Posted by: HAT | May 18, 2015

Closing Time

Mary Queen of Scots on a ship with ladies in waiting


Hi, Gang!

The summer Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program at Norton Healthcare starts this morning at 8:30.

In the eloquent words of “Closing Time” by Semisonic, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” The new beginning of CPE presumably follows that rule, although which other beginning it’s the end of is not altogether clear. If it had anything to do with the new beginning that was Utopian Discourse in September of 2007, it’s not clear how. What has been clear for some time now, however, is that the enterprise that began as Utopian Discourse has reached its necessary stopping point. It seems fitting to make that official this morning.

In other words: this will be the last new post for Utopian Discourse.

The blog, that is. There is, clearly, no possible end to the more general practice of utopian discourse. People are always seeking – I would suggest, always ought to be seeking – the “good place” that still fails to take place. I wonder whether this is not after all the meaning of the saying recorded in Matthew 8:20, that the Christ has no place that can be called “arrival.” The complete good we seek does not stop somewhere; all the good we find, when we find it, remains provisional and surpassable; utopia is always on the move.

Sometimes being on the move results in outgrowing the forms we’ve devised for thinking and talking about what we’re doing. That feels to me like the situation with this blog. It is what it is. I like it. To continue with it, I’d have to revise it in ways that would wreck that. I take that as a signal to call it “done.”

A new and different blog at some future point – day and time still unknown – may be a possibility. I hope that’s good news. I’ll post the link when that materializes.

Thank you for reading.

[Update 7.24.16 [3.18.18]: the new blog is open at]

Posted by: HAT | May 12, 2015

Standing Corrected

must . . . keep . . . writing

must . . . keep . . . writing

Hi, Gang!

Because I am deep-cleaning the house, I went through the rack of CD’s on the desk behind the computer. Lo and behold, one of them was my field comprehensive exam, spring 2006. My recollection of that exam was: a nightmare.

I sat down at the computer in the department office, all thinking there would be questions tailored to my recent course work and dissertation topic research, since I had had an extensive conversation with my major professor and because I had been assured by everyone that this is how things were done. I encountered: a question I could not understand. Literally. As in, grammatically.

That was something I hadn’t been prepared for at all.

At first I thought I was maybe going crazy. Then I spent a couple of minutes panicking and reviewing all of the disastrous consequences of doing things like walking out of the test, or failing. [Hmmm. I work here, so that would mean quitting my job. And just letting the past three or four years of graduate school count for NOTHING. Recalculating …] Then several more minutes of thrashing around trying to figure out what the question was literally, as in, grammatically, asking. I finally decided to answer the question I thought they had probably meant to ask, and that I thought I could answer, assuming as I think was correct that these my professors were well-meaning individuals who wanted to ask me a question I knew something about and could answer reasonably well.

In the middle of the exam, there was a fire drill. [I could not make this up if I tried.] Everyone in the building had to go outside into the courtyard and wait for the all-clear. We all figured some desperate student had pulled a fire alarm. “It wasn’t me,” I said to my office mates; “but it jolly well could have been.”

It probably goes without saying that I passed that test. But I remember it as having given me a keen sense for how fragile communication actually is. And for having made me feel I was back at the advertising agency, trying to communicate with artists and account executives, everyone around the table using the same words, but all using different lexicons, trying to make some decision about how to spend $20 million dollars. I had fun working in advertising, but that wasn’t the fun part.

I almost managed to resist temptation to look. I thought: what is even the point of this?

But I couldn’t remember the question. That bugged me a little bit – usually, I remember debacles like that. For instance, I remember that I once translated a Hebrew sentence, possibly in my sleep, as “The light of firmness is not in our uncles.” [Devi told me to go to bed, and I said “You don’t know anything about Hebrew!” and she said “No, but I know English, and I know that if you think that’s English you need to go to bed.”]

And then I thought: it couldn’t really have been that bad. What was my problem?

So I gave in. Here’s the question:

“Compare and contrast religion and art as symbolic systems that interpret human experience but also require interpretation themselves.”

So far, so good. Crazy big, but good.

“Consider aesthetic, communitarian, participative, and transcendent (or depth) dimensions.”

Still ok. In my ideal world, I would revise the “communitarian” language to read “communal,” or maybe even “social,” since “communitarian” in my book refers to a specific body of political theory, while “communal” refers in a more general way to something that takes place in or has to do with a community or a group; collective. But, no big deal, moving on …

“Include how symbolic presence in a culture helps one understand a culture without ‘reducing it to a substrate.’”

I realize now that it was the “symbolic presence in a culture” part that really threw me.

Everything else was at least reasonable, even the “substrate” part, which I interpreted rightly or wrongly as referring to a tendency to think of culture as merely a static residue of congealed human activity with no dynamic participation in the interplay of social forces that constitute human social life. Again, in my ideal world, I might have revised that language to be more Marxian-straw-dog, like “without reducing it to a superstructural reflection of the base,” (but since nobody thought that way anymore, I can see why it wasn’t that) or at least a reference to what culture might be a substrate “of” or “in”. But again, not the main problem.

I simply had no idea what “symbolic presence in a culture” was supposed to mean. [“What do they mean, “symbolic presence”??? Whose? What’s? THERE IS A PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE MISSING HERE. I NEED THAT PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE!! Meltdown in 3… 2… 1…]

Typically “presence” is the presence “of” something. So, “symbolic presence in a culture” is the presence in a culture, symbolically, of … what, exactly? Of course, different cultures incorporate the symbolic presence “of” different things: God, e.g., or freedom, or authority. Or more commonly, of lots of things – so, God and freedom and authority, in different places and different ways. And let’s not forget genderraceandclass – present, most of the time, in the things we read as signs (which can then become symbols, or revert back to signs, or slip between one and the other, depending on who is using them and how they are being used) of gender, race, and class, and of understanding, or failing to understand, or questioning or even rebelling against the relationships that constitute them. So, sure, if we look at how the things that are present symbolically in a culture – whatever they are – are present symbolically, and how the symbolic presence of those things – whatever they are – indicates, even speaks eloquently of, the meanings that the participants in the culture attach to them, and then consider what opportunities for change, and what obstacles to change, these meanings and the relationships they come from create as a situation for the members of that culture, we are understanding the culture, on one hand, and also seeing the culture as an integral part of the ongoing activity of the society, not just a decoration or a reflective ornament, but something that participates in the situation in which people find themselves, plan, act, dream of change …

I don’t know why I didn’t think of that before.

Fortunately for me, I guess, my committee did not hold against me the fact that I had temporarily lost the power of abstract thought.

I hold nothing against them, either.

Posted by: HAT | May 8, 2015


teenager standing by a car holding her new temporary driver's license

A primary rite of passage for rural Hoosiers in the 21st century is the acquisition of a valid motor vehicle operator’s license, which involves a multi-step ritual of preparation, separation, private individual examination by the state votary, and then the receipt of a physical emblem of one’s acceptance by the extra-familial group as a member of the class of “drivers,” with the prestige and privileges that pertain to that class.

Hi, Gang!

According to my dictionary, a milestone is “a post, pillar or stone set up to indicate distance in miles from a given point.” I can see why it would also have acquired the sense of “an important event or turning point in a lifetime, career, etc.”

There’s an inherent ambiguity in milestones, it seems to me. Whatever they say – whether miles from a place, or miles to a place – they can’t help measuring both “to” and “from.” Milestones cannot but call attention to our chronic suspension between those poles. They give us pause. And in the pause, a place to notice that the only place we have is this in-between one.

I hate it when I have to sound like Heidegger.

But the milestones are getting closer and closer to each other around here, all of a sudden.

Our church is having a yard sale, so we are saying farewell to a lot of things that we have held on to for a long time. Furniture and old unloved Christmas stuff and gifts we got from people who clearly didn’t consider what they knew about us. “We need some space.” College text books for majors we have almost forgotten we ever had. “It’s served it’s purpose.” How-to books for hobbies we never quite picked up, or have long ago dropped. “It’s time to move on.” We are trying to honor the movement of the spirit, and the yard sale deadline, which also happens to be my birthday. We have a few days left.

I sent in my check for Clinical Pastoral Education tuition the other day, and got my pre-employment drug test – first one ever, something that shows my age, I suspect – so I am all ready, technically and procedurally, to start CPE on May 18. That happened Monday.

Number One Daughter got her driver’s license. That happened yesterday.

These are linked events, as being fully occupied 5+ days a week by CPE is possible only now that she can drive herself to summer swim team practices and whatever else she might have to do on summer break.

Of course, our goal as parents is to keep her alive and get her through childhood and into adulthood and independence and capability and solo flight …

But I had significantly underestimated the immediate impact of that particular milestone on my daily routine, and how I would actually feel about it …

And I sit here fully aware that there are people … people I know, dear friends … who would give their right arms for the chance to feel this very excruciating ambiguity, this awful empty sorrow, along with its crazy joy and uncomprehending astonished pride …

But dear God, it hurts.

So this is grace: I wanted to be such a good mother, and I have failed in that in so many ways, great and small, and nevertheless, there she is, alive, OK, better than OK, a whole world … and us still a part of it.

Posted by: HAT | May 3, 2015

Fifth Sunday of Easter

man and woman dressing vines in vineyard with watchtower in background

Vinedressers at work

Hi, Gang!

Here is the sermon I preached this morning to fill in for our pastor who was on vacation:

Sermon – John 15:1-8 – “All We Have To Do Is Stay”

Today is the Fifth Sunday of Easter. The gospel text recommended by the Revised Common Lectionary for this Sunday of this church year comes from the Gospel of John, chapter 15, verses 1-8, which is on page ___ in your pew Bibles. It’s a familiar passage – some people here will know it as the one about “the vine and the branches.” It’s one of Jesus’ seven “I AM” sayings in John’s gospel, which are the subject of the windows in this sanctuary, so we even have this text illustrated in stained glass in the window directly behind this (center left) section of the sanctuary …

The text is a surprising choice for the Easter season, though, maybe, because it is a little out of order in time. It is actually a speech that Jesus gives to his close disciples before Easter – in fact, on the evening of the last supper, so before everything that makes the Easter season the Easter season, before Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, crucifixion, death, … and then, as we know on the fifth Sunday of Easter, but as they did not, his resurrection. I stress all that because it seems important to keep in mind, this morning, that we know things that the first disciples did not, just as they knew things that we do not, and these different things that we know and they know may affect how we hear these words of Jesus to his would-be disciples.
So let’s listen for the Word of God to us in John 15:1-8:

(1) I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. (2) He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. (3) You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. (4) Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. (5) I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (6) Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. (7) If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish and it will be done for you. (8) My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

[The Word of God for the people of God // thanks be to God.]

What do we understand in this lovely image Jesus uses, of the vine, and the branches, and the vinedresser?
Because one of the interesting things about human beings is that we are naturals when it comes to images, to metaphors – we “get” symbolic thinking, metaphors are literally what humans do. So when Jesus says he’s the vine, we know he doesn’t mean he’s got grape DNA, we know he means … something deeper, something spiritual … that the image of the vine represents and helps us visualize.

For instance, I expect we all assume that when Jesus says “my Father” he is talking about God. I admit, I didn’t even notice for a long time that Jesus never actually uses the word “God” in this speech, he only uses the word Father, because as soon as I hear Jesus say “my Father” I automatically translate it as “God,” and I suspect I’m not the only Christian Bible reader who does that. I am not even going to suggest that we shouldn’t do that, either, at least not this morning. In a different context, on a different Sunday morning, it would be worth talking about other excellent ways to think about God, other names we could use for God, and the reasons it’s a good idea to use those different names from time to time … but for now, I only bring this up because … I want to make sure that we are all on the same page when it comes to assuming Jesus is talking “God” when he says “my Father.”

That seems to be the general consensus of the experts who talk and think and write about this scripture.
The disciples probably knew this, too – or at least had an inkling of it. The other gospels tell us that Peter had already blurted out that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, one day when Jesus came right out and quizzed them on who they thought he was. John doesn’t tell that story, but does remember Jesus’ friend Martha as having worked out that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, back in chapter 11. So when Jesus starts talking about being the vine and his Father being the vinegrower, we are probably right there with the disciples in knowing that Jesus is not just talking about grapes, and whatever he means by it, it involves God.

But to really understand what he’s saying , it would definitely help to know something about vines …
because what a metaphor communicates depends a lot on what people know about the literal thing the person is talking about, so they can use something they know about to understand the intangible thing they know less about. It’s pretty important to be on the same page as the person using the metaphor.

The image of the vine and the branches and the vinedresser would have made immediate sense to those first disciples, since they lived in a place where vineyards were commonplace, they would have known all about the vinedressers who worked in them and the seasonal rhythms of their work, and their equipment, and all of that.
And with a few exceptions … because I know there are a few of us who do actually grow grapes, and are probably thinking about them right now … most of the people in this room know more about soybeans and corn, or tomatoes and zucchini, than we do about grapes.

I thought I could say I am one of the exceptions … because I admit, I was attracted to this text because it was about grape vines, and reminded me of my father and his brothers in California, because they grew up in the San Joaquin Valley of California and did a lot of work on vines, and it reminded me of growing up in California and taking trips with my dad to visit his family in Kingsburg, and seeing orchards and vineyards and passing the sign for Selma – raisin capital of the world, and listening to dad tell stories about pruning vines and turning trays for raisins and visiting my uncle George who worked for a vine and orchard grower, and my uncle Pete who used to work for SunMaid, and loading up the trunk of the car with fruit and feeling that we lived in a good and beautiful place.

… but honestly, when it comes right down to it, it was my dad who knew all about vines and grapes, I don’t know anything at all about growing grapes, or what it takes to take care of them, or branches, or any of that. So to try to get closer to the same page as the disciples, I turned to the internet … and I learned a new word, Viticulture, which is the science and art of growing grapes; a viticulturist, a vinedresser or vinegrower, is the practitioner of this science and art. It’s a highfalutin’ word, and it’s not the word Jesus used, Jesus used a homelier term that basically means “farmer” or “earth-worker,”

Anyway, what this crash course in viticulture taught me is that when Jesus mentioned the vinedresser, the disciples would probably have thought right away of someone who, at that time of the year – in the springtime, when the vines that had been pruned in the fall after the harvest are waking up from their dormancy – would be walking up and down the vinerows, pinching off many of the little shoots of the vines that are just starting to bud, to keep them from having too many leaves and not enough fruit. How much fruit is enough would depend on what the grapes were being grown for, because wine makers and raisin makers seem to have different ideals when it comes to fruit; someone growing table grapes that are going to be made into raisins, pretty clearly wants lots of fruit; but someone who’s going to make wine, may want a balance between quantity and quality, because fewer clusters of grapes make for more intense flavor and better wine down the road.
In other words, when Jesus says his Father – God – is the vinedresser or vinegrower, the disciples would have thought of someone very VERY active, and highly skilled, doing the work and actively making the decisions involved in tending this vine.

But mainly, what it has taught me is that there is A LOT to know about grapes, and that I know almost none of it, certainly not from personal experience, so I am really not on the same page as the first disciples at all.


We may not know much about grapes, but we do know something about plants. And I expect we can all agree that plants: don’t move around a lot.

OK … They do move sometimes – in 1861, for instance, a nobleman from Hungary, Agoston Haraszthy, who is known as the “Father of California Viticulture,” brought 100,000 wine grape cuttings from all over Europe to California. Several years later, an English immigrant named William Thompson, who had travelled west with his family in two wagons and set up a little farm a few miles from Yuba City, mail-ordered some cuttings from a New York nursery, including a variety called “Lady de Coverly,” which was supposed to have come from Constantinople. Unfortunately, after he had grafted these cuttings into his existing stock, two were destroyed by flooding and the third seemed to have been overpruned and didn’t produce any fruit, when it finally did produce it turned out to be almost miraculously perfect for making raisins, and now all the raisins we buy came from these Thompson seedless grapes. So plants can move … but not usually on their own.

So when Jesus tells the disciples to “abide” in him – that is, to remain in him, to stay in him, to live in him the way we live in Corydon or live in our homes – it seems a little redundant, because abiding, staying, is just what plants ordinarily do.

Staying is just business as usual for “the branches” – which is a good thing for them, since that’s what keeps the branches alive, is their connection to the vine, with its root system. As long as nothing catastrophic happens – like a hail storm, an earthquake, a plague of locusts – the branches are going to keep growing out of the vine they are growing out of. They don’t actually have to do anything out of the ordinary to keep doing that, to “abide”; they’d actually have to do something not to abide, they’d have to … to disconnect, to get separated. [Kind of like that song by Taylor Swift, for those of you who listen to pop radio – all they have to do is stay.]

So Jesus is telling the disciples – the branches – not to do something that, if they really were branches, they wouldn’t even think about doing, namely, getting detached from the vine.

Granted, if a branch did think of doing that, it would be a bad idea, since a branch needs to be connected to the vine, the source of its life, to stay alive. We don’t have to be viticulturists to see that.

And we don’t have to be theologians to understand what that means spiritually – that, just as the physical life of a branch comes from this connection to the main plant, the source of its life, the spiritual life of the disciples comes from their connection to Jesus, to the Christ, who is the source of their spiritual life.
But the disciples know their connection with Jesus is life-giving, and that they’re not thinking about ending it, I think we know they’re assuming will continue, tomorrow and the next day and the day after that …

But at that last supper Jesus knows, and we know, that tomorrow and next day and the day after that is not going to be business as usual; it is going to feel like a catastrophe, like a hail storm or an earthquake … the disciples could know this, too, because Jesus has told them bunches of times, but they don’t seem to have gotten that message.

And when it comes right down to it, people are not really that much like plants, unlike plants, people do get ideas, people do make decisions, people do take action and leap to conclusions, etc. When things don’t go as expected, people do think they might have made a big mistake, do wonder whether they just wasted the last three years of their lives following after a Messiah who ended up being crucified by the Romans and looking like an abject failure …

– so upon reflection it makes a whole lot of sense that on this night of the last supper Jesus would keep talking about “abiding,” would try to give these disciples a vision of themselves as branches of a life-giving vine, as having a kind of life that is integrally connected to and sustained by his remarkable life, and constantly in a position to flourish … a vision that can support the confidence to continue to trust Jesus through the thing that is about to happen that will shake their faith in him so much … trying to get them to understand that, the way a branch has a living connection to a vine, so whatever happens they do have a live connection to Christ … they’ll need to understand it as something that’s real, here, now, not as something that’s over and done with, that’s lost

Considering what’s about to happen, it makes a whole lot of sense that Jesus would give them this vision of a vine … rooted in eternity, if you will, in an eternal kind of vineyard, where “my Father is the vinedresser” … a good and beautiful place where all they have to do to experience this flourishing life is stay – stay faithful to Jesus, stay true to his message of the Kingdom of God, stay committed to his way of presenting God’s way as the day to day practice of love in the service of the neighbor as oneself.

All they have to do is stay.

And because they are not plants, but people, they don’t do that all that well … spoiler alert … later in the gospel Jesus has to show up, after the resurrection, and call them back into his service.
And I expect that the reason the RCL has this flashback on the fifth Sunday of Easter is that we don’t always “stay” very well either – we get antsy, we want some action, we get to thinking about what kind of fruit we ought to be producing, what we think would look good on us, what kind of pruning or training we ought to be getting, we get to worrying about what we need to be doing …

But in this eternal kind of vineyard, who is doing all of the work? The One Jesus calls Father. Who is making all of the decisions, about branches that have good fruit potential, and whether to go for quantity or quality and be thinking about wine or table grapes? The One Jesus calls Father. Who is the practitioner of the science and the art of growing grapes? Who is the viticulturist or the earth-worker here? The One Jesus calls Father. And we know very well – I think we established that a long time ago – that Jesus is talking about God here. Jesus does not tell the disciples to do God’s job. Jesus tells them – and us – to think like plants, in a good and beautiful place, and just live in it. And trust that God is actively taking care of the skilled labor part of this enterprise.

Now, I hope before all us “Martha” types get lost in the mental objections and the “yes, buts …” – we all know that we are not really plants, we are people, and because we are people, we do need to do things.


In a really important way, what we do when we “abide in Christ” looks rather commonplace, looks a lot like ordinary daily life.

And I think an example, literally, would be something like the salad luncheon that just happened on Friday … which is, when we come to think of it, part of the ongoing life of our community – also of our church – also of a number of families and individuals in this church – it comes around … it is part of what we do – we cook, we learn and try new things and repeat wonderful traditional things – we invite people in, we prepare for doing that, sometimes that is a LOT of work, as some people know very well and all of us are aware – we plan, we prepare, we contribute, we get together, we coordinate, we sign up, we show up, we bring, we dish, we tend, we eat, we tidy up, we mop, we put away, we share ourselves and our skills and our friendship and our welcome, we create an event that gives people an opportunity to renew old acquaintances and live as part of a community – friends, that is exactly what it means to abide … that is exactly what it means to live here … and when we show up on a Sunday morning; and when we go to our local grocery store and do Shop a Lot and take the groceries over to HCCS which is where Kym works and Sam works and people volunteer, that is exactly what it means to live here … to abide in Christ … and when we read Scripture and think about it and struggle to apply it to our lives; and when we choose to say something kind rather than something critical about someone we barely know; all of that is exactly what it means to abide – to dwell – to reside – to live here, in the Body of Christ, as Christ abides in us.

Sometimes “abiding” – staying in Christ – even means, humanly speaking, moving – into a new house, or a new job, or a new state, because we can tell that’s where our lives seem to be … budding and getting ready to blossom.

Maybe the page Jesus wants us to be on is the one that has a picture of a vineyard, like the kind we would see as we come up over the mountains of the coast range on the way to Morrow Bay, or as we would see if we stood on a hilltop in Galilee, stretching out across the hillside and the valley just yonder, rows of leafy vines neatly arranged, and spreading out their leaves … they are really a thing of beauty … a glorious, beautiful sight … a work of art, and also of science, of wisdom … looking at a vineyard like that we can sense the skilled hand of an artist and an immense work behind it …

The One Jesus calls Father is the vinegrower, the one who knows how to plant and tend a vineyard, from earth into a work of art …

The one who made the nature that makes what the vine and the branches do just what they naturally do …
Jesus, the Christ, is the vine, the source of new life, of real life.

We have the easy part. We’re the branches, the extension and expression of that glorious life.

All we have to do is be part of it. All we have to do is stay.

Posted by: HAT | April 28, 2015

The Personal Really is Political

picture of the US Supreme Court with flag in background, tulips in foreground

U.S. Supreme Court hears marriage equality arguments today

Hi, Gang!

Praying that we get to stay married.

Posted by: HAT | April 27, 2015

Sheep and Grapes

a Van Gogh painting of a shepherd with a flock of sheep under a stormy sky

These sheep seem to be in danger of getting wet

Hi, Gang!

The Revised Common Lectionary is giving us metaphors of sheep and shepherds, vines and branches this Easter season.

Our wonderful pastor gave us lots of new information on sheep this Sunday, including that they have fragile bones and can barely bear any burdens at all, which is why they don’t like to get wet! Sheep are not as stupid as people think.

Anyway … now he is on vacation for a week, and we will be having a pinch-hitter preacher on Sunday, May 3. I am starting to wonder in earnest what that pinch-hitter is going to say.

Sunday, May 3 is the anniversary of Dad’s going to pulmonary rehab, so also of me driving through Louisville on DERBY DAY (wouldn’t normally be my first choice of an activity, but it was for Dad; really, it wasn’t that bad) … it was a hopeful day.

The gospel of the day is John 15:1-8 – “the vine and the branches.” I had to memorize it when I was in 4th grade. “I am the vine, and you are the branches.”

Thinking about grapes and vines always makes me think about my dad. Dad worked on grape vines a lot when he was growing up in the Central Valley of California, and talked to us about it a lot: turning trays for raisins, pruning vines, maybe picking grapes, but I’m not so sure about that.

I am also not so sure it was a good idea to agree to preach before I remembered all that.

Posted by: HAT | April 24, 2015

Shabbat Shalom 4.25.15

image of a painting by Isidor Kaufmann, Friday Evening, with a woman sitting beside a table prepared for Shabbat

“What would be a world without Sabbath? It would be a world … without the vision of a window in eternity that opens into time.” Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (16)

Posted by: HAT | April 24, 2015

Risk Assessment

graphic representation of signal detection theory showing areas under curves representing type I and type II error

A colorful illustration of Type I and Type II error in the context of signal detection theory

Hi, Gang!

Thinking a little more about an opinion that I feel I encounter pretty often, that taking a very strict approach to the interpretation of scripture constitutes a kind of “playing it safe.”

That is, I get the impression sometimes of an implicit argument that goes like this: if a person wants to be more certain that they are doing what God wants them and people to do, the “safe bet” is to accept the premise that the Bible is inerrant, that every word is a precise representation of something God said in those precise words to someone, meant to say – precisely in the way we understand it, and intends for us to put into practice precisely and completely. Accepting the Bible “as written,” so to speak, is a way of going with the odds. So, for instance, the “safe bet” is to accept that 1 Timothy 2:11 means that women need to accept the fact that God told them not to preach, despite whatever gifts they might seem to have been given [presumably, also by God] for that activity. Or that Romans 1:26-27 necessitates a complete rejection of marriage equality for gays and lesbians, because homosexuality itself is a consequential sign of having turned away from God [even for gays and lesbians who are active church members]. Or that Matthew 19:9 is an instruction from Jesus for women to stay married to their violent husbands, because divorce and remarriage is adultery, hence forbidden by moral law.

I get this impression, and I am often drawn along with it.

But then, I think about it a little longer. And then I remember: A long time ago, in what seems like a former life, I studied statistics. One way of thinking about statistics is as a way of approaching the problem of decision making in a condition of uncertainty. We don’t know things. [“What is lacking cannot be counted.”] We are surrounded by relationships that are difficult to discern, because there is variation in everything, so even relationships that are very solid, like the relationship between pressure and the volume of a gas, yield fluctuating measurements according to the instruments at our disposal. This is much more true for complicated multivariate relationships that are socially and culturally mediated and that can only be measured with pretty gross instruments, like Likert-type scales. [“Would you say you: 1) strongly disagree, 2) disagree somewhat, 3) neither agree nor disagree …” – you know.]

Applying statistical tests to the data we do have is basically a way of estimating our chances of being wrong about what we think is going on. If those chances seem very low, we gain confidence in our inferences and models.

For every statistical test, there are two types of error, type I error and type II error. Type I error is rejecting the null hypothesis [“these are not the droids you’re looking for”] when it is true. Type II error is failing to reject it [they were, as a matter of fact, the very droids they were looking for] when it is false. Hypothesis testers are always between a rock and hard place when it comes to these types of errors, because they are inversely related: as one goes down, the other goes up. The best we can do is balance them out. Error always remains possible.

Which always gets me to thinking: who knows enough about reality to know that the Biblical inerrantist position is the “safe bet”? That seems to me to depend on the probability that God does not communicate with people in new and different ways as their historical and cultural circumstances change, and that God does not reveal more about Godself and about the meaning of things God has communicated in the past as people continue in relationship with God. [If God were a boyfriend, and acted like this, God’s girlfriend would probably start to wonder if there was a future in the relationship. Just saying.]

My point is: it’s not obviously the safe bet. It’s one of the bets.

It seems to me that if a person accepts the premise that God wants things, and that one of the things God wants is for people to know God more and more fully, and that one of the things God wants for people to know is that God is on the side of human flourishing, and that the fruit of that flourishing is peace, joy, and love, a person might be forgiven for thinking that something other than the inerrantist position seems like a safer bet. Given the data available to us.

Posted by: HAT | April 23, 2015

On Not Liking to Argue with Christians

Tibetan tangka of Yama, a ferocious supernatural form in Tibetan style

Yama, Indian god of death, protects Buddhism against demons. Or perhaps contemplatives against inner demons of addiction to powerful negative emotions. But the Buddha may have said something like ‘When you find yourself in a hell realm, help the demons.’

Hi, Gang!

I don’t like to argue. I mean, I really don’t like to argue, to the point where I will leave the room or change subjects or actually stop talking if I feel the conversation has become an argument. If you knew me personally, you would find that last statement almost unbelievable, but it’s true. It’s a part of the legacy of growing up with my parents that has held its value over the decades.

I especially don’t like to get involved in what I think of as “arguments with Christians.” This is ironic, since I am a Christian – according to me, anyway. Not according to everyone, no doubt.

This explains why I did not comment on the comment on a blog post the other day in Ministry Matters. I had read the article, and liked it. Then I read the one comment that was online at the time, and had a thought or two. I almost left a comment. I thought about it for at least a minute or two. I even clicked on the “leave a comment” link. But in the end, I thought … the only thing this can lead to is an argument. With Christians.

When I went back to check yesterday, there it was in the proliferating comments … an argument with Christians.

That is: an argument between people who do not share basic premises. Between people who believe that if their basic premises are not shared, they shouldn’t have to or can’t possibly share other things, either. Like pews and pastors. Baptisms & eucharists/communions/Lord’s Suppers. Grace. The body of Christ.

The f-bomb drops. [That’s “false teaching,” for those of you who didn’t grow up this way.] There’s a rising cloud of denials, defenses, and split hairs.

I have no stomach for it at all. Because, as I read it, it’s always the same argument, no matter what its ostensible substantive content. It’s the one that goes “You’re not a real Christian.” “Yes, I am.” “Are not.” “Am too.” The one that just goes on and on going nowhere, until finally our moms and dads call us in for dinner.

Somewhere in Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology, at least according to my faulty memory, he says something like no one can be sure they are Christian – the objective determination of that status is really God’s. I couldn’t find it, of course, when I went searching through the three volumes I annotated an incredible 15 years ago in seminary. Maybe it was never there in the first place. But I did find this, almost as pertinent:

The basic ambiguity of religion has a deeper root than any of the other ambiguities of life, for religion is the point at which the answer to the quest for the unambiguous is received. Religion in this respect (that is, in the respect of man’s possibility of receiving this answer) is unambiguous; the actual reception, however, is profoundly ambiguous, for it occurs in the changing forms of man’s moral and cultural existence. These forms participate in the holy to which they point, but they are not the holy itself. The claim to be the holy itself makes them demonic. (1)

In other words: we really can encounter something transcendent in religion. But it’s easy to get confused about where that something comes from, and what encountering it depends on.

In other other words: It is probably a bad idea to argue with people who may be under the influence of the demonic. It’s way too easy to get caught in the undertow.

(1) Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology. Volume Three: Life and the Spirit, History and the Kingdom of God. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963. 104.

Posted by: HAT | February 27, 2015

Sometimes I Do Bad Things

Painting by Francisco Laso The Laundress a woman hanging laundry on a line on what may be a rooftop

our towels were actually beach towels

Hi, Gang!

It is my free day – a day I’m not required by the one course I’m teaching this year to drive to Louisville and teach and drive back, a day I’m not required to have a lesson prepared that will attempt to engage 24 bright, enthusiastic, and bored-by-text 20-something students on the topic of women and religion (how is it possible for anything about that to be boring? I am a genius at something after all) – so it needs to be full of everything else that does not get done on those days. Pre-planning. Grading the low-stakes assignments that are accumulating on the course Moodle site. Getting the minutes from the Session meeting last night edited and typed and posted in the dropbox. Laundry.

So, after a few hours checking email and drifting off to check something on the internet and drifting back to email and eating cookies for breakfast and mailing a document that had been sitting on my desk for a week to the person listed on the document and checking email and finding out it was the wrong person because we were using an old version of the document and apologizing for having done that wrong and forwarding the new version to some appropriate person but not because we are going to correct it, just for future reference, and drifting back to the internet and checking something else and making a comment for which I needed to go unshelve a book that is now sitting on the desk amid the other books that have to do with the course and making some more coffee and finally deciding to take a shower and get to workwork, I uncovered …

… a washer full of towels.

The towels were damp. They had been there approximately 5 days. I say approximately because it depends on whether you count Sunday evening, when they started to be there damp at the end of the wash cycle, as a day. Or whether you count today as a day. It could be as many as 6 days. Or as few as 4. So, approximately 5.

I know how this happened. It happened because I went to sleep on Sunday night. Well, people need sleep. But it was before the dryer cycle finished. And then, when I got up on Monday, I had forgotten about the washing towels from cleaning up the carpet where the pipe burst project. So the dry towels never got out of the dryer and the damp towels never got taken out of the washer and put into the dryer.

So as I stood facing the dryer full of dry towels that needed to be folded and put away before the new laundry cycle began, and the washer full of damp towels that now smell like the basement they were originally intended to clean up that needed to be dealt with in some fashion before the new laundry cycle began, I noticed …

… my mind, working pretty fast, making this situation into “not my fault.” Not my fault, because people need to sleep; and I just forgot; and why had no one reminded me about them; and why am I the one who always has to do the laundry around here anyway; and I actually have other work to do that is more important than laundry, which I was rather busy doing at the time; and if I kept on in that vein I could probably come up with at least a couple more, but then I noticed …

… that sometimes I do bad things. Just that.

Sometimes I do bad things.

And then I noticed …

… there is a definite taboo against just noticing that and not trying to make it go away or not matter, at least in my world – my household, my local community, maybe in “the culture” wherever that is. Because I could hear a number of familiar voices: “well, that isn’t such a bad thing, you just forgot.” “Well, it’s no sin to make a mistake, everyone makes mistakes!” “Why do have to put yourself down all the time? You are no worse than anyone else! Stop saying you’re so bad.”

But I didn’t say I was SO bad. All I said was … sometimes I do bad things. This was a pretty minor bad thing, the leaving towels in the washer for 4-6 days. I know how to fix that. I wouldn’t probably even have to tell anyone about it, even in my house, let alone you five. But it was a “bad thing,” and it was something I did. So I am wondering, why the rush – it was a rush – to distance myself from that, and why all the support for that rush to distance myself from facing that from the voices inside my head who, I think a good part of the time, pretty accurately speak for the world around me?

Because then I thought …

… if it is that much work just to acknowledge that sometimes I do bad things when it comes to a few musty towels, how much work must it be to acknowledge that sometimes I do bad things when it comes to something bigger than that? Because I think it is hard for me to change my behavior until I notice that it is a behavior that needs to change. I have left things in that washer before. I feel a little less likely to do that again, this time. We’ll see, of course, but it seems to have made a difference simply to face the fact of the situation, and that I created it, and to stop with that. So I am wondering whether that same approach would work the same way with, say, racial micro-aggression or shopping at WalMart. And I wonder if that’s why it’s so much work just to notice that sometimes I do bad things.

Because if I just notice it … I might actually see that I could do something else.

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