For Renovators – Chapter 6 Notes

March 25, 2014

Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard

Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard

Here are Heather’s notes on Chapter 6, “Transforming the Mind, 1”:

The main point of the chapter “Transforming the Mind, 1” is that our thought life, the life of the mind, needs to be centered on God – and specifically, on as clear and accurate an understanding of God as presented to us by Jesus as possible. As this understanding of God comes to be real to us, and to occupy the center of our thoughts, it will have a transformative effect on other areas of our lives.

The chapter, as I read it, breaks down as follows: first, he defines thoughts as “all of the ways in which we are conscious of things” – which divides into ideas, images, information, and our “ability to think,” or what we might normally refer to as “thinking things through” or “reasoning” (96). Then he discusses “ideas” – concepts, in particular abstract ones like freedom or happiness, and asserts that spiritual formation must transform ideas, and that this is a difficult and sometimes very painful process (97-98). (I think most people would acknowledge that “changing a person’s worldview” or “a paradigm shift” might entail feelings of loss, along with a deep sense of having “seen the light.”) He distinguishes “images” from ideas, discusses their relationship to ideas, and notes the grave power negative self-images can hold over people’s lives, to their profound harm (99-101). He identifies “the person and gospel of Jesus Christ” as the “only complete answer to the false and destructive images and ideas that control the life of those away from God;” spiritual formation will effect “a total interchange of our ideas and images” for those of Jesus Christ – in the words of another author, we come to “believe what Jesus believed” (101-102). This is a consequence of grace, which empowers a concerted effort to acquire different information about God, and to think about it in new ways. His discussion of the importance of information points to the source of good information about God being Jesus, and by extension scripture more generally (103-104). His discussion of thinking privileges logic, and the object of that logic being the Word of God – I think here we can understand this, again, to be Jesus first, and scripture generally; he defends the need for Christians to think well against the widespread notion that thinking is a bad thing for Christians (104-106). He paints a picture of the outcome of a mind centered on God as one of passionate love for God, and of continual conscious awareness of standing before God, which has the effect of transforming our consciousness of “what is going on” in the details of life, as they come to be seen constantly in reference and relation to God (106-110). He then addresses four special pitfalls that affect working with the life of thought: prejudice, ignorance of fact, wishful thinking or partiality, and dwelling on unwholesome images (110-111). Finally, he identifies several means toward thought transformation: study and memorization of scripture, meditation on images and sayings that direct our thoughts towards God, participation in Christian community and intentional learning from the example of advanced Christian practitioners; he recommends paying attention to the differences between cognitive therapy that proceeds in a Christ-centered direction and the various forms of thought-reform that proceed independently of Jesus Christ (112-116)

In my opinion, the most critical question about the chapter is his #7, the question of whether we think of the gospel – in the sense of New Testament scripture – as basic information about reality, and how else we would think of this text if we didn’t think of it that way. It’s a challenging idea, and also clearly central to his understanding of thought transformation.

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More for the Renovators

March 24, 2014

Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard

Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard

The early afternoon Renovating the Heart group decided to read two more chapters of the book for this Sunday, March 30. Although it seems like a lot to work through, we have our reasons (as we look towards the scheduling challenges of April).

For what it’s worth, here’s my reading of Chapter 5, “Spiritual Change,”

The main idea of the chapter is that spiritual formation in Christ, which is “the process by which one moves and is moved from self-worship to Christ-centered self-denial as a general condition of life in God’s present and eternal kingdom (77)” is entirely possible. Moreover, it will proceed in main lines in the way all effective human transformation, on any level, actually does proceed: according to a pattern in which there is first a vision of a really desirable transformation, then an intention to seek that transformation, and then the application of effective means to its realization (VIM).

As I read it, the chapter breaks down something like this: first, he addresses the problem that we don’t think this kind of Christian spiritual formation can actually happen, to real people like us; we doubt it’s even possible, because we see that it rarely happens (77-79). We may have theological reasons for believing it can’t happen – based on a view of human nature that regards humanity, especially embodied humanity, as incapable of actual goodness; there’s a grain of truth in this, but it is mostly a distortion that impedes spiritual formation and lets complacent people who don’t want to change off the hook (79-81). It’s not true that the only alternative to thinking that humans are incapable of improvement is to believe that people can improve all on their own, a kind of “works righteousness;” instead, the spiritual power for transformation comes from God, even though our “well-directed and unrelenting action” is also indispensable (81-82).

Then he outlines a general pattern of human growth, in any dimension of life, and illustrates it with the example of learning a second language, like Arabic, and the example of changing a pattern of behavior, like getting sober. In every case, there’s a compelling vision of the advantages of the transformation, an intention to bring the transformation about, and the application of effective means to produce the transformation (82-85). This doesn’t happen with most Christians, according to him; instead Christians today are typically left to cope as best they can with their unchanged selves, behaviors, ideas, etc., maybe with some outward modification, but with no inward transformation (85-86). Then he outlines what the VIM model would mean in the specific case of becoming inwardly people who actually live in the kingdom of God – that is, within “the range of God’s effective will, where what God wants done is done (86).” This would involve the appropriate vision (of life in the kingdom of God), the intention, based on trust in Jesus, to do what Jesus said to do, and the searching out of means to carry out that intention (86-90). From his example – of the obstacles to doing an act of charity for someone who has won a legal battle against us – it’s clear that the means have to involve a lot of practice in becoming “the kind of person who would obey” in less pressing contexts (90-91). He points out that the means of spiritual formation in Christlikeness are available, and have been available for centuries. What is lacking is the decision to apply them to our own lives. And the main reason the decision is lacking is that the vision of what Christian life could be is not such that it makes that decision seem reasonable and desirable.

I think one of the most challenging things he says is on p. 88, “Perhaps the hardest thing for sincere Christians to come to grips with is the level of real unbelief in their own life: the unformulated skepticism about Jesus that permeates all dimensions of their being and undermines what efforts they do make toward Christlikeness (88).” I think it is well worth asking ourselves what that means for us.

I’ll try to add my notes on Chapter 6 shortly.

For the Renovators!

March 2, 2014
Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard

Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard

Several weeks ago, a number of us agreed to read and discuss Renovation of the Heart, by Dallas Willard, over the next 26 weeks. This Sunday, we were scheduled to discuss two chapters: Chapter 3, “Radical Evil in the Ruined Soul,” and Chapter 4, “Radical Goodness Restored to the Soul.” The severe weather that had already begun this morning, and that is predicted to get worse later today, convinced us that we ought to head home instead of staying at church. (A handful of us did have a spirited discussion of parts of Chapter 3 over coffee in the CLC before we finally got ourselves into our cars and braved the roads between church and home.)

I volunteered to find and dust off this long-disused blog and write up an initial post on Chapters 3 and 4. That way, we might be able to share some of our impressions of these two chapters, and maybe have some discussion, between now and the time we decide to resume our regularly scheduled discussion.

So far, I’ve heard that some of us are liking Chapter 3, some are NOT liking it, and that at least one of our number thinks the writing gets better in Chapter 4. This all makes a good amount of sense to me, because from my perspective, Chapter 3 is probably going to be the most theologically challenging for us, and Chapter 4 is starting to get really hopeful and helpful.

So, here are my notes on Chapters 3 and 4, for what they’re worth:

Chapter 3 – “Radical Evil in the Ruined Soul”

The main message seems to be that an honest, accurate appraisal of our spiritual condition is essential to make Christian spiritual formation possible; for a variety of reasons, contemporary Christians are frequently unwilling to acknowledge that radical evil besets the human souls around us and in us, to the extent that we’re not in the process of being re-formed by God’s grace and Christian spiritual formation; for this reason, Christian spiritual formation often doesn’t even get off the ground.

I see the chapter breaking down into sections like this: After the introductory paragraphs, he addresses our cultural context, noting that “evil” is not part of our ordinary vocabulary or explanations for things (pp. 45-47); he develops an example of how sin – human choice for evil – affects the life of a single church, and then generalizes to how these choices affect human life in the world (pp. 47-49); he discusses Paul’s summary of the “prophetic witness” and its diagnosis of the human condition, concluding that it is important to take seriously that we need to fear, and to know, God (pp. 49-51); he develops a diagnosis of the human problem, starting with the way the human will deflects the mind from God, leading to denial, further misguided choices, an elevation of “feeling” as a criterion for decisionmaking, etc. (pp. 51-55); he discusses the consequence, and the specific meaning, of “lostness” that is the result of the organization of human life around individual autonomy rather than around God (pp. 55-57); and concludes with some thoughts about the role of evil in today’s world, and on the role of remorse – which, he asserts, is necessary for Christian spiritual formation (pp. 59-60).

His question on p. 57 seems central to me: “One should seriously inquire if to live in a world permeated with God and the knowledge of God is something they themselves truly desire (57).”

My own questions are: to what extent do we (OK, I) agree with his analysis in this chapter? What are my issues with the analysis? Where do those issues come from? (For me, thinking about this has been very helpful. I realize that many of my issues with this chapter come from things I assume Willard thinks, but that he doesn’t say. And that I know I don’t have to believe.) How completely do we actually have to agree with his analysis here to accept things he will be saying later, or for his suggestions about spiritual formation to be helpful for us?

Chapter 4: “Radical Goodness Restored to the Soul”

The main message seems to be that change is possible; Jesus’ gracious presentation of the reality of the Kingdom of God can initiate a process of increasing death to self, and increasingly total love of God and neighbor, that restores goodness to the human soul.

He introduces the source of hope in the face of soul ruin as complete reliance on the will of God (pp. 63-64); he discusses self-denial, what it means, how it appears in the gospel, and how it is related to Jesus’ teaching that people must “lose their life to find it” and “take up their cross” (64-66); he stresses that this self-denial is NOT another “thing to do” in the usual way, but is only possible insofar as people recognize they are giving up something that is actually worth less for something that is actually worth more, and that this perception is supported by a realistic understanding of and involvement with an ultimately good, loving, and forgiving God (pp. 67-70); this allows the human personality to re-center around the love of God and neighbor (p. 70); which allows people to do what they really want – be good – without being egotistic (pp. 70-74).

In addition to the questions at the end of the chapter, I continue to ask myself – how appealing is the vision he sketches to me? To what extent do I actually see the radical shift away from “me-centered” decisionmaking to “God-centered and neighbor-centered” decisionmaking as a “real bargain,” so a way that I really want to be able to live? That seems like a pretty central question to me.

Sharing a Link

May 13, 2011

Thought I would share this link to Rev. Robert Austell’s recent comments, as well as a link to his compilation of responses to the passage of amendment 10-A by the presbyteries (here). At that site, he also provides the text of a prayer he used to close the Friday plenary session of the 218th (2008) General Assembly, which strikes me as potentially of benefit to many of us:

Heavenly Father,

We are divided on much. Chances are that the person beside us will vote differently on significant issues, passionately held. It is so easy to see one another as “the enemy” and yet you declare those who hope in the Lord Jesus Christ to be family.

You declare it – in Christ, we are one family! Yet, we struggle so to experience it! Some of us believe truth is at stake; some of us believe justice is at stake; some of us distrust each other, and we struggle with other issues that would drive us apart. Some will leave rejoicing; some will leave in sorrow; some will not know what they feel.

What hope do we have apart from your grace through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? What hope? Grace seems a fragile flower in a room full of elephants.

Give us a vision for your grace – unconditional, true, winsome, and strong. Help us see the person on our left and on our right, not as the enemy, but like us, a broken son or daughter for whom Christ has died. Help us cling to your Word and live in your Spirit.

We ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen!

Class Notes, January 9

January 12, 2011

Christians and violence

Violence and the limits of responsible political participation are not new issues among Christians

We have been discussing plans for the coming year, now that we have finished reading The Good and Beautiful God, which some of us enjoyed, some of us endured, and which was in any case the basis for a number of interesting class sessions.

A core principle behind this class is that its members actually are on a spiritual journey, and are engaged in some set of spiritual practices, many if not all of which would be recognized as traditional Christian ones. The class was originally envisioned as a regular occasion for sharing the experience of these journeys with one another, raising the questions they raise in a group setting, obtaining advice and counsel from one another, or support and encouragement, or challenge, as the case might be. Some of us feel we have strayed away from that commitment, and would like to focus more in the coming year on our reflections on the state of our practice.

Today we identified a set of additional themes that might focus our reflections between now and Lent. With the news of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and something like 19 others in Tucson fresh in the headlines, along with conversations around violent imagery in public debate, the availability of firearms in our community, and a sense that our political activity is a part of our spiritual life, or anyway not at all unrelated to it, we thought questions of violence, peace, and public participation might need to be on our agenda.

  • What constitutes responsible Christian practice when it comes to participation in our communities (local, regional, national, global)?
  • What does it mean to be “a peacemaker” — concretely, practically, in the communities we participate in?
  • Are we doing what we need to be doing, and can be doing, in this direction? Is there more we could do? Or, is it not so much a matter of “more” as of “different”? And, according to whom?

Along these lines, R. mentioned that there’s a quote on his refrigerator, by Gandhi, to the effect that “any attempt to control another person is violence.” [A few parents took exception to this. All due respect to Gandhi.]

L. is going to ask the newly elected Sheriff of Harrison Co. to come speak to our class about gun control and issues related to that in our county next Sunday.

Dennis Smith is going to be visiting on January 23, so we will be having conversation with him on that Sunday.

G. is working with his colleague, who is a contact with a mission in Haiti, to arrange a Sunday in February for a visit, presentation and conversation.

Pastor Scott also sent out word about The Thoughtful Christian’s Lenten Study on Biblical Models of Discipleship, and some of us thought this would be interesting to read and study through. Heather suggested to the Thoughtful Christian class that meets across the hall that we might want to study the course together for Lent, and there seemed to be some interest on their part in that suggestion, so that’s a possibility; if we leave it as a Lenten study, we would be looking at starting that on Sunday, March 13 (well, that would be the 1st Sunday in Lent).

Looking forward to a thoughtful and devoted year, in communion and conversation with one another. Comments on our plans would be welcome!

Class Notes, December 12

December 12, 2010

An advent calendar

Today we spent a lot of time talking about original sin, in the context of Chapter 8 of The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith.

John recapped an observation he makes regularly to students, to the effect that there is a story about what explains behavior, and it includes the theory that various systems, like those involved in evolutionary biology, heredity, the larger ecosystem, the social environment with its patterns of social organization and culture, and its longitudinal patterns of development over time, embodied in history, etc. etc., interact to produce human behavior, individual and collective. And then, there is the story that people do some of the things they do because they are “fallen,” “sinful,” “corrupt,” or whatever equivalent word one wants to use. Psychologists have some responsibility for choosing between these two different stories.

Heather questioned at some length why these would need to be two different, unrelated stories; it seems to her these are potentially related stories, or anyway stories that can be related to one another in a variety of ways. (For instance, fallen human nature produces social systems that lead to certain kinds of not-very-nice behavior.) She says the notion of original sin is in essence a way of saying that people cannot make certain changes in themselves out of their own resources, due to the very structure of existence or consciousness or language, a notion that recurs in contemporary philosophy, and that the notion that we can make changes and improvements requires a metaphysical commitment of some kind.

John points out that what’s at stake is how people go about working on change or life transformation. Saying “it’s sin” leads one way, maybe to praying a lot, or seeking to have more faith. He used an example of a family that withdrew insulin from a child with Type 1 diabetes, and tried to respond to the illness with prayer and faith, and the child died. Are the parents responsible for the child’s death? Accepting the more materialist/scientific story about the production of behavior outcomes leads to trying different approaches to change or intervention.

Linda added that she sees positive emphases in Christianity that counterbalance the negative proposition that people are sinful: that God made people, in God’s image, so that God has a vision of human good; and that God seeks relationship with people; and that God adopts human existence, participating in it. All of those things give some positive value to humanity, in the face of the negativity of “sin.” She also likes the idea that God has honored this life; there’s good to be found in it; it’s not something just to be endured, with all the good beyond life.

Jeannine likes the story that people, as “children of God,” are like children here and now: growing from one state to another, making mistakes, learning, and God loves these mistake-prone, learning and growing beings that we are. So we do not need to carry so much guilt around — guilt that would come from understanding ourselves as being defined by sin.

One thing John liked about the chapter was the distinction between being controlled by something, sin or whatever, and the transformation that leads to not being controlled by this. He pointed out the profound parallel between the acknowledgement that something is a problem and then undertaking the practice of removing it from being the controlling influence, to the 12-step programs familiar in alcohol or addictions counseling, in which the practices of the program follow an affirmation of reliance on the God of the understanding, or the Higher Power. In either case, it’s taking information and support from outside oneself, and this step is critical.

Heather asked what it was that people disliked about the idea of original sin in the first place, that seems to make members of the class want to tell a different story. Carolyn said it seems that just concentrating on some irreducible core of “original sin,” that she can’t do anything about, rather than on the influences she can trace, the gifts she can understand as having come from parents, family, church, community, etc., and can work with, seems meaningless and irrelevant. Randy says the story of original sin is mythic, one of the explanations that every culture comes up with to explain why things are not perfect, and this story has been used as a lever “to keep people in line”, in a very negative way. Linda thinks that once we acknowledge that we’re “less than gods” we’ve gotten everything out of the idea of original sin that is worthwhile.

This led to some conversation about the process of transformation, Jesus’ emphasis on being reborn, Jesus’ status as a role model or mirror for humanity, showing us the life — or new life — we could be living.

Next week, we’ll deal with Chapter 9 — the last chapter! Mixed feelings in the class about that. We also want to do some talking about what comes next, and maybe also about what ought to be going on the blog for the class. Maybe not so much! (or, maybe, just something different?)

Class Notes, November 21

November 24, 2010

image of installation art

Walls, Veils and Voices

We wound up our discussion of Chapter 5 of The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith. John had asked us to think about how we experience God as love, or as loving us, and Karolyn said she was particularly interested to hear people’s experiences on this score.

Heather said an experience of God loving her was when she was sitting at her desk thinking about her rotten life (yes, everyone’s life has rotten parts) and, if it is not too embarrassing to say, heard God say “you were never alone.” So, a real, personal recognition of consistent, persistent, caring presence.

Gerald said that before his heart attack, and the profound experience that accompanied that, God had felt more distant, intellectual and routine . . . yes, of course, I believe in God, I go to church, etc. But now God is the most important part of my life.

Shirley shared a story from her 5-year-old granddaughter, who had to climb a rope in gymnastics and ring a bell to prove she’d reached the top. When she accomplished this feat — difficult for a 5-year-old — she reported “God was with me and God gave me the strength to get up there and ring that bell.” Shirley said she doesn’t think it was a preprogrammed response at all (not that much preprogramming going on!), but something entirely spontaneous and straight from her granddaughter’s experience.

One of the themes seems to be presence. John says another theme feels to him like a “being part of” something — he made a reference to the picture of the earth taken from outer space, saying if you could zoom in on it, to the level where you could see people walking around on the surface, it would give you the awareness that all these people, including us, are part of something vast that can perceive us; or another example, that of a big corporation, with lots of offices and projects and employees, in which I might never meet the CEO personally, but everything that personage does or decides affects me, and permeates and in essence carries the spirit of that directive involvement.

Linda described watching the sky that morning, seeing one layer of clouds very bright, a layer below them scudding rapidly, but silently, across the sky — showing forces way above us, extremely beautiful — and said tht was a God presence moment.

John thinks this has something to do with what Jesus is about, how to translate this presence and this being-part-of-something-bigger into daily practice. He thinks this might be why the authentic attitude of the church really is — he recognized recently — evangelical. Where else do you find a model for how to believe, how to live, in the way Jesus teaches, this seemingly great way of life.

That led us into some speculations on institutional realities, and their shortfalls, and also the dynamics of evangelism. Heather said we pretty naturally talk enthusiastically about things (like having bridge parties, or finding a really effective spot remover for the carpet, or reading a great book) that we have a genuine experience of as fun, or beneficial, or important. If we don’t talk about church, or God, that way, we may need to look at whether our experience of those is, honestly, as enjoyable, or beneficial, or important.

We’re reading Chapter 6 for Sunday! (“God is Holy” and a “soul training” exercise “margin” — eliminating the fully programmed style of life foisted upon us by contemporary society (OK, Smith doesn’t exactly say that) to allow space for cultivating a relationship with the holy. Linda says she is going to read the chapter early in the week!)

Class Notes, October 31

November 3, 2010

image of Renoir's painting The Two Sisters

really getting into the text together

We talked a lot more about the content of Chapter 3 of The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith. John started us off with the concept of “your cup,” Smith’s notion of whatever it is that makes it difficult to accept God as trustworthy. As we discussed the kinds of things this might be — usually personal issues, unique to us, that make us respond with anger or pain, hardly the feeling that God is trustworthy — Sue reminded us of the “power of solid hope,” a concept from a daily devotional that seemed relevant to the discussion. Heather thought the quality of hope probably does attest to our confidence or faith in God’s trustworthiness, the idea that there’s more going on than meets the eye.

Lissa wondered whether all this discussion of “trustworthiness” doesn’t involve projecting human characteristics onto God, maybe illegitimately. We might be more comfortable with the notion of “a power greater than ourselves,” which is less likely to invite these personalistic projections. John brought in the relationship of hope to faith, that faith might be in the relationship, where hope is related to the outcomes. Heather thinks there is an element of choice in faith, involving a decision not to give up on the object of faith. John, too, echoed the sentiment of not giving up on God, while Jeannine says she likes the idea that God is God, in charge — which is such a relief, since that means we don’t have to be.

Even though Linda likes the idea expressed in Wayne’s recurrent use of the term namaste — “the divine in me greets the divine in you” — we know we aren’t God, but rather participate in God. So we ourselves, as Sue points out, are not as reliable as God is.

The question of projection brought us to the issue of language, which comes up in this chapter, and on which Smith takes a pronounced Barthian stand. (Heather thinks she knows what that means, and doesn’t like it. She commends Calvin’s view of “accommodated language,” or the Bible as “baby-talk.” Karolyn, on the other hand, thinks that saying “those are God’s words,” even if “accommodated,” already skates in the direction of an unacceptable, potentially oppressive idolatry of the Bible that would be difficult to correct.) That led into a discussion of specific Biblical words, and the way Biblical language plays in to our concepts about God. The class represents a whole spectrum of views on how to articulate Biblical language to our concepts of God and our understandings of what Jesus taught, or meant to teach, and how we need to accept that. As One Esteemed Member noted, “Jesus and his ghostwriters” still provided the texts we concern ourselves with. (We all agreed we love the phrase.)

We probably also agree that using Father language for God does not make us think that our own fathers are God. We are not that confused. (Heather thinks that some fathers might get a little confused about that, though. Especially Fathers of their countries. She was thinking of James II, divine right of kings, and all that.) However, we acknowledged that father language does have some relationship to personal experience, as some of us who grew up without fathers in our homes relate to that word kind of abstractly.

Still, as Karolyn points out, sometimes the focus on words can sidetrack emphasis on action — easier to talk about a mission statement, for instance, than to put it into practice. And as Jeannine points out, not all meaning is contained in words. What about the idea of God as an artist, who “brings forth” without explanation — far beyond words.

Next week, Chapter 4!

Class Notes, October 24

October 26, 2010

Image of painting by Egon Schiele, Der Tod und die Frau (Death and the Woman)

Egon Schiele's early 20th century version of the classical motif 'Death and the Maiden'

We began Sunday’s class with a status check — where are we in this study? — and then had a lively and interesting discussion on Sunday over some of the content of Chapter 3 in The Good and Beautiful God.

First, there was the issue of the extreme nearness of “heaven.” Kathryn noted that she’d not heard this before, and most of us seemed to agree that it was both fairly new, but also an appealing idea that the atmosphere around us is already part of heaven.

Second, John registered some surprise that the possibility of bad things happening in life was framed in this chapter as an issue of trust, rather than an issue of “theodicy.”

Then, Jeannine raised a challenge to the prayer quoted on p. 66, which contained the plea to God to “help us . . . to see that in this evil there is some purpose.” Since the context was the imminent death of the author’s very young daughter, Jeannine questioned the use of the term “evil.” How can death be an “evil,” when death is natural, inevitable, part of life, and not something to assign blame to anyone for?

This led to a vocal discussion of the status of death, and its connection with evil, both in the Christian tradition, the tradition of western humanistic thought, and in our contemporary minds. Several of us noted that death is, in many circumstances, desirable as a release from pain and suffering, or even extreme old age and the loneliness that accompanies being the lone survivor of a generation or family. Along with this is the sense that death is a transition to something else, like a better life, a different stage of life, or the realization of the immortality of the soul. John strongly questions the fixation on terminology like “evil,” “bad,” and other evaluative categorical terms anyway, and questions what would happen if we began to withdraw energy from seeing these as absolute designations, and instead recognized them as value assignments we make, for whatever reasons, relative to our preferences and conditions.

Jeannine and Arricka synopsized a great old film, On Borrowed Time, that dramatizes the point of the necessity and, ultimately, the acceptability of death in the context of a world of pain, disease, and old age.

Heather — insisting that she was speaking for the classical tradition, despite being “an outlier” in the class — countered that death is definitely an evil, has long been regarded as such, and has been treated both philosophically and theologically as a radical threat to every human value for centuries. (At which point, John reminded us, in light of his recent reading of The Great Emergence by Phyllis Tickle, that paradigms do shift every few centuries, and we are in the midst of such a shift at present.) The reason we are even close to being able to think of death as something other than a radical evil is that we regard it from the standpoint of people whose victory over death has been won by Jesus Christ in the event of the resurrection. But then, Heather doesn’t think “evil” implies the operation of malicious intent; she was thinking of the category of “natural evil,” which includes things like sickness and pain as well as death and decay.

Paul pointed out that pain isn’t always a bad (i.e., dysfunctional) thing, either. A lot of negative consequences come from people trying to avoid some kinds of pain, like the pain of waiting for something, or the pain of learning something new, or the pain of exercising. Several people reminded us that pain physically is functional, keeps bodies from being injured worse than they might be, etc. Plus, as Kathryn reminded us, if we didn’t have pain, we wouldn’t have joy. And Linda added that the knowledge of death is a motivating factor: since we’re not immortal, we get busy and try to make the most of the limited amount of time we have.

Great class!

We agreed that we would stay on Chapter 3 for Sunday, October 31, because there’s more to talk about in there (like “Father” language for God), and because some of us still need to catch up in the reading.

Class Notes, September 19

September 19, 2010

An image of Tintoretto's painting Jesus bei Maria und Martha

Wherever two or three are gathered in my name . . .

We had a lively and wide-ranging discussion this morning, that included:

  • Suggested topics for upcoming classes. We decided to study The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith, one chapter a week, starting with Chapter 1 for next week. John will e-mail the congregation, and C. will order copies of the book for folks who don’t already have it.
  • In light of Smith’s focus on “narratives” about God, and the effort to re-acquaint ourselves with the Jesus’ narratives and Jesus’ concept of God, we had some conversation about narratives and accounts of reality in general. Despite postmodern claims, most people need a unified narrative. John suggests that as science gives us more and more sophisticated accounts of the material reality around us, it becomes more and more challenging to craft a unified narrative that encompasses science, traditional religion, the Bible’s account of reality, etc. But the effort to do that produces a thinking faith that is ultimately deeply satisfying, even though we have to go through periods of doubt and work to arrive at it.
  • We are also looking at The Great Emergence by Phyllis Tickle. The thesis of this book is that about every 500 years, Christianity goes through a period of turbulence and re-adjustment to the surrounding society, its prevailing communications technology, and finds a role for the Church to fill in Western culture. Surprise! We seem to be in one of those turbulent re-adjustment periods now. (Maybe the next evolution of the church is that we need to become ‘viral’ — able to connect with people in all kinds of ways, across all kinds of media.)
  • From Tickle’s account of things, and in light of the conversation about narratives, we did some thinking out loud about our children and their faith, and how we are doing introducing our children to faith and faith to our children. We hope that encouraging critical thinking and seeking deep satisfaction rather than superficial contentment with concrete, black-and-white answers will have benefits in later religious life. C. tells us there’s research that shows that many young people have imbibed a “feel-good-about-yourself” religion that contains very little sense of obligation to the other, whether God or the neighbor; these young people may be swelling the ranks of churches where the belief system is centrally focused on personal salvation and satisfaction. Scott shared an influential article by Walter Brueggeman from The Christian Century, “Counterscript,” in which Brueggeman claims we are living in a time of a “therapeutic, technological, consumerist, militarist” script, from which it is the task of the church of Jesus Christ to disengage us, in favor of a script centered on the “elusive, irascible” God of the Bible.
  • We talked about the problem of silence — we don’t always share our views on things; (shades of this morning’s Present Word class!). Heather says this is sometimes because it may be difficult to let people who may scorn religion in general, or Christianity in particular, know we’re “one of them” — want some sense that this person can be OK with that. Scott qualifies: at least, will stay in relationship or conversation. Linda added that we need to be more forthright about speaking up and publicizing an alternative Christian viewpoint on public issues, like a couple of people have done recently by writing letters to the local paper. Because if the public conversation features a completely one-sided view of what it means to be Christian, what Christians think and believe — doesn’t our failure to take a public stand permit that view to persist?
  • Gordon has a colleague who has volunteered to visit the class and share his first-hand knowledge of Haiti; we think we can add a presentation like that to the book studies, and in fact, might want to make that more of a community event, maybe with a lunch or dinner.