Archive for January, 2016

The Death of the Hegelian Dialectic

Angry ManThe Hegelian dialectic is dead.  And I, for one, am not altogether happy about it.

Don’t misunderstand me.  In seminary, I was taught to be suspicious of the Hegelian dialectic as it is popularly explained.  The idea that a thesis and antithesis should somehow always be reconciled and, ultimately, compromised to form a synthesis spelled death for Christian orthodoxy, my professors warned me.  And I agree.  I cannot endure a Hegelian dialectic that synthesizes away the truth claims of Christianity.  Nor can I tolerate a Hegelian dialectic that undermines the very nature of God, as Hegel himself was prone to do, believing that God was a thesis who had need of an antithesis to form a new synthesis.  Hegel saw God not as a concrete Being, but as an ever-evolving process, always on the road of becoming.  I should also register my utter revulsion for how the dialectic was used by men such as Karl Marx in the promotion of Communist tyranny.  Furthermore, I would also disagree with the Hegelian dialectic’s contention that its outcomes should ultimately be devoid of any real resolution as a synthesis immediately becomes the next thesis in need of antithesis – a never-ending tension to an anxious nowhere.  But, with its dangers duly noted, I also believe that Hegel’s dialectic has some usefulness for the moral conversations of our day.  The ability to clearly lay out a moral thesis is important.  And listening to another’s antithesis – working to understand both its reasoning and its merits, even while noting its deficiencies – is generous.  And working toward a synthesis that actually lasts rather than just becoming the next thesis – provided such a synthesis serves to clarify rather than to compromise important moral principles – is noble and needed.  In this specific and admittedly somewhat idiosyncratic understanding of Hegel’s dialectic, while still keeping my eyes wide open to its problems and pitfalls, I find it useful.  But Hegel’s dialectic seems all but dead in 2016.

Writing for The New York Times, Thomas Friedman puts his finger squarely on the moral mood of our age in his article, “The Age of Protest.”  Mr. Friedman, quoting Dov Seidman who is the author of the book How, explains:

“People everywhere seem to be morally aroused,” said Seidman. “The philosopher David Hume argued that ‘the moral imagination diminishes with distance.’ It would follow that the opposite is also true: As distance decreases, the moral imagination increases. Now that we have no distance – it’s like we’re all in a crowded theater, making everything personal – we are experiencing the aspirations, hopes, frustrations, plights of others in direct and visceral ways.”[1]

Moral arousal has become ubiquitous, says Seidman.  Everyone everywhere seems to be commenting on some morally significant issue.

Now, on the one hand, as Seidman notes elsewhere in his comments, moral arousal can be a good thing.  When we see evil in the world, we need to be willing to confront it.  Indeed, this is what the Christus Victor theory of atonement, for all its problems, explains well – that God in Christ has confronted and conquered sin, death, and the devil.  On the other hand, there is a shadowy underbelly to our constant state of moral arousal, which Seidman goes on to pinpoint as moral outrage:

When moral arousal manifests as moral outrage … “it can result in a vicious cycle of moral outrage being met with equal outrage, as opposed to a virtuous cycle of dialogue and the hard work of forging real understanding and enduring agreements.”

Furthermore, “when moral outrage skips over moral conversation, then the outcome is likely going to be acquiescence, not inspired solutions.”

This strikes me as profoundly true.  Rather than looking at one moral thesis, another antithesis, and then, when appropriate, forming a helpful synthesis that engages a more morally comprehensive reality, the goal has become to bludgeon into submission anyone who disagrees with or has a concern about a given moral thesis.

In his interview with Seidman, Friedman notes:

There is surely a connection between the explosion of political correctness on college campuses – including Yale students demanding the resignation of an administrator whose wife defended free speech norms that might make some students uncomfortable – and the ovations Donald Trump is getting for being crudely politically incorrect.

Both in the case of the Yale protesters as well as in the case of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the anger and bluster of moral outrage has nearly drowned out the sobriety and thoughtfulness of moral conversation.  In an article for Commentary, John Podhoretz notes that the rise of both Donald Trump among Republicans and Bernie Sanders among Democrats has much to do with the raw anger in both parties: “Trump said in the last debate that he was content to be a ‘vessel for anger.’ Sanders yells a lot in debate, thus signaling anger.”[2]  These days, moral outrage appears to be non-partisan.  But it doesn’t mean it is particularly helpful.

Sober and thoughtful moral conversation on complicated issues requires, as Seidman notes in The New York Times, “perspective, fuller context, and the ability to make meaningful distinctions.”  The problem is that many of the people who howl the loudest with moral outrage do not seem to be too interested in the hard work it takes to have moral conversation.  Instead, they want only tendentious and raucous stump speeches that buttress their angry biases.

So what is the way out of this culture of moral outrage?  I hesitate to wax prophetic – because predicting the future is a dangerous and, if you get it wrong, an embarrassing business – but I have at least a hunch that the answer may simply be “time.”  Our bout with fury may simply need to burn white hot until it burns out and we are left confronting the truth about which James, the brother of Jesus, wrote so long ago: “Human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:20).  In other words, nothing is really solved by our constant outrage.

Eventually, we’re going to have calm down and thoughtfully figure out what is right instead of thoughtlessly diving headlong into the kind of angry tirades that feel right right now.  Because of this, I am confident in the return of a cautious version of the Hegelian dialectic.  And I am also confident that we can become a little wiser if we, once again, learn to use it a little oftener in our moral conversations – not to compromise on principle, but to clarify what is true and good instead of just being angry at what is wrong and bad.

___________________________

[1] Thomas L. Friedman, “The Age of Protest,” The New York Times (1.13.2016).

[2] John Podhoretz, “Trump and Sanders: ‘Apocalypse Now,’Commentary (1.21.2016).

January 25, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

You Didn’t Win Powerball…So Now What?

Powerball Tickets

Credit: New York Daily News

The conversation across from me last Wednesday morning as I was sitting at Starbucks reading and sipping my coffee startled me.  Next to me was a table of folks who, from the sound of their conversation, all worked in the same office.  As coworkers, they were doing what coworkers should regularly be doing – they were strategizing, they were planning, they were setting goals, and they were developing financial models…for what they would do when they won the $1.5 billion Powerball jackpot.

With Powerball fever sweeping the nation last week with history’s largest ever jackpot up for grabs, these folks sounded like they needed some Tylenol to bring down their temperature.  I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a more heated, even if not particularly informed, financial conversation in my life – much less a financial conversation that imagines a 1 in 292,201,338 scenario.  Should we take the lump sum or should we take the annuity payments?  How do we set up a trust fund since we’re splitting the pot when we win?  Should we allow this or that coworker to join our pot?

Oh, if only.  But as Daniel Victor of The New York Times points out:

If you printed out the name of every United States resident on individual pieces of paper, put them in a giant bowl and selected one at random, the odds of picking President Obama are not far from the odds of winning the Powerball.[1]

In other words, you are not going to win Powerball.

The way this office pool talked about Powerball, it sounded like all but a sure bet that they were going to be the big winners.  But unless they happened to have just come back from Chino Hills, CA, Munford, TN, or Melbourne Beach, FL with just the right ticket in hand, they were not.  Last Wednesday was not their day.  And today is just another manic Monday at the office for them.

Powerball is an interesting enterprise.  On the one hand, I appreciate that it helps fund education, although I can’t help but wonder if there are other, more efficient ways to fund educational programs.  On the other hand, I am concerned that, from a systemic perspective, it acts as a regressive tax because it has a disproportionate appeal to lower income households who have big dreams of digging out of financial desperation.  Even if it does act as a regressive tax, however, it is important to note that it is a voluntary regressive tax.  No one has to buy a ticket.  Indeed, the fundamental problem with Powerball is not really with Powerball at all.  It’s with us. Far too many of us are quick to disregard the fundamentals of math for a quixotic wish.

“Someone has to win,” I’ve heard time and time again. “And it could be me!”  Actually, someone does not have to win.  This is precisely why the Powerball jackpot rose as much as it did – because someone did not have to win the jackpot and no one did win the jackpot for ten weeks straight because the odds of winning are so abysmal, they are, for all intents and purposes, at zero.  Technically, they’re at .00000034223%.  But it still takes a lot of zeroes in that percentage to get to any sort of a number that represents something rather than nothing.

Why in the world would we get so excited over odds like these?  What are we thinking?

In one way, we’re not.  We’re dreaming.  And, if your dreams are anything like mine, dreams do not have to make sense or be rooted in reality.  They can be sheer fantasy.

But something more is going on here. For not only are we dreaming, we’re hoping.  We’re hoping lightning will strike and we will win.  Or, to use the appropriate odds, we’re hoping lightning will strike 246 times and we will win one time.  We’re hoping our financial troubles will be over.  We’re hoping we’ll be able to quit our jobs and take life easy.  We’re hoping to get rich.

The apostle Paul writes quite extensively to Timothy about the dangers associated with riches.  Two of his statements are especially striking to me as the fervor over Powerball settles:

Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. (1 Timothy 6:9)

And:

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. (1 Timothy 6:17)

In the first verse, Paul prohibits hoping for riches.  We should not obsess over accumulating treasures on earth because such an obsession is a recipe for depression and, ultimately, for destruction.  In the second verse, Paul prohibits hoping in riches.  Wealth cannot do what many people think it can do.  It certainly cannot solve all your problems, as past lottery winners will tell you.

The problem with the Powerball phenomenon is that its huge jackpots tempt us toward false hope – both for riches and in riches.  And even if Powerball itself is nothing more than a silly game, the false hope it tempts us toward is a dangerous disease.

If you want to spend $2 on a ticket for fun, that’s one thing.  But you should place about as much hope in that ticket as you do in winning your office fantasy football league where the grand prize is a Nerf football that someone spray painted gold to make it look like a trophy.  If your hopes go much further than that, be careful.  Your hope is not in a $2 ticket with long odds.  Your hope is in Christ.

After all, He’s a sure bet.

_________________________

[1] Daniel Victor, “You Will Not Win the Powerball Jackpot,” The New York Times (1.12.2016).

January 18, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

The Pew View of the LCMS

Religious Landscape

Last year, the Pew Research Center released a landmark Religious Landscape Study that surveyed over 35,000 adults from across the nation about their religious beliefs.  As a part of their research, Pew studied the church body of which I am a part, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.  Though I am well-aware of the risks associated with navel-gazing, I wanted to share a few thoughts on the section of Pew’s study that specifically pertains to my church body, because turning the mirror on oneself and seeing oneself for what one truly is – even when it is uncomfortable – can often be a helpful exercise.

Before we dig into the data, I should note that Pew’s survey of LCMS congregants has a 6-point margin of error, which, statistically, is significant.  This does not mean, however, that this survey is not worth our time and attention.  Even with a 6-point margin of error, the study’s findings are statistically substantial enough to be quite revealing.  So on to the study.

I was surprised to see how well my demographic is represented in my church body.  I had stereotypically assumed that my denomination was older than it actually turns out to be.  According to Pew, 30 to 49 year olds, which is my demographic, comprise the largest segment of my church body at 32%. Generation X, which is my generation, comprises the second largest segment of my church body at 28% next to Baby Boomers, who are at 35%.  Millennial representation is much lower at only 13%.  Demographically, then, I am, in many ways, a typical member of an LCMS congregation.  I am not, however, typical in every way – especially in my theological and moral beliefs.  It is in these areas that the data becomes particularly interesting.

For example, when Pew asked LCMS people what they look to for guidance on right and wrong, while 41% answered “religion,” 45% answered “common sense.”  In one way, this is not a surprise.  In the face of the information onslaught of the digital age, we have become informational pluralists.  We garner and glean our information and, by extension, our opinions, values, and beliefs, from a wide array of sources. The idea of a turning to a single, divinely-authored book as the first and final word on morality is simply untenable to most people.  Indeed, when LCMS congregants were asked about their “frequency of participation in prayer, Scripture study or religious education groups” and about their “frequency of reading Scripture,” the largest percentage of respondents in both categories fell into the “Seldom/Never” tier.  Thus, it is perfectly logical that more people would get their guidance on right and wrong from common sense than from religion and from the book on which the Christian religion is grounded, the Bible.  After all, a majority of people don’t even study the Bible enough to have a nuanced understanding of what’s in it.

The Pew study also revealed that many LCMS congregants seem more unified around a politically conservative economic policy than they are around issues that pertain to traditional Christian morality.  Politically, 52% of LCMS people identify as conservative over and against 33% who identify as moderate and 10% who identify as liberal.  72% prefer a smaller government with fewer services and 62% say that government aid programs do more harm than good.  Morally, 46% of LCMS people believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases versus 51% who believe it should be illegal, and 56% believe homosexuality should be accepted with 45% favoring same-sex marriage.  Compare this to 50% of people who identify as pro-choice nationwide and 55% who favor same-sex marriage nationwide.  There is a gap between what LCMS people believe about hot button moral issues and what the general public believes, but this gap is not as wide as one might think.  And, on both the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage, the LCMS is less unified than it is around conservative economic policy.

Theologically, I find it unsettling that our opinions on moral issues, which call for our Scriptural agreement, are so diverse while in areas where it’s okay and even desirable to be diverse, we are monolithic.  Take, for instance, the racial makeup of the LCMS.  95% of LCMS congregants are white.  This hardly seems to reflect the picture of the Church Triumphant with its people from “every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9).  I understand that we cannot create this kind of Church by our own efforts and I also am well aware that the Church Militant, because it marches forth in a fallen world and because it does not reveal to us the universal Church, will always look different than the Church Triumphant.  But let’s not use our inability to create the Church of Revelation 7:9 as an excuse to not desire it.  After all, every member of the Church Triumphant starts out as a member of the Church Militant.  So the Church Militant should look, at least in some way, like Church Triumphant.

When it comes to the moral and ethical issues that clearly divide not only our society, but also many in my church body, I would simply say that these are issues that demand our continued attention and discussion.  And when discussing these issues, we must understand that just being a part of a church body does not guarantee, nor does it even make it likely, that a person will believe what the church body teaches.  Frankly, in our current cultural configuration, the Church’s voice is just one voice – heard by most only once a week at best – among a steady stream of other voices that speak much more frequently and regularly into people’s lives.  In order to gain a serious hearing among all these voices, it is important for the Church to speak charitably enough that people trust it and clearly enough that people know what the Bible teaches, even if they disagree.

Pew’s Religious Landscape Study has presented us with a challenge – and an opportunity.  It has revealed some areas of moral, theological, and even demographic concern.  My prayer is that we, as God’s people, rise to meet the challenge – not only for the sake of a church body, but for the sake of the world.

January 11, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

2015 In Review

Happy New Year 2016 images download

This past week, I took some time to scroll through my blogs for 2015.  It was, in some ways, an unsettling exercise.  Consider these headlines:

Blogging can be a frustrating discipline because, at times, as my list above intimates, it can become flat-out depressing.  It seems as though I’ve blogged on a never-ending succession of tragedies, controversies, and indignities this past year.  And yet, as tough as these topics might be to tackle, I believe they are vital for us as Christians to understand and address.

A few themes have emerged as I’ve watched the headlines unfold in 2015.  First, it seems as though we are obsessed with sex and oppressed by violence. Between “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the Ashley Madison scandal, and same-sex marriage, headlines relating to human sexuality and the sexual ethics have dominated.  But so have headlines relating to violence.  The acronym ISIS is now the stuff of household lore.  Planned Parenthood’s gruesome harvesting of fetal parts sent shivers up the spines of many.  Beatings and shootings with racist tinges dominate the headlines.  As a child, I remember my parents criticizing many movies for having too much “sex and violence.”  Was art imitating life back then or is life imitating art now?

A second theme that has emerged is a search for who we are as humans.  I would be intellectually, emotionally, and relationally naïve if I did not recognize that same-sex marriage is about much more than sex.  It is about the ability of people to define themselves as they see themselves.  This is also the case with the transgender recrudescence.  How internal desires correspond to a person’s biological ordering is key to understanding the existential angst that many people in the LGBT community experience.

Third, issues of race and religion have taken center stage this past year.  From the racist chant by members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon to the shooting at the church in Charleston, racism is frustratingly alive and well.  At the same time the LGBT community is trying to figure out who it is and arriving at some spiritually dangerous answers, we seem to have forgotten some of the older spiritually salutary lessons we had to learn about who we are as a nation of immigrants.  And I would contend that this is true across the racial spectrum.  Trumped up charges of racism in the form of the newly minted category of “microaggression” do not help, but neither do denials that racism is real and consequential.  Religiously, we are learning quickly – both from Paris and San Bernardino – that bad theologies have terrible consequences.  The theological drivers of groups like ISIS cannot be minimalized or rationalized.  They must be confronted.

As I reflect on the stories I have covered, I have become convinced more than ever that our world is not just in need of good thinking, but theological thinking on the things that ail us.  The problems we have encountered in 2015 are not just the results of some bad thinking that needs to be tuned up by an enlightened intelligentsia so we can march boldly into a utopian era.  Rather, the problems we have encountered in 2015 are the results of nothing short of a deeply depraved sinfulness that needs to be confronted by the Word of God.  And this is where we, as Christians, have something unique to offer our world.  While the world is trying to solve its problems by political, intellectual, and social gerrymandering, we can be confronting and forgiving the sinners – even when those sinners are us – who create the problems.  In my mind, that’s our greatest hope for a better world.

Human sin, sadly, will probably continue to give me plenty of reasons to write in 2016.  But grace, thankfully, will give me even more reasons to rejoice.  So let’s see where the year takes us.

January 4, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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