Saturday, March 28, 2015

From the Malcontent: The Root

From the seed grows the root. The seed, discussed earlier, is Jesus shattering the world order, the logic of ego. This event should cause our imaginations, from birth deadened to any possibility beyond moderated selfishness, to come alive and start to palpate, to chew upon, new possibilities. Jesus came and declared the new kingdom, violated the supremacy of empire, and then left the keys in our hands. The question is: what are we going to do with them?

And so now I really begin. Now I am going to offer some frail ideas sprouted from my imagination (this is not a claim to originality). And this first move is the crucial one. It is the one that decides all that is to follow, and it deals with the basic crisis of human identity (what are people for?). Here you'll know if you're along for my ride or not. Here you'll know where I went wrong. Here you'll be able to quote the fathers and catechisms against me and predict the inevitable failure of my train of thought. I only want to admit that I don't think that what we, Christians living today, are doing anything that is working toward our calling as peacemakers. I think that we are trying to mitigate the harm done by the world order, the system, the structure, but that this is a dead end. The church is not hospice for a dying world. The church is supposed to be a catalyst for the coming of the new kingdom, and even if the kingdom has not fully come we are empowered by the spirit to act as though it has. Even if people are cheating us, we should give them our cloak and invite them for dinner. Love is not put to shame.

For a meditation on Kingdom love in a fallen worldFor a meditation on Kingdom love in a fallen worldSo, my calling is to follow the Spirit in living as though Jesus is the Lord. This does not mean that I act as though the empire does not exist or that it has no earthly power. No, it means that I fully acknowledge the empire as I subvert it with every loving action I can imagine. This means that we are filled with the Spirit to play with the power of love in the ruins of Babylon.

Doesn't that sound nice? But, of course, in practice it isn't. To play with the power of love is to die to yourself, this world, to everything our sinful natures is incentivised to desire. It is to lose control of our story. It's hard, if not impossible. And this is the need that churches today, the best ones, meet. Churches give us a communal story, a place for spiritual inspiration and validation, a place to rest our minds in spiritual songs, a place for the renewal of our visions of our mission. I will just assert, because I don't want this post to be another critique, that the church is meeting this need badly. Church is trying to feed the flock using methods analogous to industrial agriculture.

Here it's helpful if you've watched some documentaries on industrial agriculture or read some Wendell Berry. Again, I don't want to fill a page with critique, but I assume that we agree that our food system is insane, toxic, and death-dealing. It is a system driven by delivering cheap goods through externalizing the costs on the poor and on distant lands. It isn't concerned with health, but on satisfying seemingly infinite human desires formed by consumer culture. Perhaps the best way to expose this is to cast a positive vision. This, for me, is best summed up by Joel Salatin as he says that on his farm he doesn't farm cows; he farms healthy grass.

The vision is that instead of trying to keep his cows healthy through intervening after illness occurs, he prevents illness by paying attention to the natural needs of the cow. As he would say, he maximizes the cowness of the cow by providing what the cow needs, fresh green grasses. Thus, he didn't first buy a herd and then chase their health. He first prepared the soil and planted seeds of various grasses. Because he paid attention to the cowness of the cow, he was forced to pay attention to the pasture. This is the point that I think the church has missed, and this is why the church is in a fool's errand of chasing the health of Christians without paying attention to their pasture. We plant churches in the city because we see all the sick cows in need of help, but how can we really help them? We can't help the cow come into all of his cowness until we lead him to green pastures. Instead of church plants, I propose in this series of notes that we need planted churches.

Humans are animals and have many of the same needs as cows. Our prophets and apostles were not backward when they used the shepherd/flock metaphor to describe the church. The good shepherd leads the flock to green pastures because he cares for the health of the sheep. The good shepherd had to know where the green grass was, and to speculate a bit, if there is no green grass, the shepherd must become a grass farmer. This is the shift the church needs to make. There is a basic logic to it, just as Salatin observes. People need to eat. What people eat, how they eat, how they earn what they eat all contribute or detract from their health. My basic point is that the church is not using its resources to help people be healthy because it is focusing on sick cows rather than on healthy pastures.

So, in order to practice our vocation of peacemaking, the church must lead the flock into making peace with the land.

From the Malcontent: the Seed

I should start by admitting that I don't really know if any of this is going to work out. I'm not writing this because I have the big idea that is going to solve all the world's problems. My motivation is simply that, in addition to the natural pain and tragedy that attends mortal existence, I think we are adding to the mix self-deceptions and depredations. And, since we are the agents of these deceptions and depredations, we must examine if we can change things.

Here I introduce the seed of thought that is a splinter in my discontent. If not for this seed, I would be comfortable in my apathy. People never change really, they only alter the speed of their locomotion. Things will never change. Existence is merely divided between those with the courage to take and others, cowards, who are content to be taken from. Ayn Rand is right.

The seed is that our imaginations can be converted because of the power of God and the reality-shattering announcement of a New Creation. Our imaginations can be converted from the natural order in which we prey upon others to the spiritual order in which we love others. And not just that we love others, but that we might have such an imagination for the flourishing of all things on earth that we would spend our lives seeking that flourishing even if it would mean that we, because of our short lives, would become living sacrifices and would die without honor or accomplishment. The seed is that we might live and die for an idea. That we might plant sequoias that we will never see flower.

My fear is that at this point I may be dismissed. Do I think that this is a new idea, a novel insight? What do I think the church has been doing for ages if not planting this seed in every fertile mind? Well, I admit it; this is not a new idea. However, I do feel like we've lost, at some point I'll not debate, our imagination for how it might grow.

Our imagination is stunted by toxic ideas. One such idea is that our reality will not fully be shattered, our imaginations not fully converted, until the Second Coming of Jesus. In the mean time, Ayn Rand is right and the church is just a hospital for the never ending stream of casualties. The problem, as I see it, is that New Creation comes to fruition through the seed planted in the imagination. If the imagination is waiting for Jesus to come, the seed has died. If we are waiting for Jesus to make it safe for us to radically love other people without thinking first of ourselves, we should perhaps fear rather than anticipate his coming. We won't be ready; we'll be thrown out. So, yes, we must understand that whatever work we might do with our lives will be made of clay, but if our imagination is converted this will not stop us.

There's another toxic idea that is typified by what is known as "cessationism". I say that the problem is typified, not identified, by cessationism because the problem is in the radical break with the apocalyptic moment in which Jesus and the disciples lived. The problem is not being skeptical about faith healing, glossolalia, etc. The problem is that we witness the lives of these fathers and we take away the message that we're supposed to do what they said, and not what they did. First, a caveat, I don't mean to imply that we should be like Civil War re-enactors just playing the events as though the New Testament were a script. Not at all. My meaning is that when we see the nature of our fathers's relationship to the Spirit and to the scriptures, we should seek to emulate that in our own spiritual practice. We should practice going away to pray, like Jesus. We should read the Prophets. We should imaginatively apply the scriptures to our situation believing that we are led by the Holy Spirit and protected by the admonition of our brothers. Basically this boils down to a belief in the power of the Holy Spirit in the common life of the church. So much to say here, and I have more questions than answers, but the point is: my imagination is alive to possibilities.

A final toxic idea I'll note today: the separation of church and state. Now, quick here's another caveat: as it was originally intended, with roots back to the reformation, this is not a toxic idea. However, it has stunted the imagination of the church because we have allowed it to justify an unwarranted division of labor between secular life and sacred life. Christians, especially today in view of the advances of Sharia, see the danger of theocracy in this moment. We know that if we push toward a flourishing order, that we will err and that perhaps things will end in a holocaust or something. I think that we're justified in doubting ourselves, but are we not also doubting the Holy Spirit? My idea is not that the Church would try to establish a New World Order, but that it would become an order within the secular order. If the Spirit is moving within, then we have different needs for extrinsic establishments. We can become like a virus, or perhaps better, like mycelia. We can be like a fungus that operates on a different order of metabolism. We can take what the world throws away, call it the beloved, and practice resurrection with our short lives.

We can never know what will never work. We can only know what isn't working. If we look with eyes of faith at the world today, how can we not come together to deliberate if we might be missing something. Perhaps we are accepting what is given by the current order because we have calcified imaginations.

From the malcontent, because this is the hard part

From the malcontent, because this is the hard part
I’ve been writing critically about church for the past few weeks. I've come to a place where exasperation and pain have turned into a form of acceptance, resignation, and finally reflection. I haven’t posted everything I’ve written, and I still have a few rounds in the chamber. But there is an unhelpful vanity in my critique. While I am honestly asking questions, I also realize that they are questions hard to answer. If I don’t expect answers, then is my critique merely for rhetorical effect?
No. I harbor hope, and my resignation to the state of things, of church culture, is conditional. If church continues its trajectory with its current set of functioning values, then I am resigned to the logic. But I have thoughts, a vision, for how things could be different. To be honest, I prefer to ask questions because I am insecure in these thoughts as they haunt me. I am pinging the universe with my questions, looking not just for resonance with others but other seminal thinkers, others haunted. Because as long as change is optional, a choice, I have doubts about our strength of will to achieve it. I doubt myself the most.
But I am going to try to do the loving thing, which is not to question the universe and then judge it when I don’t see in it my reflection. It is loving to patiently work out what I am trying to say, to achieve, so that it can be understood. Trying to articulate, to communicate is fearful, it is the hard part, because I am not sure I understand it myself, and because when a thing is understood and rejected, well, that’s a bit more terminal than harboring excuses of being misunderstood. It is loving to deal with the easy critiques I know will come, because they always come when someone states something positively with conviction rather than hiding behind rhetorical question marks. And hopefully after the easy critiques come, I’ll find substantive critiques, and through these traction with real people, and through this, forward motion.

From the malcontent

From the malcontent:
I posted something and actually got a significant response. I appreciate that people who have been in ministry with me in various capacities felt that they should encourage me to not leave church. But as I read these responses, I have a few subsequent questions:
I hear that people accept that the church is full of broken people. I suppose that this is true, but what do we expect of the church from this point? Does the church have any power to reintegrate and repair brokenness, not that it can erase history, but does the church have any role in writing futures? If we have these expectations that church has power to repair individuals, then we should be sorely disappointed, I think. If we don’t have these expectations, then again I am left to ask what church is for (as distinct from worldly institutions)? I cannot accept church as hospice for a dying world. If all the church can offer is a regular sacramental bandaid, I’m left wondering if the nurse with the tie-dyed socks can’t offer me something a bit stronger to take away the pain, or, even better, the fear.
So, the fact that church is filled with broken people, people who often have been “churched” their whole lives and are still broken, seems to indict a church that claims some power to change. Again, if the church is impotent, if it can only comfort the dying, then how is this different from anaesthesia, hospice? But we seem to hope that church is the x-factor in this world, that it is the catalyst, the source of differing from the logic of selfishness that is, according to religion, the resting state of humanity. Well, I hear it being said, the church won’t become the change agent we want to see if people like us don’t invest in it. The church needs me so that the church can transform people. This is problematic, and I can’t see how this is a cure for selfish logic. The only analogy I can come up with is marriage, although you’ll have to forgive some patriarchal thinking. It seems that people are calling me to husband the church, to covenant with her even though she is broken and to work toward manifesting her liberation from that brokenness. But….I thought that was what Jesus was supposed to be doing. I thought that the church was supposed to be washed and purified (in real consequence) by the spiritual ministry of Jesus by his intercession to the Father and in the work of the Holy Spirit. I don’t think it coheres to expect me, or anybody else, a malcontent standing apart from the church to take on the role of Jesus to teach, lead, purify, etc. the church. Certainly some will think there’s traction if we think that we, the malcontents turned saviors, are the means that Jesus uses to achieve his ends. This may be so, but it is so against the best intuitions of generations of church leadership. What is church for if it is only itself saved through those it considers heretics, malcontents at the door?
So, I am left wondering why people seem convinced that if we disagree with church this discontentment, this restlessness, is a sign from god that we should go to church, with never-ending patience, to seek to teach people that don’t want to listen to us? If the church is doing anything, why are the young expected to lead the old, the foolish the wise, the blind those with farsight? This only makes sense because we’ve been backed into a corner and have to make sense of things. This is, I’m sure, part of an epidemic of martyr complexes among young churched-but-disenfranchised. The first instinct is not to “throw the baby out with the bath water”. Rather than run this narrative into the ground and merely explain my own fears about where this likely goes, I’ll just stop and further inquire to you, my friends, about how this scenario could work out. Are there any examples of how a young man or woman, disillusioned, turns back to the church, covenants with her and takes on the role of a young, unwanted, idealistic husband, and spends a life “being the change he wants to see” in the church? Am I being cynical to think that, when people encourage me to take my ideas back and work them out in the local church, what they’re really hoping (at least sometimes) is that I’ll go back and get distracted with the business of church status quo. That I’ll get married in a second sense and have my vision fragmented by the job of providing for yet another and much larger family. That I’ll be afraid to be myself, to speak my mind, because I’m just so afraid of what will happen if we can’t get along, get divorced and I be damned.
So much of church culture seems to be about taking the young and making them old. I want, on the contrary, to be made alive.

About church, from a malcontent.

About church, from a malcontent.
I grew up in church. I thought (and still sometimes think) that my skills are best suited to working with church. I spend time daydreaming about an idealized church, as well as examining the flaws of the real church. But while I used to attend church, at times because I was the speaker, I no longer do.
I want to share these reasons so that I can learn from others. Consider yourself invited to chime in or call out BS as you see fit.
Economy: Church is an economic burden. This means that either church further burdens over-burdened and indebted families, or it relies upon the rich in a way that lacks respect and reciprocity. This sets up a situation where the church mimics, rather than correcting, social and economic divisions already present in society. Black churches will remain black, white churches white, poor churches poor, and rich churches rich. This leads me to ask again, “Ok, so what is church for?”
Culture: Church promotes empty positivity because it functions as a service industry. It sells comfort, entertainment, and a shallow version of community that is packaged into hour segments a few times a week. Church is unable to challenge culture, but is innately progressive as it seeks to modify culture incrementally. Cultural negotiation between the church and the world is typically biased toward a both-and or win-win conclusion. Church, because it relies on people, can only tell them (long-term) what they want to hear. This leads me to ask again, “Ok, so what is church for?”
Pedagogy: Let’s be blunt, if brainwashing kids is a thing then the church is doing it. I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a church that listed independent thought as one of the virtues, and at least we can recognize that church is more about establishing answers than about helping in the development of questions. I wouldn’t mind this soooooo much if the church was sensitive to doing this appropriately to human development. Minimal catechizing of infants is useful, as is memorizing the alphabet. But care should be paid to how it handles matters like morality. It is usually safer to tell the story rather than deliver a law to kids. Where church really drops the ball is with adolescents, and nobody would disagree. The problem is that the church is unable to allow questioning minds to risk asking real questions, tasked (again as a service to impotent and scared parents) with behaviorally reinforcing morality. Here kids are offered a form of sanitized cultural matrix where they can have fun without getting anybody pregnant. Church is completely unable to challenge these kids with the burden of wisdom and discipleship; it is completely engaged with just trying to keep idle hands busy until they are adults and the parents (and thus the church) are functionally off the hook. All church does for adults is reinforce a particular set of cultural mores. This is why adults get to choose their flavor of church, and why churches are unable to break out of these molds. This leads me to ask again, “Ok, so what is church for?”
That’s enough for now, but I also have a rant on leadership (the trend toward pastoral celebrity), ethics (the incoherence of peacemaking and retributive justice), and ecology (if anybody should be radical earthkeepers, it should be the church, no?)

(a facebook post I'm keeping here for review)

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Two behavioral principles overlooked by free-market apologists

1. Establishing/Motivating Operations- EOs are antecedent factors which alter the value dynamic in behavior. For example, a starving man may kill for bread, not because he is less moral than the workaday man who buys it with paper, but because the EO of deprivation has extremely inflated the value of food to him at that moment. (for more, see the work of Jack Michael).

and a related one

2. Non-Contingent Reinforcement- NCR expands upon the principle of behavior that states that behaviors which are unlikely to manifest can be made more likely (reinforced) if followed by consequences that are enjoyed by the person/animal. For example, I can increase the likelihood of my wife making me coffee in the morning if I sincerely thank her after and engage her in meaningful conversation before I trot off to work. NCR uses this same principle in an effort to decrease the functionality of unwanted or destructive behavior. For example, if my infant is crying a lot for milk and my wife responds with feeding, we are reinforcing the behavior of crying. He gets what he wants when he cries. Thus, if we establish a schedule for feeding (based on time and not contingent on behavior), we decrease the deprivation/hunger which in many cases manifested the crying behavior, while also destroying the contingency which will reinforce crying in the future. He no longer gets what he wants when he cries; he gets fed regularly, and so crying may no longer have any function.


This is important because free-market apologists want to believe that voluntary exchange in the free market is a win-win. Yet, the market isn't free, not now, and maybe not ever. There is an accumulated effect of inequality that has created massive EOs of deprivation for many people, and which has the effect of skewing the value dynamic in the exchange of goods. This is why free-market apologists sound so calloused when they say that so-and-so is a victim of their own choices. They pretend that there is such a thing as free-will, which in this sense is libertarian and able to resist the effects of EOs.

Nobody is so free, and thus, there will never be a free market as envisioned.

The Zeitgeist Movement and Project Venus (two interesting examples of a structural resource-based answer to capitalism) both rely upon the copious exercise of non-contingent reinforcement to reduce psycho-social stress (and all detrimental EOs) and make exchange increasingly free. They must reinvent the state to do so, but at least they aren't engaging in fantasy like the free-market apologists.

I like to think of a future where we are all engaged in managing our leisure, and where all exchanges are exchanges of gifts.

To waste your time watching two windbags dance around this issue, enjoy the following video:

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Tale of Two Deities

What I'm about to say is a recurring theme for me and my "work" (read: sporadic blogging).

When we say that God is love, we are being ambiguous.

God is an eternal being, and all of our words struggle and fail to attribute anything to this being.

When we say that God is love, we have options:

1. We could mean that God [an unknown/unrevealed being] is defined by love [a known quality].


2. We could mean that God [a known/revealed being] defines love [a quality we thought we knew until the revelation of God shattered our pre/misconceptions].


In the first option, God is in the dock and we are affirming him when we name him a lover.

In the second option, the idea of love is in the dock and God disconfirms our concept when he names himself a lover.

You see, God isn't loving in the way that we idealize love. That God is love demands that we define the meaning of love by reference to him (and not to our experiences/opinions).

Is Jesus any help to us here? I think not. If anything, Jesus only confirms the alien nature of love.


In my opinion, #1 is the dogmatism that dogs all those who constantly bark about dogmatism.

There is no balance to be found between human concepts of love and the name that God gives to himself. He didn't reveal himself as a lover so that we could control him through our ideology of what it must mean to be loving (according to us). No, he named himself a lover to save us from our caricatures.