Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The phrase "practical theology" should be a redundancy

Reading this week on John Wesley's theology and came across this:

"Thus, as Wesley understood and practiced theology, the defining task of "real" theologians was neither developing an elaborate System of Christian truth-claims nor defending these claims to their "cultured despisers"; it was nurturing and shaping the worldview that frames the temperament and practice of believers' lives in the world. Theologians may well engage in apologetic dialogues or in reflection on doctrinal consistency, but ideally because -- and to the extent that -- these are in service to their more central task."

Sometimes it's difficult to remember, while in the midst of writing my dissertation, exactly what purpose it's going to serve; so I'm grateful to God for these simple, daily reminders of who I am and what I'm to be about. And I'm all the more grateful to be blessed with advisors and friends who not only agree with this, but insist upon it.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Some good news.....for me......

Over the last year I've been walking pretty closely with a friend (of many years) who is trying to put his life back together after an extended stay in prison. In respect of his privacy I will not go into the details surrounding his incarceration or his life in general. What I will say is that he, like most other "ex-cons," is finding it very hard to make the adjustment to life "outside the walls." As he looks for gainful employment and relationship, he drags with him every day the permanent ball-and-chain of "felony offender," as well as the deleterious effects of the enforced "institutionalization" mentality (and the related damage caused by "doing what you've got to do" to survive in prison). It is a difficult and perpetually painful journey for him that I can't begin to understand. All that I can do, as a person of quite considerable privilege, is to try to do my best to be present with him in the struggle and assist him in opening what windows of opportunity he can. He has undoubtedly made some mistakes, and he undoubtedly could have chosen to make some different choices at certain important points of time; but what anyone in my position cannot (in time) fail to recognize is that some of us undoubtedly pay a much steeper and more permanent cost for our mistakes than do others. What my friend is suffering at the moment borders upon and routinely crosses over into what Zygmunt Bauman calls, "Civic Death"-a form of life-long exclusion from the mainstream of society (quoting from Morelly's work entitled the "Code of Nature"). And it conjures up for me another further thought from Bauman's work on "The Human Costs of Globalization (from the section entitled "Factories of Immobility):"

"(Pierre) Bourdieu points out that the State of California, celebrated by some European sociologists as the very paradise of liberty, dedicates to the building and the running costs of prisons a budget transcending by far the sum total of state funds allocated to all the institutions of higher education. Imprisonment is the ultimate and most radical form of spacial confinement. It also seems to be the main concern and focus of attention of the government by the political elite at the forefront of contemporary 'time/space compression.'

Spatial confinement, incarceration of varying degrees of stringency and harshness, has been at all times the prime method of dealing with the unassimilable, difficult-to-control, and otherwise trouble-prone sectors of the population. Slaves were confined to the slave quarters. So were lepers, madmen, and ethnic or religious aliens. If allowed to wander beyond their allotted quarters, they were obliged to wear the signs of their spatial assignment so that everybody was aware that they belonged to another space. Spatial separation leading to enforced confinement has been over the centuries almost a visceral, instinctual fashion of responding to all difference, and particularly such difference that could not be, or was not wished to be, accommodated within the web of habitual social intercourse. The deepest meaning of spatial separation was the banning or suspension of communication, and so the forcible estrangement.

Estrangement is the core function of spatial separation. Estrangement reduces, thins down and compresses the view of the other: individual qualities and circumstances which tend to be vividly brought within sight thanks to the accumulated experience of daily intercourse, seldom come into view when the intercourse is emaciated or prohibited altogether: typification takes then the place of personal familiarity, and legal categories meant to reduce the variance and to allow it to be disregarded render the uniqueness of person and cases irrelevant (p.106-7)."

So, as I'm reflecting today upon my friends struggle (trying to stave-off the spectre of "Civic Death"), wringing my hands over the extensive ongoing implications of the (aptly) so-called "prison-industrial complex" and working to continue building my own estimate of the costs of the "glocalization" of society, I was reminded of that (now much deeper) statement of Jesus: "I was in prison, and you visited me." This is a statement that takes on a much deeper and far more expansive meaning when we account for the analysis of Bauman and others and come to understand just how deeply this exhortation of Jesus goes, and how far it must go to become the "leaven" that slowly works its way through the deepest recesses and abscesses of our world's dysfunction and alienation bringing healing and reconciliation (mixed metaphor intended:). This is the good news! In a society where all of the different strata and groups are in some way or another, or at some point or another, variously calling for enforced "justice" and attempting to throw one another into prison for their myriad "transgressions"-the white collars and the blue collars, the lefts and the rights, the 'socialists' and the 'capitalists' the politicians and the people-Jesus steps into this picture and says what? It truly must be one of his most revolutionary and liberating statements.......