Friday, February 28, 2014

The Dead Sea Scrolls Go Digital, Einstein Publishes from Beyond the Grave, and an 84-year-old Nun Lands in Prison

1 comment:
Links for February 28, 2014

Unfortunately for those of us who do not enjoy dealing with the threat of hypothermia every time we step outside, it is beginning to look like Punxsutawney Phil and Wiarton Willie were right this year. But that means we’re just finishing up week 4 of the 6 weeks left of winter. We’re almost there, people!

It’s been a little while since we’ve posted a set of links on Ground Motive, but this week there’s lots of exciting stuff worth taking a look at. So for your reading delight, here are some interesting links to help you fight off the winter blues.

When you catch yourself starting to drool out of boredom after hours of staring at the inside of your apartment and hiding from the cold, make sure to hop on over to King’s University College in London, Ontario on March 6 for Simon Critchley’s talk on how tragedy might change the way we do philosophy.

In the mean time, keep an eye out for developments on the brand new blog Ink Blots, which provides a critical Lutheran perspective on 21st century North American Christianity, exploring questions like: what does it mean for the Christian church to be “always reforming”?

This year, if you curl up by the fire (or the radiator) to fight the lingering late-winter cold, you can crack open the (digital) Dead Sea Scrolls for a little light reading. The Israel Antiquities Authority has made publicly available an extensive archive of the scrolls in high-resolution digital images for your perusing pleasure. Basically what this means is that now you can have your own archaeological Indiana Jones adventures whenever you want, without leaving the comfort of your couch. Either that or it opens up the world of Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship to anyone who has internet access.

When you have exhausted the contents of the original Dead Sea Scroll fragments and are looking for more reading material, another document (somewhat less ancient but also archived in Israel at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) has recently been made available publicly in digital form. Apparently, Einstein was never quite satisfied with the Big Bang and wrote a manuscript on an alternative theory of the origin of the universe that somehow was misfiled and lost for the last 80 years, only to be rediscovered this year.

I suppose science has done okay without Einstein's lost manuscript. After all, 715 newly confirmed planets were announced this week, along with a new planet probably full of liquid water. And in the science of smaller things, a new artificial particle or “quasiparticle” that acts strangely like a liquid was recently discovered by accident and dubbed the “dropleton.” 

But in a terrifying twist in robotics, the first successful bird-like “flock” of robots has been developed using simple flying robots and the same algorithm that rendered the stampede of wildebeests in the Lion King. The same stampede that killed Simba’s father. My childhood nightmares are one step closer to becoming reality. Despite it's grim Disney associations, this development is a fascinating case of complex emergent behaviour in a group of simple individuals that helps us develop new models intelligence and group behaviour in general.

This week Rachel Held Evans wrote an article lamenting recent developments in the ongoing discrimination against LGBT people which puts into perspective the position of privilege of North American Evangelical White (Straight) Christians. She issues a call to love that resists the tendency to become the persecutors: “Evangelicals lost the culture wars the moment they committed to fighting them, the moment they decided to stop washing feet and start waging war.”

For a more literal statement against waging war, this month, 84 year old nun Sister Megan Rice was sentenced to 35 months in prison for breaking into a nuclear weapons facility as a protest. Her tireless commitment to pursuing peace even at 84 is nothing short of extraordinary.

Last but definitely not least, in a moving two-part essay featured in The Other Journal this month (part one and part two), Andrew Krinks writes on his experience of interviewing five death-row inmates in Tennessee. Krinks explores what a philosophy of the body might mean for inmates whose bodies are confined to cells and whose activities are tightly regulated by prison life. If people are shaped by being embodied in the world, what is the prison system doing to its inmates? After spending time with these five inmates, Krinks gives thought provoking and stirring philosophical reflections on prison life on death row.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Celebrating Limitation

by Shannon Hoff

This Christmas season, as usual, I returned to my parents’ house to get together with my immediate family. We had recently given up a long-lived tradition of buying a present and writing a poem for a person in the family whose name we draw from a “hat” (or the online version thereof), and had chosen instead that each person would have the freedom decide about what to do, if anything, for the festivities of Christmas Eve. Since I had always liked the challenge of trying to write poetry, I had an ambivalent attitude toward this: while happy that people could get a break from the excessive demands of Christmas social events and invest their efforts instead into trying to be calm and nice to each other, I was also sad to see the demise of the demand that ordinary people plumb the depths of their creativity and conjure up some poetic beauty (or, more often than not, comic hilarity). In any case, I myself felt too busy to write a poem and decided not to, but ended up changing my mind at the last minute, realizing that the tradition would completely disappear if those who liked it let it go. In full-on “serious poem” mode, I took the opportunity to reflect on what it was like to grow older with siblings—with people who fashion the shape of one’s life but go on to make their own, with people with whom old, shared delights and conflicts continue to linger.

Through writing the poem, I was led to think about the way in which age brings a certain kind of determinacy with it, such that after a while it is no longer very realistic to think that one can become anyone or do anything—for, among other reasons, if that were the case then it would be at the expense of abandoning the things and people to which one had already committed oneself. I thought about the people about whom I have learned to be deeply concerned, who had previously been indeterminate, free, and capable of being almost anything in the world, and I wondered about whether it would be challenging for them to reckon with the fact that they had, perhaps inadvertently, made specific lives for themselves. It can be difficult to come to terms with the fact that at a certain point not just anything is possible, and also difficult to see other people learn that, when they’ve been expecting something different—expecting to be able to live indefinitely in the mode of discovery, exploration, and creativity.

But the idea that there are people and things to which one commits in the process of living a life means that we develop powers. We fashion specific worlds that support our activities; we find individuals and groups of people who share our interests; we develop skills that allow us to pursue the things we care about in more powerful ways. Our worlds become more determinate, more fixed, and more closed off to other forms of activity and possibilities, but for the reason that we have developed focus, which renders us and our specific domains more capable of producing significance. The greater the focus, the greater the productivity, or the more specific the world, the more capable it is of producing meaningfulness.

There is much to be said for the experience of openness—for the feeling of a connection with an infinite capacity for creativity, the feeling that there is a whole world to be discovered, both inside and outside oneself. But there is also much to be said for expressing and enacting that feeling by doing, creating, and discovering something, and by discovering and connecting with someone—for focussing on something or someone and answering to its terms, for shaping one’s life around something or someone.

For the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, these are the two sides of freedom. He says something like the thing I’ve just said, but in a slightly more complicated way:

the will contains (α) the element of pure indeterminacy or of the “I”’s pure reflection into itself, in which every limitation… is dissolved; this is the limitless infinity of absolute abstraction or universality, the pure thinking of oneself [and] (β)… the transition from undifferentiated indeterminacy to differentiation, determination, and the positing of a determinacy as a content and object… the absolute moment of the finitude or particularization of the “I.” (Philosophy of Right, §§5-6)

Freedom involves a pure openness, the feeling that there are no limitations and that one can change one’s relationship to the limitations one has adopted, but it also involves employing that openness to do something specific and thereby to become someone capable of doing specific things, someone with a “power.” Freedom is both being open and doing something. If we think of freedom solely in terms of the experience of openness, of the idea of being unlimited and unconstrained, we remain children, incapable of setting down roots, following through on our commitments, developing ourselves in specific and determinate ways, and answering to the determinacies we have developed. Freedom also involves doing something and thereby enacting a commitment, which can blossom into a rich, complex, and concrete life.

This side of freedom involves the embrace of growing older, which brings with it powers and commitments but also limits and constraints. While it is entirely appropriate, in the name of the “open” side of freedom, to recognize that one may at some point need to “begin again,” at least in part and insofar as one can, the “closed” side of freedom deserves not just whimsical nostalgia for youth irreversibly bygone but celebration. We will always make lives—we are not free from that inevitability—and they will always be specific, focussed, and limited. Through making them, we develop powers of agency and powers of relation, powers that can help guide others through the inevitable project of life-fashioning.

Shannon Hoff is Associate Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, and President of the Canadian Society for Continental Philosophy. In 2013 she was a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry in Berlin, Germany. She is the author of The Laws of the Spirit: A Hegelian Theory of Justice, forthcoming in April with SUNY Press, as well as of numerous articles in modern and contemporary political philosophy. 

First photo by Richard Webb, used from, Portrait of G.W.F. Hegel by Jakob Schlesinger circa 1831, used from, public domain.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Being in Three Places at One Time: Economic Justice from the Riverbanks and the Middle of the Stream

by Allyson Carr

“What kind of city do we really want to live in?”

This was the question that framed a one-day workshop/conference on economic justice held at Toronto City Hall last Thursday. The event was sponsored by Faith in the City, who organized an interfaith gathering of religious leaders meant to examine how people of faith can contribute to economic justice in Toronto. I learned a lot in the sessions, but while the conference was excellent, I’m not going to give an account of all the talks and workshops here. Instead, I’m going to pick up on a metaphor used to describe the work of charity vs. the work of justice.

Briefly, the speaker painted a picture where all of us at the conference were at a riverside park enjoying ourselves with a big potluck picnic we had each contributed to, when suddenly a drowning person is spotted floundering in the river. We all rush down and manage to pull them out to safety, but just as we begin to congratulate ourselves, we spot more people, and more people, and more people coming down the river. The rest of the day and into the evening is spent pulling people from the rushing water, feeding them from our picnic potluck, helping them dry off etc, until someone finally says we need to go upstream and figure out who or what is pushing these people into the river and stop it! The distinction drawn is that charity, of course, is the necessary work of grabbing people out of the river before they drown, but justice is going “upstream” to try to stop them falling in in the first place.

This is a lovely and very instructive metaphor, and a good one in many respects. But reflecting on it as the day went by, I felt it needed to be modified a bit. Certainly, every person in that room was willing (and probably already working) to pull struggling people out of the river. But weren’t we all also, at the same time, part of the problem? Sitting in the session titled “Advocacy 101” and hearing, for example, about how we have to be sure that we are not accidentally oppressive in our very attempts to do justice, I saw each and every one of us--even people at this conference, people interested in working for justice!--as part of a society that systematically harms the already marginalized.

Those of us sitting in that room, waiting to have our catered lunch (for which I was very grateful) have privileges we don’t even think about, and participate in a larger Canadian and global society which makes collective choices that can be harmful. Where does our energy come from? The gas that powers our cars? Who made the laptop I am using now to write this? The clothes I am wearing? The food I eat? Was justice done all these places, in all these transactions? While we can make choices about how to participate in this society--choices like buying food that is prepared and raised by people paid fair wages, for example--we don’t really have the option of “opting out.” Even were we to go “off the grid” and leave urban society, we would be taking all our “talents” (not just our money, but all the skills and gifts we can contribute to social flourishing) with us, in a sense making society that much “poorer.”

So… here we are, in the middle of the problem, trying to live in such a way that we are making things better, not worse. In our hurry to “go upstream,” we weren’t seeing that we were, and are, already there. And as that thought struck me, I suddenly had an image of myself floating down the river, looking desperately for something to cling to. Certainly there have been times in my life when I have needed a safety net, and I’d wager that most of the people in that room--and indeed, most people in general--end up struggling in the river at some point in their life. In fact, the more I looked at that metaphor, the more I saw each of us in all three different places--all of us standing “upriver” as part of the problems causing people to fall (or be pushed) into the river; all of us floating down the river, struggling to find something to grab on to pull ourselves out of the river; all of us standing in the park, trying desperately to drag drowning people to safety.

Of course we need to make sure that people keep getting pulled out of the river when they fall in, and we need to figure out what is wrong upstream. But just as the guilt was hitting me about being part of the problem, another realization came as well: the fact that we are all already upstream means not just that we are part of the problem, but also that we are already situated to have an effect on “the problem” (which is really a whole set of complex problems). We are already in the many of the places we need to be to use our talents to make the choices and begin to sort out the changes required to make society more economically just. We are not only culpable, we are also capable. And that is good news, is it not?!

This coming May 12-13, we at the Centre are co-hosting a conference on exactly this topic: economic justice. Along with our partners, we will be bringing many people from all over Canada and beyond, from many different areas of society to lend their talents, their expertise, to discuss how we can best deal with these “upstream” problems. We were born upstream, all of us in this time and place--certainly anyone reading this post. But that is a cause for hope and motivation, not despair or hand-wringing. The fact that we are all already in three places at one time means that there’s a lot of people we can join hands with, a lot of resources out there that we can pull together, and a lot of good we can do: upstream, downstream, and in the river itself. When we all use our different gifts, skills, and resources together, we can accomplish so much more than any of us could on our own. That is something to celebrate, when we take it up as a task to which we are called.

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

First photo by Nigel Corby, used from Second photo by Chensiyuan, used from

Friday, February 07, 2014

Trading Hell for Hope: An Interview with Nicholas Ansell

Nicholas Ansell’s teaching and research focus on several areas of systematic and biblical theology, notably Christology, eschatology, Old Testament wisdom thinking, and the theology of gender. He has an ongoing interest in the phenomenology of revelation and the spirituality of existence. His new book, The Annihilation of Hell: Universal Salvation and the Redemption of Time in the Eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann, was released in North America in October 2013 and exposits the work of Moltmann on the topic of hell and universalism for anyone who is interested in theology, scholar or otherwise. He has also written several articles on hell and hope including this one in The Other Journal. 
The following is an excerpt of an interview conducted by Matthew E. Johnson on January 22, 2014 in Toronto, Ontario. For more, see the full version here in the open-access Institutional Repository at the Institute for Christian Studies.

GM: Dr. Ansell, thanks so much for making time to talk with me. I’m very excited about your new book The Annihilation of Hell, and I’d love to hear some background and a bit of “behind the scenes” about this book. I understand that one of the ways you have been influenced by Jürgen Moltmann is in what you call the “judgment unto salvation” theme that runs throughout the Bible. Can you say a bit about this theme in your work and in Moltmann’s?

NA: The “judgment unto salvation” theme is a point where I really connect with Moltmann. There’s a lot in Moltmann that I really like and there’s also a fair amount that I disagree with but still find thought provoking. But this theme is something that is straightforwardly insightful. It’s the idea that God’s judgment is not about damnation or punishment—it’s not about making a division between those who are in and those who are out. God’s judgment is always about putting things right, and it’s always in the service of life, opening life up again where life has been closed down. We often think of God’s judgment coming as something to be afraid of, but Moltmann argues that in scripture, for those who are the people of God, the idea of God’s judgment coming always creates hope and is something to be celebrated, prayed for, and so forth.

The tower of Babel narrative in Genesis 11, which tells of the breaking down of what seems to be the first Babylonian Empire with its attempt to impose a single language or a metanarrative upon its subjects, is a good example of judgment unto salvation. The empire emerges because people are afraid to spread out over the face of the earth, even though the fundamental blessing and calling to humanity is to fill the earth with God’s presence and to fill the earth in a geographic sense. But there’s this fear, and fear is the opposite of faith. So the people congregate, trying to stay put, and an empire of some kind emerges out of this. Then there is the judgment and the scattering, and it’s not simply God saying that there’s something idolatrous about building the tower and that it needs to come to an end or that this is simply a manifestation of God’s wrath. The scattering actually opens up the movement of history again, so that the people end up spreading out over the earth, which is actually rooted in the blessing of Genesis 1:26-28. The purpose of the judgment is to get people back on track with the dynamic of life—it’s giving them something positive. So the judgment is unto salvation. That is, the judgment serves something that is more than judgment; it serves life. I think that if you look at God’s judgment in general in scripture in the light of that pattern, it’s very illuminating.

GM: Based on your own research and Moltmann’s thought, what is the biblical basis for rethinking the doctrine of hell?

NA: There are something like 14 “hell texts” that mention hell specifically in the New Testament, depending on which translation you use. Of those, about 11 refer to hell in a way that’s connected to judgment for human beings. They’re all found in the Gospels, and they’re all found on the lips of Jesus himself. In these cases, the word is “Gehenna,” which is translated as hell, but I think it probably should be left as the word “Gehenna.” Of these 11, there are 7 references in Matthew, and then 3 all together in one verse in Mark, and there is one reference in Luke.

Moltmann says that, in terms of biblical material about final judgment, there are a certain number of texts that do not have a “double outcome” to them (that is, do not imply judgment or salvation) and will instead maybe imply universal salvation or something like that. Nevertheless there are a certain number of texts in which there is this division. In these, some will end up in hell, and some will not. Moltmann tends to simply play down the texts that have the division and emphasizes what he thinks is the stronger theme of judgment leading to salvation as being the most biblical approach. The problem is that all the counter examples that he wants to play down are attributed to Jesus, and Moltmann is a Christocentric theologian who always wants to focus in terms of the way Jesus discloses God to us. So this is a real problem for him, and he doesn’t resolve it to my satisfaction.

Valley of Ben-Hinnom, 2007.
My book works this out more exegetically and comes up with a different approach. I hope this is a contribution that my book could make, in addition to its interpretation of Moltmann’s thinking. So my argument in a nutshell is that “Gehenna,” the word that is translated as “hell” goes back to the Old Testament, referring to the valley of Ben-Hinnom. It is a geographical territory owned by a certain group of Israelites that includes a valley located just outside of Jerusalem. At a certain point in Israel’s history during the monarchy, it gets associated with idolatry and with passing young children “through the fire” and with certain idolatrous kings. So, in response, the valley of Gehenna becomes the place of God’s judgment.

In Isaiah, we see it as a place of God’s judgment, and here, it is a historical judgment, a judgment in history. It is the location of where God’s judgment will occur. Looking at the very last verse of Isaiah in particular, Gehenna is a place where Israel’s enemies will be judged. What happens in Jeremiah, though, is the judgment has been turned back on Israel, on Judah. So the place where some Israelites would be hoping the Gentiles would get judged becomes the place where Judah will be judged.

Jesus stands in the tradition of Jeremiah. Matthew’s Gospel is steeped in all kinds of allusions to the book of Jeremiah. This makes sense of why so many of the references to Gehenna show up in Matthew’s gospel in particular. So in Matthew, Jesus is saying something to his fellow Jews that is very similar to Jeremiah: although many are hoping for judgment to come down on the Romans, actually there is a judgment coming that will impact Jerusalem and the temple. In the Jewish War of 66-70 AD, which involved the generation after Jesus that he prophesied about in Matthew 24, the Romans razed the temple and Jerusalem. During this war, a huge number of dead bodies ended up quite literally in the Gehenna valley.

So “hell” or “Gehenna” is about a judgment in history, but it also marks a transition point between the old age and the new age. It’s an apocalyptic transition as well, and the book of Revelation picks up on that. The apocalyptic material in the gospels such as Mark 13 also focus on judgment as a transition point. Hence the “birth pangs” imagery in Mark 13:8 (and Revelation 12 also).

This exegetical approach gives a different understanding of the “hell” texts. It means that you can connect them much better to a judgment unto salvation understanding. The texts that Moltmann has problems with and has to sideline even though they come from Jesus, can actually be connected in a positive way to the kind of eschatology that he’s looking for.

GM: How is the judgment unto salvation theme and the way you reframe the “hell texts” related to universalism?

NA: Well, Moltmann is a universalist. Universalism is the belief that all people will ultimately be saved, which to some people is very controversial.

Last Judgment by Fra Angelico, c. 1431
However, the idea of hoping that all people will be saved is often seen by many Christians as a perfectly valid thing to hope for, in fact it’s a very Christian thing to hope for. Many people will say that you can really hope for this, but being dogmatic about it such that universal salvation is just what God has to do or something like that is another matter. But to be hopeful about it, that’s fine.

There’s no reason why we should be suspicious if Christians have that kind of hope, far from it. What Moltmann says is that the thing about biblical hope is that it’s not just wishful thinking for something you would really like. If you experience real hope, what comes with it is a confidence about what God has promised and that God will fulfill his promises. So it’s not that you’re dogmatic about it, but there is the confidence of faith.

If it’s okay for the Christian to hope that all might be saved, even if you don’t understand how that might eventually happen, then let’s not have that hope as just a kind of wishful thinking. Let’s explore it in terms of biblical hope. If God promises to bring this about, and there are biblical texts (such as 1 Corinthians 15:22) that do seem to suggest that, then it can be very deeply Christian position to trust those promises.

We can talk about how it is that God might be able to bring this about, and then there are the theological issues of God’s freedom, human freedom, and so forth. But in a sense those are secondary. Yes, we can talk about the mechanics of it, so to speak, but if we think that the promise is there, why not trust it, put one’s hope in it, and then start to theologize and think out of that conviction. Then it’s not a conclusion that you come to at the end; it becomes more of a starting point.

GM: As just a final question: as a Christian scholar, what role do you see scholarship playing in religious life and faith for the individual and the community?

NA: I think scholarship done by Christians has an important role to play in life in general for the Christian community and for the wider culture as well. I think it has to start by listening. You have to tune in to the deep issues and questions of your own culture, and then see how you can respond. So it starts with listening. It also can’t be any kind of pontificating. Nobody is interested in theology that pontificates these days anyway.

The Last Judgment by Stefan Lochner, c. 1435
One of the concerns that people, not just scholars, have about hell and final judgment and so forth, is about justice. There is a hunger for justice. This would be the problem for someone if we dispensed completely with the final judgment. What do you say to the person who has suffered injustice? This is very much part of the book for me, and Moltmann is also very strong on this. He doesn’t want to do away with final judgment; he insists that there is a final judgment. But he actually says that the judgment is not final—it’s penultimate, because it has to serve what comes after the judgment.

So if you write theology, you can connect with the hope in that. I think hope is something that resonates with everybody. Not all of us experience much hope, but I think we would like to. So if you talk in terms of hope, then you avoid the esoteric nature of much theology. I hate to write theology that is only of interest to theologians. I’d like to think that these are the topics that are addressed to all of us as human beings, struggling to find our way right now in history. So theologians and Christian scholars need to see themselves as in the same boat as everyone else. We’ve experienced this grace and this hope, so we have something we want to say. It is that hope and that faith that also helps us not just say stuff, but also listen and tune in well long before we start writing.

First photo used from; second photo by Deror avi, used from; third photo public domain, used from; fourth photo public domain, used from