Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Aric's Rule #1 for Theology

Everyone has basic assumptions they make which shape everything else they believe. In many cases these basic assumptions may be subconscious, unknown to even the believer. When these assumptions can be known and revealed it makes understanding much easier, because you can trace the roots of someone's thought. Knowing a person's core assumptions also gives you a good idea whether you will ever see eye-to-eye with them since these are the interior foundations, the things upon which a person cannot compromise because (as Doug would put it) to do so would threaten that person's immortality project.

Here is my #1 rule, my #1 assumption, my core belief regarding God. On this I will not compromise:

God is good.

God must be good in my belief because if God is anything else then God is not my father, my creator, my protector, my sustainer, my savior, or my friend. If God is NOT good, then God is my enemy. For Christianity, for faith, for the world to make any sense at all God must be good.

Furthermore, goodness is apprehensible. Maybe not fully. Maybe not in every single situation for all time, but we can make accurate statements about the general contours of goodness that have meaning, and that meaning because of rule #1 is applicable to God.

For example:

Murder is not good. Anywhere. Ever. It is a synthetic moral norm that murder is always wrong. Therefore we can say conclusively that God does not murder. If God ever did murder God would not be good, and God is Good.

Torture is another synthetic moral norm. It is always wrong, by definition. This is why the Bush administration is bending over backward to define the techniques they've authorized as something other than torture. The moment they admit they have condoned torture they have no moral authority left. Anyone attempting to argue torture is ever morally acceptable is sadly confused. Because torture is wrong, God does not ever torture anyone. If God ever did torture someone God would not be good, and God is Good.

The pattern coming out of this is that for all my love of postmodern shades of gray, on some things I am an absolutist. When I say God is Good, I mean absolutely good, perfectly good, the definition of good. God is good in such a way that no human being (except Christ) ever has been or could be.

I have a little imagination game I play with myself when trying to discern God's Will - I think of the best possible situation, and then I try and think of something better than that. Somewhere beyond the limits of my best ideas, are where God's hopes and plans actually lie. Whatever we can dream of, God's dream is better than that.

Thus when it comes to questions of afterlife and eschatology and all of these fields of theology about which we really know nothing and are left to our imaginations, I am comfortable with saying that it is better than the best I can imagine, and since I can easily imagine much better solutions to injustice and evil than hell, and since I can easily imagine much better solutions to faith and righteousness than heaven I have no trouble tossing them out.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Hell in a Handbasket

Hell has been on my mind lately.

What brought it up this time is that I was listening to the Albet Mohler Program and he was talking about how upset he was that the majority of American Christians don't believe that non-believers are going to burn in Hell. For Mr. Mohler, this sounds like a serious problem. He's afraid that believers aren't willing to tell people that their non-Christian loved ones are burnig in Hell right now. Yes, he said that.

I understand that his beliefs are not unusual. I wish he understood that they were never, historically, universal, but oh well. What bothers me is that this bothers people. It bothers people that there aren't a billion souls burning and screaming in Hell for eternity.

Here's an example of one of the many ways this makes no sense. Here's a story from a couple days ago in the Marin Independent Journal: it is about a "horrific" tale of a teenager being held captive for more than a year and tortured in someone's basement. He finally escaped, showing up with nothing but boxer shorts and a padlock around his ankle. The horrorific nature of the crimes against him inspired a girl at the local high school to start fundraising to help him. Many Marin families have offered to adopt the boy (he was in the foster system).

Now, people rightly identify this story as horrific, and I think the outpouring of compassion for this kid was, in its own way, beautiful. But compared to what some people believe about God, this whole story is pretty tame. The kid was only held captive and tortured for a year, not for eternity. He was able to escape - but no one escapes Hell, right? Once you're in, that's it.

Maybe I'm crazy, but I believe that God has to be, at minimum, more merciful and loving than whoever it is that tortured this teenage boy in their basement for over a year - because what happened to this kid is horrifying and disgusting and disgraceful.

But imagine if the kid could never escape. Imagine if there was no hope the torture would ever end. Imagine if we told that kid's family that he deserved to be tortured in that way because he never had the right kind of faith in the right kind of Jesus.

That would be pretty cold-hearted, right?

So how can we say that about God?

What I'm not saying is that Hell has no meaning, or that we should toss out the few scriptural verses that talk about Hell. What I'm saying is that under no circumstances will I worship a monster. That is a preconception that I bring to theology - that God is not a horrific monster who is willing to commit moral crimes beyond human imagination. Call me crazy, but I'm just not willing to go there.

Ok, open fire.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Public-Private Pastors Part 2

In my previous post I discussed the dichotomy of the pastor as a public figure, and a private one. I brought it up because it raises questions of integrity for me. How can I be one person in public and another in private without being a liar and a hypocrite? How do we negotiate this dilemma?

To explain... I believe it is a dilemma because it appears to me that there is a strong necessity for the pastor to maintain privacy not for their own protection, but to protect the parishioner in a relationship that has bizarre power dynamics embedded in it. The public function of a pastor, in other words, is supported by a certain amount of privacy.

Obviously the boundary lines here are fuzzy and movable. They change depending on the congregation, the pastor, the situation and the personalities involved. I am not advocating any specific solution for all times and places.

The example I gave last time was a direct question from a parishioner about the politics of the pastor. To such a direct question it is probably best to respond directly - either by refusing to answer or being honest. Many situations aren't that direct though. It is more likely that the pastor will be dragged into a conversation about politics sideways, and in those situations it is easier and more appropriate to give sideways answers.

Some reasons for doing this:
  • if there is productive conversation going on between members of your congregation. Once the pastor weighs in it can shut conversation down.
  • if there is strong disagreement and you agree strongly with one side or the other. If you take sides than you will alienate people and deepen divisions in the church.
  • if the issue is likely to be a distraction from more important matters.
But this is not just about politics. Not even primarily. Another example:

A pastor accepts a call in a church that was built in the 60's. The sanctuary has abstract stained glass windows in garish colors from that period. A sizable contingent in the congregation passionately desires to get the windows replaced. An equally sizable contingent loves the windows and is adamant about keeping them. The new pastor privately dislikes the windows and people from both sides come to her asking her opinion to buoy their side of the argument.

If the pastor here is honest about her opinion she will upset a significant portion of the congregation. We all know that you can't please everyone, but wouldn't it be wise in this instance for the pastor to keep her opinion to herself and to try to mediate a resolution between the warring factions in her church?

What I'm getting at is that there are times, more frequent than one might expect, when the pastor ought to set themselves aside in deference to their role in the church. They ought, in other words, to keep their thoughts and feelings private, in order to be effective in their public role.

Can you think of examples where the opposite is true? Where it is important that the pastor expose themselves for their ministry?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Pastor: a Public-Private Figure

I have crappy balance. So being asked to walk tightropes is really terrifying for me. Thus, when kindhearted "advisers" begin telling me how various aspects of being a pastor are a matter of balancing this and that, I get a headache. Nevertheless, the list of apparently contradictory demands on a pastor is long. One that I've been ruminating on lately is the nature of the Pastor as a public-private figure.

Consider this:
  • A pastor is a very public role. Especially in small towns or congregations, your behavior is a matter of more or less constant public scrutiny. Most pastors set out self-consciously to serve as examples, and if they don't they are still regarded as such. You are called on at least once a week to speak at length, in public, on issues of relevance to the lives of your parishioners. Your opinion is often invested (rightly or wrongly) with a vague kind of authority. If you wear vestments you are immediately identified, even by those who don't know you, for your position and all manner of social baggage is attached to that.
  • A pastor is a very private role. You are often called upon to be present with people in extremely private moments such as death, deprivation, counseling, sickness and prayer. Confidentiality is the keystone of your moral authority arch. A majority of your work is performed in isolation and your responsibilities include matters like personal spiritual development and study which are typically very private. Furthermore, in order to effectively fulfill your public role it is often necessary to be more private than another person - your political views, past experiences, and even theological convictions can be an obstacle to effective ministry if made public. A pastor's sexual life is more private than a construction worker's for example.
The difficulty in negotiating this is significant. It is problematic for me because I value integrity highly and so I sometimes feel like any demand that I behave differently in public than in private is an assault on my personal integrity. Let's take one example...

You are asked by a member of your congregation how you intend to vote in an upcoming election. I prefer to just answer questions with complete honesty, but what happens in this situation if I agree with the person - they may take that as theological vindication of their personal opinion. And if I disagree than it is possibly a theological assault on their opinion. Either way pastoral authority can corrupt this into a situation where simple agreement or disagreement turns into approval or condemnation. This applies to more than politics obviously.

It is impossible to avoid all statement of opinion. Anyone who tries is an idiot, and probably also very boring. So clearly one important issue is how to manage agreement and disagreement in a healthy manner when pastoral power dynamics are at play. However, there are plenty of times when it makes sense to avoid this trap. Discretion is the better part of valor and all that.

There are a number of ways to go about this:
  • Be direct - tell them you prefer not to speak about that.
  • Answer the question with a question - turn it back on them "What do YOU think?"
  • Tell an anecdote/quote from scripture/use a parable - give them an answer they have to unravel for themselves, or an inconclusive answer.
Getting good at these techniques is really useful. However, I balk at using them much because they seem dishonest. These are the same methods politicians use to get out of answering questions aren't they? Shouldn't we just tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth all day and all night?

What do YOU think?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Among Friends...

In previous experience blogging one thing I found utterly perplexing was that some people (often the most vocal ones) choose to frequent places where they have radical disagreement in order to provoke arguments. Mind you, part of me really likes arguing. I have at times been strongly tempted to go leapfrogging around fundamentalist forums spreading bile. I am frequently dumbfounded at the things people say and believe while claiming to be Christian and I'd love to show them for the impostors they are. Doubtless there are some people out there who feel exactly the same about me.

The internet is not a hospitable habitat for reasoned debate. The prerequisites for effective persuasion - mutual affection, trust and understanding - are virtually impossible to establish over an anonymous text-based medium. So don't be surprised if you come here in anger and fail to persuade me, Doug, or Nick of anything at all. Don't be surprised if you listen to our podcasts and read our posts and find none of it persuasive. We are not trying to persuade you and it is probably an impossible task anyway.

In fact, if you come here knowing that you disagree with us on almost everything and you find yourself repeatedly experiencing anger/disgust/dismay when you visit I have a suggestion for you: Don't come. Don't listen to us. Don't read what we write. Ignore us. We're not that important.

Disagreement, of course, is no problem at all... among friends. I invite and encourage healthy, respectful debate that assumes from the get go that we are friends with more in common than not. I will do my best to always be generous in my assumptions about you, even when what you say is completely asinine and I want to declare you anathema. I try to hold myself to the standard of never typing something in a comment or blog which I would not say face to face.

So if this blog feels like enemy territory to you, welcome. We'll try to show you that we're no enemies of yours, but we're not going to waste much energy beating our heads against a brick wall with you.

If, however, this blog feels like your kind of place - then pull up a stool. You are among friends.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

No Question I'm the Fool

Well of course, I'm the last to be introduced which is strike one against me for being the fool. I too am a 4th year seminary student at SFTS and am in the last week of the semester. Yeah, it's that time of the student life, but I love it. I actually think I do some of my best work under pressure so here it goes.

I'm Nicolas A. Larson, but you can call me Nick. I am not an ordained minster, although the Indiana region of the Disciples of Christ are getting really close to changing that one. I am married to a wonderful driven woman, Julia, who is an industrial engineer (well at least trained as one) who works for BioMarin doing supply chain and getting drugs to people that change their lives. We have a doolap of a dog named Zeke who likes sleeping and eating (man what a life). My background is in graphic design, so hopefully come January we can give this thing a major design overhaul (no offense Aric). I'm from Indiana and a born and bread chicago blackhawks hockey fan. I like to widdle away at my time playing World of Warcraft and reading theology (yes I am that much of a dork).

I'm totally into practical theology, "emergent" church stuff (although I always get hung up on that term) which is really about developing a faith that can be lived, practiced, and transform our lives here and now while looking for the ever inbreaking kingdom of God.

I'll probably be the one bantering back and forth with Aric and bowing to Doug's insightful comments. I get scared when Aric starts talking about big theological words and I'll be the one asking him the ever present "so what?" question. I remember back to my great days of youth ministry at Federated Church and those kids who didn't let me get away with anything. It's those guys and gals my theology has to live up too.

My motivations aren't any more complex than these two friars. I can't imagine my life without these two, and I can't think of any way better to keep a record of these conversations that have changed the way I view...well everything. I look forward to being able to track every discussion and being able to share it with all of you. So here's to a cool new project, but I'm most definitely the fool.

**PS: I'm a poor speller and not the greatest grammatical genius so don't be afraid to ask what??

Conversation Topics

Here at Two Friars and A Fool, we hope to have a lot of good conversations. One of the ways we want to converse is though a podcast that we are currently working on. We invite anyone who's interested to join in the discussion. We have been cogitating on what we might want to talk about, and would like any feedback people want to offer on some of our ideas, as well as other topics you want to see us cover.

One is Rick Warren. In a recent conversation with Sean Hannity, he came out and said that it would not only be righteous to assassinate Mahmoud Akmadinijad, but that it was God's intent for the state to do things like that. This statement and some of what followed it infuriated me to no end, and I want to talk about it and see what we come up with.

Another is Seminary education. These grapes have set our teeth on edge for almost four years now, ever since we Friars and Fool have been caught up in the sticky web of SFTS. If nothing else, we need to vent so that our ulcers are put off a couple of years. This may need to wait until we've all officially graduated, though.

A third could be abortion. Its an issue that seems designed to divide people and make them furiously angry. Also, to make them call each other Nazis as often as possible. And while calling people you hardly know "Nazi!" is pretty fun, eventually you realize that they're calling you Nazi too, and maybe you should do some more thinking about this topic. At least, that's where I'm at.

We could easily do a series on our current political climate. It seems like a lot of changes are happening. Our tax dollars are being shoveled into the pockets of incompetent executives at record-setting rates - billions of dollars allegedly already gone unaccounted-for in our haste to enact what Jon Stewart calls our "cash for incompetence program". Pretty soon Obama will ride into the White House on the back of a rainbow unicorn and fix everything with a wave of his magic wand. Right? Definitely stuff to talk about there.

Also, what the Hell? We can talk about that age-old threat leveled against non-believers and lukewarm believers alike - the fires of perdition! Do we need Hell? Do we want Hell? Is it a core affirmation of our faith, or relic of a time before the Hubble and geology? If we do keep it, where does it go? If we can toss it, what do we lose?

Of course we have to mention sex. The beast with two backs. The horizontal mambo. Coitus. Coupling. And so on. What argument about religion and then politics would be complete without ranging over into sex? A lot of yelling goes on about sex - who is having it with whom, what they are allowed to do, when they are allowed to do it - and a lot of sex is going on amidst all that yelling. Yet, rape statistics remain humiliating and terrifying for anyone with even a sliver of conscience and empathy. Domestic abuse and violence are unbelievably common. Kids continue to have kids. I dunno...maybe all this yelling isn't working? Ya think? So what do we do instead?

(And when the category of sex comes up, we'll probably also talk about The Gay. Mike Huckabee, on the Daily Show, just laid out the case against, and I think Jon did some good work taking it to him and not letting the issue stand pat, but there's always more to say.)

One thing I think we'd all like to see is feedback and suggestions from the patrons at our little bar here. What do you want to listen to three guys discuss and argue about? What do you want to discuss or argue about with us?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Theme and Purpose

You've just walked into a familiar pub. Three other regulars are having a loud argument over by the bar and though you'd planned on catching a bit of the game on the tellie (Rangers vs. Celtics) while sipping on a pint of lager, you find yourself getting pulled into the debate. Before you know it you're all red-faced and talking over each other and there are a surprising number of empty pint glasses unwashed on the bar, because the bartender is deep in the row as well. The verbal sparring goes on late into the night, punctuated by laughter and the bartender ringing the bell for last calls. The casual patrons leave, but you are a diehard so you get locked in and the conversation continues. It meanders over everything from politics to sex, with a lot of religion thrown in, and though you'll have a brutal hangover in the morning you know you won't regret the time spent with friends.

That's the feel we're going for with this place.

A huge part of developing that kind of atmosphere is going to be your participation. If we get good thoughtful regulars who contribute with comments that forward the conversation it will be more interesting than if this is a soapbox for our opinions. Our podcasts will be conversational in style, between the three of us, and we hope that through listener feedback we will even be able to incorporate, change and adapt to your interests. Of course, since we are the proprietors this will largely bear the stamp of our personalities, but we think of ourselves as responsive individuals. This site will test that theory.

In addition to the podcast this space will hopefully eventually morph into a social network of sorts that includes forums, our blogs, and who knows what other crazy content may come into it. We are all three people with busy lives and this is not likely to ever be a paid gig, so how quickly it develops and into what is up in the air, but I like to dream big. I count on my fellow Friars here to keep me grounded.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Introduction: A Fried Fool?

While we're still in the early phases of planning and rolling this thing out, introductions are in order.

My name is Aric Clark. I am an ordained Presbyterian minister and pastor of a wonderful congregation in Fort Morgan, Colorado. I am married to a passionate teacher/traveler/dancer/mother named Stacia, and I have two young boys Avery (4) and Curran (18 months). My background includes a childhood in community theater, and even membership in a traveling repertory improvisational-comedy troupe. I have lived in various countries around the world so I am always homesick no matter where I am. I love movies, theater, dance, opera - all of the performing arts. I am a gamer and hopefully someday a game-designer.

The question is, am I one of the Friars? Or am I the fool? Of the three of us, I am probably the most likely to get excited about systematic theology. I think words like dogma and orthodoxy can be fun things. I am also the only one, thus far, to actually get ordained. All of this seems like strong evidence that I am probably the fool, but we'll just have to wait and find out.

Coming from me you can expect reflections on pastoral identity and ministry, pacifism, epistemology, biblical hermeneutics, ecumenism, and a lot of frothing at the mouth about the obscenities that pass for Christianity in this country. Hopefully I'll keep the frothing and obscenities to a minimum, but no promises.

My motivations for doing this are several. Primarily this is a great way to maintain close ties with my fellow friars/fools who I regard as two of the finest gentleman ever to descend from apes. But this is also a way for me to keep my mind and my passions active, and to explore the utility of this interweb of ours. I have previous experience blogging, which had its ups and downs, but which convicted me that there is something about this medium of communication, which is uniquely powerful. My aim here is to find a productive use for this bizarre electronic anonymous collective consciousness.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Introduction: Friar or Fool?

We might as well start off by introducing ourselves.

Hi, my name is Doug Hagler. I am a fourth-year student at SFTS/The Graduate Theological Union currently completing four units of CPE working as a chaplain at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital. I'm married to a preschool teacher/writer/historian named Pam and have a dog named Po. I like to read when I get the time - fantasy and science fiction, the occasional graphic novel, theology and philosophy and religion, plenty of popular science - and I am an avid player of games of all kinds. I come from a big, complicated family that is estranged and strange on so many levels. Specific to my position as Friar or Fool, I am interested in virtue ethics/bioethics, practical theology, pluralism, mythopoetics, nonviolence, covenantal anarchism...I'm also into more down-to-earth stuff, but these are the kinds of topics that I'll be most likely to talk about here. They are also subject to change without notice.

What do I want from this project we're putting together? I want to stay engaged with my close friends and colleagues, who may or may not be Fools. (If I'm not sure who the Fool is, does that mean its me?) I want to stay engaged with a community of thinking-types who share some interests and who also want to argue with us. I want to have extra motivation to keep reading those academic books that part of me wants to fling out the window. And maybe, just maybe, something will come out of this that is greater than the parts we put into it.

So that's it for now.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Pull Up A Stool

Welcome to Two Friars and A Fool. This space is a place-holder for what will eventually become a regular blog/podcast/forum for casual discussion of practical theology, the church, culture, and anything else we damn well please. We are three friends who share common interests, and divergent perspectives, who invite you to join our ongoing conversation.