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Let’s say you have a friend who has recently converted to Christianity after a long period of spiritual turmoil. He grew up in a heterodox church (think Jehovah’s Witnesses, Church of Christ Scientist, etc.) that read the Bible but was largely untethered from the orthodox body of Christ, so while he grew up reading the Bible, it was from a theological perspective that is now of only limited use.

He’s intelligent and curious, and a fairly voracious reader, so he has done some solid homework and now knows a lot about Christianity, but doesn’t really feel like he knows Christianity from the inside, as a believer. So he is now looking for books to read that will not only help him to become truly grounded in the fundamentals of all areas of discipleship but that will also point him toward a long-lasting and deep faith in Jesus Christ.

For the record, he reads the Bible daily, he has already read most of C.S. Lewis’s widely-known works, so far he is generally inclined toward a Reformed theology, and he is a little antsy about charismatic worship. But again, he was raised outside of orthodox Christianity, so he is aware that he may not know what he doesn’t know.

So what books would you point him towards?

(PS, he’s me.)

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I’m about two-thirds of the way through William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust, and few things in the world could make me happer. It’s not my favorite of Faulkner’s novels by any stretch (obviously I like Absalom, Absalom! best, but I also have an immense love for The Reivers, The Sound and the Fury and A Light in August), but just reading anything at all by Faulkner makes me feel comforted and at home. I get lost in it and I resent having to come back out. Reading Faulkner is like holding your head underwater, except instead of water it’s the human experience filtered through the complicated, painful and exquisitely beautiful legacy of the South, deeply rooted in place, and written in hypnotic prose that tastes like river water, blood and a humid summer twilight. And unlike water, you can breathe it. It’s not easy to breathe–it’s heady–but you can breathe it. And it’s insidiously addictive.

I started reading books generally in a more disciplined fashion about two years ago when I began picking up westerns. My rule is that I read no more than one fiction and one non-fiction book at a time (short stories and short story collections don’t count), and I finish the one (or intentionally decide to not finish it, which I have done a number of times) before I pick up the next. This keeps me from meandering through the first thirty pages of book after book with no direction and no sense of satisfaction and never finishing or appreciating anything. It’s been a good system, and as a result I very well may have read probably more books in the last two years than in the ten before that–certainly better books.

Like I said, I started with westerns and enjoyed them immensely, but via Cormac McCarthy I wound up transitioning from westerns to my true love, the Southern literary tradition. Simultaneously, I transitioned from westerns to Civil War obsession, which is deeply and inseparably related to Southern literature, but is a topic for another day. I like McCarthy’s westerns quite a bit (although I think I may prefer All The Pretty Horses to Blood Meridian), but his early East Tennessee novels (Outer Dark, Suttree and The Orchard Keeper; I have not yet read Child of God) captured me and held me under a spell the way the cowboy books don’t. Maybe it’s because I was raised in East Tennessee. Maybe it’s just because they’re good books. Probably both, but for me they are also ghost-haunted and harrowing, and they capture perfectly the stillness and terror and the deep longing I have for those wooded hills. I have ancestors who crawled out of those mountains more than a century ago, and I feel them wriggling in my blood: when I read McCarthy, they are roused and they answer.

But McCarthy also put me in a mood to go back and re-read Absalom, Absalom!, which I had not read since high school, and I was done. It was finished. Since then I have been working my way determinedly through the Southern canon and having an honest to God hard time trying to figure out why I would want to bother reading anything else.

I read nearly everything Flannery O’Connor wrote with grotesque and gleeful abandon. I read James Dickey’s Deliverance while every muscle in my body was tense for nearly the entire read (I had to stop periodically to relax and breathe). I mourned for the loss of William Gay just days after I finished Provinces of Night. I’m slowly working my way through Shelby Foote’s Civil War. I’ve read Carson McCullers and James Agee.

And today I’m reading Intruder. I’m not sure what’s next; I have deliberated re-reading Suttree, but I have a long list of what I want to read and a big bag of used books sitting on a shelf downstairs. And all too often, with whatever I am reading, I just wish I was reading Faulkner instead.

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The question of whether Mormons can be considered Christian is fairly central to interfaith dialogue, and is significant enough to have garnered national attention during the 2008 presidential campaign. It comes up every now and then on Tim’s most excellent blog, and as an ex-Mormon non-Christian who is nevertheless widely read and confident in his basic grasp of the world of religion and religious belief, I thought I would take a stab at untangling some of the mess. Fundamentally, the question and ensuing argument is an issue of semantics/framing: both sides are talking about something different when they talk about whether Mormons are Christians, and both sides feel like they have something extremely important–but again, totally different–at stake with regards to the answer. the resolution to the dispute is probably not as simple as forcing one or both sides to re-frame their dialogue, since the way it is framed is not arbitrary. But an awareness of the semantic mismatch and an understanding of why it matters to both sides would go a long way into at least setting the issue aside and reducing its potential for causing a ruckus.

From the individual Mormon’s perspective, I think there is a pathological fear of being misunderstood. I believe that a large number of Mormons, fed on Mormon historical accounts of mistreatment in the early days of the church and anecdotal hostility since then, fear that they will be discriminated against or that they will encounter hostility because of misinformation about Mormonism that has been perpetuated. In other words, a significant number of Mormons believe that 1) they face potential or present persecution, because of 2) lies, misinformation, and twisted truth about their religion. Thus, if they could get people to accurately understand who they are and what they were about, they would not be in danger. I think there’s also a belief that a large number of potential converts to the Church refuse to consider Mormonism as an option because of misinformation about it: indeed that the single biggest obstacle to the missionary effort is misunderstandings about the Church.

So, for the Mormon, it is important to promote accurate, descriptive picture of their religion for their safety and for the success of their missionary program. This is underscored and reinforced in the individual Mormon’s mind by the Church’s intensive and explicit public relations efforts over the last three or so decades. If the Church itself has been engaged so desperately in promoting a positive image, then it must be not only important and beneficial, but God’s intention for His Church.

So when the Mormon encounters a conservative Christian that says “Mormons are not Christians,” alarm bells go off. The Mormon, in this encounter, wants first and foremost to be descriptively understood: he wants to correct misunderstandings because he believes misunderstandings lead to persecution and prevent the missionaries from touching the hearts of the people they contact and teach. The Mormon believes, descriptively, that he is a Christian: in fact, he believes that his Church is actually the Church established by Jesus Christ, and from a dictionary/encyclopedia-standpoint, that makes Mormons Christians. To say otherwise is to spread damaging lies such as that Mormons do not believe in Jesus Christ, share Christian values, or believe in the Bible. And if those lies get (further) spread, individual Mormons will be persecuted because they are misunderstood and the missionaries will not be able to reach the people who are looking for the Truth.

(Lurking here is the presumption that if Mormons were correctly understood that they would not be persecuted except at the hands of the truly evil, and that the missionaries would be able to teach and baptize exponentially more people).

This also means–and this is crucial–that when the Mormon confronts someone who still insists that Mormons are not Christians despite being exposed to an accurate description, the Mormon is likely to conclude that the person is being aggressively dishonest, and intentionally slandering the Church.

Now, there may be some people out there like that, but most of them are well-known heads of countercult ministries, or pissed-off ex-Mormons who (whether they are justified or not), are angry enough to lash out by saying anything bad about the Church that they can. whether or not it is true (though they are usually not also conservative Evangelicals, so they are not really relevant to the topic). But most theologically conservative Christians who insist on the non-Christianity of Mormonism despite an accurate picture of what the Church believes and teaches do not do so because of an evil motive. There is a misunderstanding here, because when the Mormon and the Evangelical talk about the question of whether or not Mormons are Christians, they are not really talking about the same thing. The Mormons are talking about “Christianity” from a descriptive, historical, and sociological point of view, whereas the Evangelical is talking about “Christianity” from a theological point of view. I shall attempt to explain.

Conservative Protestants, as a general rule, do not believe that denomination matters. They do not believe that salvation is found in the Lutheran Church, or the Southern Baptist Convention, or in their Evangelical Free Congregation. Conservative Protestants believe salvation is found only in the person of Jesus Christ. Mormons believe that salvation is only available through Jesus Christ too, but they believe that the road to that salvation (or exaltation, whatever, semantics) is only available through the Church’s teachings and sacraments. To a conservative Protestant, a denomination has other meanings, but very few if any would try to claim that any one denomination is the “one true church,” because the one true church is Christianity, in other words, those followers of Jesus who have embraced his gospel and have found salvation through faith on his name. Mormons (and other exclusive denominations like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and, more often than not, the Roman Catholic Church) do not fit into this category because their understanding about the nature of Jesus Christ and the means of salvation are radically different: just the claim that it can only be found in fullness in one organization is enough to completely disqualify Mormonism.

In other words, Mormons don’t understand why Evangelicals won’t acknowledge Mormonism’s Christianity because Mormons do not realize what is at stake. Evangelicals do not think of themselves as Lutherans or Presbyterians or Nondenominationals, at least not in terms of their primary spiritual identity. They may recognize that as a matter of history they are members of a specific denomination (if they are) and that they have been designated “Protestant,” but their primary way of thinking about themselves religiously is as a Christian. Again, to a conservative Protestant, specific denomination does not matter. What matters is whether you are a Christian. This means a Protestant is free to move between denominations as much as he wants without worrying about it, as long as the denominations are teaching Christianity. Not Christianity in the sense of “a religion about Jesus,” but in the theologically significant sense of “the way to Jesus.” Mormons may talk about and believe important things about Jesus, enough for sociologists and librarians to categorize them as Christians, but what they teach and believe about Jesus is significantly different enough to make it a different religion than the one that conservative Protestants are practicing. I know of no Mormon that would dispute this. What the Mormon thus fails to understand is that the conservative Protestant calls his religion “Christianity.”

So when the Evangelical meets a Mormon who claims that Mormonism is Christian, the Evangelical hears the Mormon claiming that they have the same religion. That is flat-out not true, and it’s obvious by even a fairly cursory examination. So the Evangelical concludes that the Mormon is trying to be deceptive: trying to claim to be theologically compatible so as to lure converts into a religious organization that is actually an entirely different animal. It looks like a bait-and-switch, using the Evangelical’s faith as the bait. Understandably, this irks the Evangelical. Furthermore, the Evangelical is justifiably concerned about his friends and family and assorted loved ones: as conservative Protestants they operate in a religious environment where, provided the denomination is Christian (in the Protestant theological sense), one is free to switch from denomination to denomination without necessarily jeopardizing one’s salvation. When the Mormon Church claims to be Christian and insists that Evangelicals agree that it is, the Mormon Church creates a situation wherein Evangelicals may be lured into something they never meant to get involved in. And with Mormonism’s “milk-before-meat” missionary policy, it is not an unreasonable fear. And eternal salvation is at stake.

The Mormon may ask, “why do the Evangelicals get to decide what Christian means? Why can’t they just call their religion something else? Then there wouldn’t be a problem.” But that’s a particularly disingenous claim from a Church that sets a great store by the name of their religion. Like Mormons, conservative Protestants believe their religion is the one true religion. However, unlike Mormons, Protestants do not set theological significance by the organizational boundaries of a denomination. So the conservative Protestant’s religion is not the same thing as his denomination. He may be categorized historically as a Protestant, but he, like the Mormon, believes that he is in fact a true follower of Jesus Christ, a designation which he shares with people who have a common understanding of doctrine and practice, and since they believe they are the only true followers of Jesus Christ, they call their religion “Christianity.”

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Reading most everything readily available by C. S. Lewis has made drastic changes to my outlook and thinking. While I find Lewis challenging, I also find his ideas compelling and persuasive. As an aside, I think it is worth mentioning that while Lewis was certainly a Christian, the Christianity that he articulated and believed was extremely unorthodox. If Evangelicals and Mormons took the time to actually read Lewis and consider his viewpoint, their love affair with his work would come to a tragic and untimely end. Instead, they generally read Lewis through dogmatic blinders, recruiting him as an apologist for their cause even though what he really said was completely heretical by Mormon and Evangelical standards.

But that’s just my soapbox and it does not bear directly on the issue at hand.

Before I proceed, I want to at least try to define the terms I will be using so as to alleviate confusion. I’m going to talk about a dichotomy between two term clusters that represent ideas about truth and value. On the one hand, I am talking about “soft” subjective values, values that are relative to the individual and are thus immanent—necessarily tied to person and context and most importantly to an individual human mind—as opposed to transcendent. This “soft” approach to truth and value will be contrasted with the “hard” approach of the objective, absolute, and transcendent. By “objective” I mean that these truths or values or moral principles exist independent of individual perspective. Context is significant without question: by “absolute” I do not mean that these principles ought to be applied the same way to every circumstance, but that as principles they exist as absolutes and are not subject to revision based on preference or perspective. These truths, etc., are thus transcendent in that if they exist at all they must exist apart from and beyond human minds and human experience, and they remain the same although human understanding of them may change. Thus, if they exist, they exist by virtue of something other than human thought and experience.

C. S. Lewis eloquently articulates the difference between these thought concepts and their ramifications in his book The Abolition of Man. One of Lewis’s most cogent points in the book (which is short, and well worth reading) is a model of moral reasoning which I call the “Is-Ought-Should” model. In this model, moral imperatives can be expressed as a statement of fact (“is”), a statement of principle (“ought”), and a conclusion in the form of a direction to act (“should”). For example, let’s say I see someone experiencing extreme suffering—that’s the “is”—and I take as a moral principle that suffering ought to be alleviated—that’s the “ought”—then I should help the suffering person. The Should follows from the Is and Ought, and thus when you weaken Ought, you likewise weaken should. Furthermore, Ought principles do not simply exist as observable phenomena the way Is statements do. They have to have some source. Therefore, the less authoritative the source of the Ought principle, the less compelling the principle itself, ad thus the less force stands behind the moral directive. This is the most important point: if the source of the Ought statement has no practical claim on me, then ultimately I have no compelling reason to follow a moral directive. Furthermore, this is a mater of degree: the weaker the source of the Ought, the weaker my reason to act morally. The stronger the source of the Ought, the stronger my reason to act morally. An Ought with no source is not an Ought at all: it’s a bare assertion backed by nothing.

Ought statements can have a number of sources, ranging from completely subjective—personal preference is the very weakest, most subjective possible source, excepting perhaps the even more subjective momentary whim—to the category of completely objective sources, i.e. sources that exist independent of human experience, whether we are talking about principles that flow from God as the source of the universe, or principles that are simply coded into reality the way laws of physics—or spiritual laws like karma if such a thing exists—are. Lewis himself does not assert a source for objective moral law in The Abolition of Man, but rather he attempts to show by inference that such laws do exist objectively because of their universal acceptance, and thus Lewis implies that objective moral law exists, and therefore necessarily has an objective transcendent source.

In any case, the conclusion remains that the weaker and more subjective the source of the Ought, the less compelling the Should, and the less claim that morality has on the individual. Alternately, without addressing the issue of source, the more subjective the Ought, the weaker the Should.

The problem with people who reject objective, transcendent moral values, says Lewis, is that all too often they want to hold on to moral statements and moral assertions. The result is that they go from Is to Should without passing through Ought. They want to say that you should help the suffering person without articulating a reason why suffering ought to be alleviated, or at least without articulating a compelling source for the Ought. In other words, they want to tell you to act according to a moral standard without giving you any kind of compelling reason, and then they invariably act all surprised and concerned when you don’t.

Why does any of this matter? Essentially, it is an issue of moral reasoning and moral judgment. If Should is undermined by a weak or nonexistent Ought, then we lose the ability to make moral judgments at all—we can’t criticize ourselves or others for acting immorally when we can’t articulate in a compelling sense why our/their actions are immoral. Likewise we lose the ability to speak of morality in prescriptive terms: we can hardly propose a virtuous course of action for ourselves or others if we can’t give a compelling reason why.

This is a problem with all ethical systems that do not involve an absolute, transcendent source for morality: they fail to give a compelling reason to the most basic human question: “Why?” Most non-absolute ethical systems, like Kant’s categorical imperative taken on its face, are really only descriptive of ethics. Kant can say that we should act only on that maxim which we can, at the same time, will to be a universal law, but without appealing to a transcendent source for that principle, he can’t tell us why we should bother. If that is indeed a description of morality, it is a description only. It may explain how a moral or ethical person acts, but it does not give a good reason why any given person should act that way.

Utilitarianism—the idea that at any given juncture we should take the action that provides the most good to the most people—encounters the same problem. Setting aside the massive problems with determining what course of action actually achieves that good, especially when it leaves the realm of the individual and is applied to public policy situations, and even setting aside fundamental problems with “what is good,” Utilitarianism still reaches a dead end when it comes to the question of why. It tells us how we should act, or it tells us how a moral or ethical person does act, but it does not give us a reason to act that way.

Pragmatism is no different. In fact, I might argue that pragmatism really just means utilitarianism or naked self-interest, which means pragmatism is a troublesome guide in that it can be difficult to identify what course of action is indeed the most pragmatic, especially in complex situations. Even if pragmatism is functional, it still fails to adequately answer the question of why. ‘Because it works” is a kind of answer, but it is not a satisfactory answer. It doesn’t really give a basis for making confident moral judgments, and since it is essentially sourceless, it fails to give truly compelling reasons for any given course of action.

If sourceless morality is all we have, then we may as well admit it, and stop pretending that our moral judgments are weightier than they are. If morality really does have an objective source, then we should be earnestly trying to figure out what it is.

Next: The Problem With Pluralism

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