Summer Hiatus

Hi everyone,

I’m terribly sorry that I haven’t been posting for the past while. I miss it terribly. But in that time, I built my first house (or rather, I hired someone to build it, but did the painting and flooring myself). We’ve moved in now, but there’s still much to be done! I didn’t want you to give up on me, or think that I’d died suddenly. I’m still here, and I have some plans for the future…

When I come back from this Summer hiatus, I’ll be launching into a series of book reviews for new and forthcoming books from InterVarsity Press! Their books run the gamut of Christian publishing, from light popular fare to dense theologians (I’ll be getting to TF Torrance soon enough!). I received my first review book in the mail today: Popcultured, by Steve Turner. I also purchased Just Spirituality by Mae Elise Cannon, so that may come first, maybe second.

And that’s the other part: I’m on to my last class, Major Guided Readings in Theology. This blog started as a way for me to think through my homework readings, and that’ll continue – though hopefully, my homework itself will not.

So to sum up: I’m still alive, I miss writing, and hopefully in about a month I’ll be back with some book reviews for IVP books and some serious theology readings. What are you reading this summer? Hit me with some recommendations!

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Stumbling Through Economics

I’ve been putting in some extra shifts driving trucks recently, and so I’ve had large amounts of time with little to do except listen to CBC radio (try it, I highly recommend it).  Lately, particularly on shows like The Invisible Hand and Ideas, I’ve been hearing quite a bit about economics.  This post isn’t entirely theological, but I hope you find it interesting to follow me through a few thoughts on economics.

I hated capitalism before it was cool – well, at least before hating capitalism really caught on with the Occupy movement.  There are all sorts of arguments for and against capitalism that can go back and forth; usually it involves some level of capitalists not understanding how society works and socialists not understanding how the market works, etc.  But underneath all of that, I think there’s a level of moral repugnance toward capitalism, which is really what turned me against it in the first place.

The moral repugnance usually comes in when a certain type of capitalist goes on about how the desire for profit is what drives the economy – or to quote Gordon Gecko, “greed is good.”  Even when they don’t try to vindicate greed, economists use similar arguments to show how self-interest ultimately works out for the best interests of us all (see the recent episode of The Invisible Hand called “The Great Gouge” for a good example of it).  But in a country in which almost everyone has enough to get by, and even the poorest of us can still eat every day, the idea of striving to get even more (when we already have so much) seems excessive; and when we compare ourselves to any other time in history, or to any country in the “global south”, the idea of the selfish impulse to amass more wealth as a virtue turns my stomach.  There are plenty of arguments for why capitalists aren’t being greedy, they’re just getting their due – but that just comes across as the rich feeling entitled, which couldn’t be better calculated to enrage the poor.

I’ve heard many economists across the capitalist/socialist spectrum, and they all have varying applications of economic theory that could tie in with a vague notion of “capitalism” – the difference seems to lie more in their view of how much of a role government and regulation should play in markets than in their understanding of how economics works.  But it was listening to a pure capitalist tonight that really got me thinking about what exactly capitalism is.

Capitalism is a means to an end.  Many capitalists would say that the end is profit, and that’s what we’d expect from the stereotypical capitalist – a banker or oil magnate, perhaps.  This capitalist (on CBC’s Ideas) named Dierdre McCloskey said that she didn’t like the term “capitalism” because the word itself distracted us from the real focus, which is supposed to be innovation.  The idea of raising capital – i.e. investment – is that the investment provides both the motive (which we tend to focus on – profit incentives) and the means required for innovation and invention to take place.  She described capitalism as an idea that has allowed us to prosper from a continuous stream of innovations.  I think she’s on to something.  (She’s also an Anglican, who struggles with her faith because most Anglicans/Episcopalians lean toward socialism, which I find interesting).

If the goal of capitalism is innovation, it strikes me that there might be better ways of achieving that than through profit incentives.  I recently read an article in the Chronicle for Higher Education by Robert and Edward Skidelsky that talked about the concept of leisure.  Leisure, it argues, doesn’t actually (originally) refer to sitting around or doing something unproductive, but rather to do something for its own sake, rather than as a means to an end.  True leisure, in this sense, can actually be highly productive – and if you love your job, then you live a life of leisure.  Pursuit of leisure, I’m convinced, would be more productive (and more ethical) than pursuit of profit.

There’s a great RSA Animate video that talks about profit incentives, and how recent studies have shown that profit is far from the best incentive.  Watch the video, but I’ll summarize it anyway.  The study asked participants to perform a task, and offered them different levels of financial incentive for completing the task.  For simple, manual tasks, the people offered the most money performed the best; but for complex and intellectual tasks, those offered the most money actually performed the worst.  The researchers found that people who have just enough money to keep money off of their minds (i.e. not so little that they have financial pressures, but not so much that they have to spend time and energy managing and spending their fortune) are the best at their jobs.

And then there’s another recent phenomenon that is best exemplified by Wikipedia: those wonderful people who, though they have good day jobs, do their best and most innovative work for free on their own time.  The people who invent things in their garage on weekends, or write software in the middle of the night, or contribute articles to Wikipedia or the Huffington Post, all without getting paid for it, are some of the greatest innovators of our time.  While it’s still in highly funded corporate or university labs that most of the major breakthroughs are occurring, more and more we’re seeing great ideas coming out of the “cloud”.  In the information age, these people are driving innovation – at their leisure.

Imagine what we could do if we all had such “leisure.”  If capitalism is a way of providing the means and motive for innovation, and we’ve found that there’s a better way to motivate innovation (for its own sake, i.e. leisure), then what if there are better ways of providing the means as well?  We’re seeing some level of this on the internet, with “pay what it’s worth” products and projects on fundraising sites like Kickstarter; there’s a sense that you’re not just supporting the artist or entrepreneur, and not even just the product or project, but also the sense that these things are valuable – you’re investing in your society.  I’d say that these methods of fundraising are still inherently capitalistic, but they include a sense of democracy and social responsibility with them.  It’s an excellent step forward.

Another interesting project that I don’t entirely understand but love the concept of is a system of guaranteed income.  The idea is, instead of some people being very rich, most being middle class, and some being on welfare with all of the stigma associated with it, taxes would be higher for the rich and everyone would receive a guaranteed income from the government that would be enough to live on, but not enough to live large on.  The hope is that it would remove all stigma from those who can’t work, allowing them to live on assistance without being singled out, but also and more importantly that it would free us from having to accept the first job that comes along because we need the money to pay bills.  In essence, it would put everyone in some state of leisure.  We wouldn’t get so much that we’d be tempted to do nothing (though inevitably some would), but we could be more selective about what we do for more income.  We’d all be able to work in the field we want!  As I said, I don’t know exactly how it works (though there are economists who say that it can be done), but the potential for greater leisure is huge, and thus the potential for greater innovation is still there – and if we believe the capitalists, it’s innovation that makes us wealthy.

However your system works, the point is that capitalism is a tool, a means to an end, and even profits are supposed to be the means to an end.  Profits are supposed to motivate us toward greater innovation, with innovation itself being the goal.  And this, I now realize, is my problem with so much modern capitalism: we’ve flipped it.  We’ve made profit the goal, and innovation the means by which we can get personal profits.  When we innovate, our entire society gains from it; but if the goal is profit and innovation becomes the means, then we quite naturally try to limit the gains to being just for us.

Perhaps there’s a chicken-and-egg issue here, because profit motivates innovation and innovation leads to profit, so theoretically whichever one you’re shooting for, you’ll get the other in the bargain too, right?  So what’s the difference?  The difference is moral and ethical and spiritual.  I’ve already mentioned the morality of capitalism, and how economists love to explain that the immoral-seeming profit incentive actually helps more people than giving charity, which is obviously of higher moral value.  The ethical difference comes when, as I just mentioned, those for whom profit is the goal work harder to protect their wealth than they do innovating, and thus deny the non-monetary gains of their innovation to society unless they can pay up.

The spiritual difference is crucial though, and this is what brings all of this back to theology.  The definition of idolatry is, I think, when we begin to serve the things that are supposed to serve us.  Idolatry is the inversion, the creator serving the creature, the means becoming the ends.  Money is a tool, nothing more; but the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.  Money represents value; it has no actual value of its own.  When we attribute to money the value of the thing that money represents, but then deny or de-value the actual innovation that enriches our entire society, we’re well on our way toward idolizing not only money, but idolizing capitalism.  Capitalism becomes the gravy train, and we have to constantly prop it up (bailouts, anyone?) in order to make sure it keeps chugging along, rather than using it like the tool it is to allow us the leisure we need to be truly innovative and productive co-creators in this world.

So if you can, live a life of true leisure.  Be a co-creator with God, and let your innovations enrich all of Creation.  That‘s true, un-idolatrous capitalism.

Summer

It’s been a little while.  It feels like an awful long while, but that’s just the type of week I’ve been having.  The school year is over; this time last week, I was exhausted after three days of graduation duties (for friends, not for me).  Classes are all done (and I did pretty well, at least partially thanks to you folk who give me a sounding board to work it all out), and I’m facing a summer of…more classes!

Next week I’ll be taking a course called Hebrews: These Last Days with Grant Osborne.  He wrote the book on how to interpret the Bible, so it should be a pretty interesting course, but the rub is that it’s a one-week module.  From 9am to 4pm I’ll be in class every day for five days, and then the course will be over.  Every evening I’ll have a ton of homework to do, which means that I won’t have any time to write about what I’m learning.  Don’t be surprised if you don’t hear from me for a few weeks, and then suddenly have several posts about Hebrews.  For the rest of the summer I’ll be camping out in the Old Testament as I work through General Guided Readings in Old Testament, all the while cramming intro Greek to refresh myself on it before I tackle Intermediate Greek in the fall.

So, despite the fact that I’ll still be taking the equivalent of three courses this summer (the same as I’ve had each semester thus far), I won’t really have a lot to blog about (if you want updates on my Greek…I re-learned the alphabet today!).  So please, leave me a message.  Ask me a question.  Suggest a topic for us to discuss, debate, or sound off about.  I may skip some blogging sessions to go swimming or have a minor surgery, but I’d like for us to keep in touch, and keep our minds in the state of renewal that leads to our transformation into human beings.

Perhaps, like iron, we can sharpen each other a little bit this summer.

The Politics of Jesus

0802807348.01._SX140_SY225_SCLZZZZZZZ_I wrote a book report yesterday on a book called The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder.  A very interesting book (though a little dense – not an easy read), with a lot of mind-blowing concepts; mind blowing in their simplicity, really.  Yoder challenges a lot of the traditional theology and preconceived notions about Jesus: primarily, that Jesus is not normative for ethics, and that he was completely apolitical in his day.  By revewing the Gospel according to Luke (which traditionally has been interpreted as Luke trying to reassure Theophilus that Jesus wasn’t political) and stripping away that preconceived notion that Jesus was apolitical, Yoder shows that Jesus rarely said or did anything that didn’t have drastic social implications, and that it was the very political nature of his ministry that got him killed (quite willingly, of course).  I want to talk about one specific concept that came out in this book (I think it was in chapter 6?): the concept of Powers.

In a few places in the Bible, Paul talks about the Powers and Authorities, or Principalities of this world.  In Ephesians 6, Paul says that we fight against them (as opposed to flesh and blood).  These Powers are often interpreted as being demonic forces, and I guess that would make sense if you didn’t have any other definition of them – but it doesn’t really make sense, because at other places in the New Testament the writers have absolutely no problem calling demons…demons.  Why would Paul talk about them in code, calling them Powers and Principalities and Rulers?

Instead, what he’s talking about are the authorities, values, structures and norms that rule the earth.  We cannot escape from them, and we are forced to obey them.  It’s not just government (though that is certainly a power; Bonhoeffer refers to it as a God-given Mandate); it’s all of the rules, all of the things that we are subordinate to.  Yoder describes them as being created by God, but fallen from their humble purpose, imposing their dominion beyond the bounds of their purpose (providing order in the world).

In Jesus’ day, there were three main Powers that were oppressing his people: government, personified in the Gospels in Pontius Pilate and the Herodians; the Law, or the Temple, as personified by the scribes and Sadducees; and piety or purity, as personified by the Pharisees.  Between them, these three Powers had the people at their mercy – an attribute that none of them showed.  There were two governments ruling Palestine (Caesar and Herod), and three laws (Roman law, Jewish law, and the pious rules of the Pharisees); the ruling and priestly classes manipulated these laws to extract money from the poor and maintain their own position.  The Priestly class (Sadducees and scribes) controlled the religious life of the people, which often amounts to extortion for your very salvation; the Pharisees controlled the moral and social aspects of life, promoting a legalistic framework for the lives of the people, and stoning those who erred too grieviously; and the Romans had the power of the sword, imposing their will arbitrarily while, like the others, hiding their arbitrariness behind the illusion of moral or legal authority.  Add to the mix the Zealot party, an underground resistance movement that desired to overthrow the Romans (and likely questioned where your loyalties lay) and it’s fair to say, as Paul pointed out, that the people are made slaves by the Powers and Authorities.

Now, this doesn’t just refer to corrupt governments or institutions.  The Pharisees didn’t just rule people by fear of stoning; the value of piety and purity ruled people by imposing a social order (legalism) that the people could not ignore, and the Pharisees merely took advantage of that (and probably not even most of them, at that).  There are still Powers and Authorities all around us today: the biggest one that immediately comes to mind is materialism.  Religion is another.  Science and Modernity are big ones, as are “Tolerance” and Post-Modernity.  Sexuality.  We could go on and on: everything that controls our lives, whether we realize it or not.  These things have a good purpose, but their level of control over humanity has expanded, and is no longer subordinate to God.  That’s where Jesus comes in…

Jesus’ real temptation, as described by Yoder, was to accomplish his goals (freedom for the people, a new social order, justice, etc.) the earthly way: the Zealot option was calling to him, and Satan kept rubbing his nose in it.  But Jesus understood that it wasn’t just the Roman government that was oppressive, it was the Power of Government that needed to be re-submitted to God.  It wasn’t just the Legalists, it was the Law.  From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus’ words and examples challenged these Powers, these institutions: they claimed moral authority, but their authority couldn’t match his, and his very existence shed light on that fact.  They tried to get him to choose sides, and he refused (and this, I’m sure, is why we always think of him as apolitical – because he wouldn’t do politics our way).  What he did instead, was what was right – and proved his moral authority at every turn.  They could not get him to play their game, and they could not beat him at his (that is, they could not claim moral superiority over him).  The only way that they could stop him from showing the world that their power was an illusion was by killing him; but in that move, their credibility and authority was completely overcome, the illusion of moral authority gone as they put an innocent man to death.  Jesus went willingly, subordinating himself by choice to the powers that claim authority over us, and in so doing destroyed their grip on humanity forever.

Which brings us to today, and to the Church.  We know that there are no powers that are not subordinate to Christ: his authority is greater than all others.  By choosing to subordinate ourselves to the Powers, we point out that there is a power greater than them, an authority beyond them that rules over them, and they are brought back to their original level and purpose.  By living lives of submission, we are pointing out the illusion of these powers to the world – and pointing to the real authority, Jesus Christ.  No physical uprising could have that power!

What do you think?  Is there ever a time that a physical fight could have the impact (and preserve our integrity) of submission and self-subordination?

The Syllabus

Hello, and welcome to Stumbling Through Theology.  I’ve just started a Master of Arts in Theology, focusing on Systematic Theology, and I’d like to share the coming journey with you.  I’d like to share my adventure of stumbling through theology for a few reasons: first and foremost, because this stuff messes with my mind a bit, and I need an outlet like this to help me work through it, almost like a silent sounding board (though of course I’d welcome any feedback or interaction with the subject – please give my sounding board a voice!); second, because I find the things I’m learning about life, the universe, and everything – and specifically, Jesus Christ – to be so wonderful and life-changing that it ought to be offered to the world in as many ways and through as many agents as possible.

You may have noticed that the title I’ve chosen for this blog is a bit of a double-entendre; I mean it in both ways.  First, I feel like I’m a bit over my head, that I’ve taken on a hike of epic proportions in my desire to traverse the peaks and valleys of theology, and I’m stumbling my way through it rather clumsily at times.  Second, I’ve discovered that the more I study theology, the more I get into the Bible, the more my preconceptions and the dogmatic instructions of my yesteryears are challenged, broadened, and even thrown out the window – that is to say, the study of theology has become a stumbling block, upsetting my worldview in the process of perfecting it.  While it’s unsettling, it’s a pretty fan-freaking-tastic adventure, and I’m not at all concerned: Jesus is always good at upsetting the apple-carts of our presuppositions and blind dogmatism.

I’m not here to voice new thoughts on theology; I’m not an authority on anything except my own experience; I’m just stumbling through, and I welcome you to join me.  Don’t expect me to hold to any hard lines in theology: I have a background that criss-crosses Protestant denominations, combined with a firm conviction that all truth is God’s truth and Jesus isn’t partisan.  I attend a non-denominational seminary, and will be surveying theologies from every sphere in my time here.

I’ll probably blog on Sundays, and Sundays only: there’s just too much work during the week, and reflecting on theology seems to be a healthy Sabbath-day activity.  I intend to begin soon, possibly even tomorrow (a Monday, I know, but I’m sometimes impatient).  That being said, blogging will come as an aid to, or response to, readings and assignments, and thus will never pre-empt them.

Cheers, blessings, and happy reading.

EDIT: I realized that this is much more of a Syllabus than a Thesis.  Perhaps I’ve been listening to too much Ambassador.