I'm taking an entrepreneurship class for my MBA, and someone turned me on to this great new podcast from NPR called, How I Built This. Guy Raz, who you'll recognize as the host of The TED Radio Hour and All Things Considered: Weekend Edition, interviews successful entrepreneurs, innovators and idealists and unlocks the mysteries behind their success. It's a refreshing, surprising, and sometimes very emotionally beautiful podcast as these men and women share their success stories.
Episode 1 features Sara Blakely, founder of the underwear company Spanx. Her idea for panties that wouldn't show a seam line through pants popped into her head while working as a door-to-door salesperson selling fax machines. Her first prototype was nothing more than a pair of pantyhose with the legs snipped off, and she wrote her own patent application after buying a "how-to" book at Barnes & Noble. Today Forbes ranks her as number 93 on the list of the world's most powerful women.
Last time, I mentioned that to be secular is not to lose faith in God, or even to make ontological claims about God (if you're just joining, you may want to start reading here). Secularism is simply a lived statement of disenchantment: We no longer conceive of God as “outside” the universe in a primitive sense, dragging the sun through the sky with his chariot, nor “outside” in the sentimental sense, sitting on a golden throne in the sky looking down on us. Formerly mysterious and magical occurrences like freak weather patterns or catastrophic disease outbreaks are no longer attributed to magic or the supernatural, but rather to natural patterns of cause and effect.
In a letter dated June 8, 1944, Bonhoeffer put it this way:
The movement that began about the thirteenth century (I'm not going to get involved in any argument about the exact date) towards the autonomy of man (in which I should include the discovery of laws by which the world lives and deals with itself in science, social and political matters, art, ethics, and religion) has in our time reached an undoubted completion. Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the "working hypothesis" called "God." In questions of science, art, and ethics this has become an understood thing at which one now hardly dares to tilt. But for the last hundred years or so it has also become increasingly true of religious questions; it is becoming evident that everything gets along without "God"--and, in fact, just as well as before. As in the scientific field, so in human affairs generally, "God" is being pushed more and more out of life, losing more and more ground.
This post is part 2 in a series on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, nones, dones and religionless Christianity. Part 1 can be found here.
In the last post, we left off with the question, "Can we speak meaningfully about God without religion?" For Bonhoeffer, religious language is often a mask or a shield that protects us from saying what we actually mean. It allows us to hide ignorance behind certitude:
“Religious people speak of God when human knowledge (perhaps simply because they are too lazy to think) has come to an end, or when human resources fail — in fact it is always the deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene, either for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure — always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries. Of necessity, that can go on only till people can by their own strength push these boundaries somewhat further out, so that God becomes superfluous as a deus ex machina.”
Deus ex machina literally translated is, “God from the machine.” This is a reference to ancient Greek plays, where at the end of a play, sometimes a god would be lowered from onto the stage by a crane to resolve loose plot twists. If Bonhoeffer was writing today, he might use the phrase “God of the gaps.”
An illustration may make this clearer: Prior to modern medicine people thought illness was caused by the “black magic” of the devil. Spiritual problems require spiritual solutions, so of course, people appealed to God for help through the “magic” of the church: taking communion, being anointed with holy water or oil, or being blessed by a pastor or priest (for more on this, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is a must-read). When the germ theory of disease was finally accepted in the late 1800s, it changed the way people thought about God. We no longer needed to appeal to the devil to explain why we were sick, and we no longer needed direct intervention from God to explain our recovery. The gap we once filled with God, we now fill with knowledge.
But a God of the gaps is no God at all. If we appeal to the divine to explain things we don’t yet understand, what will happen when human knowledge increases and we gain a scientific explanation? When doctors perform thousands of surgeries flawlessly, when antibiotics turn once fatal illnesses into minor inconveniences (take two pills, twice a day for three weeks), desperate prayers for miraculous intervention are gradually replaced with lesser prayers that God would “guide the doctor’s hands,” or that “the medicine would work,” until ultimately, these prayers disappear completely.
he was offered sanctuary in the U.S., Bonhoeffer believed that he needed to be present in Germany during the war to have any role in healing and rebuilding the nation when it was over. He was eventually imprisoned by the Nazi regime for avoiding military service (his interpretation of the gospels led him to be a pacifist)* and executed. His Letters and Papers from Prison have been collected into book form. Put it on your reading list.
In April, 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote:
We are moving toward a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as "religious" do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by "religious."
Some days, you just need to turn off social media, avoid the news, and get lost in a good novel. I find that reading fiction by someone long gone from this life helps with perspective. Librivox.org is my go-to for free audiobooks. They have most of the classics. Right now I’m in the middle of 20 Years After, the sequel to Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers. Like most sequels, it’s not as good as the original, but I was in France last summer and I love a good destination novel (for francophiles dreaming of the streets of Paris, you'd be better off with Les Miserables or The Hunchback of Notre Dame).
You’ll find a few more suggestions here. You can also download the app for iOS and Android.
If you're a Librivox user (or if you're just into classic fiction), what's your favorite book? I'm looking for recommendations for my next read.
In an emotional gathering July 12th, President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush delivered challenging speeches, calling for unity and progress in light of the Dallas police shootings. Below is a collection of highlights from the speeches of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Some of these remarks are long and sermonic, but are well worth the read. I recommend listening to at least portions of each speech to get a sense of the gravitas with which they spoke.
“Most of us imagine if the moment called for it, we would risk our lives to protect a spouse or a child. Those wearing the uniform, assume that risk for the safety of strangers. They and their family share the unspoken knowledge that each new day brings new dangers.”
“Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions.”
“To renew our unity we only need to remember our values. We have never been held together by blood or background. We are bound by things of the Spirit, by shared commitments to the common ideas. At our best, we practice empathy, imagining ourselves in the lives and circumstances of others. This is the bridge across our nation’s deepest divisions.”
“It’s not merely a matter of tolerance, but of learning from the stories of our fellow citizens and finding our better selves in the process.”
“At our best, we honor the image of God we see in one another. We recognize that we are bothers and sisters sharing the same brief moment on earth and owing each other the loyalty of our shared humanity.”
“We do not want the unity of grief or the unity of fear. We want the unity of hope, affection and high purpose.”
"Scripture tells us that in our sufferings, there is glory, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. Sometimes the truths of these words are hard to see. Right now, those words test us because the people of Dallas, people across the country are suffering."
"Like police officers across the country, these men and their families shared a commitment to something larger than themselves. They weren’t looking for their names to be up in lights. They’d tell you the pay was decent, but wouldn’t make you rich. They could have told you about the stress and long shifts. And they’d probably agree with Chief Brown when he said that cops don’t expect to hear the words “thank you” very often, especially from those who need them the most. No. The reward comes in knowing that our entire way of life in America depends on the rule of law, that the maintenance of that law is a hard and daily labor, that in this country we don’t have soldiers in the streets or militias setting the rules.
Instead, we have public servants, police officers, like the men who were taken away from us."
"Despite the fact that police conduct was the subject of the protest, despite the fact that there must have been signs or slogans or chants with which they profoundly disagreed, these men and this department did their jobs like the professionals that they were."
According to Google, "What does it mean to leave the EU?" and "What is the EU?" are the top two questions UKers are asking the Internet after voting to exit the EU. I wish I could say I was shocked, but I'm not even surprised.
When Donald Trump trademarked Ronald Reagan's "Make America Great Again" slogan in 2012, his marketing strategy was intentional and insightful. For older conservatives who had lived through the Reagan years, the slogan hearkens back to an era of supply-side economic policies and the restoration of national morale after the Vietnam War. For younger voters and those unfamiliar with Reagan's speeches, the slogan is less historical than it is rhetorical. In the interest of understanding where this rhetorical power comes from, let's break the slogan down one word at a time, starting with "Again."
Again: The dictionary definition is fairly obvious: “once more; relating to a previous position or condition.” Again is nondescript, unspecific, and precisely because of that, inspiring. It rallies supporters to charge bravely towards something once held, like King Henry V rallied the troops into battle:
Once more [again] unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
Jesus said it, but before him Confucius said it too. So did the Roman stoic Seneca the Younger: "Do to others what you would have them do to you." So enough talk about closing our borders and building walls. This is the principle that led Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. to lead nonviolent revolutions, and I hope it continues to shape our individual, communal, national and global ethos.
It means trusting others and taking the long view of human nature, trusting that even if someone takes advantage of you at first, eventually, you'll win them over. And in Canada this week, we see the results:
I first encountered Andy Warhol's as a freshman in college. A friend, an art student, invited me to an art show at Michigan State University where one of Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans was on exhibit. I was aware of his work, but had never encountered it in person, and it made an impression: All the way home my friend and I argued about what constitutes "art." Warhol had hit a nerve. I was adamant that we were being conned, that pop art was a cheap trick and someone was taking advantage of our naiveté. My friend couldn't make up her mind one way or the other. I let the issue rest for several years, until another of Warhol’s pieces caught my eye. I was doing a Masters degree in theology at the time, when I became intrigued by Warhol's “The Big C.”
Andy Warhol was an anomaly at a time when people still believed in a mass-produced American dream. Although he was not outspoken enough to be a preacher, through his art he became a prophet ushering in a new America. Warhol prompted questions in viewers by rebelling against the standards of the time. Taking preexisting cultural images like a Campbell's Soup can or a photo of Marilyn Monroe, he presented them back to the American public as art. These common images were transformed into icons mediating between the way viewers’ perceived themselves and the way they acted within culture.
Innovation is found at the intersection of ideas, concepts and cultures
-The Medici Effect