crucifixion. The statue is very moving, and is a sobering, beautiful reminder to passersby of how Jesus would likely be living if he were with us today in our city.

With the image on my mind one morning, I went looking for Greg, a friend of mine and a participant in our drop-in meal program. Greg is incredibly bright; an intellectual through and through. He visits University of Toronto lectures on a semi-regular basis, and knows more about theology than just about anyone. 

Also, Greg has experienced his own story of homelessness. Greg was on the streets for many years (though thankfully, he’s currently off the street), and has experienced first hand addiction treatment programs and supportive housing facilities. 

I found Greg in his favourite seat. ‘Greg, good morning! I was wondering what your thoughts are on this new art installation at the U of T. What do you think? Powerful, isn’t it?’

Generally, a conversation starter such as this one would solicit a well formulated, thoughtful response from Greg. He is a socially-conscious theologian and art lover. He was even recently at the lecture that unveiled the statue. I expected to hear a few minutes of insight into the piece’s creation or some gleaning of the lecture discussions. I settled in with him near his seat, and prepared myself for a thoughtful and insightful reply.

After taking a decisive pause, Greg spoke. ‘It takes up a perfectly good bench, if you ask me.’

Not one to make flippant remarks or dismiss important works of art, I processed his response. The point Greg was making was that it’s not a matter of ‘either/or’; the art is significant and sends an important message to its viewers. But Greg reveals to us that a regular bench should be seen as just as powerful and beautiful as this moving piece of art, for it too calls for celebration. A bench in itself could be, to some, one of their only places for healing, rejuvenation, and rest. When it may feel like the world is pushing away, the bench welcomes all. While the sculpture calls us to hospitality, the bench actively offers it.

When I first moved to Toronto, I started a job working at a homeless youth centre. A few of us were invited to be ‘homeless for a weekend’, an experience that was offered by the organization to new staff who wished to participate. For me, the most powerful revelation during the experience was learned at about 6 am one morning, alone, after a night of walking. I had slept a total of about one hour on damp grass. My stomach was full but uneasy… all I had eaten were the free end-of-day doughnuts that a Coffee Time clerk had offered my co-worker and me with a look of pity at 3am. I remember being so tired and sore, but also very tense and alert at the same time. I looked across the street and spotted the back of an empty park bench. It was a beacon of light to me; like a luscious water hole in the middle of a barren desert. Sweet, wonderful bench, you are a gift from God! I thought. The only thing I could think of was getting to it and resting my weary bones. But when I reached it, I realized something about the bench that quickly deflated the little hope I had left of getting sleep. And then, I went a little crazy.

‘NOOOOOO!!!!’ I had lost myself in the moment, and literally screamed so the few people in the park could hear me quite clearly. I fell to my knees in defeat.

The park bench had ARM RESTS. But not just on the ends, there were two, evenly spaced, right in the middle. At any other moment in my life, I would have thought this was just a lovely little bench with character, featuring additional convenient arm rests for multiple people to sit and enjoy. But in that moment, I had a dark realization that these arm rests were placed strategically, likely for the sole purpose of preventing the homeless from laying down comfortably on them. Sounds paranoid? Defeatist? Delusional? I would argue that it was actually a moment of obscene clarity. 

And in that moment, I hated the world. I hated the city for ordering these benches, to ensure they were comfortable but not too comfortable for the wrong people. I even hated the manufacturer that created them. The bench was sending me a message loud and clear: I was not welcomed here. The bench had won, and left me hopeless and discouraged, with nothing else to do than to continue on my tired way. 

Luckily, my hatred towards this bench and everyone involved in its creation slowly died after I got some sleep. And now, I see park benches to act as my own personal covenant. For Noah, it was a rainbow. For me, God promises with the sign of a park bench that I am being loyal to my calling when I pursue working towards justice and demonstrating love to my neighbour--especially to the poor--in my midst.

Yes, all that from a park bench!

I believe we are all born with our own gifts, our own areas of interest and expertise, and our own unique personalities. We are not all called to do the same thing with our lives, in fact, that would be quite boring! I believe we are called to bring light into the worlds we find ourselves in. One example that comes to mind is of an introverted biology student that volunteered with us several years ago. After getting to know some people outside of his own circle within our space, he learned that many people in this city are not getting access to enough healthy food. And at school, he was realizing that many students were not using their entire meal plans they purchased, and letting them go to waste. Putting two and two together, he organized a group that now organizes sending thousands of bagged lunches to local drop-in programs, all sourced from students donating the extra money they had on their meal cards. About 200 students participate in bagging the lunches each year, and hundreds of students donate to the program on a monthly basis. Our program is still receiving the fruits of his labour from many years ago. All from an undergraduate biology student, who allowed himself to see through different lenses within his everyday world.

We must be careful to not let ourselves get so deep into our own worlds, responsibilities, and roles that we miss the point entirely. If our words and our actions don’t ultimately meet with humanity, they are useless. But when they collide, when we have the poorest in mind in our work, in our infrastructures, in our words and in our studies, we are moving towards hope and participating in justice.

Perhaps our first step to connecting with the poor amongst us is simply to pray for eyes that see things differently. Sometimes all it takes to create life-giving change starts with allowing seemingly simple realizations to stir within us deeply. We will begin to notice things beyond ourselves, and to allow ourselves to feel a little uncomfortable. Who knows, something as simple as a park bench might awaken in us nothing less than the Holy Spirit. 

Angie Hocking is the Outreach Coordinator of the Drop-In Meal Program at Church of the Redeemer in downtown Toronto, which focuses on creating space for healthy community within the homeless and marginalized local population. If you live in the area and are looking for a way to connect with a drop-in community, or simply want to experience making some new friends outside of your everyday sphere, please get in touch with Angie at hockinga@theredeemer.ca. There is room for all at our table!

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Rhetoric, The Other, and Boycotting Ender’s Game

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“For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination... is not the cause of truth, but its condition...”
— C. S. Lewis, Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare

by Stefan Knibbe

[Warning! There will be spoilers!]


It seems that the recent film Ender’s Game (featuring such big names as Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley) has become the target of a boycott (Skip Ender's Game). The reason is that the author of the novel (Orson Scott Card) on which the film is based has been an outspoken opponent of gay marriage.

Both his views and the boycott are, in my opinion, unfortunate, as they distract from the work itself which does not come anywhere near the topics of gay marriage or heteronormativity (Ender's Game has no romantic elements and features a mostly pre-pubescent cast). Even though I do not share Card's views, I am, in general, uncomfortable with the idea of reducing the worthiness of artistic works to the particular views of their creator/creators, especially if the piece does not seem to be propagating those views. With Card in particular, I am convinced he is a master of literary rhetoric, and has used his talent to say some powerful things about otherness and our ability as people to overcome seemingly insurmountable differences, even if we think he does not live up to those ideals in his personal life.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Economic Justice and... family reunions?

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What is economics? For some, it’s the theoretical monster in the closet--that unknown and unknowable thing lurking in the shadows, waiting to jump out and grab us with its apparently incomprehensible mess of numbers, trade relationships, and impersonal structures. But economics does not have to be seen like this. If we look at its etymology, we see that it is rooted in the idea of the household (Greek oikos). Economics is meant to describe the study of how we should best manage our resources, share our labour, shape our relations, and care for the land we live from. At its best, and normatively speaking, economics should be about how together we can best order our work and our lives to ensure the continued flourishing of creation.

This way of looking at economics is different to what one might run across while reading the Wall Street Journal, or having conversations on Bay street in downtown Toronto (though I’m sure there are people on those streets who do have those concerns); yet it is not a new understanding, and that explains the increased interest in questions of economic justice for those working for justice today. If economic considerations are some of the most influential shapers of our current world, then it stands to reason that if we are looking for ways to address injustices in that world, we have to look at least in part at our economic structures.

That is why the ICS’s Centre for Philosophy, Religion and Social Ethics is partnering with King’s University College in Edmonton to hold a conference on economic justice. Entitled Are We There Yet? Economic Justice and the Common Good, the conference will take place May 12-13, 2014, and we hope it will afford participants the chance to comprehensively explore many complex and interrelated questions of economic justice. Because this is an area that touches us all, best if we all tackle it together!

A link to the conference’s call for participation and website can be found here. We encourage you all to read the Call and think about submitting a proposal! But we don’t have to wait until Spring in order to start the conversation right here on this blog. In particular, dear reader, we would like you to answer two questions. The first has to do with the conference’s (somewhat ironic) title: “Are we there yet?” Meant to conjure up images of kids in the backseat on family trips asking impatiently how much longer this is going to take, our title tries to imply at the same time that even though the trip is long and we’re not there yet, we’re in this together, and the journey is worth the work of getting there. Economic justice is a journey, a process, and its one we have to take as a human (and indeed creaturely) family. What does this title make you think of?

Which leads to the second set of questions. The image of kids asking are we there yet conjures up more images of things like family reunions, and that gets at the subtitle of the conference: economic justice and the common good. Most of us have, at one point or another in our life, been at “that” family reunion--the one where you may really love some of the people there, but some of the rest of them either drive you crazy, or represent real problems that can’t just be explained away or ethically ignored. You are still part of that family, but how can you interact with each other well when there are members that get under your skin like nothing else, and when, perhaps, you suspect that there are serious problems--abuse, or alcoholism, or unacknowledged and untreated health issues that people don’t want to face? There’s a desire, from at least some members, to pull together as a family, but how does one do so in a way that is just and supports those who need it? How do you work together to shape good living and relating that is common to all?

The family that constitutes humanity and creation stands in just such a position, I would say. Within the family that makes up our world, while there are good relations and people working together as healthy parts of the ecological web, there is also abuse both of an individual and a structural sort. The global ‘household’ is not “run” in such a way that allows for the flourishing of all that comprises creation. We engage in ecological practices that damage creation (including ourselves). We continue patterns of behaviour or trade that we now know are exploitative. We are sometimes complacent, thinking that our systems and our theories are too set in stone, too big to change (or to fail) and so we don’t push ourselves to think and act creatively to address the problems we know are there. They have become so much a part of our economic “landscape” that we are nearly blind to them. We need to develop economic theories and practices that encourage an acknowledgement of our responsibility to work in ways that allow for whole-world flourishing, and we hope that this conference is one way of coming together do just that. It is our hope too that you will join in our discussions as we pursue this goal!
 
Allyson Carr is the Associate Director of the Centre for Philosophy Religion and Social Ethics at the Institute for Christian Studies.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Scholarship in the Information Age: An Interview with Isabella Guthrie-McNaughton

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On Monday, the Institute for Christian Studies officially launched an Institutional Repository. Currently, it contains hundreds of items from published articles to theses and dissertations to newsletter archives to unique hidden gems of past scholarship, spanning from the 1960’s to 2013. Though it already contains a substantial selection of scholarship, the Institutional Repository will continue growing to house hundreds more publications.

It is not easy work. To be made available for open access, copyright law requires permission from both the author and the original publisher. Once the permission is obtained, the publication is then scanned and formatted for ease of online access and settled into its digital home where it can be preserved long after the hard copy’s pages turn to dust. Building the repository is painstaking work, but it yields fruitful and exciting results for the accessibility of important scholarly work. Not only that, it also digitally preserves fragile pages of the typewritten past.

To shed light on the importance of this endeavor and the implications of open access on academic publishing and the future of scholarship, we interviewed ICS’s librarian Isabella Guthrie-McNaughton, who is the driving force and mastermind behind ICS’s Institutional Repository.

Ground Motive: Why is it important for scholarly publishing to move towards open access?


Isabella Guthrie-McNaughton: In many cases scholarly articles are published in journals that follow traditional publishing modes. The business models of these journals are usually subscription based so that the reader either subscribes to the journal by purchasing a set number of issues or volumes or accesses the journal through a licensed vendor through a library system. In many cases individuals are left without being able to access the journal article. In Canada, making research funded by one of the Tri-Councils (NSERC, SSHRC or CIHR) publicly available through open access is becoming one of the requirements to receiving a successful grant. However, I think one of the most important points about moving to open access is that publications will be accessible to anyone world wide who has access to the internet. Open access maximizes the reach of faculty and student research.

GM: Are there weaknesses in the current models of open access publishing?


IGM: One of the problems with the current model of publishing through open access is that in many cases the author pays the publisher in order to have his or her article published. At the moment scholarly publishing has been caught up in a variety of business models promoting both traditional means of publishing and open access models (Gold or Green). Until recently it seemed that publishers were not interested in open access. As more scholars in the science and medicine fields began to opt to publish through various open access models, traditional publishers began to see the need to offer open access publishing platforms. However, they are in many cases applying a traditional business model to the open access system by transferring the traditional subscription based monies to monies obtained from the authors wanting to publish through open access. 

GM: How will increased open access change the future of publishing? How many journals and institutions are moving toward an open access model?

IGM: I think that open access has already changed the future of publishing. As I noted in the first question, the publishing industry has been scrambling to catch up to the model of open access by trying to apply traditional business models. Open access isn't only affecting the economic aspects of publishing though. In Europe, where repositories are being set up to receive author pre-prints, a vetting system has also been put into place mirroring the peer-review process. Open access seems to be changing many facets of scholarly publishing. Many universities have implemented institutional repositories. Currently according to OpenDOAR there are more than 2,400 repositories world-wide. Not all repositories have been registered. The repositories hold digitized pre-prints or post-prints of faculty and student publications. In the case of open access journals, many traditionally published journals have moved to open access. Some have moved to Gold Open Access - meaning that rather than charge for a subscription, the publisher relies on grants, advertising, sponsorships and in some cases the author pays to be published in that particular journal. In Green Open Access the author puts his or her article into a repository in the pre-print or post-print version. Currently the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) indicates that there are 9919 open access journals, comprising 1,517,309 articles from 122 countries. The number of open access journals published is steadily growing.
 
Isabella Guthrie-McNaughton is the Director of Library Services at the Institute for Christian Studies and is currently focusing her research on information literacy, institutional repositories, open access for scholarly publishing, and new frameworks for resource discovery and delivery.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Building a World Where Knowledge is Free

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The last full week of October this year is much more than your last chance to plan out your ghoulish garb, load up on sweets to appease the trick-or-treating masses, and carve another creepy pumpkin for
the front lawn. Amid the terrific/terrifying traditions that mark the end of October, it seems that Open Access Week has become one that is here to stay. So maybe this year instead of candy, you might consider handing out open access academic papers to the costumed kids who ring your doorbell.

In response to the concern that academic publishing has been largely only available to active students and scholars and those who can fork out the cash for subscription fees, the first National Day of Action for Open Access was held on February 15 of 2007. In 2008, Open Access Day went global and was, due to its success and the interest it generated, expanded from a day to a week in 2009. Finally, having established itself as an important initiative for the future of scholarship and publishing, Open Access Week announced in 2010 that in the future, it would be held annually on the last full week of October. Now each year across the globe, countless institutions hold events to educate academic communities and the public about the contributions open access publishing can make to the future of innovation and scholarship.

This new open access approach to research has the potential to remove obstacles that inhibit the movement of creativity in scholarly work and to change the way we think about academic publishing. “‘Open Access’ – the free, immediate, online access to the results of scholarly research, and the right to use and re-use those results as you need,” explains Open Access Week’s ‘About’ page, “has the power to transform the way research and scientific inquiry are conducted.”

All this is not to say, however, that simply introducing open access is the answer that cures all ills in the academic world nor that it will come about easily. Isabella Guthrie-McNaughton, librarian here at the Institute for Christian Studies, notes that though many publishers offer open access options for publishing, “they are in many cases applying a traditional business model to the open access system by transferring the traditional subscription based monies to monies obtained from the authors wanting to publish through open access.” This means that even open access publishing is cash-driven, which places limits on who can afford the steep fee involved in submitting an article for publication. While some organizations and institutions have begun to provide funding in answer to this constraint, it remains problematic to open access initiatives that much of academic publishing maintains itself as a money-fueled industry.

Here in Toronto, Open Access Week is in full swing. The University of Toronto held a series of panels and talks from Monday to Wednesday to raise awareness on the changing world of academic publishing. Continuing through the week, Ryerson University will be hosting student-oriented sessions (a workshop, a seminar, and a documentary film) that aim to educate students about the benefits of open access.

Even more exciting for us at the Institute for Christian Studies, Open Access Week marks the launch of our open access Institutional Repository, which allows (with permission from the author and the publisher) free access to archived faculty publications, published student papers, Master’s theses, and PhD dissertations. This is an important moment in the history of ICS because it makes the original and visionary work available to the public, to scholars and even to the casual Google search, allowing the unique voice of ICS to be shared with the world in a way that was not previously possible (see this issue of Perspective for details on this project).
Open Access Week is a chance for students and scholars to pause and to ponder how our work has the potential to shape the world. It is easy to get lost in the “game” of academia and forget that there might just be a world outside that can benefit from academic research. It seems that the push for open access is the Occupy Wall Street of academic publishing. Open Access initiatives aim to take published research out of the elitist grip of the research-wealthy individuals and institutions and freely redistribute it.

This week is a healthy reminder for those of us in academia that our scholarly work has the potential to do more than just augment a CV. If we really believe that our scholarly pursuits matter to more than just a small slice of the academic world, open access is the best way to make our voices heard. With its potential to empower the next generation of researchers with more resources and easily accessible information, Open Access Week might just be the start of a new era of boundless innovation, invention, and creativity in academic publishing. 
 
Matthew E. Johnson is a Junior Member at the Institute for Christian studies, focusing his philosophical studies on aesthetics, hermeneutics, and discourse.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

When I Think of Things That Make You Feel That Way

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by Dean Dettloff

The hip hop duo Blackalicious is comprised of lyricist Gift of Gab and DJ Chief Xcel. Over the years the two have experimented with the hip hop genre in risky and innovative ways. Through the course of their career, they have managed to internally reconfigure the hip hop genre. Chief Xcel’s classic beats present a kind of honoring of the hip hop tradition, while leaving his own distinctive mark, and Gift of Gab creatively appropriates a number of styles leading to explorations of Sufism, indictments of materialism and sexism, and fearless political claims.

Their song “Make You Feel That Way” is one such example of this internal reconfiguration, and it manages to deconstruct the culture of greed and scarcity found in North America in a way that is neither cynical nor abrasive. In fact, it is precisely because the song strikes a posture of radical positivity and gratitude that its medium performs its message. The song is an indirect therapy, with Blackalicious gently inviting us into an alternative life which, they show, we have already experienced every now and then. Through the use of average, everyday experiences that each of us has in our lives, we are invited to cultivate a particular disposition to life itself.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Hermeneutic Circle

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"It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts."
                  — Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia”

Having inspired an astounding 254 adaptations over the last hundred years or so, Sherlock Holmes received a Guinness World Record in May 2012 for being the most portrayed literary human character in film and TV (beaten only by Dracula, who fell into a different category on account of his not quite being human). The wildly popular British series Sherlock that began in 2010 starring the now-beloved Benedict Cumberbatch along with American adaptation Elementary featuring Lucy Liu as Joan Watson and of course Robert Downey Jr.’s slightly more steampunk Sherlock in the 2009 and 2011 films are the latest chapters in the history of Sherlock Holmes adaptations. And it's probably fair to say that a solid proportion of the shows you will find on prime time television these days are roughly adaptations of Sherlock Holmes’ murder mystery/brilliant detective format. These new adaptations continue to be fresh and compelling, filled with potential for character exploration and adventure, at least for those of us who aren’t disillusioned with the murder mystery genre by now.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Letting It Get To You: Why Philosophy is a Dead End

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Letting it get to you. You know what that’s called? Being alive. Best thing there is. Being alive right now is all that counts.
— The Doctor, Doctor Who Series 6, Episode 4 “The Doctor’s Wife”

Now I can’t claim to have come near to understanding Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ultimate solution (or dissolution) to philosophy in his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. But it seems relatively clear that the takeaway message from the Tractatus is that philosophy doesn’t get you anywhere except to the place where you realize that philosophy has gotten you nowhere.


Wittgenstein’s preface to Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus lets us in on a profound secret, one which we should probably know before we start our graduate studies in philosophy (too late!). Once we solve all the problems in philosophy (as he has, apparently), we’ll come to realize “how little is achieved when these problems are solved” (4). In fact, once we are able to decipher the ultimately definitive truth behind Wittgenstein’s words, we will, according to him, come to realize that all of his words were just clever claptrap. “Anyone who understands me,” intimates Wittgenstein, “eventually recognizes [my propositions] as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb beyond them” (89). So according to Wittgenstein, the Tractatus is not meant to be only instructive. It is meant to help the muddled thinker get beyond nonsensical quandaries—it is philosophical therapy.

In his book Orthodoxy, Catholic theologian, novelist, and master of the one-liner G. K. Chesterton is similarly concerned with the limitations of philosophy. Madness, Chesterton suggests, is not a breakdown of someone’s ability to think straight. It’s just the opposite: “The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason” (24). The thing is, you can have a complete, self-enclosed explanation of the world that makes perfect sense, rationally speaking, but you might still be dead wrong. If you think you’re the rightful King of England, so Chesterton argues, the existing authorities will probably deny it and call you crazy. But isn’t that exactly what the authorities would do if you were the rightful King of England, just to protect their own authority? Everything in your life suddenly makes deadly sense, and everywhere you turn, you find confirmation that you are the rightful King of England, and the whole world is upside down and against you. How deep does this conspiracy go?! And so it is, says Chesterton, that the madman “is in a clean and well-lit prison of one idea: he is sharpened to one painful point” (27).

For Chesterton, this is something that affects more than just the “madman.” Taking careful aim at the materialist philosophy of his day to make an example out of them, Chesterton, in his characteristic rhetorical style says this: “The materialist is sure that history has been simply and solely a chain of causation, just as the [madman] is quite sure that he is simply and solely a chicken. Materialists and madmen never have doubts” (29). If we start to think that we’ve got a handle on how the universe works, leave it to Chesterton to remind us that maybe our complete rational explanation of the universe may not be as complete as we think it is. For Chesterton, it’s not a matter of how precise and complete an explanation is; it’s about how large it is (24). Once we realize the limitations of our narrow explanations and open ourselves to the possibility that the universe is large and mysterious, life takes on a new and surprising clarity (33).

I can’t help but wonder if something like this is precisely what Wittgenstein had in mind when he wrote the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. If we can get past the hope that philosophy will solve all our deepest questions, perhaps we can get on with our lives. Trust me, cautions Wittgenstein, I’ve found the limits of philosophy, and it’s not as great as you think it is.

Wittgenstein divulges the secret to understanding the Tractatus in a letter to potential publisher of the book Ludwig von Ficker: “[M]y work consists of two parts: of the one which is here, and of everything which I have not written” (“Letters to Ludwig von Ficker” 94-95). The second part, according to Wittgenstein, is about ethics, and it’s the reader’s job to fill it out by living life in response to the conclusions of the first part. If we can climb up beyond all the meaningless problems of philosophy using the first part, we’ll be able to live life, ethically awake and more alive. The first part of the Tractatus being an enigmatic collection of logical proofs and definitions, it’s difficult to see how this provides a springboard into living out an ethical life. But I’d like to think that Wittgenstein is up to something brilliant.

Maybe if, through Wittgenseinian philosophical therapy, we’re finally able to peel back all the layers of muddled thought, we’ll be able to let life get to us, to be really alive right now. If we can let go of the temptation to try to distill the universe into simple propositions and be okay with a little mystery, maybe life will break through. And if we can let it get to us, maybe we’ve already started “writing” the first page of the second part of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Matthew E. Johnson is a junior member at the Institute for Christian Studies, focusing his philosophical studies on aesthetics, hermeneutics, and discourse.

Photo credits: First photo by gfpeck. Second photo used via http://www.publicdomaintreasurehunter.com/2010/10/15/how-is-my-twisted-public-domain-idea-working/

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Re-entering History Through the Gospel: An Interview with Tyler Wigg-Stevenson on Christianity and Activism, Part II

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Interview by Matt Johnson

Ground Motive: I gather from your book and from talking to you that you consider the Gospel to be more than just a list of five things you can put in a tract. It has to include pursuing peace and justice. So first of all what is the Gospel to you, and secondly, what is our responsibility as Christians with regard to it? 

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson: Well, here's the tension: You want to be able to give an answer and then you also want to be able to say it's bigger than that. I would default to the Pauline language of the Gospel in terms of the good news, the things of first importance: that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah of Israel, that he died for our sins, that he was buried, he was raised on the third day, that he appeared to the apostles and to the many. 

Then within that one declaration of a historical event, it blossoms like a flower, and there are thousands upon thousands of petals that come out of that. So part of my trouble is that I don't want to limit it to one thing. Is it the forgiveness of sins? Yes, it's that. Is it reconciliation with God? Yes. Is it reconciliation with a neighbour? Yes. Does it redefine your disposition toward creation? Yes. If you re-enter history and your own life through this truth then everything is transformed, and you will spend a lifetime unpacking what it means and coming to understand what it means. 

GM: It seems problematic to me when we as Christians enter into situations with the mindset that if we can communicate these five truths that will save your soul if you believe them, we’ve done our part, and our hands are clean. On the other hand, I don’t think the answer is to leave the content of the Gospel out of our activism entirely. So how do we keep the Gospel intact in our activism without cheapening it, and how we do we avoid emphasizing the action of justice or pursuing peace over the actual truth of the Gospel? 

TWS: I wonder how much that dichotomy between the Gospel and activism perpetuates a problem. I find problematic the idea that the Gospel is separate and distinct from the activity it generates, or that the activity it generates is not grounded in a sense of what has been done for us in Christ. 

So to what extent is the situation you describe (that the Gospel is just these five truths that you have to believe before breakfast and then your soul is safe) smuggling in a problematic way of thinking about the Gospel? How much does an understanding of the Gospel as only cognitive assent ride remora-like on the critique of forms of Christian activism that purportedly fail to keep the Gospel intact? Does that critique still smuggle in a vision of the Gospel that interprets our commitment to its message solely as a kind of cognitive assent? 

I struggle to answer this question because I don't know if there's a technique that’s capable of giving us an answer to this problem. 

I started the Two Futures Project (which was the anti-nuclear organization I started primarily to reach evangelicals in the United States who weren't known for being associated with “ban the bomb” type activity) because all the religious and anti-nuclear vocabulary I heard would have caused an allergic reaction in the evangelical Christians I knew. It just wasn't speaking to their core principles. And so I wanted to articulate an indigenous case, one that was in the native tongue of evangelicals so that anti-nuclearism wasn't a foreign construct but was something that could be indigenously generated. 

In order to do that, we made a choice very consciously at the beginning of the effort that we were going to be upfront about Christian identity. Now, we did that because I thought it was necessary that evangelicals be able to feel evangelically anti-nuclear. In a certain way I feel like we accomplished that, and now what I'm asking people to do is to go be Christians in situations that are indifferent to religious claims, but to do so with their own integrity, putting their shoulder to the same wheel as people who might have different final commitments than they do. 

So are they now able to bring the Gospel into their activity? I hope so. But there were different stages of development. You see, at one point you might have alternated your sentences: anti-nuclear, Gospel, anti-nuclear, Gospel (what we would identity as Gospel, the central Gospel story). Now maybe we’re able to do activism differently, but maybe that slides too far, and then maybe we need a correction at the end. 

But if you re-enter your own life and history through this central claim of the Gospel that Jesus died for our sins and was raised, if you re-enter everything through that claim then you can ask the same question of every aspect of our privatised, modern world. Part and parcel of modernity is social differentiation. So there is the economic sphere, the political sphere, the social sector, religion. There are these differentiated spheres of expertise, and the idea is that each functions according to an autonomous logic. Well, a Christian has to approach this differentiated reality by saying all of these spheres are contained within the truth claims embedded within this Gospel claim. So you can equally ask the questions: How do we approach our politics without leaving the Gospel behind? How do we approach our economics without leaving the Gospel behind? There's nothing fundamentally or categorically different about those questions than the question of how we approach our activism without leaving the Gospel behind. 

If there is an answer to this question, I tend to think that it's grounded in a commitment to a local congregation and the liturgical expression of that congregation, whether or not it's a "liturgical congregation." Every congregation is liturgical, it's just we have different liturgies, we have different orders. Because that's where we go to remember that time and space and are remade by the claim of the Gospel, and we hope that once a week is frequent enough to reorient our lives. 

So I would say the truest answer to the question of how do we do activism without leaving the Gospel behind is that we do that which is simply and fundamentally Christian, which is to be full members in the body of Christ, and then the rest falls into place. That's not to say that Christian activism doesn't require its own intention, but that the intention is probably context-specific, and I couldn't give a general answer to it. So what I would say is a matter of first priority is this: are you living a life where you are part of a congregation of the faithful and are you doing so faithfully? 

If you're doing this, you’ve at least taken a step in the right direction, and from within that space you can start to answer the question for whatever that means for you. 

GM: As a final question, for those interested in the Two Futures Project, how can they get involved? 

TWS: The Two Futures Project, at this point, represents a locus of concern for Christian commitment vis-à-vis nuclear security and ethics, specifically related to weapons, not power. So for people who are gripped by that concern, I hope that the website (when we get it back up – it’s down for maintenance) can be a resource for thinking through those two things in conjunction with each other. But my main suggestion right now, if anybody asks, my answer to them is please go find a place of activity and occupy it faithfully as a Christian whether or not the overall umbrella has any confessional content to it at all, because there are good efforts right now that are underway and we need faithful Christians in there in the exact same way that we need faithful Christians in the so-called autonomous spheres of politics and economics and anything else.

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson is the founder and director of the Two Futures Project and currently serves as the Chair of the Global Task Force on Nuclear Weapons, an initiative of the World Evangelical Alliance. He is the author of Brand Jesus: Christianity in a Consumerist Age and The World is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good and is currently pursuing a ThD from Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Don't Be a Hero: An Interview with Tyler Wigg-Stevenson on Christianity and Activism, Part I

2 comments:
Interview by Matt Johnson

http://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivpress/book.pl/code=3657
Ground Motive: I very much enjoyed your book on Christianity and activism called The World is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good that came out in February of this year. I'd love to hear a little bit about what inspired it and what you were hoping to communicate with it.

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson: As I say in the first chapter, I've made something of a career in Christian anti-nuclear activism and nuclear policy. Advocacy and theology are the only two things I've done in my adult life, sometimes at the same time. Over the period starting about 2007, continuing through the present, I was doing this more than full time. The book came out of the exposure to that activity, that activism.

In the course of that activism I was exposed to the broader world of Christian activism, which in my opinion has blossomed, or exploded, depending on what your take on it is, over the past ten years. I’ve developed what I hope is a loving but critical attitude toward the Christian disposition and activism that I saw frequently and saw brimming up in myself.

And so to an extent, the book is an exercise in self-criticism, grounded in my own experience of the spiritual and practical pitfalls that I think dot the Christian activist landscape today. It's an attempt to name those pitfalls and to pose an alternative way of living faith in public.

GM: I was intrigued by what you say in your book about “hero activism” and the problems with it. Why is it a problem to go into activism thinking that you're a hero and that you can fix things?

TWS: This is the lead-off critique in the book, and it's one of those aspects of the world of Christian activism that I think once you see it, it's hard not to see it everywhere. You get subcultures that have their own celebrity names, and they're all over the place. So if you're talking about the conference circuit for example, the calendar's dotted with conference upon conference upon conference. These celebrity names that go on posters with the head shots are intended to draw people in, so presumably there's an audience for this. They are presented as heroic figures. One has to ask, what does this messaging communicate to this audience?

This is certainly not limited to the Christian universe. Every subculture has its kind of defining celebrities, its important voices. But I think from a theological perspective that demands a certain critical attitude toward what's going on here.

GM: Shouldn’t we look up to people who do great things and aspire to be like them? What’s wrong with wanting to be a hero?

TWS: One of the things we have to take a hard look at is the extent to which the hero trope requires the enemy and the extent to which that enemy defines the hero. That's part of a heroic story, where the narrative arc involves the hero confronting the dragon, the beast, the other or the opposite, and triumphing over it. But I don’t see that anywhere playing out in any sort of standard version of Christian discipleship. Christian discipleship is one of overcoming, but the overcoming is inward-focused.

In fact, the Biblical command is to “resist not evil” [Matthew 5:39]. It is not one of taking on the world and defeating it, at least as an individual. Rather, any defeat, any conquest is a participation in Christ’s conquest rather than ours, and what is overcome is that within us that resists participating in Him, which is the whole of Ephesians 6. That's the point. Yes, there is a battle, but it's not against the kingdoms of this world that are going to oppose us.

So the Christian life doesn't sync up with the standard heroic trope because to a certain extent the standard heroic trope requires the enemy, and maybe even celebrates the enemy. What is the Batman without the Joker? What is Spiderman without Doc Oc? You've got these characters that have their opponents, like Superman/Lex Luthor. They come in dyads. But I think the Christian vision is something different; we shouldn’t celebrate sin that much. The Christian vision is something else. It's imagining a world without conflict.

So that's not to dismiss hero stories. I think they can and do serve a really important function and can teach us quite a bit, but we should be a little bit critical about them.

The other concern I raise in the book is the way in which a heroic mindset, wanting to be a character of heroic proportions, really doesn't work with reading the Bible in terms of spiritual education. Christians reading the Bible will identify with protagonists. But if you take the gospel message seriously when you read the Bible, you are reading the most important story that will ever be told, and there is a limited number of highly important characters, of highly significant people.

So in terms of all the people who have ever lived, if you're named and you're important in the Bible, you're one of the more significant lives that has ever been lived. And yet we readily align ourselves with one of these important characters as if our mortal coil was at all comparable in historical significance to one of these figures in the salvation history, which is just ludicrous. Most of us, as far as the Bible goes, are the crowds; we're the masses, we're the faceless plural. But still we act like there are leadership lessons that we can derive from a David or a Solomon or Moses. We identify with these characters, and we do so in an entirely uncomplicated way.

To bring this all back to Christian activism, if you look at the kinds of cultural endeavours that are put forward by some very visible Christian activist projects, what is often offered is the chance to be a hero vis-à-vis the social problem. My response to that is not that we should not engage that social problem, but I think that this way of setting up the hero as a mode of engagement is a troublesome doorway.

GM: Do you have any practical advice for people who feel paralyzed by the enormity of the world's problems and don't even know how to even think about activism? How do you start getting involved?

TWS: I would say that you question whether the first step is “involvement.”

This is the activist appeal: problem A needs your involvement, and you are Variable B that will lead to Solution C. That's activist math. I've become allergic to activist rhetoric, especially the idea of “involvement” or “making a difference!” The things we're asked to make a difference in!

And “changing the world”! Really, for the life of me, I cannot understand why we're so obsessed with changing the world, and what most people think that means, as if we don't change the world by living in it. Of course we do. We transgress against the world; what we call “the world” is itself a matrix of interpersonal transgression, so what do we think we're doing by daily drawing breath?

But it seems to me that when people talk about changing the world what they mean is “changing the conditions of existence,” and that's a fundamentally problematic place to start because it buys into a whole set of presuppositions about the possibilities embedded in social engineering, which I think are highly troublesome and highly arguable and debatable.

So my short answer is, to those who feel paralyzed, I hope they read my book (if I may!) because they're the people I wrote it for. I think that embedded in the “how do I get involved?” question is nothing less than “why am I alive, and how am I to relate to the world's pain?” It also ought to be noted that that question often starts from a place of privilege because most people throughout time and space do not get to ask of their own lives, “How can my life change the overall pain level of the world?”

So a place to start is to recognize that place of privilege, to examine how it is that we can even ask “what is the best way for me to change the world?” and to consider why I encounter my inability to change the conditions of the world as existentially paralyzing. So I'd say, question the vocabulary, ask a question about asking the question.

Then I think it's important to be able to take in the comprehensive promise of the Kingdom of God and our absolute smallness in relationship to bringing the Kingdom about, recognizing our absolute incapacity to understand the way in which we are efficacious toward bringing the Kingdom about and then deciding to live faithfully according to what you can know. And I think the matter of living faithfully is largely determined by relationships.

Now, I would love a critic of the book to say, “Well, that leaves people where they are, then.” It would be reasonable for someone to say to the book in a critical way, “If you just leave people where they are, then they might help the people with whom they have relationships, but you don't do anything to undermine the overall social structure.” I think that's legitimate, and I think there's probably some place to go with that criticism.

Nonetheless, I still think that taking a much more humble approach to ourselves vis-à-vis the course of history, and then to ask, “What does life look like when I have a more accurate understanding of how big I am vis-à-vis the Kingdom of God?” is a good place to start.

It's like when you look at the Mercator Projection and you think that Greenland is really, really big. But it is not as big as it looks, not nearly as big as Australia. Christians have a Mercator Projection of their own where they're Greenland and the world is the Kingdom of God, and if they looked at a globe instead, if they had an accurate portrayal of the thing, they would recognize their own smallness.

I can give you one concrete suggestion: I walked the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route through Northern Spain, with my wife last year in June. For the month I didn't read a newspaper, I didn't have cell phone access, and we only had an email address specifically for the trip that we gave to our families in case of emergency. So other than that, I was totally disconnected. As far as everyone outside of our immediate families was concerned, it was as if we had been hit by a bus. As far as “the world” went, we ceased to exist meaningfully for a month. And everything went just fine. None of us knows when we're going to die and that simple fact should help us realize how utterly unessential we are to the running of the world.

GM: I suppose coming to terms with this humility is probably one of the reasons why the academy has become so important to you, so you can step back and ask “what are we doing, and why are we doing it?” rather than blundering forward in an attempt to change the world. Would you say that this kind of thoughtful reflection is one of the important things Christian scholarship needs to be involved in?

TWS: Yes, although academics can represent its own sort of taking account and giving the grand theory that then becomes a different sphere of mastery. I think you could say that one of my fundamental critiques of the activist culture is that it represents a sphere of attempted mastery in a way that's entirely inappropriate to the human condition and the problems which we face. I think that concerted human action can bring about extraordinary good, but it can also bring about extraordinary evil.

The biggest things that happen aren't engineered, let alone targeted. They are the product of forces that are well beyond our capacity to guide. So I'm leery of activism or of academics thinking, “Well, I know what's going on now and so X, Y and Z.” As I go on, I hope it's in the direction of maturity. I don't know. But the more I dive in, the more convinced I am that we have only the barest understanding of causality and really no idea about the extended effects of most of what we do, and I have very little faith in the directedness of grand plans.

So my interest in academics represents a capacity to interrogate faithfully the questions that I think are interesting and significant, and ones that I think the interrogation of which represents a faithful use of what's been given to me and the time that's been given to me. As to how my work is used or to what great effect it has, I have no grand ambitions. This is for me a time of giving up grand ambitions.

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson is the founder and director of the Two Futures Project and currently serves as the Chair of the Global Task Force on Nuclear Weapons, an initiative of the World Evangelical Alliance. He is the author of Brand Jesus: Christianity in a Consumerist Age and The World is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good and is currently pursuing a ThD from Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto.