Sunday, September 27, 2009

on Chalcedon: Your Television Has Two Natures

On the Council of Chalcedon

Imagine a television, turned on. If you view it one way, from the perspective of something very close, one sees a collection of flickering pixels. From a more distant point of view one sees a moving picture. Both perspectives are essentially correct. Neither elaboration is more important than another. They are the same material simultaneously serving two functions. They are not separable and are not collapsible one in terms of another: the picture is not “just” moving pixels, and the pixels are not “just” a disintegrated picture. They are distinct realities occupying the same space and time. One television, two natures. This is the nearest I have ever come to understanding the articulation of the council of Chalcedon, and I’m probably wrong. But thankfully, Chalcedon was mostly a functional decision anyway, putting all disputes in their proper place rather than ultimately resolving them.

First, it answered the question left open by the Nicean council: If Jesus Christ the human is indeed fully God, how was this accomplished? Jesus Christ was composed of two natures, one human and one divine. This solidified the orthodox position by closing the gap Nicea had left – it meant that the church could now more clearly tell heretic from orthodox. One could not now claim the Gnostic position, for example, by claiming that the Jesus that was fully God was the spirit of God inside Jesus of Nazareth – and still claim to uphold the essential position of Nicea. Such positions were now more soundly refuted, and their concomitant dismissal of the material world, forever a trend in the Hellenistic thought with which Christian thought was now to be enmeshed, became itself a heretic position. Life in this world would be forever after, at least by strictly orthodox thinking, implicated in the life of the next world.

Chalcedon did not eliminate heresies, of course, but it did narrow the field of truth that could creditably be called orthodox – a process begun centuries earlier; Chalcedon certainly did not begin or end this trend, but did surely punctuate it. And while Chalcedon did unify the natures of Christ, it certainly also helped begin the division of the nature of the church. With the division between heretic and orthodox more firmly established, Christianity could begin developing that which it has had ever since: two orthodoxies. While the Latin West considered Chalcedon to be the final and practical resolution of the troublesome philosophical question, the more Hellenized East considered the same council a wonderful source for further contemplation – and called four more councils over the centuries to do precisely that.

Yes, this means, as Noll rightly puts it, that the God of the Hebraic thought-world had finally made it to the Hellenized thought-world – but simple translation did not erase the cultural and political differences of East and West – and indeed might have made further division possible. Because Constantine’s goal was not completely realized, even in Chalcedon: a united Christianity did not unite the failing Empire, as we can see in the delayed acceptance of Chalcedon in the East and the weakened Christianity that allowed later Islamic triumph in Africa.

Yes, says history: we’ll unite around this issue, but we’ll unite in different ways. And the stones that build the temple of accord become the missiles hurled in later civic splits. One brick, two natures. The agreement about the humanity and divinity of Christ was not agreement about divine and human will, and Monotheletism cooled relations between West and East. God represented as man in Jesus Christ did not equal God represented in other ways. The road to the Great Schism had begun.

On Theological Resources: Experience This

On Theological Resources

We have only the God that is given us. That gospel comes in four ways, experience, reason, scripture, and tradition, only forces us to recognize our inability to get at God too easily. The word of God doesn’t come to us via telephone, but through a skein of veins at once separate and intertwining. As for me, myself, I grab experience first because it’s the one thing none of us can escape from, and it’s the one thing least subject to disputes concerning the machinations of authority. If one says, “God did this! This happened to me!” and tells the story honestly, another might say, “Well, that wasn’t God,” but one only need listen to them if their advice is fitting and helpful. No one has ultimate jurisdiction over God’s effect on you – whatever happens when the lawyers and priests and scribes get going on scripture and reason and tradition.

And it’s always my experiences of God that seem to inspire the most and cause the least rancor anyway. Perhaps, as a lay person, my experiences are more relatable. I understand, for example, about humiliating jobs and getting fired and feeling alone and helpless despite all my best efforts. I get it. I really do, because unlike celebrities, I understand myself and have in fact been there. And I’ve had just about every doubt a person might have. So I also understand about small moments of hope through that come through that endless bombardment of boredom and anxiety so that I can say “Here is God, God did this.” I try not to be random about it. I don’t waste people’s time. I mentioned getting fired because of the economic crisis and the general hopelessness and panic that everyone was feeling, and I wanted to think about how to work against that. But some experience of God is why we’re all there on a Sunday anyway, so why would anyone not talk about it? Maybe that means I’m part of some postmodern cult of narcissism – far be it from me to claim immunity from the times – but I hope it might mean I’m more like the people Jesus ministered to, who can’t help but tell the story. God did this! This is what happened to me!

This is my theological template for deliberation: the experience of transformation. The scriptures are not propositional truths or support for my argument but the stories of ancient experiences of God. This skews me toward the Old Testament and the Gospels and perhaps the Psalms, if I’m reading from the lectionary, though I try to tie them altogether if I can and not forget the Epistle entirely. But what disquiets me about my approach is that it is in fact so even-handed: Elijah going up to heaven in a chariot gets almost as much language as the resolution of my legal troubles and my church’s vote about its future mission. While I embrace the basic disrespect of the notion – irreverence not being generally the great mistake of the Church – one must believe that Scripture unfolds like a lotus of countless petals and can in many cases stand on its own. So I tend to compromise. Scripture gets the best of my attention, if not the overwhelming majority of it. And while word-by-word parsing of Scripture might not be my own theological flavor, I do try to let the Scripture flavor me. My experience is always mediated by and understood through the cloud of witnesses that have gone before.

I began blogging for my church with a history of the church itself, a decision that astonished me at the time, though I sought an Episcopal church in part because of their attention to the creeds and ancient churches. That decision was the shrewdest one I might have made, though it came from I know not where. But experiences of God did not stop with John sitting on Patmos, and didn’t just start up again with Martin Luther and taper off sometime after Wesley. This is my weakest area, and the most lamentable ignorance of my generation. We do not know the place that God has prepared for us and those who will come after. The world changes so fast that one can hardly imagine what Christians a hundred years ago saw and felt when they lifted their eyes unto the hills. Yet God didn’t just do this to me. God’s doing it to us, through time.

I understand this. It is an intellectual conclusion. Yet my reason is at once haphazard and the most pervasive. Above all, I try to understand my experiences of God; I hold these things inside my heart. And I want to teach theology. I minored in philosophy and read the stuff for fun. Yet I’ve never taken a class in logic and am lost at anything more complicated mathematically than a Venn diagram. Reason is obviously a gift we’ve been given, but I suppose I tend to see it less as a means of revelation itself and more of a tool we have to discern precisely what experience has revealed. It’s always there. It’s always plugging away, always trying to pull it all together and always testing all things. While our experiences of God might indeed, and I would say should, surpass reason, I know of no indication that they would ever contradict it. And yes, we must understand, so that we might confess our belief as best we can, individually and corporately. This is what’s happening to us, and this is what it means.

The truth is paradoxical: a writer by training, I abhor cliché and have already grown bored with the kind of sermons I’ve been giving. Yet even if I accepted that self-talk is uninteresting and unattractive, I could not stop doing it, not because I’m necessarily self-important but because there are no other means available. I am everywhere I go. I must be the person saying everything I speak. Thus I make my best self present in the pulpit, my best words in my mouth when I address God – as who could not? So I doubt that it’s the prolific presentation of self that makes the errors of our age so abhorrent. It’s that people are so careless about the selves that they present. They do not consider, and so are unaware of transformation – in fact they might not experience it. But if one is contemplating the experience of God in oneself and in one’s people and pronouncing the effect – I can walk! I can see! – then the gospel in our age, or perhaps the gospel in my age, is neither solemn pronouncement nor angry jeremiad but the good news of the continuing alteration of hearts, indeed, of our entire selves, by the acts of a living God unfolding for everyone as God always has, and always will.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

on Otto's Mysterium Tremendum: Dissonance

Finity is potency. Creation is God’s creating power made manifest and incarnate. In the beginning was what, potential? Not much power, either power with or power over. Power manifest is more perfect than power unrealized, no? “We are nothing” says Paul Tillich, standing over a battlefield. One imagines Mary the mother of God cocking an eyebrow, perhaps in bemusement. The little children, they are certainly something.

They can do so little, the children. But they can do something. They can bring about the kingdom of God, or at least belong in it. That too is something. No one can do everything; no one can do nothing. Everyone can and must do something. Go forth and multiply, says God. Nietzsche stares into the darkness and contemplates the abyss. A young mother stares into the darkness and perhaps contemplates a womb. These are all analogies. This is precisely why they matter.

And one does not wish to be too glib. Socrates is a mortal and Socrates must die. We’re all going to die. One recalls the story of a prophet who wonders into an American shopping mall. “You’re all going to die!” shouts the prophet. The customers, unfazed, continue. Soon the mall is hit by a meteor and utterly destroyed, the Americans never having missed a beat. Men have almost certainly died in combat this very day. In Rwanda, 25 to 50 thousand children have stepped on land mines since the conflict ended. We are fragile. We are worms, if you like that language. All the inclinations of our hearts are evil, if you prefer those words instead.

And yet, Socrates, a mortal, must have once been born. Mortality is vitality. There is no other kind of life to have – not for us, and so it seems, not for God, who died and rose again. Ye must be born again, says mortal God. Let the little children come to me. If a kernel of wheat abideth alone…but if it dies, it produces much fruit. The point is not to obliviate death or life or law and grace but to erode the line between the two because it suggests that one follows another or that they are necessarily distinct as Otto’s categories would have them be.

Rather the numinous experiences of those described in William James or, I would hazard, those described in the Hebrew and Christian bibles remain essentially much more simultaneous and inextricable from each other. Punishment comes with grace, is in some ways grace itself. Life comes through death, not simply after it. Law itself is grace because it reveals us for who we are and who we very much are not. That we are not God means also that we are not nothing.

One senses in Luther a certain rhetorical theology: if you tell them they are nothing, they will accept the gospel, the word of grace. But this does not mean that they are essentially nothing, and one wishes for a more complete and less manipulative description, say that we are all something, bound somethings, certainly, but somethings nonetheless.

One notes that the capricious and personified God of the Hebrew scriptures is indeed also the God of all nations. The point was not that YHWH was everywhere, but that YHWH would always go with them and that there was nothing so wonderful that YHWH could not do it. Personed, perhaps, but certainly not less powerful for being so – and no less dangerous – and present everywhere that mattered.

One wonders: does wonder necessarily come after dread? Might it not come with, or even before? Need the gospel come after and critique the law, or might indeed, the good news of life be the new law for heaven and for earth?

on Otto's Mysterium Tremendum: Consonance

The reason for our reason surpasses all reasoning. I have seen a lake, a field, a storm. God is not the lake or the field or the storm, but through the lake and field and storm I have glimpsed God not face to face but perhaps in passing. The lake and field and storm are vital to me but in no way essential to God who is extra to everything; only others, only things external to ourselves can waken us internally, through and through.

I imagine the lake and field and storm but can in no way have just imagined them or they would be dreams and not desires, not objects of desire that awaken my desire for God who is in the lake, in the waters, in the depths. I cannot swim but experienced swimming in love, in numen, an altogether different thing from imagining, from talking about swimming or thinking of swimming in passing. There are no analogies: swim like a duck? With skinny webbed feet and no arms and without perhaps getting wet at all? Perish the thought, always murder, murder the idea.

Swimming makes one wet. Swimming in love makes one wet forever. I have always been a soggy person, the waters of my baptism never quite dried off, although as I say I could not of course have ever have swum to start with, buoyancy is impossible. One always sinks, that is what we do. It is all that we can do, God is unfathomable, we cannot reach the depths. There is no walking on the bottom; we must swim from one moment to another, from one word to another - yet we have never, ever learned how to accomplish this. The idea that we can do so is fiction, imaginary and unimaginable.

I have seen a lake, a field, a storm. The field of all experience is of course as flat as the lake of love; we are surface creatures and where we cannot swim we perhaps must walk. But how does one walk? The field is a maze of sun and shadow, we are blinded by darkness and by light. We must grope our way because we are so dazzled that the darkness is not evil and the luminous is not goodness, we cannot tell them apart, that is the cause of our blindness. It is frightening, is it not?

The field is terrible but it is all that we have, the most that we can ever have. We tremble to cross. We must dread the moment of our step, it shall feel like an entire leap into we know not what not because we have no idea- as I have said we must of course grope- but because our idea might be, must be unreliable in the awful weave of darkness and of light. We have never done anything like this before, we have now fallen off our ass and must perhaps await a voice, a whisper, a roar.

A map, a legend would be worthless because the clouds that make the shadow and the sun that makes the light are both always moving and in any case could kill us, and might do so arbitrarily. We cannot say where we go but only that we should, that we must. We cannot cross the field but there is no place else to go, no other place worth going. We must lift up our eyes.

We would see a storm, the one we must into, the oldest tempest that ever was or will. We cannot understand the storm, but the storm is not our lack of understanding. It is an analogy that works until it doesn’t. The storm is mostly raging silence, it is the wind we cannot hear that most tempts us to shout. But what would we say? We cannot think through the torrent of our hearts. Whether over the surface of the water or the field of the desert the storm is most exciting. We cannot look away and must say, must do something for this something that might kill us but sends us rain instead.

It is not that we have not been talking, but that until the storm we had not known what we were saying, our minds were caught in other things, golden calves and such. Now we have seen the storm of everything and nothing and been saved from boredom and from indolence, we have been spoken to. It is the storm that we have been waiting for but cannot possibly have apprehended. There were no meteorologists for this one, no soothsayers who could scry those clouds. This one came right up out of nowhere, though the eldest could feel it in their bones.

One might say that something is coming but never known precisely what it was, because there has been nothing like this storm before, though of course the storm has always been. It is like sex, this storm, everyone thinks it’s new and maybe it is, though it’s been around forever. Just because we’ve never seen a storm doesn’t mean we ourselves haven’t been such, tempests of darkness and of light. Light shines on light, wave resounds upon wave, and deepness calls to deep, and our hearts and thoughts unfold across creation as they always and never have before, and always and never will again.

Friday, September 25, 2009

on John Wesley

“Then he (Abraham) believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Genesis 15:6

One sees in Outler’s laying out of Wesley’s life the quest not for experience of God, which Wesley seems to imagine as something general enough to be available to heathens, but on the experience of faith in God which in the Pauline, Protestant tradition had become understood as the condition for justification, for righteousness before God.

Today one wonders both at the urgency of this search as much as its occurrence. Justification seems a bygone topic. It is not a burning theological theme. Everyone is justified; we live in a perhaps illusory Eden where justification presses, I would say, on very few minds, perhaps because sin is also absent or at least relegated to sins-against-men. We apologize, we are all apologists, but one does not sense we are particularly haunted.

Wesley was haunted, saving others’ souls but not saving his own, and not finding rest even after finding God. His heart, I think, is to be commended. I would wish to have heart like it. But his reliance on his heart as a mechanism for discerning his stand before God seems somewhat more problematic. “By the most infallible of proofs, inward feeling, I am convinced: of unbelief” begins an early journal entry.

But he never says why this must be correct, why his internal intimation of unbelief must necessarily correlate to an absence of belief in total, why Wesley should be a better judge of his justification that God, not in the sense of superseding God, but in his steadfast refusal to do what he could, stop worrying about the state of his soul, and leave the rest to God. One wishes there had not been such a constant plague upon that earnest heart. Even after Aldersgate, which seems much more the typical conversion moment than anything else, he asks God why God would send the dead to raise the dead.

The problem for Wesley is not that he hadn’t had an experience of faith – which he did, several times over – but that he didn’t have the experience of faith, inclining with the Moravians that faith is the assurance of salvation and often interpreting that teaching quite absolutely. One wonders why Wesley remained convinced for so long that some experience of faith was not enough, and why he believed that he not only should but could do better, when doubt remained so firm and steadfast a force in his internal life.

This is not to psychologize John Wesley, but it is to ask how one could believe the heart, anymore than the mind, to be such a whole and perfectible thing. And it is to ask what the Moravians on the deck might have thought of him – did he appear riddled with doubt? Or might they have seen faith in him, too? And if so, what would that mean? The problem with Wesley’s interiorization of faith is not that it does not manifest itself in love – clearly it can and should and does – but that it assumes the dichotomy of inner faith and external works to start with.

In trying to balance the tables, trying to move toward a purity of heart that extends to a purity of life, one would become necessarily entangled in a self-preoccupation neither biblical nor ultimately helpful. After all, Abraham himself receives the covenant in Genesis 15 right after doubting God’s previous promise of numberless heirs and right before asking for an extra sign that the covenant would be fulfilled. And while Abraham’s faith in that time was indeed reckoned to him as righteousness, God never tells him so, and Abraham never asks. Considering this, how much assurance can anyone expect to have? Or need?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

on Genesis 2-3: Permission, Vocation, and Prohibition

Nested Covenant in Genesis 2-3

The second account of creation, and the account popularly known as the human fall, describe less the beginning of humanity and more the humanity of our beginning. God makes the earth and the heavens and humanity, but makes ‘the man’ from the earth, establishing the very fact of his making as separate from the rest of heaven and earth as a whole. No other creation is from creation; no other creation is given a specific task. These details are neither coincidental nor unrelated.

Human is created by the creator for created purpose; as purposed, human nature and human options nest uncomfortably between broad permissions and specific prohibition. The difficulty for the humans and the tension of the narrative consist in the inherent dilemmas of choice: freedom is at once broad, giving permission to sample the trees in the garden, and narrow, denying one specific tree as a good-faith option for those living in the garden. Negotiating this tension results in human vocation, at first harmoniously, and then, through breach of relationship, in hardship and contention.

The creation of the garden comes after the creation of the human primarily as a gift but also, perhaps, so that God can present the world’s oldest profession, gardening. God plants the trees in Eden and then causes them to grow and then waters them; one can almost imagine God demonstrating the object lesson, albeit on a grand scale. The four rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Pishon and the Gihon, are interesting not because of their mysterious locations but because they are not the first streams mentioned; the one in 2:6 springs from the earth to cover the whole face of the ground, while it still doesn’t rain. In the four rivers then, which presumably come from that stream and go specific places and lay bare certain lands, we witness God’s own act of irrigation.

The garden is set; the man is now set in it to till and keep it, likely in something of the manner God has done. But the man must also eat; “You may freely eat of any tree of the garden,” says God the gracious gardener. Before there is prohibition, there is gift. With vocation, there is gracious permission. All of this, the entirety of the work, has been done simply for the human. That the man is purposed, then, does not mean here that the man fills a niche in the garden, which God could certainly do without the man’s help, but perhaps does imply that the garden fills a niche in the man, or begins to. The fruit of the trees of the garden are in synecdoche the graciousness of the creating and gardening God – they are for him.

But that permissive generosity, while cosmic, is not without limit; in fact, the mere delineation of the garden placed for the man sets bounds on the realm of human activity, just as it establishes the possibility – eat of any tree of the garden does not mention anything outside the garden. But even in the garden is a poisonous plant; “on the day that you eat of it you shall die,” says God, suggesting a reality recognizable to ancient peoples. Eating can kill. From the many plants humans find good and necessary to eat a few will in fact end your life; while eating, the act itself, is good, not all food is good in its results. All of this comes matter-of-factly, perhaps because the nature of the poison does not matter overmuch to the dying person.

Not all food is good for the man; neither is all good within the man. “It is not good for the man to be alone,” says God. The bestiary God presents to the man does not suffice. In naming the animals the man sorts and identifies them and names none of them a helper and a partner. From a broad array of possibilities, none are suitable; the text leaves us with a surfeit of choices that are not good – at least not yet. But if the man is created from creation as purposed, both like the rest of creation and set aside from it, then the woman created from the man is doubly so; bone of his bones, she is like and unlike him, woman from his man. Here, from many false starts, is the one good choice in the garden, and to her he presumably clings.

The serpent at this point should not be surprising; we have already seen the limits of goodness in a poisonous tree and in the isolation of the man. This promising garden threatens to become something more like a jungle, and the serpent’s words do seem tangled as any skein of vine. The serpent begins by asking if God denies the humans to eat of all trees in the garden, making God’s prohibition as broad as God’s permission. No, says the woman, “but God said ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden…or you shall die.’” And one would wonder here, perhaps, if the humans could eat of any tree instead of none of the trees, why they would not be permitted to eat of one of them.

The thinking is serpentine, though both God’s command and human vocation were manifestly simple. But it is through confounding the fields of prohibition and permission that the serpent leads the woman astray, confusing her and perhaps her image of God – is he gracious in possibility or pernicious in complication? – up to the point where she sees that the fruit is good to eat, the one thing it is manifestly not. And while the serpent is right that she will not die, no one dies in this text, the poison of this fruit is not of the stomach but of the heart and mind and mouth.

Tilling and keeping by this point have long been forgotten for an intellectual dissection of God’s given gifts. God’s prohibition, by psychological conflation, has been made to seem larger than God’s permission, which has somehow vanished from the text. Everything established has been undone. The cleaving and helping and partnering is no more. While the woman offers the man her fruit, she does not offer him her opinion or ask for his advice in her discussion with the serpent; he of course does no better, and they both resort to divisive accusations when both of them stand before God. Consequently, the man once placed in the garden is sent out of it, and the woman with him. The vocation the man was once given to do now plagues rather then pleasures him, and the ground from which he was created will reclaim him, and he and she will indeed die.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

on the Council of Nicea: Consider Islam

Consider Islam. Though believed by many Muslims to be the incarnation of God’s attributes of holiness, justice and righteousness, Mohammed, the first Disciple and Prophet of Islam, is not and was not God. Mohammed is and was human. As human, Mohammed was and in some ways still is the head of a nation of people, the leader of a holy, political nation, the nation of Islam. All of this is not to say or intend any disrespect or disregard for Islam but is instead to posit the possibility that, barring the events culminating in the council of Nicea in 325 idea, things might not have turned out so differently for another Abrahamic faith, the faith of the disciples of the Way of Jesus Christ.

As the Jewish revolt and destruction of the Temple in 70 AD eliminated several possibilities for the future of Judaism, so the Council of Nicea commissioned by Constantine eliminated several possibilities for the future of Christianity. The very fact of its commissioning eliminated, of course, a version of Christianity wiped out by Roman imperialism and Christian impertinence – a fate not eliminated, let us note, for their Jewish counterparts several centuries before and which lingered through the persecutions as a distinct possibility for the early Christians, especially as the Empire grew more uncertain about its security.

But the council of Nicea itself concluded a fair number of sectarian struggles within the Christian ranks themselves. It decided with fair finality that Jesus Christ was both fully God and distinct from God the Father, against the monarchist theology of Arius – which would have allowed a monotheism much more like Islam’s, having the self-same God acting throughout all of history despite various manifestations of the same divine substance.

At the same time, the argument by which the Council refuted Arius and came to a consensus through Athanasius – that this Jesus-God was in no way subordinate to the Father-God in divinity – would come to mean that the Roman Church was in no way subordinate to the Empire when it came to its own affairs. This was in no way a given, considering who commissioned the Council and for what reason he had done so – namely, to produce a religious tool capable of reuniting the Empire as a whole, doubtless much as the Roman gods had helped to do in times past. “Let whatsoever I will, be that esteemed a canon,” spake Constantius.

Such a view would have been doctrinally consonant with the subordination of the Son to the Father in the theology of Arius. But it was not consonant with the Trinitarian equality of Father and Son in the mind of bishop Ambrose of Milan, who said to Theodosius, “The emperor is in the church, not above it,” when the unrepentant emperor came to take communion. This idea of imminent domain – that the respective kingdoms of Imperial Christendom and the Christian Church each had dominion over themselves when addressing their own affairs – may indeed have meant that the Christian West was about to begin a long and bloody relationship of church and state.

But it also made the distinction forever possible in the minds of Roman Christians and their descendants, a distinction not seen in the history of Islam, where a more rigid monotheism and a much less divine prophet would imply that the spheres of nation and faith need never be separate at all.

on John 18:1-13: Let My People Go

Let My People Go

Jesus needs his men alive. When the betrayer Judas comes to the garden with a detachment of soldiers and the temple guards, he imperils not Christ, whose doom is already certain, but the eleven disciples whose faith has yet to be tested. Jesus the Light of men has just finished imploring the Father to protect the ones who are with him so that others may believe through their witness. Their time has clearly not yet come, and Jesus at least thought their fate worthy of specific prayer.

And Jesus is about to be arrested at night, the time immemorial of political disappearances. If the Roman Empire will not hesitate to execute Christ, the leader of a suspicious movement in the high Jewish city by the full light of day during the most sacred national week in all Israel, then his lieutenants must be in far greater peril in the darkness, very much imagined in John as the province of men. Otherwise, why not just arrest him openly by day? Who did they come for, really? Just Jesus? How about his number two?

True, the Jews have been advised by Caiphas that it would be better that one man die for Israel, presumably thus sacrificing an anyways troublesome leader to appease the Roman order’s demand for civic stability. But Peter’s striking the ear from that very priest’s servant would imperil the group still further; one wanders how long Caiphas’s advice would hold by night with violence in the air and soldiers and guards gathered to suppress a group of dissidents and arrest their leader.

Gathered here is everyone who does not understand the light, though their actions will very much bring about the elevation of Christ he has just foretold; the men of darkness carry light to Christ’s arrest just as they will later, unawares, raise up Christ for all to see and believe. Like the Pharisees in John 9, they believe they see, but do not see – and so they are condemned.

But are the disciples in danger? Surely threats loom on all sides from guards and soldiers alike, but most readings of this passage present Christ as in serene command of the situation. This is consonant with the magisterial Johanine gospel as a whole. And in this very scene, his words seem to unman the entire soldierly contingent, which falls to the ground.

As Romans fought in formation, this would have been a troublesome beginning for them were any kind of violence going to occur. The arrest of Jesus in John can indeed seem to play out as a drama where the lines of all the players have already been written.

Yet passion need not play so small a part in John’s account of Christ’s arrest, trial, and execution. Jesus’s reassurances mostly concern himself, his relation to the Father, and the triumph of his gospel. About the fate of his disciples Jesus seems both less certain and less triumphant. His most recent words concerning Peter, after all, are that Peter will deny him three times before the ordeal is over.

The reversal does not come until after the resurrection when, along with all the other disciples, Peter is ready to join the general witness, to testify to what they have all seen, and specifically to lead and feed Jesus’s sheep. Why the concern for Peter’s actions in this scene if his eventual (narrative) redemption was already determined?

But if John has Jesus working out the distinction between himself and his followers in narrative time – “if you have come for me, let these men go” (emphasis mine) – because their trial has not yet come, then it really, really matters that they leave the garden alive.

And it really, really matters that Peter puts away his sword, not simply because “the time” isn’t right yet, but because Jesus has just finished asking Peter if Peter will lay down his life for him, and answered his own question as “not yet.” The time of Peter’s trial has not yet come; Jesus is still the shepherd here. Peter will be one only after the first has laid down his life, which I contend begins here and now in John 18.

“Let these men go,” says Jesus the shepherd after Moses’s own heart – Moses the shepherd of Midian who God told to tell Pharaoh “Let my people go,” Moses who volunteered to be stricken down rather than the whole people of the Hebrews be condemned. That Jesus says much the same cannot have escaped the mind of Jesus, the minds of the Johanine author(s), or the mind of the text itself.

That Jesus actually surpasses Moses by being executed in spite of his innocence only means he becomes the shepherd that scripture promised, the one who lays down his life for his sheep. He offers himself repeatedly, “I am he, I am he,” not only to proclaim his identity as the promised one, but also to convince the guards and soldiers to focus their evil intent and attention on him rather than those around him, the sheep that have not yet reached their promised land.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

on God, the World's Future: Dissonance


"The term method refers to a way or means of disclosing truth…it follows a three-step movement from the compactness of primary understanding through analytical exposition toward theological construction… we begin at the level of symbolic understanding…we engage in exposition or analysis…this leads to constructive theology” (35).

How does the theologian know? Peters would have us begin the task of knowing with biblical symbols, which one might define as gospel interpreted through scripture, reason, tradition, and experience – though for Peters the gospel itself interprets scripture, suggesting a certain essential back-and-forth that Peters does not always seem to recognize.

Yet to begin the process of theology with the symbols that are to be explicated puts something of the methodological cart before the motivational horse; in clearly elucidating how we might (or must, if we take Peters at his word) go about systematic theology, Peters here proposes a model for thinking about God which contains no awareness of why we might do such theology in the first place.

I propose that a model of systematic theology which begins with its own origins would be more powerfully explicatory and no less systematic than the project which Peters proposes, as both trees of knowledge would yield the same theological fruit.

So that where Peters says that symbols are reality detectors (36), I say that reality is a symbol detector. In other words, theology is less the church thinking about its belief and more belief thinking about why it might go to church. Theology is the body of Christ pondering the inclinations of its heart, answering Augustine’s question of ‘what do I love, when I love my God?’ I would hope that this would be the origin of any theology, however systematic.

I would hope that explaining the significance of the gospel (82) would in fact begin with some sort of relation to, some sort of experience of, the relational God the gospel is about. By omitting persons from either end of the theological process, Peters has created for the church a method of theology which most any atheist might engage in.

Which is not to say that the method is wrong, but is to say that it strikes one as incomplete. If we begin our theological system not with the originary symbols of Christianity but with the experiences that make us Christian (including symbols). We can indeed have no experience apart from symbols, and one might well interpret the same religious experience differently depending one one’s available symbolic system, but Peters would seem to locate the meaning of that event in relation to its symbols.

Most would not do this; the true test of a hypothetical is not whether or not it corresponds to any particular symbol, be it Christian or no, but in whether or not it describes the reality of a particular experience. Symbols, even the gospel, are only meaningful insofar as they illumine the spectrum of reality evidenced by Peters’ prism.

To elucidate a broader method for systematic theology would escape the bounds of this paper, but were one to say “The term method refers to a way or means of explicating truth. It follows a four-step movement from existential intuition through symbolic illumination and analytical exposition toward theological re-construction. We begin with experiential incomprehension,” then one would at least be beginning the method with the reason for the method.

While Peters does incorporate experience in his model, he offers it little value; by restoring its more obvious pride of place, the God our theological system addresses becomes not only the historic Christ alluded to by symbols, but the lived reality of God still present and active in the world.

on God, the World's Future: Consonance


“The keys to a postmodern hermeneutic are suspicion and trust” (46).

At its base, at its best, postmodern thought might well be summarized as a profound realization of human limitation. The symbols that ought to lead us into the path of truth we take with us instead, using them to baptize our basest cruelties and most sinful and unwarranted desires. We trust that our traditional religious symbols will not betray us, but we betray the better angels of our traditions instead.

Too eagerly, we assume that, rather than being led to our eventual God by the metaphors of our theology, we are in fact already there and those symbols are clearly manifest in our persons and our practices, as opposed to anyone and everyone else’s.

But we cannot abandon religious symbols, for they are all in some sense that we have, we always already have them – if we allow that religious symbols can be manifested by those who are not manifestly religious, if even Neanderthals can care about how they bury the dead.

To escape religion then is not to escape the thinking that produces religious symbols, but simply to swap them out for some alternative. The problem is not the symbols, but our attitude. What the Greeks would call hubris is not confined to those who share the scandal of the Cross.

Everyone gets religious symbols; what we must consider is whether or not our own offer explicatory power, and what precisely our own best symbols are. To test these we assume that they are true, we take them on faith; symbols are in fact the currency of faith: “in God we trust.”

We take our symbols from our traditions and cast their net upon the world to see what they might catch, and we cannot fish alone; we actually belong to grand fishing traditions, fish are a prime denomination of our faith.

And all we know about money is that it cannot abide alone. To buy and sell is a relational transaction, to cast the net of our assumptions into the marketplace of all ideas. This does not work if I alone believe. We believe in one God, creator of heaven and earth. The economy of faith requires more than one person, just as it takes more than one person to haul a net, and a crisis of faith in money or in fish can bring the whole world down.

And already we see something of a yield, for we see in that other master an unholy trinity of seller, buyer, and sold, the content a serious challenge to faith in God but the dynamic a potential model of how the God of faith might function; no component of this transaction exists in and of itself economically, but each exists by and for each of the others, however much the seller might have originated the transaction, if not the want which resides in the spirit of all human buyers.

But still we must say that something fishy is going on, because ours is a family business, operated not on the principle of the wants of desire, not on the machinations of greed, but on the gifts and graces of the needful economy of love. Jesus sells himself, does more wonders than all the ads of the world could tell.

There is always plenty of fish for everyone – good enough news, we might say, to net just about anyone. So our net profit is not measured in goods or worldly gains but solely on the hiring of new hands, no matter what time they come. Many hands make light the yoke, and ease the burden to a fish breakfast by the sea. This is the ad par excellence, the copy by which read all our other copy.

And like all the best ads, Jesus is both expected and surprising, innocent and alluring, a provocateur with more lives than anyone might have guessed. But unlike all ads, better than any ad, there is no regret for what he’s selling. There is no buyer’s remorse for love, however costly it might be. Like fish themselves, love is both sold in fine restaurants and best cooked over a pit by the sea – its price is precisely what we decide it is.

The most fluid of consumables is that which we cannot possibly consume, a meal which, like fish again, offers almost infinite sustenance but rarely satiation. Is that worthless? Or is that worth everything we have?

The offering of Jesus is most suspicious indeed, too good, in fact, to correspond to any known reality. But the question of our trust is whether, in fact, this offering is too good to be anything but true, scandalous not because it fails to explain the world but because it cannot help but change it.

Editorial: What Kind of Day Has It Been

I wouldn't usually go down such a bloggish route, but so many people have asked me in so many contexts, and with such evident hope on their expectant faces and in their bright and earnest tones, I thought I might answer it definitively here.

Q: So, how do I like seminary?
A: Well, I don't guess I care for it all that much.

I do hate to disappoint good people. But there are reasons, and reasons I hope will not necessarily endure, and reasons to hope I might endure myself.

The largest problem is no doubt my massive tendencies toward lateral thinking, toward parallel thinking, in a pretty solidly linear world. Which is to say that I'm trying to see the forest while people keep throwing trees at me. It has ever been thus in my academic career. My grades each semester from high school onward betrayed a distinctively upward turn, and so did my comprehension.

The point is not my scores, which haven't happened yet, but that I'm absorbing enormous amounts of information without hardly any time to process any of it. For the eureeka moment to occur, you actually have to stop and take a bath. For any and every light to dawn, I have had to hold each time to patience, however hard and implausible such a course may seem anew at each beginning. I'm reminded, particularly, of my semester of study at the Oregon Extension, and that turned out well.

Which doesn't make me any less frustrated now, of course.

The second, and equally persistent problem, we might well call socialization. It is strange that I enter seminary with MORE of essentially the same attitude I started college with: that I'm here to take classes, and everyone else is pretty much incidental. At the same time, however, I now have an actual theological stance, an actual existential conviction, that everyone else is to some degree all that ultimately matters.

It puts one in quite the schizophrenic state of mind: when I seclude myself in my room to read, I wonder if I ought instead to be in the lounge making connections, and when I stop where someone has some kind of collectible card deck going, I feel all the hounds of academia on my heels, so that I haven't been comfortable, haven't been at rest, ever, in any context or in any situation, never mind that my self-consciousness means I feel that, not only should I NOT be doing whatever I'm doing right now, I should ALSO be doing it BETTER - I should open up more AND be more academically focused, all at the same time and in the first few weeks of term and in complete contradiction to whatever I happen to be doing at the time.

Yup, those are pretty much my expectations, and, much as I might to have an off-button for them somewhere, I haven't found that yet. Can't turn off the brain. A situation hindered only a little bit by my not taking the orientation week while I was moving in, and much more by my not taking introductory Greek along with every other warm living body this summer. It's not that I don't know anyone, that's to be expected. It's that I'm one of basically three people who don't know anyone, and the other two are pretty much never around.

Third, I am not a Lutheran, and am certainly not as much of a Christian's christian as most of the people here. A few years ago, I decided, definitively, that I no longer wanted to be a better person, ever, and now I go to class with people who want to be pastors. I said that I was getting out of Paul's race, not pressing onward to the goal, because it looked too much like a treadmill and I don't have that kind of energy, and now I go to class with many people whom, if my experience is any indication, actually want to be a little bit like Paul. Mission this, mission that, discipleship this, discipline that, and all I want to do, personally, is sit in my room and think.

And I mean, I think that's not so much not wanting to go out of my comfort zone as it is my not wanting to go outside of my interest-zone, because I realize more than I did when I was in college that life is short and I don't owe anything to anyone but myself and my God. But it makes me feel like less of a Christian, and makes me wonder why I'm in seminary at all if all I wanted was the credits necessary to land in a PhD program.

Which is not what you need to be doing to start off the first semester, because how serious are these concerns and how much of them is just anxiety in the face of newness, a perpetually human and personal problem?

Finally, and this is the most serious concern, the intellectual climate here is more conservative and modern to my more post-liberal postmodern ways. This isn't a deal-breaker so much as it is simply and certainly annoying. Everyone here sees the possibilities for Christianity in postmodern thought and then says, 'but there's danger there' and backs away and runs their little flag up some position taken fifty years ago. Which, I mean, I've lived in dissent for most of my life, but in the last few years I've met mostly only warm regard and have gone very much my own way, and I admit I've gotten more than a little used to it.

And I want to agree with everyone. If I can find a way to argue myself into agreement with you, I will in fact do it.

But now somewhere stands up there and says that 'theology is the church thinking about its belief,' and I think 'what a horrible, awful, stuffy and institutional thing to say.' Or someone says that symbols precede experience in the methods of theology, and I think, 'well, maybe, but why do it then?'.

And it's not that I overwhelmingly disagree with these things - I would swallow that theology is the body of Christ pondering the inclinations of its heart, or that symbol and experience and theology itself cycle through our relationship to God and self alike so that to put one in front of the other is a distinction without a difference. But it is to say that I'm annoyed and tired by the process of having to argue my way there, and trying to decide if such a jaunt is worthy of mentioning in class when the discussion never goes remotely in any such direction, and I suspect I might ultimately agree anyway.

This week, I looked up the Institute for Christian Studies, the source, via my favorite professor's own education, of most all of my own idiosyncratic leanings.

Well, it'll be interesting to see how all this turns out.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Pressed: on the Fall of Jerusalem

One might well consider the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD to be a primarily Jewish event. But the circumstances of the time precluded it being solely a Jewish event, and its impact must resonate for Christians, at the very least, to the same degree to which the destruction of the Temple affected Jewish-Christian relations. One wonders how we might have regarded our mother faith if we had not been so externally separated from it. Titus might have failed, in destroying the Temple, to more completely abolish the Jewish and Christian religions, but one can say with little difficulty that he succeeded in further separating them.

That this occurred just as Christianity was trying to define itself and define its relations with Jews might indeed have set them on more swiftly diverging courses. Not only did this force Christians and Jews to physically relocate, it moved the center of the faith for both religions outward from Jerusalem – to the synagogues for Jews, to the Gentiles for the Christians. This meant Rabbis and Bishops as well as Mishna and written Gospels and Epistles placed in the hands of Jewish and Christian congregations alike.

Not that these developments were not parallel – one can readily see that they were – but that the similar developments in both faiths allowed them to become more different and distant over time. Jesus had once spent a lot of time critiquing the Temple system, one that was now forfeit. Even he didn’t argue with the synagogues, so one imagines the Christians finding new ways to occupy their time. Mishna might have continued commentary on the Torah, but Epistles favored commentary on the Gospels. Pauline proclamations of Christ’s sacrifice won out over Jesus’s own proclamations of the Kingdom of God prefigured in the Old Testament. Paul won out over Peter even as Christians claimed the Jewish God-fearers.

How does this affect us today? Well, we don’t circumcise, for starters; we don’t keep kosher, and we certainly don’t think that Leviticus is the center of the Pentateuch. Most of us wouldn’t recognize the Shema if we heard it, and we don’t list among our creeds anything about our ancestor being a nomad. The Kingdom of God is poorly understood, many believe that Grace replaces rather than fulfills the Law, and we are able to be more distantly sympathetic than intimately opposed to our Jewish associates.

Both Christians and Jews, for example, await the ingathering of the other at the end of days, because we are affiliated but believe each other simply to be mistaken. We agree that God is one but disagree on the culture in which one God might best be worshipped. This is not to say that there are not theological differences, but it is to say that Jews and Christians no longer spend their time debating the identity of Jesus as Messiah. We’re still certain that we’ve found him (though in a more abstract way) and many Jews, for all practical purposes, have stopped looking. The hottest of the hot buttons has very much cooled; I will tear this Temple down and rebuild it in three days is not the subject of much popular commentary.

Paradoxically, it seems to be the questions we have not yet settled that have most bitterly divided Christian and Jew, and those considered determined even in disagreement that have allowed our best inter-faith relations. That the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 AD helped to settle those disputes seems highly probable; that the desecration by Gentile armies of the holiest of Jewish holies might have actually helped decide that they would eventually relate to each other in better ways seems more surprising, but nonetheless fortuitous.

Benjamin Shank

Dissonance: on Peter's 'God, the World's Future'


While Peters is right, and creatively so, to suggest a reconstructive third reading to Ricouer’s critical second one, and to do so manifestly as a hopeful gesture, one wonders if, in too easily returning to rest and reassurance he has somewhat missed the rigors and possibilities of that troublesome second glance. In finding a strange new shore he seems sometimes to have, like Chesterton’s wandering British sailor, once again discovered London.

“What is needed is a theological method that assumes that both ancient and modern understandings belong to a single and more inclusive tradition-history – to a single story – and that this…will eventually participate in one comprehensive story of humankind on earth” (16). The very sentence might make Hegel stand up and shout for joy, but this is precisely the solution that postmodern consciousness prohibits.

There is no Story. They are only stories, which may indeed be greater than the sum or their parts but which one finds it almost impossible to imagine that they will ever coalesce. What this means for Christianity may indeed be troubling, but one does not get to post-postmodernism by leaping over Derridean wastes and claiming the journey was comprehensive.

The coming of the Kingdom of God is not a super-card that trumps all others on the deck – not because it is or isn’t true but because of our ability or inability to recognize it when it happens.

The cross might seem a transcendent symbol to us because of its Pauline provenance, but what of the legendary account of the island monks who followed Christ’s teachings but because of their isolation failed to hear of his death? Was their faith, would their faith have been, necessarily diminished? Is their story denied a place, bereft of protean power because it must endure with loaves and fishes?

And while the gospel might well be key to understanding reality, as I’m willing to wager, one must recall that we have no gospel but four gospels and non-identical gospels in the mouths of Jesus and of Paul. Surely these need not participate in one comprehensive story to be meaningful or right or Christian. Perhaps we need only to know good news when we hear it, and the gospels are no less gospel for being multiple.

Christian symbols are not magic, nor are any symbols magically Christian; simply, symbols either resonate or they do not. Surely a powerful message could be conveyed by the image of an empty tomb. The Christian symbols that Peters claims to “exist at the inbetween where the ineffable God beyond touches the mundane realm in which we live” are left quite unspecified (28). Perhaps we are all supposed to be thinking of the same things, and perhaps we do.

But if we do not, then we are left in a situation where those with access to Peter’s particular set of symbols become the sole bridge by which we might access God, a troublesome arrangement. What he seems to have gained in reassurance, the rest of us might have lost in doubt. We are put back in the desert, which is indeed hard to endure.

But surely one way to beat the desert of critical doubt is not to place faith in symbols, be they Christian or not, but in the reality of feast and flesh in which God biblically dwells and to claim that faith is the orientation of an entire person rather than reliance on a particular imagination.

Another way might be to realize that there is no escape, that doubt must always accompany faith, as Peters admits, not because of a particularly modern consciousness but because of the eternal impoverishment of words; faith must always accompany doubt as well, or it would simply be disbelief. Doubt and desert are both semi-fictions, they are like bad movies only loosely based on actual events.

The desert is not desert to those who live there; to them it is simply home. With trust in God, water springs from stones; that is the very moral of the story. Here then might lie a better third reading (not that premodern plus post/modern equals transmodern)! but that the very desert of the critical cannot, by its own definition, be absolute.

I gather that Peters in his obvious affinity for postmodern thought must understand this, but by insisting that we “emerge” from the critical consciousness he first said we cannot escape, he denies the full promise of our Christian wager and settles for a mediocre Bavarian painting when we might all have instead done much better.

Consonance: on Peter's 'God, the World's Future'

“Epigenic movement is understood as creative of the new, as self-organizing, as opening up new paths and rendering possible new choices, as creating freedom for the future…” (19).

So Peters articulates the possibilities inherent in our current intellectual climate, a summer not only of warmth but of promises that warmth will globally increase. The postmodern garden does not let ideas slide into calcified autumnal systems but encourages vine to spring from vine.

Gardeners have little to do and are not asked for, because the garden is more than the individual plants seeded in the modern spring. The plants, as they always do, are getting away from us, like the stream that bursts from the ground in Genesis, the one that even God does not ask for.

Now we lay aside our hoes, our plows and let the garden make its rules and exceed our expectations. For while the rules of the garden are entirely its own, they are quite relentless. “The pull of the future,’ is as essential to the life of an organism as the “push of the past…’” Whereas the chief components of the factory lose energy each time they operate and have never in any case overcome this problem, the plants of the garden move from seed to stem to seed because this is what they do.

The garden gardens. This occurs not because Garden falls to earth from Eden (there is no going back) nor because there is a Garden toward which all plants, in rising, must converge, (there is no telos) but because all the gardens to which all plants must contribute are always already gardening. There are only gardens which demand to be understood as such; everything else, by imposing, must reduce. There can be no more comprehending of them as particular plants or permutations of the soil.

What then of the gardener, without whom this tangling of vines is naught but wilderness? Little to do is not nothing to do. The garden by definition is not finished. It is growing. That is what gardens do. How is the garden gardening? It is growing toward itself, the vines are intertwining and might choke each other. Is this the true garden, where half its plants are dead? Or is the garden toward which the garden gardens in the imagination of the gardener?

He or she has seen the plan(t)s ahead of time, not in a schematic, but in perhaps a painting by Monet which the gardener does not want to replicate but to inspirate, to breathe in and through. He or she (or he and she) wishes to move the garden toward the garden that has moved them, the garden that this garden always could have been, and could still be, because this promise of a garden is the garden’s truest self, the one that they once planted not in determination but in hope and fear and trembling.

And, in all honesty, in some naivety. Monet never hoed a row in his entire life. His promised garden is a lie; it simply isn’t practical. So the gardeners must ask themselves if they would destroy the garden or the painting, and soon see that the assumptions of the painting cannot hold in a garden or at least not in this one. They might ask themselves if they are good gardeners or maybe even bad gardeners, if they have been wise or foolish with planting and with sun and water but the answers in a way do not matter because answers do not garden or make them better gardeners.

The painting, they decide, was only a beginning (however good it was). But they are not Monet and Monet was not a gardener. They have never seen a garden like Monet’s, however much they like it. Perhaps they despair a while as they realize that a garden in the mind is much different from a garden around the self and there is no necessary link between the two; it is too much to ask, too much to accomplish. The painting will stay a painting; the garden will remain in weeds.

But they should not lose heart! Because they do not have to garden Monet’s garden; they only have to plant the garden Monet inspired in them, and this is a very nearer thing. It is a risk, a peril; they are no longer planting from a drawing. But it is also guarantee, because now the garden growing can shape the growing garden of their minds.

Losing inspiration, they have found it restored twofold, they work from plan and plant in kind. They can stop worrying about their gardening and learn to love the garden, to ask: what does it need to be most beautiful, what can we do for this strange new wonder?