Oct 27 2010

Posthuman Theology

As a first-year MTS student, I have the privilege of meeting each week in a colloquy session with Dr. Kraftchick (the program director) and the other students in the program. In general, our discussions this year relate to the various intersections of technology and theology. More recently, we have broached the topic of the posthuman future and what it means for faith. The next few paragraphs contain some of my disparate, although not entirely random thoughts on the matter.

I am interested in the implications of the transhuman agenda for the doing of Christian theology and, equally, its implications for faithfulness to Christian confession.  The possibility of humankind co-opting the bio-evolutionary process and implementing advanced technologies for the purpose of enhancing and transcending the human experience seems nearly inevitable, given the significant progress in regenerative medicine, nanotechnology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality. Futurists predict that in a short time (considering the telescoping nature of technological and cultural evolution) humanity will be able to dramatically prolong human life, reduce mortality, and even eventually transfer human consciousness to non-organic, computing entities. In the sphere of virtual reality, it is being realized more and more that reality itself is a construct of patterns of information. The ability to manipulate and transform these patterns into other patterns is increasing exponentially. This suggests that the limitations of human experience (physical laws, natality, mortality, and sensory dynamics) are more permeable than ever imagined.

The horizon of the post-human emergence is then, in fact, quite proximal to us. The human species, for the first time, faces extinction, not because of predation or cosmic catastrophe, but because of its own self-willed transcendence into something physically, cognitively, spatially, and temporally superior. This is cause for great concern among today’s religious ethicists and theologians. The protest(s) go(es) something like this: If humans can, by their own design, bring an end to suffering as they have experienced it since their advent after mutating from their ancestral hominids, then the long-standing moral institutions of charity, compassion, empathy, and care will no longer be needed by them. Suffering and mortality provide the foundation for the maternal and paternal instincts of nurturing and care. If the (post)human can live indefinitely in an un-embodied state and in a space where manipulated patterns of information provide limitless and timeless realities, then the need for progeny itself will be terminated. Among those existing entities, physical pain, morbidity, and death will be non-existent metaphysical categories. Thus, there is no longer a need for the Christian ethos of love, care, and compassion. Additionally, the Christian theological paradigm, which is predicated on embodied (incarnate) life in need of salvation from God’s eternal enemy (Death) will cease to be relevant to anyone: an outdated historical artifact from humanity’s violent and unstable past. Therefore, according to these rightly concerned members of theological academé, fidelity to the Christian cause demands resistance to the transhuman agenda. This manifests itself in objection to public funding for stem cell research and other scientific ventures that push the limits of human ability and experience.

While I do not altogether disagree that the self-willed extinction of the human species presents daunting ethical and religious challenges, I also cannot fully endorse the feelings and actions of those who resist it. And this hesitancy arises precisely from my my theological sensibilities. While the Christian tradition does speak to those who have an embodied existence, I believe that Christian proctology and eschatology call for participation (or, as some theologians have put it, co-creation) with God in the revision and reconstitution of conscious life into something that radically affirms creativity, unending life, and a just-peace. The capacity to project oneself into multiple virtual constructs at once, to constantly reinvent environments for the betterment of those entities that exist in them, and to think at such a level as to appropriate the very fabric of the universe (or multiverse) through cognitive enhancement is an actualization of the Christian hope. It is not some far-fetched utopian dream, but a dynamic, gradual process whereby people can rise to new levels of harmony and productive engagement. Additionally, it does not remove (post)humanity from dependence on God, but radically reaffirms our need to rely on the source of life and energy itself for our happiness and future.

- Justin Rose

Justin is a 1st year MTS student from Navarre, FL and a Student Ambassador

Oct 15 2010

Transformative Listening

Listening is not as easy as you think. It requires more of you than you might realize. Consider those times in class, at work, or evenings with your family when you are told a story. Do you daze off, thinking about what you want for dinner? Do you focus less on the content of the conversation and more on the mole on his cheek? Do you act like a Bobble-head figurine, nodding without hearing the words of your friend? Even I, a self-proclaimed “good listener,” have the tendency to do such things. So when Dr. Bounds mentioned we would be learning how to listen in class, I knew it meant a change of character.

Grouped together according to our site placements, Tuesday afternoon’s Church and Community Ministries course was in desperate need of a change of character. I say this not as an affront against the class; rather, I say this knowing that our course, our site placements, and our Contextual Education experiences demand it.

Located at the Gateway Center for the homeless and Metro State Prison for Women, twenty-two of us moonlight as chaplain interns every week. Entering spaces charged with stories of poverty, violence, and social exclusion, we are asked to put our lives on hold and listen to our fellow brothers and sisters. Listening in this environment requires us to be authentic, acknowledging our biases, trigger points, and the social power we wield as educated seminarians. If we don’t do this – if we place authenticity on the backburner – we risk failing to establish genuine relationships, the sort that have the potential for actual transformation.

For this reason, along with many others, Dr. Bounds knew that lessons on listening would change our approach to Contextual Education. And, I might argue, our entire approach to seminary. Her emphasis to become engaged listeners was much more than just a practice in mental cognition. It was a call to empathetically enter into someone else’s life. This meant actively listening to a female inmate or client who had recently lost a loved one, been victimized by another, or just needed an open ear. It meant holding back our comments, opinions, and advice until a relationship had been established. And it meant recognizing that our role was to befriend and serve, not control.

When class ended, I remember feeling stronger. I recall thinking how important it is to be present in all of my relationships, to interact with intention, and to give each individual the empathetic ear they deserve.

Whether we are at Metro, at Gateway, or in the middle of Old Testament, our relationships can be transformed by the way we listen. By evaluating our intentions and tendencies we are less likely to monopolize conversations, forget important details, or give disingenuous advice. We also free the individual to explore her heart in a non-restrictive way, which may then lead her to open up and let someone in. This letting in not only transforms the individual but leads to the deeply authentic and rich relationships our world needs today.

So take the time to listen. Evaluate your tendencies. Be engaged. And empathetically enter into the life of another with heartfelt compassion.

- Jacqueline Jeffcoat

Jacqueline is a 1st year MDiv student from Fort Worth, Texas and a Student Ambassador.

Oct 8 2010

Pray Without Ceasing

Dalan VanterpoolI try my best to pay attention in class. Really, I do.  The challenge is how to juggle listening to the professor, while the voices in my head are discussing other matters.  Before you call me crazy, think about the voice(s) you hear occasionally.  It could be the Holy Spirit, or the beans from last night, as Prof. L.T. Johnson jokingly remarked one day.  I believe we all wrestle with similar challenges in our Christian walk.  How can we focus on God’s voice, when there are so many other meetings, people, problems and parties talking to us?  It’ is tempting to think that either God needs to speak up or we need to tell this other stuff to quiet down.

But perhaps there is another alternative, where we train our minds to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).  For many of us it is both impractical and impossible to really spend all day reciting The Lord’s Prayer, reading from the Book of Common Prayer and saying our freestyle compositions.  Honestly, I would fall asleep from boredom shortly.  But consider this:  We can find other creative ways to usher our minds into contemplating God, by thinking about how words all around us point to an amazing God.

Earlier this semester Dr. Barbara Day-Miller (BDM, affectionately) led us through a workshop/class called Writing Liturgical Texts, where we explored forms and techniques for writing different public prayers.  Naturally, the emphasis fell on words, what they mean, and how they mean.  Interestingly, our class on prayers started by looking at hymns.  Great hymn writers paint profound images of God using both atypical and familiar words in new groupings that force us to consider God afresh.

By looking at words in hymns, poems, psalms, prayers, songs and even cooking recipes we can see God again, for the first time!  This is one way we can pray without ceasing.  This wide-eyed creative lens lets us move beyond Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, to imagining God as a storm who hides a calm cradle at the center of a chaos, or a flashlight that pierces darkness and illumines our paths.  During BDM’s class I realized that our prayer writing techniques could be expanded to a wider spiritual practice, where we pray without ceasing.  This is the magic of Candler: enabling students to learn beyond what’s being taught!

- Dalan Vanterpool

Dalan is a 2nd Year MDiv student from the British Virgin Islands and a Student Ambassador.  He is a regular accompanist for worship at Candler.

Oct 1 2010

Spirituality as a Source of Sustainability

Each summer Candler students intern with International Relief and Development (IRD) along with graduate students from the Rollins School of Public Health.  This article is a “success story”  and reflection from one student’s time working with a grant to decrease infant mortality through increased education on nutrition.

To avoid the heat, the ceremony began early.  The rented red plastic chairs were full and the babies were pacified with dried noodles.  Rising to speak was the village chief; behind him a man in orange robes came into view.

Cambodian Health TrainingThe presence of a monk at a Child Survival Program event is uncommon.  The target of International Relief and Development’s USAID funded grant is to decrease the morbidity and mortality rates of children in the struggling Teuk Phos district of Kampong Chhnang province, Cambodia. IRD’s scope of work is not focused on the impact religious leaders have upon their communities.  But should it be?  The relationship between religious figures and the masses in Southeastern Asia has historically been strong and is currently one of the major elements keeping this rural region hopeful.

The pagoda, the road side shrines, and the daily chants all help to add color to the life of a Cambodian village.  And for most villages involved with the CS Project, this distinct religious atmosphere appears to be segregated from the work IRD is doing.  IRD hosts training meetings to help villagers care for their bodies; Buddhism offers blessing ceremonies to help villagers care for their souls. While it would seem that health and religion have separate aims, they are actually two sectors of the local economy that are beginning to become further integrated.

It may be true that health and religion are very distinct disciplines, but IRD’s work has been greatly strengthened by employing the help of local religious leaders.  Within this particular community, health and religion have one major thing in common: education.  IRD seeks to provide villagers with nutritional training so that they may become more healthy and self-sufficient.  Faith practitioners hope to see villagers gain an increased passion for study so that they may become more informed about and active within their own spirituality.   Partnering with the local religious community is a highly beneficial way to ensure that IRD continues to serve as a vehicle for education.

Cambodian PagodaVillagers themselves have voiced excitement over such a partnership.  In 22 interviews conducted with local villagers within the Teuk Phos district, it was nearly unanimous that the aid of monks, achars (village elders), and nuns would be a helpful addition to the work IRD is currently doing.  Sorn Chankoy, a 24 year old mother of one, lives too far from a pagoda to attend religious functions regularly.  When asked if involvement between IRD and the local religious community would be positive or negative, she claimed that “Monks have a lot of experience teaching. Monks are the model. They are respected.”

Thirty year old Pach Sopheap echoed Sorn’s sentiments, expressing enthusiasm over the connection between IRD’s education and the education provided by religious leaders.  Pach lives near a pagoda, so she is accustomed to receiving teaching from monks.  In fact, monks already “help educate about feeding and hygiene” in her community.  “They help to remind us,” she said.  By providing formal training on nutrition and health to local monks, their role of “reminding” is only fortified.

So far, IRD has provided training to 8 monks.  While the monks continue their religiously focused work such as performing blessing ceremonies and being present for village visitors at pagodas, they now incorporate health based messages within their work as well.  Since religious and nutritional messages are disseminated together by an educated and respected member of the community, IRD’s educational aims reach more people and are likely to be more widely adopted. The monks also submit monthly reports to IRD detailing the impact of their health messages.  According to IRD’s second quarter report from January – March of 2010, religious leaders have reached over 3,250 individuals at 56 ceremonies.  Ranging from weddings and funerals to birthday celebrations, religious leaders have been persistent in spreading health messages on immediate and exclusive breastfeeding, complementary feeding, diarrhea prevention, and the importance of clean water.

Mother and ChildBy providing local religious leaders with formal training in health, IRD taps into a source that is able to meet needs for sustainability.   Individuals who are already committed to meeting community needs are the perfect population to receive increased training.  While their technical skills may fall short of IRD’s health practitioners, their values and passions don’t.  Taking on the responsibility of ensuring that village health issues continue to be addressed is a fitting task for the religious community, for religious leaders are strongly committed to being advocates for the well-being of their villages.  The level of trust and confidence villagers place in religious leaders is high, so nutritional based messages are more likely to be positively received.  Also, because religious ceremonies are held year round, health messages will be heard year round.  The mobility of monks allows them to reach more individuals than IRD volunteers are able to reach, for they continually travel from village to village performing ceremonies.  Religious figures are more than qualified to teach and advise on nutrition and hygiene; their impact and influence is far reaching.

Religion in Cambodia is not going anywhere fast.  IRD’s Child Survival Grant, however, is. Ending in September of 2010, the project is phasing out and local volunteers will tackle the task of ensuring that what IRD begun is continued.  In an effort at being sustainable, what better than religion to take the reins?

The stitching of this country’s social fabric has been, at times, a little jagged.  Regimes have risen and fallen.  Dictators have invaded and evacuated.  Atrocities have hit and demolished.  But religion has been a uniting and encompassing thread, holding the broken pieces together.  Religion has provided a steady presence of peace and hope. In these times of sickness and disease and death, religion is capable of providing life; if not with the needle of a doctor, then with the word of a teacher.

-Sara LaDew

Sara is a 2nd year MTS student from Greensboro, NC and a Student Ambassador. Last summer, she spent two months in Cambodia as an intern with International Relief and Development through a partnership with Candler.