Sacred or Secular?

28 10 2013

I’ve always balked at the idea of posing the question, “How’s your spiritual life?” I know there is a time and place to ask it, but in the larger scheme of life, it seems not a helpful inquisition for the cause of Christianity. Such strong hesitation, some may say is from my cynicism (or jadedness even), but in this particular case, they would be wrong. It is a result from a strong desire to oppose the detriment that have been seen when people, Christian or non-Christian, create a division between the sacred and secular in their lives. Brian J Walsh and J Richard Middleton seem to agree,

We are called to serve the Lord and acknowledge his kingship in the whole range of our cultural activities. There are no sacred/secular compartments here. Our service to God is not something we do alongside our ordinary human life. The Bible knows no such dichotomy. In the biblical world view all of life, in all of its dimensions, is constituted as religion. From our economic choices to our recreation, from our prayer life to the way in which we bathe our babies, in every cultural action and deed, we live only in response to the cosmic, creation law of God. This is God’s universe throughout. And we are called to be responsible respondents to his overarching Torah.

This false dichotomy is also perpetuated when pastors over-emphasize serving the church, particularly, over and against serving people in general. Regardless of intention, it instills in people a hierarchical worth in service, that being on the praise team or helping out at a church run event is more valuable than picking up the trash in your neighborhood or a service done outside the walls of the church building. Yes, there is the other side of the coin where only the few serve the many in church functions, and in the desire to motivate the lackadaisical, there is a pitting over against categories that should exist together. I suspect, such encouragement is largely due to fear. Fear that one cannot fill the necessary role within the church for minimal function. This is a realistic fear and a worthy need to chase. But if I have learned one thing, it is that fear (and pride) is never a good motivator, and of course, the sacred/secular dichotomy that results is never healthy, even if it seems innocuous at first.


Sex at Penn

28 07 2013

It seems that the female perspective on sex and emotion is changing. Though one article and a study on one campus filled with upper-class, affluent, driven students is not quite representative of the female species of the entire nation, but nevertheless, it does illustrate some shift in perspectives. Kate Taylor, in a NY Times article titled “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too“, describes the variousUpenn opinions of female students and their perspectives on the culture of sex, highlighting among them the surprising shift in the female perspective on the one night stands. An excerpt:

These women said they saw building their résumés, not finding boyfriends (never mind husbands), as their main job at Penn. They envisioned their 20s as a period of unencumbered striving, when they might work at a bank in Hong Kong one year, then go to business school, then move to a corporate job in New York. The idea of lugging a relationship through all those transitions was hard for many to imagine. Almost universally, the women said they did not plan to marry until their late 20s or early 30s.

In this context, some women, like A., seized the opportunity to have sex without relationships, preferring “hookup buddies” (regular sexual partners with little emotional commitment) to boyfriends. Others longed for boyfriends and deeper attachment. Some women described a dangerous edge to the hookup culture, of sexual assaults and degrading encounters enabled by drinking and distinguished by a lack of emotional connection.

Within the article, there are surprising portrayals of perspectives, anecdotes and the like. One even as alarming as the following:

In November of Haley’s freshman year, a couple of months after her first tentative “Difmos,” or dance-floor makeouts, she went to a party with a boy from her floor. She had too much to drink, and she remembered telling him that she wanted to go home.

Instead, she said, he took her to his room and had sex with her while she drifted in and out of consciousness. She woke up with her head spinning. The next day, not sure what to think about what had happened, she described the night to her friends as though it were a funny story: I was so drunk, I fell asleep while I was having sex! She played up the moment in the middle of the night when the guy’s roommate poked his head in the room and asked, “Yo, did you score?”

Only later did Haley begin to think of what had happened as rape — a disturbingly common part of many women’s college experience. In a 2007 survey funded by the Justice Department of 6,800 undergraduates at two big public universities, nearly 14 percent of women said they had been victims of at least one completed sexual assault at college; more than half of the victims said they were incapacitated from drugs or alcohol at the time.

The entire article is a worthy read, when keeping in mind the narrow sampling of interviewees. But as much as the perspective on sex seems to be of much interest, something else is at the core of the issue. Sex is only the filler of the void. The article, itself, hints at the void made visible through the oddity of the driven nature of current culture, a culture of striving toward a career for success, independence and glory. More than rules of ‘do’s’ and ‘dont’s’, the concluding question of the article is rather appropriate. As the question turns the focus on what is really important to us: people or pleasure, success or joy, quality or quantity, it asks, “What else do you really have at the end of your life?” or better yet, “What will you have beyond the end of your life?”

Generational Gap – Part 3: The Clash of Cultures

26 11 2012

One afternoon after class, during a friendly conversation, one of my Caucasian friends mentioned how he did not understand the reason why the Korean people prayed out loud all at the same time (통성기도; Tong-Sung Prayer). It was a legitimate question for him since he was not as familiar with the Korean cultural leanings of holding onto the traditional aspects of life more so than conducting life actions, if you will, for functional purposes. He came from a western culture that emphasizes individual function and could not see the purpose of praying out loud all at once. For a Korean, it is more of a tradition and I assume it emphasizes the unity of the praying body (I also think it is in line with the emotional expression of ‘Han’ (‘한’) which is a difficult emotion to express in any other language or culture). Less apparent than such cultural differences are cultural gaps that lie between two different generations of the same race. It is less apparent but not so dissimilar to the aforementioned example of my friend’s difficulty in understanding the Korean style of prayer. The generational gap that was discussed in the two previous posts (Part 1, Part 2), are not just a result of difference in language. Cultures change through generations, arguably more so for immigrant cultures, and misunderstandings and surprise arise even within the same family members when we fail to acknowledge this change (sometimes the clash arises even with the acknowledgement but that is for the next post).

The typical second generation Asian-American, in their upbringing and education, has been more immersed in the individualized western perspective and culture, while the typical first generation Asian immigrant remain in their original culture even if they have lived in America for over a decade due to their refusal, for whatever reason, to assimilate into American culture (look at any Chinatowns in America). The gap then becomes apparent when we move past the sameness of our skin and analyze the actual cultural forces that have nurtured our worldviews. It would be beneficial to first understand the difference in cultural perspectives. One example that helps us understand this difference lies in the realm of choosing our vocation. The second generation Asian-American, I believe, would largely follow the wider American culture and use the mantra of “follow your passions” or “do what you like/enjoy” in thinking about choosing a vocation. The immigrant generation (note this based on anecdotal evidence) would generally find the ‘follow your passions’ sentiment not as determinative in discovering a vocation. For the older generations, the order is flipped, one chooses a vocation and then can begin to like it (Of course, they are not as naive to say that this always occurs, but this is the perspective out of which they think). Then, can this gap between generations be bridged by a mutual understanding of each others culture (i.e. an increase in knowledge of the other’s culture or perspective)? Yes, but only in part.

We can bridge it more fully if we begin to understand that this difference has a moral foundation and justification. Behind the affinity of western cultures for individualism and eastern cultures for social identity are underlining moral justifications, if you will. When the son in the initial dialogue (from part 1) was touting individual passion as the primary reason for pursuing Broadway acting, he was ascribing to it a value. In essence, he was saying fulfilling his passion was the most important criterion to fulfill when it comes to the topic of career. On the other hand, the father saw most value in the image that higher education presents to society and to him that was all important. The cultural gap is difficult to bridge because of these basic underlying preconceived notions of value (i.e. morals). But even with the acknowledgment of underlying value (and I must add for the Christian reader, neither Western individualism nor Eastern traditionalism is necessarily biblical), it may not be enough to bridge the generational gap. It may bring us closer, but there is one question that remains keeping the gap unbridged: ‘Whose notion of value is correct?’

The answering of that question to be continued….

Generational Gap – Part 2: The Linguistic Leap

9 11 2012

Obama will be president for the next four years, and as the politicians hopefully strive to bridge the partisan gap, we continue with bridging the generation gap (Part 1 here). Well, what is the generation gap? Is it a linguistic divide? Or is it a cultural divide? In the summer of 2003 when I was interning at a physical therapist’s office, I had been motivated to follow my heart and passions after reading Wild At Heart by John Eldredge (which I don’t recommend). Then I mustered up the courage to write a letter to my parents explaining my intentions to put aside physical therapy as a career and follow my dream of trying out for soccer teams and striving to become a professional soccer player. My father responded in one of our conversations with a startling question, “What good will you do for other people as a soccer player?”

I paused…. and the best answer I could come up with was, “I’ll give joy to people who watch me play.” My statement was true, if I were to be a soccer player, spectators would be entertained, whether they cheer or jeer, nevertheless entertained. But my father was unconvinced and rightly so, because my answer was not my primary motivating reason but rather a statement to justify my actions. But even in my false justification, I was still frustrated. I was frustrated that my father was not understanding me and my desires. Was it because of a gap in language? It couldn’t have been. My dad was perfectly able, maybe not 100% fluent, in English. The words I used, he understood their meaning, and vice versa, the definitions of the words he used, I understood. Some say the generation gap can be bridged through the gaining of linguistic skills. If one generation makes the effort to learn the primary language of the other, then this would increase quantity and quality of communication. There is validity in such a claim, as I have friends who would highly benefit in their relationships with their parents if they were fluent in the Korean or Chinese language.

But in attempting to narrow this language gap, one must be mindful that the gap is not merely narrowed by the filling of letters, words and sentences. Language at the core is a tool of meaning. It’s function is to convey and receive meaning, and thus, can be distinguished in that way. One can say “Shoot!” and intend to convey the meaning of ‘Darn! I messed up!’ but if that person says the word while situated in a football pitch, then the received meaning could be ‘Kick the ball!’ But not only is the situational context important for the transference of meaning, so also is the cultural context.

‘Lost in translation’ is a common phrase because it is highly likely at times to have words change meaning when they enter into a different cultural context. But what is interesting that David Hollenbach, a Jesuit ethicist, points out to us, in The Common Good & Christian Ethics, is that language is inextricably tied to the common good of the community and our individualistic expression is actually not very individualistic at all. He says using the work of Charles Taylor:

Every act of speaking, of course, communicates a specific message with a particular meaning. Cultures do not speak; people do. And when people speak, they do not communicate whole languages but specific meanings. But actually communicating any meaning at all would be impossible unless both the speaker and the hearer already shared knowledge of a common language…

The social good of the language and the individual good of speaking are internally connected. They are aspects or dimensions of each other. What is common and what is individual are both required in any successful communication. The common and the individual mutually interpenetrate and mutually determine each other. This suggests, more generally, how the common good and the good of an individual person can be mutually determining in a similar way.

Hollenbach reminds us that to write, read, speak, listen is not an individual endeavor. Embedded in the structure of language is the sense of ‘for another’. So then, for those who are not willing to learn the language of our parents’ generation, before the question “Why is it so hard to communicate with them?” is asked, one must inquire of oneself “Do I not care enough about my parents that I have no willingness to learn their language? To convey and receive meaning for them?” Many times the frank answer will be, “Yeah, I don’t care enough.” And this further enlightens us to the ethos of our generational culture and how different it is from previous generations. The difference in cultures between generations goes far deeper than the difference in languages, thus leaving us with another aspect of the generational gap: the cultural clash.

But that… to be continued in the next post.

Remembering Psalm 90:12

15 03 2010

After learning a bit about the cultural deficiencies of Korea in its economic, social, and entertainment arenas (not to just bash on Korea since every culture has some or many faults), I’ve thought a lot about the tyranny of the youth. Wondering whether the moral failures in the economic and finance sector was in part due to the low retirement age and the mean work force age being that of a yuppie’s. In short, wisdom is lacking because, well, age is lacking… It is a simplistic conclusion (and I’d hope to read and write more on it) but it seems to have some warrant to it. A part of this lack of wisdom, the tyranny that the youth bring with them sources from a lack of death experiences. This morning on NPR, a study was announced that those who’ve gone through grieving experiences (mostly of death) seem to show more maturity and poise in life, however they measured it (The Bible seems to speak similarly, read Donald Kim’s blog entry “Hurt Deeply to be Used?“). The young, hopefully I’m still included in that category, do not fear death, not because they have fought and come out victorious but because they have never entered into the Colosseum. In fact, they actually do fear death but guise it with denial and a false sense of invincibility. The youth are those who have never faced the final reality of life: death. In the NY Times Magazine, Daniela Lamas writes “Friend Request” that depicts a poignant account of herself as a medical intern experiencing a death of sorts, through which, the reader can see a pensiveness, a thoughtfulness developing and a shedding of folly.  Wisdom is hard to come by and oftentimes as youth, we don’t search for it or know where to look. Rather, we just go about life, thoughtless, tyrannically swinging our sticks and clubs of guised invincibility, forming our culture and society without vision, without direction.