The Herb Of Grace

Theology and Poetry, Politics and Prose

How Buffered Is Your Self? September 4, 2009

Filed under: books,Charles Taylor — Joel @ 7:32 pm

Taylor uses a couple of interrelated phrases that speak powerfully of our pre-modern/post-modern selves; his terms are the pre-modern “porous self” and the modern “buffered self.”

The porous self describes the common pre-modern worldview of being open to the good and evil forces of the world.  This meant that there were demons to be placated and protected against, storms to be drained of their strength by devotions to various deities, and saints to be blessed by. In short, the experience was an outer experience, one in which the person laboured to position herself in the most beneficial posture possible in reference to the powerful world around her.  The modern buffered self is completely the opposite.

We can see this sin in things like the preparation for the 2010 winter Olympic games in Vancouver, where the homeless are carted, out of sight-out of mind, to the outskirts of the city, and where the import of sufficient quantities of prostitution is allowed as long as it isn’t seen (of course that is their problem now, it has become visible).  It seems to me that the buffered self merely stuffs human desire and “irrationality” into marked boxes to be opened only in private.

Taylor marks the departure from the porous self as synonymous with the rejection of carnival (I will return to the idea of carnival later) and with the acceptance of the reformation’s dictum that all must be 100% christian; all must read the bible for themselves (interpreting perfectly through the pure lense of a childlike faith), all, not just clergy, must live up to the virtues of a syncretistic, synchronized leap of ecclesial and governmental force, diving into the shallows of the buffered, protected, reasonable self.

It seems that Taylor explicates the problem well, but feigns to consider the the issue as problematic as I do.  When he says “buffered self,” I say “death.”  Granted it cannot be as simple as this, but it is interesting that Taylor comes so close to the edge of the abyss which his own explanations open up, but seems unperturbed by such depth and darkness; he is perhaps more caught up in the grand vista that he claims to see on the other side.  The question remains whether what he sees is another city (le cite de dieu) or a pile of clouds, lit for the moment with sun and sky.


Political Discussions in the Public Sphere: Designed to be Powerless August 27, 2009

Filed under: books,Charles Taylor,public theology — Joel @ 5:59 am

Continuing from my previous post on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, I want to reflect on a point that Taylor makes regarding the public sphere.  He makes an interesting distinction between the public sphere of our modern age and the public sphere of the ancient republic or polis.  Both historical scenarios include discussion outside the decision making body.  The difference, he says, is that, in the ancient polis, “the discussions outside….prepare for the action ultimately taken by the same people within it.  The ‘unofficial’ discussions are not separated off, given a status of their own” (189).  The experienced reality of “discussions” in our modern era, on the other hand, operate very differently.  “It is a space of discussion which is self-consciously seen as being outside power.  It is supposed to be listened to by power, but it is not itself an exercise of power.” (190)

I find this very interesting.  We, as citizens of North American style democracy, are taught to view our views, opinons, and discussions as important.  At the same time, I think most people are left wondering how these things actually contribute to the decisions made in the end.  If Taylor is right, our voices don’t figure in unless those in power decide that they should.  Our much touted public sphere of free voices is actually “extra-political,.. a discourse of reason on and to power, rather than by power.” (190)

Now there are good reasons that Taylor cites for the implementation of such spaces as extra-political.  If our discussions on the street are apolitical, then they are less likely to be as charged with violent partisanship.  This unfortunately doubles back on us, creating a modern arena of “political discourse” which seems completely centred around entertainment.  Watching Fox news, imagining it to be a stand-up routine, is an example of how important we view our discussions to be.

How can our discussions become poweful?  How do we side step (or can we?) such a circus of “political discussions” devoid of actual power?  I’m not sure how invested Taylor is in an answer to these questions, but he has done a good job of laying an interesting stage that I had not noticed before.

I don’t think that we have the “right” to be heard.  If we lean on ideas of rights in order to be heard, we only play into the system which has labled our discussions apolitical in the first place.  Instead, if we want to be heard, if we want our discussions to have power, then perhaps a more communally centred approach is the ticket.  In our society, a good measure of whether or not we are truly discussing with political power would be if those “in power” consider our discussions dangerous.  We wouldn’t have to be discussing radical issues, I don’t think; it would instead depend on the strategic place and persistence of our speech.


Music in Modernity: Gatherings of Sub-Conscious Desire August 19, 2009

Filed under: books,Charles Taylor,Spirituality — Joel @ 5:49 pm

I have spent the summer reading Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, a large work in which he endeavors to explain how, in 1500, it was inconceivable not to believe in God while in 2000 it is quite easy, if not inescapable.  He is determined not to weigh-in with his own opinion while admitting that this is impossible; thus he simply omits the end of every paragraph where you would expect an essayist to declare, “and so I agree/disagree with this.”  It has been a good read (800 some pages) and I have enjoyed beginning to think through some of his points.

On page 360, Taylor speaks about modern gatherings around music as an example of the uncertain response of many westerners to the various tides of agnosticism, atheism, and anti-deism.  He says,

“I am thinking of the way in which publicly performed music, in concert hall and opera house, becomes an especially important and serious activity in nineteenth century bourgeois Europe and America.  People begin to listen to concerts with an almost religious intensity.  The analogy is not out of place.  The performance has taken on something of a rite, and has kept it to this day.  There is a sense that something great is being said in this music.  This too has helped create a kind of middle space, neither explicitly believing, but not atheistic either, a kind of undefined spirituality.”

Most of us have heard the likening of U2 concerts to church services, and Arcade Fire holding its concerts in cathedrals offers another example.  But it is not the lyrics (U2) or the setting (Arcade Fire) which Taylor alludes to, but rather the sense of profundity that one can experience at a concert.  I think the “undefined” and “middle space” are crucial thoughts here.  While most feel vaguely or strongly uncomfortable with the idea of everyone going to church, they are not ready to abandon the “feel” of sacred gatherings either.  Music, with its poetry and sonic unsayables, offers a gracious canvas on which to place the mixed paint of (1) nostalgia for the common point of celebration and depth that was the Mass, (2) assumed discomfort with “doctrine” or “dogma,” and (3) a palpable “not-going-away” desire to gather around some agreed-upon depth.  All this is experienced in a kind of demilitarized zone of the arts.

I’m both glad and uncomfortable with this.  I’m glad that the longing for sacred gathering is still very much alive.  I see it as a sign of hope that our communal memories are not completely shot.  My discomfort comes with our lack of historical and sociological awareness about the reasons for our musical gatherings.

This is a feeling that I’ve been having all through the book.  Its a feeling akin to someone telling you how ridiculous you’ve been acting around your ex-girlfriend, and you having no idea that you were acting so strange.  Christianity is our society’s ex-girlfriend.  We’re still wanting a little something-something (nostalgia), while at the same time recoiling, remembering truthfully (somewhat) her various infidelities.  I say this not to mean that we should just “turn back time,” I recoil at that; but I am disturbed by our lack of aquaintance with the history of our own desires.  Are we following a path that will lead us into greater light or are we are rats in a causal cage, outfitted with Bose speakers?


Ethics August 21, 2008

“The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection.

The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, pg. 17

With these two sentences, Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins his famous Ethics. Of course, he did not necessarily mean to begin this way. Ethics is a compilation of papers found hidden after Bonhoeffer’s execution by the Nazis. The collected papers were meant for a large book about ethics so the question of the form that he intended can only be surmised from the clues of the writing we have. It is thus amazing that the scrapings of this young german pastor have made such a beautiful piece of work. I will say with honesty that I have never read such wonderful lines as the above in all my interactions with theology.

That of course brings us to the question of the above passage and to the reason why I am focusing on it in this wee paper. I think most of us, were we to read only the first sentence, would agree heartily with it. “The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection.” It makes sense of our experience; anytime one is engaged in any kind of ethical debate, the support one person or another will usually call to their aid is that the ethical issue in question is right or wrong, good or evil. they may couch it in language that seeks to give the impression of openness and universality but that too is a value which they accepted based on their perception of it as right and good. I don’t think we think about this much, it’s fair to say we assume that our ‘conscience’ is a universal we all share. This is further assumed to be a good thing. After all, how many of us were brought up by our parents in hopes that we would acquire the knowledge of what was right and what wrong? If we could grasp it, this knowledge was thought to be an adequate tool to paddle us through life.

Because of this I deeply understand why one would react negatively to the second sentence with which Bonhoeffer follows up the first, “The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge.” (the knowledge of good and evil) How could this be true? Aren’t Christians supposed to be in support of good and right things? indeed, I understand why someone would be slightly afraid to see what Bonhoeffer considered ‘ethics’ at all if it’s first task was to make ideas of right and wrong unimportant or invalid.

But to understand Bonhoeffer’s amazing point, we must see that even our parent’s best intentions at teaching ‘morals’ and ‘values’ may have been misguidedly handed down to them from their parents. Perhaps that conscience which ‘everyone’ supposedly has is not as universal as we have been taught. The core of this thought is that ideas of right and wrong are rooted ultimately in the story of the original fall of humanity. Our governments and schools have attempted this sin again in our time, suggesting that we really all know good and evil regardless of whether we know God. The separation of ‘good’ and ‘right’ from God is not a problem for those outside the Christian community, at least they have something to help them navigate life’s sometimes murky waters. (because of this, we should not fight for prayer in schools but fight first for our Christians to learn how to pray)

But if we cannot, from one side of the debate, know clearly what is right and what is heinous (and thereby win our point, whatever it is) and if we cannot, from the other side, see clearly that all ideas of right and wrong are relative (and thereby win our point, whatever it is), then why fight for anything at all? But we do have a fight, a fight for Christians to realize their own heritage, golden and blooming. We have an ethic for our lives so strong and so resilient, so flexible and unchanging, that we will never be the same once we have begun to realize it. This ethic is a person and a life, it is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We are not to be concerned so much with what is right and what is wrong but rather that we would live and die like Jesus did. Yes in fact, the life and death of Jesus, and God’s raising him from dead, and the Holy Spirit’s presence on earth, all make available the resources of God we need to live as His community in the world.


A New Project: St. Stephen’s Prayerbook March 10, 2008

Filed under: books,storying — Joel @ 7:54 pm

hello all,             For the past 2 months, Matt Frise and I have begun our thoughts and workings upon a new project:  the St. Stephen’s Prayerbook (in lieu of a better title).  We are trying to pull together the unique offerings of our scattered and present community in a collection which could be used by those who know us and those who don’t.  It’ll include daily readings, prayers, liturgies, resources for social justice, art, biblical criticism, celtic spirituality, life in community, and the Mothers and Fathers of the Church; fun shtuff.  I’ll put down an unedited part of the introduction for your enjoyment.  I’d love to hear thoughts as well (though remember this is just a part of the intro). 

“The water that flows in rivers and tributaries in our town and the outlying countryside is what one might call “extremely tidal.”  In fact, the Bay of Fundy, the body of water which feeds these streams and inlets, has numerous signs and brochures which herald it as having “the highest tides in the world.”  This means that at 10 o’clock in the morning I may look out my office window and see the St. Croix River as a large gauntlet of mud; six hours later I may look out the same window to find the channel filled to the brim and careening ultimately towards the Atlantic.

            I share this with you because the prayers, stories, and incarnational entry points found within this collection were born and found in a similar rhythm.  Rhythms of fullness and emptiness, rhythms of many people living together, excitedly, tumultuously and rhythms of few people enjoying the sun of summer as well as the lonliness of an empty building.  There are the rhythms of grief, of miscommunication and the rhythms of connectedness, of belonging and being understood.  There is the rhythm of the deep inner experience of God dwelling in the cell of our hearts and that of the God who calls us ever out to the risk of sacrificial love in a world ruled by self-interest.

            So we who share with you the fruit of our lives, are dizzy.  We are rocked back and forth, adjusting our stance to today’s tide.  Sometimes we have succeeded in this and other times we have failed, tripping over our own feet or sending others off theirs; sometimes we have even fallen out of the boat entirely and splashed down into the water.

            But we share this because we hope to believe that we are a little better at balancing then when we first began and that perhaps our journey will help both us and you find new rhythms on the sea, putting one foot (or paddle) in front of the other with God and with each other.

            We are hoping to open up channels of conversation, not write the book on love.  This collection was not created to speak the final word on anything but simply to be many entry points by which we might together enter that great and wonderful presence which is so small and yet so big that our hearts may explode and miss it all at the same time. 

Pray with me,

            O Lord, My Boat is So Small and the Sea is So Great



Receiving The Day January 2, 2008

Filed under: books,public theology — Joel @ 6:17 am

Happy new beginning to all! I am glad to embrace yet another sublime reminder that we do in fact live in time and that we are in fact mortal. No amount of ammo, money, surgery, poetry, etc can remove us from our reality, blessedly mortal. We are not angels, nor were we ever meant to be or become them.

When i miss God in the person that is standing in front of me, i am not capturing Him by adequately thinking of the event to come (or more likely worrying if said thing will really happen the way i am daring to hope it will!). But when i am sentient (like a sentinel at the gates of a castle) enough to relax and receive the moment that is before me, a strange awareness surrounds me, the awareness that there is no other moment than this one. This awareness calls forth an appreciation for the things this moment holds, even when what it holds is pain.

The subconscious belief that we are actually immortal destroys the possibility of our receiving the day that is right in front of us (or the person who is right in front of us!) I think i am safe in this assumption, that the values of our present North American society seek to convince us that if we only protect this asset or rearrange that face, then we will have beaten down death once again. For behind the fear of chaos and violence and the fear of growing old is the fear of dying.

As a human, i have before me the untapped idea that each moment holds possibility. As a Christian, i have also the (sadly) untapped idea that God is filling and has filled everything in the earth with His glory, every moment pregnant with the miraculous normal that is overlooked in the hurry and worry this ‘present age.’

Receiving the day means to me that i can live with less sub-conscious under-the-skin worry that i will not finish everything today, because i will not! And this is okay because each day was meant to die, to live and then to burn in effigy, in praise and in welcome of the coming day. If i do not invest in this, i will be like the buisness person who was late for work because they kept looking for the next incoming bus, all the while missing the bus idling right in front of them.

If this line of reflection touches you, i would then recommend to you Dorothy Bass’ book, Recieving The Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time, a lovely read. I would also recommend Wendell Berry’s eulogy poems found in every collection of his poetry, title beginning “eulogy for…”


A Good Story Is Our Story December 19, 2007

Filed under: advent,books,ecumenicism,storying — Joel @ 10:57 pm
I am currently enrolled in ‘vacation part 1′ in Regina, Saskatchewan with my wife’s family (heading to Minneapolis in a week), lovely. Amidst many relaxing things, i have been reading and have just finished The Promise by Chaim Potok; i dare say it ruined me and put me back together again.
    If you have any interest in textual criticism, it is fascinating, any interest in Judaism, educating, any interest in the nature of human conflict, illuminating, any interest in the relationship between father and son, essential.
    Potok writes the characters and i believe they exist, i think about them when i am not reading, i almost pray for them. This is good literature, an art which brings the central struggles and joys of being human into that succinct and slidy pill we call a story. we swallow it not because we believe in its strategic inner message or because of some abstract moral intention but because we are entranced by the correct image of ourselves in the self of another.

I’d like to write a few in-depth essays about The Promise, perhaps exploring themes like the nature of truth as it relates to a person’s history, mentors, suffering, etc… In Potok’s book, he has shown me that these things must be investigated if there is to be any hope of ecumenicism (even though his context is Judaism and mine Christianity) or friendship while passionately holding vastly different perspectives on the same faith. I also have begun to fall in love with the strength of culture i see in some expressions of Judaism (actually, strengths in various cultures); i would like to tunnel into that further.

So if you have any interest in being human or becoming further human, read first The Chosen and then (after a break) The Promise. You will not be sorry though your emotive side may ache, it is worth it.