In the wake of the election in the fall there was a spike in anti-Semitic attacks. A spate of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers at the end of January suggest that the threat of violence has not let up. Until last year with the rise of the white supremacist “alt-right,” I thought of anti-Semitism as something that was largely over. I realize the naiveté of that position now. Reading Adam Kotsko’s The Prince of this World, I’m struck by his case for how prevalent a low-level (sometimes not even very low-level) anti-Semitism is in Protestant Christianity. Read more
Grace: it’s not about life after death, it’s life after debt.
By some lucky happenstance (grace?) I finished reading David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel Lila in the same week. In his book, which is discussed at length in this seminar at Crooked Timber, Graeber attempts to establish that human relationships are not reducible to and do not originate in economies of credit and debt. Graeber argues, as I have long thought, that Nietzsche’s exercise in taking the calculability of all human relations to its logical conclusions in his Second Essay in On the Genealogy of Morals is not meant to defend but to mock such a schema. Graeber points out that there is something insulting about considering your relationships with others in terms of debt. To consider a relationship one of debt suggests a calculability to it, a way of measuring what is owed, a way of holding one another responsible because of the IOU between you. When I was in junior high and high school, my mother did not like us getting rides from our friends’ parents because she felt like that obligated her to give rides to our friends. She didn’t like giving rides. Fine.* I think about Aristotle talking about how friendship is the opportunity to exhibit virtue to others, to have someone to be generous to. But still, human relationships are always in excess of debt, irreducible to what is owed, made obscene by the sense that it is merely the keeping of obligations and demanding that they be met (this is likely why I’m not a Kantian).** It is this element of human relationships that Graeber calls communistic. Read more
On New Year’s Day, I visited my Uncle Jon in Chicago. He is a member of JPUSA, a Christian commune in Uptown. He’s a feminist progressive Christian who is more aware of his white male privilege than any Christian man I know, so it’s refreshing to spend time with him. He was telling us about his changing views on evangelism. He described a certain perspective on efforts at conversion that he called, “dive bombing.” “Dive bombing” is when you come from above and attempt to strip your target of their (false) understanding of the world so that you can then replace it with yours. This approach, he pointed out, is very condescending. And it works by establishing that someone else is wrong. So it’s basically gaslighting evangelism. Read more
Since I last posted on the question of whether what we think makes us good or bad people, my thoughts keep returning to how difficult this question is. To reiterate, when I say, what we think might make us good or bad people, I don’t mean whether we think about doing what we might generally acknowledge to be bad things — that you think about how to hurt someone might set you on the path to being a bad person, or that you think hateful thoughts toward someone is likely to make you hurt them, or you think it is good to get ahead by taking advantage of other people. I think the value of those kinds of thoughts is less controversial. What I am considering is whether the ways you think about what is–what we call ontological claims–makes you a good or bad person. Read more
When I was growing up in the PCA (one of the conservative evangelical – read: fundamentalist – Presbyterian denominations, stands for Presbyterian Church of America), there was a strong sense that thinking the right things about God and about your position in relationship to God was a critical part of being a Christian.