"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Monday, March 28, 2011

Springtime! Sensory Overload!

First, a quote from my most recent encounter with Moltmann, reflecting on the presence of God in all things. He writes of the experience of God in the future and, to an extent, now:

“The sight of God leads to fruitio Dei, the full enjoyment of God. It is not only the eyes which are blessed with the perception of what was hidden; it is all the senses, with which the presence of God is tasted, felt, smelled, heard and seen, so that God will be “all in all.” In this way an eternal blessedness comes into being in the eternal life. The eternal blessedness comes about when the whole pleroma or fullness of deity opens itself. That transcends earthly happiness through continually new delight and through never-ending jubilation.” (from Sun of Righteousness, Arise, 185)

A powerful vision. Though likely not Moltmann's primary intent, it kind of inspired me to consider where the glory, beauty, intelligence, creativity, and the presence of God can be discovered and enjoyed. I find this task particularly easy in light of the coming of spring.

Below are some of the recent stimulations of the senses, brought on by the advent of spring. They are in no particular order. Other than the order in which they came to mind. So, then, in that order:

1) The SOUND of ducks. I spent about a half hour feeding twelve ducks one slice of whole wheat bread. I had fun testing their bravery by throwing the pieces increasingly closer to where I was sitting; I also enjoyed finding the ones who were getting bullied and making sure they got their fair share. And I enjoyed, of course, their melodious quacks.

2) The SMELL of bark dust. I’ve passed several spots with recently-laid bark dust as people are once again attending to their landscape. Amazing scent!

3) The TASTE of cheesecake. A spring sensation in that it’s my preferred birthday desert, which occurs at the outset of the new season. My wife made me some for my birthday—seriously some of the most delicious cheesecake I’ve ever tasted.

4) The FEEL of warmth. It’s so nice to occasionally walk outside and feel warmth, and to sleep with the window cracked from time to time.

5) The SIGHT of daylight late into the evening. I think I’m in a more joyful, grateful, contented, and dreamy mood with longer days. Testimonies of friends familiar with Alaskan life suggest there’s something to that.

6) The SMELL of fresh-cut grass. I love the scent, and it reminds me of golfing, summer yard work, and parks. Very nostalgic smell.

7) The SOUND of seagulls. I’m not really sure whether or not seagulls migrate, but I’ve noticed them more recently, as the occasional gull flies up to the west side of Olympia from the bay below. Might just be that I’ve been outside more.

8) The SOUND of Mariners’ discussion on sports radio. My wife can confirm that I’m as giddy as can be with opening day only five days away. She actually got me tickets to their home opener in a couple of weeks as a birthday gift. I’m an unrelenting optimist, and the beginning of a new season always brings a lot of hope. And after one of the worst offensive seasons ever last year, they can only do better. I hope.

9) The SIGHT of color on trees. Pink’s not my favorite color, but I’ve noticed it a lot while running recently past the dogwoods lining the streets. Can’t wait to see my Grandma’s lilacs in a few weeks!

10) The SMELL of my car! With spring has come spring cleaning, including the removal of trash, filth, and a slightly moldy smell from my car. After some heavy scrubbing and disinfecting, I placed several dryer sheets strategically on the floor so that my vents would spread the smell throughout the car. My car now smells like clean clothes.

11) The TASTE of Green Curry. The new season has meant something of a transitional time at EF Evergreen, with the arrival of a number of new students and an exodus of many others. One of my departing students from Thailand, who is a magnificent cook, gave me a going-away gift of homemade green curry. WOW it was amazing. Student departures are always a bit bittersweet; being cooked authentic international cuisine helps keep it “sweet.”

12) The FEEL of bare feet on sandals. When summer comes, I rarely wear shoes, opting instead for flip-flops. It’s not really consistently warm enough for sandals, but I did enjoy a sandal day last Friday. Sandal morning, actually. It started pouring while I was out in the afternoon, and my feet got wet.

13) The SIGHT of bugs in the house. This would also make my “worsts” list, except the return of bugs in a strange way feels like the homecoming of old friends.

14) The TASTE of seafood. Seafood feels more like a spring/summer food to me. Had some amazing Salmon Fish and Chips the other day at a local brew pub. Amazing. Bought cheap tilapia at Safeway and cooked it a couple times and a couple different ways. Not amazing. Either I don’t know how to cook tilapia, or it’s simply cheap fish.

15) The SIGHT of water. Spring means the beginning of more frequent excursions, and in this area there are some beautiful bodies of water. Capitol Lake is gorgeous in the sunlight. Bellingham Bay was beautiful on a recent trip there. The Puget Sound was lovely this past weekend on a day trip to Seattle.

16) The SMELL of Bath and Body soap. New spring line-up of soaps! Just stocked up this weekend, with new spring scents such as Island Margarita and Dancing Waters! (My apologies to anyone who considers himself a “man’s man” and expects the same attitude/demeanor of others. I’m sorry I’ve let you down.)

17) The FEEL of my wife’s fist. She’s recently entered a “punchy” phase, where I occasionally get smacked in the shoulder for teasing her or making a snide remark. I can only assume this is just part of Joann’s spring experience, given the timing. Like blooming flowers.

18) The SIGHT of people. It’s fun to drive by a park and see people out. Many understandably go into a bit of hibernation in the winter months and seem to get out more as the days get warmer. I guess it just makes me feel a stronger sense of community to see families out playing.

19) The SMELL of barbecue. We haven’t done it yet (don’t have a barbecue anyway), but our neighbors have. One of many nostalgic sensations listed here.

20) The SOUND of rain outside. Rain is nothing new, but sleeping with our window cracked is, and listening to rain is a very soothing way to drift off to sleep.

It's good for me to stop and smell the roses. It also feels worthwhile to thank God for the capacity I have to experience those roses like I do; to be able to so deeply and richly experience creation, with a variety of senses that make the world around me feel not simply like a machine but a kind of paradise—or at least a world laden with glimpses of it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

'The Great Evader': Ruminations on Question Evasion

I’ve been thinking about how people can be evasive, especially evasive of questions they’d rather not directly answer. Evasion comes in many forms, some perhaps more fruitful or purposeful than others.

  • Not-in-the-mood-for-your question evasion. Yesterday morning I asked my wife a question. She revealed her disinterest in the question by kissing me instead of answering. Not a bad evasive maneuver.

  • Culturally-confounding-question evasion. In China I was often asked which I preferred: rice or noodles? I didn’t like the question. I didn’t have a preference; it depended on my mood, or the accompanying meats, veggies, and sauces. My students knew their preference. It seemed a cultural thing that everybody had an answer to that question, almost like there was an accompanying label: noodle-person or rice-person. I felt like giving an answer meant I'd be labeled, and they'd assume in every instance I always wanted rice (or noodles).

  • Questions-with-no-room-for-degree evasion. We all get asked in a variety of contexts: “do you like such-and-such?” Often saying yes or no is not sufficient; there are varying degrees of liking. It’s not that I don’t like it or do like it; the extent to which I like or dislike it matters. It’s not always a great question, the wrong question even. A direct answer is not sufficient; evasion is necessary.

  • Play-dumb evasion. This last weekend I chaperoned my wife’s students on a trip to Bellingham for a state-wide theater conference. One student was not being forthright with Joann. Joann asked him if he was out past curfew the night before. His response: “huh?” Classic evasion. Then he lied about being out of the hotel in the middle of the night, to which Joann responded that she had indisputable evidence that he was. He responded, “oh yeah, I was out…had to get some medicine,” as if he misunderstood the first question. Nice move too, by suggesting he needed something essential like “medicine” as opposed to a 3am Slurpee.

  • Uncomfortable-situation evasion. Maybe that means not looking at the homeless guy asking for money, because what happens if you make eye contact, and how will you feel? Maybe that’s avoiding asking your boss a question because than she’ll know you didn’t read the memo (guilty) and give you that look. Maybe it’s avoiding certain topics because you just don’t have the courage or energy for what drama may come of bringing up a hot-button issue.

Since I mentioned the hullabaloo about Rob Bell a few days ago, I’ve watched a couple interviews with him. In both instances, the interviewers seem to be on the offensive, really grilling Bell in an effort to get some solid answers out of him. And in both cases (and I'm sure others) Bell comes across as a bit evasive.

I'm sure the reasons for such evasion won't satisfy everybody—including those who interviewed him. One interviewer relentlessly pounded him with questions, hoping for very black-and-white answers. As soon as he suspected Bell wasn’t giving him the kind of straightforward answer he was seeking, he’d aggressively interrupt Bell. He wanted a very clear answer to his particular question and wasn’t going to stop until he got it. Other critics of Bell seem to hope by their challenges to make him appear inarticulate and foolish, “catching” him by exposing him for being wishy-washy, inconsistent, or incoherent.

Was Bell being evasive? I think yes. Is being evasive, inherently bad? I think Bell and many other theologians that might be classified as postmodern, post-liberal, post-evangelical, post-it-note (bad joke) bump up against the same obstacles as their predecessors who similarly expressed a theology a bit out of sync with the majority Christian opinion of the time. We’re often stuck in a particular paradigm and have trouble thinking outside of that paradigm.

Many theologians writing today are not just trying to give answers to the same questions, but trying to show us how we’ve been asking the wrong questions. When someone asks, “how do I get to heaven when I die?” a contemporary theologian might say you’re asking the wrong question.

I think the best example we have of productive, purposeful evasion came from Jesus—the “Great Evader.” He seemed to make a habit out of annoying the hell out of people by not giving them the kind of satisfactory answers they sought. But it wasn’t because he didn’t know the answers, or was being defensive or reactive, or felt like the superior rhetoric of his accusers and interrogators had defeated him.

I think it was often because they were asking the wrong questions. Thus, Jesus could not in truthfulness simply give them a straightforward answer that would be truly true. I think Jesus was also very aware of the mystery of all things Divine and thus knew things couldn’t always be expressed in simple answers and thus had to be hinted at, often with stories. A recent survey through Luke yielded a number of examples; here is a brief sampling:

  • The Pharisees ask why Jesus is doing something as “unlawful” as eating grain from a field in a manner that appeared to be “work” on the Sabbath. Instead of arguing as to whether or not it was a lawful act, he responds with something like “because I’m hungry.” (Luke 6)

  • The followers of John the Baptist ask Jesus whether or not he was the anticipated Messiah. Jesus doesn’t say yes or no, but essentially asks them to assess what they’ve seen themselves and make their own judgment. (Luke 7)

  • Jesus is criticized for letting a “sinful woman” wash his feet with her tears, which to the critic was a sign he isn’t a true prophet. Jesus doesn’t address whether he is a prophet or not but offers an illustration that is intended to expand this man’s perspective on what constitutes a prophet. (Luke 7)

  • Jesus is asked by a man to intervene and tell his brother to share his wealth with him. Encouraging sharing seems a reasonable request, though Jesus instead prefers to address the problem of greed in this man. (Luke 12)

  • Peter interrupts Jesus’ lesson about watchfulness. The way Luke records it, Peter asks a question, and Jesus appears to (amusingly) ignore the question and plow on with his story. (Luke 12)

  • Jesus is asked “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” Jesus doesn't respond with yes or no (I think he doesn't care much for the question). He instead stresses the “narrow way” that leads to the feast of the Kingdom of God and the famous reversal—the last in this life shall be first and the first in this life last (BTW, note the use of last instead of excluded…arriving last means still arriving, right?) (Luke 13)

  • Jesus is asked about the timing of the arrival of the Kingdom of God. While Jesus seems to teach a tangible, arrival of God’s Kingdom in the future, he here seems more interested in the present reality of the Kingdom that is within people. I don’t think he’s contradicting himself, just stressing what he felt his hearers needed to hear. (Luke 17)

  • Jesus is asked by the rich ruler how he might inherit eternal life. Jesus, rather than giving a token answer or formula, seems to tailor an answer specifically to him, telling him to sell everything. (Luke 18)

  • Jesus is asked “who can be saved?” in response to Jesus presentation of his extremely high standards and critique of earthly wealth. Jesus doesn’t describe the kind of person that can be saved, instead saying “what is impossible with men is possible with God.” (Luke 18)

  • Jesus is asked by the chief priests and teachers of the law where Jesus gets the authority to say and do the things he does. Jesus responds with a question, and then just flat out refuses to answer their question (Luke 20).

There are a few more examples in Luke and in the other gospels (like Jesus choosing to doodle in the dirt in John 8). Jesus appears to be the master evader, and I have hard time critiquing his style or intentions.

I once had a brief conversation with Brian McLaren—frequently accused of being evasive—at a ministry conference. I had recently given one of his books to someone I consider a close friend who wouldn't consider himself a part of the Christian Church. I told McLaren that the book had stimulated some good conversation between my friend and I and seemingly made Christianity a bit more palatable to my friend.

McLaren thanked me, but didn’t really care much about what changes in perspective might have been happening in my friend. He instead said he was excited that our relationship had deepened because of the book. That experience stuck with me. McLaren evaded the direction I had taken the conversation, re-directing it to what he deemed more important, or at least reminding me of a key element that I’d ignored.

It was a good lesson for me that trying to convince people to think like I do is not as important to me as intimacy with those people. I think I’ve grown over the years to let my friend be who he is and do my best to express my appreciation and enjoyment of him exactly as he is. It’s been great for our friendship, at least from my perspective.

Evasion comes in many forms, some from less-than-pure or fearful motives, a way of hiding ignorance or shame maybe. But sometimes it’s simply a result of a person who has a very different opinion about the kind of questions we should be asking.

I guess Jesus, and other less significant “evaders,” even if their evasion is frustrating and unsatisfying, should not be discounted simply because they don’t answer questions on our terms; their inability or unwillingness to answer our questions may be a hint of some greater truth we are in need of discovering.

They also might be evading our questions because they would really just rather be kissing than talking. That's always a possibility.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Conversations with God (Here by Popular Demand)

A couple years back I posted something on facebook for some kind of short-lived application or game or something like that. It was rather whimsical and some found it funny. I had some friends tell me that they particularly enjoyed my recollection of a conversation with God I once had.

Since that day, I’ve actually had several more interesting conversations with God that I thought I’d share here. The first one is the original I posted. The rest have, um, “taken place” since that time. To be honest, my memory isn’t perfect, so I may be remembering some of this incorrectly.

Disclaimer: Please forgive any offense, blasphemy, or misrepresentation of how you understand God in what follows. That’s certainly not my intention.

At the office:

God: Hey, have you seen my three-hole punch?
Matt: No.
God: Oh, okay. Hey, is that a new shirt? I like it!
Matt: Oh, yeah…thanks.
God: Alright, well, take it easy…Matt, right?
Matt: Yeah, Matt.
God: Nice.

Sitting on a park bench, eating cheeseburgers:

Matt: So, you’re Trinity, right? Three-in-one?
God: Yes, that’s right.
Matt: Wow, crazy. How’s that work?
God: Well, it’s mysterious and complex, probably a bit beyond your ability to fully grasp—no offense.
Matt: None taken.
God: I think my plural yet unified nature is best expressed through metaphor.
Matt: Ooo, okay. For example, you’re like an avocado. One fruit—avocado’s a fruit right?
God: Technically, yes, it is.
Matt: Okay. One fruit, but three parts—the seed, the edible part, and the skin. All three are necessary for the life of the avocado—the three parts are interdependent, but one whole.
God: Well said. You’re on the right track. You should use that in a sermon. “God is like an avocado.”
Matt: I probably will.

Playing poker:

God: All in.
Matt: Don’t buy it guys, God’s bluffing.
God: Oh really? Do you think it’s in my nature to “bluff?”
Matt: (Silence)
God: Is that what you’re saying?
Matt: (Silence)
God: Do you think I’m bluffing?
Matt: No. Fold.
God: Haha, pot’s mine. It’s going to drive you crazy, isn’t it, Matt? Wondering what I had?
Matt: Yes.

Walking through a field:

God: Do you remember what I’ve taught you, my son?
Matt: Yeah—“you win some, you lose some."
God: Umm…no, not exactly.
Matt: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
God: That’s more like it.
Matt: “Love your neighbor as yourself."
God: Yes, that’s it.
Matt: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”
God: Well…yes, I guess so, though you’re kind of getting off track.
Matt: “The rain is Spain stays mainly on the plains.”
God: No.
Matt: “Jesus fools you once, shame on Jesus; Jesus fools you twice, shame on you.”
God: Nope. Please stop.
Matt: “I coulda been a contender!”
God: (Sigh). Okay, new topic.

Coming out of a movie theater:

Matt: So, Jesus—kind of like your ultimate revelation right? Making yourself known through a human?
God: That’s a good way to put it.
Matt: Well…let’s say you decided to, um, “incarnate” yourself as a famous movie star. Who would you choose?
God: That’s a fun question.
Matt: Thanks.
God: Sure. Maybe Charlie Sheen?
Matt: (Silence, puzzled look)
God and Matt: HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!
God: No, but seriously. Maybe Josh Brolin. Or Meryl Streep.
Matt: How about Robert Pattinson?
God: (Silence, puzzled look)
God and Matt: HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!
Matt: Speaking of which—are you Team Jacob or Team Edward?
God: I’m not going to answer that.

In the grocery store:

Matt: So what’s actually better for you…non-fat or low-fat? I can never remember.
God: I recommend neither. Go for the real thing, fats included. Most non and low-fat products aren’t as nutritious for you. Real food is always best.
Matt: Really? But won’t eating those things make me fatter?
God: Eat them. Just eat less food. Learn to savor. Chew slowly. Smaller portions.
Matt: Easier said than done. Americans have a reputation for being gluttons, you know.
God: Yes, I “know.” Sometimes I think you forget who you’re talking to, Matt.
Matt: Right. Sorry.

In the car:

Matt: God, why is there so much evil in the world?
God: Matt, why is there so much good in the world?
Matt: Touché.

In the kitchen:

God: Matt, do you any idea how much I love you? You are so incredibly beautiful to me.
Matt: Wow, thanks. Although…"beautiful?" That seems a bit feminine. Maybe a more masculine word, like "handsome?"
God (Humoring me): Okay. You are so handsome to me.
Matt: Hmm…now that you say it, handsome feels kind of shallow, like you’re just talking about my looks. Maybe, “breathtaking.”
God: You are breathtaking, Matt. How does that sound?
Matt: Well now I just feel like you’re exaggerating.
God: Yeah, you’re probably right. (Smile)
Matt: Hey, come on. Think about my self-esteem.
God: What’s “self-esteem?”
Matt: Really?
God: No, Matt, not really. I’m just making a point.

Kneeling at my bedside:

Matt: God?
God: Yes, I’m listening.
Matt: God, Lord God, I just, Lord God, want, Lord God, to just feel, Lord God, Your presence, Lord God, just, just, Lord, God, just now, Lord God, in this holy place, God, just, Lord God
God: —Matt. Sorry to interrupt, but…I haven’t understood a thing you’ve said.

At my desk:

Matt: Lots of questions for you today, God.
God: Alright, fire away.
Matt: Okay, so Jesus—human or divine?
God: Yes.
Matt: Okay. Humans—good or evil?
God: Yes.
Matt. Hmm. Everything is predetermined or we have choice.
God: Yes.
Matt: Wow. You sound like my beginning English students whose default is “yes” to everything. ‘How’s it going?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘What are you doing this weekend?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Is this an adjective or adverb?’ ‘Yes.’ You know that’s what your answers sound like, don’t you?
God: Yes.
Matt. Very funny.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Growing Universalism Conversation

There’s been a lot of buzz about Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins, generated in part by a video Bell posted a couple weeks back where he seemingly acknowledges that his book will reveal a Universalist stance on salvation. The book hasn’t come out yet, but a lot of people are talking. There are some who think, including me, that this issue will only continue to confront Christians and challenge us to reflect and dialogue on the matter.

Bell is one of several others in recent years to “come out of the closet.” It seems there are many who are “closet universalists” and a bit hesitant to confess their feelings for fear of being ousted or frowned upon by their Christian—often Evangelical—communities. There was actually an author who wrote a book about universalism a while back using a pseudonym, I think because he was nervous his denomination would reject him for his outspokenness.

First, a clarification of terms. The theological perspective in question is distinctly Christian. Christian Universalism suggests that because of God’s actions in Christ, all humankind has been reconciled to God (not simply those who “actualize” that reconciliation/salvation by conscious choice). At the end of all things, God’s love will prove too irresistible and all will be saved, regardless of choices in this life; none will be forever lost. Christian Universalists acknowledge the essential work and person of Christ, but extend the effects of that work beyond the Church. The other kind of Universalism, maybe better called pluralism, suggests all religions or faiths have equivalent “saving” power and deny the uniqueness and necessity of Jesus.

I’ve provided some links here from various blogs I visit, as a resource for whoever has a free morning and wants an alternative to sports or cartoons or Matt Lauer. I especially recommend Richard Beck’s articles for a good summary of universalism…

From Tony Jones: http://blog.tonyj.net/2011/02/whats-up-with-rob-bell

From Richard Beck at Experimental Theology:

From Keith DeRose, a Yale professor: https://pantheon.yale.edu/~kd47/univ.htm (this one’s a little more academic)

From Julie Clawson at Sojourners: http://blog.sojo.net/2011/03/03/in-the-end-love-always-wins/ (more a response to Bell)

I think it’s important for Christians to be educated about this matter, because like a lot of hot-button issues, I sense a lot of fear and defensiveness. I think it’s human to react to things which are a threat to our way of thinking and living. And when it comes to various perspectives on science, or morality, or theology, it’s easy to go on the defense when confronted with something new.

And, often, I think it’s because we just don’t understand it. Maybe it’s not even solely our fault, but due to the leadership or authors/teachers we trust who often guide us toward what they deem right belief (or just tell us what to believe). But be it a Buddhist or a Baptist, I think it’s important to consider seriously the claims of others.

I’ve been wrestling with this issue for some time, and would consider myself still searching. There are things I find interesting about the debate, from those on each side, and a few things I’ve learned about universalism. Some quick observations:

• Not only were many of the early church fathers were Universalists (e.g. Origen, Clement of Alexandria, John Chrysostom), but many in the last 100 years either hold or at least appear to have held such a stance (e.g., George Macdonald, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Jurgen Moltmann). It’s a thread that’s been present in Christian theology since the beginning.

• Despite my previous assumptions, Universalism is not unbiblical or simply a product of Liberalism or Romanticism—an effort to create a theology that “feels good.” Our conclusions about the meaning of a passage often reflect what bring to the text. There are a lot of passages in which, if you come to the text looking for a more exclusive view of salvation, you’ll find it; and vice versa for a more inclusivist approach. Both Universalists and non-Universalists seem tempted to proof-text their points of view.

• Contrary to my prior assumptions, most Christian Universalists seem to believe in hell. Where they differ is not on the reality of hell but the nature, purpose, and duration of it.

• Many Universalists don’t see death as the final chance for repentance. In other words, rather than have someone’s fate rest solely upon choices in this life, there seems to be a sense that after death people will still have the opportunity to repent or turn to God.

• Universalists don’t deny God’s justice. But they seem to understand justice less in terms of a necessary punishment that God is obligated to place on individuals, but is instead God’s effort to “fix” the world and restore shalom—right relationships and harmony—as a means of setting things right. Justice is not retributive; it is restorative.

• Universalists seem to emphasize our communal nature more than non-Universalists, seeing human sin not solely as something each individual is guilty of, but rather showing how the human community is a whole is sick, a broken system, and that we are guilty together, not just individually. Related to that, they don’t seem to prioritize free choice to the same extent as do other perspectives, but acknowledge that our freedom is limited (see esp. Beck on this) because much of our life is actually informed by factors out of our control (genetics, environment, family, culture, etc.). Hence the feeling that a Christian should not be more entitled to eternal life than a non-Christian, simply because of the Christian’s apparent “choice.”

• Universalists seem more Calvinist than non-Universalists. The divergence is that instead of believing that, in God’s complete providence God damns some to eternal torment, God chooses to save all people. What God wants, God gets, essentially—which is the salvation of and relationship with all people.

• What’s the point of evangelism? Despite this concern, Universalists seem compelled to evangelize. My guess is that it’s the same reason many non-Universalists evangelize—because they have really, really good news to share, news of love and hope, news that can transform individuals and communities here and now, and they want every person to know what they know and experience what they experience.

I think it’s worthwhile to seize this moment as an opportunity for reflection and deeper study. Often times the Church’s choice to stick to its more orthodox beliefs and practices has kept it pure, holy, and honoring to the work and ministry of Christ. Other times it’s needed to break from the theology and practice of the moment in response to new discovery (or re-discovery) and new reflection. This seems like one of those crossroads to me.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Grout Phenomenon

I think I’ve figured out a way to better relate to Evergreen students—not those at the international school at which I teach, but official Evergreen students. My plan is not to join the “Young Socialists Club” or to cease using deodorant. My plan is to embrace the “grout.”

I don’t know if any of you are aware of what I’m calling the “grout phenomenon” because I’m not sure how widespread this is. Grout, if you don’t know, is that cement-like stuff that is used in construction, often to connect things together or fill in holes. It’s used kind of like mortar is for bricks. The use I’m referencing here is that of tiles, specifically the bathroom wall tiles in the bathrooms in the Seminar 2 building at Evergreen.

I noticed it back in October, and have not yet bothered to ask any male Evergreen students about its purpose/meaning/origins. And I get the feeling it’s a male-bathroom-only thing. Typically, this graffiti is to be found at eye level above the urinals. Sort of like bathroom books but for those who don't have time to "put their feet up."

I did some quick research; urbandictionary.com suggests the trend began at UC Santa Cruz’s library. That doesn’t surprise me that UCSC and Evergreen would share a similar tendency. The only other place I’ve seen this was over Christmas break in the men’s bathroom at Powell’s in Portland. Olympia, Portland, Santa Cruz—the same hippy, book-loving, eco-conscious, liberal vibe in all three cities (just getting warmer as you work your way down the coast).

So let me explain how it works. Basically, you pick a common phrase, an idiom, or pop culture reference, and creatively insert the word “grout” into the phrase.

For example:

• Oscar the Grout
• Grout Expectations
• God is Grout

That’s basically all there is to it. It’s a strange little subculture of “grout artists.” And because it’s written in the grout, it appears to be a form of graffiti that’s harder for custodians to clean up.

Here’s some other ones I can remember off the top of my head:

• The Grout Escape
• Grout of the fire, into the tiling pan
• Grout-cho Marx
• Are you grout of your mind?
• Groutain of youth
• The Grout Beyond
• Poop is funny (no use of “grout” I know, but this was written in the grout-section, so I thought I’d include it, for my six-year old readers out there. And twenty-something readers.)
• Alexander the Grout
• The Grout Wall of China
• Grout of left field
• The Grout, the Bad, and the Ugly

Here’s a few originals (at least I don’t recall seeing these, though with all the grout-ers out there, I'm probably not the first to pen them):

• Fagetta a-grout it!
• Agroutface
• “Inside, groutside, USA…”
• All Agrout Eve
• Three strikes and you're grout
• "I’m a little teapot, short and grout..."
• Stop grouting, you spoiled brat!
• Grout Rushmore

So there you have it. Please, by all means, leave a comment here with your own grout inventions! Any grout ideas?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Tao of Jesus (Part Tao, er, 2)

Following up from my last post, I’m interested in what a Christian response to some of the core beliefs and values of Taoism might look like. My conviction is that those who do not share my beliefs nonetheless have a glimpse into God and the way God’s creation works in a way that I do not. This is because I, while a free individual in ways, am also bound to my own dispositions, culture, family history, genetics, social situation, historical context. I can’t see the whole picture, and need the help of others.

Listening to and understanding what Taoism has to say about the human condition and experience of Truth and the Other has the potential to enhance my own faith journey. And, if a devout Taoist were interested in what I had to say, I am confident that my testimony to the story of Christ would be powerful, possibly pushing them ever closer to understanding, to life, to love.

(The abbreviations in parentheses refer to sources, listed at the bottom of this post).

Taoism: No incarnation. (bn)
Christian response: The incarnation is essential; our whole tradition stems from the belief that God became uniquely present in Jesus. Definitely a divergence.

Taoism: The “Tao” is the first cause, found in everything. (rt)
Christian response: We would name the Tao as Creator, Maker of heaven and earth. Many Christians might be hesitant to suggest God can be found in everything, for fear of some sort of heresy (oh no!). But perhaps taking a more mystical view of how God can be encountered in the simple and mundane might have the effect of bringing us closer to God. I feel like I often act as though God is far off and I have to sort of "summon" him, rather than acknowledging God’s constant presence within and around me.

Taoism: The goal of life is harmony or unity with the Tao. (rt)
Christian response: If we’re comfortable equating Tao with God (while recognizing the ways they differ), this is a similarity, isn’t it? God’s goal seems to be harmony, union, and reconciliation with the created world. Our goals may or may not be the same, as we also talk about salvation and bringing God glory as goals of the Christian life. Being in harmony with God is a nice way to think about this, as is thinking about harmony with one another and with the earth. Seems similar to the Jewish concept of Shalom, which is also how I understand the nature of the Kingdom of God—Jesus’ central message.

Taoism: No prayer (in the sense of conversation with God); answers should be sought through inner meditation and outer observation. (rt)
Christian response: My tradition and experience in church has involved a style of prayer that is more like a conversation with a friend or a parent, or headmaster; a lot of other Christian traditions, especially Monasticism, seem to better grasp the sense of finding God and answers to our deepest concerns through silence and attentiveness. Especially considering how busy many of us are, it’s possible more time spent simply doing nothing—not talking or venting or making requests to God, but simply contemplating and remaining still—might be more nourishing for us.

Taoism: The three “jewels of character”: compassion, moderation, and humility (also translated as kindness, simplicity, and modesty). (wi)
Christian response: Faith, hope, and love? Maybe the fruits of the Spirit? Compassion could be equated to our understanding of love. Moderation/simplicity are further down the list of Christian values, I’d say, though I think commonly-made indictments of Americans’ overconsumption, materialism, and gluttony (in and outside of the Church) suggest we could stand to hear the message of simplicity. Humility/modesty…I’d say our dogmatism in how we assert our opinions of morality and theology could be lessened, though there’s no need to move toward complete relativism. One of my favorite concepts from Newbigin: making truth claims with a “proper confidence.” (from the aptly named, Proper Confidence.)

Taoism: “Wu wei”—don’t interfere with nature, let nature take its course; also expressed as “action through inaction”; problems come when we try to control our lives and nature; we disrupt harmony when we assert our will. (wi/rt/bn)
Christian response: I don’t think we have as well-developed a concept about our relationship with nature as this, though there’s a significant “green” Christian movement seeking to change that. As for the personal side of it, I think we could make some connections, such as our pursuit of faith, trust, a sense of leaving outcomes in the hands of God’s providence and running from anxiety and worry.

Taoism: All actions contain elements of good and evil; something can’t be labeled as evil or good alone. (bn)
Christian response: I'm confident part of the appeal of Eastern religions today in American has to do with the reality of postmodernity and the way spiritual seekers in my generation are often comfortable holding things in creative tension, not needing the certainty of black and white (nor believing such certainty can be obtained) but acknowledging the dualities and gray areas of life. Christians across the theological spectrum have often debated whether humans are intrinsically good or evil, coming up with arguments for both; a lot of Christians don’t feel the need to resolve this tension, preferring to acknowledge the presence of both good and evil in people and their actions. I guess it depends on how one answers this question as to whether or not one’s Christian faith is compatible with this Taoist perspective.

Taoism: God is seldom referred to because God is beyond understanding. (bn)
Christian response: I think a Christian must both resist this and consider it. I believe Jesus has given us the defining revelation of who God is, and we believe God is personal. As our Maker and Liberator, God undoubtedly deserves to be “acknowledged.” On the other hand, I think Christians can affirm the Taoist recognition of the mystery of God and the inability of finite, fallible, limited beings like us to really grasp God. Humility is needed.

Taoism: Sympathetic toward modern science; the sciences are not in conflict with the Tao. (bn)
Christian response: Historically, we’ve not been great at this. While there are exceptions, the Church has historically been quite reactive to the advances of science. Many assume such advances are threats to our core beliefs and thus feel threatened rather than embrace such advances as a means to greater understanding. Science need not be our enemy, but can be our dialogue partner, as we seek to affirm Biblical truth while also recognizing Scripture for what it is: a witness to God’s actions in history…not a textbook.

Taoism: There is nothing to be saved from; there is no duality of damnation and salvation; a joyful life is found in avoiding the pursuit of wealth, prestige or stature. (wi)
• Christian response: Salvation language is central in Christianity. Where we disagree is what we’re being saved from, or saved for, or saved to; or how specific or comprehensive that salvation is (saved from hell, from sin, from isolation, from hopelessness, from injustice, from brokeneness, for God’s glory, for mission, for eternal life, for relationship with God, some of these things, all of these things). Or how universal that salvation is (all are saved? some are saved?). Or when that salvation began/begins (We were saved? We’re saved now? We will be saved?). As for joyful living, the three “avoidances” listed above are worth considering, though I don’t care as much for negatives language as much as positives (i.e., avoiding sins as opposed to pursuing virtues).

Taoism: Not as interested in taking stances on particular social issues; such stances are useless because they are abstract concepts, not grounded in actual events. (bn)
Christian response: I like this. This sounds like situational ethics, where our stances on particular matters are secondary to doing what is most loving or good in a given situation. I see the dangers in approaching morality this way (poor judgment, moral relativism), but also think it’s worth thinking about how our sense of right and wrong regarding a given situation or contemporary social issue might be better approached dialectically, moving back and forth between our interpretation of Scripture and the present moment, lest we blindly apply what we believe are Scriptural truths and do more harm than good in the end.

Taoism: Values the process of emptying and detachment. (wi)
Christian response: Sounds like a meditative practice that much of Christianity generally fears but could really use, if we’re seeking to detach ourselves from and empty ourselves of the right things.

Taoism: “Pu”—represents the ability to be receptive, non-judgmental, able to see everything as it is. (wi)
Christian response: I don’t believe Christians are exclusively good or bad at this, though Christianity doesn’t have a perfect reputation here. Some Christians are judgmental, some aren’t. Certainly Jesus was able to truly see the real person, to see through facades and reputations; his approach to people deserves imitation. I think a Christ-follower could certainly use a little Pu-training (don’t laugh). It’s a constant temptation to make assumptions about people or allow their actions or lifestyle choices to taint our ability to love them as Christ loves them. Such a sensitivity to the world around might come from more serious spiritual disciplines, training ourselves, like Taoists, to “see correctly."

Taoism: Seems to have a well-developed understanding/"doctrine" of the mystery and physical and spiritual benefits of sex. (wi)
Christian response: Sex is bad, right?

Taoism: Scripture written by one person (Lao Tau) and seems to be a comprehensive guide for the spiritual life; there are many other famous, important Taoist texts. (wi)
Christian response: One person did not write the Bible, as we know; it’s much more like a grand library than a single, coherent piece (though it is amazingly consistent, for all its apparent contradictions). No religious text really comes close to the Bible in importance for Christians, does it?

Taoism: Like Buddhism it is a humanist philosophy about moral behavior and human perfection. (wi)
Christian response: Christianity is not in its essence about morality and perfection. However, as many are increasingly recognizing, from NT Wright's Biblical scholarship to Richard Foster's focus on character transformation, the post-Reformation Church has sorely underemphasized the centrality of good works as a part of what it means to be God’s people. I think we’re called to be imitators of Christ, not simply be indebted to Christ. The pursuit of holy living is not an evil in itself, though we can misestimate our own abilities and lose sight of importance things like grace, the cross, and the extravagant love of God.

Taoism: Linked with martial arts, which embodies Taoist principles. (wi)
Christian response: Yeah…we don’t really have an equivalent, unless you get creative: turning over tables? The Crusades? Church music wars? The art of Christian Pop music? (I recognize some wouldn't call that "art") The art of potlucks?

I won’t offer any conclusions here beyond what I’ve suggested in my “responses” above. Hope you enjoyed!

http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/2001/06/What-Taoists-Believe.aspx (bn)
http://www.religioustolerance.org/taoism.htm (rt)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taoism (wi)