Murdering God

While more posts, after a long hiatus, will be developed soon, I thought I would share some of one of my favorite writer’s (Philip Goodchild’s) work, a spectacular moment of vulnerability which occurs in the preface of his magisterial volume, Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety.

This book emerged from the tension between four powerful insights – insights bringing problems, no solutions. The last insight to arrive was the contemporary truth of suffering: a growing awareness that current trends in globalization, trade and the spread of technology are not only leading towards a condition where the human habitat is unsustainable, but the urgency and responsibility announced by this preventable catastrophe mean that little else is worth thinking about. . . As a whole, however, my work is grounded in an ‘idea’ – or perhaps I should say ‘experience’ – of what I will call ‘God’. This ‘idea’ was so overwhelming and so distinct from our customary ways of thinking that, while intelligible in itself, it remains incommunicable until it has called into question and reformulated all existing categories of philosophy and theology. Finally, the work of the revaluation of values which may lead to the cessation of suffering was developed in the form of the ‘murder of God’ –  the actual work of calling into question the fundamental concepts and values of the European tradition. (xiii-xiv)

The provocative ‘murdering of God’ is a necessity, especially when it comes to overturning those ways of being, ways of relating to others, that are dominant but which bring forth suffering. Here, Goodchild is insistent on the immense importance of finding new ways to value. Or, perhaps, hearkening back to older traditions of value, lost ways of determining worth. Our dominant systems (of discourse, trade, sociality), while often gesturing toward ideas like ‘human rights’, ‘justice’, ‘the good’, ‘God’, are only superficially intertwined with various ways of thinking about them. Instead, what Goodchild realizes and explicates in his broader corpus, is the way that money is what determines the way in which those prior signifiers are thought. To the point that the dominant religion simply is money. Money is God now.

But, here, we see that this isn’t just a cold ‘just the facts’ sort of discourse. In fact, doing so would be mirroring the sort of mirage of the ‘fact/value’ distinction that many modern economists assert.

Goodchild continues, though:

Each of these insights  fractured my self-consciousness, exposing an abyss beneath my thoughts and relations to myself, to others and to the world. I became a stranger to those closest to me as well as to myself.  Each issue imposed itself as a dynamic force on thought, a problem of unlimited importance that I feel barely equipped to begin to address. Moreover, these are not personal but universal and global problems, imposing the responsibility on each person to find an appropriate way of addressing them. In the case of each problem, however, there is only a minority who feel the impact of its force. . . The public consensus is engaged in a vast enterprise of evasion, sheltering in a wicked and lethal complacency. . . Thinking is nearly as dangerous as complacency. (xiv)

Engaging in the problems of contemporary economy, then, is of the most immense importance, such that even thinking seriously about it causes immense pain and ignites crisis. As Goodchild mentions, while there is an importance, for him, in the issues of ‘liberal norms’ such as toleration, rights, and also post-structural notions of difference, alterity, and locality, these take a seat to the overwhelming insight of suffering, but not just any suffering. Here, we are talking about universal suffering found in the univocal policies which are bringing about ecological crises which may eliminate the human race in under two centuries.

Maybe it is only though investing ourselves in these problems, problems which hurt to think about, that we can turn back the tides of collapse.

And, this will undoubtedly call for murdering God, because the global God isn’t the God of natural theology, nor Christianity, nor Islam; effectively, in the practicality of every day life, our God is something else. And, it is killing us.

 

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Interview with Jeph Holloway: Contemporary Christian Ethics and the Importance of Paul

Dr. Jeph Holloway

Interviewing is loads of fun, especially if the person you are interviewing is someone as great as Dr. Jeph Holloway, prof. of Theology, Ethics, and Philosophy at East Texas Baptist University. My last blog post was a quick review of his latest book, published last April. If you are interested in ethics, theology, or philosophy at all check out the book. Link can be found on last post.

This post is the first in a series of transcriptions of the interview we did on January 22, 2014. Check it out below.

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Taylor: Could you give a quick “elevator ride” synopsis of your latest book that was published last year? If you understand what I mean by “elevator ride” synopsis…

Jeph: Sure. Yes. If I’m going up the elevator it depends on how tall the building is. But, quickly, my concern is to explore Christian ethics in a way that is first biblically informed, but because biblically informed will be something of a contrast to the way Christian ethics is so often pursued.

I understand the basic message of the bible to be addressing a question of the relationship between God who is the good creator of a good creation and the tension that is evoked with that confession. We live in a world that seems to be so different than the goodness unveiled in Genesis 1. We grapple with the questions of God’s goodness in light of personal struggle, societal conflicts, international tensions, and so on. And so we are pressed to ask the question: What is God doing about evil?

I think that the testimony of scripture in both Old and New Testaments is that God, through God’s redemptive work, is creating a people, whose lives sustained in worship, bear witness to God’s purpose for creation. I state that explicitly in the book, and the book intends to unfold that in a number of different ways, primarily in dialogue with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. I believe that that sentiment, or that outlook, is canonical. And, if I had time or space in the book, and I had thought about doing it at one point, I would have shown that in the OT in the law, the prophets, the writings, and also in the gospels, in the book of Revelation, and in Paul himself.

I’m persuaded that too often whenever Christian ethics does give some engagement with scripture it does so piecemeal, with little snippets. It has an idea and has a verse that seems to purport that. I’m reluctant at having a large paradigm that I only support with a text here and there without substantive engagement in a prolonged, detailed way the biblical text.

And, so, since Ephesians is only 6 chapters you think “Well, that’s manageable!”  I selected Ephesians as something of the primary frame of reference for exploring these themes. I think Ephesians remarkably puts on display an emphasis that Christian ethics has to begin with what God is doing. So, a theocentric ethic. But what God is doing is what he is doing through Christ, a redemptive ethic. And what God is doing through Christ is not simply granting salvation from this world into the next world for the individual believer , but God through Christ is creating a people whose entire existence is reshaped, redirected, repatterned for God’s purposes in the context of worship where we can then be the kind of people who can exhibit to the world what God intended for creation from the beginning and where God will ultimately take all things.

Now that’s, that’s it in a nutshell. I hope that’s precise and concise enough.

But, what I do want to do with that, also, is to highlight the distinctiveness of this understanding of Christian ethics by way of contrast with other perspectives on the moral life. And so, for example, in the first major chapter, a theocentric ethic, I begin by asking first not “What should I do?” but, “What’s God doing?”. I draw comparison with Immanuel Kant who very intentionally, deliberately sought to drive a wedge between religion in general, Christianity in particular, and the moral life. He was seeking to establish the foundations of morality independent from any theological frame of reference.  Paul’s not doing that. Paul will be very particular in his insistence that the life he seeks to present in his letters is grounded in the character and identity and purposes of God. And so we cannot sever theology from ethics in Paul.

But, that’s just one example of my concern to present what I think is a Christian ethics by way of contrast with other models that so predominate in our culture.

T: I would say that was spot on. Great. It was a long elevator ride too!

Really tall building.

J: Well, there are some buildings that go up, ya know, 70 or 80 floors. If we were in New York we would still be on the elevator.

T: Kind of deviating from the book, but still staying in its realm, why did you first become interested in the study of Paul and did this lead organically to writing on ethics rather than, say, doing work specifically in sociology and foregoing, like some do, the ethical dimension?

J: Well, though there would be some among southern Baptists who might doubt this, I have always, since I became a Christian, been something of a Biblicist. My concern has been to understand what it is we find in scripture. To be frank that is part of why I am at somewhat of a distance from some circles in the southern Baptist convention. That I am willing to do that kind of work that seeks substantive engagement with scripture wherever it might go, even if it doesn’t conform to prevailing patterns of normalcy in some denominations. That’s my intent, that’s my own hunger, to understand what it is that we find in the Bible.

I took my first course in Christian ethics back in 1981 or 82 and became convinced that this discipline is where all the various disciplines in theological studies find their coherence. Asking, ok, we’re studying the bible, church history, theology, philosophy of religion and all that kind of stuff; but, where does it go? And how is this to shape the lives of God’s people in this world? And, so I believe that Christian ethics as a discipline has the concern to bring focus to any of a number of theological pursuits.

In my course of study I took a course on Ethics and the Letters of Paul. Ever since I had became a Christian and started reading the Bible I found Paul intriguing. That course further deepened my interest in and hunger to understand what Paul was up to. And I think, stepping back from it, for this primary reason Paul is the first one in the NT, the first of the writers of what we find in the NT, who is doing what I think Christian ethics needs to be doing: asking, “What does life within the sphere of the Gospel look like?”

And, exploring that, detailing that, writing about that within the context of real life issues in the early Christian communities that he primarily sought to establish, whether at Corinth or the churches of Galatia, or Philippi, or the churches in and around Ephesus.  Paul is the first one whose writings we have in the NT that is seeking to take the story of Christ, the Cross, Resurrection,  the fulfillment of the incorporation of the gentiles into the people of Israel through Christ, all of that and exploring, “All right, what does life look like for us?” And, “what is our calling in this world in light of how we understand God to be at work?”

So, I consider the letters of Paul to be fundamentally pastoral in that respect.  And, I think, that’s a basic reason why I’ve been so intrigued by the letters of Paul all this time. And, it’s been with me for the last 30 plus years, in teaching courses on ethics in the letters of Paul, on writing my dissertation on ethics and the letters of Paul. Then when Dr. Harris [Dean of School of Religion at ETBU] asked, “Well, we’re going to be starting a graduate program at ETBU; what course would you like to teach?”  It was, “Well, duh! Ethics in the Letters of Paul!”

Because I see in Paul that model of what I think Christian ethics needs to be, I find him to be a premier resource of what I hope to offer in terms of Christian ethics needs to be. 

Review of: The Poetics of Grace: Christian Ethics as Theodicy

The amazing book on Christian ethics by Jeph Holloway.

This blog has a LOT of purposes, which perhaps contributes to its downfall. Nonetheless, I have to include a plug for one of my former professor’s book which came out last April. If you care in the least about subjects in the realm of theology, philosophy, ethics, or ecclesiology you should pick up the book. It is not that expensive, especially if you want an electronic copy.

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Holloway’s book on ethics centers squarely around theodicy. Now, I know what you may be thinking: theodicy is, primarily, a philosophical topic taken up by, usually, apologists (though, it seems most often the hard work is done by those scholars like Van Inwagen and then disseminated by rank-and-file apologists). After all, considering the existence of deity in the face of seemingly insurmountable natural and moral evil is becoming a rather stark task, one that the Christian should rightly confront and not shy away from.

Holloway, however, is not particularly concerned with discussing theodicy as some sort of difficulty in the face of God’s reality; rather, he starts by pointing out, quite rightly, that despite the insistence that Augustine (the bishop usually associated with the origination of the term) is concerned with proving God (and the goodness of God) existed in light of evil, the notion is just contextually naive. Augustine was concerned instead “as a pastor to instruct members of the faith community–the church– as to the nature of evil and God’s response to it. (3)”. This is the starting point for Holloway, and what he seeks to do as well. No defense of belief in God (others have done this, and this is not the point or scope of the volume) as would be assumed by the reliance on theodicy.

God is doing something about Evil. That is the assumption, and God doing something about evil (theodicy, God’s justice in the presence of evil) is the foundation for the ethic to be explored in this volume (and subsequent volumes to hopefully be released within the next year or so). Primarily, Holloway echoes often the following phrase throughout the book: God, in God’s redemptive work, is creating a people whose lives, sustained in worship, bear witness to God’s purpose for creation. In this phrase Holloway packs several themes that he finds intimately detailed within Ephesians, characteristics that are crucial for properly doing Christian ethics. Thus, Holloway sees Christian ethics as needing to be theocentric, redemptive, ecclesial, liturgical, and eschatological, and he explores these themes in conversation with partners as diverse as Nietzsche and Niebuhr, MacIntyre and Gustafson, and virtually everyone else on the spectrum of ideas. In this respect, the name-dropping can be sometimes overwhelming; nonetheless, the resources are invaluable to the argument. This is truly an interdisciplinary volume, marrying quite rightly philosophy, theology, ethics, and biblical studies. The use, more explicitly, of scripture and biblical studies is a much needed corrective to those like Hauerwas who often seem to know the Ethica Nicomachea a bit more thoroughly than the New Testament.

Truly the importance of theodicy is convincingly applied as a starting point for a Christian ethic, especially one indebted to a view of scripture as a grand narrative, as is becoming more popular in light of Wright, Hauerwas, Long, and others. Turning the term on its head and asking the question, “What is God doing about evil?” rather than “How can God and evil coexist?” is not only more contextually interesting, it also helps to marry theology and ethics (too often separated in modern theology) and put a certain amount of burden on the Christian. God is redeeming the world, in this understanding, through his people, and God is a deity of work, and thus calls for his people to worship through their work to redeem.

If one is looking for a usual book on ethics, one that posits various questions or situations and employs a decisionistic enterprise then you had better look elsewhere. However, if you are looking for a volume that delves into scripture (primarily Ephesians, as the theme of the book is centered around it), sifts through recent ethical theory and philosophical inquiry, and challenges the theologian and lay Christian then you should certainly pick up the volume. It is excellently written, rather than excruciatingly dry, and unusually convincing in argument.

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If you are interested in checking out the book click here

 

Look for a forthcoming interview with Dr. Holloway concerning the book, Christian ethics, philosophy, and Pauline theology. Oh, and maybe jazz.

 

Thanks for reading!

The Walking Dead and Ethics: Hershel as Virtuous

(WARNING: SOME SPOILERS CONTAINED)

The Walking Dead is an immensely popular show with a large fan base of people who are attracted to either the deep personal and emotional drama, the post-apocalyptic setting, the blood and gore, or perhaps a combination of several of the above.

As with all television, you can really just watch passively without even a modicum of interest in anything beyond a mere surface level of engagement. I think a lot of people do that, which is evident from  responses to those episodes that seem to drag along with no zombie action (though, this is judging from mere individual accounts I hear from people in my personal life). Television is naturally a passive medium of entertainment, one that beckons the watcher to “relax and enjoy the ride.” We all need those moments, sometimes.

Just some survivors survivin’.

But, I think The Walking Dead is ripe for the picking when it comes to philosophical, ethical, and theological questions. Perhaps that is why half of the Religion profs at my university are hooked on the show, some even incorporating ethical questions, and philosophical questions about the nature of the self mined from the show, into class. There are numerous avenues and areas to explore (what does the concept of “zombie” say about the metaphysics of the writers? To what end do we follow in order to survive? Is surviving more important than retaining humanity? Can one be properly human in the face of infinite consumption? Is killing a zombie “murder”?), but I want to focus primarily on Hershel as a sort of guardian of the ethical, and as following a sort of ethics that is counter to modern utilitarianism and contemporary “decisionistic” models that one finds in some circles.

Let us start by identifying “utilitarianism” and “decisionistic” ethics quickly, and perhaps identifying some TWD characters that can be classed into these categories, then we can contrast them with Hershel.

Utilitarianism can be summed up by the cliche adage: “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” or, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.” Here, of course, there is no transcendence, no actual right or wrong, except in regards to the overall end “number” of pain or pleasure. Of course, this requires  quite laborious calculation, what one could call hedonistic calculus, or “felicific calculus.”  The ethical agent takes into account various variables coming to an ultimate conclusion about which action to take; after all, it’s just the rational thing to do.

Look at the character of Shane. He commits unspeakable acts and threatens to throw away the humanity of the group in order to, hopefully, survive. He kills Otis because the action, perhaps, saves him and Carl and also keeps Lori and Rick from feeling infinite pain. The problem is the “perhaps.”

We cannot calculate these things.

Recently we can see Carol take the same route. She murders two members of the community because they are sick. If she eliminates the source of the illness then everyone lives. If she doesn’t, then everyone will get sick.

Not.

She’s wrong and everyone gets sick anyway. We don’t live in a pretty mechanistic universe where we can account for all of the variables, tidying the up into a pretty package like a nice little accountant. It doesn’t work like that. Utilitarian ethics is not a workable path because we do not have sufficient knowledge; but also, it does not work because even if we were able to break the epistemic (dealing with knowledge) problems we have a larger problem. When there is no “good,” or the good is primarily defined as “whatever makes the greatest number happy or safe” almost any thing can be seen as rightly justified, whether the calculations hold true or not. This is moral fiction, as Alasdair MacIntyre would say.  Perhaps the primary sin is emotivism, or, the appeal to manipulation or power in order to justify the “right” path.

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Hershel in the sick zone.

And then there is Hershel. Before Hershel we had good ol’ Dale, the seemingly sole moral voice in the zombie apocalypse. Only he stood up against the desire to murder. He was killed off and Hershel became the medium, trying to guide the temporarily insane Rick during season three.

There is a direct contrast between Hershel and Carol in season 4. When the plague hits, Carol murders in order to “save”; Hershel sacrifices his self in order to save.

The context is dark. Almost everyone in the prison camp is sick, dying from this strange and quite catch-able flu. Entering the quarantine area almost certainly means sickness and probably death. But, Hershel is a healer and knows that he is not currently sick and that the sick need his help.  Hershel enters a situation that is unthinkable and works, slowing down the sickness with a tea concoction. There is no real calculation on Hershel’s part ; he does not excuse his behavior with vacuous”greatest good” talk; it is quite obvious he does this because of his character, and because he has a certain “good” in mind, the good of sacrificing oneself in order to provide service to the dying, whether they die or not, and despite his possible infection. He is a healer and so stays true to a character of healing and care, much like Jesus sacrificing his safety to cure the lepers, another people of contagion. He believes in an actual “good,” that human beings are worth it, that all life is valuable (that last point is important; he isn’t suicidal).

In the end of the mid-season finale Hershel is murdered. But, his murder is in the face of peace. His impact, the ethical transumptive echo seen through Rick’s requesting the unthinkable to the face of his enemy, brings death. But Hershel smiles in the face of death, a smile of peace because the ethical impact of his character has truly changed Rick.

Part of me wanted to lambaste Rick for not giving into the demands of the Governor; if he had maybe Hershel would be alive. What I did not immediately see is that Rick did not pick the route because he saw the death of one equating to goodness for the greater number, he picked an infinitely difficult third option not mentioned: peace. Co-existence is possible, both Rick and Hershel saw it and believed it.

Sometimes the correct path is a much harder road, one fraught with epistemic uncertainty, difficult trials, and perhaps even death; but, perhaps correct action is not resolutely attached to supposed empirical ends but is found instead in truths that go beyond frenzied survival.

Hershel just before the Governor murders him. He smiles, proud that Rick calls for peace between the two factions.

What do you think of utilitarianism? Have you noticed that you too often justify actions through unknown calculations in order to determine your actions as right? Do you think there is a different foundation, or non-foundation, to ethics? What would that foundation be?