Monday, September 06, 2004

Tattoos: Scarification and Atonement

Tattoos are a contemporary cultural phenomenon. Cultural phenomena do not occur in a vacuum but signify underlying meanings. What do tattoos signify? Tom Beaudoin, in his book Virtual Faith, argues that tattoos signify deeper religious meaning. Beaudoin says:
"Clearly, there's an economic dimension, and there's -- we choose to say that tattoo parlors are selling a product. Clearly there's a sociological dimension, which is to say, people want to be part of a crowd, so they get tattooed, but also, I think we have to ask whether there's a spiritual dimension, and what I began to suspect -- and this has been confirmed in the last six months of touring with the book and talking with young people -- is that this experience of being deeply marked, that is the experience of being tattooed, is a religious experience, however implicit. "And so the widespread interest in tattooing is evidence of a religious impulse, a religious quest, that people are trying to satisfy through these particular, secular goods. "And I must say, as I try to explain this to people -- this is not only my idea, of course. All sorts of religious traditions throughout history have used body markings and body piercings to express religious identity, and as I discussed this with young folks around the United States, many of them do find that that explanation has resonance for them, that this was a deeply marking experience, you might say, for them, an experience of permanence in a culture of flux."
So, while many get tattoos to be "part of the crowd," others find religious meaning in being "scarified." Beaudoin makes an analogy between this and Christ being scarred for our sins. For some, it may be that getting a tattoo is a way of being wounded for transgressions.
My own feeling is that there is a lot of woundedness in America that comes from our increasingly parentless generation and the accompanying feelings of betrayal and rejection. I meet the parentless generation weekly and see their wounds. Scarification as a way of atoning for the sins of others thus is a sad signifier of a particularly painful time.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Reason and Experience

Intellectual reasoning without experience is sterile; experience without reason is blind.
As a Christian and as a philosopher I get concerned when Christians go to either extreme without the other. Here are some thoughts I have about this.
#1 - Ancient Hebrew reasoning was not Western rationalism. The Hebrew word for "knowledge" is "yadah." Yadah has to do with experiential intimacy. To "know" something, in Hebraic fashion, is to be intimate with it. This kind of knowledge is, as philosopher of sciecne Michael Polanyi wrote, "personal knowledge."

#2 - As regards the question of "knowledge" as such it remains instructive to note that what it means to "know" something varies according to cultures. It is therefore fundamentally misguided to approach the Bible with a purely rationalistic Western-Enlightenment epistemological paradigm.
#3 - Western rationalism is not in the Bible. The Bible is a highly experiential text.
#4 - The mind, however, is important, since Christians are told to love God not only with one's heart, but also with one's mind. But the New Testament idea of "mind" is certainly not Cartesian rationalism.
#5 - I believe that the great biblical example of a Christian who has deep experiential knowledge and passion yet also is a very good thinker is the apostle Paul. Christians who are overly taken by rationalistic apologetics should be sobered by Paul's belief that the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk, but of power. And, as Paul knows this to be true, he writes many reasonable words about the spiritual realities that he experiences. Paul is a nice balance between reason and experience.
#6 - Experience, not theory, breeds conviction. Out of experience one begins to relevantly and authentically theorize. Theory without experience is inauthentic.
#7 - The goal of it all is this: what people really need is God. They need God. This is far different from knowing about God. One can know about God without knowing God. Conversely, can one know God without knowing about God? I think so. A little child can know God, correct? The child can know God while having very little theological understanding of the existence and nature of God.

#8 - My own experience says that, when persons experientially encounter something so powerful as God, they want to know - at a level they can understand - that this was God (and that God exists, so it was not an illusion) and what this God is like.
#9 - God wants both our head and our heart. Not one without the other. The Bible is a Hebraic document; therefore the heart has ontological priority over the head.
This is the reverse of Descartes' belief that, in essence, humans are "thinking things."