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Faith, Science - and Speech
February 6, 2013 | Lori Wilson
Faith, Science - and Speech
From time to time we owe the discipline of philosophy a debt of gratitude for its gift of helpful, concrete and actionable ideas.  One of those gifts is the theory of “speech acts.”  As initially developed in the 1950s by J.L. Austin, it points out something that we intuit but seldom make explicit:  in the act of speaking, we do more than transfer information, we also “do” something. To borrow an example, imagine that I shout, “There’s a spider on your lap!” While it’s true that I’ve just communicated a fact to you, it’s also quite likely that I’ve frightened you. Furthermore, we can reasonably assume that you’ll now jump up or brush off the spider – though I haven’t in fact suggested that you do so – or not in so many words.  The six words that I used to announce a fact have done quite a bit more than merely convey a piece of information. Predictably, the theory gets fairly involved and elaborate, and philosophers have debated the nuances a great deal.  What relates to our work at TCF, however, is the way in which this theory helps us think about our language.  When we’re dealing with controversial issues, it’s more important than ever to really be intentional about what we’re doing with our words – and speech act theory helps keep us honest. In an environment of heightened tensions, words tend to do more than we might usually recognize. It’s tough to ask an “innocent” question when any remark is likely to tap deeply held convictions. When I engage a controversial issue – say, evolution & creation – it’s crucial that I be clear about just what it is I’m after.   If I ask you, for instance, “Do you believe God created the world in six days?” it’s important that I recognize what I’m really trying to get at.  Is it a mere question about your thoughts on the means of creation?  Or am I trying to discern what theological ground we have in common?  Am I really asking:  “Can I trust you? Or will your beliefs threaten mine?”  In addition to my being honest about my own speech, I must realize that my words will have an impact on you. By merely asking the question, it’s entirely possible I’ve caused a spike in your blood pressure.  Regardless of my intent in asking the question, you’re likely to wonder, “Does she really just want to know?  Or is this a test?” As you can see, in any conversation there's often a great deal more "going on" than first meets the eye. By acknowledging the “active” power of words, we not only guard against harmful language, but we also find ways of speaking that build up the body of Christ. In a contentious conversation, I can choose language that defuses the strain, rather than heightening it.  “Tell me about how you see God in creation,” puts me on an entirely different footing with you.  Your blood pressure doesn’t rise, and you’re reminded of the awesome majesty of the world around us.  We continue our conversation about God, and creation – and we may even get to a discussion about the six days.  But the words that launched our conversation “did” something different:  they reminded both of us that we’re together in looking for God in this amazing creation all around us.  They signaled that we’re on the “same side,” and that we can trust each other.  That our conversation is rooted in what we share in common. As we work to extend God’s love to one another – even (or especially) in difficult conversations – speech act theory is one tool to help us along the way. We at TCF try to keep an eye out for “gifts” like this one – insights to support practices which in turn can shape us as Christians who increasingly “disagree well.” We firmly believe that a deeper awareness of the active power of our words will help us to better reflect Christ, the Word of God, as the one in whom all things hold together.   Note:  The classic text on speech act theory is J.L. Austin’s highly accessible How to Do Things With Words.  The “spider” example is borrowed from Steven Davis’s article, “Perlocutions.”  Speech act theory has been particularly useful in the field of biblical interpretation; see for instance Richard Briggs’s Words in Action: Speech Act Theory and Biblical Interpretation.
Politics in the Church?
January 28, 2013 | Daniel Camacho
Politics in the Church?
Politics can get nasty. Just recall the Facebook comments, “debates,” and “purges” that accompanied our nation’s last presidential election. Discussing politics with others—whether it’s on the topic of gay marriage, gun control, or taxes—does not seem to be worth the price for all of the incendiary reactions that ensue. The results appear to be even worse when we try to bring politics into the church. As Christians, we can mimic the polarization in our society and end up with pews that are painted red and blue. In responding to the dangers of partisan politics, the temptation then becomes to assume that the gospel is apolitical. The church should focus more on worship and personal evangelism rather than politics. However, upon further reflection, this turns out to be a contradiction in terms. Our worship is and always has been political. What does it mean that our worship is political? For some, this might sound odd. Confusion arises over what is meant by ‘political’ because it can be understood in different ways. In our commonplace usage of the word today, ‘politics’ refers to government, policy, or even pursuing one’s own interests in other contexts (e.g. ‘church politics’). But there is another, older, sense to this term. Our word ‘politics’ finds its roots in the Greek words politika (affairs of the city) and politikos (relating to citizens). In this sense, politics includes things such as policy but also encompasses much more. Politics are about how a community is ordered. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle subsumes his inquiry about ethics and human flourishing under political science. The good of the individual is inextricably bound to the good of the polis, the city or state, and its ordering. It is in this latter, and broader, sense that worship is political. Worship initiates and trains us into the Christian community. Beyond the state, the notion of polis as a moral community can also be applied to the church. Scripture describes the church as a “holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:9) and our participation in that community as a “heavenly citizenship” (Phil. 3:20). In following Christ, we become oriented towards a new community that requires our primary allegiance: the church, the city of God, the Body of Christ. Rodney Clapp, in A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society, shows how it is no coincidence that the New Testament—in continuity with the Old Testament—uses many words (e.g. kingdom, gospel, liturgy, church) that were politically charged for its time. Clapp writes: [div id="blockquote"]Perhaps the main reason the Bible has, at least in recent centuries, seemed to offer scarce political or cultural guidance is that Christians have read a “rank anachronism” back into its text. The strict split between “religion” and “politics” belongs to centuries much later than the first. As N.T. Wright remarks, “No first-century Jew…could imagine that the worship of their god and the organization of human society were matters related only at a tangent.”[1][end-div] As Clapp and Wright have argued, the split between religion and politics, and the distinction between public and private, do not adequately explain the nature of Christian worship. There was a good reason why the early Christians were persecuted when they recognized Jesus, and not Caesar, as Lord. To split our faith from our politics is dangerous because it blinds us from seeing competing allegiances. In the context of Apartheid South Africa, loyalty to the government’s policies entailed a contradiction of Christian baptism, a denial of the church’s catholicity, and a distorted view of the Imago Dei. Separating our worship from our politics neglects the way in which our worship is a form of politics, and the way in which it can inform our involvement in our government’s politics. From this vantage point, a Christian is always involved in two kinds of politics. To borrow from Augustine’s The City of God, Christians are simultaneously involved in the politics of the heavenly polis and the politics of the earthly polis. Our participation in the Body of Christ gives shape to our involvement in society at large. Tithing and providing resources to the needy—to think of one type of example—are practices in the church that reflect how our worship is political. Living and acting out of a deep trust in God’s provision ought to shape all of our economic practices. Therefore, the way in which we handle resources, or money, speaks about the kingdom we are members of—a kingdom that does not operate out of a fear of scarcity (Matt. 6:25-34). Understanding this ought to help us imagine and negotiate the economic realities in broader society.  To separate the economics implied in our worship from the economic policies of markets and governments is to short-circuit the implications of our discipleship to Christ. Here at TCF, we are not into partisan politics, but rather when we discuss politics we understand the political in a broader sense that affirms the public nature and implications of worship. As our Manifesto states: “Worship trains us in our rights and duties as citizens of the City of God.” When it comes to politics understood in the more narrow sense (i.e. in the earthly city), and to specific policies, we realize that Christians can often disagree. Nevertheless, we want to affirm that our shared practices of Christian worship constitute a “civics class” for us as a church, a training that can help us navigate through the ‘nasty’ politics, together, with charity. [1] Clapp, Rodney. A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society. InterVarsity Press, 1996.
Let This Cup of Cognitive Dissonance Pass From Me!
January 21, 2013 | Matthew Dodrill
Let This Cup of Cognitive Dissonance Pass From Me!
Humans don’t like being wrong. We just don’t. I don’t like it, you don’t like it, nobody likes it. In fact, studies have shown that being wrong isn’t just something we are uncomfortable with; it’s something we’re afraid of. Last May, NPR did a story on the research of Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, the findings of which indicate that people with partisan loyalties reject credible information that calls into question their own views “not because they’re against the facts, but because it’s painful.” We all do this. In many cases, the strength and credibility of such information will cause us to become more certain of our views despite the facts and data to the contrary. This is a defense mechanism used to ward off the pains of cognitive dissonance. This happens all the time with the evolution/creation debate – the two “camps” are placed in fundamental opposition, such that when one group produces credible insights, the other side bristles and rejects those insights. In order to prevent the pain of cognitive dissonance and paradigm-shifts, those of us who feel threatened increase our degree of “certainty.” Given The Colossian Forum’s common proclamation that “all things hold together in Christ,” it should come as no surprise that the forum approaches the evolution/creation debate Christologically. The Chalcedonian formula of 451 determined that Christ is “truly God and truly man,” a single person “in two natures.” The council’s formula adopted much of its content from Cyril of Alexandria, who, in his Commentary on John, provides a compelling account of Jesus’ request for the “cup” of suffering to pass from him while in the Garden of Gethsemane. Given that Jesus has a fully human nature, says Cyril, his human body had the impulse to survive and preserve itself, so it was only natural for Jesus, who has a human body, to seek self-preservation in the face of pain and death; hence his request for the cup to pass from him. But ultimately, says Cyril, Jesus’ divine nature purified his human nature in such a way that his human nature was compelled to obey the Father’s will. There is something natural about our fear of dissent, paradigm shifts, and cognitive dissonance. We, like Jesus, have human natures that seek preservation, and there’s just something about certain opposing views that can be perceived as threats to our flourishing and preservation. But this is no justification for rejecting arguments we don’t like. The Colossian Forum believes that these things should be looked at through a Christological lens, and that implies that we become like Christ by cultivating the divine virtues that sanctify our human natures and enable us to obey the Lord in our quest for truth, despite the pain (like Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane!). Indeed, we need not allow fear to stifle our obedience, for all things hold together in the One whose human nature was sanctified by his divine nature, a sanctification that enabled his persistence in obedience. May the same be so for us, even when we engage tough and divisive questions.
Sermo humilis: spoken hospitality
January 11, 2013 | Lori Wilson
Sermo humilis: spoken hospitality
Hospitality is central to the work of The Colossian Forum.  You can read about it in our Glossary, and you will find it featuring prominently as a theme across our site.  At its core, hospitality seeks to create a welcoming space for strangers and friends alike.  This welcome is grounded in the love of God, made manifest in Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. This Christian virtue was modeled in a distinctive way by the early Church: they changed the way they talked. At the time, Latin was the shared language, and it was employed very specifically according to both social class and contextual use.  Matters of grand significance were communicated in a style known as sermo sublimis (“elevated” speech).  Decrees from the emperor, philosophical debates, and tragic plays would all have followed this style.  On the other end of the spectrum was sermo vulgaris (low speech) – the day-to-day language of business, household, and comedy.  These styles were largely markers for social standing, with the wealthy employing sublimis while the common folk spoke vulgaris.  It would have been possible for an individual to speak both forms, but each style was kept separate and employed according to the situation, never used interchangeably. As the early church expanded into the Roman world, this linguistic feature presented a challenge to the possibility of communication and shared purpose.  New converts came from all social classes, and would have spoken a mix of styles.  How was the church to communicate the grand truths of the Gospel?  The response of the church was a bold one:  to adopt a new style – eventually referred to as sermo humilis, or humble speech.  Thus, highly rhetorical speech gave way to simplicity of style – in vocabulary, structure, and delivery.  Those who were educated in the style of sublimis gave up their claim to cultured speech in order to share in worship with their new brothers and sisters.  Those who were accustomed to vulgaris accepted that their language would take on new significance – the simple words and forms would now also encompass lofty ideals such as grace, forgiveness, and salvation. This linguistic development stemmed from Christ’s own self-giving. His incarnation gave impetus to set aside personal questions of identity in deference to the unity of God’s beloved church.  This new style of speech acknowledged that all aspects of a believer’s life, as the site of God’s ongoing presence and activity, are transformed from vulgar to sublime. It embodied the realization that Christian wisdom and authority are grounded not in formal education or worldly power, but in transformation into the image of Christ. Finally, sermo humilis indicated a rather pragmatic preference for stylistic simplicity over elaborate rhetoric. While linguists differ on the precise details of the historical development of Latin, it seems that what evolved in the early church was unusual in its apparent intentionality.  No language remains unchanged, to be sure, and at that time Latin was undergoing significant changes in other social contexts, as well.  What seems remarkable, however, is that the church did not shy away from change – and in fact embraced it quite deliberately– for the sake of unity.  The very use of language was transformed as a result of, and in service to, the Christian commitment to worship.  As James K. A. Smith elaborates in his glossary entry on Worship, our forms of worship “are also embodied practices through which the Spirit of God shapes our imagination.”  Sermo humilis serves as a very concrete instance of this transformation. The development of sermo humilis serves as a remarkable example of Christian hospitality.  As humans, speech is inextricably interwoven into who we are and how we behave.  In this instance, speakers chose to use language as a means of sacrificing their personal interests, to find in their speech the opportunity to build unity and grow together in faith. For the early church, hospitality became as deeply rooted as the act of speech itself.   Note: If you’re interested in learning more about sermo humilis, Augustine introduces it in On Christian Doctrine, Book 3 chapter 17.  A more contemporary analysis is to be found in Mimesis (primarily chapters 2 and 3) and Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages (chapter 1), both by Erich Auerbach. You might also enjoy Telling the Christmas Story Like It Is, an eloquent news piece by Rowan Williams.
Theology, open-handed
December 19, 2012 | Lori Wilson
Theology, open-handed
My work with The Colossian Forum has recently found new expression as I pursue theological studies full-time. After nearly a year-and-a-half as Project Coordinator for TCF, I’ve taken a year’s education leave to explore some of those “big questions” that tend to crop up from time to time. I consider myself particularly fortunate to pursue this academic exercise in ongoing conversation with the team at TCF: the very real and pressing concerns addressed by the Forum help to ground my work and focus it on the concrete needs of the church. And, as it turns out, my work with TCF has helped to prepare me for my own very substantial struggles. During class last week, a particular Theological Issue was raised – almost as an aside – and I was astonished at the intensity of my reaction to it. While it was indeed a significant Theological Issue, the discussion didn’t appear to trouble anyone else in the room, and certainly not to the degree that it affected me. It wasn’t simply that I disagreed with the view presented (though I did), but that I disagreed so vehemently. For me this wasn’t merely an academic debate, a semantic contest. This was an existentially threatening contention. If “the other side” was right, the implications for my own faith were, frankly, disastrous. My understanding of God was at risk, and my own ability to “make sense” of faith was on the line. This Theological Issue mattered deeply. The classroom conversation moved on, and I did my best to follow along. But my mind was spinning (and, quite frankly, my heart was pounding). My reaction to the Theological Issue distracted me entirely from the matters at hand. Where to take all this? How to sort out the theological particulars of this Issue? What to do with my own intense response? How to be faithful to God in the midst of such upheaval? It was that last question that finally began to help me move toward an answer. I was reminded that faithfulness (literally, “filled with faith”) simply cannot be tight-fisted and fear-driven. As the writer to the Colossians points out (and as TCF strives to remind us): in Christ, all things hold together. All things (Theological Issues included) do not hold together in my clenched fist. They do not hold together in my stubborn insistence. They do not hold together even in my determined conviction to hold to what’s right. They (Theological Issues included) very simply hold together in Christ. If this is true – and as a Christian, I’ve given my life to the conviction that it is – then faithfulness means opening my hand. It means trusting that my faith is not only given to me by God, but also sustained by God. Faithfulness may not mean changing my mind on this particular Theological Issue (and I hope it doesn’t) but it means I’m willing to listen to “the other side.” It means a different perspective does not hold the power to destroy my faith – but that, on the contrary, the challenge may offer a gift to strengthen it. This gift, of course, I cannot receive unless and until I unclench my fist. Open-handed theology isn’t another way of saying “anything goes.” It doesn’t imply uncritical acceptance of any particular Theological Issue. It’s not weak resignation in the face of controversy, nor is it a politically correct relativism. Instead, it involves recognizing that the real gift isn’t self-assurance, but confidence in the goodness of God. It’s my expression of gratitude that I don’t have to hold it all together. In Christ, God already does. To learn more about how TCF encourages this confidence in God’s goodness, read our Manifesto or watch one of our films, particularly: Michael Gulker: Nothing to Fear Carla Sanderson: All Things Hold Together
Book Review - Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think
December 6, 2012 | Daniel Camacho
Book Review - Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think
  Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think by Elaine Howard Ecklund. Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. 228        December 6th, 2012                                                        By Daniel Camacho   Once upon a time, Galileo was tortured at the hands of the Inquisition in a moment that would come to exemplify the age-long conflict between science and religion—at least, this is how the story often goes. But Elaine Ecklund, a sociologist from Rice University, argues that this recounting of the story is more of a myth. Not only was Galileo never tortured but misconceptions about religion and science continue to abound in contemporary discourse. In order to better explain the relationship that scientists have with religion, Ecklund turns to today’s elite scientists and examines their religious lives. Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think is the culmination of an unprecedented study that tracks the religion and spirituality of scientists at America’s elite universities. Over a span of four years, Ecklund surveyed nearly 1,700 natural and social scientists, personally interviewed 275 of them, and visited public events where scientists addressed matters of faith. The one thing that became clear to her after four years of research was that much of what we believe about the faith lives of elite scientists is wrong.       Ecklund’s findings sketch a portrait of a scientific community that is much more religiously diverse than previously thought. While there are still significantly more scientists who are atheists in comparison to the number of atheists in the general U.S. population (34% vs. 2%), about half of scientists identify with some type of religion. Additionally, a little over 20% of scientists see themselves as spiritual but not religious in a traditional sense. In terms of age, her study also found that younger scientists were more likely to believe in God and attend religious services. The majority of religious scientists practice what Ecklund calls a “closeted faith,” rarely sharing their views with their colleagues due to strong cultures of suppression surrounding religious discussion within departments. Interestingly enough, many of these same scientists find it difficult to open up about their work in their houses of worship. However, there are a smaller number of scientists whom she would describe as “boundary pioneers.” These are scientists who are willing to talk openly about how they have successfully reconciled religion and science. Among the spiritual but not religious, Ecklund found “spiritual entrepreneurs,” and even “spiritual atheists,” whose spirituality meaningfully engages their science without reference to God or organized religion. On the significance of all of this, Ecklund writes: [div id="blockquote"]Scientists have been perceived as carriers of the secularist impulse, a group responsible for building the modern research university and undermining religious authority by their success in deciphering the mysteries of the natural order without recourse to supernatural aid or guidance. But I argue here that elite scientists who are boundary pioneers and spiritual atheists might actually be carriers of a new religious impulse, one characterized by a deep commitment to the scientific enterprise and the achievement of elite status among their scientific peers.[end-div]Ecklund’s groundbreaking research is aided by her nuanced approach to religion. Instead of using a singular definition of religion or reducing religion to traditional markers, she allowed respondents to define religion in their own terms. This enabled her to uncover a greater degree of complexity in the religious lives of scientists. In the course of her research, Ecklund was able to shatter some common myths held by religious people about scientists. First, atheist scientists are not always hostile to religion. Only a small proportion of atheists and agnostics in the study were hostile and actively opposed to religion. This reveals that the hostility expressed towards religion by some scientists (think Richard Dawkins)—which may loom large in the public imagination—is actually far less representative of what most scientists believe. Second, spirituality is still often important for a number of scientists who do not identify themselves as religious. While not traditionally religious, these scientists express a quest for truth and a wonder for the universe that is an important part of their work. Lastly, for non-religious scientists, science is not the major cause of unbelief. Bad experiences with religion, issues over the problem of evil, and one’s upbringing (i.e. parent’s religious commitment) are more likely causes. In addition to shattering myths about “godless” scientists, Ecklund also discovered that some scientists held views about religion that were simply inaccurate. For one, many scientists expressed a low level of religious literacy. In other words, they would often reduce all religion to fundamentalism. Secondly, many scientists assumed that all evangelical Christians were against science—not knowing sometimes that some of their colleagues at school, who were also included in the study, were evangelicals. Going beyond scientists’ personal beliefs, Ecklund also spends some time showing how scientists’ different conceptions of the university and of the scientific enterprise itself play an important role in how they understand religion. For example, some see science as the only valid way to knowledge while others are much more willing to admit the limitations and biases that factor into science. Beliefs on these matters are just as crucial and happen to be as diverse as the personal religious beliefs of scientists. One of Ecklund’s main goals in writing Science vs. Religion was to promote a more productive dialogue between religious nonscientists and scientists (religious and nonreligious). She shows that there is a greater amount of complexity and factors at work in the religious lives of scientists than is commonly assumed. She also persuasively argues that a lack of dialogue and understanding is a loss for everyone. On the one hand, religious people should not believe the popular caricatures that misrepresent scientists. On the other hand, if scientists truly want to communicate better with the general public then it will require a greater degree of sensitivity to the religious diversity that exists in our society. Read the rest of our archived book reviews here.