Archive for November, 2008

indicative/imperative, worship/ethics

Some (possibly) related ideas:

Colossians 3:1-17 represents a particularly vivid example of the way in which imperatives in the New Testament (e.g. “seek the things above” [v. 1b]) are regularly linked to indicative statements about reality or identity (e.g. “you have been raised’ [v. 1a]; “Christ is seated at the right hand of God” [v. 1c]).

… conduct must cohere with … resurrected status.

— Michael Barram, “Colossians 3:1-17”


But it is crucial here to recognize that the indicative already includes and implies the imperative.  Paul’s image of identification with Christ in his death and resurrection means that the “imperative” does not obligate one as a command external or alien to the believer.  Rather, the imperative reflects and grows from the reality of being joined with Christ, hidden with Christ, belonging to Christ.

— Marianne Meye Thompson, Colossians & Philemon, also on Col. 3:1


Christians learn how to be praiseworthy people through worship. …

… worship is not something Christians do to make them “moral” and … worship and the holiness of life intrinsic to worship cannot be related as cause to effect.  Rather, the activities of worship are not intended to effect a direct consequence exactly because they are purposefully directed to God.  Because worship puts all that we do before God, we are made part of God’s praise and joy.  That is why the first task of the church is not to make the world more just, but to make the world the world.  For the world can only know that it is the world through its contrast with the church that rightly knows the joy of worshipping the true God.  Insofar as ethics has a task peculiar to itself, that task is to assemble reminders from the training we receive in worship that enable us to rightly see the world and to perceive how we continue to be possessed by the world.

— Stanley Hauerwas, “The Liturgical Shape of the Christian Life: Teaching Christian Ethics as Worship”


I’m coming to love this word ‘cohere’ to describe what’s going on here.  Indicative and imperative feed on/into one another, worship is ethics is worship…  

Hauerwas is saying much more here, of course, than what I find to be an ecclesial/theological echo of Barram and Thompson’s Biblical notes.  I find the ideas he’s touching on very hard to accept or reject.

More on this later.


Frenemy isomorphisms

I was recently introduced by some friends to the concept of the frenemy, a term which has recently even entered public political discourse. I was excited to learn about this new class of social relationship and feel this may revolutionize how I classify my relationships.

However, I wondered whether this concept has yet been fully described. Are its relationships to other categories well-defined, and is it robust enough to undergo the same usages and manipulations as its constituents, ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’? For example, it immediately occurred to me to ask, “Is the frenemy of my frenemy my frenemy?” The answer is not immediately clear.  What about the friend of my frenemy, or the frenemy of my enemy?

It struck me that more work on this term was needed. And it struck me that the proper arena for rigorously standardizing such manipulations of interpersonal relationship terminology was mathematical. Specifically, the field of group theory suits such a task perfectly. 

In pursuance of this line of thought, I have written a research article on the subject, to which I link here:

My paper, "Frenemy Isomorphisms and Related Results"

My paper, "Frenemy Isomorphisms and Related Results"


In it you can find the details of this work, but I would like to summarize some of the main results here for the lay reader, and lay open the exciting conclusions my preliminary work suggests to a broader, non-technical audience.

Let us begin with an example we know and understand well; let us restrict ourselves to the world of friends and enemies.  Consider a map, or assignment, that associates to ‘friend’ the number 1 and to ‘enemy’ the number -1.  This assignment relates the friend-enemy dynamic to the algebraic structure of multiplication.  For example, who is the friend of my enemy?  ‘Friend’ is assigned to 1 and ‘enemy’ to -1, 1 x -1=-1, hence the friend of my enemy is my enemy.  This reflects our previous understanding of friend-enemy dynamics.  The equation -1 x -1 = 1 reflects the famous maxim “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  The algebraic structure perfectly describes the interpersonal dynamics.

In my paper I consider extensions of this framework to the friend-enemy-frenemy situation.  I conclude that there are two ‘frenemy structures’ that could work.  One (the Z4-structure) corresponds to assigning ‘friend’ to 1, ‘enemy’ to -1 and ‘frenemy’ to the imaginary number i.  In this case the frenemy of my frenemy can be calculated: i x i = -1.  The frenemy of my frenemy is my enemy.

In Section 4 of my paper the two possible frenemy structures are described via the following tables.  These tables are read as follows: to find what the frenemy of my friend is, find the entry in the row beginning with ‘frenemy’ and the collumn beginning with ‘friend’.  For either structure we see that the frenemy of my friend is my frenemy.

Model 1, the Z4 model
  friend frenemy enemy ?
friend friend frenemy enemy ?
frenemy frenemy enemy ? friend
enemy enemy ? friend frenemy
? ? friend frenemy enemy

Model 2, the Z2xZ2 model

  friend frenemy enemy ?
friend friend frenemy enemy ?
frenemy frenemy friend ? enemy
enemy enemy ? friend frenemy
? ? enemy frenemy friend

There are several striking implications of this work, and it indicates some problems that should be addressed.  First, the tables show that the frenemy of my frenemy is never my frenemy (Theorem 4.1 in my paper).  He or she is either my friend (in Model 1) or my enemy (in Model 2).  Thus, to determine which model actually reflects the friend-enemy-frenemy relationships, we need to determine who the frenemy of my frenemy is.  Model 2 seems more likely to me, but such relational analysis is a bit beyond my expertise as a mathematician, so I solicit your help.  Is the frenemy of my frenemy my friend, or my enemy?

Second, my work shows that there is no algebraic structure for the friend-enemy-frenemy dynamics that has only three objects (Lemma 3.2).  In either structure there is a fourth element, suggesting that the friend-enemy-frenemy categorization is incomplete!  There must be fourth, as yet undiscovered, relationship category.  I have denoted this category by ? in the tables above.  (Lest you be incredulous of this claim, I note that my procedure here is analogous to that which allowed Murray Gell-Mann, after noting the algebraic structure underlying known elementary particles, to predict the existence of new types of quarks.)  The behavior of this new category will be described by the proper table above.   For example, if the first table represents the correct model for the friend-enemy-frenemy relationships, we must look for a relationship category so that the enemy of my ? is my frenemy and so that the ? of my frenemy is my friend.  Again, I solicit your help. Perhaps this relationship is the enemend?  How can we understand this new category?

Speaking of accomodation

This interview on revenge and forgiveness, from NPR’s Speaking of Faith, is a disaster throughout.  To summarize: Michael McCullough argues that revenge and forgiveness are best understood via their social/evolutionary roots and implications.  Revenge is natural and understandable via this framework, as is forgiveness.  Forgiveness is in our self-interest as it makes us more likely to be successful in the end, more able to cooperate in the face of others’ failings, better able to build society and make progress.  As we grow in understanding it will become increasingly clear that forgiveness is in our species’ self-interest, and the way forward to creating a more peaceful society is to tap into our evolutionarily-trained capacity for forgiving.

Particularly disturbing is the discussion of Bud Welch, whose daughter was killed in the Oklahoma City bombings, who came to forgive McVeigh, spoke against his execution and continues to be an outspoken opponent of the death penalty.  McCullough seems to argue that Welch’s forgiveness is explainable in terms of his recognition of shared self-interest with McVeigh’s father in caring for their children.  No mention or explanation of the obvious counter-cultural nature of Welch’s stance is made.  (Welch can speak for himself; find some links here, including his statement on the McVeigh execution.)

Perhaps worse is the discussion of forgiveness in the conflicts in northern Uganda, which is discussed mainly as arising out of fatigue and attrition.

Some selections from the interview.  First from Tippet’s introduction:

Krista: This hour, we bring the lofty moral concepts of revenge and forgiveness down to earth…  Western religious and therapeutic mindsets have come to imagine revenge as a disease that can be cured by civilization. It hasn’t been seen as a natural, biologically driven impulse to which we all remain prone under certain circumstances. And at the same time, the seemingly colder eye of evolutionary biology has analyzed ruthlessness as an advantage in the relentless arc of the survival of the fittest. Forgiveness in both of these scenarios is a rare transcendent quality, a cure for revenge albeit one that would never help human beings really triumph.

McCullough on the evolutionary underpinnings of forgiveness:

Mr. McCullough: You can’t get organisms that are willing to hang in there with each other through thick and thin and make good things happen despite the roadblocks and the bumps along the way if they aren’t willing to tolerate each other’s mistakes. Sometimes if we’re cooperatively hunting ― let’s say we’re some sort of animal, that we’re some sort of animal that works together to hunt ― sometimes I’m going to let you down. And maybe it’s not even intentional, but I’m going to get distracted and I’m going to make a mistake. And if you take each of those mistakes as the last word about my cooperative disposition, you might just give up and so no cooperation gets done. So, really, our ability, and across the animal kingdom many animals’ ability to cooperate with each other and make things happen that they can’t do on their own is undergirded by an ability to forgive each other for occasional defections and mistakes.

And both in the only passage that touches with any concreteness on forgiveness as linked to any particular faith tradition.

Ms. Tippett: Something that I’ve been aware of also is that this word “forgiveness” I think has a really Christian ring in many ears. But, um, I’ve been very intrigued at, uh, you know, I remember speaking with a Holocaust survivor who said that, you know, for him the word “forgiveness” just didn’t do it and it has this cultural connotation of forgive and forget, but the Jewish phrase “repair the world” compels him in the same way he feels the word “forgiveness” compels Christians.

Mr. McCullough: I like that. I like that. I wish we could come up with a completely new word for what this human trait is.

I am extremely doubtful that McCullough’s arguments explain the forgiveness pictured in the Judeo-Christian tradition, or (though I am not knowledgeable enough to judge) most other faith traditions.  Rather I think he at best can explain a fairly weak and limited forgiveness.  I’m unqualified to comment on the merits of his social/evolutionary arguments (and I haven’t read his book); they may be useful in some ways.  I’d like, instead, to note what’s happening in this interview.

Tippett states their program from the outset: to bring lofty moral concepts down to earth.  And this is what they do, though likely not in the sense Tippett means.  Forgiveness leaves the realm of moral imperative and is justified in terms of its usefulness and effectiveness for our security and self-interest.  In the second quote above (and elsewhere in the interview), McCullough re-motivates forgiveness along lines of social self-interest and progress.  These are lines not based in any religious tradition’s approach to forgiveness, and, I suspect, not strictly in evolutionary biology either.  Rather these are lines founded in something that looks a lot more like the American democratic project, like democracy, capitalism and nationalism tempered by a slight nod towards the fact that solely pursuing immediate self-interest is not always the best way to secure self-interest and security in the long run.  Whence Tippett’s “help[ing] human beings really triumph.”  Resources for forgiveness are no longer to be found in any outside moral authority, but instead are already within us, waiting to be tapped in to.  In their momentary foray into Judeo-Christian speech regarding forgiveness we see explicitly the desire to unmoor this universal human potential from grounding in the particularities of any faith tradition. 

The overall project here is accommodation.  It is the pacification of forgiveness.  It is to take what was hard and foreign (not lofty, or expected only of the great, Krista, at least not in the Judeo-Christian tradition!) and make it acceptable and natural within the world of the listeners.  It is to confirm the listener in what he or she in already doing while sending out warm, fuzzy encouragement to do a little bit more because, deep down inside, you want to and it will be better for you in the end.  The end product is a vision of forgiveness that looks, on the one hand, weak and toothless and, on the other, (despite Tippett’s obliging attempt to help McCullough dance around this near the end of the interview) utopian.  For those of us who are people of faith this vision is obviously wholly untrue to our traditions.  For those of you who aren’t, I have a hard time seeing why such a vision is ultimately appealing or convincing.

It seems like Tippett, after spending so much time speaking of faith, should be able to do better.  But maybe a critical attitude is never a part of Speaking of Faith.  One wonders if this habit of accommodation, on the other hand, is.

church/world reading plan

Join me:

  • H. Richard Niebuhr‘s Christ and Culture in which he analyzes the church/culture relationship in terms of the categories Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, Christ transforming culture.
  • John Howard Yoder‘s essay “A People in the World”, collected in The Royal Priesthood, in which an alternative typology of the church/world relationship is presented – the Conversionist church, the Activist church and the Confessing church. (The Royal Priesthood also contains the essay “Peace Without Eschatology?”, which is really phenomenal and about which I will post sometime.)
  • Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon‘s Resident Aliens in which the authors offer a critique of Niebuhr’s typology and a supportive account of Yoder’s as part of their larger account of what has gone wrong with the church’s relation to the world and what the exciting possibilities are for recovering an authentic Christian witness.

I think this would be an excellent program of reading in response to my earlier post on the primacy doing church well.  Full disclosure: I’ve read Resident Aliens already, as should be clear from previous posts, and it inspires this program.  I’m likely inclined to accept Yoder’s view of things and Hauerwas and Willimon’s critique of H. Richard, but I’ve wanted to read Christ and Culture on its own merits for a while anyway.

Look for forthcoming posts on this (eventually).  And drop me a comment if you want to join in.  Reading about the church alone… by definition not ideal.

Films without teleology

I just watched Rachel Getting Married and found the experience included something rather similar to that of watching Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. The experience was some sort of nausée — a sort of despairing boredom — a feeling Fellini’s film simultaneously depicts and induces in a really brilliant way.  I’m toying with another characterization — both are films without teleology.  Both are rather rambling, have circular plot structure, refuse to ask or answer questions, subvert the audience’s expectations of a consistent progression or goal, develop characters without moving them to any particular end… The only purpose in sight seems to be some extremely long party scenes (though Vita’s Bacchanalian romps have given way to bizarre, multiculturalist family gatherings).

But I think Vita understands this, and its project is at least to depict and maybe to critique (I’m still not entirely sure) the formless, purposeless life of its characters via plot and style elements that reflect this sort of existence in all its formless boredom.  Rachel doesn’t seem to have any sense of itself as pursuing such goals.  It’s full of earnest though dysfunctional family dialogue as well as numerous celebrations of love and family.  It portrays the very broken existence of its main character alongside hopeful elements of friendship and family.

I appreciated some of these elements, some were touching, but found the overall effect in this film distressing.  Rachel Getting Married ends up laying a thin veneer of hope-we-can-create-together over a world where any convincing sense of direction and purpose has been lost, and this is frightening to me.  If the movie wants to depict the very fractured world of its protagonist, Kym, and her struggles to recover from addiction, via a picture of a world lacking form, direction, progress, then fine.  But to hold out, alongside this, vague and undeveloped notes of hope and good feeling that only paper over the underlying pain of the characters’ world is horrifying.  

As was walking out of the theatre and realizing that most of my fellow viewers had found this picture of their world totally satisfying.  I vastly prefer the effect of Fellini’s film.  If the world is really, at base, formless and without purpose, let’s at least look that square in the face and not enjoy it.

In praise of a significant example

In response to a recent series of posts by Periphery, particularly this one, I’d like to write about a significant example in the sense of the Hauerwas-Willimon quote included in a previous post.  Consider this post to be: (a) in hearty support of Periphery’s claim that “the Cross and all our crosses force us to revise our conceptions of dignity”, (b) reflection on the church being the church well, and (c) most importantly, in praise of a significant example.

B and his wife are members of my church, and were the first people to strike up conversation with me.  Roughly two years ago, he told the church he has ALS.  Now he is in a wheelchair and speech is very difficult for him.  During each service we have a time of sharing of joys during which all are welcome to report praises and concerns to the congregation.  Since his diagnosis, B has shared quite often during this time; he began by reporting on how, since his illness, he has become far more comfortable with and bold about sharing his faith with us and with others.  We now consistently receive frank reports on his condition, particularly about his core muscle strength, increasing limitations on his movement at home, projects to make his house more accessible to him, whether he has had the strength to endure a car ride to visit his daughter at school…  This is all in the form of praise for help he has received from friends, joy at visiting his daughter, and appreciation for his wife.

What is happening here?  A couple of things.  First, when we listen to reports on core muscle strength in a voice we have increasing difficulty understanding, we are forced, as Periphery claims, to revise our conceptions of dignity and ability.  His statements (as well as those of a developmentally disabled couple in the congregation who, interestingly, also frequently share with us) are honored in such a way that I am forced to and given tools to rethink my assessment of his situation.  What I want to particularly point out is that this is happening via a practice (sharing of praises and concerns) that, in its underlying rationale, supposes a community of neediness – it points us toward conceptions of dignity and ability that cohere with such a community and what it proclaims about humanity.  

Second, B is allowing the church to be the church.  He’s allowing us to be true to and recall a vision of a community where our practice of hearing and honoring him are coherent.  We’re forced not only to rethink his situation, but to remember what sort of community we’re supposed to be.  The ethical import of this, for things ranging from improving the church’s accessibility to our stance on euthanasia, is clear; it also ought to remind us again of our self-identification as a community of people in need.  Note that this is not happening through new programming or improved self-understanding, but via a practice ingrained in our worshipping life.  This practice has often been the occasion for less edifying praises, but by keeping it, the church has (maybe unwittingly) exposed itself to B’s faithfulness, which ought to remind us of the truth about ourselves – our contingency, our dependence, our need for the community and God.

The ethical lives of mathematicians

For your comparison:

John von Neumann   alexander-grothendieck
John von Neumann             Alexander Grothendieck

The biographical info linked via the captions above is instructive, I think. (Apologies for the very slow-loading pdf on Grothendieck from the AMS Notices). I find von Neumann’s ethics rather terrifying. Grothendieck is a stark counterpoint, though not much of a model on the whole. Read about Grothendieck at least for the story of his father — the little that seems to be known about him is utterly fascinating!

On this theme, this is very encouraging.