Quiddity

I recently finished reading Fredrik Backman’s 2012 bestseller, A Man Called Ove. It’s a well-written story about a man (called Ove, in case you were wondering) who is exactly as he seems, but not for the reasons you would think. Ove is a 59-year old man recently forced into retirement who stomps around his neighborhood all day enforcing the council rules and yelling at friendly, if a little inept, service people. He hasn’t stopped speaking to his only friend Rune since Rune upgraded from a Volvo to a BMW.

Ove’s primary characteristic, it seems, is his devotion to his principles. This is at the heart of the story, since the people around Ove keep trying to get him to act contrary to his principles (like putting more money into the parking meter up front so he doesn’t have to go out to feed it every 15 minutes). Ove is who Ove is, and Ove won’t change who he is. He’s an entirely consistent character throughout the book.

As Ove’s backstory progresses, however, we learn that Ove is who he is because of the people in his life. His father, who died when he was 16, owned a Saab and taught Ove how to take it apart and put it back together again; so, Ove has never owned anything other than a Saab. Ove’s late wife Sonja was a loving and compassionate woman, and it is the memory of her that leads Ove to repeatedly help his somewhat clueless neighbors throughout the book, even though he sees them as helpless and moronic.

These two ideas—Ove’s strong and unyielding will on the one hand, and his character being formed by those he has loved on the other, seem at odds with one another. Are Ove’s choices ever his own, or does he act the way he does because of his influences?

I think Ove beautifully represents the reality of human willing as a caused reality, something I believe most Arminians are hesitant to admit. We act the way we act because of the people around us. This doesn’t take away the validity or dignity of human choice; it establishes it. For me to exist in the world as a real agent, capable of action, is for me to be able to act on others in such a way as to affect their decisions. I would argue that I cannot not influence the decisions of those around me. It follows that to say a “free” act of the will is therefore one in which the actor is uninfluenced and unmoved is actually to deny causality in the sphere of human willing.

Christian doctrine affirms that only God is from himself, and exists by virtue of his own life. Our life is derivative of and maintained by God’s life, ultimately, and by the lives of others, proximately. Only God is a se, existing by virtue of his boundless and uncaused life. We are who and what we are by the gift of God, a gift directly given by God himself through his Spirit and indirectly given by a multitude of forces and factors. But it is God as agent who uses these myriad causes to give us the shape of our lives. This is not inconsistent with will, but is, in fact, the foundation of it. Ove is not a se, but ab extra. This would be a problem if Ove were not a creature (which he is doubly), but both Ove and we ourselves are creatures. If our being and life are from outside ourselves, how can our willing be wholly interior and uncaused? The Arminian doctrine of free will is, I think, an unintentional denial of the uniqueness of God in reference to his willing as the One who is from himself, and the only One in whom we live and move and have our being.

Pride of Pan Pt. 1

In the latest news, Union “Theological” can no longer tell the difference between a person and a petunia. Observe:

I’m honestly not sure where to begin. The personalizing of the created order? The divinizing of the created order? The thousand inconsistencies created by this tableau? The hypocrisy of men and women who glory in their shameful unbelief, sexual perversity, and role reversal confessing sin, not to God, but to a fern?

Perhaps I’ll just say this. When Adam was created (and given dominion over the earth, Union, by the way), one of his jobs was to name the creatures that the Lord God had made. This required him to be able to sort things into categories, to discern properties, to make distinctions. That’s why he didn’t end up buggering some animal before Eve came along—he knew the difference between a walrus and a woman. There was no process in the garden of partnering with plants, either. And later in the Old Testament, when creational stewardship laws were given (e.g. Deuteronomy 22.6), it was love to people that was at stake, not love to animals or plants themselves.

Of course, I don’t think this is ignorance. What we’re witnessing is straight-up rebellion. “No one would have blinked if our chapel featured students apologizing to each other,” Union says in defense of their Romans 1:23 workshop. Maybe not; but what if you asked your gay students to apologize to their childhood tormentors for the hate they harbor? What if you asked your students to apologize to their conservative parents for their disrespect and mockery? Apologizing to a plant has the advantage of being totally cost-free. No humility required, no heart-change, no restitution, no real vulnerability.

The unwillingness to make these distinctions does not bode well. Distinction is a priestly task, which is to say, a human task. Not knowing the difference between a plant and person, or a man and a woman, is a rejection of human capacities and therefore of human calling, of humanity in its fullest expression. This apologizing to plants only looks human from the waist up. Pan must be so proud.

Lessons Learned from Josh Harris

Though its hard to imagine, someday I’ll tell my children the story I’m writing with my life today.

Joshua Harris, I Kissed Dating Goodbye

I found this line, near the end of Harris’ book, to ring sadly, ironically true in light of this week’s announcements.

Of course we don’t rejoice when a (supposed) brother falls, or falls away. But learning from a cautionary tale is an example of sagacity, not schadenfreude. Without claiming to know more than what has been clearly said, I think there are some important lessons to be learned from Joshua Harris’ apostasy.

First, theology matters. I think it’s fair to say that Harris’s theological and sexual progressivism has made it far easier for him to apostatize. I know, I know—conservatives go off the deep end, too. There have been clear and devastating examples of this in the last years, and we should all be careful when we think we stand, lest we fall. But when someone with orthodox theology apostatizes, it’s like jumping off a cliff. When someone with a watered-down faith apostatizes, it’s like walking off a pier. Both may drown, but the second was much closer, much less shocking, and much less likely to see the danger to begin with. None of us should be surprised when a person claims that God doesn’t care as much as we thought about pure religion and holiness, and then proceeds to chuck pure religion and holiness out the window themselves.

Second, repentance matters—specifically, a right view of repentance. I can’t help but to think that ingredient in Harris’ fall has been his response to the harm his books have perpetuated. Here’s what I think happened: Josh Harris publishes a book, and fundamentalists and conservatives go wild over the precepts concerning relationships it holds forth. Because those precepts are poorly considered and often poorly executed, many young people are badly hurt in the process of trying to have the perfect courtship, with the result that many of them jettison their marriages, and some, their faith. After years, the reality of all this comes crashing down on Harris, and he goes to his former readers to hear their stories. They demand that he repent of his hurtful views. Ultimately, he can’t repent of his views concerning courtship without repenting of his views concerning sexuality, and therefore holiness, and therefore God.
I’m sure that’s simplistic, and of course I could be wrong, but it isn’t as though this hasn’t been tried before. As soon as I admit I’ve hurt you in a culture like ours, then I need to give in to your demands. It’s only fair. What Harris needed to realize was that acknowledging a wrong committed does not give the ‘victim’ license to demand whatsoever reparations they may choose. Repentance is before God before it is before men, and it is God who determines the right limits of that repentance.

Third, mentorship matters. I have no idea what relationships Josh Harris has or has had in the way of mentorship, but from what’s been going on, it sounds like he could have used some. Sin is like fungus: it grows best in darkness. We all need godly men and women to tell us when we’ve stopped shoveling dirt out started shoveling crap in. Most of the time, lies that come from outside need to be packaged and delivered well to be received. Lies that come from my own mind, on the other hand, don’t even have to be coherent; the lie just has to expose a bit of ankle, and suddenly I wake up three days later in a cheap motel with a hangover and an STD (that’s an analogy made up for the purpose of creative expression, by the way, not a personal anecdote).
Godly mentorship helps to expose lies before they get a foothold, and to confirm the truth of God’s word more deeply. Cautionary tales like Harris’ should make us reevaluate the strength of our relationships both as mentor and mentee, and make changes where necessary.

I’m not glad that Joshua Harris has apostatized, and I hope that this disillusionment with the forms of Christianity he had embraced is a step on the way to true faith in Jesus Christ. However, the deceitfulness of sin is not an uncommon malady, and so cautionary tales have their place just as much as heroes of the faith do—’be not like Cain’ and all that. Josh was right, after all. We’re all telling our story to those who follow us: we’re either Marley’s Ghost, bemoaning too late the consequences of sin, or Ebenezer Scrooge, happily proclaiming the joys of repentance.

Feynmanian Virtue

The man himself.

Supposedly Richard Feynman, the great 20th Century physicist, used to give advice on how to be a genius. His recommendation? Keep a dozen or so problems constantly in the back of your mind. Every time you meet a new trick or result, test it against each of your problems. Eventually, something will click, and people will think “How on earth did he do it? He must be a genius!”

Continue reading “Feynmanian Virtue”

“It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy…”

Picture courtesy of Heidi Halcomb

If I were to write a story about a faerie wood like George Macdonald did, I think I’d have my young Anodos travel to a section of the wood where the forest itself, like a great sylvan phoenix, would seem to catch fire at the end of every year, leaving only bones and ash. And, like the phoenix, it would rise again from its own remains at the beginning of the next year, clothed in green plumage once more. Continue reading ““It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy…””