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Comparative Mysticism: What is Comparison, and What is Mysticism?

Posted by on Jan 27, 2016 | 5 comments

“Comparison” is a Religious Studies buzzword. Many religion scholars are very enthusiastic about “comparative projects” which compare (surprise!) one set of “religious” texts or practices with other sets of texts and practices. Textbooks compare Tibetan death rituals with those of ancient Greek orphic cults; Egyptian creation myths with those of the Hopi tribes of the Southwestern U.S.; medieval Catholic economies of indulgences with the ancestral rites of contemporary Chinese popular religion. The famous J.Z. Smith compares the Jonestown tragedy with Bacchus’s violent orgies. Philosophers of religion compare pseudo-Dionysus’ apophatic theology with Derrida’s deconstruction, noting that in both cases, there is a problematizing of language. Why are we comparing things? Does comparison entail more than simply listing the similarities and differences between the set of items we’ve chosen to examine? Are we playing one long game of “point at things in the world and see if they match”? On what basis do we choose items for comparison? Are we looking...

Murder and Moral Notions

Posted by on Jan 19, 2016 | 0 comments

In Towards Zero, one of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries, Mr. Treves, a retired solicitor and specialist on criminology reflects on how we often begin murder mysteries in a mistaken fashion. We think of the murder as the beginning of the story when rather it is the end. “I like a good detective story,” reflects Mr. Treves. “But, you know, they begin in the wrong place! They begin with the murder. But the murder is the end. The story begins long before that—years before sometimes—with all the causes and events that bring certain people to a certain place at a certain time on a certain day.”[1] Murder is the end of a series of events, thoughts, plans, and intentions. The novel itself is a reversal of the standard murder mystery story, the actual intended murder does not happen until the last pages of the book.[2] A similar misconception is attached to moral inquiry: in many accounts of moral inquiry, the...

How Should We Do Apologetics?

Posted by on Jan 12, 2016 | 2 comments

Throughout my life I’ve been simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by apologetics. As a teenager I wanted to help people (including myself) who had sincere questions about the Christian faith. But many of the apologetics books I read seemed overly confident and simplistic in their approach. They gave the impression that their answers were conclusive and final, that nothing more needed to be said on the subject. If that was the case, then why did so many people find these answers insufficient? Should we even want irrefutable answers to every question? Furthermore, I grew up in an environment that often treated “faith without evidence” as a virtue, as if it was commendable to believe something without good reasons. To me, this seemed to obliterate the difference between Christianity and any cult that keeps control of its members by praising blind obedience and punishing honest doubts. But neither could I ignore the way the Bible praises faith as a virtue. What...

Safety is not a Christian virtue

Posted by on Jan 5, 2016 | 6 comments

In 1934, Dietrich Bonhoeffer addressed the ecumenical peace organization World Alliance for International Friendship through Churches in Denmark.[1] Centrally in this address, Bonhoeffer argues that the World Alliance must function as the universal Church by working for peace with the aim of not only ending war but finding victory over it. Victory over war involves understanding war “as the work of evil powers in this world, enemies of God.”[2] As Christians, Bonhoeffer reminds his audience that the work of peace is a mandate for the ecumenical Church, not an optional problem that needs to be dealt with. The mission of peace among Christians transcends and unites across any and all societal boundaries, be they “national, political, social, or racial.”[3] In this address, Bonhoeffer highlights the confusion of safety with peace: “There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never be made safe. Peace is...

A Net for Catching Days

Posted by on Dec 1, 2015 | 2 comments

For me, the phrase “writer’s bock” fails to capture the phenomenon. Block implies that there is inspiration idling somewhere in my brain; it just can’t run the proper channels to my fingertips. The term “writer’s block” gives my blank, Twitter-grazing mind far too much credit. I have just finished a year of hospital chaplaincy work and education, a year in which sleep came at a premium and death came at regular intervals. Now, freshly married and in a new city, I am in between commitments. I walk the tension-wire between obligations. I sail on a sea of free time; I can write for days and never hit land. The problem is, with a free place to stay and miles of leisure time, I tend to accomplish less than when I teetered on the edge of collapse, working sixty hours a week and planning a wedding. Having the entire day to myself, I shuffle around the house like a self-propelling...

Peter Bayle, Superskeptic

Posted by on Nov 3, 2015 | 0 comments

“the value of faith is directly proportional with its repugnancy to reason”  “One must necessarily choose between philosophy and the gospel”  “the best answer that can be naturally [i.e., without appeal to Revelation but relying only on philosophy] made to the question, “Why did God permit man to sin,” is to say, “I do not know; I only believe that he has some reasons for it that are really worthy of his infinite wisdom, but which are incomprehensible to me.”[1] It’s not just anyone who can earn the accolade “superskeptic.” But according to scholar and philosopher Richar Popkin, Huguenot philosopher Peter Bayle deserved it. Voltaire would probably agree. Said Voltaire, “the greatest master of the art of reasoning that ever wrote, Bayle, great and wise, all systems overthrows.” Bayle has been described by scholars as “a positivist, an atheist, a deist, a skeptic, a fideist, a Socinian, a liberal Calvinist, a conservative Calvinist, a libertine, a Judaizing Christian, a...