Thursday, January 6, 2011

Living Circular in a Linear World

     Western life relies--absolutely relies--on a linear worldview. There needs to be a beginning, a middle, and an end to pretty much everything. Birth, life, death. Sunrise, day, night. Get up, go to work, come home. Get sick, be sick, get well. We order our lives on a National Geo time-line that we fold out, metaphorically, when we need to make tick marks to record events. We usually organize those events and the spaces between them by their proximity to each other along the time-line. That is, we usually think about stuff according to, "When did it happen?" and "When is it going to happen?"
     Take a look at your calendar. It's a line. Oh, at first glance it may look like a block with days and weeks arranged into units--days from left to right, weeks from top to bottom. Really, though, that's just convenience so we don't have to keep up a line of days stretching left to right for 365 units. If each day takes up an inch on the line, that's a line over 30 feet long per year. Pack that in your Day Planner. So, we break up that line into units that we can stack like blocks. But it's still a line.
     Many folks around the world, on the other hand, operate within some sort of non-linear worldview. They are manifested in various ways but share the aspect that life's events and processes are not perceived--or grouped--strictly according to temporal proximity. Rather, they tend to be perceived--and grouped--according to similarities that are not strictly time-based. What happened? Who was involved? Where did it happen? Frequently, such worldviews are described as circular. (I prefer to see them as spherical, but only because a sphere could contain more pieces than a circle; it's a 3-D thing.) The point of that word picture is that events are categorized in groups like pie pieces, more or less regardless of their linear temporal proximity. That's not to say that there is no sense of temporal progression among people who operate within a circular (spherical) worldview. It's just that temporal progression is not the organizing principle of their lives.
     So, the reason I began this post is that I have been thinking about how people with circular worldviews deal with long-term or chronic illness. As I noted earlier, in a linear perspective, we get sick, we are sick, then we get well. At least that's how it's supposed to work, right? Assuming there are appropriate and effective treatments, of course. Consequently, chronic illness is a conundrum in a linear worldview. How do we handle an illness that has a beginning, a middle, and no end? We can make a tick mark on the National Geo fold-out time-line for the first sign of symptoms or the first diagnosis, we can tick off days during which the illness is present and, hopefully, being treated, but we cannot make a mark for the day of wellness. The end of the calendar comes along, still no tick mark. That calendar is replaced by another calendar, whose end also comes along, still no tick mark. And so on. And so on. Doctors get frustrated. Patients get frustrated. Family and friends get frustrated. What the heck to do when we can't find that last tick mark?
     Because I study culture and cultural behavior, I have begun to wonder about how illness, especially chronic illness, is viewed through a circular worldview. I know that non-Westernized people often view illness as more than or different than the biological, chemical, or physiological malfunctions that they are seen as from a Western perspective. I know that human illness is frequently seen as manifesting imbalance within a human, between humans, or between humans and other members and aspects of the natural and supernatural world(s). So, like our Western, linear perspective, illness is a problem that wants resolution. The difference seems to be that, in a circular perspective, illness is not THE problem but a symptom of THE problem. It seems reasonable to think, then, that chronic illness is a symptom of a problem that is difficult to resolve--a major imbalance of some sort, perhaps--or takes a long time to resolve or can't be resolved.
     In my spare time--presuming I ever have any--I hope to learn more about non-Western perspectives on illness, particularly chronic illness. As it turns out, I am now involved in the early stages of a research project involving cancer and exposure to natural radioactivity among pre-Columbian Native Americans. Perhaps that will open doors for me to better understand non-Western perspectives on illness and living with chronic illness in a linear world.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Can I Be a Post-Modern Modernist?

          As I understand it, and, mind you, I am not the sharpest tool in the shed, post-modernism eschews (I love that word) some notions of absolutism. I say "some" because it seems obvious, even to dim-bulbs like me, that saying that there are no absolutes sounds pretty absolute, so I have to assume that not all absolutes are easily jettisoned. This is opposed to the well-known premise of post-Enlightenment modernism that some things are true, period, and that it is within the ability of man to identify those things. Leaving, for a moment, concepts in traditional Christianity (and, I think, the related monotheistic worldviews of Judaism and Islam, but I could be wrong) that the BIG PICTURE truths can only ascertained through Divine revelation, the Enlightenment idea was/is that man is inherently capable of figuring out what is real and not real, true and not true, existent and non-existent, based on systematic observation within a defined paradigm that provides consistence in interpretation. The Renaissance and Enlightenment period are considered to be the origins of the "modern" era in human history, thus the conceptual correlation between modernism and absolutism.
          The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who died--by the way--in insanity, is often seen as the father of post-modernism because of his nihilist, "God is dead" worldview. I refer the reader to for a thoughtful discussion of Nietsche's thinking and influence on modern post-modernism. Can I use "modern" to describe post-modernism?
          Anyway, in 2003, our son went off to college--a small, decidedly Christian college--where he was exposed to post-modernism in Christian thought. He, in turn, exposed us. After several years of debate on the topic, it seems to me that the upside of post-modernism in the Church is the emphasis on relationship. Recently, a friend and I discussed her epiphany that God wants a positive relationship with her, something that she seems to have missed in her 50+ years, much of which has been spent as a born-again Christian, including growing up in an evangelical congregation and denomination. It occurred to me that my upbringing, theologically the same as hers, can be described as insisting on salvation by grace through faith alone but then encouraging a works-based life that suggests that post-salvation grace is earned. Mind you, both my friend and I grew up in Calvinist-lite circumstances that emphasized the "eternal security of the believer." So, am I the only one who senses an irony in being told that I could not come to God except through His grace, could not thereafter leave His grace under any circumstances, and yet must live as though His continued grace must be earned? (I think this might be related to another doctrinal position in which "all true believers will persist," indicating that one can tell whether another proclaimed Christian is actually saved by that person's post-conversion life, a responsibility that I, for one, am not interested in assuming.) In that situation, it seems to me that theology develops a number of rules for appropriate behavior, rules that are necessary to ensure that 1) one is indeed saved and 2) others can be sure of one's salvation.
          Contrast that with a post-modernist position that the important aspect of salvation is relationship, that God did what He did and does what He does so that we can have now-and-always relationship with Him, that rules for behavior are less important--potentially much less important--than living in relationship, of knowing Him better and better through time. Yes, I know that every evangelical Christian will agree with that, but I have become much less interested in recent years with statements of agreement. I'd like to see, in my own life and in the lives of Christians I know, less concern with living by the rules and more concern with living with God by grace through faith.
          Somebody tell me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that one of the things that makes the New Covenant better than the Old Covenant (read the letter to the Hebrews) is that the New Covenant as expressed in Scripture includes lots of principles but few actual rules. The beauty of this is that the New Covenant is much more immediately translatable in very different cultural settings. God is not accessed or appeased by rules; He actually wants you to know Him and has done what is necessary to make that possible. Thus, the Old Covenant requires that people who want to participate, and who are not Jewish, must convert to Judaism and follow its rules (whatever those might be, depending on what sort of Judaism that one joins). Those rules are the result, in the Old Covenant, of God creating a new and unique culture as recorded in the history books of Scripture. Culture, as the manifestation of worldview, necessarily involves ritualized behavior (rules). Thus, if one wants to participate in the Old Covenant, one must participate in those rules.
          This is in distinct contrast to the New Covenant, which, pretty much from day one, produced missionaries who took the gospel (good news) of that covenant to people who did not have to become Jews (or anyone else) to participate in the covenant. They just had to want a relationship with God, understand that they could not earn that relationship, and accept what God did through Christ to make it possible. Yes, I know that missionization has, and still is in many settings, been unfortunately linked to attempts to teach and enforce rules for "appropriate" Christian living, but I assert that doing so has been the downfall of missionizing efforts through time. I refer the reader to a book entitled One Tribe, Many Tongues for an interesting take on this situation by an evangelical Native American (the book's original title was better, I think: 500 Years of Bad Haircuts). Mission efforts would be much more successful in terms of seeing people come to relationship with God through Christ, I suspect, if missionaries worried more about showing relationship and less about teaching rules. Or, as a pastor friend of ours used to say, the Church professes to want to bring people into the image of Christ, but then works to make them into the image of us.
          I, like many Christians, am concerned about the apparent eschewing (I still love that word) of absolutism in post-modernism and its impact on the historical grounding of Christianity in absolute truth. Thus, I maintain my hold on modernism (although I have to wonder what the Church did about absolute truth before the Enlightenment--I'll have to look into Church history, I guess). Making our own truth(s) is potentially very dangerous for anyone, all the more so for Christians, and particularly so for young or potential Christians. Still, it seems likely to me that the Holy Spirit can be trusted to use the Scriptures of the New Covenant to bring and strengthen righteousness--as defined by God, not by people--in any cultural setting if people in that setting are brought to relationship with God.