Friday, December 19, 2014

The Pregnancy of Conversion

by Caleb Ratzlaff

Recently on Ground Motive, I discussed the decentred nature of identity, attributing the decenteredness to the fact that decision-making-selves are different from, yet dependant on determinate actions. In a similar spirit, this post focuses on the liminal moment of decision and the tension that provides its (non)foundation.

Since reading St. Augustine's Confessions in undergrad, I’ve struggled to understand conversion. What happens in the moment of repentance, for example? How is any decision made at all, for that matter?

Although most activities involve little decision making—my fingers flow quite unintentionally across the keyboard—decisions do at the very least seem to occur. We observe them most clearly when our routine is rudely interrupted, when for example, a slow moving elderly women impedes one’s commute. Moments of confrontation call us to account for our otherwise habitual actions, requiring a decision—do we stop to help carry her luggage or jump to the other side of the stairs?

Jacques Derrida argues that every decision must pass through a crucible of the undecidable. By this he means that although a responsible decision should be a well-considered one, action never waits for reflection. At the moment of confrontation, when the elderly woman queues ahead of us, the question “what should I do?” is already a response and an action taken. The immediacy of action leaves no time to reflect. One is responsible even before she wants to be. As a result, decisions always occur in a moment of ignorance, in non-decision. No amount of time or reflective resources would solve this dilemma—the problem is inherent in the phenomenon itself. As Derrida citing Kierkegaard writes, “The instant of decision is a madness.”1

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Justice after a History of Violence? What to do when the Body of Christ Wages War with Itself

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If Christ were here there is one thing he would not be—a Christian.
― Mark Twain, Notebook

Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.
― Pope John Paul II

By Allyson Carr

Recently, we shared the interim results of the Justice and Faith research project with a group of “stakeholders”—people who are part of the Christian Reformed Church community and know it well, people who will be able to take the research results and use them in the work they do. For the first half of the meeting, the research team painstakingly went over the data we had collected and the analysis we had done. We showed the four definitions of justice that the data appeared to uncover, explained the various ways that people thought about the relation of justice and faith, and went over in some detail what had been identified as barriers and enablers to doing justice, with a few recommendations for potential next steps. Then we opened the floor to questions.

The very first question put to us wasn’t about our careful data collection, nor was it directly related to any of our recommendations for next steps. Instead the speaker basically said, “this is great, but what do people think about all the violence the church itself has done? All of the harm we have caused from positions of power? Has anyone addressed the question of how we can talk about justice at all given our history of complicity in injustice?”

I admit to being momentarily struck dumb.

You see, I have been vexed by similar questions, yet I have learned that even to ask them is to invite one of two opposed, yet equally antagonistic, responses: a defensive response that says that the contemporary Church cannot be held accountable either for the sins of a remote past or for the overzealous actions of a few people today, or a more critical response that says an institution that has been instrumental in the torture and oppression of so many people for so many years is incapable of doing justice. Both of these positions are, I believe, non-starters, and neither takes into account a good deal of history and present-day action. And yet both raise objections that are worth considering in order to address the question our stakeholder raised.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Decentered Self

by Caleb Ratzlaff

Ethan Vanderleek, a fellow junior member at ICS, contributes to the upcoming edition of Perspective an excellent article titled, “Some Truths about Christian Prayer.” Quoting Merold Westphal, Ethan writes, “Prayer is the posture of a decentered self.” I confess to knowing very little about prayer, for this reason I’ll focus my discussion on the second half of this quote—the nature of a decentered self.

Allegory of Repentance,
Cornelis van Haarlem, 1616
To illustrate what one might mean by a “decentered self,” let’s follow Derrida by examining the nature of a confession: “I confess.” When an unrepentant criminal confesses, for example, identity changes, the “I” becomes a repentant “I.” But there is a problem here. Given these two separate identities, how are we to decide which one actually makes the confession? Is it the repentant or unrepentant “I?”

A closer look at the moment the unrepentant self repents reveals something very strange. An unrepentant criminal by definition does not confess. Who then authorizes or initiates the confession? If there has been no confession, then the repentant criminal does not exist, at least not as such, and therefore cannot initiate the confession. So the confessing “I” is neither the unrepentant criminal nor the repentant criminal. Derrida claims that a fabulous gap resides in this liminal moment of responsibility in which both identities are inexplicably present and absent. Whenever we assume responsibility, whenever we act, make a decision, or confess, we enter into this space, our past and future selves are simultaneously present and absent.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Talking Good About Breaking Bad: Reflections on Death, Sin, and Walter White’s Uneasy Redemption

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This post is part of our "popular mythology" series, investigating the intersections of religion and popular culture.

By Shane Cudney

I did it for me.  I liked it.  I was good at it.  And I was really … alive.    – Walter White

It’s not much of a stretch, if at all, to suggest that Breaking Bad can be fruitfully seen as a meditation on death, sin, and the possibility of redemption.  In fact, Vince Gilligan, the series creator, has talked quite explicitly about this and connected theological themes in his many interviews since the finale.  But keep in mind this is not your father’s theology.  It’s more like an evacuated, burnt out shell of a theology commandeered for dark and obscure purposes.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Love and Justice: Opposites or Otherwise?

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By Dean Dettloff

Paul Ricoeur
In an essay simply entitled “Love and Justice,” Paul Ricoeur attempts to articulate how these two concepts relate. To sort this out, Ricoeur turns to the method of dialectics, by which he means “on the one hand, the acknowledgment of the initial disproportionality between our two terms and, on the other hand, the search for practical mediations between them—mediations, let us quickly say, that are always fragile and provisory” (315). In other words, Ricoeur notes that love and justice are not the same thing, and are even located at opposite ends of a spectrum, yet there are ways of seeing how and when they intertwine and cooperate. When these two intersect, they always do so temporarily, for they are still fundamentally different. It’s an impressive attempt to deal with two central ideas in Western thought. Is dialectics, however, the best relationship we can come up with?
Let’s begin by rehearsing what Ricoeur has to say about love. Love, he contends, has three main aspects: praise, commandment, and feeling. These three aspects constitute a “discourse” of love, a web and way of thinking and being. Illustrating these aspects leads Ricoeur to consider their appearance in various biblical texts, especially the Psalms and Paul’s hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13. In all these aspects, love is based on a particular relationship—one praises this or that, one commands someone or is commanded, one feels something about something. Love takes place in intimate spaces.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Darren Aronofsky's Obsession: From Pi (1998) to Noah (2014)

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This post is part of our "popular mythology" series, investigating the intersections of religion and popular culture.

By Shane Cudney

I’ve been a fan of Darren Aronofsky since the release of his debut (feature) film, Pi, in 1998.  I was so struck by its stark minimalism, black and white photography, frenetic pacing, and provocative content – not to mention the edgy soundtrack – that I’ve gone back many times since then to drink from its waters.  To this day it remains in my top 5 films of all time.

Recently, I saw Noah (2014), Aronofsky’s latest film, and while it’s not his best effort, it made me think about his more humble beginnings and how those early sensibilities are woven throughout his work.  Interestingly, by identifying those main threads and tracing them forward, we get a strong sense of what makes Aronofsky tick.  If it’s true that he is mostly concerned with human obsession and the Promethean penchants that drive it, perhaps filmmaking is how he works out his own obsessions, and how he achieves catharsis.  Whatever the case, it’s not stretching to suggest that Pi lays the foundation and sets the stage for everything that follows.

In that film, Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) is the central character and focal point of the story.  Max is a mathematics and technology genius, holed up in his small Chinatown apartment, obsessed with finding the underlying numerical pattern he believes the global stock market rests on.  His particular brilliance, along with his insecurities and growing paranoia, are fuelled by the conviction that everything in the universe can be, indeed, must be, reduced to purely mathematical terms.  Given the necessary intellectual exertion and the right key, Max is convinced it’s only a matter of time until the tumblers align and he unlocks the secret.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Disability Theology: When Miracles are Part of the Problem: A Guest Post by Charis St. Pierre

We may wonder why God who had the power to raise the body of Jesus from the dead did not exercise the power to perfectly heal the body, but that is not the point. The continued visibility of the wounds was necessary in order to establish the identity of the person . . . . The body of Christ is raised with imperishable scars, glorious scars, and in a state of wounded power”

Ten years ago a fellow Capernwray student laid hands on my husband Josh and prayed for God to heal his stutter. The young man insisted he’d had a great deal of luck in the past, a near perfect track-record of banishing illness and disability in the name of the Lord. So Josh sat quietly with the man’s hands on his forehead, nervously awaiting the moment when the prayer would end, eyes would open, and he would have to speak.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Facing Hard Times with Humor: In Defense of Holiness in a Technological Age

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Reflections on Bob Goudzwaard, Part II

Dean Dettloff

After what was a vitalizing encounter with Bob Goudzwaard, a fixture of Reformational thought at ICS, we had the opportunity to hear Goudzwaard again, this time at convocation. Receiving his honorary doctorate, he took the opportunity to reflect on the history of ICS. The fundamental observation of the Institute, said Goudzwaard, was that neutrality is impossible. As we hear in Deutoronomy, there stands before us the choice between good and evil—and we are called to choose good. This decision is the axiomatic foundation for philosophy at ICS; not ontology, not metaphysics, not even philosophy, but a decision. For this reason, the initials “ICS” might just a well stand for “In Christ’s Service,” said Goudzwaard. He recalled that Bernard Zylstra, an early ICS Senior Member, was among the first to see the connections between imperialism and apartheid in South Africa (Zylstra was also the last to interview Steve Biko before his death in prison). In a context where Reformed Christians were largely the oppressors, Zylstra’s stance, motivated by his philosophy, was radical. Goudzwaard also named his friends Jim Olthuis, Henk Hart, and Cal Seerveld, who were in attendance, as innovators at work in service of the Lord Jesus. At their mention, I watched as these three nudged one another, smiled, and grasped for a fleeting moment the energy of their past experience.

Goudzwaard was not, however, receiving an honorary doctorate because of his ability to drum up a useful nostalgia. His address turned to the cultural climate, donning the rhetoric of a seasoned cultural and critical theorist. We are entering a world of extremes, he noted. Such a world is all the more dangerous given the rapid development of new technologies. While technologies bring with them incredible opportunities for advancement and human flourishing (Goudzwaard is no Luddite), they also hold the potential for the yet unimaginable catastrophe. Society has no unified vision to decide how to utilize and develop these technologies. Who will decide on their use? Money? Arrogance? Benevolence?

With the rise of polarized culture, ICS has a unique place—it must offer, in Goudzwaard’s words, an academic defense of holiness. We have lost the idea of healthy restraints, given up in favor of collective illusions. “Holiness” seems passé, cliché, at best a vestigial term from a bygone era of so-called righteous Christendom. Modern autonomy and postmodern resignation have won the day; we now face, in the words of Baudrillard, the will not of persons or powers but of the objects themselves. We have left the dialectics of meaning. We inherit a nebulous space devoid of purpose. The decision called for in Deuteronomy, so necessary in a technological and ambivalent age, is paralyzed by an endless string of qualifiers.

But Goudzwaard does not leave us in the void! To combat this pervasive nihilism, we require a living faith and a living God who overcomes resignation—a God who tells us to choose life or death. Alluding to Ephesians, Goudzwaard said ICS must become the helmet of hope. It must uphold respect for the truth, that most unpopular and unfashionable of girdles. The Word of God, its sword, must become its offensive weapon against mechanization and the airy nothing of contemporary society. This stays true to the history of ICS, which has a reputation for fighting on all fronts, both culturally and ecclesially, to the point of publishing a magazine called Vanguard. Aware of and sympathetic to those theorists who rend their theoretical clothes, the thinkers of ICS have sat in sackcloth; yet they also hear God in the whirlwind, and they begin again.

As he concluded, Goudzwaard offered one criticism of Paul’s military uniform. Paul, he said, sadly did not include humor among the armor and weapons he listed in Ephesians. Perhaps it was because he persecuted others and his heavy past invoked a stark seriousness. But humor is very strong; it disarms enemies, catches people off-guard. Communists and fascists, he said, have no humor. The Jewish people, however, have humor—and ICS has always had humor. As it proceeds, ICS must be a humorous place, allowing laughter to ring subversively through its halls. Ending with a joke, Goudzwaard left it to us, current Senior and Junior Members, faculty, staff, and supporters, to choose: life or death.

The opportunity to hear from this Reformational giant was among the many ICS experiences I will not forget. When the weekend was over, it was clear why Goudzwaard received this honor at ICS, and we left invigorated with the possibility that ICS might be the helmet of hope, with a good dose of humor, in a society in desperate need of truth, justice, and peace.

Dean Dettloff is a Junior Member at the Institute for Christian Studies, pursuing an MA Philosophy, and is the author of the blog Re(-)petitions.

First image used from; second image used from

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

When the West has Lost its Way: A Reformational Take on Free-Market Capitalism

Reflections on Bob Goudzwaard, Part I

Dean Dettloff

On May 10th, at convocation, the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS) granted an honorary doctorate to Dutch economist and longtime friend of the Institute Bob Goudzwaard. Dr. Goudzwaard was kind enough to make time to speak with ICS students informally the day before. I thought I might share some of the highlights of our discussion, culling together some observations from my notes.

Dr. Goudzwaard slowly paced his way into our humble ICS classroom with a smile. With a significant and charming Dutch accent, he told the few of us gathered there that he was glad to be in Toronto with his wife, Elaine Botha. Over coffee and cookies, we shot the breeze about his recent move to South Africa and waited for students to trickle in. Soon enough, the conversation switched gears from pleasantries to philosophy, opened by Junior Member Josh Harris’s question about an exchange he was reading between Dr. Goudzwaard and American economist Michael Novak. Novak, a Catholic thinker, came to prominence discussing the relationship between Catholicism and free-market capitalism. Given Goudzwaard’s primary career as an explicator of Reformational philosophy and its criticisms of capitalism, the exchange was inevitable.

Goudzwaard began, in typical Reformational fashion, by rehearsing the need for a dynamic, multi-dimensional view of reality. In contrast to what he called a mechanistic worldview, he suggests speaking about society with organic, living metaphors. There is a biblical precedent, of course, as Goudzwaard reminded us of Paul’s decision to describe the Church as a body; organic relations between persons, he said, should have priority over mechanistic ones. He proceeded to note the positive contributions of Catholic social teaching in economics and politics, something Goudzwaard is particularly acquainted with given his experience in Dutch Parliament and the recent political cooperation between Catholics and Calvinists in Holland. Practically, he told us, Catholics and Calvinists often agree. Catholic labor movements focus on the family, which leads them to see the worker as part of a family—the worker is situated in a complex social matrix, and Catholics attempt to see the worker as imbued with human dignity. Reformational thinking finds significant points of contact here, given its commitment to seeing reality as multi-modal.

The two differ, however, ecclesiastically and ontologically. Catholicism, explained Goudzwaard, requires the Church to sanctify life; there is a hierarchical relationship at work. Reformational thinking, however, is a bit more horizontal. For Reformational thinkers, all of life is holy and sanctified. Humans are always responsive—with a glow of Calvinist mysticism (if there is such a thing), the world itself, he said, “is an expectation of an answer.” Reformational thinking, like Catholicism, wants to see the worker as participating in a variety of social and ontological relationships, but it prefers to conceive of things in terms of the well-being of the whole, of which the church is a part. In other words, the authority of the Church is dislodged in order to account for the organic, interrelated modes of all of reality and society. This calls to mind the “sphere sovereignty” of Abraham Kuyper, a founder of Reformational thinking, who argues that the spheres of reality each have a legitimate function and role to play, yet they are not to impinge upon other spheres. Governmentally, this means, according to Goudzwaard, there is room for a “need-based” intervention, but no more, thus the state has a legitimate role to play in social affairs but should not over-reach its sphere. Government must answer to the call and norm of justice, using its power not to do whatever it wishes but to act with reference to particular mandates.

This led us back to the particular problem of Novak and free-market capitalism. (Novak’s own stance does not entail many of the labor-oriented ideas of Catholicism noted above, preferring entrepreneurial freedom.) Goudzwaard brought up an example of a popular phrase from Margaret Thatcher, abbreviated to “TINA”—“There Is No Alternative.” In response to this acronym, he recalled some of his students came up with another, “TATA”—“There Are Thousands of Alternatives.” Conversation naturally came to consider the problem of economic and political pluralism. Each culture, said Goudzwaard, deserves its own economy, referring specifically to Japanese culture as an example. There, we find alternative values and relationships which should be expressed in their particularity, rather than reduced to the dominant models of value in the West.

But what, we asked, should the West be concerned with? Goudzwaard says we must ask the question: “What is enough?” This question came to his attention with the work of American author John Perkins. Individuals, Goudzwaard says, should face this hard question and decide according to their lives and needs. The question should be hard, however, and situated not within the context of economic “growth” but economic health. He provided the metaphor of a tree. A tree grows, but it is wise enough not to grow to the heavens and burden the earth. Instead, the tree gets tall enough—and then, it branches out and grows in fertility. A common misconception today is that growth is a good in itself, yet Goudzwaard wishes to contextualize growth with reference to other, more important and lasting issues.

Our conversation turned to more pervasive cultural problems. Goudzwaard brought up the example of Jean Baudrillard, a postmodern social theorist, whose notion of “strategy fatale” proved to be a useful way of articulating the contemporary climate. It is no longer the case that human agency determines the matrix of meaning, but we are subject to the will of the objects we encounter in daily life. Spanning theorists like Arendt, Foucault, Adorno, Marx, and Nietzsche, Goudzwaard weaved together a narrative of cultural nihilism. We have lost “our way.” The West needs a renewed “way orientation,” something different from a “goal orientation.” Today, the West has many “half-ideologies,” Goudzwaard noted, alerting us specifically to the religious language at work in popular politics. Campaigns that use the language of salvation are particularly troubling, assuming something like growth will “save us.” Be careful making applause for economic growth, he said, because before you know it, it will be commanding you; this is the power of a goal orientation. Peace, he concluded, is never a goal but a way.

Dean Dettloff is a Junior Member at the Institute for Christian Studies, pursuing an MA Philosophy, and is the author of the blog Re(-)petitions.

First image used from; second image by bfshadow, used from

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Robocop Takes on Philosophy of Mind

by Matthew E. Johnson

Alex Murphy had no idea that tracking down some dirty cops in his department would turn him into a cyborg. After a car bomb and some 2028 AD technological wizardry, Alex Murphy wakes up as the first half man, half robot, all awesome crime fighting machine: Robocop. Now more machine than human, what has Alex Murphy become? Does he have free will, or is he nothing more than a computer program in the body of a cyborg?

Set to be released on DVD and Blu-ray today (June 3), the 2014 reboot of the classic science fiction film Robocop (1987), has received some fairly poor reviews. A lot of reviewers seemed to think it was a watered down remake of the original. Others thought it was okay for a sci-fi/action movie but was nothing special.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

It’s (Not) All About the Cake

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This is the first in a series of posts on the recent Are We There Yet?: Economic Justice and the Common Good Conference, which took place in Edmonton on May 12-13.
by Allyson Carr

Have you ever been to a county or school fair and participated in a cake walk? It's a bit like musical chairs, only it's pay-to-play, there's no sitting, and the last person standing gets a cake instead of a grab bag. But it's a winner-take all game that is focused entirely on the promise that there will be cake[1]—a promise that doesn’t come through for most of the players. There isn't even usually a prize for second place, so if you really want that carrot cake and you didn't get lucky this time, you'll have to either plunk down more money on the proverbial table, or go home empty handed. If any of the losers can’t afford to play again, and want to get a piece of the cake, they have to rely on the generosity of the winner, who might be willing to share some. In a cake walk, win or lose, it’s all about the cake.

In many ways, our current global economy reminds me a bit of a cake walk. There are many more losers than there are winners. People play on the promise that they will get the “cake,” when only a very small percentage of the players actually manage to do so. Because you have to pay to really play--or to put it another way, because it takes money to make money--the more resources you are willing to throw onto the table, the more likely you are to win, because you can just keep trying. Those who do win get their cake and can eat it too (carrots and all). While it’s considered generous for “winners” to share, there is no real social or legal mandate to do so. And, increasingly, there are a lot of people going away hungry.

This kind of cake-walk approach to the global economy is unsustainable, and no matter how many charitable and sincerely generous cake-winners there are out there sharing their wealth with people who are cut out of the game, it will not be enough. It is not a system founded on justice, and where justice (in a rich, robust sense) is not a founding mandate in any system, injustice is not only bound to happen, but is bound to happen systematically. One person’s carrot cake is another hundred, or even thousand, peoples’ stick. What can be done to change this?

Just a short while ago, the ICS' research centre, the Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics, co-hosted a conference on economic justice with the King’s University College in Edmonton. The conference looked at many different sides of economic justice, with panels on the oilsands resource extraction, business, aboriginal rights and land use, climate change, poverty, urban food security, law, and others. It tried to avoid the aforementioned cakewalk mentality, and instead worked on the founding belief that the economy (and wealth) deals with more than money: the economy is about the whole, about knowing how to work with and care for all the things around us that make living possible. In the words of one of our keynote speakers, economist Bob Goudzwaard:
So often the word ‘economic’ is trivialized into a matter of money or the distribution of money. The problem of economic justice then boils down to the question of how much money should be reserved for provisions for the poor. What poverty lurks behind this view of poverty! For in the Biblical context the word economy, oikonomia, is always related to the mandate of stewardship, which means the responsible governance of all goods and resources of the earth, including vulnerable eco-systems. Then all people can sustain their lives in such a way that nature can survive and future generations can live with dignity.  
We can hear in this formulation of the word “economy” an acceptable description of the common good. For it deepens the idea of justice. Economic justice is not just about pursuing more provisions for the poorest people. It also deals with the needs of future generations and demands continuous care for vulnerable ecosystems and the preservation of threatened species. There is no economic justice in a country or a region where these interests are systematically neglected.
What does it take to let economic justice flow like the river Amos speaks of? On Goudzwaard’s account, it takes a continual pursuit of the common good--where the common good is understood to include not only all humans, but all creation. This requires a fundamental shift in how we understand the economy and our actions within it, but it is a shift that more and more people are making. As his talk amply demonstrated, we are not there yet, but that doesn’t mean we should give up. Just the opposite.

In the coming months, we will continue to populate the conference website with more resources for people to draw on in our collective pursuit of economic justice, including videos and notes from the conference itself, as well as other resources. If you have any suggestions about resources to include, please send them our way! In the meantime, may we grow in our ability to understand and actively pursue the common good of all.

Allyson Carr is the Associate Director of the Centre for Philosophy Religion and Social Ethics at the Institute for Christian Studies.

[1] Yes, that is a Portal reference for you gaming geeks out there

First image by jeffreyw, used from Second image used from

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Fantastic Philosophy or Gaggles of Geese? Highlights from Winter 2014

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“So in the end, when one is doing philosophy, one gets to the point where one would just like to emit an inarticulate sound.”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §261.
Another semester comes to a close, and I’m starting to wonder if the honking I heard the other day was really geese making their way north now that spring has finally come or if it was the collective “inarticulate sound” of philosophy students nearing the end of their semester. Maybe a bit of both?

Nevertheless, 2014 has been full of novel ideas and brilliant insights at the Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics, and we haven’t even gotten to the best part yet. On May 12 and 13, the CPRSE will be hosting a conference in Edmonton, Alberta on economic justice called Are We There Yet? Economic Justice and the Common Good. Make sure to take a look through the line-up on the website—it’s sure to be an excellent and thought-provoking conference.

As we move into summer mode, where professors scramble together lesson plans and solidify syllabi and second year MA students painstakingly piece together theses (trying not to panic) and others get to take vacations, we should take a second to remember the best of Winter 2014 on Ground Motive.

In light of the recent release of Dr. Nicholas Ansell’s new book The Annihilation of Hell, Ground Motive sits down to chat with Dr. Ansell about the publication, discussing some of the most fascinating and compelling aspects of the work. Due to the buzz that the book generated and the quality of Dr. Ansell’s scholarly work, this interview scored the most views of any post so far this year.

Most CommentsCelebrating Limitation
Dr. Shannon Hoff graced Ground Motive with an eloquent reflection on Hegel and how freedom and creativity can flow out of limitation. The article was a pleasure to read--rich and engaging--and inspired a series of comments from readers who were serious about interacting with Dr. Hoff's piece and about exploring its implications and connections with other ideas.

Best Discussion Starter - On Being Against “Being Against Metaphysics”: A Case of Peter Hacker
In this piece, PhD candidate Joshua Harris from the Institute for Christian Studies targets philosopher Peter Hacker, cautioning against the increasingly popular tendency to move away from metaphysics. Harris suggests that metaphysics is the meat and potatoes of philosophy, a claim that started a cascade of substantive responses and a lively discussion.

Most Innovative Post - Evolution or Emergence? Freedom and Paradox on a Saturated Beach
Throughout his contributions to Ground Motive, Joseph Kirby has consistently proven his knack for combining creative thinking with rigorous philosophy. This post navigates between science and religion, offering some reflections on the limits of what science and religion can tell us about who we are.

Best Three-Part Literature Review for the “Justice and Faith” project -
  1. The Quest for Salvation and Our Social Engagement: Are they Reconcilable?
  2. Whose Reformed Tradition? Which Kuyper?
  3. A Replacement Hermeneutic & An Individualist Soteriology
As you may know, the CPRSE has partnered with the Centre for Community Based Research and the Christian Reformed Church of Canada to examine the connections between personal and public faith and conceptions of justice. The collaboration has resulted in a literature review outlining three areas where these themes meet:

Best ICS Alumnus Post - A Multiplying Fruitfulness: Meaning and/or Nihilism in Procreation
Drew Van’t Land, recent graduate from ICS’s MA program, writes on how family values can slip into looking a lot like nihilism or biological reductionism. He puts forward a new way of thinking about what it means to be fruitful and to multiply life.

Post about the Most Ridiculous Controversy - Explosions in the Twitterverse: Coca-Cola and the Canonization of “America the Beautiful”
This article analyzes the hidden sentiments about music and community identity that motivated the weird controversy over the Coca-Cola commercial during the Super Bowl and what they might mean for our ability to connect with others through music and in general.

Best Metaphor - Being in Three Places at One Time: Economic Justice from the Riverbanks and the Middle of the Stream
Reflecting on the ways in which we’re all implicated in systems of injustice, Associate Director of the CPRSE Allyson Carr suggests that all of us are simultaneously pushing people into the river, trying to save ourselves from drowning in the river, and trying to pull others out. We can’t approach problems of social injustice from outside—we’re always already deeply involved in systems of injustice in multiple ways.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to Ground Motive this semester, and we hope Ground Motive’s articles have made you wonder and ponder as much as they have for us at the CPRSE.

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Replacement Hermeneutic & An Individualist Soteriology: Parts I & II

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Justice and Faith: Surveying the Lay of the Land 

The Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics, the Centre for Community Based Research, and the Christian Reformed Church of Canada, are currently partnering in an exciting research project entitled, “Justice and Faith: Individual Spirituality and Social Responsibility in the Christian Reformed Church of Canada.” This article is a contribution to the project's literature review, a collective document where researchers compile findings from recent scholarship, trace emerging themes, and highlight points of dialogue between different authors. Through the review of academic and popular sources, the research team has already shed light on issues that are defining trends. This is the third of three articles (see the first and second) written by three graduate research assistants working on the project, which contains some preliminary reflections on the literature reviewed to date.

by Isaiah Boronka

In the Literature Review two biblical/theological themes surfaced in an attempt to explain the bifurcation of faith and justice, especially in contemporary North American evangelicalism. These two themes are:
  1. An individualist soteriology 
  2. A replacement hermeneutic for the Old Testament 
The first theme, an individualist soteriology, suggests a view of salvation where the focus is on the individual and their relationship (often construed as legal - condemned or acquitted) with God. Here Jesus dies and rises again to save individuals as individuals from the consequences of sin. This kind of soteriology makes all sorts of social issues - stretching from church community, neighbourhood, civil society or the international community - not only secondary but incidental or even accidental.

It could be pictured like this:

In this view human community and the relationships therein are not intrinsic or essential to the gospel. Because of this, concerns about social justice, even when taken seriously, are always then treated as less important or as a peripheral issue precisely because of the way we think about the nature of the gospel.

The second theme, a replacement hermeneutic for the Old Testament, concerns how the relationship between Old and New Testaments is talked about. This hermeneutic suggests that the New Testament’s ‘Spiritual Message’ (salvation from slavery to sin, by grace apart from works) replaces the Old Testament’s ‘Social Message’ (salvation from actual slavery, exodus from egypt, jubilee and sabbath year, prophets).

It could be pictured like this:

Thus a replacement hermeneutic furthers a bifurcation between faith and justice by suggesting that the New Testament message of salvation is opposed to and replaces the Old Testament concerns for social justice (which are central to its presentation of YHWH as saviour and deliverer).

By its very structure the replacement hermeneutic also furthers an individualist soteriology, for, when a social message is exchanged for a spiritual message, then individual salvation replaces social salvation. This kind of connection may not be spelled out systematically or in detail but it is implied.

Replacing Replacement: A Different Hermeneutic for A Different Soteriology

Christopher Wright, in his book The Mission of God, deals extensively with this replacement hermeneutic. The exodus is key to his discussion. That event was “actual deliverance out of real, earthy injustice, oppression and violence” (Wright, pg. 276). Unfortunately Christians often play loose with this reality and instead use the story typologically - Israel’s freedom from actual slavery foreshadows our freedom from spiritual slavery, as if this exhausted its meaning.

We need to affirm what this foreshadowing affirms - the importance of freedom from sin offered through Christ. Yet we must omit what it omits when it disregards “the actual deliverance out of real, earthy injustice, oppression and violence.”

Wright powerfully negates this use of typology. He argues “it is not that the New Testament exchanges a social message for a spiritual one but that it extends the Old Testament teaching to the deepest understanding of and the most radical and final answer to the spiritual dimension of our human predicament” (pg. 279). This freedom from the slavery to sin becomes the root of freedom from actual slavery, and spiritual wholeness becomes the foundation for social wholeness.

This does not mean that social wholeness and social liberation are only incidental, by no means. They are still integral but integral in an odd and peculiar way, one not easily grasped by imaginations dominated by the binary opposition between the spiritual and the social, between faith and justice. We are so used to thinking of these things as separate, as different, that it might be difficult to hold social and spiritual concerns together.

Wright quotes Walter Brueggemann, who urges against choosing one side over the other, especially in our interpretation of the Bible: “Either side of such dualism distorts true human bondage and misreads Israel’s text” (pg 288). Thus human beings are oppressed - both by each other, unjust structures, and by sin and death.

This extension hermeneutic could also reframe an individualist soteriology that contributes to the bifurcation of faith and justice. If social concerns are recovered alongside a recovery of the Old Testament, so too a social dimension of the gospel can be recovered. All this could be pictured this way:

This understanding of salvation, based in part on a new appreciation for the Old Testament, only begins to answer questions. Despite this new integration, questions remain concerning how to frame this extension hermeneutic in a more theologically robust way, and how, realistically, to put it into practice.

Isaiah Boronka is doing an internship at the Centre for Community Based Research in Kitchener. He is a graduate of Emmanuel Bible College, lives in Waterloo, and is completing a Masters of Theological Studies at Conrad Grebel, University of Waterloo.

Friday, April 11, 2014

On the Question of Whether Evangelical Christianity is Worth Defending: Defend, Critique, Reform, or Jump Ship?

The last few weeks have been tumultuous and painful for many evangelical Christians. As you have probably heard, World Vision announced in March that they would change their policy to allow for the hiring of those in same-sex marriages. But after a shocking 2,000 evangelical supporters withdrew their child sponsorships, totaling a loss of about $800,000 that had supported children living in poverty across the globe, World Vision took back the policy change two days later. What’s most disturbing about this sequence of events is that the children whose supporters ditched World Vision after the original announcement were caught in the middle and used as leverage in a protest.

The events of last month left many feeling embarrassed of evangelical Christianity (or at least its loudest voices), and there is now, more than ever, talk of jumping ship. Some feel that we need “new wineskins”—we need to abandon evangelicalism and re-imagine the Christian faith. Evangelical blogger Rachel Held Evans, who is a long time defender of evangelicalism and critic of it (but always from the inside), writes of her disappointment and a loss of faith in evangelicalism. In a heartbreaking response to the World Vision controversy, she considers leaving, raising the question of whether or not evangelicalism is worth defending anymore. It seems that this was something of a last straw for Rachel Held Evans, and she plans to take a break from her blog and consider what might be the best way forward for evangelical Christianity.

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about why “millenials” (i.e. twenty-somethings) have been leaving organized religion. Some blame it on the LGBTQ issue specifically, pointing to events like what happened at World Vision as the cause of a loss of faith in evangelicalism. Others feel that the more general problem is that millenials are tired of people telling them how to live their lives. I think there might be something to both of these, but perhaps what’s underneath all this is a growing distrust in certain types of institutional authority. When all that’s holding an institution together is doctrinal agreement, any strong disagreement can make it brittle at best.

Alongside the issue of why millenials are leaving the church, some are raising the question of why millenials are attracted to liturgical traditions. Many young evangelicals who have grown disillusioned with evangelical Christianity have gravitated toward Anglican or Catholic traditions, longing for liturgy and a kind of robustness in authority structure that evangelical Christianity tends to lack. Some evangelicals turn to the deeply historical Eastern Orthodox tradition, longing for a historical continuity that can seem thin in evangelical Christianity.

One of the core issues at stake here concerns what ought to be the basis for Christian unity. Is it doctrine? Structural authority? Tradition?

But the question that haunts us today and has haunted Christianity since the first century church, through the East-West Schism of 1054, and on through church splits and the events of last month boils down to this: (how) can there be unity at all when disagreements run so deep? 

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

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

The World Map Turns Out to Be Wrong, Heidegger’s Nazism, and the Selfie Becomes the “Sealfie”

1 comment:
Links for April 9, 2014

For a break from your end of semester studying, writing, and stressing, here is a guide to some interesting happenings over the last couple of weeks in the world wide web world.

Here’s something that will (literally) turn your world upside down. Every map of the world you’ve ever seen is a distorted representation of what the earth (and especially Africa) is actually like. After hearing that the maps I use grow out of our cultural biases more than out of the pursuit of accurate cartography, I realized that even if there was ever a global flood it doesn’t matter because I don’t even know what the earth looks like anymore. So I decided to pass up seeing the Noah movie and went to the new Captain America one instead. It was an excellent choice.

Nevertheless, Noah sparked a good deal of controversy among Christians who felt that it misrepresentated the biblical narrative. Biblical scholar Peter Enns isn’t worried because he thinks that (1) nobody ever gets the story right anyway and (2) the Gospel isn’t at stake.

Before going to drown your sorrows about the Noah movie by buying an authentic Stradivarius violin from 1719 for $45 million, just be aware that a new study shows that original Strads are actually not better than new violins.

Speaking of big letdowns, after the March publication of Martin Heidegger’s “black notebooks,” there is no longer any question about his anti-Semitism. In the wake of this publication, Jewish philosopher Elliott R. Wolfson reflects on the undeniable and ongoing importance of Heidegger’s thought for Jewish philosophy. For a taste of what Heidegger actually said in his so-called “black notebooks,” preliminary translations of excerpts are featured on Counter-Currents Publishing’s blog.

If you’re in the mood for some solid debate, make sure to check out three views on how to talk about God by John Caputo, Louise Antony, and Alvin Plantinga. Also, this recently posted email dialogue between ICS Junior Member Dean Dettloff and Matthew David Segall is a fascinating study of creation, the problem of evil, and cosmology. If that’s not enough philosophical exchange for you, take a look at this video of a panel with John Searle, Hilary Lawson, and Michael Potter on the linguistic turn. Or if you just want a primer in the philosophy of Alan Badiou here the first in a series of ten articles that will crack open the political aspects of his thought.

Even though you’ve now been primed on some serious philosophy and theology and have found all the answers, hold off stamping your “seal” of approval on Ellen Degeneres’ campaign to stop seal hunting in Canada. Consider this interview with the group of Inuit women who instituted the “sealfie”, where they speak up about the importance of seal hunting for their culture and survival in northern Canada.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Whose Reformed Tradition? Which Kuyper?

Justice and Faith: Surveying the Lay of the Land 

The Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics, the Centre for Community Based Research, and the Christian Reformed Church of Canada, are currently partnering in an exciting research project entitled, “Justice and Faith: Individual Spirituality and Social Responsibility in the Christian Reformed Church of Canada.” This article is a contribution to the project's literature review, a collective document where researchers compile findings from recent scholarship, trace emerging themes, and highlight points of dialogue between different authors. Through the review of academic and popular sources, the research team has already shed light on issues that are defining trends. This is the second of three articles (see the first here) written by three graduate research assistants working on the project, which contains some preliminary reflections on the literature reviewed to date.

by Joshua Harris 

One of the clear advantages of understanding problems of social justice from a position of faith is the relative solidarity that comes with a common recognition of certain intellectual figures and traditions as, in some sense, authoritative. Aristotle warned us long ago that politics “is not an exact science,” so simple “scientific” appeals to non-personal authorities such as conclusions reached from deductive reasoning or empirical facts cannot by themselves settle debates about complicated questions such as “What is the role of the State in issues of social justice?” For this reason, among many others, Christians do well to consult the intellectual figures that have helped shape the faith tradition to which they belong. If we are products of our forefathers and mothers, then contemporary Christian leaders have a responsibility to interpret them with faithful, critical rigor. 

When it comes to questions about the integration of social justice and faith in the Reformed tradition in particular, few names mean as much as the Dutch social philosopher and theologian Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper, who inaugurated the energetic theological movement known as “neo-Calvinism,” also founded the Free University of Amsterdam and was even Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901-1905. These accomplishments and others give remarkable credence to perhaps his most famous theological commitment: namely, the oft-quoted line, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” Kuyper’s legacy offers more than a few practical and theoretical resources for contemporary issues surrounding the relationship between social justice and faith. It should come as no surprise, then, that answers beginning with “Kuyper said/thought/taught…” tend to demand more attention than others. 

Along with the blessings that come with inheriting the imagination of such powerful figures, however, come some inevitable curses—at least one of which includes prickly disagreements about what Kuyper did, in fact, say/think/teach. Indeed, our humble Justice and Faith research team is identifying these kinds of disagreements as a primary theme arising from the many ways in which Christian Reformed congregations understand the relationship between social justice and faith. Tradition matters, but it is not univocal. 

Perhaps the most consistent interpretive disagreement in this context among Reformed intellectuals is the aforementioned question about the role of the State in matters of social justice. For Kuyper, does the State have a positive role in enacting justice in our communities? Or, by contrast, is the great Dutch theologian a champion of a limited State that preserves justice in our communities by refusing, when at all possible, to act coercively? 

Among some of the most prominent advocates of the latter interpretation of Kuyper are researchers associated with the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Hunter Baker, Jordan Ballor and Catholic conservative Michael Novak draw attention to passages like the following from Kuyper’s The Problem of Poverty (quotes courtesy of the Acton blog): 
Socialists constantly invoke Christ in support of their utopias, and continually hold before us important texts from the Holy Word. Indeed, socialists have so strongly felt the bond between social distress and the Christian religion that they have not hesitated to present Christ himself as the great prophet of socialism.[1] 
The socialists so flatly reverse [this] when they preach it: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matt. 6:33). For both rich and poor, Jesus’ teaching simultaneously cuts to the root of sin in our human heart.[2]  
The holy art of ‘giving for Jesus’ sake’ ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians. Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior.[3] 
In these cases, Kuyper does indeed seem to be concerned with what he perceives to be a dangerous conflation between Christ’s salvific power and the State’s power to distribute resources created in the economic sphere of society according to the needs of those who are less fortunate. These strong words warn Reformed Christians that bloated welfare programs—even if they are born out of good intentions—are symptomatic of an overreach of the State’s power. These sentiments seem to square rather nicely with a “classical liberal” understanding of the role of the State in regards to social justice matters: namely, that private individuals and institutions of voluntary cooperation are primarily responsible for addressing such issues—not the centralized concentration of coercive power that constitutes the State. 

Despite these clear proclamations, however, many other contemporary interpreters of Kuyper seem to have at least comparable grounds for reading him as a strong proponent of a State with an active role in addressing issues of social justice. Influential Reformed intellectuals such as Nicholas Wolterstorff, James K.A. Smith, Richard Mouw and Bob Goudzwaard tend to draw attention to alternative passages in Kuyper’s impressive oeuvre (quoted from an article in Markets and Morality by Goudzwaard): 
In earlier days a law on labor should not have been possible, because … every relationship (of labor) with other social groupings did not exist in a way which is relevant for public justice.… But since then the situation in Europe has changed to such a high extent, that one may ask with very good reason (alleszins met recht): Why deny any longer to labor its own rights and legal forms of life, which are demanded by the very character of its nature?[4]  
The root principle of the French Revolution is its God-provoking cry “neither God nor master”—the ideal of humanity emancipated from God and his established order. From this principle extend two lines, not just one. The first is the [liberal] line along which you move in making up your mind to break down the established order of things, leaving nothing but the individual with his own free will and imaginary supremacy. Alongside this runs another line, at the end of which you are tempted not only to push aside God and his order, but also, now deifying yourself, to sit on God’s throne, as the prophet said, and to create a new order of things out of your own brain. The last is what social democracy wants to create.[5] 
Here, Kuyper urges his readers to consider the changing climate of Europe—one that has forgotten the contingency of the individual not only in her immediate society, but also before God himself. While still not an advocate of a large, impersonal State apparatus, Kuyper is equally critical of liberal individualism. Thus, according to this alternative reading, the kind of classical liberal society championed by the Acton Institute is not at all what Kuyper advocates. Indeed, actively ensuring “public justice” is the primary task entrusted to the State. 

While these kinds of interpretive disagreements can be frustrating for those who fall on either side of such debates, what projects like Justice and Faith can offer is a renewed perspective on the importance of rigorous, sustained dialogue about the tradition of which Christian Reformed congregations are a part. At least one side is wrong, and it is important to work towards understanding the reasons why.

[1] Abraham Kuyper, The Problem of Poverty (Sioux City, IA: Dordt College Press, 2011), 27.
[2] Ibid., 39-40.
[3] Ibid., 78.
[4] Abraham Kuyper, Architectonische critiek, fragmenten uit de sociaal-politike geschriften van dr A. Kuyper, translated by Bob Goudzwaard (Amsterdam: Paris, 1956), 115.
[5] Kuyper, Problem of Poverty, 120.

Joshua Harris holds an MA in Philosophy from Trinity Western University, where he defended a thesis exploring the possibility of understanding Thomas Aquinas as a mediator in contemporary debates arising from the so-called "analytic-continental divide" in the twentieth century. As a PhD candidate in Phlosophy at the Institute for Christian Studies, his research interests include philosophy of language, philosophical theology and Christian social thought.

Image in the public domain, used from