Sunday, May 17, 2015

Notre Dame is currently doing a "curriculum review." Goal-based curriculum is all the rage; disciplines are passe. Commercial values are trumping pedagogical values. Students are being transformed into consumers. The liberal arts are being further and further marginalized for the sake of the Almighty Dollar.  While I disagree with Deresiewicz's seemingly nominalist presuppositions ("A self is a separate space, a private space,”  “a space of strength, security, autonomy, creativity, play” ) I agree with him that  human beings are more than just fodder for the neoliberal political economy.

The Liberal Arts vs. Neoliberalism

William Deresiewicz's 'Excellent Sheep'
Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life
William Deresiewicz
Free Press, $26, 245 pp.

It is a platitude that we cannot defend the humanities without slipping into platitudes. Why is that? Part of the answer involves the corrosive impact of contemporary intellectual fashion. We are besieged by a resurgence of positivist scientism—the transformation of science from a method to a metaphysic, promising precise answers to age-old ultimate questions. Yet while pop-neuroscientists, evolutionary psychologists, and other defenders of quantifiable certainty have beaten back postmodern philosophical critiques, the postmodern style of ironic detachment has flourished. The recoil from modernist high seriousness, epitomized by the turn from Abstract Expressionist painting to Pop Art, has persisted long after Andy Warhol displaced Jackson Pollock as the celebrity artist du jour. As a signifier of the dominant cultural tone, the furrowed brow has been largely eclipsed by the knowing smirk. The commitment to searching out deep truths has yielded to the celebration of playing with surfaces (in the arts) or solving problems (in the sciences). The merger of postmodern irony and positivist scientism has been underwritten by neoliberal capitalism—whose only standard of value is market utility.

This convergence of postmodern style, positivist epistemology, and neoliberal political economy has turned a whole class of words into the stuff of platitude. Old words that used to mean something—ideals, meaning, character, self, soul—have come to seem mere floating signifiers, counters in a game played by commencement speakers and college catalogs. Vague and variable as their meanings may have been, there was a time when the big words of the humanities still carried weight. They sustained yearnings and aspirations; they sanctioned the notion that the four-year transition from adolescence to adulthood might be a time of exploration and experiment.

This idea has not disappeared entirely, but the last time it flourished en masse was forty years or so ago, in the atmosphere pervaded by the antiwar counterculture. Indeed one could argue that the counterculture of the 1960s and early ’70s involved far more than the contemporary caricature of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. It was in part a creation of young people who wanted to take college education seriously, to treat it as more than mere job training. Beneath the slogans and excess, the counterculture contained a probing critique of the instrumentalist mentality that managed the Vietnam War—the mad perversion of pragmatism embodied in the American major’s words: “it became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.” Writers like Albert Camus, Martin Buber, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer may have been more often cited than read by young people in the 1960s and ’70s, but those writers’ presence in countercultural discourse suggested the urgent question at its core: How can we live an ethical life amid the demands of illegitimate power?

One place to explore answers to that question was the liberal-arts curriculum. During the late 1960s, even at my conservative Southern university, humanities enrollments soared as students packed English, philosophy, and history courses—posing fundamental questions, resisting conventional answers. The old words still had meaning, and were being called to account. Literature provided a language for challenging “the insolence of office” that was epitomized in government lies—and for exposing the technocratic hubris embodied in Ahab’s boast: “All my means are sane; my motive and my object mad.” This is how we learned what we were up against: nothing better captured the madness of the managerial rationality behind the Vietnam War and the nuclear-arms race. Many students, myself included, acted on the unarticulated assumption that reading, reflection, and introspection might provide the foundation of an independent self—skeptical of official pieties, capable of imagining more capacious ideas of patriotism and courage than the ones provided by the dominant culture—a self that could speak truth to power. That phrase was fresh to us then.

How times have changed. Nowadays “speak truth to power” has to be placed in inverted commas, to distance us from its earnestness. Among the educated professional classes, no one would be caught dead confusing intellectual inquiry with a quest for ultimate meaning, or with the effort to create an independent self. Indeed the very notion of authentic selfhood—a self determined to heed its own ethical and aesthetic imperatives, resistant to the claims of fashion, money, and popularity—has come to seem archaic. In an atmosphere dominated by postmodern irony, pop-neuroscience, and the technocratic ethos of neoliberalism, the self is little more than a series of manipulable appearances, fashioned and re-fashioned to meet the marketing needs of the moment. We have bid adieu to existential inwardness. The reduction of the mind to software and the brain to a computer, which originated among cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind, has been popularized by journalists into the stuff of dinner-party conversations. The computer analogy, if taken as seriously as its proponents wish, undermines the concept of subjectivity—the core of older versions of the self. So it should come as no surprise that, in many enlightened circles, the very notion of an inner life has come to seem passé.

One consequence of this seismic cultural shift is the train wreck of contemporary higher education. Nothing better exemplifies the catastrophe than President Barack Obama’s plan to publish the average incomes earned by graduates from various colleges, so parents and students can know which diplomas are worth the most in the marketplace, and choose accordingly. In higher education as in health care, market utility has become the sole criterion of worth. The monetary standard of value has reinforced the American distrust of intellect unharnessed to practical purposes: the result is an atmosphere toxic to the humanities. We need a defense of the humanities that takes these cultural developments into account; that claims more for the liberal arts than the promotion of “critical thinking” and “people skills”; that insists, without slipping into platitude, on the importance of the humanities for their own sake.

WILLIAM DERESIEWICZ, A FORMER member of Yale’s English Department, has written it. In Excellent Sheep, he presents a devastating critique of the idea that college education is simply about learning marketable skills; he also makes a compelling case for the humanities. He revives, in effect, the old words—the old quest for meaning, self, and soul. The problem is that he has attached his argument to a critique of elite higher education, even as he recognizes that the critique extends far beyond the Ivy League. He shrewdly dissects the cult of “meritocracy” on American campuses, diagnosing its elements of anti-intellectualism—the careerism, the conventionality, the managerial reduction of education to “problem-solving,” the embrace of money as the measure of all things. He acknowledges that these maladies could be found as easily at the University of Virginia or the University of Mississippi Honors Program as at Yale or Princeton, but he does not seem to recognize fully that together they constitute a plague pervading the entire society. Amid the obsession with marketable skills encouraged by neoliberal capitalism, all colleges aim to turn out excellent sheep; some are better equipped than others to do so. Some sheep are more excellent—by all the conventional criteria—than others.

Whether the students are actually satisfied to be sheep is another matter. Deresiewicz writes movingly of their anguish. No reader of his book can doubt that elite colleges are full of fearful, driven kids whose miseries include “eating disorders, cutting, substance abuse, addiction, depression...” Here are some voices from the meritocracy in training: “I only get two hours sleep per night.... I really really fear failure.... I am just a machine with no life at this place.... I am a robot just going page by page, doing the work.” It is like the mental Olympics, one student observes, but the contest never ends. Sometimes “the drug of praise” can temporarily numb the fear of failure. And sometimes it takes other drugs: “If I didn’t take Zoloft,” one former student told him, “I would hate myself.” Parents who understandably worry about their children’s mental health receive glib reassurances from administrators, who talk about how many students are depressed and how easy it is to phone the suicide hotline. The number of breakdowns is almost a point of pride, part of the price for high academic standards. A young woman of my acquaintance recalled the Old Campus at Yale (the freshmen dorms) as a hive of conventional ambition; the buildings themselves seemed buzzing with ceaseless busyness. One thing is clear from Deresiewicz’s interviews: the “meritocratic” atmosphere is death to intellectual seekers, who feel they’ve been sold a bill of goods and often keep searching after they get out. Somehow the job at Goldman Sachs just doesn’t satisfy.

The problem, for Deresiewicz, is that when you focus on problems at Ivy League universities you invite the hostility of reviewers, many of whom are associated with Ivy League universities themselves. A few might even be called excellent sheep—products of the self-styled meritocracy of recent decades. Perhaps the most egregious example is Nathan Heller’s review in the New Yorker. Heller asks “Are Elite Colleges Bad for the Soul?” and begins by describing the many forms of sleep deprivation endured by him and his classmates “early in this century” at an unspecified Ivy League university. All this makes clear that he will avoid the larger issues raised by the book and focus instead on an anecdotal defense of his own experience—a strategy followed by other reviewers as well. Deresiewicz has unintentionally invited this. So to do him justice it’s important to emphasize that his argument stretches beyond the Ivy League, toward all of higher education in the contemporary United States—and beyond our borders to encompass the striving professional classes from Canada and the United Kingdom to China and India.

Still, there is a logic to focusing on the Ivy League; it is where the meritocratic myth flourishes in its purest form. The official atmosphere is pervaded by the unspoken rhetorical question: Aren’t we great? The relentless striving for badges of achievement is more flagrantly and broadly present on elite campuses than anywhere else. The Ivy League is where the American ruling class (or at least a good chunk of it) learns that they have power and wealth because they deserve it. They are meritorious. Their credentials confirm it.

The catch is that the students have to keep acquiring more evidence of their excellence—beginning, after they graduate, with a job that pays at least $100,000 a year. You remain haunted, they say, by “the feeling of being a failure if you don’t continue to amass the blue chip names” and prodded by “the need to keep on doing the most prestigious possible thing.” Yet some still fear that they have missed something, some passionate pursuit of a success that can’t be measured by conventional criteria.

High-achieving children are the products of “high-achievement parenting,” another development of recent decades, performed by “parents who fill up their own brittle selves with their children’s accomplishments,” in the withering judgment of the psychotherapist Madeline Levine, whom Deresiewicz cites at length. His favorite example of an abusive parent is Amy Chua, whose The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother celebrated her own authoritarian insistence on her children’s feverish striving. Once again he picks the most virulent form of the sickness he wants to diagnose.
However strict or permissive their upbringing, children destined for elite schools display a “self that forms in response to parental expectations,” an “affable, competent, adult-oriented personality.” Not all parents embrace the meritocratic agenda, but even if they resist it, their children are swept along by the broad upper-middle-class culture of achievement. Its darker dimensions include “junior careerism, directionless ambition, risk-aversion, Hobbesian competitiveness,” and “monumental cynicism.” There’s no there there. Education comes to be seen as “not far from game theory, an algorithm to be cracked in order to get to the next level.”

The preoccupation with process over purpose, means over ends, has long been a feature of the technocratic mind, which despite occasional countercultural protests (as in the 1960s) has dominated American universities since the late nineteenth century and now seems poised to render other forms of thinking invisible. The focus on mastering technique rather than grappling with substance means that too often higher education “does nothing to challenge students’ high school values, ideals, practices, and beliefs,” as Deresiewicz observes. How can it, if it has no vision of what an educated human being should be, as Allen Bloom complained nearly thirty years ago in The Closing of the American Mind. It is interesting how often Deresiewicz cites Bloom, the bogeyman of the politically correct left in the 1980s, who was nothing if not a passionate defender of the humanities. Resistance to technocratic imperatives cuts across conventional political boundaries.

In recent decades, au courant educational ideologues have put technocratic imperatives in a determinist idiom—the train has left the station, etc.—and have added a dose of management jargon. The most egregious management-speak is the near universal use of a customer-service model for what universities do. As Deresiewicz observes, commercial values are the opposite of pedagogical ones. If you are interested in students’ long-term welfare, don’t give them what they want—don’t be afraid, he tells professors, to stand on your own authority, to assume you know something your students don’t, which they might profit by learning. The very fact that he has to make this obvious point suggests the parlous state we are in. The easy equation of students with consumers confirms Deresiewicz’s conclusion that the schools “finally don’t care about learning at all”—or about teaching. “Teaching is not an engineering problem. It isn’t a question of transferring a certain quantity of information from one brain to another,” he writes, implicitly challenging the current fashion of online education. On the contrary: “‘Educate’ means ‘lead forth.’ A teacher’s job is to lead forth the powers that lie asleep within her students. A teacher awakens; a teacher inspires.” Not every teacher can measure up to this exalted standard, but its presence at least can make us try. By comparison, when it comes to motivating teachers, the commercial model offers nothing.
The emptiness of management jargon, applied to traditional moral concepts, is nowhere more apparent than in the ubiquity of the word “leadership.” Once upon a time it was something that was considered a duty, an accompaniment of privilege. Now, Deresiewicz writes, it’s little more than “an empty set of rituals known only to propitiate the gods.” Like so many other ideals of the meritocracy (“innovation,” “creativity,” “disruption”), indeed like the meritocrats themselves, “leadership” lacks content. And where content is absent, power pours in. We are left with Mark Edmundson’s witty summation, quoted by Deresiewicz: a leader is “someone who, in a very energetic, upbeat way, shares all the values of the people who are in charge.”

The people in charge make sure that their charges inhabit “an atmosphere of constant affirmation” characterized by “the relentless inculcation of prosocial behavior.” This is how elite colleges produce “team players”—but so do many other sorts of institutions, and so they have for many decades. The difference is that team players from Ivy Schools are more likely to end up team captain.
To the question “What’s the point? What’s this team for, anyway?” the answers are as vacant as they have always been in management literature; only now they reflect the diminished expectations of our neoliberal moment. As Deresiewicz says, the dominant ethos is: “Forget about ideals and ideologies and big ideas, those scourges of the twentieth century. Just pick a problem and go to work on it. The notion is technocratic, and bespeaks the kind of technocratic education students get today.” Of course its inspiration is not the plodding gray technocracy of the mid-century corporation, but the hipness of the high-tech entrepreneur. Deresiewicz is rightly suspicious of the idea that this new social formation constitutes a “creative class.” As he writes: “The suspicion arises that the small-scale/techie/entrepreneurial model represents the expression not of a social philosophy...but of the desire for a certain kind of lifestyle”—autonomous, hip, and rich.

Still not everyone, even among the elite, is seduced by this trendy vision. Deresiewicz has spoken to many young people who resist it. They are “ardent, curious, independent—looking to college for meaning, not skills; looking to the world for possibility, not security. What they told me, invariably, was that they felt abandoned by their institution.” But it is not just the elite universities that have abandoned them; it is our entire leadership class, beginning with the president himself. During the 2008 campaign, Obama gave stirring speeches in Austin, Texas, and Madison, Wisconsin, where he insisted on the importance of music and the arts in any educational program. For a presidential candidate to be saying these things seemed too good to be true—as in fact it was. Once in office, Obama embraced the neoliberal education agenda of marketization and privatization, epitomized by his reliably anti-intellectual secretary of education, Arne Duncan. Where are intellectual seekers supposed to find legitimation for their search?

In Deresiewicz’s book, for starters. He does not mince words: “An undergraduate experience devoted exclusively to career preparation is four years largely wasted. The purpose of college is to enable you to live more alertly, more responsibly, more freely: more fully.” The key to this process is “developing the habit of skepticism and the capacity to put it into practice. It means learning not to take things for granted, so you can reach your own conclusions.” So it comes down to an effort at self-culture, as Emerson would have said. And self-culture involves an inward turn: it is “through this act of introspection, of self-examination, of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique being—a soul. And that is what it means to develop a self.” Deresiewicz, the son of Orthodox Jewish parents, is not himself religious. But he finds religious language—beginning with the marriage of self and soul—inescapable in describing the intellectual quest fostered by the liberal arts. “People go to monasteries to find out why they have come, and college ought to be the same,” he writes. It takes real courage to make such claims amid the market-driven discourse of contemporary higher education.

THE CONSEQUENCE OF THIS soul-making odyssey—or at least an early way station on a lifelong journey—is precisely the kind of self that resists the siren song of contemporary intellectual fashion, a self that is fortified against disappointments and failure. “A self is a separate space, a private space,” Deresiewicz writes, “a space of strength, security, autonomy, creativity, play.” This is a romantic modernist vision, thoroughly at odds with postmodern and neoliberal notions of selfhood. And like the romantic modernists of the 1960s, Deresiewicz sometimes slips into formulaic oppositions—such as the one he poses between the young and their parents, whom he falsely assumes to epitomize the constraints of conventional expectations. He is right, though, to recognize the difficulties involved in choosing an independent path—the puzzled looks, the people who wonder why you didn’t fulfill your promise.

But if you’ve taken the humanities seriously you can withstand the puzzled looks. As Deresiewicz writes, the liberal arts curriculum remains “the best training you can give yourself in how to talk and think”—“to reflect...for the sake of citizenship, for the sake of living well with others, above all, for the sake of building a self that is strong and creative and free.” You read literature, philosophy, and history because “you don’t build a self out of thin air, by gazing at your navel. You build it, in part, by encountering the ways that others have done so themselves.” And the wider and more varied the definition of the canon, the better—the more examples you have of alternative ways of thinking and being in the world. As Bloom wrote (and Deresiewicz quotes): “The most successful the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities.” It was as if the conservative curmudgeon had foreseen the techno-determinists of our own time, for whom the train has always left the station and (in Maggie Thatcher’s words) “there is no alternative” to the neoliberal system. The prerequisite for independence is the realization that there are indeed other possibilities than the ones handed down by conventional wisdom.

A sense of possibility, as Deresiewicz acknowledges, is a product of class privilege. And indeed the humanities have historically functioned as the playground of the rich, before they get down to the real work of running the world. (A friend of mine, a Yale professor, once said that part of ruling-class socialization was listening to a guy with a beard talk about Marx.) Yet the humanities need not be reduced to a mere luxury. Abundant testimony exists from teachers in night-school classes, even in prisons, that comparatively uneducated students can respond to great literature with passion and intelligence. That encounter can be life-changing. A student of mine at Rutgers, a Navy veteran, found that reading Heart of Darkness forced him to come to terms with his own dark experiences in the first Gulf War. Conrad led him to Melville and W. E. B. DuBois, to exploring the mysteries of the divided self. It was a bumpy ride, but he came out of it more alert, more aware, and more fully engaged with the world.

So why shouldn’t everyone have a shot at this experience? Deresiewicz thinks everyone should. And he knows it’s more than a matter of affirmative action. In fact he recognizes what a hollow charade that policy has become—a legitimation of existing privilege. Quoting Walter Benn Michaels, he writes, “the (very few) poor people at Harvard...reassure the (very many) rich people at Harvard that you can’t just buy your way into Harvard.” Deresiewicz realizes that the only affirmative action worth the name is a policy that takes class as well as gender and ethnicity into account. But ultimately affirmative action can never be more than a Band-Aid on the carcinoma that afflicts higher education—the primacy of technocratic, monetary standards. We need to create a world, he writes, “where you don’t have to go to the Ivy League, or any private college, to get a first-rate education.” Of course it is already possible to do that at many fine state universities. But they are struggling to stay afloat amid the systematic impoverishment of the public sector that has lasted for decades and has only accelerated in the past few years. The most egregious among many recent examples is the assault on the University of Wisconsin by the Republican governor, Scott Walker. Since 1989, state spending on higher education in the United States has dropped by half—a fact few commentators mention as they bewail the rising cost of college. Of course tuition will rise under these circumstances: somebody has to pay. As Deresiewicz acknowledges, public higher education is suffering the same fate as K–12 education, not to mention public-health initiatives and other essential government services: they are all “starved of funds, then blamed for failing to deliver.” So it is clear that the problems of higher education involve far more than misplaced meritocratic mythology at Ivy League schools; they are part of a general moral and political crisis.

The question remains: What is to be done? Despite his focus on the Ivy League, Deresiewicz supplies valuable ammunition for embattled defenders of the humanities, who too often have been reduced to mumbling about corporate recruiters’ preference for English majors. It is time to go on the offensive, and he has done so in fine style. Arguing for the importance of the humanities is by no means a merely academic gesture. As the antiwar counterculture of the ’60s learned, the liberal-arts tradition has a radical edge; it is a prod to the moral imagination, a seed-bed of political possibilities. The first step toward challenging illegitimate power is the recognition that you can indeed take that step—that there are alternatives available to the future on offer. As a peace-activist colleague of mine in Missouri said, when students wondered where to begin challenging the enormity of the nuclear-arms race: “Well, you start where you’re at.”

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Student Blooper

Grading papers and weeping quietly...
"Ultimately, God created everything, and created us in His image, and we are here to glorify God, share His word and preach the Gossip."

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Dante vs. Nietzsche

Meditation for Maundy Thursday

"Is Dante right that love moves the stars, or is Nietzsche right that the will to power makes the world go round? Do the strong inevitably dominate the weak like those birds of prey that carry off lambs, or is ultimate truth both more surprising and more beautiful than we could ever have guessed?

Nietzsche’s Alpha was the will to power, so he could not imagine an Omega where perfect love is the order of the day. But if the Trinity is the Alpha and the Omega, then heaven makes perfect sense. If the Trinity is bedrock reality, then love is the very heart of the meaning of life. And when perfect love achieves its ends, we may hope to find the perfect happiness we crave, the perfect comic end of the cosmic drama."

--Jerry Walls, Heaven, Hell and Purgatory

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Evaluating Models of the Atonement: Kallistos Ware's Four Questions

Since posting on my response to Evangelicals and the substitutionary atonement, I seem to have got involved in some discussions with some Evangelicals. I am still trying to work out whether this is a good thing or not, but it has prompted me to want to post something on Orthodox understandings of salvation. I recently listened to a lecture on “Salvation in Christ” by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia. This was part of The Way course, (which I have been meaning to post about, but that will have to wait). In any case, it seemed like a worthwhile introduction to the topic of how salvation should be understood in Christian tradition and so I decided to summarise it and make it available here. Part of my motivation in doing so is that many western Christians, perhaps particularly in South Africa, seem to automatically identify salvation with the substitutionary atonement theory. Or, when they come to reject that, they move into something totally subjective. And if I can help to make people aware that the Tradition is actually broader and deeper than these rather sterile alternatives, then that will probably be a good thing. In any case, I’m posting this here. It’s long, but is worth reading….

Metropolitan Kallistos begins recounting a rather typical story of being asked “Are you saved?” by a man on a train. How is one to answer such a question? And how are we to understand Christian salvation?
He then proceeds by pointing out that the New Testament does not provide a single way of understanding the saving work of Christ, but rather “a whole series of images and symbols set side by side. They are symbols of profound meaning and power, yet for the most part they are not explained but left to speak for themselves.” He suggests that we should not isolate any one image of Christ’s work but should rather view them together. In this talk he will highlight possible models of salvation, but these are not exhaustive.
Underlying all six models is one fundamental truth, namely that “Jesus Christ, as our Saviour, has done something for us that we could not do alone and by ourselves. We cannot save ourselves; we need help. … We could not come to God, so He has come to us.”
Metropolitan Kallistos then proposes four questions to help us evaluate each model.
  1. Does it envisage a change in God or in us? “Some theories of Christ’s saving work seem to suggest that God is angry with us, and what Christ has done is to satisfy God’s anger. But that cannot be right. It is we who need changing, not God. As St. Paul said, ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). It is the world that needs to be reconciled to God, not God to the world.”
  2. Does it separate Christ from the Father? “Some theories seem to suggest that God the Father is punishing Christ when He dies on the Cross. I remember as a student in Oxford hearing that great evangelical preacher Billy Graham say, “At the moment when Christ died on the Cross the lightning of God’s wrath hit him instead of you.” I didn’t find that a very happy way of thinking of Christ’s work. Surely we should not separate Christ from the Father in that kind of way, for they are one God, members of the Holy Trinity. As St Paul states, in the words that I quoted just now, ‘God was in Christ’. When Christ saves us, it is God who is at work in Him; there is no separation.”
  3. Does it isolate the cross from the Incarnation and the Resurrection? “We are to think of Christ’s life as a single unity. So we should not think only of the Cross, but we should think of what went before the Crucifixion, and of what comes after.”
  4. Does it presuppose an objective or a subjective understanding of Christ’s work? “Does Christ’s saving work merely appeal to our feelings, or did He do something to alter our objective situation in an actual and realistic way?”

Model 1: Teacher

First of all, we may think of Christ as teacher, as the one who reveals the truth to us, who brings light and disperses the dark of ignorance from our minds: ‘He was the true light that enlightens everyone coming into the world’ (John 1:9). He saves us by teaching us the truth about God. This was exactly the way in which His disciples thought of Him at the beginning when they called Him ‘Rabbi’, which means teacher. Later, of course, they realized He was not just a human teacher but something far more. This first model was adopted in particular by the group of second century writers known as the Apologists, the most famous of whom was Justin Martyr.
Considering the four questions, Metropolitan Kallistos points out that it passes the first three questions, for the change is in us not in God, there is no separation between Jesus and the Father, and it does not isolate the Cross but embraces Christ’s whole life. However,
…difficulties arise over this fourth question. Christ opens our minds by His teaching, but does He then leave us to carry out His teaching simply by our own efforts? Has He actually changed our objective situation? More specifically, we do not merely need to be instructed, but we need to be saved from sin. So this first model embraces part of the truth, but not the whole, for it leaves out the tragedy and the anguish of sin.

Model 2: Ransom

The second image is that of Christ paying a ransom on our behalf, for “The Son of God came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The point of this metaphor is that whereas we were previously enslaved to sin, now we are liberated, for “Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). This is a costly ransom, involving the laying down of Christ’s life on the Cross. However, Metropolitan Kallistos continues,
Let us remember that this is only an image or metaphor, not a systematic theory; and let us therefore not attempt to press the metaphor too far. It is wise not to ask: To whom is the ransom paid? In fact, the New Testament does not actually ask that question. If we say, “the ransom is paid to God the Father”, then we are in danger of separating Christ from His Father, and of thinking of the Father as angry and vindictive, and demanding payment. Surely God is not like that: He does not require payment, but forgives us freely. Should we then say that the payment is paid to the devil? That is an answer that the Fathers, Greek and Latin, have often given; but it creates major problems. It seems to suggest that the devil has rights or claims upon us, and that cannot be true. The devil has no rights; he is a liar. The essential point of the ransom metaphor is not transaction or bargain but liberation. It is better not to ask who is being paid, but to stick to the basic point: Christ has set us free.
Applying his four questions of evaluation, Metropolitan Kallistos concludes that there is no problem with the first, for the change is not in God but in us. There is no problem with the second as long as we don’t see Christ as paying a ransom to the Father, in which case there will indeed be a danger of separating them. In terms of the third question, while the ransom model concentrates on the Cross, it need not do so exclusively, for it is His whole life which has set us free. And the fourth question shows the strength of this model compared to the first model, for “In setting us free, Christ has indeed altered our objective situation.”

Model 3: Sacrifice

With the model of sacrifice Metropolitan Kallistos argues that “we enter deep waters”. Today the idea of sacrifice has lost much of its meaning, whereas in the ancient world it was taken for granted. The Old Testament knew different kinds of sacrifice, yet we do not find a definition of it, or of how it works. In the New Testament
Christ is seen as fulfilling the sacrifices of the Old Covenant more especially in two ways:
i. “Christ our Paschal lamb has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7); “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Here Christ is seen as the Paschal Lamb, eaten by the Jews at the Passover in memory of the Exodus from Egypt (see Exodus 12). Christ’s death on the Cross and His Resurrection is the New Passover.
ii. “He is the atoning sacrifice (hilasmos) for our sins (1 John 2:2). This recalls the sacrificial ritual on the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), when the people were sprinkled with blood to cleanse them from their sins (Leviticus 16:23, 27-32). In a similar way the blood of Jesus, sacrificed for us, cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7). The sacrifice on the Day of Atonement is recalled in particular when our Lord institutes the Eucharist, saying: “This is my blood of the (new) covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).
Metropolitan Kallistos suggests that in order to understand the meaning of sacrifice we need to understand:
  • that a sacrifice is an offering or gift made to God;
  • that a true sacrifice involves the offering not of some object or animal, but of ourselves;
  • that the true purpose of sacrifice is not death but life. “If the victim is slain, that is not because its death has value as an end in itself, but so that its life may be offered to God. According to the understanding of the Old Testament, the life of an animal or human being resides in the blood; and thus by the pouring out of the victims blood, its life was released and made available, so as to be offered up to God.
  • a true sacrifice must necessarily be voluntary.
Applying this to the sacrifice we can say that Christ is offered up to God, that He offers Himself in sacrifice, that He dies that we may have life, something that is made clear by the linking of His Cross with His Resurrection, and that He laid His life down freely on our behalf.
Underlying this idea of sacrifice as voluntary self-offering is the all important factor of love:
Why does Christ lay down His life? Out of love: “…having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1); “For Go so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). Love, then, is the key to the key to the whole idea of sacrifice. Sacrifice is voluntary self-offering, inspired by love – love to the uttermost, love without limits.
Recalling our four questions, we may say: there is indeed a danger of stating the “sacrifice” model in such a way as to suggest that the change is in God, not us (question 1), that Christ is separated from the Father (question 2), that the Cross is to be isolated from the rest of our Lord’s life (question 3). But this danger is largely avoided if the element of love is emphasized. In that case, Christ’s sacrifice is seen as an expression of God’s unchanging love; the sacrifice of love alters us, not God, there is no separation between the Father and Son. Moreover, the whole of Christ’s life, from the Incarnation onwards, is a sacrifice or offering to God; so the Cross is not isolated.
Linked to the idea of sacrifice, Metropolitan Kallistos discerns two variants on this theme.

Model 3, variant 1: Satisfaction

This is the theory developed by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) who applied the principles of feudal society to the atonement.
Human sin, he argued, has offended God’s honour; satisfaction must be given to the Father in recompense for His offended honour, and this satisfaction has been rendered by Christ on our behalf. For all its popularity, this theory has two grave disadvantages: 1. It interprets salvation in legalistic categories, rather than as an act of divine love; 2. The notions of honour and satisfaction, while reflecting medieval feudalism, are not to be found in the Bible.

Model 3, variant 2: Substitution

This idea, that Christ bears our sins in our person and suffers instead of us, does have biblical roots and is seen as fulfilling the Old Testament prototypes of the sacrificial scapegoat (Leviticus 16:20-22) and the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53:4-7). Jesus is seen as taking our sins upon himself and enduring the punishment that we deserve to undergo.
Evaluating this model, Metropolitan Kallistos comments:
Now in this substitution model it is clear that the change is in us, not in God (question 1); but we must be careful not to understand the model in such a way as to separate Christ from God, as Billy Graham unfortunately did (question 2). Also there is a danger that the idea of substitution may turn Christ’s work of salvation into a transaction that is somehow external to us, in which we are not directly and immediately involved. Jesus does indeed suffer for our sins, but we need to be associated with His act of sacrificial suffering and to make that our own. It is legitimate to say “Christ instead of me”, but we should balance that by saying, “Christ on behalf of me”, and also “Christ in me and I in Him”. Substitution language should be combined with the language of indwelling.

Model 4: Victory

Metropolitan Kallistos describes this model as follows:
Here Christ’s work of salvation is seen as a cosmic battle between good and evil, between light and darkness. Dying on the cross and rising from the dead, Christ is victor over sin, death and the devil. This victory is summed up in the last word that He spoke on the Cross, Tetelestai (John 19:30), which is usually translated “It is finished”. But this is not to be seen as a cry of resignation or despair. Christ is not just saying, “It’s all over. This is the end”, but He is affirming, “It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. It is completed”. For other examples of the victory motif, see Collossians 2:15: “[God] disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it [through the Cross]”; and also Ephesians 4:8: “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive” (quoting Psalm 68:18).
The Father who particularly uses the idea of victory is St Irenaeus of Lyons at the end of the second century. If you want to see the idea of victory lived out, then think above all of the Paschal Midnight Service, with its constant refrain, Christos anesti ek nekron, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death”. Think also of the marvellous sermon attributed to St John Chrysostom, read at the end of matins or at the Liturgy, with its overwhelming sense of triumphant joy. The same note of victory is found in Latin hymns for Pascha: “Death and life have contended in that combat tremendous. The Prince of Life who died reigns immortal.”
The advantage of this victory model is that it holds together the Cross and the Resurrection which are seen as a single event. Christ’s death itself is a victory, though it remains hidden. When the myrrhbearing women come to the tomb and proclaim its emptiness, and when Christ appears, the victory is made manifest.
The disadvantage of the victory model is that it can appear militaristic, portraying Christ’s work as some sort of coercive power. It is therefore important to point out that this is a victory not of superior force or of militaristic power, but of suffering love.
On the Cross Christ is victorious through His weakness, through His self-emptying, through His kenosis, to use the Greek term. So a victory, yes, but a kenotic victory.
This kenotic victory becomes clear when we link the cry of “it is finished” on the Cross to Saint John’s account of the washing of the feet where he described Jesus as loving them to the end. (John 13:1)
when Christ says “It is finished”, telelestai, the Evangelist intends us to think back to what was said four chapters earlier, “Having loved His own, He loved them to the end”, eis telos. From this we understand exactly what is finished on the Cross, what is fulfilled: it is the victory of love. Despite all the suffering, physical and mental, inflicted upon Him, Jesus goes on loving humankind; His love is not changed into hatred. We are to see the victory then not as a military victory but as the victory of suffering love, unchanging love, love without limits. As the Protestant theologian Karl Barth said, “The Christian God is great enough to be humble”. And that’s what we see above all in His victory on the Cross. God is never so strong as when He is most weak.

Model 5: Example

This model is associated with another Latin writer, Peter Abelard (1079-1142/3) who sees Christ’s life and death as the supreme example of love in action and which evokes a response in us, drawing us to emulate this love. Metropolitan Kallistos points out that many modern western Christians have been attracted by this model, because it moves completely away from the notion of God as angry, jealous, vindictive, and blood-thirsty, and from legalistic categories like satisfaction. Moreover this model does not separate Christ from the Father nor does it isolate the Cross from the rest of Christ’s life.
But the difficulty comes in with question 4. If Christ has merely set us an example, does that mean we have then to follow that example by our own efforts? Has Christ objectively changed things?
Metropolitan Kallistos argues that, understood in the right way, this model can be understood as involving an objective change in our situation, for “love is an objective energy in the universe”.
love is a creative, enabling force. Our love alters the lives of others. And if this is true of our human love, it is much more true of the divine-human love of Christ our Saviour. By loving us He does not just set us an example but He changes the world for us, giving us a meaning and hope that we could not otherwise discover. So the love of another for me infuses into me a transfiguring force, a transformative power. Love enables, just as hatred depotentiates. This is true of our inter-human relationships, but it is much more true of the love poured out upon us by the Son of God. Where love is concerned, the subjective/objective contrast breaks down.
Metropolitan Kallistos then points out that it is this theme of suffering love that unites the third, fourth and fifth models when they are rightly understood.
What makes Christ’s death a redeeming sacrifice is precisely that He offers Himself willingly in love (model 3). The victory of Christ is nothing else than the victory of kenotic, suffering love (model 4). And the example of this suffering love alters our lives and fills us with grace and power (model 5).

Model 6: Exchange

This model is understood as a mutual sharing and takes the Incarnation as its starting point. In it, Christ takes on our humanity “and in exchange He enables us to share in His divine grace and glory.
As St Paul expresses it, speaking metaphorically in terms of riches and poverty: “Though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that through His poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). The riches of Christ are His heavenly glory; our human poverty means our fallen condition, our alienation and brokenness. Christ shares in our brokenness – in our anguish, our loneliness, our loss of hope – and so we are enabled by way of exchange to share in His eternal life, becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).
St Irenaeus of Lyons expresses the same point in more direct terms: “In His unbounded love, He became what we are, so as to make us what He is”. St Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296-273) is yet more succinct: “He became man, that we might become God”. We could also translate the phrase: “He became incarnate, that we might be ingodded”, or “He was humanized, that we might be deified”.
This sixth model encourages us to think of salvation as theosis or deification: salvation is not just a change in our legal status before God, it is not just an imitation of Jesus through moral effort, but it signifies an organic, all-embracing transformation of our created personhood, through genuine participation in divine life. Equally this sixth model can be spelt out in terms of healing. St Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389), or Gregory the Theologian, as he is known in the Orthodox Church, affirmed with reference to the Incarnation, “The unassumed is unhealed”. Christ, that is to say, has shared totally in our humanness – He has taken up into Himself our human nature in its entirety – and in this way He has healed us and transfigured us.

I am being saved

Metropolitan Kallistos concludes by pointing out that there are other aspects of salvation that he has not discussed here, especially its social and ecclesial nature.
He then returns to the question of salvation that he posed at the beginning of the talk: Am I saved?
I might have answered, “Yes, I am saved”. But might not that have been somewhat over-confident? Long after his conversion on the road to Damascus, St Paul expressed the fear that, “after preaching to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). God is faithful, and He will not change; but we humans, as long as we are in this life, retain free will and so, up to the end of our life, we are in danger of falling away. As St Anthony of Egypt (251-356) warned us, “Expect temptations until your last breath”. I am on a journey and that journey is not yet completed.
However, it would be rather pointless for him to have answered that he was not saved, and
Thus I thought that the best way of answering was to say, “I trust by God’s mercy I am being saved”. In other words, let us use the present tense, but in the form of the continuous present: not “I am saved” but “I am being saved”. Salvation, that is to say, is a process. It is not just a single event, but an ongoing journey, a pilgrimage that is only completed at the moment of our death.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Letter to an online friend (My Apologia Pro Vita Sua)

May I give a story, rather than an argument?

The history of philosophy is an intellectual laboratory. [Friend],  I am thankful that you have found a way out of despair through Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Kierkegaard, and that you have found "the Living Word." My journey has been different. When I read these thinkers, I am left in exactly the opposite state: despair.

In my experience, when I see that I am lost, I have a choice: I can either keep driving forward, and hope that there will eventually be a way to my destination, or I can back up, see where I took a wrong turn, and get back on track.

My putterings in the intellectual laboratory have convinced me that the late middle ages was the fork in the road that led to places with names like Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Nietzsche, Clifford and Rand, among others. While it is informative to sight-see in those locales, they are not my destination: they are not places where I can settle and flourish. Their inhabitants can be very stimulating folk, but I find that in order to communicate with them, I cannot use my "heart" language. Thus, we never do completely understand one another, and my soul becomes increasingly isolated and depressed when I think that I might be exiled forever in those places.

That is why I have decided to do an about face, and march against the intellectual flow. (If you read "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," by Ursula LeGuin, you'll get a glimpse of what it has been like.) Since charting this course, I have met a number of wonderful companions who are also retracing the steps of (post) modernist thought. Furthermore, I have come to better understand how the "fork in the road" came to be constructed in the first place. We have not yet reached our Destination, but we have been heartened by the Food and Drink and cool Waters that are available in the towns along the way...towns with names like Boethius, Augustine, Anselm, Thomas, Bonaventure.

Yes, I often write blogs and posts and even make quick trips back to "rescue the perishing;" to try to show the inhabitants of (Post) Modernia that they, too, are welcome to join our pilgrimage to the City. When I do, some jeer, some accuse me of being an intellectual fossil or an antediluvean dotard. They say I am not "with it" and that I am only concerned with my own salvation. But the truth is, I am only concerned with what is True and Good and Beautiful, and that my hunger and thirst for it is leading me to Him in Whom faith and reason coincide. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Item for Bucket List: Learn to Code

This is one of the things I need to do when I retire. I feel so illiterate not knowing how to code.

Top 10 Ways to Teach Yourself to Code

Top 10 Ways to Teach Yourself to Code
Programming is one of the most valuable skills you can pick up in these modern times, whether for career prospects or to stretch your brain and create something awesome. If you're just getting started on your coding journey, here are ten tips and resources to set you off on the right foot.

10. Figure Out Why You Want to Learn to Code

Top 10 Ways to Teach Yourself to Code
The direction you go in will depend in large part on why you want to learn to code in the first place and how much time you have to devote to learning. If you want to be a professional programmer, signing up college courses might be your best bet. (Google has a list of suggested skills and courses for would-be software engineers.) If you want to build websites or games for fun (and possibly profit) in your spare time, interactive tutorials might be better. Bloc has a comparison of course options based on workload, cost, and reason you're picking up programming. And if you're still deciding on a tech career, Switch will recommend one based on your interests.

9. Choose the Right Language

Top 10 Ways to Teach Yourself to Code
There's no one "best" programming language, and once you've learned one, it's fairly easy to pick up another, so don't get hung too up on choosing your first language. That said, some languages are more beginner-friendly than others. The language you choose to start with might depend, again, on your purpose. (For example, if you want to write an iOS app, you'll need to learn Swift.) There's a case for starting with C if you're serious about programming, although higher-level languages, like Python, are easier to jump into right away. Here's an infographic comparing a few popular programming languages.

8. Start Small (and Be Patient)1

No matter which language or learning method you choose, you should start at the very beginning (a very good place to start). When David Sinsky taught himself to code in eight weeks, for example, he spent one weekend getting an introductory grasp of Python and one weekend getting an introductory understanding of Django—going through the tutorial, deleting all of the tutorial code, and working through the tutorial again from scratch. Start with the basics and be patient with yourself as you progress. To take your first coding project from start to finish, break down the project into simple steps. And if one method of learning isn't working for you (e.g., books), try another method before giving up.

7. Try a Kids App4

Top 10 Ways to Teach Yourself to Code
Even toddlers are learning to code these days. That's actually a great thing for all of us. Although many of the programs designed to teach kids to code are very simplistic, many of them, like Scratch, are suitable for all ages. It doesn't matter how old you are; even kids' animation apps can get you started with the basics of programming (edX has a new course on Programming in Scratch, by the way).

6. Use Free Online Training Sites

Top 10 Ways to Teach Yourself to Code
Free online training sites like Codecademy and other Hour of Code participants can help you write your first computer program. Tutorials from KhanAcademy, Codecademy,, and many other organizations will introduce you to the basics of programming—all while creating a new game, site, or other project. Find the resources you need according to the language you're learning with Bento. These are good starting points, but you'll need to take the initiative to further or continue your learning after these introductions.

5. Take a Coding Course

Top 10 Ways to Teach Yourself to Code
Online computer science courses offer a bit more of rounded educational experience compared to online training sites focusing on one language. These courses are designed to teach you fundamental skills over several months in college-level classes. I can't personally recommend Harvard's CS50 (which you can take for free) enough, but there are many others you can take (many listed on our Lifehacker U series). You can even build a college-level computer science education with this selection of fifteen online courses.

4. Grab Some Free Programming Books

Top 10 Ways to Teach Yourself to Code
When you get stuck on a problem or just need to look something up, reference books come in very handy. There's a huge collection of over 500 free programming books posted on GitHub, and another collection of Ebooks covering 24 programming languages.

3. Play Coding Games

Top 10 Ways to Teach Yourself to Code
Often the best way to learn is through games. While plenty of coding tutorials have you building simple or complex games yourself, a couple of teaching sites are literally games: Code Combat and CodinGame are two you might have fun with.

2. Get a Mentor (or Teach Someone Else)

The programming community is full of people who are willing to help the next generation of programmers. Hack.pledge() is one site that will connect you to a mentor, or you can sign up to mentor someone else. Even just planning to teach what you've learned can help you retain the information better.

1. Hack Someone Else's Code

Top 10 Ways to Teach Yourself to Code
When you reverse engineer someone else's code, testing each line to see how it works, you get a better understanding of the big picture. Thanks to tons of open source code, you can learn just about anything—and keep learning through the incremental-hacking cycle. Just remember to share your code back with the community if you improve on a program.
Photo by takito (Shutterstock).