Monday, January 26, 2009

Notice: Wikicreedia Update

In trying to prepare for a post-Easter PR blitz, I'm formulating some talking points about Wikicreedia. Here they are, right from the promotional materials page, which you didn't know existed- some things to say about Wikicreedia:

*Wikicreedia is the conjuntion of two ideas: one, the rise of wiki technology in giving citizens a voice in secular legislation; and two, the four year discussion that produced the Nicene creed.

*Wikicreedia consists of the Wikicreed, an online 250 word articulation of basic Christian faith in ordinary English, as voiced by any Christian who chooses to participate. Supporting this is the Wikicreedia Project, which is the discussion and ecumenism and social networking that makes the Wikicreed possible over the next four years.

* Wikicreedia prefers the voice of the laity over the administration of the clergy. The lived faith of most believers has more in common with that of other Christians than the formulations of ecclesiastical authority.

*Wikicreedia also assumes that all Christians have more in common on Tuesday than they do on Sunday. We have never found Baptist cubicles, Anglican bakeries or Orthodox strorage lockers. Christ carried to the world is comprehensible and compelling. Wikicreedia is interested in conveying this vitality and authenticity.

* Wikicreedia depends on religious traditions in the same way that American football fans depend on individual teams. Yet we also support a network of people who value the game itself, no matter its specific color or history. Our game is Jesus Christ, and making disciples of his gospel.

* Wikicreedia confesses faith in Jesus Christ in language that we ourselves can understand. Scripture directs us to confess the findings of our heart. Such confession precludes both ignorance and silence. We must say something, and we must know what it is that we say. We would also hope to say it together.

* While truth is not subject to democracy, it is open to discernment and discussion. It pains us that Christianity is a religion of heretics to each other, people who have preferred dissent to consensus, who choose absolutism or relativism rather than community. If we have only Episcopalian or Baptist or Catholic truth, we are clearly doing it wrong.

*We want the Wikicreed to be an instrument of commonality rather than authority. We want to grow in Christ together. We hope that this will be a prayerful process. We ask always for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We believe, after all, that truth is universal and eternal. The truth of Christ must be accesible to everyone- this is the power of Christ's message for the world.

*Wikicreedia has three advantages over the historic creeds of Christianity. One, that the voice of millions of Christians may prove to be ultimately more authoritative than the pronouncements of the select clerical few. Two, that its reliance on the internet allows it to trascend the geographical barriers that have so often troubled Christianity- gathering strength from Asian, African, and South American perspectives. Three, that it will retain in its webpages its formative discussion and theological context both as it forms and afterwards- things that have since fallen away from the Nicene and Apostle's Creeds.

Any reactions? Send them my way.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Editorial: The Truth that Handles Us

What is truth?

The truth is often simple, but the words we use to express it seldom are. The word “hammer” has nothing to do with a hammer. There is no connection other than what we agree upon. A rose by any other name really does smell as sweet. Yet we all use the word “hammer” to signify a hammer nonetheless. Hammer does mean hammer. Rose does mean rose. But they also mean not hammer and not rose. Words are self-effacing. They always point away from themselves.

When we say hammer, we are also asking if it is a hammer, or we wouldn’t say anything at all. When we say rose, we are asking what it smells like. When we say welcome, we are wondering just who these people really are. And when we say that we have faith, we are praying that we will.

Truth is self-questioning.

Every statement invites a question: “I trust you.” Just as every question invites a statement: “Do you trust me?” To say that something is true is only a way to avoid having to repeat it. But then why say something in the first place? To seek confirmation, to ask a question: “Lord, I believe. Will you help my unbelief?”

Truth has two lips. We tell the truth through a question and a statement. The witness testifies before an inquiring court, and from this place pours truth. We greet each other with twin lips, “How are you?” and “Oh, I’m…” Or, better, “I love you,” and, “Do you love me?”

In Matthew, Judas says, “Whoever I kiss, he is the one, seize him.” Immediately, he goes up to Jesus and says, “Greetings, Rabi!” and kisses him. But Jesus says, “Why have you come?” and the soldiers lay hands on him. Christ’s betrayal and our salvation is accomplished by the bilabial work of truth.

Truth is self-questioning. Truth is a kiss.

Truth entails a meeting between one self and another on the question of what is true or what to do. Consider Moses, high up on Mount Horeb, looking at the blazing bush. He assents to no proposition, but indulges in some rather strident questions.

Yet this conversation liberates a nation. Kisses of family and legacy set Moses on his way. And these statements and questions about misery that is not ultimate, about suffering that is not forever, this fire that does not consume, set a people free.

Of course, truth will do that.

When the Romans invaded the Holy Land, they brought their Greek culture with them. Jewish Hellinization was the chief anxiety of the age of Christ. Yet for economic reasons, Rome allowed Israel certain liberties, including coins not bearing the blasphemous image of an Emperor claiming to be God.

So when the Pharisees came to Jesus asking a question about taxes, the situation was already rather fraught. Only if Israel's puppet king collected more taxes than the Romans thought they could get on their own would you get to keep your culture.

Jesus did nothing to alleviate this anxiety when he asked the Pharisees to produce a coin, which bore the Caesarian image. He was asking them, “Hey, you priests, you holy scribes, why do you have this big, stinking, blasphemous coin? Could it be because it has a higher exchange rate than plain silver? And you’re defrauding your own people, you lying, self-righteous hypocrites?”

Truth is not easy for those who lie, for whitewashed sepulchers. If the truth is not in us, the kiss of truth can be the kiss of death. But in the end truth doesn’t just set us free from slavery. Honest discussions also liberate us from corruption, deceit, and manipulation.

Truth is a kiss. Truth is conversational.

Christ had questions for everyone. Before his arrest, he twice asks the soldiers, “Who do you seek?” He thrice asks Peter, “Do you love me?” And he asks his disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?”

These are the same questions we ask ourselves. Who are we after? Who are we for? Who do we love? These are not Christian questions. They are human questions for which Christians answer Christ. They are questions in the conversation about the true nature of identity and desire and fulfillment and our place in relation to each other.

It is our statements of truth that are conditional and temporal and personal and provisional. But it is our questions about truth that are universal and absolute, unyielding and inviting and something like eternal. They are the things that strike us to the core. Questions matter. Questions change our lives.

On his way out of Median, Jacob is left alone, and a man wrestles with him until the break of day. And when the man sees that he cannot prevail, he touches Jacob’s hip and puts it out of joint. When he asks Jacob to let him go, Jacob demands to be blessed. So he asks him, “What is your name?” and Jacob says “Jacob.” And the man says, “You are no longer Jacob, you are Israel, because you have wrestled with God.” And Jacob asks for his name, but the man only blesses him. So Jacob names the place Pineal, because he has seen God face to face.

What is your name? Who do you say that I am? Who do you seek? Who are you facing, who are you grappling with? On questions hinge the key moments of our lives.

Truth is conversational. Truth is transformational.

When Saul is alone on the road to the synagogues of Damascus, suddenly, a light from heaven shines around him. Then he falls to the ground, and a voice from heaven asks, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And Saul says, “Who are you, Lord?” The Lord says, “I am Christ, who you are persecuting.” And Saul asks, “What do you want me to do?” The Lord says, “Get up and go into the city, and you will be told.”

Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is a question that he never answers, except, of course, with the remainder of his life. If the greatest truth we are capable of is repentance, this transformation exemplifies that truth. Redemption is about turning from facing away from God to seeking God directly. Paul certainly does this: Who are you, Lord? What do you want me to do?

Yet when he tells the crowd in Jerusalem about it later, he says that he was not alone. Those who were with him saw the light but did not hear the voice. More, when he testifies before Agrippa later on, he alone sees the light, though everyone falls down upon hearing the voice.

Is Paul a liar? Not necessarily. He experienced a lavish spectacle, a truly extraordinary thing. And the truth about spectacles, is that, while you see them, they also change the way you see. Spectacles, eyeglasses, once called seeing stones, clarify your vision. But they blur everything you’re not quite facing.

So we would do well to note that Saul is blinded, not by the darkness, but by the light. Small wonder he didn’t get the details right. We never tell the same old story. We always change our testimonies. That’s what keeps attorney so anxious. And it’s why we keep telling tales. Reality is larger than any truth we tell about it. So maybe we can forgive Paul for making a spectacle of himself.

After Jesus escapes an early execution, he sees a man blind from birth. He then declares himself the light of the world. He anoints the man’s eyes with clay, and tells him to go and bathe in the pool, after which he sees. But the Jews do not believe, despite the testimony of the man’s parents and the man’s repeated witness.

The man’s blindness allows him to see the truth of Christ. Yet the Pharisees’ lawyerly clarity does not permit them to see anything at all. They remain unchanged because they cannot see the truth.

Truth is transformational. Truth is emergent.

If we are Christians, the truth lives within us. If what goes into the mouth does not defile, but what comes out does, then we must wonder what purifies, and which way it goes. We are the vessels of truths greater than ourselves. We cannot contain the truth, but truth escapes us nonetheless. We are the light of the world, and the light of the lives of men. All we can do is decide whether or not to hide.

Decade by decade, country by country, the world is turning against capital punishment. This country, state by state, is making the same decision. And this is the same process by which the world denounced slavery: country by country, state by state, until the revolt of the American Civil war.

These processes are slow. These truths are not self-evident. If it were obvious that all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights, history would have turned out rather differently. Though the moral reality of slavery was written across the face of every subjugated person, their masters obviously never asked them for statements about the question.

That America was and has been in the rear of the emergent truths about the immorality of slavery and sanctity of life is certainly troubling. But it must truly be hopeful that the spectacular blindness of those who subjugate and kill could not and cannot stop the conversation about what it means to be human, and what it means to be free.

Sometimes, truth takes time. It happens nonetheless.

The ongoing conversational project of truth describes our interaction with reality more than the nature of reality itself. We must note that there are more than six billion people. And the universe seems boundless at both the microscopic and telescopic levels. Clearly, we are in no danger of approaching the end of truth.

Truth is emergent. Truth is infinite.

Consider, for example, the dilemma of free will and determinism. This conversation continues precisely because it is paradoxical- no less so biological determinism, the belief that the chemistry of our brains and bodies makes our choices for us.

But if that is the case, then our knowledge of the situation forces us to make a choice about what
we do with it. Is it right to raise an entire generation of children on drugs that squash their emotions? To glibly medicate our psychologies, without considering the spiritual causes of our psychic woes?

Biology cannot tell us what to do with our biology.

Yet freedom is the most constraining thing we can experience. Once we have the knowledge, we must make the decision. And we choose by eliminating options. Our choices take further choices from us. The more clearly we see what to do, the more we seem instruments of what we’re doing. The more I become like Christ, the more it seems that Christ in me accomplishes the imitation.

I don’t see why we need resolve the tension. The question of God’s will, or our own, might be the best question and answer that we have. We should deepen, and not decrease, the kiss of the dilemma. After all, our journey toward Christ is the process of turning our statements of belief into the exclamations of our lives.

Could we do better than to take as our topic the question of me in Christ or Christ in me? Were the martyrs chosen by God to die? Or did they choose to die for God?

Surely, they must be laughing about it now. The problem of our culture is not that we have so many statements of truth, but that we have so few real questions. We’re all relativists, but we all know Hitler was wrong. We are people who don’t look hard enough.

Yet the self-questioning call of Christ is precisely to ask what it means to be slaves to God and one another. We must wonder how to kiss each other’s feet. In our enlightened emancipation, this is the most contradictory conversation we can have. Yet we live out our answers with the transformed punctuation of our hearts and minds and deeds, to host the spectacular emergence of truths about infinite reality.

Because, ultimately, we can know what to do without knowing what we’re doing. And we find ourselves choosing things we cannot choose. And we cannot say if we have the truth or if the truth has us instead.

But when we finally find ourselves willing to live for the truth or find that the truth is that we are willing to die, it is precisely then that we also find that we are living the very finest moments of our lives.

Qur'an: The Declining Day

In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy

By the declining day, man is deep in loss, except for those who believe, do good deeds, urge one another to the truth, and urge one another to steadfastness.

*declining day: old age? sadness? misfortune? what?

Qur'an: The Backbiter

In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy

Woe to every fault-finding backbiter who amasses riches, counting them over, thinking they will make him live forever. No indeed! He will be thrust into the Crusher! What will explain to you what the Crusher is? It is God's Fire, made to blaze, which rises over people's hearts. It closes in on them in towering columns.

*this doesn't seem to be the backbiter that I would first think of. This sounds more like Christian greed or jealousy. Is this the intent?

**historically, hell has been an uneasy topic for many Christians; it seems difficult to have a loving God condemning people to eternal punishment. Do Muslims have the same kind of problem? Or is God's will predominant?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Love Poem: Hundreds of Ways

Today, like every day,
we are ruined and lonely.

Don't retreat,
fleeing your emptiness
through the doorway
of thinking.

Try making some music instead.

There are hundreds of ways
to kneel in prayer-
hundreds of ways to open
toward the heart
of the Friend's beauty.


Love Poem: Your Disheveled Curls

Dangle a tress from your disheveled curls
and you'll evict the monks from their monastaries.

Shine a reflection of your face in this world
and even the idols will kneel down in prostration.

-Ruzbihan Baqli

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Qur'an: The Elephant

In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy

Do you [Prophet] not see how your Lord dealth with the army of the elephant? Did he not utterly confound their plans? He sent ranks of birds against them, pelting them with pellets of hard-baked clay: He made them [like] cropped stubble.

*First, these are the Quraysh? Christians from Abraha of Yemen? Is there more to the story?

Second, okay, I'm not saying they are theologically, religiously the same, but so far we've got something like an impricatory psalm, and now a tale of deliverance from enemies at a holy site...are we sure the Prophet is not a little bit like King David?

Also, ranks of birds?

Qur'an: Quraysh

In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy

[He did this] to make the Quraysh feel secure, secure in their winter and summer journeys. So let them worship the Lord of this House: who provides them with food to ward off hunger, safety to word off fear.

*well, obviously, who are the Quraysh? How were they connected to the Prophet?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Editorial: Verbing God

They say we never quit trying to resolve the tensions between our parents. I find in this stray thought some explanatory power: a devotedly Christian mother and a defiantly unbelieving father would, indeed, have predisposed be toward quite a bit of God-talk, of theology. Even extraordinarily bad God-talk, as that I came across on the Internet the other day- but where else, indeed, would one find it?

In some forum discussing the latest scientific finding that would seem to support the theory of evolution, avowed atheists and intelligent design folk were having another go-round about the place of science and religion in society and the issue at hand. In typical bold form, the theists were all delusional hucksters to the anti-theists, who were in turn anarchists aligned with Chairman Mao and Josef Stalin in some form or other.

The arguments weren't all bad, of course- there was one analogy particularly, no doubt copied from a bestselling author, where science shines the flashlight of reason into the darkness of superstition and ignorance. As the flashlight gets brighter and its beam gets wider, more and more of religion disappears as so much shadowy manipulation- despite the pious denials of the devout. Eventually, I suppose, the spotlight of enlightened man reveals us and the world exactly as we all are.

Goddamn metaphysical realists, I thought.

This will take some explaining. All of the arguments on the forum, all of them for theists and atheists alike, even those who might have read something from Aquinas at some point, looked for proof of God in the form of evidence - whether through miraculous occurrences, or the sort of God of the gaps argument that comes from the margins of scientific understanding or, from the anti-side, the ability of science to explain extraordinarily complex and mysterious phenomena through the accumulated workings of natural processes.

They were all looking for, in other words, God as some kind of invisible thumbscrew- or, if you prefer, a Flying Spaghetti Monster. If we could just find the thing, everyone seemed to think, then we could settle this once and for all. I was reminded of Penn Jillette's popular essay about his own atheism- we can and should be able to look for God in the trunk of a car. Anything else is moving the goalposts, even more flim-flam trickery to get your offering money, or whatever power people think the church still actually has these days.

But this is absurd, I thought. It should be patently obvious to everyone that God's a little hard to track down. Clearly if God is omnipresent, but also present especially in the Eucharist, in prayer, in incarnation, in the body of Christ, but came once to Bethlehem and is gone again before God returns, all while being here the whole time- this is all a little bit more complex than some kind of binary yes/no distinction. By scriptural understanding, if you're looking for God as an invisible thumbscrew, in other words, you're never going to find God at all.

Metaphysical realism is the belief that reality exists independent of ourselves and our interference and our understanding. That sounds fine, even to me, but it comes packaged along with all kinds of other notions, such as the puncher that every statement is demonstrably true or false. ('Snow is white,' they say. To which I reply 'Ever look up during a daytime squall?'). Nearly every scientist that you will ever hear talk about evolution is some form of metaphysical realist. Of course, so is nearly every Christian- which is why there seems no way of finalizing the debate. Everybody's wrong to start with.

Take, for example, America. The United States undeniably exists apart from my understanding of or belief in it. But where would I find it? In the Constitution- but what if no one followed our law, would American exist then? In the people, perhaps- but who? America's people change all the time, and we still aren't sure which of them are actually American. In the land, then, in our geography- but I bet the Indians might not have gotten to the same separation of power that we did.

Have any other candidates? Prove it. Put America in the trunk of my car.

So is this all relative, then? Does this reduce America to some kind of vaporish, wishy washy metaphysical status? The people of Iraq, I'm willing to bet, would beg to differ. The things we cannot prove still can kill us.

All of this is not to equate God and country. It is to say that many people conflate the two because they ask the wrong questions about them, and that we understand them in many of the same ways because we have so few ways to understand them.

"But God doesn't exist! Get over it!" one of the atheists actually said. Naturally, I could only agree. Of course God doesn't exist. The Scriptures are full of mentions of God hiding God's face and turning God's back. People spend a great deal of time looking for God and wondering where God went. How else do you explain the Holocaust? Why else would anyone say that everything is meaningless? All religion is entirely a human fabrication. Regardless of whether one thinks it good or ill, one can very clearly see the hand of man overwhelmingly present in the history of spiritual traditions.

Of course, all of this would also be true if God. Human hands are the only ones that could possibly make religion- whether it makes any reference go God or not. A God blindingly present would be equally gone from our experience not because of the reality or non-reality of God, but because of the blinders of human understanding. In other words, religion only dwindles in the face of the enlightening flashlight if it believes God is a synonym for some grand metaphysical unknown- not, as I do, a synonym for the line between darkness and light itself, a reference to human limitation in the face of infinite reality.

The question, you see, is not whether or not God exists (see the desert mystics) but whether or not God gods. Just as the question is not whether America exists or not, but whether or not it americas, a question we seen to have a big long conversation about every four years or so. The things that dwell at the limits of our understanding need not and ought not remain at the margins of our lives. They are the most important things. Just ask your spouse.

In still other words, the opposite of God is not the abyss. Ask the desert mystics. I am not be the first person to have found God in the void of God's absence. As Kathleen Norris wisely notes, the opposite of God is indifference- to God and void alike. Seeing on the television that a few more thousand children have starved in Africa, the opposite of God neither declares God's death nor laments this hole in God's provision and our humanity. Rather, the opposite of God changes the channel, utterly unmoved.

Now the metaphysicians would object that I'm also confusing things here. There are obvious distinctions between presence and being, between absence and non-existence. But I would assert that for all practical purposes, and for realities of liminal and relational substance, the practical difference is much harder to see. "If you do it right," says Bender as God in Futurama, "they'll never know you did anything at all."

This is why, in short, we have faith- not that we somehow finally have our hands on the invisible corkscrew, but so that we can get beyond these insipid questions and start talking about and living love, the greatest of these. After all, the love of my mother may have gone a very long way toward convincing me that God, but no omnipotent corkscrew could convince me that God cared about me, and that I should care about others.

It's not an intelligent designer I'm looking for, I suppose, so much as I'm out for a Steadfast Lover.

You know, it's odd. Scientists look at the design of the human eye and feel, or really seem to feel, awe and wonder at the complex and extraordinarily prolonged processes of evolution. Theists look at the same eye and feel awe and wonder at the intricate works and purposes of God. Some people believe we ought to "teach the debate," to preach both of these metaphysical understandings to our children and let them decide.

And sometimes I wonder if we ought not to do the simpler thing with schools, and just teach wonder and curiosity to our children instead.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Love Poem: That Which Frees You

The bird that sings
pain's song
is love.

The messenger skilled
in the language
of the unseen world
is love.

It is love that speaks to you,
calling you beyond the limits
of this created realm.

That which frees you
from your tiny self
also is love.

-Khaqani Shirwani

Love Poem: The Soul's Freedom

The Soul's Freedom

When a person of heart speaks, why say
they're wrong?
If you lack eloquence,
why quarrel with words, anyway?

Here's the problem, as I see it-
I can't worship this world or the next.
Thank God for the soul's freedom.


Thursday, January 8, 2009

Qur'an: The Disbelievers

Some of the Meccan idolaters suggested to the Prophet as a compromise that he should worship their gods for a year and they should worship his for a year. This was the reply.

In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy

Say, Prophet, "Disbelievers: I do not worship what you worship, you do not worship what I worship, I will never worship what you worship, you will never worship what I worship. You have your religion and I have mine."

* statistically, this is the case. Few conversions ever happen across religious lines. It's always the outliers that cross over. Of course, Christians still believe we have to try.

Qur'an: Help

A Medinan sura said to be one of the last revelations the Prophet received before his death.

In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy

When God's help comes and He opens up your way, when you see people embracing God's faith in crowds, celebrate the praise of your Lord and ask forgiveness: He is always ready to accept repentance.

*Ah, I see that this may have been about the surrender of Medina to the Prophet. With this is mind, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that, popular misconceptions aside, the Prophet is not the Jesus of Islam. I've heard that it's much more like the Qur'an is the Jesus of Islam. Yet that leaves the Prophet without comparison, which is no doubt the pont. Nonetheless, a better simile perhaps is that the Prophet is not perhaps not unlike the David of the Old Testament/Torah? Though obviously in a much more unique role. Discuss.

Notice: I'm Back!

Hello again. Thanks for your patience. The book I wrote in the last two weeks is about William Blake, and seems to be an outstanding success. I don't mean I'm making money from it, but it seems to be pretty good at teaching people about the English poet, which was precisely the point.

Also, although I started out just summarizing the suras of the Qur'an, at this point it seems silly not to just post something so brief. When they get longer, I'll go back to summarizing. Anyway, on to the work.