Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Criterion of Eternal Truth--Part 2, Addressing Humanity's Tragic Predicament

"You don't have to be religious to be a good person." Comments to that effect make it abundantly clear not so much that that Christian faith, but human life is in great need of being understood. For one cannot understand Christian faith without understanding the tragedy embedded in human existence to which it supplies an answer. To that end we look to the personal challenge at the heart of Christian faith, a challenge that applies the criterion of eternal truth set up in Part 1 to an individual human being's life.

In Part 1 ("The Criterion of Eternal Truth: An Abstract Challenge") we noted that it doesn't make sense to talk about the eternal entering human history unless it transforms all of history, and I used the first gospel--historically--to construct a simple model of the gospel that shows us that "If we aren't transformed by the good won't be good news to us." That was the abstract point. The substance introduced by Christian faith--I claimed--is this: " be committed to the principle of love is to be committed to transforming ourselves with respect to the unfolding of the world in history. ...[it requires] an unchanging approach to an ever changing reality. Love, that is, meets the criterion of eternal truth with which we began." The object of today's post is to make the general point of Christian faith relevant to individual human lives.

When we hear, "You don't have to be religious--meaning Christian, here--to be a good (or loving) person," who decides what's good, and how? The simple fact is that anyone can be good in their own estimation, if everyone decides how "good" is determined. But everyone has their own circumstances and preferences, so based on one's own circumstances and preferences everyone is justified. Even if a person is committed to "moral goodness"--based on cultural norms and expectations--ambiguities run deep, ambiguities that allow a person to get out of just about any moral judgment that is deemed unfortunate. I have used Sartre's analysis elsewhere to establish how ambiguities obscure responsibility to act in situations that contradict an underlying wish to avoid an inconvenient responsibility. Say that a correct choice puts a person's job in danger, and the ability to obfuscate arises. One can either accept alternatives which are unfortunate or obfuscate in an attempt to escape them. To be presented with an opportunity to ask with sincerity, What is truth? would be an ultimate instance, as the writer of the Gospel According to John must have seen, as I have argued here.

But what if the core choice were very simple, with just two alternatives? First, the option of ambiguity and obfuscation, of maintaining one's ability to seek good by one's own standards for one's own purposes and when desirable to hide the fact that one does so by putting the many alternative versions of "good" to use: the option of ambiguity includes your goods, my goods, the law's goods, my in-group's goods, my community's goods, ecological goods, aesthetic goods, state goods, the goods of society now, the goods of future generations, even the the goods of taking a holiday from worrying about the good, or concerns about the goods of those who might impose their standard of good on me, or us, or society, and so on till one just gets tired of the question and asks, "What is good?" One can then find a satisfactory answer by--of course--appeal to one's own standards. After all, whose standards should you, or I, prefer? It's all very messy, and convenient for implementing what Sartre called "bad faith," evading responsibility for inconvenient choices by obfuscating. In Paul Tillich's words, "Is not the split in one's conscience the end of the authority of one's conscience? If one has to choose between different authorities, not they but oneself is ultimate authority for oneself, and this means: there is no authority for him."1

And second, the option of clarity: Committing oneself to framing good by the best overall determination in any situation, including your goods, my goods, the law's goods, and so forth through all of the same kinds of goods that are used to muddle the search for a defining sense of good in the first alternative. The difference is that the search is in good faith and that it is not done to preserve a single person's goods as the determining factors--the covering up of which motivates the first choice. One cannot help but think of how the story of the fall illustrates this very thing.

Though the alternatives are complex in their ramifications, we are familar with them. They identify complexities embedded in our interactions with other people. Navagating complex political situations using one's own preferred goods as the primary goals makes it necessary to conceal that fact to other person's who expect good faith cooperation in a common goal. Alternatively one can try to genuinely navigate complex interpersonal situations in good faith seeking to determine the best overall plan.

But seeking the best overall plan over seeking the plan that best suits one's personal goals and values means putting others' good above one's own. That is the meaning of Christian agape love. And it requires a willingness to sacrifice one's desire for others' to sacrifice themselves for us. Stated more simply, it requires us to be willing to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others when the greater overall good is at stake. In the domain of human interaction, to love and to clearly seek a path of truth rather than obfuscation are inseperable. For one cannot love what one does not know.

That is the core point: One cannot love what one does not know. Clarity in human interaction only makes sense from the perspective of personal motivation when love is valued over personal success. In personal interaction, one seeks to know when one seeks to love. Alternatively, it is obfuscation that makes sense from the standpoint of human motivation when one seeks personal success over love (or it should be added, the success of a group a person identifies with over other groups).

What, then, should be said to a person who claims that it is possible to be good without being religious? Just this: Then you do not define good by narrow self-interest, but are committed to an ever-wider understanding that makes an ever-growing love for others possible? A person who sees the need for that commitment will see the prototype for that commitment in the proclamation of the Christian gospel.

A commitment to the ideals of seeking truth and love cannot be combined with self-seeking or seeking the advantage of a group one identifies with. Hence the gospel narratives portray Jesus as rejecting personal temptation before the start of his ministry and refusing to fulfill the expectations of a nation awaiting its Messiah to take them to national ascendency in the sequence that set up the passion: goodness brings tragedy. The resurrection in turn answers this tragic truth. It affirms that even when one understands the true nature of the tragedy at the core of human existence that the pursuit of truth and love, which usher the tragedy into human life, is not foolish. It is that hope which motivates faith.

Faith, then, is a full commitment to the highest human ideals of love and truth in full view of the nihilating human predicament which requires us to be willing to trade the goods we have in order to remain true to the ideal. This is a tragic, nihilating predicament for anyone who has not taken the time to be honest with themselves about their "goodness." No one's opinion that it is possible to be good as a human being can be taken seriously, until they understand that to be good is to court tragedy in this world. This is the meaning of the cross and the resurrection as its correlary: it is the statement of and answer to the tragic human predicament.

It is the glory of Christian faith to protray the tragic truth, to understand its entailment in the very best of human motives, and to offer through faith a perspective that transcends it. Positing a dimension transcendent to the reality we can sense--whether an infinite, or eternal, or holy, or spiritual--is not important as an abstract exercise. Theology is important because it cuts to the core of what it means to be human. At its most basic, the question of God and the question of man are the same question, and that question is brought to a head in the cross of Christ. "Behold the man!"

Paul Tillich tells us that all we can do, and all scripture can do, is to "...point the Crucified--as does the Baptist, in the tremendous picture by the old painter Matthais Grunewald. ...his whole being is in the finger with which he points to the Cross."2 (Italics added. This is the quote that I said I would add to the end of Part 1, and left off because I could not find it at the time--it works better here to help tie the two parts together.) All of one's being captured in a pointing to Christ on the cross, or not. Either the tragedy is contained and transcended in God, or not. Those who do not understand the ultimate tragic nature of human existence do not understand faith, or its denial. They are lost in what Sartre called "bad faith," the very nature of which is to keep us lost with respect to the tragedy Christian faith addresses.3

1. "By What Authority?" in The New Being (University of Nebraska Press, 2005) 86.
2. Ibid., 88.
3. By this I mean that bad faith as Sartre explains it applies to the core human tragedy that Christian faith addresses. That is not to say that Sartre ever understood Christian faith at the level where his term applies to it; he did not. But if true, there is no citation that can establish the negative. :-)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Comment on "The Criterion"

There are perspectives which fail to convince us not because they aren't reasonable, but because they are almost too reasonable, and whatever we think, out instinct is that the world just isn't THAT reasonable. Theology has a few. The ontological argument, for instance: that than which nothing greater can be imagined is not that than which nothing greater can be imagined unless it exists, and that than which nothing greater can be imagined must be called God. You won't find a flaw with that reasoning, but you will find yourself doubting whether reality is quite so reasonable (which is the essence of Kant's claim against the argument, that existence is not a predicate).

Another for instance: St. Thomas' view that God's creation consists of giving being to creation, whereas evil is a privation of being. Hence, God should not be faulted for the evil found in creation. The neat categories obviously make the logic work, but it comes off as almost slick, and no one can be faulted for objecting to a slick response to a complaint as ultimately serious as the reality of evil in the world.

I note these examples, since my explication of "the criterion" in the last post can be faulted for possessing the same slick framework: God's eternal (or infinite, or holy) reality cannot be expressed in time (of finitude or unholiness), therefore the subtraction stories told about faith in the secular world cannot have force, and a right thinking Christian would never have taken historically mediated understandings of the world as binding for an understanding of God or revelation.

But just because such slick reasonings are not sophisticated enough to make us feel that they do or even can mediate reality to us does not mean that they are without value. Mortimer Adler, for instance, in How To Think About God, demonstrates how the ontological argument can be used as a premise in a convincing argument (it ultimately convinced him, at least). And anyone who has read Gilson or Maritain, for instance will no longer think that the use of Thomistic categories condemns a person to a simplistic intellectual framework.

In that vein, I am arguing--using Augustine and Tillich as models and sources--with the goal in mind of setting up a starting point that will be helpful for framing further thinking. In fact, as I hope was made clear, I am arguing for a point of view that insists on a continual--I put the word in capitals, if you recall, in the last post--reshaping of our thoughts to make them adequate to the Christian commitment to love of God and neighbor.

With that in mind, it is a virtue, not a fault, to have a framework that is "slick." The whole point is to facilitate thinking within a framework that is conducive to thinking as a Christian without falling into a static, and SIMPLISTIC, "worldview" trap. To be fascile in pursuit of that goal, I think, is good, because the goal is to fascilitate further thought.

Let me apply this to the--not directly stated--situation that motivates these thoughts, generally. I am trying to come up with a way to communicate a compelling Christian framework to young people that does not fall into the trap of, basically, saying "Think like this." Whether conservative or liberal, Thomistic or Reformed, etc., I want to say, "That static approach is too lazy for love!"

I've met with a couple terrific young youth pastors in my community recently. Both minister at conservative churches. Both to one degree or another feel a tension between the desire to teach their young people to think as Christians and the need to conform their teaching to traditions that are static on one way or another. The old wineskins just aren't holding, and they know it and the kids--most of them anyway--either know it or suspect it, and their churches are is denial.

I can't solve the church politics for them, and I am deeply troubled by the fact that association with me may even further their distress. But the least that I can do is provide them, and to the extent I can a few people in churches beyond my personal sphere of influence, with a way to fascilitate rethinking how to think as Christians.

Let's be frank. Conservative Christianity today is largely a reaction to the fact that liberal Christianity has fallen victim to the subtraction story. Secularists see in this a progressive sickness unto death of God. Can anyone blame a conservative--who experiences through her faith a sense of salvation that scholars do not account for--if she dismisses such "progress?" (To push back the other way, it is a scandal of attempts to understand faith scientifically and philosophically, that such experiences are not given more serious attention. In fact, if I have anything to say, it is--I believe--precisely because academia has failed in this respect...)

The Church needs a way of framing its understanding that insists that--and here's my "bumper sticker"--stale ideas: too lazy for love. Fascile? I hope so!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Criterion of Eternal Truth--Part 1, An Abstract Challenge

Let's begin by acknowledging an abstract problem that the question of revelation faces. If there is an eternal perspective, it cannot be mediated to us temporally, and yet there must be positive content to an eternal perspective, if it is to be meaningful. The criterion of an eternal truth, then, is that it be something definite that can avoid being mistaken for something temporally mediated.1 But everything we know is mediated through our temporal existence. How then is any helpful understanding of God possible, for humanity?

Against this abstract challenge a Christian will want to affirm that the concrete historical narrative of the gospel, which proclaims God's entry into our world, meets that challenge. We should waste no time in looking to the gospel, then. A brief overview of the first gospel, historically, will be helpful. I abstract from it only the narrative's thematic contributions to an understanding of the core message that constitutes Christian belief--the "kerygma."

1. Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming the gospel, the "good news," and it has a definite, simple content: "'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand...'" (Mark 1:15, RSV)

2. Jesus orchestrates the spread of his fame as the Son of God who will usher in the kingdom, beginning with the death of John the Baptist (Mk. 1:14) and culminating with ther triumphal entry into Jerusalem for the Passover week (Mk. 11:10).

3. Jesus orchestrates the passion sequence--arrest, trial crucifixion--thereby contradicting the expectations of the masses and disciples (a man hanging on a cross certainly does not look like a Messiah). (Mk. 11:11-15:37)

4. The resurrection, thereby contradicting the contradicted expectations, albeit with this added moral: our expectations of the good news are not a good guide to understanding it. (Mk. 15:38-16:8--I see the transition to resurrection narrative starting with the miracles which attented Jesus' death.)

There is a clear moral to this story: Our understanding of the good news needs to be transformed by the good news, or it won't be good news to us.

But, there's a catch. If we take that to be a once-for-all transformation, then the good news has been mediated into time, once for all, in which case it ceases to be an eternal truth. If we want to think about the eternal entering into time, that won't work. The eternal must transform our understanding without being reduced to it, or the abstract challenge that the idea of revelation faces has not been met. This is the "negative" side of the message; the "rule" we can't break, if we take the challenge with which we began seriously.

There is a practical side to this rule: if we don't insist on it, we are stuck with a subtraction story with respect to our faith, for the gospel cannot be reduced to part of our historical understanding, or scientific understanding, without incredulity resulting. I am arguing that the gospel cannot be understood without a transcendent backdrop, which is to say that it recommends a story for our belief that cannot be translated into a contxt that has no room for it. That ought to be obvious, and I suppose that my frustration showed in the last post.

Allow me to add this to the moral, then: Our understanding of the good news needs to be transformed by the good news--CONTINUALLY--or it won't be good news to us.

Anyone familiar with the gospel narrative knows that I left off the transformative remark tied to Jesus' proclamation of the good news of the kingdom: "...the kingdom of God is at hand; repent..." (Mk. 1:15) If we aren't changed--CONTINUALLY--by the gospel, as the need to repent suggests, we don't "get" its transcending essence--its function of pointing us beyond ourselves and our world to the transformation inherent in the gospel.

But the pointing cannot be directionless, or we are left with an abstract point that cannot guide us. The positive side of the pointing beyond ourselves must be tied to a form that is itself essentially transformative--and therefore CONTINUALLY transformative, which entails a second reason for endorsing the non-historically mediated view of the kerygema--and that form is agape love.

Clearly, love requires a person to look beyond themselves to that which is loved. That is analytically true; true in the abstract. But it is an abstraction that insists that we look to the concrete details of this world as they unfold in time in order to be realized. That is, to be commited to the principle of love is to be commited to transforming ourselves with respect to the unfolding understanding of the world in history. To stop that process is to fail with respect to the command to love. To love as a first principle is to take it as an unchanging approach to an ever changing reality. Love, that is, meets the criterion of eternal truth with which we began.

Grunwald's picture of John the Baptist pointing to Jesus famously symbolizes this understanding of the function of theology at its best as pointing to Christ, the eternal truth entered into human history. And once we understand that theology cannot be subsumed to any reductionist view--of history or science or bad theology--we are freed from the subtraction story, the bugaboo of today's Church in the wake of so much bad theology.

Part 2 will look at the personal challenge inplicit in the gospel, the eternal "kerygmatic" revelation.

[I will add an extended quote from Tillich here, when I get time. My explanation is too abstract for most tasts, I fear, and the quote from Tillich will provide welcome details for those who would like them. Oh, for more time in the day!]

1. It should be pointed out that other exclusive categories associated with God could be used to make the same point: especially finite/infinite and holy/unholy.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Can a Worldview Be Christian? No!

In the last post we noted Tillich's seperation of the eternal truth proclaimed by the Church from the temporal situations in the cultures to which it is preached. The entailment of that separation is that to mingle the eternal with the temporal is to confuse the "kerygma" with the "worldview" of the person preaching the "gospel." But confusing the things of God with the things of "man" is idolatry.

That is deliberately provocative, but with this end in mind. Perhaps you, like I, know persons--whole churchs with respect to some issues--who question whether, or more likely how, a person can be an evolutionist, or a conservative, or a liberal, or a relativist, or pro-gay, etc., and a Christian. The impression I usually get is that in fact a Christian who says that kind of thing believes that a right thinking person can't, but that some people are so muddled that they get a pass. And in my experience most Christians are mild-mannered enough to hear such things, smile, and walk away from a potential argument, even though they are bothered by such "worldview" militancy.

My point here is that we shouldn't walk away from this kind of thing. That is, we should engage in a kind of anti-worldview militancy with respect to understanding the gospel. For if we understand that there is a distinction of the kind Tillich makes, then we can't make truths bound to our historically-mediated understanding criteria of fidelity to the eternal truth we claim it is the duty of the Church to preach.

Now, despite my belief in militancy over this point, I want to be nice. But it's tough: Does any sane, informed person think that one's opinion on relativity, or evolution, or heliocentricity--or any historically conditioned belief--is part of the gospel? Well, perhaps a few; but then, they are so muddled that they get a pass. For being nice, that's the best I can do.

True, marvelous books have been written on whether there is such a thing a "Christian philosophy," and the point is well taken that we must try to think as Christians. (Gilson's The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy contains an excellent chapter on the question.) But my rejoinder to those who would stop there is that you aren't thinking enough. We can't stop at any point and say, "Eureka! My view of Christian faith is final and perfect." That would be idolatrous, not to mention crazy.

We must make a distinction between the gospel which is the message of the Church--the kerygma--and the way the churches at any time express it and think about it. If not, there are a great many things that a great many Christians have thought and expressed over the last 2,000 years. Do you really want to be saddled with them all?

If not. A criterion is needed. The critirion will be the subject of the next post.

Friday, October 16, 2009

To Care for the Gospel Paradox

The first Gospel, historically, begins by paraphrasing Isaiah 40:3: "Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness; Prepare the way of the Lord..." (Mark 1:2-3) The "praeparatio evangelica," however, is broader. It views the fortuitous historical circumstances which made it possible for the gospel to spread rapidly in the first centuries, C.E., as divinely ordered: the vast Roman Empire with its roads and law, the Greek language and philosophical heritage, the Jewish diaspora, and much more, set the table for serving the gospel to the world.

The praeparatio evangelica, then, was/is a way of reading history from a Christian perspective: If God were to enter history, surely the way would be prepared, and so a Christian understanding of history expected to find, and did find, evidences of just that. I remind you of this to suggest that a correlative concept is needed today. The Church needs a "custodio evangelica," a way of surrounding the gospel with a contemporary theological interpretation of it that fits a claim of a divine revelation as a hub of history. Clearly, faith requires either that or a fierce anti-intellectual culture in the Church, to successfully fight off important questions that--given the negative supposition--are not answered.

On first blush the negative supposition will seem right to many intellectuals. Rather than rehearse the usual list of set-backs for the Church, beginning with Copernicus and reaching a crisis in the 19th Century with the arrival of biblical criticism, Darwin, and Nietzsche--what Charles Taylor calls "subtraction stories"1--let's do something simpler and more revealing; let's go right to that point in time when the explicitly Christian understanding of the world represented by the praeparatio evangelica was replaced by an explicit denial of the possibility to understand the gospel as the hub of history: "Historical study is the implacable enemy of...inspiration: when we remove the mist, we remove the mystery."2

This claim from a brilliant biblical scholar will be stunning to a church-goer unacquainted with biblical scholarship. Michael Goulder's view amounts to a negative counterpoint of the praeparatio evangelica: history is seen as removing the gospel narrative from the center around which the subject revolves--"his-story" as so many preachers have called it over the years--and placing it in the realm of myth.

That's a mouthful, and I'm not a scholar in any relevant area. How, then, do I propose to have anything helpful to say? Let me begin by stating what I do not intend to say (and if it leaves a reader wondering how there can be any means of keeping the faith, all I can say is, please read on): First, I do not intend to say that biblical scholars are uninformed or incorrect in their pronouncements, and second, I in no way intend to make an argument based on expert judgments.

Rather, I recommend a simple, common-sense argument to you. The Christian faith proposes the gospel to all of humanity as the means of salvation. Not only would it be odd if the question of faith were then only a matter that scholars who have dedicated their lives studying could judge with competence, it would effectively undercut a key background assumption crucial to the Christian faith. I will not apologize, then, for advancing my non-expert opinion. More importantly it follows that the crux of Christian faith ought to be obvious--pun intended.

And yet how can this be--if we ought to expect the crucial question to be obvious to pretty much everyone, how do we explain the exceedingly fractious nature of faith? (13,000 Protestant denominations alone.) One could be excused for thinking that faith thereby refutes itself. (If there are any atheists reading this, use this argument well.)

This problem has influenced my turn to Kierkegaard's view, given near the end of his Philosophical Fragments:

"If the contemporary generation [with Jesus] had left nothing behind them but these words: 'We have believed that in such and such a year God appeared among us in the humble figure of a servant, that he lived and taught in our community, and finally died,' it would have been more than enough [for faith's purposes]."3

One need not know how this view fits into Kierkegaard's thought to appreciate the central point, that the gospel is neither complex nor subject to the kinds of debating points that scholars occupy themselves with. Perhaps that assertion itself could be debated, but Kierkegaard pretty clearly advanced a claim that no competent scholar would dispute: A community whose roots are contemporaneous with Jesus does advance just what Kierkegaard stated. Thus, if Kierkegaard's claim is correct, the Church needs nothing more. Of course, from the point of view that I am suggesting, the problem is that the Church--at least in a great many of its manifestations--claims much more than the core gospel story. How does one deal with that?

Fortunately, Paul Tillich made it the central goal of his life's work as a scholar of the Christian faith to answer that question. He called a use of the core gospel narrative as the guide to doing his work "kerygmatic" theology (kerygema = proclaiming salvation through Christ). He described his method as "[emphasizing] the unchangeable truth of the message...over against the changing demands of the situation."4

An extended quote will point out twin dangers that this approach tries to avoid.

"Theology moves back and forth between two poles, the eternal truth of its foundation and the temporal situation in which the eternal truth must be received. Not many theological systems have been able to balance those two demands perfectly. Most of them either sacrifice elements of the truth or are not able to speak to the situation. Some of them combine both shortcomings. Afraid of missing the eternal truth, they identify it with some previous theological work, with traditional concepts and solutions, and try to impose these on a new, different situation. They confuse eternal truth with a temporal expression of this truth.5

Tillich frames the core problem as follows. By elevating "something finite and transitory to infinite and eternal validity," theology destroys "the humble honesty of the search for truth, it splits the conscience of its thoughtful adherents, and it makes them fanatical because they are forced to suppress elements of truth of which they are dimly aware."6

I begin with Tillich's diagnosis because it answers the question of how a simple, core truth can become fractious for the Church by suggesting this narrative: The core gospel, which ought to unite Christians, has been given expression many times over the 2,000 years of its history. But every temporal expression of its eternal truth becomes inadequate, and so needs to be replaced by another expression, adequate to its time's historical situation. That, however, means that traditions have either given up old formulations, not as false, but as for a former time, or if that is not done, outmoded versions will co-exist as news ones arise to face the successive contemporary situations. It is a recipe for factions, unless the Church universal understands its dual need to remain faithful to its "kergyma" and to continually revise its expression of it for new times and situations.7 Since that focus has rarely been maintained, for those of us who like Tillich's diagnosis, the "disease" of the fractious Church has been explained.

To care for the gospel is to avoid this disease, then. The irony is that those who may well be in the best position to help the Church get over this disease are doing the most to spread it. For example, talk of worldviews is now popular in conservative Christian circles. Here is a quote from a pamphlet that accompanies a video featuring Rick Warren and Chuck Colson:

"Worldviews will inevitably be shaped by either the media or by the Bible. Unfortunately, Christians have all too often neglected the command to love God with our minds, not just our hearts. This is a result of emphasizing feeling over thinking. We need to learn to think biblically..."8

This pamphlet is notable for explicitly recommending what Tillich warns against: failure to stick to the kerygma--the essential gospel message--as the eternal content of belief and failing to understand that any time-bound expression of what is eternal will contain an outmoded "worldview" in later times. There is an extraordinary naivete and confusion about how to relate the gospel to honest, well-informed people today. Tillich went so far as to call the elevation of "something finite and transitory to infinite and eternal validity...demonic...."9

We have reviewed here only the basic, starting points from which Tillich begins to articulate his theology. But from them we can understand that every generation of Christians has the renewed task of "preparing the gospel." The praeparatio evangelica is a "perpetuus praeparatio." In that sense we must make history in order to prepare the way of the Lord... That is, what the first gospel, historically, begins, we must continue.

But for that to actually work, it must be possible to identify the eternal truth in the kerygma--the gospel proclamation--which we must continually strive to adequately express, and THAT too can only be expressed in time. Accordingly, the next post addresses the paradox of finite, temporal creatures trying to adequately express what they believe to be a divine revelation.

1. A Secular Age (The Belknap Press, 2007) 22.
2. Michael Goulder, "The Two Roots of the Christian Myth," in The Myth of God Incarnate, ed. John Hick (The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1977) 65. The book was a historical marker in that it collected the judgments of esteemed Christian scholars about a core Christian belief, which they rejected. Rather than consider the positions the scholars advocated, I simply note the book as a landmark against which the the confident historical view implicit in the praeparatio evangelica was lost, completely.
3. (Princeton University Press, 1937) 87.
4. Systematic Theology, Vol. One (The University of Chicago Press, 1951) 4.
5. Ibid., 3.
6. Ibid.
7. This is a simplification. Among other things, this "story" leaves out "the psychological or sociological state in which individuals or groups live." Tillich admitted that these are driving considerations in determining whether the or a church is popular at a given time. But he makes it clear that such factors are outside of the question of how to express the kerygmatic truth to a particular group at a particular time. The point is that the dynamics of what is popular can encourage a disregard for truth. It is an important point.
8. "Framing Your Worldview," taught by Rick Warren and Chuck Colson [actual authors not cited] (Saddleback Church, 2006, 2009) 9.
9. Ibid., 3.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

5 Degrees from Perfection at the Death Row Regatta

Typically this blog tries to dig into into questions on the boundary of theology and philosophy. Not this time. This time's just for fun as we look at my experience of rowing 25 K, 15 1/2 miles, upstream from the Port of Duluth to the mouth of the St. Louis River in a Rowpedo/human-powered canoe. I'll use a series of numbers to frame the experience.


The picture here is of a 54-year-old man and his daughter who rowed as a mixed pair. To celebrate his birthday every year Peter rows as many kilometers as he is years old. That's 33 1/2 miles, more than double the Death Row Regatta distance. One wonders how long he will be able to meet that challenge. I certainly hope to talk with Peter again next year at the race and hear about his 55th birthday celebration!

116/60 & 208-20=188

OK, so I'm no model and a loss of 20 lbs. isn't big news. But the picture here shows a 51-year-old man (me) with blood preasure at 116/60 and a resting heart rate of under 60 beats per minute to boot. Having gone from 140/70, boarderline high blood preasure, to pretty much ideal blood preasure and heart rate, I think that I can call the training that I did this summer to prepare for the race a success--at least by the really important measures. As a side note, 20 years go when I was training for some road races my blood preasure was not this good. I can't claim that this is more than a guess, but perhaps exercising in a recumbant position allows the body to pump blood at a lower preasure than is needed when the body is vertical, and perhaps exercising at a lower blood preasure somehow fascilitates a lower resting blood preasure. It's a question worth asking.

55 and 0

Ideal weather for a 25 K Regatta would be cool with no wind. That's what we had on the morning of September 13: 55 degrees and no wind.


Looking at this picture, give special attention to the oar blades. They're canted about 5 degrees forward. That slight tilt made for a very difficult row. Sweeping backward in the water, the incline caused what rowers call "oar dive." That is, the oar blades functioned like an inclined plane in the water, causing the blades to dive. Here's the impact:

a) Pushing on the pedals (with the force I trained at) overpowered my ability to keep the oars from diving: So I cut back on the effort directed to the pedals.

b) Pushing forward on the oars to propel the canoe would have meant that the oars dove even more, and would have taken away from the effort of the arms to keep the oars from diving: So I lost the effort of the arms that would have gone to propelling the canoe.

c) Because less effort went into pushing on the oars, the stroke rate went down.

d) Because oars that dive tend to get stuck in the water at the end of strokes, two unfortunate consequences occured. 1) Sometimes I dragged an oar at the end of a stroke, breaking the canoe's momentum, or 2) the oars were not timed exactly as they came out of the water, causing the canoe to wobble. And when a canoe is unstable, it is difficult to row effectively. Do you see a vicious feedback loop? I spent the first part of the race figuring out how to deal with this unwelcome challenge...

e) I therefore had to take extra care to prevent the vicious circle just described rather than enjoy the race and focus on the beautiful setting.

How did this happen? Well, I think I'll blame it on all the really terrific people I met while I was rigging my canoe! :-)

What was the total impact? Well, one horsepower is 550 foot pounds per second. My strokes--arm and leg--are about 18 ", and I was training at a little over 60 per minute most of the summer. Last figures: my leg imput went from 40-50 lbs. per stroke to around 35-40 (estimated), and I lost all of my arm input, estimated at around 12 lbs. per stroke. Using these numbers, the following horsepowers result.

Before 5 degree error: (40 X 2) + (12 X 2) X 1.5 = 156 foot lbs. per second, or .28 horsepower expected over the course of the race.

After 5 degree error: (35 X 2) + (0 X 2) X 2/3 X 1.5 = 70 foot pounds per second, .13 horsepower. (The multiplication by 2/3 was needed to account for a slowing stroke rate from about 1 per second to about 2/3 per second due to the factors noted above.)

Conclusion regarding the 5 degree error: It was a lot bigger than one would imagine! I'll pay a little more attention to my rigging next time...

2, 1, and 2:20

Even with my self-inflicted handicap, I was able to race OK. With my Wenonah Wilderness canoe I came in just ahead of a father and son team paddling a Wenonah Spirit II, to beat the only other canoe in the race. The competition was great fun, and my 3:13.40 time was the second best in the race's ten-year history--not that a lot of canoists have participated in the ragatta. Only seven, by my count. My point, here, is just that to sustain somewhere around 70 foot pounds per second of effort over more than three hours isn't too bad, even if it's about 45% of one's expectations going in...

So here's my commitment for next year: To lose 10 more pounds and get in even better shape. To race in a racing, rather than a recreational canoe (19 lbs. lighter, a 12% vs. a 16% aspect ratio, and much stiffer and narrower in the bow and stearn). And to make several improvements to Rowpedo. And finally, need I say?, to rig the oars correctly! Given good weather, I predict a 2:20 time in 2010. Brash? Yes. But my brash commitment to lose weight and get in shape paid off this year, so I'm just doing it again--and I'm doing it right away to prevent any feeling that I can afford to "let myself go."

Below is a picture of the father of the single scull winner--and one of the two paddlers that I was furtunate to meet and enjoy competing against. Typical of the kind of people I met over the weekend, I was being given terrific advice on how to improve my performance next race. How cool is that from a fellow competitor?!

Next is a picture of some of my family, who came to support me. I have seldom felt as loved as I did by this show of support! Thanks Sally, Tug, Carl, Nan, Maria, (and Willa, Frieda, and Walter)!

It was a fun year of rowing. Below, see the proper canting of the oars and the changing of the seasons here in Minnesota. Yea, that guy in the photo looks lost in thought--whether about his next rowing or biking design or something Augustine said 1,600 years ago is not known...