Monday, October 26, 2009

On Barbour's Natural Theology: Dissonance


Time is, like all halfway decent things, a slightly irregular sphere. I just want it recorded somewhere that this is my own damned idea, one un-disseminated in my rightfully un-published science fiction writings of the last several years. That I come to it via cut-rate literature rather than the quadratic equation betrays my own stance regarding science and theology: science is a tool. I don’t mind it, especially, and I certainly don’t fear scientific claims, but I don’t feel particularly beholdin’, to use the vernacular.

I don’t really think that Pythagoreans take the Holy Spirit captive, of course, but I do throw my lot in with the mystics. Forced to choose, I would vow with Blake that a ball rolling halfway up a ramp after its descent is simply the work of ten thousand sweating angels, if for no other reason than it’s more interesting that way. My own theology being primarily based in transformative experience rather than in inductive and deductive reason, I’ve always taken it as assumed that God creates the heavens and the earth; if one encounters Otto’s pneumen in any significant way one must consider scientific findings to be something beside the point.

Which is not to say that science has no say, but it is to say that I’m neither metaphysical realist nor biblical literalist and think that no matter what we might make claims about, all we get back from what we describe is more scientific and/ or religious language, or, failing that, everything we cannot essentially describe. One sees the theistic difficulty. God is both a synonym for transcendent reality and for human limitation.

To say all of this another way, science is only ultimately valuable in so far as it illuminates the nature of God and constitutes Augustine’s second revelatory ‘book of nature.’ Otherwise, I’m not particularly interested. Of course there will be conflict: if there were an evolutionary advantage to lying, say, one would have to ask hard questions about the right position of evolutionary development in human society, a task for which the language of creation seems more suited than the scientific language which describes evolution in the first place and does not necessarily surpass it.

So it is not that creation and evolution are ‘a collection of unrelated language games,’ as Barbour disparagingly phrases it, but that the language games, being all we have, are inescapable and intertwined, in no ways unrelated. As a Christian, I privilege one, but would hope to know both, and would hope that knowing one would improve my pronunciation of the other, especially as they both, of course, remain languages of God.

In my aforementioned fiction, time’s spherical – and thus nonlinear and noncyclical – nature means that time can have a center from which all events originate. The language is only poorly scientific. But it is particularly theistic, and creational. One of course would not have to press very hard to guess the event I would place at the center of the ever-expanding sphere (and no, it's not the Big Bang). What would such a creation say about the shape of God? About God’s intent and our dependence? And what would the irregularities imply?

So I avoid Barbour’s call for an evolutionary metaphysics. I don’t see the need to integrate something already inherently integrated in human activity: the same people, being human, after all (though too few of them) are speaking about both creation and evolution. We don’t need a system to combine them because we are the system, and, so far as we speak of them, they are thus already combined. What we need is not a metaphysical system but a system of people with the appropriate polyglot fluencies. Will they be synonymous? One would hope not: that would erase the point of our twin tongues.

So I would beware of any sort of synthesis: it doubts the ability of the intelligent to hold two disparate ideas together, and it certainly would erode the value of each one to sharpen the other – as iron sharpens iron, so to speak. To affect a system, one must introduce something external to the system. One would certainly not want to advance the problem of the Disappearing Theistic Evolutionist (behold, a system! And he vanishes, no longer being necessary). No, no, my own language of faith would insist that a certain tension must endure, however little we might like it.

On Barbour's Natural Theology: Consonance


In a short story I once portrayed God as an overweight hack romance novelist, his son Jesus as an exiled Israeli construction worker, and the Holy Spirit as a little yipping dog they kept in their shared and tremendously cluttered Cleveland apartment. The Holy Spirit was taken captive by a cabal of Pythagorean geometricians; an order of Franciscan mystics eventually rescued the pup.

I liked that tale. I felt it had good cheer. The developments in Eden, the story-within-the-story, were a scripted surprise for everyone, one of those moments that astonishes you but you really should have seen coming all along.

So I resonate strongly with the idea of creation being both structure and chance; it relates to my elsewhere paradoxical notion of truth being both constitutive and transformative. And I am glad to see that we are perhaps ready to stop seeing God as some kind of damned German engineer, though I doubt we’re ready for the lesbian poet-goddess. Maybe God as an Anglican lion singing creation into existence is about as far as we dare go. I’d settle for that.

Regardless, chance seems required. One can only change a system by introducing elements not contained within the system – a system can only transform itself if it has maintained some elements over which it does not have absolute control. And one can certainly say that there are vast elements of nature which seem to be under no one’s absolute control, however interconnected they might be: it is difficult to imagine God juggling the atoms of Hurricane Katrina.

The play in the universe is like the play that used to exist in the drive chain of my father’s Ford Bronco: it thumps, especially in reverse. The drive chain of the universe works but does have its hiccups. One can perhaps imagine God as a jazz musician listening for the right cords to play along the resonating frequency of the universe. Does God incorporate the discord? Doubtless it only makes full sense at the end of the performance, however the trends play out along the way.

But it does not need to even do that much. A philosopher of religion once noted that determinists have a hard time with chance, via the quantum firings of our brains, being an element of free will: our choices being subject to the laws of probability does not seem to make us any freer than being subject to the laws of biology. I insist, on the other hand, that it is precisely the element of chance that makes free will possible, lest we be like computers programmed by our own reasons. Choices might be to some degree arbitrary; they certainly seem that way.

We have to be willing to surrender absolute control of our self-systems for our self-systems to change. Chance critiques the universe. Or, the Christian account is not that the raw self is free, but the transformed self is. To continually run out the script of one’s own desires is to be no more free than one would be under the laws of probability. So, surrender as such cannot be to God lest it be a bribe; it must simply be surrender, resignation to the chance that God will work.

Did I even read the reading? Yes, yes I did – creation ex nihilo means that God creates forever! – but there is no greater demonstration of play in the universe than the emerging reality of global climate change. It is not our will, lest it destroy us. It is not God’s will, lest God’s work be undone (or it is the apocalypse, but it seems too restrained for that). Yet it happens nonetheless, contingent both on our willed behavior and God’s continuing willed creation of the universe.

The system, to change, must incorporate elements external to the system. Order and chaos displayed in the symphony of humanity’s ongoing brinksmanship with its own destruction. We can tell that something enormously bad is going to happen, but cannot say precisely what, let alone our ability to reverse the damages. God must surely sympathize. Not all creation may have will, but all creation does have freedom. One doubts that even God could run computer simulations capable of predicting the results of excessive carbon emissions on long-term worldwide atmospheric conditions – though God might, of course, be able to write a pretty bad novel about it.

Truth is both constitutive and transformative. Creation is an avalanche: you can tell that there’s going to be one, but even God can’t say precisely where it goes.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Sermon: The Lies We Live By

The Lies We Live By

“James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you."

And Jesus paused. It’s not there in the text. But Jesus paused. He had just said: “the Son of Man will be handed over…they will condemn him, mock him, spit on him, and flog him.” So we’ve been through this, right? Just last week! The First Shall Be Last, the Last Shall Be First. But the disciples of the Way of the Servant come up and start off with they want him to do something for them.

So Jesus…pauses. A rabbi, a teacher. Knows that this is what we might today call a teachable moment. Not the first one. Matter of fact it’s the third, just on this topic. But that’s alright. We keep going until we get it.

And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?" You see, this is great. Jesus gets to play this out, to see what’s inside their darned fool heads. And he gets to do it by being the demonstration. This is Jesus, right? History’s biggest object lesson.

So you know, when the Hebrews of the Old Testament responded to a call – Moses, Moses – what did they say? “Here I am” or “Ready!” is better translation. Present. Ready. Waiting. What is it you want me to do for you? The same attitude.
And they said to him… "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." And Jesus takes a big, deep breath. It’s not in the text. But Jesus takes a big, deep breath.

Now it’s a little easy to be hard on the disciples. They’ve been thick. But are they that stupid? I mean, what similes would they have for Jesus? What precedents would have fit? The Romans, right – they understand submission! What about the Pharisees – they know love, they live it out, right? No?

No. Think of the disciples as people who have been lied to. Every moment, every occasion, of every living day. People who were told that all Romans were citizens, unless they were women. People who were told that all men were free, unless they were slaves. People who were told that they had a voice in the Empire, unless they lacked property and pedigree.

And that’s just on the Gentile side of things, that’s not even talking local politics. Israel politics. Temple politics. The culture of the Temple being built on the backs of day laborers working for a pittance after the Romans had taxed them off of their own land.

Were they daft, the disciples? Or did they simply live in a world so thick with the lies of status and wealth and privilege and hierarchy that they could not breathe in any place where those lies were not.

Now that’s not us, right? We aren’t lied to. We don’t get false messages about who we are or what we want. We aren’t told literally 5,000 times a day that we can purchase happiness, that pleasure has a price. We aren’t told that all men and women are equal, so long as they can afford some decent clothes and dental work. We aren’t told everyone is free, so long as they can afford a vacation, a car, a retirement fund, a nice little ranch house. We aren’t told that we still have day-laborers in this country, this city, this neighborhood, but that’s okay because that work just gets done, they need jobs, don’t worry about it – no, we aren’t told that, of course.

And if we were lied to, we would see right through it, wouldn’t we? If we were told that all we needed to do to be saved would be to give all we have to poor and follow Jesus, we wouldn’t even hesitate. We’d hear that, right? If we were told that all this church would have to do to was empty the coffers, pour everything out, just dump the entire budget into the Shelf Of Hope, we wouldn’t even blink. We’d see to that straight off. Here I Am. Ready. What do you want us to do for you?

You know, we’re ready to talk down that Prosperity Gospel. We know that’s wrong. But you start actually talking about the Way – you start talking about the Poverty Gospel – oh, that’s different. If Aron got up here and started talking about how this church, how Gethsemane Episcopal still just has too much money, that’s what’s holding us back! Too much dough!

Well then that’s harder. And if you change that around, start talking about other kinds of wealth, if you start talking about It Is Easier For a Camel to Go Through the Eye of a Needle Than for A Nice Church Building to Serve the Kingdom of Heaven, then that’s harder still.

People start looking at you funny, like they don’t hear you just right.

So, not so stupid, these men. Think of the disciples as people who have been lied do. They’ve seen the Way, they just haven’t seen the way out. Not yet.
But Jesus – Jesus lets out that big, deep breath – and says "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?"

Now we don’t even know exactly what this means. Could be Eucharist and Baptism. Could be crucifixion. Could be the Heavenly Feast for all we know – Table Arrangements at the Apocalypse. You do not know what you are asking.

They replied, "We are able." Isn’t that nice? Last week we’ve got the truly righteous young man, this week, we’ve got the disciples all ready to do you know, whatever. Good stuff! We Are Able. Not: what do you want us to do for you? But: We Are Able.

This way, you know, you get to be a servant without actually worrying about the service. Because we love service in general. It’s only the particularities that are unpleasant. We Are Able. To do what, exactly?

Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” Well, if they don’t get it now, they’ll get it later. They’ll look back and remember that certain things were said. The lesson, after all, is soon going to become one great big undeniable detail.

“But to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared." Because the table’s already set, right? Raised up right* and left*. Who sits there, eventually? Two bandits, thieves. Criminal scum. Maybe a drug dealer, a day-laborer. These are, you know, his people. Right before this you got Jesus blessing the dirty rugrats and turning away That Nice Young Rich Man. Right afterwards, he treats with a blind beggar. His people.

At my right and left hand, says the Lord. For them it’s been prepared. Think of the disciples as people who had been lied to.

What do lies do? The disciples have been through this three times now: Jesus is going to die. And if they follow Him, so will they. Jesus has been clear. Unequivocal, even. Plain, ordinary, everyday Aramaic. And time and time again they don’t get it. Are they stupid? Or does it seem like there is just maybe something wrong with them…doesn’t it? Something wrong, what, like an illness, like a spiritual thing.

Think of the disciples as people who have been lied to. So that they cannot see the truth.

And by the way, that later blind beggar gets exactly the same question from Jesus: “What would you have me do for you?” And of course it’s “Teacher, let me see again.” So pop! It’s done. Your Faith Has Made You Well.

Think of the disciples as people who have been lied to.
So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom
they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.”

There’s this book, a scholarly classic, ‘Metaphors We Live By’. Two ideas shape everything we do: the stern father, the nurturing parent. Not right or wrong, these metaphors. Just what we get being in a family, being a kid. Stern father. Nurturing parent. Among The Gentiles Their Rulers Lord It Over Them. Stern father. Paterfamilias is the Roman word.

“But not so among you, whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. Nurturing parent? Those are the details, right? Their diapers and food and clothes and toys. Messes and necessities. So we’ve got this right: hope does go on a shelf. Service is no idea. Service is physical reality. Let The Little Ones Come To Me. Nurturing parent. There's a lesson.

Think of the disciples as people who have been lied to.

“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

For who? How many? The criminal who the Romans released instead of Jesus? All Israel preserved for giving up one of its own? Everyone in here? Everyone out there? Or was it, maybe, for those disciples, who would get it in the end, in every sense of the term. Maybe that’s just how much it took. Maybe the lies were just that strong. Maybe it’s not just metaphors we live by. Maybe it’s lies, too.

Well. I’m not going to ask Gethsemane to empty out its budget. Or you to give up your possessions. But I am going to tell you: You are being lied to. Every minute. Of every day. And we don’t get it. If we did, the world would be different. We would be different. But we’re not. And it’s not.

So. You disciples: Who is lying to you? When, and why? And what truth are we so blind to? And if you could ask Jesus to do for you, would it be a place at the right hand of God, or would it be, finally, simply, to see clear through all that bull.


Monday, October 19, 2009

on John 18:1-13: Christ Saves

Christ contests, Christ triumphs, Christ saves. The beginning of the eighteenth chapter of John is not about an arrest. It is a battle. How do we know this? We begin: Jesus leads his disciples across the Kedron, where there is a brook. Now this is a place. It is a military place. David fled there. Defeated, David fled the fury of his own son Absalom at the place called Kedron and crossed over into the wilderness. David did not triumph at the Kedron. Will Jesus? Will Jesus turn his tail and run?

Jesus goes forth with his disciples. Jesus goes first. The disciples follow. Christ is here being what tradition calls ‘the captain of our salvation.’ We can say that he is, in military parlance, leading from the front. Where is he going? Where is he taking them? Across the Kedron, to Gethsemane, where he and his disciples often meet. He is, again in military terms, choosing the field of battle. Would that all commanders knew all that was going to happen to them.

Christ contests. Christ combats. But who does Jesus fight? “Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees.” Sound like a battle now? The opposition has a captain, too – the betrayer, Judas. He’s leading, too – for now. And he brings the full detail: “lanterns and torches and weapons.”

You almost want to hear how many, don’t you? 6 lanterns and 16 torches and 53 weapons: this is that kind of list. Soldiers would come equipped. But what did the disciples have? What were they, in the dark? Christ combats. But maybe this isn’t going to be the kind of battle that we might expect.

Christ comes forward, apart from his men, we presume. This doesn’t look like a battle. This looks like what we might call a parley. This looks like what we might call an act of negotiation. And he asks: “Whom do you seek?” Uh-oh. The captain of our salvation is about to give someone up.

Wait, Christ triumphs? But they answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Wait a second: they answered him? What happened to their captain, their representative? He’s just standing there. Not too much authority. So maybe things might turn out after all. And Jesus asks first. That’s good negotiation. That’s good standing. Matter of fact, that’s just rank. And the other side falls down! For guards and soldiers, that’s not good. You fight standing. You fight in formation. You don’t do too much stabbing from below. Christ triumphs. He and his disciples might even get away, now.

But he asks them again, “Whom are you looking for?” Wait, he still wants to give someone up? Not the kind of battle we’ve been looking for. And they say again ‘Jesus of Nazareth,” and he says “if you are looking for me, let these men go.” Aha! The good captain goes down for his troops. The good captain gets his men out alive. Jesus contests, Jesus triumphs, Jesus saves. But saves who? What are the disciples going? Have they fled?

And Peter draws his sword. We see why, right? It’s a battle. Who wouldn’t draw a sword? And he cuts off the ear of the slave of the high priest. After the battle has been won and after the arrangements have been made. A soldier out of place. A man endangering the mission. Put your sword away, Peter. It is no suggestion. Christ gives Peter a command. So that Peter can keep his head – even after he’s already lost his head. Jesus saves.

And they arrest him and bind him and take him to Annas and they do not do anything to his disciples. Christ contests, Christ triumphs, Christ saves.

It is not the kind of battle we might expect. Gethsemane is a war of words, of statement and surrender. And it is not the kind of triumph we might expect.

Our captain, our command, is lead away in cords and chains – a symbolic defeat if ever there was one.

And Gethsemane is not the kind of salvation we might expect. It is not ethereal. It is not about the next life. And it is not salvation of the particularly deserving.

Instead, Gethsemane is the salvation, especially, of a hot-blooded fool whose passion overcomes all good judgment – but one who, nonetheless, gets to live just another day. A rock of the church if ever there was one.

No, none of these things are what we might expect. But Christ contests, Christ triumphs, and Christ saves nonetheless.

On the Great Schism

It continues to be a paradox that while Noll clearly does not advocate a Great-Man perspective on history, his focus on events, even perhaps Great Events, leaves him to talk about significant historical forces in the hands of those who exemplify them.

Hence Humbert, leaving his letter of excommunication on the altar of the Hagia Sophia. The long string of causes that this springs from, and the longer one that it entails, might perhaps then indicate that, for Noll, the events which have shaped Christianity have not done so as history a se, but simply as the import of social symbols resounding through public time.

This is not to speculate far afield of the Great Schism, but it is to ask what kind of history Noll is about here as he describes the historical record. At any rate, might one say that that letter of communication began the long and unseemly history of separation of the church?

That is, is a Roman leaving a letter on an Orthodox altar at all the same sort of symbol as Luther leaving 95 theses on the Wittenberg door? Perhaps that is to go too far afield, or ahead. But the question must certainly be one of authority and defiance. It was authority that the Latin Leo desired over the Greek churches under threat of Norman knights; it was defiance that led Cerularius to reach out to control more Latin churches instead, and to shut them down when they defied. And it was certainly papal-imbued authority that sent Cardinal Humbert to Constantinople – and a sense of his own authority to write a letter of condemnation by himself!

One wonders what choice Cerularius would have had but to defy the critique. (One is reminded of Jesus’s own critique of the Gentile ie Roman rulers lording it up over their people, and wonders if a chief benefit of Christ’s approach would be precisely that service doesn’t generally provoke defiance). At any rate, the letter of excommunication, that perfect synecdoche of both authority and defiance, certainly sealed the deal.

Noll is certainly correct to trace the other divisions cultural and linguistic and theological to the formation of the Schism itself, but in choosing a great event or turning point one must say that the ingredients cannot overwhelm the alchemy; the point, the moment, must be greater than the sum of its parts. It is not just that the East spoke Greek and the West spoke Latin, but it is that a Latin-speaking foreigner marched right into the heart of Orthodoxy representing the very outsized authority that the four patriarchs the Orthodox recognized and demanded something like contrition.

That is beyond bad form. Did he gouge out the eye of an icon while he was there? And shout the filioque? (Perhaps one could advance a historical perspective concerning Very-Bad-Men and be more entertained.) Events that become historical are those stones that, in rolling, do in fact accrue meaningful moss.

And provoke more of the same. It is interesting to note that while the Orthodox clergy tended to support the efforts at reconciliation, it was the Orthodox churches themselves who resisted repairing the breach – perhaps because of the purely emotional effect of Roman authority overreaching in the past? But whatever the reasons for the failure of reconciliation as a whole, the Fourth Crusade and its unholy destruction within Constantinople became a ringing symbol of the formal separation that Humbert had begun.

When two sides are willing to go to war, one cannot deny that there is in fact some separation between them. And a Christian war does not seem to be more ready to gather forgiveness than any other. War is, after all, the greatest exercise of authority and defiance that one can possibly imagine.

Monday, October 12, 2009

On the Coronation of Charlemagne

The coronation of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day in the year 800 CE consolidated minor changes in European and Christian history that had been happening since Constantine into a significant instance that would reverberate until, arguably, the end of Christendom sometime within the collapse of the European colonial systems. That instance was not the union of, but rather the desired harmonization of, the vast social systems of church and state throughout the fragments of the Western Roman Empire and its environs.

As with any other human moment, the coronation of Charlemagne proceeded from mixed motives and proceeded into clouded actions. This is not to say that nothing clear occurred, but it is to say that what happened and why it happened is grounded in complexity. For example, the rise of the Roman papacy to the position where it could even crown a monarch had been developing since the martyrdom of Peter and Paul in the very first century of Christianity.

This occurred not simply because Rome was the power-hungry see in the seat of the Empire but, more complexly, because it was flattered into prominence. The scriptural prominence of Rome became its status as the seat of apostolic succession which became, in turn, its place as the spiritual center of Roman Christianity which then became its authority, after the legalization of Christianity by Constantine, as the court of appeal for the decisions of local councils – recall here the practice of Episcopal audience, where bishops judged Imperial law as a service to the city.

Would this have made the bishop of Rome first among equals in the eyes of Imperial courts as well as Imperial churches?

Regardless, the Roman see’s position as spiritual and political center was becoming clearly established by the time the Empire collapsed, and certainly, undeniably, by the time of Gregory the Great circa 500 CE. While one can hardly say that the Bishopric of Rome ascended to control as a selfless act of love for the common people, one also cannot say that through the centralization of Rome as the heart of Western Christianity, absolutely no good was accomplished. The servant of the servants of God would, by both choice and necessity, spread Christianity throughout a crumbling European social order and of course to some degree became that order.

When Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne, Western Christianity was ready for the marriage, both through the centralization of spiritual authority and through its own territorial expansion. But was the King of the Franks ready, for his part, to defend so much of the faith? The Islamic conquests of the period actually did recognize the distinction, conquering states without forcing conversion – still, it stopped by law the territorial expansion of Christianity that had been happening through its zealous missions.

Stopped it south and westward, that is – making Rome not the central seat of a Mediterranean Christianity but the fount of a northward-seeking Christianity centered precisely in the territory governed by the Frankish kings. Those kings were themselves experiencing a consolidation of power through the mediation of those like Charles Martel who arguably saved Europe from Islam at the battle of Tours in 732, the punctuation of a brilliant military career that, two generations before Charlemagne, both subjugated potential rival powers and aided Christian missionaries in the land.

But where did all of this go? The harmonization of church and state in Christendom meant the increased power of the church to touch all areas of life for its believers, from cradle to marriage bed to grave at the same time as the church’s theology swerved toward the sacramental – an alteration which was by no means coincidence, as grace manifested to the people became the church missiology and the arms of the Carolingian empire reached out to everyone.

But a relationship is not a merger, and intended harmony is not its actuality, as the respective powers would alternately try and succeed to trump each other and righteousness, of course, did not follow the designs of any social system. Still, the harmonization of church and state in Christendom meant a sense of direction from top to bottom which Western Civilization had not seen before and arguably would not see again.

On Johnson's Feminist Trinity: Dissonance


I keep lobbying for the sign of my church to read “Ask about our Threesome,” on Trinity Sunday, not to be glib but to stretch the imaginations of those who would dare to think three times about God, the very least consequence of which might be a lesson on the original meaning of erotic love and our continuing degradation of it. And the very greatest consequence might be a discussion of the consideration of the physical in regards to the sacrosanct and the divine.

But, of course, it’s never going to happen. Too bad. The history of theology is the history of believers with great intelligence but perhaps too little imagination. Johnson is right to suggest that we move beyond the one model of Trinity, though, perhaps not for the reasons that she believes. She would have us resign the Father and the Son and to a lesser degree the Spirit because they are inherently patriarchal – a point well taken, but perhaps not necessary and certainly occasionally overstated.

One wonders if words can be inherently anything, and one notices also that the patriarchy in fifteenth-century Europe was perhaps considerably different than the patriarchy in the Ancient Near East. The biblical fathers are given us as almost unimaginably lax. They are not particularly authoritarian; however hard the priestly laws may seem one has a great deal of trouble imagining Jacob having Joseph stoned.

The point of the metaphor of Father and Son was thus only partly about the delineation of authority and also about the conveyance of blessing: “this is my Son, with whom I am well pleased.” The language of masculinity fails then not because patriarchy fails to describe the Godhead (though it does) but also and I would say primarily because masculine language because of semantic drift fails the experience of canonical patriarchy itself. We suffer from the eternal impoverishment of words.

And we always will. Jesus came to tell us the name of God (it turns out to be Abba) but the problem comes because we still try to speak it and have spoken it for two thousand years. The term has become not heart-stoppingly intimate but heart-breakingly casual. We glibly think that God is Father. The solution, I would then propose, is not to find another substitute name for God – none are adequate, or ever will be, not even She – but simply to never repeat it, to never step into the same Trinity twice.

We would thus never stop speaking about God or hopefully to God but might well pause to listen for the breath of God in each analogy, to not just use the forms of God our fathers handed to us but to hand a profusion of forms of God to our daughters and our sons. There are not nine billion names of God as in the science fiction story but simply all names of God. For Christians, reality is not only plural but is in fact infinite.

The created poverty of words means that we cannot exhaust the uncreated reality of God; with regards to Trinity then we can thus stop worrying. We don’t have a handle anyway. Think of the possibilities! For the ancients: the God of Holy Wind, the God of Loving Water, and the God of Warming Fire. For the moderns: God the Web Server, God the Web Page, and God the Holy Hyperlink. For the cathedral scene: God the external sunlight, God the illumined window, and God the light-wash throughout the room.

Or, perhaps existentially: God the Spirit of Awe, God the Spirit of Clarity, and God the Spirit of Authority. Instead of the Greek Orobouros, the snake that swallows its own tale, the River of Life could be its own Source, Mouth, and Stream – who wouldn’t want their names written in that! These things could really flow.

For tropical situations: God the concealing fog, God the dappling dew, and God the saturating humidity. For the scholars: God the Text, God the Word, and God the Holy Page. For those of a celebratory nature: the Inviting God, the Insisting God, and the Bringing God, so long as it’s all the same party. Or for the philosophers: the Proposition, the Argument, and the Proof, so long as every word is true.

The point is not that any of these would work, but that none of them would, and that we would work out for ourselves how best to call the One(s) we love in each incarnation of our lives. Word by word, one Trinity at a time.

On Johnson's Feminist Trinity: Consonance


“The circular dynamism within God spirals inward, outward, forward toward the coming of a world into existence, not out of necessity but our of the free exuberance of overflowing friendship.”

One can understand Trinity not as a noun or even as an adjective but as a verb or perhaps as Verb. God is not Trinity but is like Trinity insofar as God, in fact, Trinities. God repeats Godself both to God and to creation. That is what God does, not in a modal and thus ontological sense but in the phenomenological and thus, yes, Trinitarian sense.

God loves, and God loves, and God loves and together they are not one love but three loves; we rock in the three waves of God’s fathomless devotion, the ocean that is God-for-us. We are splashed, created and re-created by God’s love as God’s love. This is the sense of it, yes? My love is my act, my disposition and my being-toward a person and also that person him or herself, who beings-back-toward me. We begin a letter saying, “My love,” and close by writing, “Love, ….”

We would be loved back. Love is narcissistic, not in the sense of self-absorption but in the sense of self-involvement. Even in love, we cannot stop knowing ourselves because it is through knowing and comprehending ourselves that we know the beloved: “Oh, that’s just like that time…” But the beloved is not the self and so one encounters limitations: “I can’t believe you just did that!”

All of this is not to go astray from the Tripartate creed but is instead to ask the question: What happens when God Trinities? We know that this is love, that God is love, but do we know what love is? What love does? The scandal of transcendence and immanence is not that God exists in confounding mathematical puzzles but that both transcendence and imminence pervade the very fabric of our lives, our loves.

We are in the image of God but not as the image of God; humans are not what happens when God looks into a reflecting pool, but humans are what happens when God looks into the pools of our beloved human eyes. God must see his handiwork “Before I formed you in the womb…” but must also be surprised: “Why are you hiding from me?”

This should not be difficult to understand. We are present to each other and know each other as friends and lovers but never know each other all the way down, to the very toes. We know each other as mystery revealing itself, as simultaneously self and other, or if you prefer different language both as promise and as secret. Would the love of the Trinity seem so sweet?

“I and the Father our one,” and “Only the Father knows the hour.” Perhaps, yes? Or perhaps as Molly Bloom would have it: “yes I said yes I will Yes.” God’s Trinity-ing or Trinity’s God-ing thus becomes the threefold affirmation of both creation and God as good, very good, and very very good without any goodness being quantified but only repeatedly emphasized. Who, after all, would measure a wave? One only listens for the sound of each, both like and unlike the others.

We are rapt. This is what relation, what being-for does, doesn’t it? We engage the paradoxes of love, of self and other, similarity and alterity, secret and promise not by negating any side in binary elimination but in taught penetration: we tell more intimate secrets and make more abiding promises, even extravagant ones that seem quite dubious in retrospect: “this generation will not pass away until all these things…”

What happens when humans love is that humans become unhinged: we act strangely, we are not ourselves and are in considerably less control. What happens when God Trinities is that God becomes unhinged in love. God makes promises. God gets passionate. God gets pledged, betrothed. “Batter my heart, Three-Personned God,” writes John Donne perhaps to invite a rape but perhaps also to signal that he is finally ready to participate.

Because this is the problem, yes? “No greater love hath he…” but the history of humanity is the history of refusing to be caught up in the love of God. The history of Trinity, on the other hand, is the story of God’s declining to accept our resignation, our returning of the ticket, as Mr. Karamazov would have it. So what happens when God Trinities? Everything, of course. Or, at least, everything that matters, ever has mattered, or ever will.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Notice: It's my Tetraversary!

On October 3, 2005 (four years ago this Saturday!) I moved from my Pennsylvania homeland to my exile in Minneapolis, the implosion of my savings account, the forfeiture of my fledgling 401k, the last of my health insurance, a 30% drop in average income, a personal 50% unemployment rate, the completion of two novels, acceptance to a seminary, and the rekindling of my faith and my heart.

How do you think I ought to celebrate? I'm very open to suggestion.

on John 18:1-13: Christus Victor

Matthew 12:20 "A battered reed He will not break off, And a smoldering wick He will not put out, Until He leads justice to victory” (NAS).

John 18:1-12 presents Christ victorious on a field of battle against the darkness of Enemy; the spoils of the battle, so to speak, are Jesus’s own disciples and the believers they will subsequently gain for the faith – ie whoever might believe in Him. This was the theology of atonement present in the early Church when John was written, and, I would argue, the one present in the text itself. That this victory would come in apparent defeat was of course something of the purpose, and underscores the sharp contrasts of the earliest Christian theology: as life was achieved through death, so Christ’s victory is achieved through his acquiescence to Roman binding and Temple jurisdiction.

The theology of Christus Victor is present from the beginning of the text, at least in part: Jesus and his followers cross the brook of Kedron, itself a site of military import to Davidic history, where he fled his son Absalom. More, the language of the text suggests Jesus at the head of his followers as a captain would be at the head of his unit. He is, in military parlance, “leading from the front.”

That Kedron was a Davidic retreat rather than a triumph only further underscores the type of victory Christ is about to accomplish. That the garden is familiar terrain in John’s gospel, and that Christ knew all the things that were to come, similarly mimics a captain choosing the field of battle. Judas comes similarly at the head of a Roman cohort and Temple officers; the sides are joined, though we might wonder what becomes of the captain of darkness afterward (Judas doesn’t lead from the front for very long). The cohort comes with “lanterns and torches and weapons” amounting to a military inventory of the kind long synonymous with battle: equipment matters in the warring world.

Jesus then steps forward as in a military parley: “Whom do you seek?” The question is perhaps not as important in this case as is the fact that Jesus asks first; Jesus initiates; Christ is in command not only of his own “troops” but of the opposition. He fires the first volley, strikes the first blow. With his acknowledgement that he is the one they seek; the cohort collapses. Falling back, they break good Roman formation. The men should have stood together. But the men fall over, testimony both to the power of the Word of God and the shallow nature of the victory the forces of the world are about to gain.

Again Christ rejoins the conversation; this is to be not a battle of blades but of words, and here Jesus clearly has the upper hand. With his second acknowledgement he suggests (declares? orders?) that with his captivity, his men are no longer needed by anyone, “let these men go.” He thus secures their freedom from both arrest and death. He himself is the only casualty of battle: “I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.” (Do they flee? Or just choose a retreat? A rearguard action?)

That Peter subsequently draws a sword is both entirely appropriate and entirely misdirected; he rightly feels the contest but wholly misinterprets its nature, threatening the victory as if he were some soldier out of place and exposed to harm. Christ’s command is swift and precise: “Put your sword back into its sheath.” This is both because the victory is already being accomplished and because Christ Victorious is not Christ Militant – most of the earliest Christians were pacifist. The soldiers, officers and Jewish police, not knowing that darkness is already being defeated, arrest and bind Jesus as though, indeed, he were a slave or common prisoner taken from the field of battle – something which all good Christians would know that he of course was not.

on Benedict's Rule

On the Rule of St. Benedict

Noll continues his mostly positive – and occasionally triumphant – discussion of Christianity’s turning points with the resounding, though not unmixed, successes of the Rule of St. Benedict, founder of the Benedictine order. Notes Noll: “almost everything in the church that approached the highest, noblest, and truest ideas of the gospel was done either by those who had chosen the monastic way or by those who had been inspired in the Christian life by the monks.”

And this is rightly said. The monastic tradition has given modern Christians translated Scripture, Trinitarian liturgy, classical theology, robust missions, and church history. What the Rule of St. Benedict did was to flexibly but firmly curb the excesses of the monastic movement that gave us all of the above: the early asceticism of the desert fathers at times amounted to a denial of the material world in Gnostic fashion.

The Rule of Benedict restored prayer to the center of monastic life, re-centered Scripture as the fount of spiritual life, and grounded the more esoteric of inward religious experience in the common lot of work, study, food and rest. One wonders if monasticism could in fact have given the Christian world as much as it did without Benedict’s wise and gracious Rule. Like many monks, Benedict began monastic life as a reaction to the moral degeneracy of the late Roman city, though by his time the persecutions at least had ended.

Indeed, the social legitimization of Christianity by Constantine and successive Emperors provided Christians with stability, access to power, and a reasonable means of income – an offer that not all Christians could take in stride. Indeed, were self-sacrifice and humility to be found at all in the comforts and grandeur of the old Roman Empire? Monasticism’s emergence as “the conscience of Christianity” meant throwing aside the trappings of Empire even as the social fabric of that world was coming undone.

The appeal of the monastics came both through their pseudo-Scriptural affinity for virginity and their vision of the world as spiritual battleground; this struck the psychology of the times so positively that a pillar-sitting monk might well have helped the pronouncement of Chalcedon gain popular acceptance. But where Benedictine departed from his predecessors was in his desire to reform the monastic movement itself.

Where the first monks left the cities with a self-proclaimed vow to abandon all property and follow Christ in accordance with scripture, Benedict made dispossession a rule outright. The Rule also not only established prayer as the central spiritual weapon of those who came under it, but codified the manner of that prayer as humble as if “asking some favor of a powerful man.” Where Scripture suggests hospitality as the invitation of Christ, the Rule urges care especially for strangers and the sick.

It was the clear elaboration of such already-extant realities that so marked the Rule of Benedict and brought together the varied and somewhat individualistic ways of the first desert monks. Primarily, the Rule was one of living together, and became more important as men and women both began to do this in Cenobite community. Common practices such as the keeping of the common Benedictine day became catholic missions that spread Christianity through barbarous Europe by cruce, libro, et atro – with cross, book, and plow.

The trend of the Middle Ages is the story of the monastery in parallel relation to the Church – though one, Noll notes, not without its conflict, as abbots and bishops in a region often understood common problems differently. What is certainly true is that throughout the Church’s history, the monastery would continue to be the conscience of the Christian faith, mirroring all of its renewal, decay, and reform.

It is in his truly bizarre and entirely extra-textual coda, however, that Noll would criticize the monastic movement himself, as though Benedict had not done quite enough. His assertion that a Protestant might well ask the question of works-justification in monastic life entirely misses the origin of monasticism not in the search for salvation but in the quest for loving obedience, to simply follow the words of Jesus. Whatever happened to it afterward would not then be not the fault of monastic life but the consequence of the human heart itself.

Noll might begin to understand this when he asks if the disposal of the body would necessarily affect the deepest seat of sin – but misses that Jesus Christ himself seems to have thought at least something of the kind; one can hardly imagine our Lord and Savior “settling down.” Finally, Noll suggests that monastic life as a rejection of the world undervalues Christ’s benediction of it – a point better taken if Noll did not assume what neither the first nor the modern monastics assume: that the denial of world must be lifelong.

Rather, it is through periods of both denial and embracing of the world that Christians learn our rightful place, to be in the world and not of it. If the denial never happens, the benediction doesn’t either. Jesus didn’t die naked on a cross so that we could sit lifelong in upholstered chairs, quaff wine, and muse about the justification resulting from his sacrifice. We are indeed, supposed to do something about it, not in order to re-accomplish it, but simply in order to recognize and accept it. The monastic life has taken many people at least part of the way down that pilgrim road.

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


The history of creedal Christianity is the history of bishops proclaiming accord without elaboration. We agree, but damned if we do not gloss over the details. Says the Athanasian creed: “Uncreated is the Father; uncreated is the Son; uncreated is the Spirit,” and “there are not three uncreated and unlimited beings, but one who is uncreated and unlimited.”

This is the problem when Trinity crosses from story into doctrine: I challenge any living man or woman to explain to me exactly how the above is possible. It boggles the mind. It staggers the consciousness. This does not mean the Athanasian creed is incorrect but does imply that Peters consistently misevaluates the symbols. Peters assumes that we can understand them.

We must comprehend the symbols if we are to use them to explicate word and world alike. That is the only way the theological methodology of Peters functions. Though placing them at the edge, at the metaxy between reality and transcendence, Peters would also have the markers that identify the experience of revelation function something like revelation itself. If we would explicate these symbols, they must be explicable. Peters would have them bring something more than ontological shock.

He would have us embrace, at least half of the time, the kataphatic assumption that “humans know what life is on the terrestrial plane”, and in so knowing, “can speak of eternal life on the heavenly plane.” But I would assert that humans know nothing of the kind. We have no idea what life is like here; if we did, one supposes that we would be much better at it. The incarnation of Christ came in many ways in order to highlight our incapacity in precisely this regard: “they do not know what they are doing.”

And God’s disclosure of God-self in Christ was no simple manifestation; the crucifixion concealed from this world the ultimate triumph of Christ at the end of time and history; else the book of Revelation would have little to uncover. This should not surprise us, as no disclosure occurs without concealment: to say anything is to choose not to say something else entirely, even another truth. We know each other by our faces, we recognize our neighbor at a glance, but we are not our faces and dwell behind our masks.

We have no idea what keeps our neighbor awake at night. We answer to our names, but our names do not describe us. Transcendence does not stop at the edge of this world but shoots entirely through it. Three things we do not understand, and these three things are everything there is: self, other, and universe. We have full definitions of none of these things, and, one might argue, lack the cognitive equipment to form such, or recognize that we have. Yet these are with us everywhere we go; we cannot escape these mysteries.

How should we then explicate the symbols of God, if we cannot unpack the symbols of ourselves? Or, rather, we find that we are always unpacking without ever getting to the package; God is a Russian toy containing endless Russian dolls. Symbols lie at the edge, says Peters. The edge of what? What edge? Of course reality is more than what we perceive it to be; our perceptual set does not even include the fullness of material reality itself.

Nietzsche was indeed wrong about the truth; it is not a woman. God is the woman; truth is God’s beckoning finger. God is a tease. Gospel is God’s come-hither stare. The symbols of the gospel truth are the gestures God makes toward creation. They are precisely the things which are not meant to be explicated, but to be answered.

This is best done not by transforming narrative into doctrine but by joining the narrative oneself; one better understands the Triune pronouncements of the creeds not by their content but by their contest, by their context, by their place in the mouths of those obfuscating bishops. By committing to explicable symbols as semi-doctrinal doors between divinity and humanity, Peters consistently misses the story that the wall has long since crumbled and the kingdom of God is already experientially at hand.

on God, the World's Future: Consonance


“God is the transcendent One who has become one with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ and through whose Spirit we and the whole cosmos are being brought to fulfillment” (86). Thus the Trinity at its core is not a doctrine but a story; from the story we get the doctrine but not vice versa. The problem of Trinity is neither story nor doctrine but the tension between the two.

How we answer Heidegger – why is there something rather than nothing? – determines whether we will end up with the classical theists (God cannot die) and their non-contradictory God or with the shall-we-call-them-orthodox theists (God did die in Christ) and their paradoxical God-man. There is something rather than nothing because God discloses God-self through that which is not God: “Let us make man in our image.”

So begins the story. It culminates with making God in man’s image, so to speak, and ends with the promise of finally making all things in the imagination of God. Along the way it picks up me, or as Luther said “I believe that God has created me and all that exists.” We participate in the story. The tale of the Trinity invites us in. We are by necessity alone, but by grace called to meet someone beyond our wildest imaginings.

But where is God, yes? “When we listen for the call of the Beyond, we listen with the silent and secret hope that the call comes from within as well as without.” That God reveals God-self through finity implies that God God-self is involved with me, not in the classical Platonic ontological sense but in orthodox Hebraic time: I am an agent in God’s historic romancing of the universe, blessed to be a blessing to the nations: “And they will know that I am YHWH.”

God is an event, God-self disclosed in history. We should expect no less of Trinity. Thus Christ “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself…so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” In Christ the self-disclosure of infinity through finity comes to fulfillment: God becomes human, finds triumph through powerlessness and in death brings life anew for all creation.

The cross is thus not the negation of God but the fullness of God and the face of Trinity. It is not that Jesus Christ is subordinate to the Father but that Jesus Christ subordinates himself: this is the identity of Christ. He does so in and through the Spirit of God. The Athanasian position is that this simply discloses what has been going on forever, without us, all along. The Trinity immanent in the world through the revelation of Jesus Christ is the Trinity transcendent beyond the world and hidden behind the name of God, the Trinity that we shall one day see face to face; God’s glory has shined in the face of Christ.

Part of the scandal of the Trinitarian tale is not that this has changed the world, which any encounter with divinity might do, but that in the incarnation “redefines divinity to include humanity, the humanity of the historical Jesus.” Believers are bound to Christ and thus to God. Salvation is inclusion; the relatedness of the Trinity one to each other extends to the Trinity relating to creation, to the world, to me.

This makes God no less God because the Hebraic story means that eternity is not timelessness but everlastingness that takes all things into itself. In other words, God has always been becoming Trinity just as Christ has always been subordinating Son to Father. In God the relatedness of history in finity becomes the relatedness of history to eternity not by binding infinity but by opening God and creation both to possibility, to God’s own acts of imagination.

That God is the divine community of persons implies humanity as humane community of persons and the Kingdom of God which Jesus Christ proclaimed. The transcendent God whose name we cannot know and whose face we cannot see becomes God-for-us, whose face we have seen and in whose name we have believed, “dancing with all creation” (126). In Christ we are taken up in God or as Peters has it: “our awareness of human dignity and equality is itself an expression of the divine Spirit…part of the larger drama of the godhead’s redeeming and reconciling work within the world.”