Saturday, June 19, 2010

Toy Story 3 and the Afterlife

Don't read this if you haven't seen the movie. This is SPOILERIFIC. Go see the movie now. It is awesome. Then come back and read this.

Pixar's latest film is an astoundingly good meditation on death and the afterlife... with toys. Through the course of the movie the protagonists confront or consider a variety of possible scenarios for what fate awaits them. Most interestingly the movie has a clear hierarchy for which possibilities are the best and worst.

At the beginning of the movie we know already that Andy, the owner of Buzz and Woody and friends is going to college. The toys make a last ditch attempt to get him to play with them, but when it fails they resign themselves to the fact that their life as Andy's toys is over. This is death. The movie takes it for granted from the get go. There is no question whether the toys will "die". The question is what awaits them afterward. We are presented with 5 options in order from the worst to the best:

#5 - Annihilation. The worst possible fate awaiting the toys after the end of their life with Andy is total annihilation according to Pixar. At the genuinely terrifying climax of the movie the toys are in the furnace at the landfill unable to escape and on the absolute brink of being melted down. The scene is presented in such a bleak way that I was actually convinced Disney would allow children to watch their favorite animated toys get obliterated against all meta-film logic. Amazing storytelling and a sublime example of eucatastrophe let you know that this is not the option the writers choose for their characters. Beyond the furnace there is nothing. They could have chosen to show melted plastic being recycled and include reincarnation among their possible afterlifes but in the film the fire is just a full stop. It is fascinating that this was the worst fate in the writer's minds because it is one that a growing number of atheists are perfectly comfortable with.

#4 - Hell. Not as extreme as annihilation, but almost as bad is Hell, which in this case takes the shape of a daycare/gulag run by an evil pink teddy bear. The toys are imprisoned and tortured by having their joys turned into nightmares and their identities robbed (in the case of Buzz Lightyear). Interestingly, hell itself offers a choice of destinations. The destiny of most toys in hell is to become trash and be annihilated. The only way to avoid ending up at number 5 is to become the jailers and imprison and torture other toys. Staying in hell means becoming Satan.

#3 - Purgatory. Initially the toys were going to be put in a box in the attic awaiting an unknown future. There is some hope, "Andy might have kids of his own one day," but no certainty - they could still end up getting sent to hell (donated) or annihilated (thrown away). Purgatory is not as good as life, even Woody who gets to go to the nice purgatory (college) has to leave his friends, and none of them get to do what they feel is their purpose: be played with by Andy. After facing Hell and Annihilation the toys decide that purgatory looks like an acceptable fate, because they can't imagine better... yet.

#2 - Heaven. The evil pink teddy bear steps over the line and is tossed out of Hell by his own lackeys. What happens then is pretty profound - Sunnyside Daycare become the Toy Story version of Heaven. This is a place toys go when they die, but instead of a gulag where they are tortured, it is a place where they are cared for and made whole. According to Pixar heaven and hell are the same place and even all the people are the same. The only difference? How they treat each other. As good as heaven is though, this is not the fate that the writer's chose for their characters. Woody envisions something even better...

#1 Resurrection. The toys end up handed down, by Andy to a young girl who he trusts to take good care of them. Andy hands each of them over, relinquishing ownership by telling their story one by one to the girl who takes them with gratitude. The difference between this and heaven is that it is not an escape from the world. The toys remain in the world for which they were created, to be owned and loved by a kid. Escape from this world isn't desirable, even to go to a nice-seeming place like heaven, because this is the world God created and loved. The toys wave goodbye to Andy who is moving on to a new life of his own while Woody, Buzz, and the gang look astounded at having been given a fresh beginning. The best of all possibilities for life after death, according to Pixar, is to rise again; to be gifted a first day, after our last.

Still Waiting

"What the Almighty will do if thousands of praying, loving Christians non-violently face death in the search for peace and justice will remain shrouded in mystery--at least until we have the courage to try it" (Ron Sider, Non-Violence [Dallas: Word Publishing, 1989], 92).

Shamelessly stole this one from Josh Rowley's fine blog. It was too good not pass on.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Myth, A Fairy Tale, A Story, A Description

As is often the case, talking epistemology with John Shuck combines with my own reading in mythopoetics, fantasy and theology and results in me dealing with a few terms that I find helpful to use consistently.

In each case, I'll use a brief description, followed by a list of what is generally valued in each mode of expression. Lastly, I'll throw up a few examples that come to mind.

A Myth
In the comment thread conversation I had with John Shuck most recently, I called myths "structures of meaning that tell us the truth about ourselves and the world and invite us to live into that truth more fully." This isn't a bad definition, and I'll go with it for now. Myths can also be described as "stories that make stories". A myth is primordial because it gives rise to many other stories of other kinds. It is powerful because it guides people as they make stories of their own lives and experiences, as well as those of their community. A myth becomes a myth, in part, due to it's broad use. A myth that gives rise to no stories is no myth. It is much easier to recognize older myths because we can see whether they have stood the test of time.

Values: evocative power, invitation, broad applicability, iterative richness, "meaning", valuation, generative power (stories that make stories)

Examples: the Bible as a whole and many of it's parts individually, the Bhagavad Gita, the Mahabharata, the cycle of trickster stories of Coyote and Raven and Spider etc., the Koran, the Prose and Poetic Eddas, the Ennuma Elish

Myth is the purview of religion and spirituality.

A Fairy Tale
Tolkien gives the best definition of what he calls "fairy stories" in his essay and lecture "On Fairy Stories". It is a relatively long lecture, actually, and he has a lot to say, but in brief, he defines a fairy story as providing four benefits: fantasy, escape, consolation and recovery.

He is using fantasy in the medieval sense, that is, in using the mind's faculties to imagine things that do not or cannot exist. One example he uses is "green sun". For escape, Tolkien is reclaiming escapism as something good; 'the escape from a prison rather than the flight of the deserter'. Consolation doesn't need much explanation - a good fairy story provides consolation in the midst of life that is often unsatisfactory in some way. Lastly, Tolkien talks about recovery - that is, recovery of wonder at everyday things, or recovery of vividness of experience. He gives examples like "tree" or "fire" or "bread and wine", things that he feels he understands better thanks for fairy stories than he would have without them.

Fairy stories help us to see our world differently. The basic structure of a fairy story is an introduction to the familiar, a journey into the other, unfamiliar world, and a return to the familiar, having been changed by what was experienced in the unfamiliar world.

Values: fantasy, escape, consolation, recovery, otherworldliness, the familiar-made-strange and the strange-made-familiar

Examples: The Hobbit, Avatar, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,

A fairy story is a particular kind of story that is close to myth.

A Story
A series of events purposefully organized by an author or authors for a purpose other than description. It's actually pretty challenging to define a story, but for my purposes, I think the above will work. A story has to have a storyteller, either an individual or a community; it has to be intentionally arranged from start to finish, and it can't just be a bare recounting of events, because that falls into the last category that I'm looking at. A big difference one can see is between what makes a "good" story and what makes a "good" description.

Values: expressive craft, narrative beauty, coherence, characterization, drama, irony, evocative imagery

Examples: Beowulf, Anansi Boys, The A-Team, The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Story is the purview of authors and storytellers.

A Description
A series of events organized logically and chronologically. The assumption is that something has occurred, and has been observed, and then the description attempts to express those observations to someone who was not present.

Values: technical accuracy, functionalism, reductionism, efficiency of expression, clarity

Examples: the physical origins of the universe, a blueprint, an instruction manual, a technical schematic, a genogram

Description is the purview of science.

What's open is to discuss which of these we are dealing with at any given time. What is not an option is pretending they are all the same thing.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Who Needs A Trinity Anyway?

For the purposes of this post at least, I am going to argue that the traditional doctrine of the Trinity is not necessary to Christian faith and practice. It is far from the only logical conclusion one might draw from a reading of the Old and New Testaments. As an aside, I want to say that most Trinitarian theology is hardly Trinitarian at all. We have a bit about God, a tremendous amount about Jesus, and then the appendage of the Holy Spirit which has a kind of vague function.

Now, the Trinity has been necessary for hundreds of years as an article of faith in order to avoid being excommunicated, hunted down, burned at the stake, and so on. Of course, this was not always the case, but has been the case for the vast majority of Christian history. Very very early, the formula of Father Son and Holy Spirit seems to have been adopted. It's universality had to be enforced with violence on a regular basis, but still: what has Christianity not enforced with violence on a regular basis when it comes to doctrine?

The Holy Spirit and the Trinity in the Early Creeds
The Apostle's Creed does no more than mention the existence of the Holy Spirit as part of it's trinitarian structure. It says basically nothing about it. It is implied by the Creed that the HS has something to do with the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, etc., but there is nothing definitive said about the Holy Spirit whatsoever.

At this point, we do not have the modern doctrine of the Trinity. We just have God in three main forms, the third of which is almost completely undefined.

Next is the Nicene Creed, which has more to say about the Holy Spirit. We hear that the Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of Life, that the HS proceeds from the Father [and the son], and with the Father and the Son is to be worshipped and glorified. Oh, also, the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets.

This is still pretty vague, but with the name Lord we get the sense that the HS is a person of some kind, a character in this story at least. Lord of Life, Giver of Life, and speaking through the prophets gives us a vague sense of what this person might be doing. If we glance back, we also find that the Holy Spirit was involved in Jesus' incarnation in the virgin Mary.

Jump ahead to the Athanasian Creed, and suddenly we have 25 lines defining the relationship between the persons of the Trinity. This is followed by the remainder of the Creed, which is dedicated to the incarnation, suffering and resurrection of Jesus. Even in the Athanasian Creed, we can see a difference between the three persons of the Trinity. God is unbegotten. Jesus is not made but begotten of God. The Holy Spirit proceeds from both God and Jesus.

Now, in the Jesus part, we get a little bit about God, since it is important in the Creed to determine exactly what Jesus' incarnation was like. Once that is nailed down, however, we have death, resurrection and judgement. Bang. Done.

Once again, we have nothing whatsoever on the activity, or person-hood of the Holy Spirit. We know more than we'll ever need to know about the Holy Spirit's supposed metaphysics and essence, but nothing at all about the Holy Spirit's character, or story, or activity, or importance.

The point of the Athanasian Creed is clear: quibbling about the metaphysics of the Trinity is a matter of life-and-death. What the third person of the Trinity actually is and does is of no importance whatsoever. Unlike the 25 lines of what I inelegantly call quibbling, it is not saving knowledge. You could theoretically memorize the Creed, ape it on a regular basis, and no one would be the wiser to the fact that you thought the Holy Spirit was in fact a magical canteloupe, or a literal ghost, or that the Holy Spirit was primarily concerned with listening to you argue about homo-ousias. At least as far as this Creed goes.

The Holy Spirit and the Trinity in the Bible
There is sparse evidence pointing to the Trinity in the Bible, and there is no discussion of it as such anywhere to be found. A "full" Trinitarian theology is never articulated in the Bible.

Certainly, the OT talks about the spirit of God, and how that spirit acts as God acts in some circumstances. It doesn't seem clear, to me at least, however that the spirit of God is a different person from God. The spirit of God seems to be what I called in my statement of faith "the manifest presence of God" in the world.

The NT has Jesus describing the Holy Spirit with the person-term Paraclete, clearly referring to the Holy Spirit as a person in that case, rather than exclusively an impersonal force. In other parts of the NT, such as at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit appears as an energy manifesting itself as flame, wind, insight, etc. At Jesus' baptism, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus as an impersonal force manifesting as something like a dove, and we have God's voice speaking in the same moment.

We also have the baptismal formula of "Father, Son and Holy Spirit." Clearly, the three terms are important, but we have nothing whatsoever of the dense language of the Creeds, which is an invention after-the-fact, dealing with concerns that do not seem to have been the concerns of either Jesus or the first Christians.

We have enough language to talk about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but there doesn't seem to be much justification for making any kind of Athanasian formulation a necessary belief.

The Holy Spirit and just plain Holy Spirit
In the NT, what is translated as "the Holy Spirit" is sometimes literally "the Holy Spirit", that is, using the definite article. In other situations, it is simply "Holy Spirit" - no definite article, in a construction that seems similar to "lively spirit" in English. This happens 52 times in the NT. Basically, "pneuma hagion" and "to pneuma to hagion" are translated in exactly in the same way, as "the Holy Spirit", even though in 52 cases this seems incorrect.

What the Greek might imply, though, is that Holy Spirit refers both to a kind of person or divine personality or divine agent, as well as to an experience or, yes, an energy.

What is consistent is that the Giver is consistently "the Holy Spirit" and the Gift is "Holy Spirit". What is implied is that Holy Spirit is more complicated than simply a person. No one would say "the Christ gives the gift of Christ", but we might say "the Holy Spirit gives the gift of Holy Spirit."

-->Actually, I like the idea that "the Christ gives the gift of Christhood", but that's a whole other conversation.

The Athanasian doctrine of the Trinity does not account for this difference in my view.

A bit on Jesus
The Holy Spirit is my entry-point for talking about the trinity because I think there is plenty of justification for using God-language to describe Jesus. There is less justification, however, for using Athanasian language. There are instances in the Gospels when Jesus talks about God being greater; about God being his Father as well as his disciples' Father. There are other instances where Jesus uses the same language of himself and of God. The situation seems to be less clearly symmetrical than the Athanasian Creed describes.

Conclusion for now
This is all a work-in-progress in my own thinking, but at the moment I think that what bothers me most about the Trinity is the symmetry. It seems like a complicated, lived-in, contextual reality in scripture is replaced with a sanitized philosophical structure.

What instead?
Instead of the Trinity, why not just go with bare description of what we read? God is the creator. Jesus is God's only begotten son as well as God's anointed one. The Holy Spirit is a divine presence as well as an experience or an energy which comes from God and from Jesus as well.

This leaves us open for more reflection as well on our experiences of God. We can talk about Wisdom as she appears - present with God from before the beginning of creation. We can talk about Wisdom, as an example, without worrying whether the doctrine-police are going to get us in trouble for horning in on the Trinity's territory.

We can also, as has been brought up in the comment thread on Aric's post on the Trinity, perhaps take more seriously Jesus's call to be like him. We don't have to be concerned with the problems inherent in trying to be like "the Godhead" (which I've always hated as a term). We can just follow Jesus in being Jesus-like, rather than putting faith in Jesus apart from the belief that we are called to be like him.

I'm still thinking about all of this, and this is more of a mess than I'd like, but there you have it.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A-Team & Gandhi

I saw the A-Team movie today. I needed some flat-out escapism after Synod and the summer season offered plenty of choices, but this movie was at the best time for me so I grabbed my ticket and sat down. For the most part it delivered what I wanted. It was fun. It was ridiculous. I actually chuckled aloud in boyish glee at the parachuting tank scene. So I got my money's worth.

But one thing in the film begs to be called out for sheer idiocy. B.A. Baracus experiences a vague conversion while he is in prison and talks about being unwilling (unable?) to kill. This sets up his character's shallow character arc in which he goes from badass Army Ranger to whiny pacifist to badass mercenary outlaw. The entire thing is set up as a foregone conclusion that he will remember that he is a meathead whose purpose in life is killing badguys at the dramatic climax. His transformation is symbolized by his mohawk, which he shuns for the 2nd act of the movie in his pacifist stage, but is back for the thrilling reveal when he murders the villain. Like Samson his mojo is in his hair.

The worst moment in this bad idea of a subplot is when he trades Gandhi quotes with Colonel Hannibal. Baracus asks Hannibal if he knows who said, "Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary." Hannibal does of course and shoots back, but Gandhi also said, "It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence." He then uses that quote to urge Baracus to get back to killing people, because that is what Gandhi would do. Obviously.

It's depressingly ironic that Gandhi would be so badly misused. Hannibal's quote was cut off. It continues, "Violence is any day preferable to impotence. There is hope for a violent man to become non-violent. There is no such hope for the impotent." Gandhi then of course went about demonstrating in his life the conclusive superiority of non-violence to violence, which is the opposite of impotence and cowardice which is what is implied about Baracus during his pacifist phase in the movie.

The movie thoroughly fails to grasp Satya-Graha, Gandhi, or non-violence, which I suppose is fine for a summer blockbuster. I went in there looking for explosions and I found them. I just wish they hadn't thrust this clumsy, ugly sub-plot in the middle.

The completion of the ironic reversal is in the ending of the movie. The A-Team fails to get their name cleared and their elaborate scheme is completely undone in a matter of moments by corrupt government agents. They find themselves once more fugitives, arguably worse off than they were before, yet the movie shows no hint of awareness that the quote Baracus pulled from Gandhi had actually been prophecy. "Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary." Everything Baracus gained by going back to his violent ways was actually a loss in disguise, and it will continue that way until he realizes that violence is nothing more than a slightly higher form of impotence. Like the movie, violence is all flash and no substance.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

10 Explanations of the Trinity

I know I can come across as an arrogant condescending jerk. So when I commented on twitter and facebook over the weekend that the trinity isn't difficult to explain I naturally got some pushback. Well, okay, what I said was:

The Trinity isn't that hard to explain. Please stop dumbing down the church by acting like our most stimulating ideas are unexplainable. Fake populism and anti-intellectualism are extremely unbecoming in a minister.

I apologize for the aggressive tone. It was uncalled for.

What I mean by this though, is that I think there is an attitude which is unfortunately prevalent in the church, even among ministers, that treats theology as if it were some arcane art form. Ministers sometimes work so hard to be "one of their people" that they give off the impression that all that theology stuff is just too difficult for them. They leave it to seminary professors to try to explain complicated things like atonement, the trinity, and predestination. While I would love to brag that I am a master of the arcane, the truth is that these things aren't at base that complicated. This is not quantum mechanics. We all went to seminary. We presumably study and read and think about this stuff all the time. It is part of our job description that we be able to understand and articulate theological ideas.

To back up my braggadocio, here are 10 ways to explain the Trinity which anyone in your congregation will be able to understand:

#1 - The Clover. St Patrick famously described the trinity to the people of Ireland by using the analogy of the 3-leaved clover. Each leaf on the plant appears whole and independent, but they are indivisibly part of a single stem. Strength: This explanation has the advantage of being historical, includes an effective visual aid, and emphasizes the equality and unity of the persons. Weakness: An inanimate object is in some ways a poor choice of analogy for the dynamic living trinity.

#2 - Dancing. Central to understanding the trinity is the nature of their inter-relatedness (that fancy greek word Perichoresis). Have everyone stand up and form a circle, then do any of the thousands of folk dances in which the parties all move together performing their parts in unison. God is the dance, the energy, the movement at the center of creation and the trinity is our way of saying god does the dance perfectly - all of the dancers are in total harmony. Strength: This explanation will work great for kinesthetic learners. It is dynamic focuses on the relationship of the persons. Weakness: It is abstract and doesn't do a good job of describing the individual persons of the trinity.

#3 - Battery, Wire, Electricity. God is the power source, the battery, the creator. Jesus is the mediator, the wire which conducts God's love to us. The Spirit is the power itself, the love of God which comes to us through Jesus. Strength: Another explanation with a good visual aid. This one has the strength of differentiating the persons and putting them in a relationship which reflects the usual portrayal of their roles. Furthermore, this example can demonstrate our relationship to the trinity - we are the light bulb at the end of the wire which the Spirit turns on. Weakness: The analogy is rigid, and utilizes inanimate objects to explain something which is fundamentally living and dynamic.

#4 - Rublev's Icon. It is a famous work of art depicting three angels sitting at Abraham's table. The angels are at once the figures from the story in Genesis about receiving strangers, and the persons of the trinity in perfect relationship with each other. A notable feature of the painting is that the persons, while at the table clearly in conversation with one another are all turned toward the viewer as though we were a fourth participant in the conversation, thus illustrating the outward moving love of the inward relationship of the triune god. Strength: You can't go wrong with beautiful art for reaching people who might otherwise not grasp the subject. Weakness: It depicts the trinity as three separate persons which will then lead to questions about the unity of the godhead.

#5 - Quantum Physics. Ha! So the trinity is complex! Well, this is really just a very basic observation from a layman's understanding of physics, but for the last century we have gradually discovered that all matter is actually energy vibrating at different speeds. It is a gross exaggeration, but in one sense, you and I are beams of light. The simultaneous duality, or underlying unity of these supposed opposites, energy and matter, is a great entryway to talking about the mystery of how God could be simultaneously three persons in one. Strength: This is an explanation which will appeal to the intellectually curious. Weakness: Speaking outside your field of expertise leads to unwittingly saying ignorant things.

#6 - Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer. One effective way of approaching an explanation of the trinity is in terms of the roles of the persons. This is the approach of many of the confessions, essentially listing what God the father does, what Jesus does, and what the Spirit does. They are all God's work, but in particular ways, at particular times, in particular places. Strength: There is lots of confessional material to rely on here. Weakness: It is easy to fall into cliches and also easy to overly separate the persons.

#7 - Ice, Water, Steam. The different states of matter are an effective illustration of how one thing can take three very different forms with different attributes. Similarly God can appear and act in history in dramatically different ways and remain one God. Strength: Strongly emphasizes the unity of God. Weakness: Fails to differentiate the persons or express how they are all simultaneously God, not modes appearing at different times.

#8 - Optical Illusion. Have you ever seen those Mind's Eye posters where it just looks like a random blur of colors until you squint or blur your focus and then suddenly an image pops out at you? Or the picture of the young lady who is also an old woman? These kinds of images defy our perceptions and categories. They can be an entry into discussing how, when viewed from different perspectives God presents different aspects. As savior and teacher God appears as Jesus. As creator and providential caretaker God appears as a parent. As inward presence, spark and encouragement God appears as the Spirit. Strength: Visual aid possibilities abound and it emphasizes the unity of the persons despite the apparent differences. Weakness: Some might take offense at comparing God to an illusion.

#9 - Three Dimensions of Space. We interact with our surroundings through three dimensions: height, width, and depth. The dimensions are completely distinct and non-interchangeable, yet invariably present simultaneously in the same location. Without one or the other of the dimensions all of existence would be radically altered. They are mutually dependent for intelligibility. Strength: A very close analogy of the uniqueness yet mutuality of the persons of the trinity. Weakness: It's somewhat abstract and static.

#10 - Lover, Beloved, Love. There is a reason that orthodox language for describing the trinity uses "persons" as the basic unit of the godhead. God is alive and active, so the best way to describe God's nature is through a relationship of mutual love. The New Testament continually shows us the relationship between God and Jesus as one of giving and receiving love. Jesus is referred to as "my beloved" by God at several key moments. Significantly at one of these moments, his Baptism, Jesus receives the Holy Spirit. This is a picture of the exchange of love between the persons of the trinity. This is also the story of Good Friday and Easter. Jesus (the Beloved) gives up his Spirit (Love) to God (the Lover). God (the Lover) then restores the Spirit (Love) to Jesus (the Beloved) on Easter morning. Strength: This example is ripe with biblical imagery and applicable to our understanding of human relationships. Weakness: It would be easy to think of the persons as three completely separate individuals with this description.

Ultimately, as is by now apparent, no single explanation is going to be wholly satisfactory. What did you expect we're talking about the godhead?! Some explanations will be prone to the error of making God into three different people, others prone to making God into one person with three faces. But any of these explanations would be a good starting place and from there you can use your well developed theological skills to balance out the weaknesses of a narrow understanding of the trinity into a profound exploration of the richest Christian doctrine.