Monday, April 25, 2011

Can hope be wrong? On the new universalism

This ain't your Grandma's universalism (if your Grandma was, say, a Unitarian). The (relatively) old universalism was a liberal universalism of "many-roads-to-God-who-is-a-big-cuddly-Grandpa" (or, more recently, Grandma). Such a universalism was generally embarrassed by Christian particularity and any claims to the divinity of Christ. Instead, Jesus was a kindly teacher like so many others pointing us all to that great kumbaya-sing-along in the the "beyond."

In contrast, the "new" universalism is an evangelical universalism, a Christocentric universalism. If all will be saved, they will be saved in Christ, because of the work of Christ as the Incarnate God who has triumphed over the power of sin and death (the new universalist Christ is a victor, not a redeemer).

The question, then, is just what compels one to be an evangelical universalist? Some resort to prooftexting, operating with a naive, selective reading of Scripture. I'm going to do the evangelical universalist a favor and ignore such a strategy, only because I think it can be so easily refuted. (Many of these evangelical universalists would pounce on such selective prooftexting in other contexts.)

No, the motivation for evangelical universalism is not really a close reading of the Bible's claims about eternity. Instead, it seems that the macro-motivation for evangelical universalism is less a text and more a hermeneutic, a kind of "sensibility" about the very nature of God as "love" (which includes its own implicit sensibility about the nature of love). Two phrases you will often hear from evangelical universalists involve hope and our imagination. (For a sample combination of this constellation of concerns, see Lauren Winner's essay on Rob Bell in yesterday's New York Times Book Review.) The concern is often formulated something like this:
1) "I can't imagine" that a God of love would condemn Gandhi to hell. (Always Gandhi. Why Gandhi? As Ross Douthat asks, can you insert Tony Soprano here? Doesn't the evangelical universalist case of Gandhi imply a kind of salvation by works? But I digress...) Or, as Winner puts it, evangelical universalists "can't imagine their secular friends aren't going to heaven."

2) "I don't know if all will be saved but I hope this will be true." I'm firmly committed to the particularity of Christ, the evangelical universalist will emphasize. I just hope that God's salvation is not so particular that he only saves some. And it is precisely God's love and mercy that make me hope in this way.
The question then is: are these hopes and imaginings sufficiently warranted to overturn the received, orthodox doctrines concerning final judgment and eternal damnation? Are these sufficient to overturn the narrative thrust of Scripture and the clearer reading of biblical passages that suggest otherwise. (Let's stop making this just about passages that mention "hell;" at issue here are all passages that discuss judgment.) Are these hopes and imaginings sufficient for me to set aside centuries of the church's theological reflection on these matters? Is my chronological snobbery warranted? Just how do I think my hopes and imaginings are somehow more faithful and merciful and just than the generations upon generations of my forebears in the Christian faith? (I'll confess to being a kind of theological Burkean: it's very hard for me to imagine that I am smarter or better than Augustine or John Calvin or Jonathan Edwards. I'm not generally given to whiggish theology.)

Let's attend to these two specific sorts of claims. I would note that both of these intuitions are fundamentally anthropocentric strategies--outcomes of what Charles Taylor (in A Secular Age) calls "the anthropocentric turn" in modernity. A couple of thoughts:

1) The "I-can't-imagine" strategy is fundamentally Feuerbachian: it is a hermeneutic of projection which begins from what I can conceive and then projects "upwards," as it were, to a conception of God. While this "imagining" might have absorbed some biblical themes of love and mercy, this absorption seems selective. More importantly, the "I-can't-imagine" argument seems inattentive to how much my imagination is shaped and limited by all kinds of cultural factors and sensibilities--including how I "imagine" the nature of love, etc. The "I-can't-imagine" argument makes man the measure of God, or at least seems to let the limits and constraints of "my" imagination trump the authority of Scripture and interpretation. I take it that discipleship means submitting even my imagination to the discipline of Scripture. (Indeed, could anything be more countercultural right now than Jonathan Edwards' radical theocentrism, with all its attendant scandals for our modern sensibilities?)

2) The "at-least-I-hope" strategy might seem less problematic. Doesn't it just name what all of us secretly desire? Indeed, wouldn't we be quite inhuman if we didn't hope in this way? (Then you get Winner's obnoxious suggestion that any of those who continue to affirm divine judgment are really trying to "guard heaven's gate," taking a certain delight in exclusion, as if they saw heaven as a country club. I won't dignify that with a response.)

But whence this hope? Can our hopes ever be wrong? Let's try an analogous example: I love my wife dearly. She is the best thing that ever happened to me, and our marriage has been an incredible means of grace in my life. I can't imagine life without her; indeed, I don't want to imagine life without her. And I want to hope that we will share this intimacy as a husband and wife forever.

But then I run into this claim from Jesus: "At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven" (Matt. 22:30). Should I nonetheless hope that marriage endures in eternity? Should I profess that I can't know this (since Scripture seems to suggest otherwise), but nonetheless claim that somehow hoping it might be true is still faithful? Or should I submit even my hopes to discipline by the authority of Scripture?

The new universalism is not the old universalism. Fair enough. But those of us who reject even the new universalism aren't gleeful about it. We might even wish it were otherwise. But we also recognize that even our wishes, hopes, and desires need discipline.

Friday, April 22, 2011

"Vague" Religion: Brooks, Taylor, and the "Book of Mormon" Musical

The irreverent musical, The Book of Mormon, is getting rave reviews from all quarters--well, all quarters of secular elites (I read the first review, in the New York Times, on the day that I was speaking at Brigham Young University!). The gist of the South-Park-ish critique is not a scorched-earth approach (it's not a script written by Christopher Hitchens); instead, all reviewers seem to agree that the critique amounts to something like this: "What you believe is unbelievably ridiculous and laughable, but we sure can't deny that you are just so incredibly nice (and naive)."

But David Brooks' column today, "Creed or Chaos," pushes beyond these platitudes--in a way that reminds me of an important point in Charles Taylor's A Secular Age. First, Brooks:

The central theme of “The Book of Mormon” is that many religious stories are silly — the idea that God would plant golden plates in upstate New York. Many religious doctrines are rigid and out of touch.

But religion itself can do enormous good as long as people take religious teaching metaphorically and not literally; as long as people understand that all religions ultimately preach love and service underneath their superficial particulars; as long as people practice their faiths open-mindedly and are tolerant of different beliefs.

This warm theme infuses the play with humanity and compassion. It also plays very well to an educated American audience. Many Americans have always admired the style of belief that is spiritual but not doctrinal, pluralistic and not exclusive, which offers tools for serving the greater good but is not marred by intolerant theological judgments.

The only problem with “The Book of Mormon” (you realize when thinking about it later) is that its theme is not quite true. Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last. The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False.
He continues to then offer an apology for "rigorous theologies"--an apologetic for thick, theological specificity rather than some bland, lowest-common-denominator spirituality. And then ends with a theme that alludes to his new book, The Social Animal, but a point I've also been pushing since Desiring the Kingdom. As Brooks puts it,
Rigorous codes of conduct allow people to build their character. Changes in behavior change the mind, so small acts of ritual reinforce networks in the brain. A Mormon denying herself coffee may seem like a silly thing, but regular acts of discipline can lay the foundation for extraordinary acts of self-control when it counts the most.
In a way, Brooks echoes Charles Taylor's critiques of reductionistic, "secular" accounts of religion. For example, as he notes later in A Secular Age, many secular elites work with some sort of "general theory of religion" which sees "religion" (in general) as a vague 'answer' to the question of "meaning." In other words, if you ask a secularist why people believe in the crazy particularities of various faith, the answer is not particular but vague: They're looking for "meaning."

But Taylor thinks this is just the sort of over-wrought balderdash you'd come up with if you were not "religious." "What humans seek in religion," Taylor emphasizes, is not "meaning," and it's certainly not meaning in general. "Indeed, there is something absurd about the idea that our lives could be focused on meaning as such, rather than on some specific good or value. One might die for God, or the Revolution, or the classless society, but not for meaning" (A Secular Age, p. 679). "Anyone genuinely 'into' some good or value," he continues, "must see this particular good as having worth; this is what he is moved by" (680). Vague spiritualities of "niceness" will never generate such commitment.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

On Loving (and Being Loved By) David Foster Wallace

I worry that all the hoopla of David Foster Wallace, Inc. is going to overwhelm serious discussion of his work, generating a backlash against the media-constructed image of DFW as the saintly martyr for the cause of "the novel." One of the worst outcomes of such a juvenile, anti-trend backlash would be the dismissal of Jonathan Franzen's New Yorker essay, "Farther Away." Indeed, here's a piece doomed to double-disdain: yet more about Wallace, and now from mega-selling literary phenom, Franzen. (Even the cynical, however, might appreciate Karen Green's recent interview in the Guardian.)

Granted, Franzen's essay is a bit of a set piece, recounting his retreat to the desolate Alejandro Selkirk island off the coast of Chile--named for the Scottish adventurer who is the likely basis of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. So here we have Franzen, burned out on the book tour from his best-selling Freedom, retreating alone to the isolation of this island with a paperback copy of Robinson Crusoe in his backpack. This is the sort of thing writers do only so they can write about it.

But Franzen is also trying to find space to mourn the death of his friend, David Foster Wallace. And so the essay intertwines three threads: his adventure alone on the island, his attempt to come to grips with the death of David (including both lament and anger), and his meta-reflections on the history and task of the novel, very much continuing his famous thesis in How to Be Alone: that fiction is a response, and antidote, to loneliness (a thesis he shared with Wallace). On all three counts, Franzen is worth reading.

Particularly poignant and insightful are Franzen's reflections on love in the corpus of DFW. On the one hand, he notes its absence from Wallace's fictional worlds: "Close loving relationships, which for most of us are a foundational source of meaning, have no standing in the Wallace fictional universe." On the other hand, "[t]he curious thing about David's fiction, though, is how recognized and comforted, how loved, his most devoted readers feel when reading it."

That sounds exactly right to me. But I would ratchet this up a notch, too: it's not just that Wallace's readers feel loved because of his vulnerability and honesty. I think one could also argue that despite all of their addictions and "hideous" characteristics, Wallace also loved his characters. Indeed, I think this is precisely what distinguishes Wallace from Franzen. This is one the things that struck me while reading Freedom: it is a masterful work, but I found it difficult to generate sympathy with any of the characters, and it struck me that this is because Franzen doesn't really care for Patty or Walter or Joey or any of the others either. While Wallace and Franzen are often mentioned in the same (postmodern) breath, associated with hyper-self-consciousness, "meta"-izing fancies, and cynical distance, in fact they're quite different. Franzen ended up settling for quite a straightforward narrative strategy, but his stories ooze with cynicism. In contrast, while Wallace was every bit the pomo formalist, indulging in all kinds of "non-linear" tricks and gimmicks, what emerges through that is not cynicism, but something quite different: a sensitivity and understanding for the messed up worlds of his characters that might just be love.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Candid Decorator

Another little treasure in my inbox today, thanks to Knopf's "Poem-a-Day" for April. Includes just a whiff of allusion to Oscar Wilde's complex interplay of aestheticism and the soul-burrowing introspection of De Profundis--along with a concluding shout-out to Grand Rapids' heritage as "furniture city."

The Candid Decorator

By James Merril

I thought I would do over
All of it. I was tired
Of scars and stains, of bleared
Panes, tinge of the liver.
The fuchsia in the center
Looked positively weird
I felt it—dry as paper.
I called a decorator.
In next to no time such
A nice young man appeared.
What had I in mind?
Oh, lots and lots of things—
Fresh colors, pinks and whites
That one would want to touch;
The windows redesigned;
The plant thrown out in favor,
Say, of a small tree,
An orange or a pear . . .
He listened dreamily.
Combing his golden hair
He measured with one glance
The distance I had come
To reach this point. And then
He put away his comb
He said: “Extravagance!
Suppose it could be done.
You’d have to give me carte
Blanche and an untold sum.
But to be frank, my dear,
Living here quite alone
(Oh I have seen it, true,
But me you needn’t fear)
You’ve one thing to the good:
While not exactly smart,
Your wee place, on the whole
It couldn’t be more ‘you.’
Still, if you like—” I could
Not speak. He had seen my soul,
Had said what I dreaded to hear.
Ending the interview
I rose, blindly. I swept
To show him to the door,
And knelt, when he had left,
By my Grand Rapids chair,
And wept until I laughed
And laughed until I wept.

Monday, April 11, 2011

An Ode to Rory McIlroy

A lot of my friends love to hate golf--with all its bourgeois trappings and conservative leanings, its generally patrician vibe. And they sure can't understand how someone could watch golf.

I'm guilty on all counts, but won't undertake any apologetics here. As a bit of testimony, let me just say this: golf is the only televised sport that all my kids will watch with me. Go figure.

But for those of us who have that love-hate relationship with the game (which just is love for the game), this year's Masters was as close as one gets to athletic poetry, the energy of a Greek tragedy played out on a stage of sculpted horticulture whose lush beauty is a dream set--magnolia blossoms framing the perfection of Augusta's fairways and undulating greens. Long shadows trail across the greens during the late-afternoon close of the drama. Augusta is so stunning you can almost smell it on TV.

The real heros of this year's Masters have to be the editors at CBS: with no less than 10 players in contention for most of Sunday, every shot had significance, and you could feel the director barely keeping up: KJ Choi dropping a putt on 15, then cut to Jason Day ripping a drive on 14, cut to Tiger roaring up the fairway on 16, etc., etc. Never has a golf tournament had such non-stop energy (making a mockery of the supposed 'excitement' of either baseball or football which both have tiny bursts of action interspersed with long stretches of standing around and long commercial breaks).

The 2011 Masters cast was international and intergenerational: the top of the leaderboard featured a player from every continent except Antarctica. And their ages ranged from 21 to 40. Between them all it was a weekend of non-stop excellence and heartbreak, genius and foibles, unthinkable shots and lip-biting misses. (I do think one has to have played golf to be able to appreciate the almost superhuman mastery of the game exhibited by the pros.) This has to make the taste of victory all the sweeter for Charl Schwartzel.

All of this included, of course, the meltdown of young Rory McIlroy--the phenom from Northern Ireland who had led the tournament at the close of each of the first three days, coming into Sunday with an unheard of 4-shot lead. And then golf showed up. Every golfer knows that at any moment he, like Jonathan Edwards' sinner, is suspended above the abyss by an ever-so thin thread of intertwined grace, guts, and luck. And that thread can unravel quickly. What makes golf so awe-inspiring and expletive-inducing is the fact that it is a game measured in yards but won or lost by millimeters. (See, for example, ESPN's "Sports Science" account of the physics of lip-outs.) More significantly, golf is an incredible interplay of mind and body: on the one hand, it is an intense example of the mechanics of bodily automation, of what Merleau-Ponty would describe as praktognosia, a "know-how" that is carried in the flesh. On the other hand, in a Yogi Berra-like quip, golf is 90% mental and 10% psychological. It is a game that is played, as Bobby Jones put it, on the 5-inch course between your ears.

It was heartbreaking to watch young McIlroy self-destruct: bouncing off trees, hitting the lips of bunkers, driving into the creek, three-putting holes. Augusta was eating him up. (There's always a Schadenfreude encouragement in this for duffers like me: "Hell, I could do that!" you can shout at the TV.)

But here, too, we see the Calvinist virtues of golf: there's no tapping out; no throwing in the towel; and Rory didn't indulge in any of Tiger's juvenile antics of cussing or throwing clubs or pouting around the course. While he'd cover his eyes and cringe at the errant flight of his drives, he'd also step up for the next shot. And he'd par the last 3 holes. That's a feat in itself.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Heads in the Fiscal Sand

The Times today includes an article that might be overlooked: "Next on the Agenda for Washington: Fight Over Debt." It notes that in the next couple of months, the United States will reach the congressionally-imposed limit on borrowing, capped at the staggering debt ceiling of $14.25 trillion (for the sake of argument, pretend it's possible to imagine what a "trillion" is). As the article succinctly notes,

Once the limit is reached, the Treasury Department would not be able to borrow as it does routinely to finance federal operations and roll over existing debt; ultimately it would be unable to pay off maturing debt, putting the United States government — the global standard-setter for creditworthiness — into default.

The same article is accompanied by the graphic above which documents the exponential growth in federal debt since Reagan (under whom it tripled). In sum, the Reaganite dream of unfettered spending and tax cuts is a fairy tale we've been telling ourselves for over 30 years and somehow we keep believing it. Our grandchildren, in squalor, will wonder how we could have been duped for so long.

To note this, however, is not to concede the slash-and-burn (supposed) "necessity" of the Paulists (Ron and Rand) or the generally "conservative" proposal of, say, Paul Ryan. Yes, the formula that's got us here is unfettered spending coupled with low taxes (where spending, as you'll also note above, includes a rash of military spending on the basis of Bush II foreign policy). But only a lazy, unimaginative take on this would assume that "low taxes" is a given. So sure, one strategy to reduce debt would be to slash spending, which inevitably happens on the backs of the poor and vulnerable, particularly women and children.

But of course there's another (unthinkable) option here: raise taxes. In this respect, David Brooks' Friday column is very helpful when read alongside today's article. As Brooks points out in "The Ryan Journey,"
The best thing about the long-term budget proposal from Paul Ryan, the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, is that it forces Americans to confront the implications of their choices. If voters want taxes that amount to roughly 18 percent of G.D.P., then they are going to have to accept a government that looks roughly like what Ryan is describing. The Democrats are on defense because they are unwilling to ask voters to confront the implications of their choices. Democrats seem to believe that most Americans want to preserve the 20th-century welfare state programs. But they are unwilling to ask voters to pay for them, and they are unwilling to describe the tax increases that would be required to cover their exploding future costs.
This does seem to be a fair observation of where we're at. I'm less convinced by Brooks' claim that "[r]aising taxes on the rich will not do it," since I would think a graduated tax like most other North Atlantic countries could sure go a long way. But I do agree with his other point: if Obama and the Democrats want to retain programs that care for the poor and vulnerable (as they rightly do!), then we need to face another reality: the middle class need to bear the brunt of this, too. Surely we can give up a few bottles of wine a month, a few of the attractions on our vacations, a few rounds of golf for the sake of the poor.

But as the Democrats know, we're no longer talking about fiscal matters: we're talking about whether the middle-class citizens of this country actually have the political will to care for their neighbor. I think one of the core argument of Eric Gregory's Politics and the Order of Love is to show that Augustine would have expected the church to be that body habituated to care for the neighbor, exhibiting civic virtues which are just the sort of political will and desire needed to address the sorts of problems we're grappling with. But sadly, the church in the United States is just as captive to the selfish atomism of the culture as anyone--indeed, somehow even more so, ardently eschewing any sense of fiscal obligation to the poor, opting for the pious patina of libertarianism masked by calls for "charity."

Friday, April 08, 2011

Zac Brown Band & James Taylor on the ACM Awards

I have watched this clip way too many times. Be sure to hang in there until Taylor seamlessly weaves "Sweet Baby James" into the medley. Good stuff.

Book Notes and Book Reviews on Scribd

I've decided to upload some of the archive of book reviews I've done over the years, creating a collection on Scribd. I'll hope to keep updating this as I have opportunity.

Review of Peperzak, "The Quest for Meaning: Friends of Wisdom from Plato to Levinas"

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

On Poetry

David Orr's essay on the instrumentalization of poetry in Oprah's magazine is worth a read for all kinds of reasons, but especially for the concluding paragraph where he rightly laments:
I wish, though, that they had found space for someone — not a critic, necessarily, just someone willing to be honest — to talk about the actual experience of reading a poem. Not why poems are good at rehabilitating people. Not where poems come from. Not what they can help us do, or forget, or remember. Not what the people who write them are wearing. Just what reading one of them is like to one person. If the chasm is to be ever so slightly narrowed, it seems to me this is how it will be done.
The best poems are not messages; they are lingual acrobatics, roiling heart and mind by setting them awash in words. In reading poetry, you don't so much suspend disbelief as give yourself permission to be lost in language--to be carried along on a wave of words that cascades in delight or sorrow. You give yourself to the poem and ride this wave like a kind of emotional and intellectual body surfing, holding your breath the whole way, perhaps with a smirk or growing smile, perhaps with a squint and creeping frown, perhaps with a tear burbling up from inside your soul that finally drops at the poem's heartbreaking end.

In a sense, a good poem doesn't mean something, it does something. Or perhaps, following Wittgenstein, we could just say the poem means what it does.

I can think of no better example of this than the poem that showed up in my inbox this morning, thanks to Knopf's Poem-A-Day for April, Poetry Month (what month isn't poetry month?!). Give yourself over to the delight of Cynthia Zarin's "Late Poem":

Late Poem

". . . a matter of changing a slide in a magic lantern."

I wish we were Indians and ate foie gras
and drove a gas-guzzler
and never wore seat belts

I’d have a baby, yours, cette fois,
and I’d smoke Parliaments
and we’d drink our way through the winter

in spring the baby would laugh at the moon
who is her father and her mother who is his pool
and we’d walk backwards and forwards

in lizard-skin cowboy boots
and read Gilgamesh and Tintin aloud
I’d wear only leather or feathers

plucked from endangered birds and silk
from exploited silkworms
we’d read The Economist

it would be before and after the internet
I’d send you letters by carrier pigeons
who would only fly from one window

to another in our drafty, gigantic house
with twenty-three uninsulated windows
and the dog would be always be

off his leash and always
find his way home as we will one day
and we’d feed small children

peanut butter and coffee in their milk
and I’d keep my hand glued under your belt
even while driving and cooking

and no one would have our number
except I would have yours where I’ve kept it
carved on the sole of my stiletto

which I would always wear when we walked
in the frozen and dusty wood
and we would keep warm by bickering

and falling into bed perpetually and
entirely unsafely as all the best things are
—your skin and my breath on it.