Overdue blog retirement party

I’ve been blogging for over ten years(!), but it’s become apparent to me–and quite likely to you, dear readers–that this blog has been running on fumes for quite some time. The truth is, at this point in my life I have neither the time nor much of an inclination to update this blog on a regular basis. I’m happy with a lot of what I’ve published here, but I increasingly don’t have much new to say on most of the topics I generally cover.

I’ve had some very enjoyable and intellectually stimulating interactions with commenters and other bloggers over the years, but for better or worse the free-wheeling atmosphere of the early blogosophere seems to have largely dissipated. The various blogging communities I’ve been a part of have drifted apart, as people moved on to other projects or just stopped blogging altogether. Anyway, these communities seem to happen more on Twitter or other platforms nowadays, and I’ll still be actively tweeting for the foreseeable future.

There’s a good chance I’ll find myself with the itch to blog again at some point, but if I do, I’ll probably do it somewhere else and with a different focus. In the meantime, thanks to everyone who has read or commented over the years. I’m both honored and humbled to think that people have found it worth their time to read this blog.

“Get down, you damn fool!”

When Confederate General Jubal Early drove a small Union army out of the Shenandoah Valley in the summer of 1864, crossed the Potomac, and threatened Washington itself before being driven off, Lincoln went personally to Fort Stevens, part of the Washington defenses, to observe the fighting. It was on this occasion that a Union officer standing a few feet from Lincoln was hit by a Confederate bullet and that another officer–none other than Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.–noting without recognizing out of the corner of his eye this tall civilian standing on the parapet in the line of fire, said urgently: “Get down, you damn fool, before you get shot!” A chastened president got down.

–James McPherson, “Lincoln and the Strategy of Unconditional Surrender,” from Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, pp. 67-8

Cosmic piety

There’s a lot going on in Douglas Ottati’s Theology for Liberal Protestants–much more than I’m going to be able to cover in a blog post (or several). But as I’m nearing the end of the book, I think what will stick with me most is Ottati’s insistence on a cosmic theocentric piety.*

What does this mean? Mainly it’s about adjusting our theology and piety to the size and scope of the universe as modern science has revealed it. Christians often pay lip service to this, have we really adjusted our worldview accordingly? Many of us still think of humanity as the crowning achievement of creation, if not indeed the very reason for the creation of the entire cosmos. And we think of God’s activity as centered on the human race.

But this just isn’t realistic given what we know about the universe and our place in it. The universe is billions of years old and contains probably hundreds of billions of galaxies, themselves containing countless trillions of stars (the Milky Way alone contains something on the order of 400 billion stars) and, potentially, life-bearing planets. Add to this the fact that in all likelihood the human race will go extinct (quite possibly as the result of a self-inflicted wound) long before the universe itself winds down into a heat death or some other unimaginable final state. Taking these facts into account, it’s very heard to see humanity as particularly important to the cosmic drama. As Ottati puts it:

If all the cosmos is a stage, then it is far too vast and complex for us to plausibly consider it the stage for human history alone. Indeed, given the vast expanse of the cosmos, the staggering cosmic time frames, the astounding number of stars, planets, and meteors, the gases, chemicals, ice, and dust scattered through space, and so forth, perhaps the appropriate analogy is not a single stage but a world with many different venues, theaters, stages, and shows in many regions, cities, hamlets, and towns. (p. 227)

For Ottati, God is both the ground of the universe’s existence and the source of the processes that give it structure and coherence. And within this cosmos, humanity may be one of many “players,” and not a particularly central one. What we should hope for, he says, is a “good run”–we have our “place and time” to live out as participants in a vast, complex, cosmic ecology.

This prompts the shift from an anthropocentric to a theocentric perspective. If humans are displaced from the center of the cosmic drama, the cosmic ecology as a whole can nonetheless be seen as having value for God and as being a product of the divine creativity. This doesn’t mean that human beings don’t have a special value, but it’s as “good creatures with distinctive capacities,” not the “fulcrum . . .  of all creation.” The proper religious response to this is to understand ourselves as participants in the cosmic ecology and ultimately as dependent on God as its mysterious ground and source. As Ottati summarizes it, the “chief end and vocation of human life” is “to participate in true communion with God in community with others” (p. 306).

The second, yet-to-be-published volume of Ottati’s theology will cover the traditional topics of sin, redemption, and eschatology. I’m intrigued to see how he reconciles these more down-to-earth (so to speak) topics with the wider, cosmic perspective he develops here.
*By “piety” Ottati means a pattern of sensibility or a general orientation toward God, self, and world.

Augustinian, Protestant . . . and Liberal?

I like that Presbyterian theologian Douglas Ottati is willing to go to bat for the much-maligned tradition of liberal Protestantism in his recent book (which I’ve just started reading). Liberal Protestantism is pretty unfashionable in theological circles these days. From what I can tell, it’s much cooler to be “post-liberal,” “post-conservative,” “postmodern,” “Barthian,” “Radical Orthodox,” or even just “progressive.”

But Ottati thinks that liberal Protestantism–while probably never destined to be a majority view within Christianity–provides a vital minority position that’s still worth defending. He says that liberal Protestants often know what they stand for in social and ethical debates, but that they currently lack solid theological underpinnings. That’s what he’s trying to provide in this book.

Ottati points out that there’s no such thing as a “generic” liberal theology: it has to be rooted in a specific tradition. He describes the tradition he’s working in as “Augustinian-Protestant-liberal.” It’s Augustinian in emphasizing the priority of grace and the profundity of human sin; Protestant in denying the infallibility of church or tradition; and liberal in making engagement with contemporary modes of thought and social reform central.

I’m only about 50 pages into the book, but I’ve found it really engaging so far. (It helps that Ottati is a wonderfully clear writer.) I’ve long resisted identifying as a liberal Protestant, but if I’m being honest, it’s probably the tradition within Christianity that I stand closest to.

UPDATE: I originally wrote that Ottati characterizes his theology as “Augustinian, Reformed, and Liberal.” It should be “Protestant,” not “Reformed.” I’ve corrected the post.

The canal and the river

God does not conduct His rivers, like arrows, to the sea. The ruler and compass are only for finite mortals who labour, by taking thought, to overcome their limitations, and are not for the Infinite mind. The expedition demanded by man’s small power and short day produces the canal, but nature, with a beneficent and picturesque circumambulancy, the work of a more spacious and less precipitate mind, produces the river. Why should we assume that, in all the rest of His ways, He rejoices in the river, but, in religion, can use no adequate method save the canal? The defence of the infallible is the defence of the canal against the river, of the channel blasted through the rock against the basin dug by an element which swerves at a pebble or firmer clay. And the question is whether God ever does override the human spirit in that direct way, and whether we ought to conceive either of His spirit or of ours after a fashion that could make it possible. Would such irresistible might as would save us from all error and compel us into right action be in accord either with God’s personality or with ours?

–John Oman, Grace and Personality

I made a similar point, more prosaically, here.

To split or not to split

A recent poll of United Methodists found that more than 90 percent of respondents don’t think the church should split over the question of homosexuality. Moreover, “[c]reating disciples of Christ, spiritual growth and youth involvement” were named as higher priorities than debates over sexuality.

The congregation I belong to is firmly in the “open and affirming” camp, and yet our pastor and leadership are strongly committed to the view that the church can and should include people of divergent views on this, as well as on other matters.

Now, in practice, I’m not sure how this is going to work, since as a matter of policy the church will have to come down on one “side” or another. Maybe the best we can hope for is some kind of “local option,” similar to what my former church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has been moving toward. I’m of two minds about this because, on the one hand, I do consider full equality of LGBT persons to be a matter of justice and not simply personal preference. But at the same time, there are good Christian people who have not come around on this, and I’m not convinced that it would be healthy to continue the already-pronounced Protestant tendency toward schism by splitting the church further.

Two additional considerations incline me against a split: first, since we believe in grace and the Spirit, Christians shouldn’t regard anyone as beyond having a change of heart. And second, we shouldn’t think that we (for any value of “we”) possess the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Even in positions we regard as fundamentally wrong, there may be elements of overlooked truth. Staying in communion and conversation with people we disagree with can be a check on smug self-certainty.

I don’t think that there’s any neat and clean solution here, and any course of action is likely to result in pain and loss. And we should be particularly alert to the effect any choice will have on those who’ve been on the receiving end of discrimination for so long. Straight Christians like myself are only too prone to discount how toxic church environments can be for LGBT people.

Probably many churches will muddle through for some time yet without coming to a decisive resolution. But I do think it’s still worth trying to find ways to muddle through together.




Confessions of a backslidden vegetarian

Adam Kotsko posted today about why he’s not a vegetarian, even though he seems like the sort of person who should be one. I was a vegetarian, of increasing strictness, for almost 10 years. I found philosophical arguments for vegetarianism convincing (though I never accepted animal rights arguments in their strongest forms). I read lots of books about it. And I posted about it quite a bit on this blog. So why did I stop? Did I discover a previously unnoticed hole in arguments I had once accepted? Or did I just find living without meat unbearable?

Nothing as exciting as that, I’m afraid. Basically, it had to do with pragmatism and a desire to maintain family harmony. My wife and I have two small children (ages 4 and almost 2), and as many people with kids will tell you, getting them to eat can be a challenge. Early on we agreed that we weren’t going to try to enforce a particular diet on them. We would try to make sure they ate a variety of more-or-less healthy foods, but we weren’t going to exclude meat, if that’s what they were willing to eat. (My wife had never been as strict about not eating meat as I had.)

We never intended to eat meat at every, or even most, meals. But eventually it became clear that it would be burdensome for my wife, who does the majority of the cooking in our house, to provide a “vegetarian option” at every meal. So we agreed that I’d eat meat–generally poultry or fish–once or twice a week, along with the rest of the family. This would only be at dinner, since, at least during the work week, we eat breakfast and lunch separately. If I wanted to keep eating veggie at those meals, that would be up to me.

And this arrangement has worked out well for us. The majority of my meals are still vegetarian, but I eat meat with the rest of my family at supper a couple times a week. I’ve generally stuck to poultry and fish, but have occasionally eaten beef too. (For some reason, I still can’t bring myself to start eating pork again.)

I don’t really have a good intellectual rationalization for this, except that figuring out what works best for my family is more important to me than avoiding meat because of my personal scruples. I still think that factory farming is a moral scandal and that we as a society should probably eat a lot less meat. But the difference between me personally eating all vegetarian and just eating mostly vegetarian, as far as its contribution to the sum total of good in the world goes, doesn’t seem worth fussing over at this point in my life. Maybe this will change as my kids get older, but for now call me a demi-vegetarian or a flexitarian. Or maybe just a sellout.