Saturday, January 14, 2012

Two intriguing links from Mockingbird

Molly Worthen reviews The Annointed.

The observation that evangelicals want to have it both ways is simple enough but it bears repeating.  We want to have our cake and eat it, too.  We'd like to have the intellectual chops to be at the grown up table in academia but then also be able to throw all of that off and hang out in our own circles. 

The battle between cessationist and continuationist approaches to pneumatology and ecclesiology can be considered in light of such a tension.  American Christians have two competing traditions that establish a foundation for church structure and authority.  One is the charismatic authority of a, well, charismatic leader (whether that leader is charismatic in the Christianese sense or a hardcore cessationist).  Another is the institutional authority that derives from committee-created chartering documents. 

People don't want a "dead institution" because that seems to have no power or attractional element and there is an aversion to formalism and tradition in American folk spirituality.  Yet the risks of the charismatic leader are nothing less than arbitrary despotism, nepotism, and other forms of injustice in which the accountability at the top has nothing to do with the expectations of accountability that flow relentlessly down to the bottom. 

The institution has stability and yet it lacks the kind of glory that many want to participate in.  If you've met adult converts to Orthodoxy or Catholicism you may notice that there's a kind of glory that is relocated away from individual leaders (broad-brushing here, I know, but bear with me) and toward institutions.  There are still cult followings and partisan mash-ups in these traditions but they happen, it seems, in a setting where the debate is whether this or that star really holds up the ideals of the institution.  In Protestant-land this also happens but what is more common today in terms of coverage is which super-star has the best street cred or school cred and "gets it".

By way of a digression something I've seen on the blogosphere lately is a question, the question is, if a person isn't able to preach on a topic until he has his ducks in a row how will he ever teach on the subject?  That's a fair question and an answer to the question steps back a few paces.  Let's consider that sometimes people will confess to a series of failings or sins that change our perspective of them.  Further, the person may confess these things in a setting where they explain that though they struggled with this and that issue they had "no one" they could turn to at the time because all the people they tried turning to had moral failure in their lives or had ideas that seemed really "unfair". 

If a man takes this approach then there may be good reasons for it but there is a risk that such a man is, well, not to put this too delicately, a kind of quasi-Donatist.  If you are only willing to confess to a sinless person then there's Jesus but in the flesh and blood world we live in where is "accountability" there?  If in reality you feel free to confess only to Jesus and not to anyone who could hold you accountable how is that "confess your sins one to another" that James talks about?  If you took the liberty to not confess to people who you decided weren't fit to confess to or take advice from because of moral failings then if you deign to teach on subjects about which you yourself have so often been a failure this runs a risk, of being a self-abnegating praxis once it is applied consistently not just as your rule for yourself but the rule others follow for you as you demonstrate it by example. 

John Horgan reviews The Folly of Fools.

Trivers calls deceit a “deep feature” of life, even a necessity, given genes’ brutal struggle to prevail. Anglerfish lure prey by dangling “bait” in front of their jaws, edible butterflies deter predators by adopting the coloring of poisonous species. Possums play possum, cowbirds and cuckoos avoid the hassle of raising offspring by laying their eggs in other birds’ nests. Even viruses and bacteria employ subterfuge to sneak past a host’s immune systems. The complexity of organisms, Trivers suggests, stems at least in part from a primordial arms race between deceit and deceit-detection.
Our big brains and communication skills make us master dissemblers. Even before we can speak, Trivers notes, we learn to cry insincerely to manipulate our caregivers. As adults, we engage in “confirmation bias,” which makes us seize on facts that bolster our preconceptions and overlook contradictory data. We wittingly and unwittingly inflate the qualities of ourselves and others in our religious, political or ethnic group. We denigrate those outside our in-group as well as sexual and economic rivals.       

Hmm, this last bit reminds me of the laments of nice guys that the nice guys finish last.  Maybe they do but maybe, as some women have at times noted, these "nice guys" do not realize they are not nice guys at all.  Does this justify the "jerks" being jerks?  Nah, but it might mean that in the arms race between deceit and deceit-detection once you've obtained the physical, social, financial, intellectual, and emotional resource you want then you stop worrying about whether or not you got this because you deserved it and focus on defending the legitimacy of what you have as deriving from the quality of your character and not, as Ecclesiastes warns us, a providential luck of the draw.

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