Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Road Most Travelled

Robert Jeffress, The Road Most Traveled: Releasing the Power of Contentment in Your Life, Broadman & Holman, 1996. 184 pages. ISBN 080546266x

I am reading a book by Fr. Schall, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs. In one of the earlier essays he speaks about how used book stores can be a treasure chest. He states that for a little amount one can purchase some of the best books written. I have a similar experience in cataloging new and donated books. Sometimes I come across a book that catches my eye that I must read. Recently, I cataloged The Road Most Traveled: Releasing the Power of Contentment in Your Life. Maybe, what drew my attention is the word contentment in the title or maybe, it was the Road most traveled because I was curious what it meant. Usually I perused a book before reading it. I examine the title, the preface, the table of content, the back cover and any other introductory material. Usually, in a short time, I can discover the subject and purpose of the book. By that time, I usually know if I want to read the book or lay it aside.

The Road Most Traveled is a good book for a man approaching mid-life or a time where he is evaluating his life. For about two years now, I have been evaluating my life. Some people call this mid-life crisis, but Jeffress prefers to call it mid-life evaluation whichs seems a better fit for my situation. Jeffress believes that the key to contentment is accepting the sovereignty of God in our life. The author asserts, "The Road Most Traveled deals with the most basic issue in a man's life: contentment. Until a man can make peace with the unchangeable circumstances, choices, or even mistakes of his life, he will never be emotionally or spiritually free to perform the duties outlined by many books" (4). Among the topics covered in the book are how to be content wherever you are, finances, glorifying God in your work, accepting your spouse and children as God's gift, accepting on mistakes, accepting your inevitable death, and "seeing God's hand in your life."

I was not disappointed with the book after reading it. The author shared some essential principles for accepting our lot in life. A good point the author makes multiple times is: "The message of The Road Most Traveled" is that while most of us are destined to live an ordinary life, every detail of your life is part of God's plan--a plan designed for our good and for God's eternal purpose" (175). If our life in this world was perfect, we would never seek God; but we are pilgrims and this is not our final resting place. I recommend this book for anyone who wants to evaluate their life or looking for ways to find contentment in his life.   

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Dynamic Spiritual Leadership: Leading Like Paul

J. Oswald Sanders, Dynamic Spiritual Leadership: Leading Like Paul, Discovery House, 1999, 6th printing, 2011.

Dynamic Spiritual Leadership: Leading Like Paul is a gem of a book that I reread every few years. It is two books in one: a book on spiritual leadership and a book on the Apostle Paul. Sanders uses the life of Paul as an example to teach principles about Christian leadership. J. Oswald Sanders was a Christian leader for nearly 70 years and wrote more than 40 books on the Christian Life including Enjoying Intimacy with God, Every Life is a Plan of God, Facing Loneliness,Spiritual Leadership, and many others.

Leading Like Paul was a follow-up to his earlier book on Christian leadership. In some sense, this book book clothes on his earlier book. I like this book because of its description of the life of Paul more than because of its discussion of principles of Spiritual leadership, but I think readers will benefit if they are interested in either of these themes. The book is divided into fourteen chapters which a chapter a day could be easily read in fifteen minutes are less. The author is easy to understand, and he writes well. He also has years of experience from serving as a missionary and the director of a missions agency.

Some of the themes about the life of Paul covered in this book are Paul's preparation to be a leader, the characteristics of a leader, Paul's view of God, the centrality of the Cross of Christ, the importance of prayer, communicating God's message, Paul's missionary life, controversial issues, a philosophy of weakness, and the training of leaders. Sanders says about Paul, "In Paul we find an inspiring prototype of what one man, wholly abandoned of God, can achieve in a single generation" (10). The chapter on the background of Paul he discusses the influences of Paul's life before conversion, his conversion experience, and training after his conversion. One can definitely see the providence of God in the life of Paul. Sander's asserts that Paul's postgraduate training required "a period of withdrawl," and solitude. Solitude was necessary because solitude "is an important element in the maturing process. Spiritual leadership does not develop in the glare of publicity."

In the chapter on the characteristics of a leader, Sanders quotes from John Stott: "A man is not only what he owes to his parents, friends and teachers, but a man is also what God has made him by calling him to some particular ministry and by endowing him with appropriate natural and spiritual gifts." Some of the characteristics of the Apostle Paul that fitted him for leadership were: character, courage, compassion, leadership, encouragement, faith and vision, friendship. Sanders thinks "you can tell a man by his friends," and Paul had a lot of them. Just observe all the people he mentions in his letters that he sends greeting to. Other traits characteristic of Paul were a confident modesty, humility, communication, listening, patience, self-discipline, and Paul was "a generous and broad-minded man. In addition, Paul had an "exalted view of God," and he boasted in the cross of Jesus Christ. A. W. Tozer stated, "What comes to our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us." Sanders noted that Paul was both a prayer warrior and a communicator for God. Sanders asserts, "Without doubt one of the most potent elements in Paul's leadership was his ability to communicate divine truth powerfully and convincingly."

Sander's Dynamic Spiritual Leadership is an excellent overview of the leadership of the Apostle Paul. It is an easy, and enjoyable read. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Faith & Doubt

John Ortberg, Faith & Doubt, Zondervan, 2008. 186 pages. ISBN 978-0-310-25351-8

John Ortberg is a pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California. He is a bestselling author of If You Want to Walk on Water, You've Got to Get Out the Boat; All the Places to Go ...; Soul Keeping and others. Ortberg has a Ph.D in Clinical Psychology from Fuller Theological Seminary. In his book, Faith & Doubt, Ortberg confesses that he has doubts. In addition, he confesses that he has faith. Ortberg asserts, "I have spent my life studying and thinking and reading and thinking about God. I grew up in the church. I went to a faith-based college and then to a seminary. I walked the straight and narrow. I never sowed any wild oats" (9). You might say how can you have faith and doubt. You might even think it is a sin to doubt. Ortberg, like others argues that doubt is part of faith. Ortberg asks, "Is it okay if we don't pretend that everybody is split up into two camps: those who doubt and those who don't? Is it possible--maybe even rational to have faith in the presence of doubt?" What do you think?  

Chapter one discusses faith and doubt. In this chapter Ortberg explains why he believes, and why he doubts. The author states, "When people of faith are not willing to sit quietly sometimes and let doubt makes it case, bad things can happen" (20). Ortberg suggests that people of faith can give bad answers; they can be "glib;" they can increase the suffering of people by what they say; they can be filled with pride. In chapter two the author tells why he thinks neutrality is a bad choice. He explains why beliefs matter. Chapter three discusses "what kind of belief really matters." I love his quote from Madeleine L'Engle: "Those who believe they believe in God but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself" (39). This seems true since many great saints in the Christian Tradition struggled with faith and doubt. Even Mother Theresa struggled with doubt for several years. She even referred to herself as the saint of doubt.

Other chapters discuss the leap of faith, hope, silence of God, how doubt can go bad, uncertainty, and why the author believes. I like to look at the leap of faith and living with uncertainty. First, the leap of faith. The idea of the leap of faith is often associated with Soren Kierkegaard. It is often misunderstood. Many think it is a leap into the dark. Ortberg asserts, "Sometimes people talk about it as if it is the 'leap' in which you ignore evidence, give up on reason, and embrace fantasy." This is not what Kierkegaard means by the leap of faith. To Kierkegaard, it is choosing freely. Ortberg states, "Any freely chosen commitment ids a leap, such as the choice to marry or to bear children" (73). Kierkegaard believes that coming to faith requires passion and total commitment. It is more than intellectual assent. The author shares the example of Mortimer Adler. Mortimer Adler was one of the leading thinkers and philosophers of the twentieth century. He was convinced by philosophical arguments that God existed, but he was not a Christian. Then one day he lay sick in the hospital. A friend visited him and prayed for him. While he was praying, tears flowed down Adler's face. He only knew one prayer-the Lord's prayer, so he prayed it. He prayed it day after day and found himself believing. Adler asserted that the leap of faith, for him, was not a "jump to conclusions" based on very little evidence. Instead, it was a leap from intellectual assent to the worship of God. It was both a head and heart knowledge. Adler argues, "The god of the philosophers is not a god to be loved, worshiped or prayed to. He is not the personal God of the Bible.

Second, what does faith and doubt have to do with uncertainty. Are there any benefits from uncertainty? Ortberg lists several in chapter 9. He begins the chapter with a great quote from Frederick Buechner: "Almost nothing that makes any real difference can be proved." The first benefit of uncertainty is that it leaves room for doubt which makes trusting possible. Ortberg argues, "Faith is required only when we have doubts, when we do not know for sure. When knowledge comes, faith is no more" (139). Second, uncertainty "adds humility to faith." Ortberg believes that uncertainty is "one of the forms of suffering that can produce character." A prime example of a prideful group who did not doubt was Job's friends who gave counsel to him during his suffering. Third, uncertainty "causes us to learn." Doubt prompts us to search for answers. It calls for us to look deep within ourselves. Fourth, uncertainty causes us to search for truth. Some people think faith means choosing to believe when there is no evidence. This is not the case. Dallas Willard believes we must follow truth wherever it leads us. I remember reading in one of Thomas Aquinas' writings several years ago when he said if our reason or best judgement does not lead us to believe that Christian faith is not the truth, then we should not believe it. These words of Aquinas have always intrigued me. Fifth, uncertainty will lead to growth. Ortberg suggests, "There are times when a decision will require commitment when we don't have total certainty. For the most important decisions in life, this is almost always the case" (149). Why does not God give us the certainty we are seeking? Often times He wants us to grow from the experience of making decisions and trusting in Him. In addition, we will grow when we are faith even in times of uncertainty.

Ortberg does a good job in showing that doubt is part of faith. Some think they need to fight against doubt, but the author describes both good and bad uses of doubt. Doubt can go wrong, but it can also go right? We do not have to hide our doubts from others. We have done harm to fellow believers in churches by teaching them that Christians do not doubt and if you do doubt you are not a Christian or you are a backslidden one. Ortberg does a good job in explaining the relationship between faith and doubt. He writes in clear prose and is easy to understand. I would recommend this book to anyone who has any interest in the subject.  

Friday, April 8, 2016

Gadamer's Philosophical Hermeneutics

Merold Westphal discusses Gadamer's Philosophical hermeneutics in chapters 6-9 of his book, Whose Community? Which Interpretation? The chapters are based on Gadamer's Truth and Method. Gadamer's basic thesis is that we "belong to tradition by virtue of our thrownness into it, our immersion in it, and our formation by it" (70). There are three points to mbe made here: 1. Tradition "plays a double role." It gives us the ability to interpret, and it also limits what we can see becaused we are situated in a certain tradition. 2. Traditions is plural. We are situated in multiple traditions. 3. "The result of our belonging to tradition is prejudice." Westphal's thesis is that "all interpretation is perspectival and no interpretation is presuppositionless." In other words, we all see from somewhere and this somewhere from where we see influences how we interpret.

Westphal argues that tradition "exercises authority in/over our thinking, our construals, and our seeings as." Basically, tradition shapes our interpretations and understanding. Westphal provides an example for those who doubt this thesis: If we doubt this theses, we can consider the history of Christian doctrine and four different groups: the desert fathers, the Geneva Calvinists, the American slaves, and today's Amish. What accounts for the different interpretations of these four different groups?

In chapter seven, Westphal explains why the author nor method cannot "rescue us from the reader's relativity." Gadamer notes, "Every age has to understand a transmitted text in its own way. . . . The real meaning of a text, as it speaks to the interpreter, does not depend on the contingencies of the author and his original audience. It certainly is not identical with them, for it is always co-determined also by the historical situation of the interpreter" (78). Westphal notes how Gadamer states that there is "less in the text than the author intended" and "more in the text than the author intended." Gadamer rejects the view that interpretation "reverses the process of authorial production by recreating or reconstructing and thus repeating the creative event by transposing ourselves into the mind of the author" (79). This is the psychologism theory argued for by Schleiermacher and Dilthey. Gadamer says what the interpreter seeks "to understand the something said (meaning) in order to understand that about which it is said (truth). Gadamer emphasizes that its the truth claim of the text and what it "offers as the truth of the subject matter." Westphal says there is room for method if all interpretation is is reproduction. "But insofar as interpretation is productive as well, there is, he claims, a truth beyond method."

In chapter nine Westphal shows how interpretation is performance, application, and conversation. Gadamer explains in his book that reading "is a kind of performing." He provides examples from drama and the theater. Westphal notes, "Gadamer's general thesis here is that understanding, and thus interpretation, belongs to the very being of the work that is understood." Gadamer, repeatedly, refers to interpretation as an event. Performance is part of interpretation. Gadamer provides the example of the performance of Shakespeare from his time to our own time. The play is the same, but it also changes. Gadamer says, "We ask what this identity is that presents itself so differently in the changing courses of ages and circumstances. It does not disintegrate into the changing aspects of itself so that it would lose all identity, but is there in them all. They all belong to it" (102-103). Gadamer is saying that the interpretation of a text changes with different circumstances. There is both a unity and a diversity within a text as it is interpreted through time.

Gadamer says that interpretation is also translation and application. The interpreter must translate "the meaning into the context in which the other speaker lives." There are limits on how the text can be interpreted. It must remain faithful to the text and some interpretations are more faithful to the text. In other words, not just any interpretation is faithful to the text. Westphal notes, "If, as Gadamer argues, every translation is an interpretation and conversely, every interpretation is a translation, that is, carrying meaning over from one context to another, then every theology is a translation. Accordingly, it would be foolish to claim that there is one 'definitive' theology that is right while all others are wrong (though theologies, like other interpretations/translations can be wrong." In addition, Gadamer says that interpretation is application. Some interpreters distinguish the meaning of a text from the application of the text. Gadamer does not agree with this distinction. He thinks interpretation is application. He sees interpretation as understanding, interpretation, and application. In addition, "Gadamer regularly insists that texts speak to us, address us, make claims on us. They are not objects to be seen but voices to be heard." The other is emphasized repeatedly in Truth and Method. Gadamer sees interpretation as a conversation between the author and reader.

There is many more points made by Westphal in regards, to Gadamer's Truth and Method. Gadamer's book is not an easy read, but it becomes clearer with repeated readings. Westphal's is a good guide for the reader working through Gadamer's great work.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Whose Community? Which Interpretation

Merold Westphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation? : Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009. 160 pages. ISBN 978-0-8010-3147-2

Merold Westphal is a well-respected scholar of both Hegel and Kierkegaard. He is also a respected churchman. He is the distinguished professor of philosophy at Fordham University where he has taught over twenty years. In Whose Community? Which Interpretation? He provides insight on what philosophical hermeneutics can provide to the Christian reader. This book is part of the series: The Church and Postmodern Culture.

Whose Community? Which Interpretation? can be divided into two parts. The first part introduces the reader to philosophical hermeneutics and the interpretation of scripture. The second part analyzes Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method. Westphal says this book is for three types of Christian theologians: Academic, pastoral, and lay. The idea is that every Christian is a theologian.

In chapter one the author refutes the idea that no interpretation is necessary in reading the Bible. Westphal notes, "an unwelcome interpretation of some Biblical text may be greeted by the response, 'Well, that might be your interpretation, but my Bible clearly says . . .' In other words, 'You interpret; I just see what is there" (18). The author goes on in the rest of the chapter to prove that everyone interprets. In chapter two, he discusses the history of "romantic hermeneutics" and the "hermeneutic circle." Some of the important people in this history are Friedrich Schleiermacher and William Dilthey. Schliermacher "sought to identify the general features of interpretation that were common" to various disciplines. Second, Schliermacher emphasized the hermenuetical circle.  This is idea that the parts must be interpreted in regards to the whole and vice versa.  The first circle refers to the text and the second to the author. In the second half of the chapter he describes romantic hermeneutics: pschologism and objectivism. One point of romantic hermeneutics is that the "goal of interpretation . . . is to reverse the process of writing, to work back from the outer experience to the inner experience, to reconstruct, re-create, refeel, reexperience, reliving that inner experience." (29-30). You can see why it is labeled psychologism because you are trying to re-create the thought processes of the author. Another feature of romantic hermeneutics is objectivism. Westphal says Dilthey is important in this history because he was "especially insistent that interpretation be scientific so that its findings may be 'objective' and rise to the level of 'universal validity' (31)." Dilthey stressed objectivism because of fear that "our embeddedness within historically particular and contingent worldviews and traditions implies 'the relativity of every kind of human apprehension of the totality of things" (31). Many want to say we have objectivism or total relativism. It seems that Westphal is arguing for a midle possition. There is no denying that we are finite, particular, human being embedded in a particular culture and tradition. There is no denying that this embeddedness influences our interpretation. Westphal thinks that the hermeneutical circle "signifies that we will always approach a text with presuppositions and preunderstandings that guide our readings" (33).

Chapters three through five completes Westphal's coverage of part one of the book. In chapter three he discusses arguments against romantic hermeneutics. In this chapter he discusses the arguments of Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur. The first point is that we "are always somewhere (socially, culturally, historically, linguistically) and never nowhere when we interpret" (35). The second argument is that we can "never escape from the hermeneutical circularity in which we find ourselves already locate" (35). This does not mean we cannot move from "circle to circle." Chapter four analyzes the objectivism of E. D. Hirsch. Westphal has four questions for Hirsch: 1. Who are the bad guys? 2. He suggests that Hirsch does not identify any persons who hold positions that "worries" him. He claims that those that hold relativistic versions of hermeneutics do not defend anything goes interpretation. Second question, What about unconscious meanings? Westphal notes, "Hirsch tells us that texts don't express all that their authors have in mind, and they say more than their authors are aware of." If this is true, how is there only one, determinate meaning? Does the author own the meaning of the text when he is not aware of all what is in the text? The third question is, Why the banishment and irrelevance of the reader? Does meaning belong to the author alone? Do we have to believe that our interpretation is the "only right one"? The last question, What are the implications of shared conventions? Hirsch assumes that when two people communicate, they "share an identical meaning." Westphal thinks this is my false. In my next part I will discuss Westphal's analysis of Gadamer's Truth and Method.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Reading for Spiritual Formation

I love being surrounded my books, words, quotes, and great sayings. I have on my wall a short piece I cut out of CBD (book distributors) many years ago:

It begins by saying that lent is a "season of austerity and self-renewal, which has been modeled after Christ's 40-day temptation in the wilderness." The Rule of Saint Benedict written in the sixth century, counseled that each monk was to "receive a book from the library" at the start of lent and to read it thoroughly or completely. To help accomplish this goal, an hour from the daily schedule was devoted to this project. It reminds me of some programs in school like drop everything and read. Wouldn't it be great that this was implemented in all places of employment?

The reading practiced was known as "lectio divina," which means divine reading. This practice encourages slow, meditative reading. What a contrast to our world who encourages speed reading or superficial reading. The monks goal was not to acquire new reading, but to "pray about, ruminate on, and even memorize the text as a form of spiritual formation, so as to make it part of their everyday lives."

Are you willing to take up the challenge? Pick out a book that you want to read slowly and thoroughly. Set aside time to read it slowly at least 3-5 times each week for a year or till you finish it. Do not read it quickly, but read slowly, meditatively, ruminating on each syllable. Think about the passage, muttering the words over and over. May we all be changed by our reading.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Life of the Mind

Cliiford Williams, The Life of the Mind: A Christian Perspective. Baker Academic, 2002. ISBN 080102336x

"Our danger has not been too much thinking, but not enough."
                                                                          Nathan Hatch

Clifford Williams in The Life of the Mind: A Christian Perspective presents a book-length essay on why thinking is important to the life of the Christian. He states that Christians are faced with a dilemma in regards to the life of the mind: "Christians have mixed feelings about purely intellectual pursuits. On the one hand, many believe that thinking and learning can enrich faith and devotion.... Other Christians, however, are suspicious of too much thinking and learning and even more so of a life devoted to them. Those who hold this opinion are convinced not only that thinking and learning are useless to faith and devotion but that they are likely to undermine faith and devotion. To these Christians, being a thinker does not comport well with being a Christian" (9).

Why do Christians side with two different camps in regards to the life of the mind? Why do some Christians see the life of the mind as beneficial to the Christian faith and other Christians see it as a danger to the Christian faith? I have to admit in much of my association in churches the view that sees intellectual life as a danger to the faith has been exhibited more than seeing it as a strength? The encouragement for intellectual life has come more from reading books than from activity in church. This is strange since many of the great saints of the faith have been great intellectuals:  the apostle Paul, Clement of Alexandria, Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome, Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, C. S. Lewis and others. Why do Christians see faith and reason opposed to one another?

I would like to relate my experience with two of these thinkers: Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. First, some of the things I have learned from Thomas Aquinas. I have learned from the example of Thomas Aquinas that both the life of the mind and the devotional life can be cultivated in the same person. Second, I have learned that faith and reason are not only compatible, but can enrich each other. Third, I have learned that both the world and the body is good because it is created from God.

Recently, I have felt the need to deepen my spiritual life. I have chosen Saint Augustine as my guide to help me to cultivate a deeper spiritual life. I have been reading him for some months now and have found him to be an excellent companion in seeking to cultivate, a deeper, spiritual life. He has shown me both the need to know my self and God. I need to be alone and quiet before God. I need to allow Him to speak to me in a still, small voice. Saint Augustine was a sinner who struggled with sin as I am. He had a great thirst for God as evident in his Confessions which portrays his quest for God. He was a pastor who sought to follow God in a very busy life. He can show me how to follow God in an active life.

As has been shown in these two examples, faith and reason do not necessarily conflict. Faith can enhance reason and reason can enhance faith. We can pursue God in an active life or a solitary life. There are many models in the Christian tradition that can help us live a deeper, spiritual and intellectual life.