how can the chronically afflicted flourish?

Throughout this year, I’ve enjoyed grazing on Australian philosopher Raimond Gaita’s classic book A Common Humanity. There’s lots to savour — as well as some chewier, harder-to-digest bits.

I wanted to share this morsel with you. It’s about Gaita’s experience as a ward assistant at a mental health facility during the 60s.

According to Gaita, patients were often treated in quite a dehumanising way by the ward staff — and even some of the doctors. He recounts stories of people who’d soiled themselves being instructed to strip so they could be hosed down from the safe distance of a mop handle. (Thankfully, things are very different these days.)

Gaita was drawn to some of the more noble doctors who talked a lot about the full dignity and humanity of their clients (although there were often mocked behind their backs).

But it wasn’t until a nun showed up on the ward, talking and reaching out to the patients with such a sense of commonality — rather than distance, revulsion or condescension — that Gaita realised even the most progressive doctors had still been talking down to their afflicted clients

This realisation has been formative for Gaita’s thinking about ethics. As he puts it (page 19):

An ethics centred on the concept of human flourishing does not have the conceptual resources to keep fully amongst us … people who are severely and ineradicably afflicted

And it’s so true. It’s so easy in practice to avert our gaze. To avoid the sick, suffering, and grieving (finding all sorts of very valid-sounding reasons not to visit in hospital, call, or attend the funeral).

But in so doing we relegate them to a shadow-land of half-existence. And we gut all our high talk of dignity and equality for all.

It even happens in churches.

Aren’t churches supposed to be the refuges for the broken — full of people who know that they aren’t right? Aren’t churches supposed to be places where human flourishing isn’t simply about avoiding or minimising suffering. And aren’t churches supposed to be gatherings of people who are walking in the way of the one who reached out to the afflicted and marginalised, who met them, healing and restoring them to their full humanity?

O for his healing, humanising touch!

rationalism and revelation

I’ve been asked to write a short article about rationalism and (Christian) revelation — about 1000 word. Pitched at undergrads just commencing their studies. A bit like a ‘Philosophy 101’ course for young Christians.

I’ve yet to get my head fully into it. But at the moment I’m thinking of carving it up along these lines:

  1. The Grinding of The Tectonic Plates — an introduction touching on some of the everyday ways we experience the deep differences between rationalism and a trust in God’s revelation to us in the gospel.
  2. A Brief History of Rationalism — covering what it is (in essence), where it came from, and some of the common forms it’s taken.
  3. Rationalism From A Christian Perspective — examining what can be said positively for the impulse(s) animating the rationalist project as well as where Christians would need to part ways
  4. Being A Christian Ninja — a concluding case study picking out some features of a possible (constructive) Christian response to rationalism when we encounter it ‘on the ground’.

I’d love you to help me workshop this. Do you feel I’m headed in the right direction? Is there anything you’d want me to make sure I cover? Or things you reckon I can safely skip?

how to use the word ‘intentionality’ properly

In the last couple of years, in the Christian circles we move in there’s been an increasing use of the words ‘intentional’ and ‘intentionality’. You might have heard them used in sentences like this:

“We should encourage people to be intentional about building relationships”

Or, how’s this from Tim Chester and Steve Timmis:

“Most gospel ministry involves ordinary people doing ordinary things with gospel intentionality”
Total Church (2007), Intervasity Press, Nottingham, p61, emphasis in original.

In context, I think what they mean is ‘deliberate’. Or ‘thoughtful’. Or, perhaps, it tries to capture the idea of ‘alertness’.

But the problem is, the idea of intentionality has a very long philosophical history and it has nothing to do with deliberate-ness. It has to do with consciousness. It is more closely aligned with theological anthropology – that is, it might help us understand what makes us human. Here’s how the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it:

“Intentionality is the power of minds to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs.”
see Intentionality entry

“…’intentionality’ …  is that aspect of mental states or events that consists in their being of or about things (as pertains to the questions, ‘What are you thinking of?’ and ‘What are you thinking about?’). Intentionality is the aboutness or directedness of mind (or states of mind) to things, objects, states of affairs, events. So if you are thinking about San Francisco, or about the increased cost of living there, or about your meeting someone there at Union Square — your mind, your thinking, is directed toward San Francisco, or the increased cost of living, or the meeting in Union Square. To think at all is to think of or about something in this sense.”
see Consciousness and Intentionality entry

So, to be intentional is not about intending to do stuff; rather, it is to be oriented towards the world, the Other, outwardly focussed. I’m committed to this being a fundamentally good thing for Christians. We run the risk of losing the beauty of this nuance if we use the word ‘intentional’ when we could use the word ‘deliberate’.

use your imagination

As a teenager (and, let’s face it, as an adult) I read science fiction. Perhaps as a result, for a long time I thought that in order to write fiction you had to be imaginative in the sense that you ‘made something up’. I thought being creative had to do with ‘letting go’ and moving beyond myself, the present, this world. But I’m slowly realising that being creative has a lot to do with disciplined mastery and that being imaginative is all about seeing clearly and unveiling reality.

That is, if you are trying to figure out why the custard is curdling, or why the car won’t start, or why the community isn’t using public transport, you are in the process of using your imagination to try and unveil what is really going on. As Matthew Crawford insists (Shop Class As Soul Craft p 100), both the artist and the mechanic get outside their head — use their imagination — not to escape the world but to join it.

In short, even when it’s set on an alien planet, good fiction will help you see reality more clearly.

Literature is not simply a replica of reality; it penetrates the surface layers and reaches deep into the inner workings of reality. It removes false illusions, looks down from great heights at ordinary happenings and, with broad perspective, reveals these happenings in their entirety.

Of course, literature also relies on imagination, but this sort of journey in the mind is not just putting together a whole lot of rubbish. Imagination that is divorced from authentic feelings, and fabrications that are divorced from life experiences, can only end up insipid and weak.

Gao Xingjian (translated by Mabel Lee) (2006), The Case For Literature, Fourth Estate, p43.

disciplined creativity

It is a view familiar to most of us from kindergarten: creativity is a mysterious capacity that lies in each of us and merely needs to be “unleashed”. Creativity is what happens when people are liberated from the constraints of conventionality… The truth, of course, is that creativity is a by-product of mastery of the sort that is cultivated through long practice. It seems to be built up through submission (think a musician practicing scales, or Einstein learning tensor algebra).

Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soul Craft, p51 (emphasis original).

A dress made for the delightful Elissa

I’m kind of glad my parents didn’t decide what activity I was going to ‘do’ as a kid, but let me try my hand at all sorts of sports and hobbies. I got to try my hand at stacks of different things: touch football, netball, waterpolo, dance, sewing, cooking, trombone, F Horn…

I had lots of fun and wasn’t pressured in an unhelpful way; I was a child of a generation in Australia raised to believe “keeping your options open” is the most  valuable state to be in.

The only thing my dad ever insisted I discipline myself to master was mathematics (perhaps this was because I was less willing at this particular endeavour than all the rest!). As I approach 30, there’s a little part of me that’s a bit sad I’m OK at lots of stuff, but not the master of any particular skill.

I really feel Crawford’s point when I’m in the kitchen or sitting at a sewing machine. I know my creativity is curtailed by my lack of mastery; I feel the latent, unrealised possibility. And so, I’m disappointed that this realisation so rarely drives me to submit myself to the discipline I need to learn.

is God really necessary?

According to Ebehard Jüngel, one of the key (re-)discoveries of contemporary theology and anthropology is the ‘non-necessity of God’. By this he means that we’re slowly being weaned off God Of The Gaps-type thinking. We’re being forced to relinquish the attempt to see God as the explanation of the world — or of what seems inexplicable in it (for the moment).

For Jüngel, giving up this kind of thinking means that we stop believing in God for the sake of something else (e.g., what our belief in him does for us in making the world a more comprehensible or more bearable place to live). And it frees us to believe in God for his own sake.

At least that’s what I think he means. See what you think:

[W]hoever does not think God for his own sake has not yet begun to think God at all. To think God without joy in God is a self-contradiction which must lead even the most logical proof of God to absurdity. All attempts to prove the necessity of God are therefore so distressing as well as paradoxical, because they can arrive at God only at the end of the process and thus can know him only as the ‘God at the end’. They cannot begin with God, because they do not begin with God for his own sake. But if God is thought for his own sake, on the basis of a joy summoned forth by God himself, then the very act of thinking God is the demonstration of the fact that God is more than necessary.

(God as the Mystery of the World, pp 192-193)

He connects this immediately to Jesus: for we meet God not at the end of a philosophical proof (showing his necessity) but in the midst of his unnecessary, excessive, gracious self-giving in the particularity of a crucified and risen Jewish man.

What do you reckon?

because it’s there?

I’m trying to resist the temptation to blog every second page of The Philosopher’s Dog (truly!). But I just have to share this:

Many mountaineers speak of their relation to the mountains in words normally used in speaking of relations to persons — they speak of respect for the mountain, of gratitude that though they were reckless in their climbing, the mountain had let them off lightly. Sometimes they speak obsessively of it as a foe to be vanquished. But of course no mountaineer believes that mountains are persons. Mountaineers speak in metaphors that enable them, sometimes in powerful ways, to express the fact that their will is limited by necessities that are nothing like the rules of a game and seem like nothing that a group could impose, and that they are driven by necessities whose nature is to be explained by things external to themselves. (pp 151-152)

This account of the givenness of mountains riffs on the familiar theme of the compulsion many climbers experience — ‘because it’s there’.

It made me think of Rowan William’s musings on art and love in Grace and Necessity. Williams insists that everything can exert the pressure of such necessity and givenness upon us. Even when we are creating, the products of our imagination are not simply obedient clay; they also possess a kind of necessity to which we must answer.

Williams suggests that the world exerts such pressure because it’s a gift not a given. It’s something to which we’re entitled. Or that we can expect to yield itself automatically to our mastery.

I think this emphasis on the gift-character of the world does a better job explaining the sorts of necessities we encounter as we move about in it: the many ways it goes beyond us, constrains our wills, denies us mastery and contests our sense of entitlement…

the art of the awkward pause

In Mr and Mrs Smith, during that scene at the end when they’re shooting up the department store, there’s an awkward moment when they’re in an elevator with muzak playing. The first time I watched the movie the pause seemed to go on forever. A couple of years, and a few episodes of Arrested Development later, and when we watched it again it didn’t feel like the pause was nearly as long or awkward as I remembered…

I’ve been reflecting on the prevalence of the awkward pause as a comedic device in contemporary drama. I realised the other day, that this is unique to performance — you can’t force an awkward pause in writing. You can describe one, but you can’t actually effect one. When it comes to the written word the author has no control over timing — the reader reads as fast or slow, with as few or as many pauses as they like.

The written word really struggles to produce absence*. It has feeble control over timing. I’m not sure what to do with these thoughts just yet, but I find them intriguing. 

*With the notable exception of Dave Eggers’ short story  “There are some things he should keep to himself”, which consists of five blank pages (from How We Are Hungry). Get it?

where does biblical theology fall short?


I stumbled upon this in John McLeod Campbell’s The Nature of the Atonement (1878):

[H]ow often have the points of agreement between the type and antitype been dwelt upon, as if to see that agreement was to understand the atonement, although the fullest recognition of that agreement leaves the questions still to be answered – Why must He who is to be the atoning sacrifice for sin, be Himself the Holy One of God? How does His being so qualify Him for bearing our sins? In what sense could they be, and have they been laid upon Him? Being laid upon Him, how is the shedding of His blood an atonement for them? How is His moral and spiritual perfection so connected with, and present in His bearing of men’s sins, and in His tasting death for every man, as that “we have redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of sins,” because He, “through the eternal Spirit, offered Himself without spot to God?”

These questions are not answered by tracing the points of agreement between the type and the antitype, and therefore the seeming progress made in the understanding of the atonement by such tracing is altogether illusory.

Campbell sharply poses the question I’m tackling in my project: What is the relationship between biblical and systematic theology — between an interest in the grand narrative, longitudinal themes and typological correspondences in the Bible on the one hand, and a more philosophical, even ‘metaphysical’ concern with the ontological presuppositions of what has been fulfilled in Jesus on the other?

Suggestively (for my purposes anyway), it is precisely in relation to the person and work of Christ that Campbell finds biblical theology deficient — that is, exactly where we’d like it to carry us the furthest!

to speculate or not to speculate?

At the very word ‘philosophy’ people in Sydney run away in droves, reach for the revolver; they look down at their shoes; they smile indulgently; they go blank. (Murray Bail, The Pages)

On this description Calvin (on most accounts), Milton and many contemporary evangelicals would qualify as Sydney-siders. So it’s hardly surprising that when it comes to speculative — ‘metaphysical’ or philosophical — theology, I find myself torn…

Pulling me in one direction is the knee-jerk anti-metaphysical impulse that I grew up with.

And there’s a lot to be said for this impulse. History should teach us that the church has much to lose by welding its understanding of God and the world to the prevailing philosophical scheme. Unfortunately, one of the chief problems with this impulse is that it can render us cripplingly suspicious of the (many) positively helpful contributions philosophy can make — think of the term homoousion (‘of one being’) in the Nicene Creed, for example.

This, as Rene Magritte might say, is not a pipe (from Flickr)

But what pulls me the other way is that I can see the value of actually saying something positive of a metaphysical nature in some contexts. I’m aware, for instance, that even if it comes bristling with all the provisionality of a ‘theologoumenon’, and refuses to move beyond an ‘after the fact’ attempt to understand what God has actually done in Jesus, a bit of judicious speculation goes a long way.

My current favourite example of this is the paired anhypostasis/enhypostasis concepts employed in descriptions of Christ’s human nature in contemporary theology. This pair attempts to do justice to the ‘fundamental apprehension’ Oliver Crisp (Divinity and Humanity, p 83) identifies: ‘[T]he human nature of Christ is “impersonal” in one sense … and “personal” or “hypostatized” in’ its union with the Word.

That is, Christ’s humanity is not manifest as an independent human person (it’s ‘impersonal’, anhypostasis) otherwise He’d have two persons and we’d have stumbled into Nestorianism. Nonetheless, genuine humanity must be personally expressed — that’s crucial to what it means to be human. So Christ’s humanity is ‘personalised’ in its union with the divinity of the Word (hence, enhypostasis).

How’s that for judicious speculation?