Friday, July 18, 2008

Panegyric to Rootedness

Indiefaith responds to some recent discussions of marriage and family that have been going on in the theological blogs. Against some critiques of stereotypical approaches to marriage in evangelicalism and the culture at large, Indiefaith reminds us that,
"there is always something humorous or perhaps sinister about academics critiquing family as though their commitments to study could somehow be cleansed in the process. To dare use an overused phrase by some the above mentioned bloggers, perhaps evangelicals (and the bloggers who critique them) have not elevated marriage and family enough."
He continues:
Our critiques should not be doing away with such possible expressions of faithfulness but adding to them [...] Doing away with the theological expression of marriage is like doing away with the theological expression of land and its relationships. Through our social and economic system we have largely done away with expressions of land. We need to add and fortify this.
My impression of Halden's and Ben's critiques is that they are mounted in an effort to guard our resurrection faith by preventing an overzealous appeal to what we might consider "natural" sources of revelation and faith. Despite the fact that God declared His creation good, its original tragic finitude and even more so its corrupted state of sin disallows any ultimate provision of revelatory truth, and seeking this in nature becomes a matter of idolatry (Rom. 1:25). Indiefaith offers an alternative to crude idolatry by describing the place of marriage and family (and land, etc.) as "expressions of faithfulness". As acts of expression, institutions such as marriage and family serve their purpose in directing us to faith without compromising the priority of divine grace at work in us. We must remain rooted in these expressions, however, for God's purpose in them to be effectual. The same might be said for sacramental devotion, which roots the Christian life in liturgical expressions of faithfulness (Christ's to us... ours to our neighbor...). Indiefaith's example of our relationship to the land as an exemplar of faithfulness is also important, perhaps one of the most important social expressions outside of the immediate ties of family and community. I'm reminded of Wendell Berry's call to rootedness in and nurture of the land. A recent article on the blue crabs of the Chesapeake Bay addresses the extent to which an ignorance of naturally rooted expressions of faithfulness tear apart the life that God blesses; this crisis is close to home for me, and local concerns of many others are likewise applicable.

While I appreciate the concern of Ben and Halden that we in our rootedness might fall into idolatry~ that panegyric may turn to outright doxology~ I think the faithlessness that the Church currently wrestles with is one that results from an idolatry of things other than the natural gifts in which God roots us in expression of His faithfulness. The disorder of cosmopolitan life that both distracts our worship and our relationship with land, family, and community, has (in my mind) done more to damage faithfulness than any overcommitment to marriage and family.


  1. The pope recently made a comment on "consumerism" that is similar to your last paragraph. I'm not sure I totally buy that overarching critique... The new cosmopolitanism or consumerism is only disordered to the conceptions of order developed in a premodern era. There are lots of ways in which the modern era, alternatively, considers the premodern era "disordered"... mass starvation and shorter life expectancies being two great examples.

    You see the products of cosmopolitanism as "things other than the natural gifts in which God roots us"... but why can't it be "things which are produced when we join in God's creative process by altering the natural gifts in which God roots us."

    Cosmopolitanism is a very very new thing in the span of human history. But I think it is much more than the result of humanity "turning away" from the "natural gifts that God roots us in". Cosmopolitanism - like the origin of agriculture and cities and civilization in the first place - is rooted in basic discoveries (combustion, fission, electricity, etc.) that are never going to be unlearned - and they've supported an explosion in the human population which will never allow us to go back to our "natural roots" unless we bomb ourselves back to that state.

    The task at hand is two-fold: sustainability and reformation.

    1. Sustainability: Because the forces of cosmopolitanism have been discovered and unleashed so rapidly, we really still aren't sure exactly what we've gotten ourselves into. We didn't know about climate change when we started pumping CO2 into the atmosphere a century ago. Similarly, we didn't realize the damage that overfishing would do. We're starting to learn and we need to act on that knowledge. The goal shouldn't be to reverse cosmopolitanism! If this is really an unstoppable historical process, trying to reverse cosmopolitanism would only put off the inevitable. Instead, we need to transform cosmopolitanism into something more sustainable. Smarter architecture, clean energy, etc. - and perhaps a few space bases in case something catastrophic happens.

    2. Reformation: Premodern institutions may not perform well in the modern, cosmopolitan era - they'll need to be reformed. There was once a time when Christianity could not be conceived of without a divine sovereign and a strict feudal system of fealty. It was only natural! Those institutions supported the Church and the Church supported those institutions. Somehow, we managed to reformulate the state AND the Church so that constitutional democarcy seems to work together pretty naturally with the Church. In fact, monarchy and feudalism seem UNCOMPATABLE with the Church these days. That's quite a transformation on both sides of the aisle... and at the time it was considered a challenge to the faith. We need to consider how cosmopolitanism necessitates further reformation of our institutions - both secular and sacred. And we need to recognize how much of what we consider sacred is in fact man-made and mutable.

    Saying "cosmopolitanism distracts us from faith and severs us from institutions and natural gifts" isn't enough, because cosmopolitanism is here to stay. We need to work on how to make it AND our natural gifts more sustainable, less distracting, and more connected. And cosmopolitanism isn't the only problem - its clashing wiht a lot of premodern ideas, some of which are great to keep - some of which might need to be discarded, and perhaps some previously discarded premodern ideas need to be ressurected.

  2. Yes, I did speak with a broad brush here. In fact, I wouldn't say that cosmopolitanism is particularly "new". I realize you're talking about a particular instance of cosmopolitanism... a modern, Enlightenment cosmopolis first articulated on a political level perhaps by someone like Kant. But cosmopolitanism a was present in the Roman Empire as Christianity was formed... in fact Christianity itself is quite a cosmopolitan religion- it thrived in the cities rather than in the rural areas (the term "pagan" comes from the Latin word for a person from the country). So I do recognize that cosmopolitanism is a multifaceted issue- we await a heavenly city, don't we? But I suppose I was employing a stereotype to make a point. And I do think that in our own day cosmopolitanism does plenty to separate us from communitarian relationships, with one another and the rest of Creation. Good thoughts, though. I think you've given a solid critique of some of my points.

  3. So I just read that blog post on tragic - and I like your extension of it - "tragic finitude" - which is basically what he's getting at.

    That's really cool, and you know what it makes me think of? Indifference curves!!!! Welfare economics! Economics is about human choices in the face of scarcity. Since you cannot have leisure and income at the same time - you have to give up some leisure to work to get income - the labor supply function is derived from the essential finitude of human beings. Economics exists because choice exists - and the ONLY reason why choice exists is that scarcity exists. Scarce time, scarce resources, etc. Tragic finitude is the tragedy of scarcity.

    It really puts an ethical dimensio non microeconomics - and you can see how close it all really is to moral philosophy, even though moral philosophy and economics parted ways two and a half centuries ago.

  4. Which makes me wonder... ethics exists where choice exists, right? If there was no choice, ethics would not be an issue. And if choice exists because scarcity exists, then does ethics make sense in the context of the infinite - where choices do not need to be made because everything is possible?

  5. A great connection... I should put together a list of books about economics by theologians for you to read... I think you'd find a lot of it to be crap, but some of it to be quite interesting. I'm not convinced by Anderson's discussion of the tragic as something original to creation for exactly the point you bring up- it seems to insist upon scarcity. I don't think that a finite creation needs to be impoverished or "tragic" in this way, and I think that the presence of this is specifically a result of the Fall rather than being a part of the original goodness of creation.

  6. On ethics... again, back to the Fall. Knowledge of good and evil- introduction of the law- to put it simply, ethics. Present in creation before sin? I don't think so. After the final redemption? Doesn't sound right either.

    The next question is, how does ethics relate to the "new law" that Christ introduces between his first and second coming... the Law is not gone, but neither is it the same as it was. All forms of Christian utopianism and idealism (or their secular counterparts), I think, are an overplaying of the hand that Jesus deals us in this "new" law of love, that can only be fully fulfilled when He returns and redeems us from this life of sin. We may lose "choice", as you mention, but I don't think this signals a loss of "freedom". But now we're into human and divine agency, which should be a whole different discussion one day down the road.

  7. Why do you have a problem with it - because you:

    1. can conceive of a non-tragic finitude so you're frustrated he insists on the tragic finitude model

    2. don't think infinitude is what will be established when tragedy is ended, or

    3. see the scriptural references to the fall and figure it's gotta be significant somehow so there's gotta be an untragic finitude


  8. Well, I agree with your point 2, but that's not why I have a problem with it. I suppose it's something like your option 3. The Fall introduces sin. While I would not tie finitude to sin, I would tie tragedy, or scarcity to sin. Scarcity seems to be finitude from another perspective... from a perspective of lack of provision, rather than of mere particularity. I think that this is the result of the Fall and tied closely to sin, as is tragedy. Finitude, however, is simply a state of being; there's nothing not good about being finite.

  9. Aha! But you assume your conclusion. There's nothing not good about being finite SO LONG AS finitude doesn't imply scarcity and therefore tragedy.

    I think finitude is about particularity but that very particularity implies scarcity - because you are particular you cannot be in two places at once - you cannot exist in two time periods at once. That alone introduces substantial scarcity... enough to justify a labor supply function, as I mentioned earlier.

    I wonder about so closely tying sin to tragedy - maybe its true maybe its not, but I'm not 100% convinced. Then again I don't think sin is well defined here. I think "tragedy" is well defined in that blog - and I personally like it because it does conjure up images of tradeoffs that I'm familiar with... but just because it is well defined doesn't mean its a useful definition.

    So "the fall introduces sin"... a little nebulous... to whom? What is sin? Is sin just human inadequacy? If it is - then did the fall cause sin or wouldn't sin have to have caused the fall. The very event of the fall implies that there was something inadequate about humanity preceeding the fall, right? perfect beings wouldn't fall... or else they wouldn't be perfect, right?

  10. Scarcity as you describe it with regard to particularity is, as I said, a "perspective". One which cannot be assumed to be original. Not being in two places at once can introduce a concept of scarcity, but in saying this we're dealing with what's not the case. More basically, not being in two places at once means that you are exclusively and entirely placed where you are. This situation is only one of "scarcity" from the perspective of looking at what it is not. Like Satan envying God's authority. Like Eve and Adam coveting what seemed to them good, even thought it was forbidden. The perspective of scarcity it entirely dependent upon a focus on what one does not have, and this is what I think is not original to God's good creation.

    Particularity doesn't "imply scarcity" any more than my own spot of land implies greener grass on another. Scarcity implies a situation of want, and I don't think that this is necessarily present just because a situation is limited rather than unlimited. This goes back to the difference I spoke of between "choice" and "freedom". Choice doesn't imply freedom, nor vice versa.

  11. Hmmm - not sure I'm with you on that one. For one thing, your first paragraph implies that the goodness of creation relies on ignorance - ignorance of what one does not have. That just seems wrong to me.

    Second, I don't think scarcity is dependent on want. I don't have something, so that something is "scarce" for me - it is not a part of my particularity. What choice I make in response to that scarcity WILL depend on what my wants are: if I want it, I will choose to pay a price for it or take it, etc... if I don't want it I won't act. But my want or lack of want is completely independent of whether it is scarce or not.

  12. -Goodness does not rely on ignorance, but rather on the lack of a particular kind of knowledge. The "knowledge of good and evil" is really more about evil than it is about good. A lack of this knowledge isn't so much ignorance in a pejorative sense as it is innocence.

    -When I say "want", I don't mean "I want something"... I mean it in the sense of "you have been found wanting". Scarcity, as well as a realization of want, is a perspective insofar as it depends on a particular type of knowledge... the sort that destroys the innocence that I mention above, rather than the ignorance that you speak of.

  13. No perjorative sense necessary - this gets us back to Paul Mannes's basement and the misunderstanding he had with his wife.

    If you don't know evil, you are ignorant of evil. And that just seems weird to me that true goodness is predicated on any type of ignorance.

    God certainly isn't ignorant of evil, is he? so what makes him so good... perhaps the lack of scarcity is a better place to look than ignorance.

  14. so does that make me a gnostic, that I think that ignorance and goodness are antithetical?????

  15. God also is infinite, while creation is finite- so what is good for creation is not necessarily good for God, and vice versa. I guess I'd just be curious about what your interpretation of the Fall myth is, exactly... particularly your understanding of the knowledge of good and evil within it.

  16. This may be surprising to you, but I don't spend much time interpreting it... I think it's possible there could be some significance to "knowing good and evil", and yet the author might not have thought through all the implications of that phrase, ethics, choice sets, finitude, etc. I don't know.

    My assumption has always been that the knowledge of good and evil was something that Adam and Eve were supposed to be "ignorant" or "innocent" of - and eden very much operated on the "ignorance is bliss" principle. I think it was a way of explaining evil in the world - at some point there wasn't evil, and then when evil was presented as an option the very presence of that option made the choice of that option an inevitability.

    But this is just a framework for saying "people will always do bad things". Unless you believe that humans were actually derived from one couple in a garden a long time ago, I don't think it matters that the message of the story is incongruent with other conceptions about finitude, right and wrong, choice, etc. I cringe to call it a myth like you do - but ya, I guess we can use that word to good effect... like all myths, the Fall myth doesn't have to have a perfect resonnance with other myths in the judeo-christian heritage, nor does it have to have a perfect resonnance with all christian thought. as a myth, it is a represenstation of a very old society's collective beliefs and perspectives. We shouldn't expect it to be consistent with Kierkegaard and tragic finitude, etc.