On Tuesday evening, I sent this e-mail to Gus.
Need to let you know that I won't be able to make it LoMo on Wednesday. Sorry. My reasons are pretty selfish, I guess. There's a blues guitarist in town that night, and I heard about his concert on Sunday from some friends at church, and they had some extra tickets, and I jumped at the chance of going. Meant to write to you yesterday, but it flew from my mind.
Anyway, if you don't mind, I'd like to recommend some things for you to look at in the book, in the chapter we're on. It's the one with the journal entries, I think you mentioned it during our talk on Friday. Well, your assignment, should you choose to accept it :-), is to look at the things the pastor is writing, and see what (if anything) that the sage said in the last chapter that would cause the pastor to start thinking that way or reach those conclusions.
If I may, here's a for example. He says in the first recorded entry that "all of our theologies...are basically modern". Now, what does that mean? What makes a theology 'modern', in the sense that he means it? More then that, how did he reach that conclusion? Is there something in the characteristic the sage gave that made him come to that conclusion? Remember, in the time line of the book, it was only the day before that he talked with the sage, and now he's making statements like that.
It's a short chapter, and you've read it already, so I hope it won't be a difficult assignment. I'm interested in you views of the threads running through here. Honestly, for me, I think that if we start out with what the sage says in the previous chapter as being like a starting point A, then it looks to me as if the pastor is jumping straight to H, I, and J (if not further) before he's even established if A is correct, let alone B, C, D, or E. But maybe I'm missing something, and you can see it and explain it to me.
So, Friday again, yes? I'll see you then.
A bit later that evening, I got this reply from Gus.
OK, gotcha. Could use a free evening anyway, so no biggie.
I'll take a look at that, see what's there.
See ya Friday.
So, the rest of the week came to pass, and Friday came around. Chess went well, though we were only three that evening, so we just played a few blitz games. A bit earlier then normal, Gus and I were again discuss our book, with the addition of Phil.
I may have mentioned Phil once already, but since he's getting into the middle of it all now, I guess I should make more mention of him.
Phil's in his forties, I think, though I haven't asked him. He's clearly a bit older then I am, at any rate. Very good player, when his mind's on it. Probably the most fun of all of us, with a sharp wit and not immune to some playful trash talk over the board. He's a mechanic and maintenance man, and probably the wiser for it, and certainly makes a fair level of money, if his attire is any indication--a classy casual, I guess I would call it.
We got our drinks, and settled in. Gus and I had copies of the book, and we set them out so Phil could follow. We all three had laptops, so we got those up and running, too.
"Did you get to look at what I wrote you about?" I asked Gus, opening up the discussion.
"Some, yes. I looked for where he got the idea that our theologies are modern, and I really don't see how he got that idea, at least from any particular things he said. I suppose it could have been a product of where he calls Modernism the age of Protestantism, but I don't know, that seems a stretch."
"What is it you're talking about?" Phil asked.
"This author's talking about how he thinks our doctrines are a product of modernity."
"Ok, thanks." Phil starts typing at his computer as Gus and I talk. I don't think our intentions were to keep him out, but he was busy with something, so it seemed.
"Why is it a stretch to you?"
"Well, he goes on the talk about Catholic beliefs which predate the Reformation, which I guess he sees as one of the signal events for Modernity. But even with that, he seems to think they are rather modern.
"And if Protestantism is by his definition modern, then how is one to answer that? The Reformation is one of the things that in his mind mark Modernity, so by definition all Protestant beliefs are modern. It's...well...it's rather circular reason, I think.
"Umm, if I may." That was Phil, looking up suddenly from his computer.
"Sure." I said.
"I found this about the creeds, some of which I think you guys believe in. Things like the Apostle's Creed, Nicene Creed, and so on."
Gus and I moved so we could see Phil's screen. He was looking at the Wikipedia page for Creeds.
"Say's here, that the Apostle's Creed goes back to at least the second century after Christ, and the Nicene Creed came about in 325 at the Nicene Council. Does Modernism go back that far?"
"Not near." I said. "The author seems to start it at about the Enlightenment, over a thousand years after that."
I looked at the Apostles Creed, which was on the site. "I see nothing there that I would consider controversial, and in fact it fits my beliefs to a tee."
Phil scrolled a bit more down the page. "And it seems as if these ancient people thought those creeds were needed, because of some things others were teaching that the church was considering heretical, like this Docetism and Arianism."
"That seems pretty modern for a bunch of pre-Modern people." Gus said. "Let's see, which characteristics of Modernism would that have fit in? Maybe 'control', and 'critical', and 'analysis', even 'institutional religion' to some extent. And all that well before Luther and Calvin."
"Very interesting." I said. "Rather then being Postmodern, maybe I'm rather pre-modern."
"Postmodern?" Phil asked.
"Yes, that seems to be the author's big thing, that we're entering some kind of Postmodern age, though he's rather reluctant to tell us what that means."
"So, he's saying that your theologies are modern, but doesn't say what a postmodern theology is?"
"Not yet, at least."
"And as a final touch," Gus said, "He says that postmodernism is in it's early stages, and that we shouldn't worry about trying to define it yet. So, your guess as to what it means is as good as ours."
Phil took a pack from his shirt pocket. "Mind if I smoke?"
Gus was fine with it. I wasn't very happy about it, but it wasn't a big deal. Phil lit up and took a few puffs.
"Where I come from, when I was young, younger even then Gus here, church folks I knew would have looked at me might badly for doing what I'm doing now."
I nodded. "You went to a church were smoking was considered sinful."
"Yep. Mind you, I guess it ain't much good for me, but I do it anyway. And way I see it now, it can't be much worse then half the things served at the usual church pot-luck dinner."
"So, you're a Christian, too." Gus asked.
"No, can't rightly say I am. See, I grew up in one of those types of fundamental churches that I guess give that kind of church a bad name. Almost every service I can remember, seemed like the preacher would make some reference to them being 'fundamental, independent, KJV toting, bible-thumping', stuff like that. Not that it was all bad, gotta admit it kept me out of a whole lot of trouble a lot of the other kids my age were getting themselves into.
"But I didn't really care for it once I grew up. Didn't make much sense. Women couldn't wear pants, don't know why. Something about it being too sexy, I guess, though to my mind a dress could be just as much, even a fairly conservative one. Men couldn't have long hair, though we weren't always sure what constituted long. Couldn't go to movies or listen to rock music. Couldn't hold a girl's hand if you were a guy.
"I grew up, went to a trade school, and went out on my own. Didn't particularly miss church, so didn't go back. I guess I would say there is a God, but it's not something I think much about. Do find it interesting, this stuff you're talking about. Hope you don't mind having me along for the discussions."
"Not at all." I said.
"Enough about me, I say. About this postmodern stuff, well, let me ask you this. If a man comes up to you, tries to sell you something like a car that he says is better then anything else out there, but won't give you any information about it and tells you that it's not even far into the concepting stage let alone ready to drive, what would you say to that?"
Gus answered. "Probably that he's not doing a very good job at either selling it or making it. Why would I buy a car that doesn't even exist."
"I agree." I said.
"That's about what I would think, though I'd probably say it a bit more strongly. Anyway, what's this guying trying to do, except trying to sell you something that he can't tell you much about, and that frankly may not be all that he's making it out to be?
"This whole postmodern thing, maybe there's something to it, maybe not."
"Jon compared it to the Hypermoderns in chess." Gus said.
"Oh, yeah, the guys in the early 1900s. That makes some sense, but Nimzovich spent some effort into putting his ideas into some books, and had a good idea I think of what he was trying to teach. He wasn't saying that chess was changing or that it was too early to say what was changing.
"No, old Nimzo and his pals, they had to put their ideas to the test, over the chess board, against the world best players, day in and day out. And they didn't always do so good, either. But their ideas took hold, and people started seeing how they could be applied. It was a good thing for chess.
"What else does this guy get his undies in a wad over?"
"Well, here he's talking about the idea of God being in control, and how it's a modern idea." Gus said.
"What do the two of you think?"
"He tries to say that the Bible doesn't say that 'God is in control', at least not so plainly. But I'm not sure about that."
"Why is that?"
"Well, he tries to make it some kind of mechanistic thing, but I don't know if I agree with that. I suppose people way back then would have seen it almost like king type of thing, but then I thought, even if that was rather accurate, it was probably more...I don't know...involved then just that. God is God, a king was a king, and while God does use kingly language for Himself sometimes, I would guess the people had more in mind when they thought of God then just as another king.
"The idea of God being sovereign, then, I guess was what came to mind. That is rather kingly, I suppose. Maybe all of this is only another example of the whole controversy about the sovereignty of God versus man's free will."
"Maybe." Phil said. "Not a subject I'm really up on. What are your thoughts?"
"For me," I said, "I guess I think both are true. God is sovereign, but man has free will."
"That doesn't seem to make much sense."
"I know, and I can't explain it well. I can't hold a view of God as a puppetmaster and all that we do has been foreordained and that somehow although we have no real choices we are still at fault and must pay for sins we commit even though we had no choice in our actions. On the other hand, the weak God of some theologies doesn't seem to have much to do with the reality of God as told to us in the Bible."
"Ok. So is God in control, in your view?"
"What does that mean?"
"It means that what He wants to do, He can do."
"Do things happen that He does not want to have happen?"
I thought for a moment, then shrugged. "I don't know. I suppose so."
"But if such things happen, is it because God allows them to happen, or because He causes them to happen?"
"I don't know."
"That's what I thought. Don't worry, I don't blame you, I'm not sure how I'd answer that, either. Do you think that the author makes some points about God being in control, though."
"Maybe, though I still question what he says."
"Some people might say that atheism would give much better answers to those things then belief in a God that we can't understand."
"I suppose some would, but at what cost? A Christian may wonder about how something may happen, but at least we have a way of determining whether a man commits an immoral act, or not. But in a universe of 'survival of the fittest', what is morality except a power play, and what is right but what helps the fittest to survive?"
"So we're damned if we don't, and damned if we do. Accept God's existence, and we're left with either a weakling who can't really help us, or an in-control ruler who causes bad things to happen. Don't accept God's existence, and we lose any real way of saying whether anything is right or wrong. That's what you're saying, Jon?"
"Pretty much, yes."
"Can't say as I find any of that really good."
"But what about us, Phil? Are we so innocent, or merely victims of divine fiat?"
"I'll answer that once I find out what 'fiat' means."
"Ok, good point. How about 'whim'?"
"Better, I can understand that. So, you're point?"
"In one of his writings C.S. Lewis makes an analogy to a parent who decides that it's time that the child start taking care of it's own stuff, so does not clean the child's room. The parent's will is that the child take the responsibility, but when the parent looks later at the child's room, it's a complete mess. It is the parent's will that the child clean up that allows to child to not do so.
"We have been looking at this as if God is responsible, either as a storyteller who makes us do only what He wants, or as someone who should stop us from harming ourselves and each other.
"But if we look at, let's say, the Creation account, we can see God giving mankind responsibilities. In that case, it was to tend to the Garden, and in a negative sense to not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
"Now, God gave those commands. But is God obligated then to make them do or not do those things? What obligation did God have to stop Adam from eating the fruit? Should He have whisked Adam away from the tree? Should he have fenced off the tree in some way, so that the people could even get to it?
"How many of our problems and troubles are of our own making? Some such threads we can see pretty clearly, such as when someone becomes an alcoholic or drug addict and their life pretty much falls apart. Others may be less obvious, but may still be there.
"If God has given us a measure of responsibility for ourselves, things we should do and things we shouldn't, is God obligated to keep us from harm if we choose to act contrary to what He says to do or don't do?
"Of course, it doesn't only work that way. The person who is a thief will harm more then just himself or herself, but also those they steal from. The same with murderers, those who practice sexual immorality, and even the little things like lying. In fact, it is often the harm to the victim that is most obvious to us.
"God may interfere, and I would guess does so more often then we think He does. But that should not become an expectation that He would do so. A person should not expect to live sinfully and also expect God to keep him or her from the consequences of those actions.
"As far as being a victim goes, perhaps the Christian's response should be as James recommends, "Count it all joy when we come into tribulations", because if we respond rightly to them, good will come of them."
Phil didn't seem completely convince, but was at least accepting of what I had said. "That makes some sense. Still, some consequences seem very extreme."
"I know. I guess in such cases, I can only go with my faith that God is good and just. Perhaps one can look at things people could have done, either to keep from getting in such a situation or to deal with it better once it has happened. That can sound trite, though, and I don't want to be that way."
Phil nodded, and stood. "I need a break from this heavy thinking, not use to it. Going to go get a refill."
"Sounds good." Gus answered, and I nodded. We stood in line, talking about other things, and after that returned to the table.
"I'd like to bring up one more thing from the chapter, if I may." I said.
"What is it?" Asked Gus.
"It's at the end, where he's talking with the other pastor, about the man with the dream catcher and cross in his car."
"What's this?" Phil asked.
"This other pastor was trying to refer to the current condition of spirituality he sees in the culture. He was talking about how he saw someone with a cross and a dream catcher in his car, and how that for him symbolized the current trend of compromise in things spiritual. The author of this book tried to say it may mean something else, such as that the man may simply not be finding in Christianity all he wants to find, such as a connection to the earth, and so has to turn to a pagan spirituality to find it."
Phil nodded. "Ok. So, did anyone ask the driver why he had those two things in his car?"
"What?" I was rather taken back.
"Sure. I guess that other preacher only saw them in a car, so he probably wasn't able to stop the guy to ask, but that's the point. We don't really know why he had those two things in his car."
"What else could they mean?"
"Well, let's see. We're assuming the driver knew of the spiritual meanings of both things, but that is something he may not have known. Maybe he had not been around people like you very much, and didn't know what a cross means. Maybe he wasn't familiar with Native American spirituality, and didn't know what a dream catcher means. Maybe he's Christian, but his wife is spiritual in a Native sense, and he keeps both up so as to not hurt her or cause arguments.
"The point is, we don't know for certain why those two things were in the car at the same time. Both the book's author and the preacher he was talking to could only speculate. If they really wanted to find examples of compromise or discontent, whatever their cases may be, they could easily have found others. Don't know if those 'coexist' stickers were around when they book was published, but surely those could be used by them to make their points."
"So you do think that both were discussing a real kind of...I don't know...problem, or trend, or something?" Asked Gus.
"Sure. I just think they picked a questionable example."
"And their conclusions?"
"Not sure I'm the best one of us to discuss that, knowing my lack of religious views and all. How about you, Jon?"
"Very well." I said. "I think that, in regards to the author of the book and his views on the cross and the dream catcher, we're starting to see how his views are shaped by his perceptions of what people want and need.
"For example, he tries to makes it seems that the man with the two religious things was someone who likely found something wanting in Christianity, or at least in the Christianity he was familiar with, so he turned to the Native spirituality to find that something he couldn't find in Christianity. For the sake of argument, let us grant that such was the case.
"Having assumed that, we have to ask, whose fault is it that the man didn't find in Christianity what he wanted? Which I suppose raises the further question, What was it that he wanted? And then from there, we have other questions, such as 'Was what he was wanting something that Christianity could legitimately give him or not?'"
"Let's say that what wanted from Christianity was some kind of a 'god in every tree' spirituality, but Christianity has One God, so for some reason he thinks that it devalued the earth, so he tries to combine the two of them. Don't know how, but he may try.
"Is it Christianity's fault, then, that he could not find it in Christianity? His desire would run against what Christianity stands for. But does Christianity not care for the earth? Yes, it does care for it. But it does not say that there are little gods in every rock and tree, and it does not say that material world is somehow the body of God. The universe is God's creation, it is not a part of God.
"This is one scenario, and may not be correct, but my point is much like the one Phil made, that even if he was a practicer of some kind of religious compromise or syncretism, we must not assume that his dissatisfaction with Christianity was right or not, and further we shouldn't assume that we must change Christianity or its message simply to make such a person happy. The message of Christianity is for people to repent and trust in God, not that Christianity will change to make people happy."
I think each of us were getting weary by that point. We talked about some small stuff after that, then said our good-byes and left.