Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Letter to Ethics Bowl Teammates

What I Hate About Ethics Bowl
By: an Enthusiast

It’s that time of year again. There’s a chill outside, trees are turning orange, the smell of wood smoke permeates the air at night, and an invigorating sense of excitement accompanies these two words: “Ethics Bowl.”

So call me a geek for loving this, but Ethics Bowl is one of the best parts of the fall semester. Devoted preparation, eager debate participants, and that feeling of pride and utter superiority that no one quite vocalizes but everybody feels: “I am an ethical human being.”

Just kidding—I hope we’re not that vain. In fact, the one thing I hate about ethics bowl is that I’m afraid it gives us a less-than-complete perspective of what it means to be “ethical.” The content of our cases might indicate that “ethics” only involves end-of-life issues, discrimination, human rights, etc. Please—don’t be so fooled.

How do you talk about people when they’re not around? Does pride or your concern for what others think of you alter your behavior? How does respect (or lack thereof) for others affect your speech and actions? You may never make the decisions about whether to kick homeless Kenyans out of the national parks, but you will without a doubt face the day-to-day ethical responsibilities we have as Christians.

I want to challenge you, fellow ethics bowlers. I want to challenge you as those who will one day be held to a higher standard: the issues of an ethics competition are nothing compared to the issues of an ethical life. Ethics are not simple standards, they are how we must live. To quote Dallas Willard, we are faced with “the desperate human problem of knowing how to live, and…the law revealed by Jehovah, Israel’s covenant-making God, [is] the only real solution to this problem.” Love one another. The first shall indeed be last. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

And I wholeheartedly believe that by engaging in this competition, you set yourselves up to potentially become Pharisees of the worst kind. “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:19) Ethics bowl is not for the faint of heart; the ethical life to which Christ calls us is even less so.

This year, my prayer for you all, my teammates, is that the ethics you debate so well and so eloquently will pale in comparison to the ethical life you live.

“To what end, O Lord? To what purpose? For what reason? None, but Your Glory.”

Monday, September 21, 2009

I don't like taxes, I hate abortion, but THIS IS NOT ME.

Dangit. I hate this.

George MacDonald, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Elena the Modernist

I've always considered myself a modernist. It's the reason-loving mind in me, the part that loves apologetical proofs and rational conclusions. C.S. Lewis, Peter Kreeft, and other great theologians of the 20th century have fed that passion with simple (but memorable) logical concepts like "liar, lunatic, or Lord" and such.

Interestingly, my favorite atheistic philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, was rather opposed to the concepts of the modernists. Though most would agree that he was quite consistently rational in his conclusion that a world without God/meaning is pure misery, Sartre insisted that Reason is not the characteristic that sets mankind apart. Instead, he insisted that the Will is the primary quality of human beings (not that he affirmed any human nature).

This aspect of existentialism (Sartre's philosophy) was not unique to atheists. Soren Kierkegaard (of whom I've written before) believed that it is the Will that motivates faith. In fact, according to Kierkegaard faith is directly contrary to reason (as in the case of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac). It is only the Will, the actual choice to live and act for God rather than for the praise of men, that distinguishes the Christian from all others.

Fascinating as this all is, it didn't come to life in my mind until I was reading Lilith and a few of George MacDonald's Unspoken Sermons.
Troubled soul, thou art not bound to feel, but thou art bound to arise. God loves thee whether thou feelest or not. Thou canst not love when thou wilt, but though art bound to fight the hatred in thee to the last...Will thou his will...Heed not thy feelings: do thy work. As God lives by his own will, and we live in him, so has he given to us power to will in ourselves. How much better should we fare if, finding that we are standing with our heads bowed away from the good, finding that we have too feeble inclination to seek the source of our life, we should yet will upwards toward God, rousing that essence of life in us, which he has given us from his own heart, to call again upon him who is our Life, who can fill the emptiest heart, rouse the deadest conscience, quicken the dullest feeling, and strengthen the feeblest will! (The Eloi)
Not to say (as Kierkegaard did) that there is no place for reason, or even for feeling, in the life of the Christian. Indeed, does not God call us to love Him with all our heart (feeling), mind (thinking), and strength (will)? But when reason or feeling fail, what can motivate us to do the good that God requires of us?

It is a choice to love God in the hard times, in the darkness, in the confusion, in the moments of uncertainty. Reason tells you it's absurd. Feelings aren't up to the task. But God promises to conform our Will to His own and in Him we live and move and have our being. "Existence was mine in virtue of a Will that dwelt in mine." (Lilith)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

My Recent Aches and Pains

You know what kills me? what really eats up my heart? what gnaws at my compassion and tortures my soul?

That in the United States, women destroy their unseen babies to maintain a false image of independence that people like to call “sexual freedom.” That in India, women are fighting to get union protection for those in prostitution so they will have benefits and recognition as a legitimate profession.

That right-wing Christians feel the need to condemn Obama’s “socialism” and in the same sentence predict a “great American awakening.” That whenever conservatives oppose the current administration, liberals throw down the racism card. That people think a government-run universal healthcare system or welfare system or anything-system will solve the problem of American rejection of personal responsibility and the need for true community in our world.

That Christ came and answered all these problems two thousand years ago but people just don’t see it.

Psalm 85:9

Saturday, September 12, 2009


If I suffer, let me suffer.
If I mourn, let me mourn.
If I fail, let me fail.
I want to know my limits.

Death is a comfort.
Endings and emptyings
Nothing but relief.
I know that I live on a timeline.

Know me for my sins.
Weaken and break me.
Call me out for my faults.
Remind me that I'm so small.

Not glaring but glowing,
My finitude in an infinite world.
Strength is less than enough;
Faith abounds to compensate.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Re: Paradox

In the tiny bit of a sermon that Randy gave in chapel today (in between talking about bow ties and new landscaping on campus), he hit on something wonderful and excellent and profound.

He said that, while we never really talk about it this way, belief in Christ and devotion to Him is hard work. It is not something that comes easily and it is not always enjoyable. We prefer to talk about the times when faith is emotional, sensational, and comforting--but those aren't the average days. Anything worthwhile in this world--with the exception of Christ's astoundingly free gift of salvation but not excluding His work of sanctification that immediately begins to follow--it all takes work. without sight or touch or sensation...the days of struggle and distraction and overcoming through Christ's strength alone...those are the days of Hebrews 11 and the men and women who conquered challenges through confidence in a truth that didn't feel real. (At least, it didn't feel as real as the obstacles that stood in their way.) That's the kind of faith that conquers, comforting or not.

We know it. We have faith in it. We believe it. And even when it doesn't feel good, we live it.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Paradox of Faith, Truth, and Reality (well, for ME anyway)

"But if I found a man that could believe in what he saw not, felt not, and yet knew, from him I should take substance, and receive firmness and form relate to touch and view, then should I clothe me in the likeness true of that idea where his soul did cleave!" - George MacDonald

Reality is a funny thing. It morphs and changes constantly according to time, perspective, circumstance. Human beings are subject to hormones, emotions, uncertainty, extent of knowledge, time, senses, and so on. The thing that most wholly characterizes the world in which we live is limits. At the same time, God looks at it from His timelessness and omniscience and it remains the same, unchanging, reliably permanent.

This is a paradox: what I feel and sense seems more real to me, yet I do not trust it at all; and while I struggle to experience and enjoy what I know in my head and even in my heart, I never doubt it. Even when I feel strongly for God, when I'm overwhelmed with emotion and sensation of love for Him, I doubt my feelings and attribute them to the worship music or my blessed (or desperate) circumstances or blah blah blah. I live day in and day out with full assurance of my love for God--a love that lacks romantic sparks or flames, though it's hotter than a blazing furnace. What I sense feels the most real but the least true. What I know feels the farthest away but I have full confidence in it.

I am the woman MacDonald describes, but there is no comfort in it.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

New [School] Year Resolutions - Part 2

2. Write, write, write.

Up until the beginning of August, I had been keeping a journal pretty consistently for about six months. It didn't have anything profound (except where I quoted Lewis or Willard, haha). It was a meagre collection of my own silly thoughts expressed in black ink on a book of blank paper created especially for those semi-introverted, self-examining people like me. I abandoned the thing because I have felt a bit conflicted about whether or not keeping a book of my own silly thoughts is too self-centered, whether it's worth my time and effort.

The most amusing and vain reason for keeping a journal/blog is that all the great authors did it (journal, not blog.) They wrote letters, kept journals (Hemmingway made Moleskine famous, after all) and had manuscripts of random scribblings. If ever I become a famous writer, I don't want to be left out of the Journaling Club of Dead Authors (JoCDA for those of you who don't know.)

Another easy answer to my questioning was simply that one becomes a better writer the more one does it. That's as good a reason as any, especially if I want to be a female Dallas Willard someday.

Finally, the brilliant Dr. Kevin Diller unknowingly answered my unspoken question a few days ago when we had our first Metaphysics class together. He said, 1) when you write, you think more clearly and 2) writing allows you to have sustained thought. So I definitely picked up the connection there between writing and thinking. I do a lot of thinking, it would make sense that I'd do a lot of writing.

Most importantly, when I write things down it allows me to look back a few days later and evaluate myself more objectively. I have a vastly different opinion than monsieur Michel Foucault who said, "What, do you imagine that I would take so much trouble and so much pleasure in writing, do you think that I would keep so persistently to my task, if I were not preparing – with a rather shaky hand – a labyrinth into which I can venture, into which I can move my discourse... in which I can lose myself and appear at last to eyes that I will never have to meet again. I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write." No. My writing spurs my morality, forcing me to ask questions like, "Should I have been thinking this? How has my perspective changed? What was influencing my opinion about this at the time? What does God have to say about this?" All good questions, all facilitated by writing and re-reading.

So my second new school year resolution is to journal consistently and about anything in my head or heart. Whether God or Satan put it there, I can learn from it--especially when I write it down.

Friday, September 4, 2009


Things are going great for me right now. Really, I'm very satisfied with my life. And I've had enough of it.

Happy times are all well and good, but I don't think I'll ever be happy being happy. I'm happiest when I'm miserable. (I'm not kidding.) In the moments when I feel the most desperate, the most disgusting, and the least those moments I love my great God most. I realize in those times that my worthlessness has no effect on His greatness and the grime of my sin only shows that His love is stronger than anything I can imagine.

My sappy spirituality on the good days is nothing compared to my brokenhearted longing for more of His perfection. There's nothing like being silent and helpless before the Father, crying out for Him to fill you because you're empty. I love laughing and I love being satisfied with how my life is going, but "how my life is going" seems to be the opposite of how much I depend on Christ.

I suppose that only shows how much of a disgusting wretch I am. Geez. I'm just one of those people whose faith is a crutch for the hard times, huh? Oh, God, I hope not. But I'd rather be someone who needs a crutch every single day of the week. I want the passion and determination to seek with all my heart, in the hard times and the good ones. That's the challenge. God, let me never be complacent.

--edited September 5--

I realized the obvious yesterday: I can make my blessed life more difficult and I'm also supposed to do so. I think that's why Jesus taught us the disciplines, particularly those of deprivation. In addition to taming the spirit and the desires of the flesh, by giving up those things that comfort or distract or satisfy, I am left empty--and He is more than willing to fill me up.

For example, I'm a fidgeter. When nothing much is going on, I need to be doing something with my hands. Often that lands me on the computer doing something worthless...but last night I tried something different. I pulled out my prayer journal and I copied Romans 8. (I know, I know, get off it already. But I LOVE that chapter!) It was a great way to go through each verse and really meditate over it. It was also cool because I was copying the ESV version and I previously memorized the NIV version so I was able to compare the two as I wrote (I prefer the NIV, fyi.) So that's my new plan--when fidgety, copy passages into my notebook. I want to go through the rest of Romans, then Philippians, and who knows--I'm such an antsy person that maybe I'll be ranked up there with the scribes of the Medieval ages and have the whole New Testament done by May.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


I think I've explored some different ways of looking at what "faithfulness" means (see post about Kierkegaard from June). This little scribble looks at fides in a couple of other ways.

First: K talked about giving a hope or love or passion back to God with the expectation that we will receive it back. His perspective pertains to the faith required of finite Man to interact with an all-powerful God, having more than just a generic confidence in the Provider. I've experienced this in a small way this year; I don't suppose K would have included it as something wonderful and marvelous in Fear and Trembling, but it has been a fulfilling experience for me.

I gave up something close to my heart, like my child or my great lover or my security blanket...I gave up my PLAN. Plans are good things, of course. K wouldn't have approved of my incident as an act of faith if my sacrifice wasn't a good thing in the first place. Plans are good things because they demonstrate our desire to act, a focus on life beyond the present moment, and a conscientiousness of my purpose and usefulness on this earth. I've learned a lot about plans in the past few years -- 4-year plans, summer plans, travel plans, house plans, work plans, etc. The major thing I've grappled with is how plans change, whether we like it or not (and usually, we -- okay, I -- don't.) But when a plan is swapped out for something I don't understand, when I give up my presumptions and commit myself to taking big risks, embracing my finitude and the sometimes uncomfortable nature that God gave me as a human being...when I personally commit myself to a morality that relinquishes expectations and requirements that I've copied down from "The World's Book of Success Stories"... When I did this, I became something totally different and unexpected: I became a philosophy major.

The short explanation of why this is a leap of faith for me is that I never saw myself as the graduate school type...and now I hear from everyone that I'm headed towards a PhD. WHAT? Where do I get money for that? Am I even smart enough for that? Could I really go places as a philosophy professor? They don't make money--how do I support myself?

Those are the remaining questions. Now to part II: my Faithful God.

I heard a really great song this summer by a group out of Knoxville, TN called United Pursuit Band. They write wonderful worship songs, one of which goes like this: "You provide the fire, I'll provide the sacrifice. You provide the spirit, I will open up inside. Fill me up, God." And that's what I feel like, and that's what He did. Except that, like Elijah, I had to provide the sacrifice before He ever threw down even a tiny spark or ember from heaven. And I had to rip open my chest and hold my delicate, vulnerable heart in my hands as an offering before I could see the Spirit that He would send to me. It goes both ways, faith does. In my short-sightedness, I must give; and as I do, He gives back. And for every little sacrifice that I blindly relinquished, He faithfully gave more abundantly than I could have dreamed.

Now He keeps on giving. It's usually not what I expect from Him, but as I said about this summer, it's usually better than what I plan for myself. I don't think K could have possibly gotten the whole concept of faith right (that God gives back a specific thing that we give up to Him first) because Paul said something a bit to the contrary in Romans 8: "Now, hope that is seen is not hope. Who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it patiently." The blind do not know what good things lie in store for them, nor can they begin to imagine it. The limits about which I only complain prove to be the ways God shows his power--because He is faithful.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

New [School] Year Resolutions - Part 1

1. Find a good, not-too-distracting place to study.

It's taken me this long, right? But really, this might seem easy, seeing as I live at a university--a place created for studying. Yeah, right. There is NO place on this small campus where I can study without distraction. Let me explain my options:

1) Dorm Room. Can't do it there because there are 23 other girls whom I love with all my heart and who seem far more interesting than my physics homework any moment of the day. Plus, they say things like, "Elena, I can't believe you're graduating in May!" Sigh. Don't remind me.

2) Student Union. Okay, I'm introduced as a "connections" person. That is to say, I know a solid percentage of the student body. There are always dozens of people to catch up with and SOMEHOW, they all hang out in the Union.

3) Outside. Well, on the days where it's nice enough to hang out on the grass, it's also warm enough to put you to sleep as you "read" laying out on a blanket.

4) The Library. Oh yes, this one makes me laugh. I mean, of all the places on campus, this one is specifically set aside as a quiet place for people to sequester themselves away to get work done. Yeah, except for the bibliophiles like me who can't be in a bookstore for fewer than 45 minutes.
(One incident: I went to Borders a few days before school to pick up a book for Caroline. I knew exactly the book I was supposed to get, I found it within 5 minutes, and I should have been out of there pronto especially since the grandparents were coming over for dinner that night. Hahaha. I managed to hang around for about an hour. I didn't even purchase anything besides what I came for, though I was sorely tempted.)
Just the knowledge that there are hundreds of books by Lewis, MacDonald, Dickens, Kreeft, Sartre, Dostoyevsky, etc. etc. sitting only a few feet away from me is the biggest distraction of all. There are so many times when I've gone into the library with only the books I need for my homework, spent some 2+ hours in there, and finally left with 20 books in my hands, none of which have to do with my classes. But looking at those books, smelling them, flipping through and discovering that the author was influenced by some other guy whose books are right over on the next shelf and demanding my attention as well... It's addictive. My consolation is that if I go to graduate school and become a prof myself, every so often I'll be able to take a paid year to accumulate and flip through/browse/become engrossed in books of all sorts and call it research. Or better yet-- a sabbatical. Oh, the perks of academia.

Anyway, I've ruled out the orthodox options. Unless I find a white padded cell (a suggestion for myself that I posed to my mom back in 3rd grade), I suppose I'll have to cope with/enjoy the distractions.