On Faith

What do people mean by ‘faith’? The question came home to me over the past few days, overhearing (‘over-reading’?) conversations online, reading the Bible, thinking about church life and what we do about it. I thought of some rough, schematic answers; they betray my intellectual ancestry, since they correspond closely to what George Lindbeck wrote about in The Nature of Doctrine. That doesn’t make me feel bad, since I don’t imagine myself to be as great a theologian as Lindbeck (who lived just a few houses down from my grandmother — and across from Aunt Isabel — on Autumn St).
Allowing lots and lots of room for enhancement (and again, figuratively footnoting Lindbeck) — I jotted down in my notebook three complexions of faith. The first identifies faith with certainty about a set of assertions about the nature of things, the existence and character of God, the role of Jesus Christ, and our relation to all of the above. This way of thinking about faith brings the advantage of clarity and force, though it brings also the uncomfortable drawback that almost anything a Christian can think of to affirm about God is non-demonstrable at best and outright outlandishly unlikely most of the time. (By ‘unlikely’, I simply mean that if these assertions were made about any other being, or any other state of affairs, most of us would probably say ‘You’ve gotta be kidding!’) This interpretation of faith (related to Lindbeck’s description of ‘doctrine’ as propositional) puts people in the position of determining that they know things to be true on the basis of equivocal evidence, evidence that doesn’t convince a very great proportion of those who consider it. It clearly connects firmly with common-sense understandings of ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’, although it seems somewhat oddly disconsonant with New Testament characterisations of faith as counter-intuitive. Does one’s faith assert the requisite stuff about God because one has sufficient appropriate epistemological warrants? If so, why don’t more people (even more Christians) do the same? The more special one makes knowledge of Christian truth to distinguish Christian faith from faith in mathematical equations or scientific explanations, the less it holds up in company with its more robust would-be companions. Eventually, one is no longer talking about ‘knowing’ or ‘truth’ in their ordinary senses at all; but the common-sensical affirmations of theological truth constitute one of knowledge-faith’s great discursive strengths.
Second, people use ‘faith’ in the sense of an arational visceral certainty of something: a feeling of certain confidence that something is true, without regard to the plausibility of the truth-claim at all (Lindbeck labels the comparable doctrinal position as ‘experiential-expressive’). ‘I know in my heart’, one might say, or one might claim an uninterrogated special mystical knowledge. Faith, in this sense, is certainty in the face of facts and logic. This feeling is requisite for salvation, and if one feels something other (something less) than warm-hearted loving elation about God, Jesus, and various doctrinal points, one’s faith is imperilled. This way of thinking about faith rightly declines to categorise ‘faith’ as congruent with other sorts of knowledge — ‘things that cannot be otherwise’ — but locates [the feeling of] faith problematically as independent of and superior to any sort of deliberative or factual knowledge. And if one encounters challenges to the outlook that this brand of faith promotes, or if one experiences depression, has “faith” itself been impaired, or lost?
When I consider ‘faith’ as part of my ministries of teaching and priesthood, and as part of my daily life, I mean something rather different (and I’m not quite sure that Lindbeck’s ‘cultural-linguistic’ category works well here). ‘Faith’, so far as I can see, entails a lived pattern of testimony in word and deed, an orientation, that points toward a telos which renders this way intelligible. It’s a virtue (in the theological sense), a habituated disposition. Faith involves knowledge inasmuch as it is not just any way; it points not toward the latest fad in ‘what the church must be right at this minute to fill it with lots of people whose identities are bound up in just-this-minute behaviour’ nor toward the most recent issue of Nature, nor toward the Guardian nor the Daily Mail (nor the New York Times nor Fox News). The telos of this way can’t be defined by a homogenised “religion’ of all bien-pensant people, but entails a recognisable relation to a particular discourse, a particular practice. This approach involves feelings and intuitions, but they’re checked by traditions, decrees, the logics of doctrinal thinking and convincing rhetoric. They’re tested by the witness of millennia of fellow-travellers, some of whom have shown themselves to be expert navigators of this terrain.
While I have no hesitation in relying on the trustworthiness of typical Christian doctrinal and creedal claims, I don’t think it right to stipulate that they must be affirmed in the same way that I affirm that a body near the earth’s surface falling in a vacuum accelerates at 9.8 meters per second per second, or that I went to church this morning, or that I am a fountain pen appreciator. As I said above, most of the teachings to which the Church calls attention are pretty improbable; if I had to compare Galileo’s cosmology or Newton’s mechanics to the Virgin Birth on the terms of ‘how credible these claims are’, I’d put my money on Galileo and Newton every time. That is, after all, at least a part of the point of the Virgin Birth narrative: the church doesn’t bother affirming highly probable things about Jesus, because so few people would bother to doubt them in the first place. But the notion of forcing people to demonstrate their ‘faith’ by pretending that improbabilities don’t exist, or that un-predetermined deliberation partakes of opposition to the truth, seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with loving and serving God, and a great deal to do with organising and imposing human power over others.
And I don’t by any means discount feelings as an element of the picture; on the whole, theological affect means a lot to me. I count ‘beauty’ as one of the notes of theological wisdom, and beauty has profound non-cognitive effects on us. Wesley was not wrong to pick up the clue phone at Aldersgate, but he would have been misguided to make his cardiac temperature the sole determinant of theological affirmation (which he didn’t). We can be moved and wrong-headed at the same time, just as we can be certain and wrong at the same time.
So when church people start derogating theological teaching, as though all anyone really needs to know about the church and its outworkings was a pocketful of aphorisms about welcoming strangers, being generally nice to others, how woeful sinners are, what the precise words are the utterance of which will launch one from the pit to the pearly gates, or (maybe worst of all) it doesn’t really matter what you believe — when people start suggesting that anyone with no particular understanding of the church’s history, its roots in Scripture, or the complex interlocking balance of theological affirmations, inferences, consequences, and renunciations, should be entrusted with leadership, that’s a bad sign to me. When someone suggests that the church leave off its teaching ministry, that’s a bad sign to me. When someone suggests that the church obscure its particularity in the name of being able to assimilate people who might object to being part of — you know — a Christian body, that’s a bad sign.
Let the churches teach, gently but honestly, thoroughly and humbly. Let the churches acknowledge that although some are well-suited to exercise leadership regardless of their theological attainments, it would be unwise to suppose that the general condition of church leadership could be separated from understanding of the subtle, intricate historic way of life that millions have discovered, learned, deepened, refined, and passed along. Let the churches always remember that abstract knowledge about details must be tested against the living activity of the whole Body. Let the (modern) churches restrain the self-despite that tempts them to renounce their own heritage, the wisdom of their forebears. Let us all learn from one another, mull over what is good, and exercise patience and humility in our claims. In faith, for faith.

Time for FOSOT(NT)T?

Ages ago, Brooke and Tim and I batted around the idea of a Free (as in beer) Open Source Old Testament/New Testament Textbook, and it strikes me — as iBooks Author and Kickstarter and perhaps the new tool from Sourcefabric (any inside details for us, Suw?) — make the whole project more readily plausible, that it might be time to revisit the notion.
When I thought of a revival blog-post, I suspected that I might have not sketched out all details two years ago, but as I reread the post, it looks to me as though it’s all there.

  • Agreed terminology/glossary
  • Organised by chapter, with minimal dependence on specific sequence
  • Commissions for individual chapters to make the v. 1.0 textbook (how much would you reckon would motivate scholarly participants?)
  • Open to (non-commissioned) substitute chapters from whomever
  • Serious grant/Kickstarter funding for editor to clean up format, mark-up, copyedit, and so on
  • Output as PDF, ePub, mobi, HTML, ibooks, maybe other formats
  • Free to download, pay for printed copies (and pay for any ibooks version, of course; maybe we can add animations to justify putting it into the Apple iBookstore)
  • CC licensed, Attribution/Non-Commercial
  • Kickstarter/grant rewards including acknowledgement panel identifying the generous support of donor — ‘The Song of Songs, brought to you by Robert Nesbitt’
  • Extensible to include related textbooks — interpretive methods, church history, theology, and so on. At a certain point, the enterprise would roll over to encompass academic publishing in general

Since 2010, Kickstarter has demonstrated its efficacy as a locus for crowdsourcing funding, the tools for ePub authoring are improving, ebooks are more visible as a viable means of publishing, there’s more pressure upon students’ finances, and no one else has done it yet.
My top recommendation would be for an interested theological-education foundation (say, Pew or FTE or the Barclay Trust or some other such entity) to support and organise such a thing. In many foundations’ budgets, even a generously-funded project would be a drop in the budgetary bucket. Or we could whip together an editorial team and a budget, and throw it onto Kickstarter. However you slice it, though, the signs of the time are only more auspicious for the FOSOTNTT vision.
[Later: I should add that, as I just looked back at my email inbox I realised that what probably triggered this notion was a message from Micah calling my attention to Unglue.it, a different but related sort of endeavour. It looks good within its designated scope (producing CC-licensed digital editions of previously published works), alleviating the problems of curation/selection and of rewarding rights-holders, but I’m intent on a project along the lines I sketch above. Thanks for the pointer, though, Micah!]

Top 50

I’ve thought about posting a ‘Top X songs/albums of 2011’ entry, but it’s still too soon for me to have perspective on which musical endeavours will continue to impress me, and which will pass away like the flower of the field. Luckily for me, and for us all, the collaborators at Typographico had no such compunctions about identifying favourite new typefaces of 2011, so they compiled a list of ‘Our Favorite Typefaces of 2011’, a feast for the eyes and for the typographic imagination.
There are none I dislike (marking a change from years past when one or another edgy, or trendy, or idiosyncratic typeface grated on my sensibilities. I’ve a soft spot for Venetians, so I [particularly like Cala, and grotesks, so I like Supria Sans. The list encompasses numerous ingenious, subtle, versatile, forceful designs, though — OK, I’ll shout-out to Simonson’s Bookmania, too; Simonson is terrific — that the list as a whole shows the wonders that continue to blossom in the fields of typography, sturdy perennials, and I look forward to putting one or two of these into use some fine day.

Never Gets Old

Some video clips delight you, then fade away from popular attention. This morning, Margaret and I were moved to raucous laughter by footage of Japanese officials making sure that their zoo would be safe in case a rogue paper-mâché rhino escaped from its cage:

(Sorry, I don’t see a way to embed the video).
That, in turn, reminded me of the all-time classic fake-animal-news video from a couple of years ago, in which a Cleveland news station demonstrated what it would look like if a black bear meandered the suburbs of their fair city:


Nothing like getting your day off to a jocular start….

That Time of Year

I’m giving my lecture on Fun Home again this year, only it’s two lectures this year because my one-lecture stint last year seemed overly compressed. (I know, I’m on study leave, but this is actually sheer pleasure on my part, and it’s stimulating for my imagination of projects that lie ahead.) I went over my Keynote presentation this morning, and it’s pretty good; I think I can reorder it a wee bit, add some parts here and there, and go forward without constructing two whole new lectures. If I can, I’d like to post the lectures here — we’ll see whether this would be too time-consuming, but it’ll be on my mind. At worst, I can plan to post the lecture pair after I finish with James.
In the course of taking a quick look at the interwebs for updates on the world of Fun Home, I noticed that Alison Bechdel will publish a book about her mother in May. I almost wish I didn’t know Are You My Mother? was forthcoming; I’ll be awfully impatient, the stakes will be high (can she recapture the density and intensity of Fun Home? Will she amaze her readers with something as different from Fun Home as Fun Home was from whatever we anticipated?). But wait impatiently I will, and maybe next year I’ll have a very different lecture to give!

Any Source?

I was about to quote John Kenneth Galbraith as having said (or written) ‘You can always get closer to the truth in fiction than you can in nonfiction’ — which I read somewhere and wrote down — but I can’t find the source online. Does it ring a bell, anyone?

Half an Apple, Better Than None

Evidently Apple took my our advice, and rejiggered their EULA to make it clearer: they claim copyright and exclusive sales prerogatives to the iBooks version of your work, not to the writing, photos, or whatever. Nor do they make any claim on your work presented in a format other than the special iBooks format.
It’s not as much of a loaf as I’d have liked, but it’s better than it had been in the original state.

Somewhat New Edition

Back when Wipf & Stock very kindly supported our beloved St Luke’s in Evanston by printing a small book of my sermons as a benefit for the parish, we prepared the manuscript in AppleWorks(!). I sent W&S a PDF of the manuscript with funky margins that they had specified, which they somehow wrought into the handsome published paperback.
In the spirit of the e-book era, I thought I’d re-upload the book in a more manageable PDF format. First, I tried manipulating the PDF output with Cheap Impostor, the invaluable booklet-layout software, but the margins were too extreme to wrangle into the space of a sensible layout. Then I opened the AppleWorks file, where I saw a headache-inducing array of mark-up. It’s been years and years since I worked primarily in AppleWorks, so I quickly decided that I would copy-and-paste the innards of the file into a more congenial processor (I used Pages, though I also work happily with Mellel). The last trick involved manipulating margins so as to fit an A5 layout with page content matching, to the extent possible, the pagination of the original edition. This is exactly the kind of project that appeals to someone who’s writing a book that must be done as soon as humanly possible.
One final step: I don’t have access to a good original of the cover Wipf & Stock gave the book, so I whipped up a new version based on the colours of Trinity College, Glasgow. Done, and done! So this morning I am uploading the more tablet-friendly PDF version of the ebook; some other procrastination day, I’ll see if I can transmute the copy to a Kindle version, and if I ever upgrade to OS X Lion and download iBooks Author, I’ll see about running the manuscript through that (and I think I remember that there are a couple of lingering typos that I wanted to fix). But for now, here’s what I’ve got.

Please remember that the whole project was organised as a benefit for St Luke’s, so if you download a copy (of your kindness) please think about sending a donation to them (this isn’t necessarily an on-going commitment; or you can send an old-fashioned ‘check’). The congregation has sailed through some rough waters, and they have very significant repairs to complete on the exquisitely beautiful building (repairs that they are addressing, commendably, only in tandem with outreach to international and neighbourhood missions).
[Update: there are other, newer sermons at various points in these pages. If you search for “sermon” or some keyword from the text from which you’re working, perhaps in combination with “in the name of the”, you may turn them up. Plus, there’s the ‘Sermons’ category, which does not actually include all the sermons in my blog, but does pick up a few. When I have time (/hollow chuckle) I’ll try to ensure that all sermons are tagged for that category.] [Now done.]

That Exhilarating Feeling

I’ve said a number of times that intellectual life affords very few thrills that equal the feeling that a claim you’re inclined to doubt, one that contradicts what you’re pretty sure to be right — when such a claim’s arguments and evidence convince you that you had been wrong, and that this claim has a stronger case. It’s taken up my whole work day, but I’ve been revelling in that feeling in connection with the verb diakrinomai in James 1:6. It’s conventionally treated as meaning “doubt,” but Peter Spitaler’s article in Novum Testamentum 49 (2007) pretty much blows that interpretive habit out of the water.
Now, I had been dissatisfied with “doubt” myself, though I had tentatively opted for “hesitate,” another option that Spitaler rejects. I’m not as sure of his criticism of “hesitate” as I am of his devastatingly careful exposé of “doubt” — but, happily, I think I’m onto an even more satisfactory alternative. That feeling this morning, though, when “Nice work, but I’m unconvinced” turned into “Well, strike me pink! I think he’s right after all!”, that was pure delight.

Whose Best?

My student Laura Naysmith pointed my attention to yesterday’s feature in the Independent, the one that purports to identify the ‘ten best fountain pens’. It’s not clear from the website what criteria they apply, but the result is a very peculiar selection. Granted that they seem to draw only from contemporary pens (thus ruling out, for instance, Parker 51s, and Sheaffer Targas), the list includes both basic starter pens and ornamental bling pens.
For instance, I admire the Lamy Safari as a rugged, simple, inexpensive daily pen — but that doesn’t mean I think it’s one of the ten best. I have little use for hypertrophic ornamentation (and expense), but some elegant pens are quite excellent, and some bespoke pens are well worth their price simply as objets d’arts or jewelry. But for a ten-best pen, I’d want a pen that was functional as a writer, with a smooth, sweet nib, attractive in design, with a predictably long useful life. And, to be fair to the Independent’s ratings, I confess I’d want to exercise some latitude for pens I just love, or don’t.
So as of today, if I had to name Ten Best, I’d probably nominate Sheaffer’s Targas or Connaisseurs (or both) among my ten. Parker 51s, also, and P21s and P45s for the economically cautious (Parker 17s have turned up often recently too, another good cheap variation on this theme). The Independent didn’t name Pelikan pens at all; I haven’t held a 1000, but the 800 is pretty sweet. At a lower price point, Pellikan 400s and 200s are estimable pens, too. Sheaffer’s Triumph nibs are a joy to write with; I haven’t held a PFM (‘Pen for Men’, guess what era that comes from), but they have a reputation attested by the high prices they command on the used market. Since I can’t testify to their quality first-hand (ho ho ho), I’ll nominate my Sheaffer Triumph as a stand-in — not at all the same pen, but as a placeholder for that particular nib (also on the Targas, but I like Sheaffer pens, so there). The Mont Blanc 149 — the pen my mom gave me when I graduated from doctoral work, and that I inherited from my dad, is a classic — it has become a stereotype for pen-as-status-symbol, and they’re very often counterfeited, but it’s a wonderful pen.
I’ll give special consideration to Esterbrooks J, LJ, and SJ lines for their simple good looks, interchangeable nibs, easy maintenance, and durability. I happen to love my Sheaffer Flat-Tops, with their gold nibs about an acre wide. And since my repertoire is relatively limited, I’ll leave two slots open and just name a top eight. You may have good cases for alternatives: (Parker fans will laud their Duofolds and Vacumatics, Waterman fans will extol the flexy nibs that Waterman was known for, and I’m curious about Pilot Vanishing Point models, but these eight are wonderful. It feels great to write with them; I find typing increasingly unsatisfactory, and I look forward to finishing off the project that more-or-less requires keyboard input in favour of beginning more free-from compositions next.

Now, enough typing for tonight. I have to write something! (after I cook dinner)