2012-10-30

Images of Eternity: Paths to the Transcendent (A Book Review)



Keith Ward's book "Concepts of God", which is also titled "Images of Eternity" when first published in the U.K., is a distillation of some of the key discussions in Ward's much larger four volume magnum opus on Comparative Theology (i.e. the academic discipline of comparing models of God across religions and across linguistic/cultural divides). This book takes a representative thinker/theologian/philosopher from each of the major world religions (Jnana and Bhakti Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity), who is considered "orthodox" within that religious tradition, and compares them with each other on key structural claims about the nature of "Ultimate Reality" or "God", which Ward tends to refer to as "The Transcendent".

Ward does two things simultaneously that are very difficult to do: On one hand, he allows each tradition to speak in its own voice without pressing them into a mold of pre-packaged politically correct "sameness". So, he allows genuine difference in the content presented by each religion. He does not pretend that all religions are simply "saying the same thing".

On the other hand, he presents a compelling case that each religion finds a way to deal with a common structure of religious experience. Ward shows how each religious tradition (including sub-traditions in each major tradition) all exhibit a six-fold "fiduciary structure" (i.e. a structure of "fides", or faith, in a Transcendent Reality). Each of the six elements in the fiduciary structure have a basic duality, or polarity, around which the element revolved. For instance, all religions have a structural element of "The Real" or "The Transcendent", with an essential bi-polarity of whether this Real is a Passive Void (an indefinable Abyss of pure Being) or is an Active Person (such as a Personal God).

The other structural elements include: 1. The Authority, alternating between pure mystical experience, or dictated revelation through a great Book or great prophetic figures; 2. The Goal, alternating between absorption into the Real, or as a personal loving relationship of obedience to the Real; 3. The Means of attaining liberation, alternating between "works" of moral, ascetic, and ritual effort, and grace, or the free, unmerited gift of the Real; 4. The Limitation of experiencing the Real, alternating between a denial of the goodness and usefulness of the material world as a vehicle for liberation, and an affirmation of the material world as a gift to help persons toward liberation; and finally, 5. The Cause of personal separation from the Real, alternating between unintentional ignorance and illusion on one hand, and intentional sin and evil leading to judgment.

What is truly interesting to see in Ward is how he shows that all religions, in fact, have means of dealing with each of these bi-polarities in the structure of religious experience. He points out that religions we would usually associate with "impersonal" and "immanent" ideas of Ultimate Reality (such as forms of Buddhism and Hinduism), actually speak of Ultimate Reality in personal terms to offset the dominant themes. Likewise, he points out that every religion- from the most "self-help" oriented religions, to those that claim to rely only on divine grace, do in fact make room for BOTH grace and works in their religious systems.

I heartily recommend this book. However, it is not an "easy read". Like this review, the sentence structure is often dense and philosophical. If you want a more accessible read from Ward that covers much the same area, try Ward's "The Case for Religion".

2012-10-25

Oh The Amazing Things Photoshop Can Do



This semester, I became an "art project" for the digital media class here at TMI - The Episcopal School of Texas. There were 130 pictures made of me, and we selected 25 to be shown in this slide show. Special thanks to the digital media class and Brian Palandri (their teacher)! Enjoy!!!

2012-10-16

On the Useless Usefulness of Art



A colleague of mine recently sent me a nice pop-science article on the neuroscience of art. In reading through the article, I found many things to be of great interest. All of the research on how the brain perceives and mis-perceives is great, and helps us understand why certain artistic techniques "work" to produce a certain type of perception. I really liked the stuff on the Mona Lisa.

However, where the article seems to fall flat is when it starts to talk about WHY we view art, seek art, find art beautiful, and even crave art.

All the explanations seemed predicated on finding a certain "usefulness" or pragmatic value to art. Almost as if art were yet another expression of the evolutionary drive to thrive. In this, art is treated solely as a means to another end (the end of evolutionary success).

I'm not sure if I can go with this. At least not all the way.

Sure, most art does have side effects that are "useful". Perhaps it teaches us something, or inspires us to be more moral, or helps us understand the world in a new way.

But it seems to me that there is more to art than just USE. It seems to me that there is something completely superfluous, playful, and even "use-less" about the best art. The best art is an end in itself. An encounter with raw beauty for the sake of beauty.

Here are a few "negative" examples of what we are willing to sacrifice for the value of art:

Think about all the artists who sacrificed all their skills and talents (which could have been used on something much more "useful") for the sake of pursuing beauty. Think of all the talented artists who starved and suffered and even died for "their art". Those who labored in obscurity for a lifetime, only to be hailed as "geniuses" after their death.

Think of all the money, time, and effort that goes into the arts that could be spent on more "useful" things, like feeding the hungry, or building sturdier buildings, or reading more science texts.

Now, either this is sheer madness and the human pursuit of art is a sign that we have gone collectively crazy...

OR it is a deep insight into the fact that beauty is an end unto itself, and it worth immense sacrifice to be pursued regardless of whether it is "useful" in a evolutionary or commercial sense.

As you might be able to tell, I take the latter view.

I think that art is an end in itself, and that by participating in art we are somehow participating the beauty and joy of God's own life. When art is done well, it is mystical and transcendent. It brings us into a realm of awe and glory and reverence. Perhaps even worship.

This is not to subvert art and say something silly like "The only good art is sacred art". That is to shackle art to yet another theory of "usefulness", only this time it is "religious usefulness".

Actually, I find even deconstructive, paradoxical art to have a transcendent, numinous effect as well. I think of a Rothko painting, a Salvador Dali surrealism, even Duchamp's "fountain" (i.e. toilet). By throwing a sideways kind of spotlight on the mundane and even the depressing in life, it serves to sort of "backlight" or "inversely highlight" the transcendent in life.

For me, good art is "iconic" in the theological sense of what an icon is: An icon is a window into the "Transcendent Other", through which we either (in the words of Nietzsche) "gaze into the Abyss and the Abyss gazes into us", or in which (in the words of St. John of Damascus) "the reverence given to the Representation overflows to the Reality it Re-Presents". Thus the icon can either be a deconstructive encounter (of the Abyss of Being) or a constructive encounter (of the Glory of Being), or perhaps both.

Either way, when viewed from a strictly evolutionary or commercial point of view, art is utterly "useless". But, paradoxically, art helps us find meaning, purpose, and beauty through the "iconic encounter" with Transcendent Reality, that we could never, ever find if we lived by strictly doing "useful" things.

In the end, it is perhaps the uselessness, the playfulness, the excessive overflow of art that makes it worthwhile as a source of pure encounter with Meaning.

2012-10-11

Nate raps at Camp 2011



And while I am posting old videos, I might as well add this. In 2011 I did my "Gospel Rap" at Camp Capers in the Diocese of West Texas, and someone video recorded me on an iPhone!

This rap was originally written for a camp I did in 1994 as a sophomore in college. Some of the theology is not exactly what I might write if I wrote it today. I would still be as Jesus-centered, but not quite as penal-substitutionary-ish. Nevertheless, it is seared in my brain after performing it at various times over the last 18 years. Maybe someday I will write a new one that more adequately reflects my theology.

Until then, here it is. Enjoy.

Religious Not Spiritual



I'm not entirely sure why I forgot to post this on my blog in January when I made this video. But, nevertheless, here it is.


This is a response to the "Why I hate religion but love Jesus" video by Jefferson Bethke. There are many things I agree with him on, and I probably would have done a similar video (had I the skills and production abilities he does) 15 years ago. But I have been walking with Jesus for a while now, and this is where I am at on my journey now.

Here are the lyrics and some scriptures for further study.

Religious not Spiritual
Copyright 2012 © The Rev. Nathan L. Bostian

It is popular these days to say "I'm spiritual not religious"
And "We reject dogmas and rituals, but Jesus is fine with us"

And I can see what they're saying; They're serious and not playing:
Because religion has been the source of much delaying

Delaying equal rights for women, and minorities, and the oppressed
Delaying justice here and now, to wait for "eternal rest"

All while hyper-critical hypocrites look down their noses
Calling people sinners, while they strike pious poses

And they're right to say that Jesus stood opposed to all that junk.
So, listen, I'm not dissin', or saying anyone is a punk;

But I AM judgmental, because I judge the content of ideas;
And sloppy thinking doesn't glorify God, or that Son of his.

Now, you probably shouldn't listen to me 'cause I'm not young, hip, and cool.
Like the apostle Paul, I'm just an old cranky fool!

You won't see me in a clothing advertisement, or on a reality show;
But I think I got something that you really should know.

Religion is in need of reform, not in need of abolition.
Like when Jesus was religious, by fulfilling his traditions;
[See Matthew 5-6; 22:37-40]

Or when he read the Scriptures in his synagogue, or preached in the temple;
Or prayed the prayers of his fathers and mothers; It's not that simple.
[See Mark 15.34; Luke 2.46; 4.14--21; 19.47; 20.1; 20.17; 21.37; 20:42-43; 23.46]

You see, if religion is a community of people, with shared values and intentions;
With shared prayers and rituals, shared ideas and conventions;

Who share deeply in one another, and bear each other's load;
Then it is clear that Jesus WAS religious: You can't avoid that road.

Yet he cleared the Temple of filth, and preached against massive injustice
He called the leaders to task, and told hypocrites they were "busted".
[See Matthew 21.12; 23; John 2.15]

His religion liberated the oppressed, while still remaining religious.
That's because religion is a tool, that can build up, or cause distress.

Like a hammer can build a house, or put a hole in someone's head:
It all depends on how you use it, to make people alive, or keep them dead.

And while it is true that in Christ, God has sought out man:
Does that mean that what we seek, is not a part of God's plan?

Jesus says "ask, SEEK and knock", to fervently desire more of God.
And Paul says God wants all nations to SEEK the Divine. Now isn't that odd.
[See Matthew 6.33-34; 7.7--12; Luke 11.9--13; Acts 17.22--28]

Because God seeking us, does not mean we shouldn't seek him;
No, it's the other way around: His love gives us a place to begin.

To begin to construct a community of God seekers, who want more of his life;
A community that stands for justice, amidst destruction and strife;

A community strong enough to withstand the assaults of selfish consumption;
And call out corporations and governments, who operate on the presumption:

That humans are merely tools to be used, and abused, and thrown away.
We need a religion strong enough to stand up and say "Hey!"

Enough of this madness. Enough of the lies.
Enough of oppression. Enough of hearing the children cry.

If we try to stand alone, we will fall for anything;
But if we stand together as a religion, we can say "Let freedom ring".

We can be a community of hope, centered on the person of Christ;
Who use prayers, rituals and deeds, to show forth HIS light.

And there is another thing I think I really should mention;
I am passionately in Love with Jesus AND his religion.

Some say "religion is full of hypocrisy, it's just no use!"
Yes, we're all hypocrites growing in grace, so that means there's room for you.

So, if being spiritual is a narcissistic preoccupation with my self;
And religion is a commitment to each others health;

And if spiritual people just care about "Jesus and me";
And religious people live to serve Christ's community;

I guess the choice is clear, while I wax on lyrical:
I am completely confident: I am religious, not spiritual.

2012-10-06

Transformers Alphabet


My son recently turned 4 years old, and he is finally interested in learning the ABC's and how to spell. But his real fascination is with Transformers. Recently, he started asking me things like "What does Optimus Prime start with?" and "What does Megatron start with?".

So, I did a handy Amazon search for "Transformers Alphabet" and "Transformers ABC's". Nothing! I was surprised no one had put one of those out.

So, I decided to remedy the situation! But for free only, not for pay!

If you have a 4 year old in your life who might enjoy a Transformer's Alphabet book, enjoy the PDF below [22 megabytes]:

https://docs.google.com/open?id=0B9uX1KQ33IUub3pBT3VQdExicnc

This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.