Sunday, December 28, 2008

Friday Night Frozen Dinner And An Intellectual: "The End Of Memory: Remembering Rightly In A Violent World" by Miroslav Volf

"To triumph fully, evil needs two victories, not one." So states Miroslav Volf in his book that I have been reading "The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World." I have covered the first two chapters over the past two Fridays. I am only reading one chapter per Friday not because of its difficulty but because of its depth. This is a work that needs to be read slow so that one can fully understand what Volf is attempting to convey.

"To triumph fully, evil needs two victories, not one." (Volf, The End of Memory, p.9). Evil's first victory is the perpetration of the evil act. The second, according to Volf, is when evil is returned for evil. After the first victory, Volf tells us, the real evil would die if the second victory did not infuse it with new life. Here Volf is specifically referring to the role our memory plays in how we respond to what has been done to us. How we choose to remember after suffering at the hands of others will determine our soul's destiny. In "The End of Memory", Volf is concerned with how we respond to evil in our memory in a way that brings reconciliation between God and Man and between victim and abuser.

In 1984, Volf was living in Communist controlled Yugoslavia when he was summoned for a compulsory year of military service. Two aspects of his life caused him to be viewed with suspicion by the Communist authorities. First, he was married to an American. Second, he had studied theology in the West. Both of these factors led the Communists to suspect him of being a potential political dissident or a spy.

Throughout his year of military service, Volf was subject to unrelenting interrogations by army officials. He was not tortured. His interrogators were always different, except for one, who Volf refers to as "Captain G." The memory of Captain G. and his treatment of Volf is the focal point of Volf's struggle to forgive.

True, Volf suffered no torture, but the year of interrogations left its mark on him. At the time he knew he was at their mercy and knew torture could be employed if his tormentors so wished. As Volf's every word and action were twisted by the Communists, Volf was made to feel that as a person, he was nothing. This led Volf to view the world with a mistrust of everyone. His mind was made a slave by the memory of Captain G. "It was as though Captain G. had moved into the very household of my mind, ensconced himself right in the middle of its living room, and I had to live with him." (Volf, p. 7)

The memory of captain G. forced the issue on Volf that is the very purpose for writing the book: how do the followers of Jesus Christ who do not want to hate but who have no desire to disregard past abuse remember those who have abused them? How do those called by God to love remember the wrong and the one who committed the wrong? Those who have been wronged are not called upon to suppress their memories, but to love those who wronged us with a love that does not exclude a concern for justice yet goes beyond justice. How do we remember wrong doing rightly?

According to Volf, memories of abuse are not just a private matter since others are always implicated. According to Volf, there are three relationships in which the one who has been wronged stands. First, their relationship to the wrong doer. Second, the relationship of the abuse to the social context out of which it arose. Third, how do we remember our wrongdoer rightly? What were their motives? Also, how do we remember in the context of our own status as sinners before God? Finally, what effect does Christ's death have on an abuser's sin, sin that has has been atoned for by Christ? As Christ died for all, we are to seek the salvation of all, including our abusers. How will we relate to those who have abused us if we meet again at Christ's banquet table? These are the questions asked by Volf in the first chapter, "Memory of Interrogations."

In chapter two, entitled "Memory: Sword and Shield", Volf explores memory along the philosophical lines of Elie Weisel, the noted Holocaust survivor. Volf, along with Weisel, seeks to find a way to redeem memories of wrongs suffered by individuals. This task is not just a mental exercise engaged in just for the sake of it by philosophers; the negative use of memory by those who are victimized can perpetuate the evil that is done by the original wrong doers. To prevent an endless cycle of repaying evil for evil, we must seek a way to redeem the memories of what we have suffered at the hands of others. To this end, Volf asks three questions: What does it take to remember for positive rather than destructive effects? How can memory become a bridge that unites wrong doer and victim? "How can former enemies remember together so as to reconcile, and how can they reconcile so as to remember together?" It is these three questions Volf in "The End of Memory" seeks to answer.

Volf points out that we are not at the mercy of our memories. We are stronger than them in that we play a part in shaping them. Volf likens the totality of our memories to a quilt. What is sewn in and discarded, what is prominently featured on the quilt, and what material constitutes background depends on how we sew our memories together. Others as well play a role in how our memory is shaped. Memory is not all powerful in forming who we are; we ourselves shape our memories. (Volf, p.25)

How can memory play a part in our salvation? Volf deals with several aspects of memory to seek an answer. He examines memory's relationship to healing, how memory can lead us to seek solidarity with current victims of injustice and how it protects us from further victimization in the future. Yet Volf recognizes that memory alone is not sufficient for salvation. It is our use of memory that determines who we are and what we are to become. It is that use of memory, how it shapes us and how we shape it, that the rest of the book deals with.

"The End Of Memory: Remembering Rightly In A Violent World" is published by Eerdmans.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Hand Is Now Two Years Old

It is now two years ago that this blog was launched. It is my hope that those who read it, or those who stumble on it, receive some edification from it. This blog exists for dialogue. Dialogue on spiritual matters, theology, trends in the Wesleyan world and the Church at large. It features a few regular continuing series's such as "Monday Morning Devotions" (short impressionistic studies on Biblical passages that will be later developed into sermons), occasional sermons, "Close Encounters of the Theological Kind", "Clouds of Witnesses" (celebrations of past saints and the present struggles of the Global Church), and what I call "Friday Night Frozen Dinner and an Intellectual." (This last title has cause some comment. It refers to how I try to spend my Friday evenings, reading Christian and secular works on important subjects current in the Church or in the news. No, I am not the intellectual referred to in the title: the author I am engaging is the intellectual. In many of these posts I share what I ate, which sometimes is of dubious nutritional value, where I read and what I listened to. This is about as personal as I get on this blog. Those who know my phone number are welcome to call and discuss what I am reading or bring up another subject on Friday evenings. If you haven't figured this out by now, anyone who spends his Friday evenings in this way must be single.) The Hand is not limited to Christian topics; a good many posts on secular matters, such as history, politics and literature, are covered. Some may counsel me to narrow my focus to gain a specific audience, yet if Christians fail to join the debate and discussion with the secular world, that would widen the perceived divide between the spiritual realm and the secular one. Anyway, it is my hope that readers find plenty of material to express their opinions on in the Comments Section. Those that disagree are welcome to register their disagreements. One series in particular caused some to do just that.

As I look back over the past year, The Hand would like to mention the most important works examined on this blog this year. "The New Faces Of Global Christianity: Believing the Bible In The Global South" by Philip Jenkins is a look at what the Church looks like in Asia, Africa and Central and South America. Jenkins points out that the center of gravity for the Church in the 21st Century will shift to these regions. Jenkins's portrait of the Church in these regions causes hope for the future while at the same time scaring the Northern Christian as to the what shape the Church will take in the future. There was simply too much material for one review. This next year I will examine each chapter in detail plus the end notes. I will examine the implications for how the Bible may be viewed by the future Church. How will this effect the Church's Scriptural Witness? Will the intrusion of secular mindsets and morals into the Church be halted? Will the Church as a whole emphasize healing and spiritual warfare? What will be the effect of some of the more questionable doctrinal positions held by many in the third world? The other book was "The Way To Pentecost" by Samuel Chadwick. With the exception of John Wesley's "A Short Account Of Christian Perfection", this work by Chadwick is simply the best work on why we need the experience of sanctification, how to become sanctified and what sanctification should look like in the believer. The book is free of theological jargon that has confused many Christians seeking a deeper spiritual life. I will return to this work as well next year.

Next year I hope to begin audio blogging. I'll begin experimenting this month with it. Audio blogging would allow me to post sermons and short devotions. Also, when I return to my hometown, where free wifi is scarce, it will make the posting of articles easier. I might possibly create a third blog exclusively for posting sermons.

Of the articles published this year, which ones are worth the most in mentioning? First would be the series chronicling my experiences in prison ministry. These were prompted by Tim Sheets at . Tim stumbled on my other blog and read my profile. Reading that I had three years of prison ministry experience, he asked me what I meant by the term "prison ministry" and what my experiences were. In response, I published a three part account of my experiences. The main purpose was to show how the Holy Spirit works in our witnessing and the sufficiency of the Word in bringing people to Christ. However, the only person to respond was an individual who accused me of being heretical and twisted everything I said. I tried to get her to engage in constructive dialogue, but she refused. Most her comments did not even have to do with what was written. This experience led me to start using the "Comment Moderation" option offered by Blogger, which allows me to reject comments before they have a chance to be published in the Comments section. One can read these three short posts by clicking the link to March's articles in the archive section of this blog. I will probably republish them next year.

The most memorable experience in blogging this year concerned the October series Exposing ExpelledExposed. This series grew out of a positive review of Ben Stein's documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed that I posted in May after seeing the film in the theater. Within ninety minutes after posting the article, a blogger calling himself Ben Franklin disagreed in the Comments section. He recommended a site that he confidently asserted would disprove every claim made by Expelled. That site is put out an organization called The National Center For Science Education, which works to prevent alternatives to Darwinian Evolution being taught in American Public Education. I had a spirited debate with Ben Franklin concerning the veracity of the website. That debate led me to do a series on expelledexposed and its claims. The time and effort put into the series rivals the efforts undertaken on certain class projects in seminary. After five weeks of research and writing (nearly 50 handwritten pages) and typing, I thought the work was completed. However, never did I realize that before publication, each of the eight articles required hours of continual rewriting. This series prompted more comments than any other series. It is interesting that while those who disagreed with me would only discuss the issue of Evolution and Creationism in general terms, they avoided the real arguments in the articles as well as the evidence backing them up. Even though the subject matter was not the usual content that appears here, I had a great time with it. A link to all eight articles in the series can be located in the blog roll to the right side of the page on this blog.

I hope that next year you might find something in the content of this blog that helps you spiritually and stimulates thinking. Before I close I must thank my friend and fellow seminarian, Jason Kranzusch at for convincing me to start blogging.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Friday Night Frozen Dinner And An Intellectual: "There Is A God: How The World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind" by Antony Flew. Part III

On Friday, 11/21/08, I ate at home while doing laundry. My supper consisted of cold turkey and gravy, a stuffed pepper, and two sugar-free oreos. With supper and laundry done, I headed out to a local Starbucks. There I drank coffee, listened to the typical mix of Starbucks music (let's save the planet now, James Taylor and Willie Nelson) and reread the Introduction to "There is A God" plus it's appendices. The Introduction and first appendix was written by philosopher and writer Roy Abraham Varghese. They concern the intellectual merits of the "New Atheism" as espoused by Richard Dawkins and others.. The second appendix is an interview of N.T. Wright by Antony Flew. I will not include my views on this interview; either in December or January, I will discuss what Wright had to say in a continuing series on this blog, "Close Encounters of the Theological Kind."

Varghese has been involved in the philosophical debate between theists and atheists for some time. Where does the New Atheism fit in in the debates over the past few decades? Varghese's answer: it fits in no where. Why? Among other reasons, Dawkins and company refuse to engage in the real issues surrounding the issue of God's existence such as the evident rationality at work in the universe, life understood as autonomous agency, consciousness, conceptual thought and the concept of self. (Flew, There Is A God, Introduction, p. xvii) In fact Varghese demonstrates that Dawkins atheism is a faith claim, a rival to the faith claims of monotheistic religions. Varghese quotes Dawkins to demonstrate that Dawkins views are based on belief and not evidence:

"I believe that all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all 'design' anywhere in the universe, is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection. It follows that design comes late in the universe, after a period of Darwinian evolution. Design cannot precede evolution and therefore cannot underlie the universe." (Flew, p. xix)

In the Introduction, Varghese demonstrates the rather nasty rhetoric the New Atheists aim at their opponents. Dawkins did not exempt Flew from such attacks when Flew embraced theism. Those wanting specifics can read the Introduction, or click the above link to Dawkins above.

The first appendix, also written by Varghese, is called "The 'New Atheism': A Critical Appraisal of Dawkins, Dennett, Wolpert, Harris, and Stenger." According to Varghese, the New atheism's foundation is the stated belief that a supernatural God does not exist and that all their arguments hinge on proving this point. Varghese states that Dawkins and company fail to establish this foundation because they ignore five phenomena which are relevant to whether or not God exists. These phenomena, Varghese points out, are present in our immediate experiences and can only be explained by God's existence. These five are:

1. The rationality implicit in the totality of our interaction with the physical universe.

2. Our capacity to act autonomously.

3. The existence of consciousness; the ability to be aware.

4. "Conceptual thought, the power of articulating and understanding meaningful symbols such as are embedded in language."

5. "The human self, the 'center' of consciousness, thought, and action." (Flew, Appendix I, p. 161-162)

Most of the appendix is concerned with dealing with these five phenomena in greater detail.

Varghese points out that these five are not proofs for God's existence; they are in fact five factors that cannot be rationally denied, factors which presuppose God's existence. (Flew, Appendix I, p. 162)

This is how Varghese briefly summarizes the atheists' view of the origin of life:

"But the atheist position is that, at some point in the history of the universe,the impossible and inconceivable took place. Undifferentiated matter (here we include energy), at some point became 'alive,' then conscious, then conceptually proficient, then an 'I' " (Flew, Appendix I, p. 163)

Varghese uses the example of a table to illustrate the absurdity of the atheists' position. No matter how long the table remains, it will never evolve into a conscious being. And what is true for the table is true for all nonliving subatomic particles. (Flew, Appendix I, p. 163-164)

I particularly like Varghese's retort to the atheists' contention that all thought, no matter how noble, is nothing but neural transactions. Varghese refutes this notion with this illustration:

"But to say that a given thought is one specific neural transaction set is as inane as suggesting that the idea of justice is nothing but certain marks of ink on paper. It is incoherent, then, to suggest that consciousness and thought are simply and solely physical transactions." (Flew, p.164

Even before Flew himself abandoned atheism for theism, he was critical of Dawkin's atheistic writings. Dawkins believes that all human actions and thoughts are the product of our genetic makeup. We are programmed to survive, to look out for number one. There is no room for human freedom of choice; we are all slaves of the genetic machine. Dawkin refers to the genes responsible for such programming as "the selfish gene." (Flew, p. 79-80) Flew disagrees:

"Genes, of course, can be neither selfish or unselfish anymore than they or any other nonconscious entities can engage in competition or make selections." (Flew, p. 80)

I have only skimmed the surface of this book. As I wrote earlier, this book is written so the average reader who is not a professional scientist or philosopher can understand. Flew has not embraced the Christian faith, yet what he has written has great value in the Christian witness to those whose scientific views prevent them form acknowledging a creator. Flew states that Christianity is the one religion that he would embrace. Let us hope that the eighty-five year old's journey from atheism to theism ends with his repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.

This concludes this brief examination of "There Is A God.'' The next work featured on "Friday Night Frozen Dinner and an Intellectual" will be Miroslav Volf's "The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly In A Violent World."