Sunday reflections

  1. Ruining The Liar’s day
  2. Nominalism strikes home
  3. Cherry-picking the cork board
  4. Working definition of “fundamentalist”
  5. Paradise and Utopia
  6. Usefully irritated
  7. The Marble Machine Orchestra
  8. Swearing off Trump rants

1

Fr. Stephen Freeman, I’ve learned fairly recently, experiences both depression and anxiety. How does he cope? Well, in part:

At some point in my life, I began to think of the depression and anxiety much like a broken leg or a sore throat. We never say, “I am a broken leg, or I am a sore throat.” But when we are anxious or depressed we say, “I am depressed, I am anxious.” Strangely, it makes a difference. It is certainly the case that having a broken leg can interfere with any number of activities. It could cause enough pain that medication and rest would be required. Depression and anxiety are no different.

To my mind, it’s possible to be “depressed” about being “depressed.” And this leads to a terrible paralysis. Spiritually we begin to agree with our adversary. Not only do we suffer the pain of such a feeling but we have to tolerate his taunts of “look how depressed you are! What kind of a Christian are you? Give up! Quit!” and the like. He is a liar. I often thought that it was important to act in a manner that contradicted the depression and anxiety simply to infuriate our adversary. There is some joy in ruining his day.

I am describing certain aspects of my inner life that I can only speak to for myself. I do not know if these strategies would be of help to anyone else. I have often thought of others who carry very debilitating chronic diseases and think that my own struggles are quite minor by comparison. I have developed a strong interest in the stories of those who endured the Gulag and the other prisons of our time. Nothing in my life begins to compare to even the shadow of their ordeals. This was not a practice that “cheered me up.” Rather, it was a practice that encouraged me to be patient, ask for their prayers, and, as much as possible, to ignore the inconvenience of my brain.

2

I have blogged about how, in an important and epiphanic sense, the brute reality of Christ’s resurrection hit me at a crucial point in my life, when I felt on the verge of abandoning Church participation, if not abandoning the Christian faith entirely. Yet I had been consciously Christian at that point for nearly 15 years, and never for a moment would have denied the Resurrection.

How could that have happened?

Seriously: how in heaven’s name could a 20-year-old, self-consciously Christian, be surprised to learn that the Resurrection was, like, y’know, true?

Well, I just now see, it might be the result of another topic I know far less well than I know my biography: the nominalism/realism dichotomy:

Thinking is among the most misleading things in the modern world, or, to be more precise, thinking about thinking is misleading. For a culture that puts such a great emphasis on materiality, our thinking about thought is decidedly spooky. The philosophy underlying our strangely-constructed modernity is called nominalism (of which there are many formal varieties). Its imaginary construct of the world consists of decidedly separate objects, united only by our thinking about them. There are things, and then are thoughts about things. But the thoughts have nothing to do with the things, except in our heads.

Modern Christianity (which has been around for some few hundreds of years) views the death of Christ primarily in terms of the ideas associated with it. Human beings, through their breaking of God’s commandments (ideas), incurred an infinite debt (ideas), requiring their punishment (oops! This is eternal torment in hell). Note that this is purely an idea. Christ becomes man, and on the Cross suffers and pays the debt (again an idea). Those who now trust in Him (again an idea), are forgiven (another idea).

The only value placed on the Crucifixion of Christ is an abstraction. The action itself gains value only through how it is considered by God …

(Fr. Stephen Freeman, The Secular Mind Versus the Whole Heart, emphasis added)

Yes, I think I was, in philosophical terms, a nominalist Christian, also known as a modern Christian, whose faith was a more-or-less-tightly-woven ideology, untethered from the facticity of things.

That’s now my working hypothesis when I think on that event in my life. I think it’s going to prove fruitful.

Indeed, it seems to me that Evangelicalism is pervasively nominalist.

  • Baptisms are accompanied by sermons to remind those present that baptism doesn’t really do anything to the person being baptized except remind them of their notional commitment.
  • “Remembrance of me,” in the twice-a-year grapejuice-and-cracker fest is also just a reminder of the ideas that are to be held and reminisced about occasionally.
  • The other five or more sacraments of the Church are, in Evangelicalism, not even given the dignity of admonitory “reminders,” let alone things ex opere operato.

It’s ironic that some nominalist Evangelicals, in a tad more than three months, will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, blissfully unaware that that they have again and again rejected beliefs that every single Reformer held, and are heirs of the Reformation mostly in the sense that they’re opposed to Roman Catholicism.

It’s ironic, too, that I should think intently about how I need to think that the thought is not the thing. But after 20 years Orthodox, I’m not sure I’ve shed all the baggage of an errant past.

3

In the hallway just outside the sanctuary of the midsize Southern Baptist church I grew up in hung a small cork board for posting announcements and other information. Every now and then, someone would pin a voter guide from the Moral Majority or, a few years later, a pamphlet from the Christian Coalition. But most of the time the board filled up with the more pressing concerns of a church body: sign-up sheets for the women’s retreat, the month’s deacon-on-call schedule, pictures from a youth group service project, prayer requests for missionaries in Kenya or the Philippines, an advertisement for a revivalist passing through town.

A hundred years in the future, a historian finding one of those boards preserved from the 1980s or 1990s might thrill at the rich religious lives she could reconstruct from such materials, envisioning more clearly what it meant to be an evangelical in the late twentieth century. Yet the temptation for those writing about evangelicals today is to allow the political part—like the fact that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump—to stand in for the whole. It is to make the great mistake of reaching only for that Christian Coalition handout tucked into the corner of that cork board in order to account for all of the diversity and variety within a religious tradition to which one in four Americans belong.

That is the weakness at the heart of the journalist Frances FitzGerald’s new book, The Evangelicals, a sprawling 700-plus page history of the nation’s most important and influential religious movement …

(Neil J. Young, “Evangelical” Is Not a Political Term, a review of Frances FitzGerald’s The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America)

Too late. The book is already purchased and on my Kindle. Had I known of the focus on politics, I likely would not have bought it.

I hope Albert Mohler, who interviewed FitzGerald at length and inspired my purchase, was right.

4

As philosopher Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame once quipped, among academics “fundamentalist” has become a “term of abuse or disapprobation” that most often resembles the casual semi-curse, “sumbitch.”

“Still, there is a bit more to the meaning. … In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views,” noted Plantinga, in an Oxford Press publication. “That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch.’ … Its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.'”

(Terry Mattingly)

5

Two cheers for a podcast, Paradise & Utopia, that I’ve been following for several years. The topic is “Reflections on the Rise and Fall of Christendom.”

The missing third cheer is that the recording quality is distractingly poor, and the podcaster’s mannerisms are distracting as well. By poor recording quality I’m not referring to audibility; I’m talking about the speaker obviously changing his position in relation to the microphone together with what seem to be pretty obvious editing cuts at times.

But the substance, for one interested in Christian history, makes up adequately for the technical annoyances. I’m looking forward to some binge-listening, as I’d fallen behind, as I descend into retirement.

6

Shannon’s most evocative formulation of that elusive quality put it like this: it was “a slight irritation when things don’t look quite right,” or a “constructive dissatisfaction.” In the end, Shannon’s account of genius was a refreshingly unsentimental one: A genius is simply someone who is usefully irritated. And that useful irritation doesn’t come until, somewhere in the midst of the work, you stumble onto something that troubles you, pulls at you, doesn’t look quite right.

Don’t run away from those moments. Hold on to them at all costs.

(Jimmy Soni, 10,000 Hours With Claude Shannon: How A Genius Thinks, Works, and Lives)

I confess that I knew nothing of Claud Shannon:

Within engineering and mathematics circles, Shannon is a revered figure. Claude Shannon’s work in the 1930s and 1940s earned him the title of “father of the information age.” At the age of 21, he published what’s been called the most important master’s thesis of all time, explaining how binary switches could do logic. It laid the foundation for all future digital computers.

He wasn’t done. At the age of 32, he published “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” which has been called “the Magna Carta of the information age.” Shannon’s masterwork invented the bit, or the objective measurement of information, and explained how digital codes could allow us to compress and send any message with perfect accuracy.

But that’s not all he did …

I only stumbled onto this through my son, who got it from a college friend who’s no slouch in the genius department.

7

Yours for the low, low price of $95,000.00.

8

I’m going to try stopping daily rants about President Trump (two words that “stick in my throat” even as I type them).

My resolve is facilitated by NRO’s Kevin Williamson having captured in amber the common theme of all those rants.

Yes, I now see that, since I never trusted him and he therefore could not disappoint me, every rant nominally against Trump has really been a rant against the voters, including a majority of my fellow Hoosiers, who put him in office.

That and a tacit call to collective repentance.

I have, however, added Williamson’s terse words to my standing advice.

* * * * *

Fiat justitia ruat caelum

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.