"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

Archive for September, 2010

The Nature of Manufactured Want

In times of plenty, people easily demand things that they do not otherwise need.  Many of our demands surprise us when confronted with the logic.  I have spent several weeks reviewing literature regarding wastewater irrigation systems.  At the close of finishing up my paper, the New York Times ran an article concerning water shortages in the southwestern United States.  First I thought, “Aha! This article discusses why people should be aware of wastewater reuse strategies!”  But as I read, I saw a more intriguing picture of the nature of human needs.

Las Vegas is pursuing some intriguing options to secure its water feature.  One of the main initiatives by the city is “to encourage homeowners and businesses to eliminate their lawns in favor of the rock, grass and cactus landscaping.”  But what are lawns doing in Las Vegas, a city housed entirely in the desert?

The lawns exist because the water resources existed.  When people have ample supply, they can cultivate ample want.  They can cultivate these wants to the point where the want lacks common sense.  Having a lawn in Las Vegas becomes an issue of freedom and choice.  The focus remains on the desires of individuals rather than on consideration of the environment.

Please note the frame here: the argument rests in context.  What foliage belongs in the desert?  How can we appreciate the desert’s beauty?  How do we come to terms with living, and even with flourishing, in the desert?

Consumerism can distract us from a broader frame of contextual fit.  While the environment always requires some modification to support human flourishing, we can fit our human-built world more closely to the context.  And who knows?  We may even approach decisions that offer promises towards justice.


A Musical Interlude


Reconsidering Wisdom

Today I read an encouraging story in the New York Times that discussed an educational turn around at a large school.  Conventional wisdom for educational reform is that communities develop when students can be known individually and offered pathways that affirm their strengths, calling out the best in them.  In public schools, this motto generally supports the idea that small schools are better.  This school saw the task differently and has made great strides with over 4000 students.

What intrigues me about the article is that a student’s ability to read, write, speak and reason are regarded as every teacher’s responsibility.  In particular, I am encouraged by promoting student reasoning.  It can be a pain, for teacher and student alike, to learn how a student is reasoning.  Writing does help the issue as it forces students to make even a small aspect of their thoughts transparent.  Additionally, I cannot think of skills more important across disciplines than reasoning.  The various academic fields offer different modes of reasoning.

I also appreciate how educators lent helping hands to one another.  So often, being an educator means swimming against the current even when you don’t know what you’re doing.  These educators worked together alongside of a common mission that spanned all of their fields.  They helped each other recognize good writing and developed community amongst themselves… even within the span of the contract.

What do you think are critical aspects of schooling success?

The Mismatch between History and Engineering

Note to readers: This post is a classic post about what I actually do for work.

I often spend my time thinking about how engineers can be better engineers.  To me, engineering is not strictly about particularly refined use of a technical tool as the technical tools come and go.  Engineering is not about a specific discipline as disciplinary domains shift over time.  Moreover, engineers need to find ways to work effectively across the engineering disciplines all of the time.  It is not uncommon to have mechanical, electrical, industrial, and chemical engineers working alongside of each other.  To me, engineering is about solving problems that have their roots in the material world.

But I have been spending a ton of time lately researching wastewater irrigation systems in a development context.  I’m interested and intrigued by the idea of creating holistic water management scenarios at the household level in a way that honors human dignity.  As I read, I’m convinced that engineers and historians have very different ways of looking at problems.

I know a little bit about being both an engineer and a historian.  I majored in the former and minored in the latter in college.  It’s hard to think about getting a history job so mostly I keep at the historical studies as a hobby.

When you are looking to piece together a story in history, there is a distinct bias towards choosing the simplest and most elegant story you can construct given the information that you have at hand.  My work situates me predominantly in the middle medieval area (Europe between AD900 and 1300).  This period of history has been widely popularized, and there is a lot of commentary to sort.  The more voices you try to add to the conversation (looking for instance at popular sources for military history, imperial records, and traces of grassroots movements), the more likely you will find a compelling and nuanced story.  Yet you come to distrust the likelihood of an impressive cover-up spanning all sorts of characters when you lack compelling evidence.  The goal is a simple, compelling narrative that accounts for the evidence you have.

Yet engineers seem to lack an appreciation for the simple.  As I try to parse through various recommendations for irrigation systems, I see documents that value the large scale.  I have been working my way through scholarly papers and a few rather good books.  One thing remains that quaint household solutions are generally disregarded.  It boggles my mind against a backdrop of failed centralized attempts and known governmental corruption.  The story simply doesn’t make sense in that it is only an engineering solution if it is rooted in some large-scale enterprise or enables a large-scale enterprise.  But as I am doing my own research, I see a rather compelling case for how small-scale systems require some significant engineering work.

It has me thinking about engineers and their tools.  And it will also be interesting to see how development conversations unfold around a different sort of academic.

Confronting the Impossible

Today’s Gospel reading brings us St Luke’s articulation of Christ calling the first disciples.

In this well-known account, Christ asks Simon and John to cast their nets into waters they know do not yield any fish.  Simon’s response is interesting, “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.”

This nevertheless is interesting because it shows that Simon remained intimately aware of the situation at hand.  He had labored all night; he had nothing to show for his efforts.  He accepts the reality of his situation.  And he lets Christ speak into the situation.

I am reminded of the story of the three youth in the furnace.  When confronted with the power of Nebuchadnezzar, the youths reply, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

Again, we see a situation of dire reality.  The youths know that the fire has the power to kill them.  Yet again, they encounter God.

However, I think we can be tempted to say, “And they encounter God, and all goes well.”  But Simon still had to cast the nets and the youths still had to enter the furnace.  Day in and day out, we encounter seemingly hopeless situations that remain.  We do not know what we will be called to do, especially when Christ is extending the invitation.  In the case of Simon, Christ asked him to do something he had done hundreds of times before even in the immediate context of expecting no return.

Obedience and love are really the left and right feet of walking with Christ.  Without moving both feet, it is difficult to succeed in following Him.

Ode to Bede

I have the Venerable Bede on my mind at the moment.  I found this quote by him today:

Better a stupid and unlettered brother who, working the good things he knows, merits life in Heaven than one who though being distinguished for his learning in the Scriptures, or even holding the place of a doctor, lacks the bread of love.

Too often we can value the school of our head over the schools of the heart and the hands.  As the celebrated church historian, Bede knew too well the failures of the community to manifest Christ’s love.  It is easy to think good and loving thoughts, but it stands to be much harder to translate these thoughts into physical bread for the person we find ourselves with at that moment.

How can we translate what we profess into action?

Friday Forum: The Economy of Salvation

The Friday Forum on the blog is my attempt to answer any question, however ridiculous, that readers of the blog pose.  It is my attempt to make this space a little bit different.  I blog on topics related to the big ideas of culture, education, engineering and theology.  Feel free to ask your questions!

Once again, I’m looking at a Friday Forum that invites my perspective across divergent Christian traditions in a way that makes me shudder.  Disclosing one’s theological thoughts often invites disclosure of personal perspective that you do not typically volunteer in polite company.  Incidentally, today the question invites considerations that highlight some of the understandings present in various Protestant traditions.  I think it is only fair to spread the ecumenical love, and my good friend Aideen asked this particular question.

So, much like last week, we’ll start with an official disclaimer: In no way, shape or form am I trying to represent the mind of the Orthodox Church on this topic.  I will offer exclusively my thoughts from my own observations that have been undoubtedly shaped by authors I have read and my own experience.  People who have a better handle on the official sources on this question are welcome to offer their perspectives in the comments.  I invite correction.

This week’s question is “Is salvation a one-time event where someone is permanently saved?”  I think this version serves as a starting point of the question “What about once-saved, always-saved?”

Now, incidentally, this theological tenant emerges in a range of variant contexts that color the issue.  One place this belief surfaces regards assurance of God’s mercy around sin.  Someone is obviously beside themselves over something they have done that they believe separates them from God’s mercy.  A well-meaning friend assures them that they do not need to seek salvation again, because once they have received salvation for the first time, then they never need to receive salvation again.  The core issues actually present in this issue regard forgiveness and sin.  Being distressed over one’s sinful condition is hardly something possible capable of separating us from God.  Most commonly, this distress causes us to fling ourselves in God’s general direction.  Not a bad reflex.  And indeed, in the Creed we confess one baptism for the remission of sins.  We do not get baptized over and over and over again each time we become increasingly aware of our sinful state.

Another place I see the concept of “once-saved, always-saved” invoked is in the context of a funeral.  Generally, people are distressed over the untimely death of a loved one.  They assert that they know that someone is in heaven because the person received Christ to be their Lord and Savior at a rally years before.  The questions here concern love and grief.  When confronting death, people often say things that otherwise have limited space in their theology.  I encounter so many people grieving the death of a loved one who say things like “We know Grandma is with Jesus.”  This concept has limited manifestation elsewhere in their doctrine as many of my friends are mortified over the possibility that Saints are resting in Jesus.  But I think this statement actually points us to some helpful ideas when considering the economy of salvation.

Most people assert that they know Grandma is with Jesus because they know their grandmother to be a person who absolutely, positively loved the Lord with everything she possibly had.  Stories of her commitment to Christ abound and fill the family with a joyful memory of her life that they can truly regard as eternal.  Whatever the agony existed at the end of life, a clear commitment to Christ remains where it simply makes sense to assert that Grandma departed this life in friendship with Christ.

Consider a marriage.  When a person enters a marriage, there usually is a definite beginning to that relationship.  Most of the time, people recall many beginnings: the first meeting, the first date, the first “I love you,” the first kiss, the engagement, the ceremony, the first moment they “felt married.” to name but a few.  Yet, there do exist things in this world that can tear down a marriage.  It is possible to for a marriage to end; Christ Himself even permits divorce in the case of marital unfaithfulness.

But again, considering a marriage, there are a lot of intermediate steps that happen before someone is sleeping with another person.  There are even things that are honest mistakes.  Sometimes a spouse does need to apologize.  Sometimes a spouse is not quite himself or herself because of illness.  Love and forgiveness are part and parcel of a loving human marriage, to say nothing of the demands placed on Christians who are married.  Marriage, while it has a beginning, definitely speaks to the idea of continuance if it continues to be a marriage.

Against this backdrop, it does not strike me as odd in the slightest that a person desiring baptism in the Orthodox Church is asked quite pointedly three times, Do you unite yourself to Christ? And when we consider ourselves as marrying the Heavenly Bridegroom, we do have the assurance that He is not going to be the one to leave.