Tuesday, May 29, 2012

On Blasphemy

[with insincerest apologies to those who return to this blog wishing for something funny – truth is, not a lot of funny things have happened lately…at least nothing funny enough to be blog-worthy, though my purse is still awesome]

I just finished a silly workout and can’t really move around all that well. Since I landed at the computer I decided I should do something useful…as I have spent a good amount of time translating Arabic already today, I decided to put this impulse to use on the blog/getting thoughts together for an upcoming sermon. I’m preaching at First Pres Tallahassee on June 10th and the sermon will be on blasphemy – specifically, a verse in Mark 3 (which is also in Matthew 12 and Luke 12 so I’m not getting out of it by claiming Markan Anomaly (the idea that if a verse only occurs in one gospel it is to be taken with a slightly larger grain of salt than the rest of the bible)). The verse states the following:

“truly I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” –Mark 3:28-9

Anyone who knows me and has enjoyed (or not enjoyed) my company amidst theological musings (including, but not limited to those involving alcohol) will be well aware that I think this verse is hogwash – balderdash, if you will. Further, I am perfectly fine saying that I disagree with Jesus…or, more specifically, that one sentence he utters after a group of people call him the devil may not be the best starting point for forming any sort of systematic theology. However, if a Christian were inclined to grapple with passages like this, she or he must come to terms with the fact that, from time to time, the Bible says some disagreeable things. Fine – but two can play that game.

As a matter of fact, I think that two should play that game, which is, I guess, where my views tend to conflict with those who adamantly adhere to the proposition that the Bible and the Christian tradition include very little wiggle room – away from the theological sphere, this type of thought pervades problems I have with extreme partisanship generally (that the term “moderate” has become nothing more than artillery in the never-ending mudslinging of contemporary political discourse is ridiculous). I find, then, that it is less helpful to engage those with whom I disagree on this issue as they tend to have an unfair advantage – they can say “you are wrong and I am right” while all I can say is “my what an interesting interpretation.” That’s fine, so I take that – the act of interpretation – as the starting point of my analysis of blasphemy, or, as I prefer to think of it, the act of cordoning off a section of the interpretive milieu in order to declare one group “in” and another “out.”

From this starting point, I tend to wonder what is at stake for the person or persons doing the declaration? Who wins what and who loses what in the act of drawing harsh lines between what is orthodox (see: will get you into heaven – or, for a more “this-worldly” perspective, will get you welcomed into our community) and what is heretical (see: will get you into hell – or, will keep you from being fully welcomed into our community, be it religious, political, social, or any other categorization one wishes to impose on a group of people). What sort of dynamics allow for someone to dictate what is the proper reading and what is not? What does the line drawer gain or lose based on his/her conformity with a set of givens and their insistence that others think, act, and read in the same way?

There are many more questions, but these come to the forefront of most tommythinking. It should be said that it is not lost on me that I am engaged in a sort of line-drawing myself, in which case the same questions apply to my work and musings (and then apply to my musings about my musings ad nauseum). While there is a lot more to say (and I’ll say most of it on the 10th), it will suffice, for now, to state that while many things are at stake when one charts the boundaries of orthodoxy, I don't believe that god’s forgiveness or mercy are among them.

As always, thanks for reading.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Experiment in Blogging

I'm presenting a paper tomorrow at my department's Colloquium (bi-weekly or so gatherings throughout the year where students and professors can discuss each other's ongoing work). I know it's sort of late notice, but for those looking for a way to spend some time and do some thinking, I thought I'd experiment with getting the conversation going via this blog.

The paper looks at the idea, expressed in Wael Hallaq's book "Shari'a," that the modern conception of the nation-state is incompatible with what was referred to in the medieval period as "Shar'ia." (an article that became the book is available online here ) Looking at the case of Nasr Abu Zayd - a man whose marriage was legally annulled after he was convicted of apostasy (turning from faith) in the Egyptian courts in 1995. More [here] and yes, in my scholarly opinion, wikipedia is fine for brief info gathering.

So entertaining the premise that Shari'a is incompatible with the workings of the modern nation-state and examining the role of "Shari'a" in the Egyptian court system, the paper raises the following questions:

In Abu Zayd’s case, the lawyers’ appeal to state power in the name of the religious command to promote good and forbid evil in order to maintain socio-religious unity (by attempting to prevent/punish apostasy) highlights the tension between the state and religious law.
Can one claim that an appeal to the state is a religious act? What does it mean that a "secular" state/legal system has cordoned off a section for religious law? How is one to think of the judge – as an arbiter of religious orthodoxy or enforcer of state mandates?

So for those who wish to answer: what are your thoughts on religion and politics, generally? For those who don't wish to delve into the Nasr Abu Zayd case - what work is done in the act of distinguishing between "religious" acts/codes and "political" or "legal" mandates?

My full paper is available [here] for those who are really seeking to kill some time.

We'll see if this garners any sort of discussion, if not, at least I updated the blog twice in a week!

Either way, as always, thanks for reading.

Monday, May 14, 2012

First Year Reflections

At Christopher Newport University, every time I went to the Philosophy Department Website, I was greeted with the Socratic dictum that “An unexamined life is not worth living.” While perhaps it was repetition that created the truth of that sentence or maybe there is something self-evident about it, I have found it helpful. Perhaps the retrospective blog was spurred on by the recent evaluation of my first year by a jury of my professors (I was found to have had a productive first year and was declared on/a little ahead of schedule with regards to the goal of finishing coursework and exams in the next year and a half to two years). Regardless, I figured that it would be good to get some thoughts back on the blog and keep everyone who reads and/or gives a damn an update on my activities and plans for the next few months.

This year I’ve taken 2 semesters of Arabic, coursework on methodology in the field of religion/comparative ethics, and two courses on Islam. I’ve read more books than I can recount and the number of articles I’ve printed and read is likely responsible for the sizable depletion of a forest somewhere. This summer I will keep up with Arabic, take a course on Human Rights, French for Reading, and be trained to teach a course called “Multi-cultural film” which is, essentially, applied cultural theory. In the fall, I’ll be taking more Arabic, and courses on pragmatic theory in the study of religion, Muhammad and the Qur’an and possibly sitting in on some lectures in a feminism course. My area of study has narrowed to the justification of violence and/within "subversive" religious/political discourse (I’ve been told by a prominent ethicist that my area of interest scares her…happens I guess). I assume that this will be the subject of later posts, but suffice it to say, Abbey and I are having a kid (still working on transitioning more smoothly from one topic to another in my written work).

Bringing a child into the world is rather daunting (I mean…have you seen this place lately?!), doing so in the middle of a semester should be a lot of work, but Abbey and I are both thrilled to become parents in October. Fortunately a couple of my closest friends are a couple steps ahead of us on this journey so we have plenty of great examples to learn from (of course, in addition to the sterling examples set by our parents who raised brilliant, good looking, and quite humble children like Abbey and I).

There’s plenty more to say, but if I say it all now then it will be another long hiatus before I think of anything interesting to share…and that’s just no damn fun. I’ll leave with the statement that, despite my typical cynicism towards the state of the world and pessimism towards the possibility of any substantial change, the thought of becoming a father certainly has given me some sort of hopeful outlook for the upcoming year (hope in what, I’m not exactly sure, but stay tuned).

Thanks for reading.