zimbabwe :: worse and worse

I have a soft spot in my heart for the southern African nation being mismanaged into shambles by an octogenarian autocrat who has been in power for far too long. In the 1980’s Robert Mugabe helped to lead the people of “Rhodesia” to Western-style self-rule, distancing the country from the legacy of diamond-guru Cecil John Rhodes and the lingering imperial presence of the British. He has been in office ever since.

The soft spot in my heart has begun to tear in the last few weeks as almost daily I read some new bit of news on the BBC about the state of the country. Here are a few links:

— The country with the world’s highest rate of inflation (previously 2,200% per year), now has a rate of 3,791%. I’ll give you an idea of what that means. Average inflation in the States hangs around 4%. That means that the milk you buy this year for $2.50 will cost $2.60 next year. If you were to buy a half-gallon of milk in Zimbabwe today for $2.50 (keep in mind that inflation has been running at rates in the thousands for years now), a year from now, that milk would cost you just shy of $95 dollars. Your employer can’t afford to give you a 3,000% percent raise annually, so you are trying to buy this milk on the same salary you’ve had for as long as you’ve been lucky enough to have a job. Money isn’t even worth carrying as toilet paper in Zimbabwe. Thousand dollar bills are literally worth less than the shiny bit of aluminum wrapped around your chewing gum. Continue reading “zimbabwe :: worse and worse”

the pope and the populace :: liberation in South America

Of some relevance to the continuing conversation about theology and justice are the following: James K. Smith reacts to a NY Times article

I should probably offer my two cents…(hopefully it’s worth that)…

1. I’m by and large ignorant of the history of the relationship between Benedict (Ratzinger) and the liberation theologians of S. America – I know the basic outline, and not much more. So I’m hesitant to say much.

2. I’ll defend the prerogative of the church to discipline theologians whose teachings contradict the church’s gospel. Theologians are the servants of the church, not its masters.

3. I’ll adamantly insist that by and large, the global church has made invisible its one-ness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity insofar as it has been unconcerned (at least in practice) with the plight of the poorest and most marginalized of our brothers and sisters. As Bonhoeffer says, “this invisibility is killing us!” Continue reading “the pope and the populace :: liberation in South America”

creeds and criticism :: history lessons (part II)

It is the task of history, once the other world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world.

Here, Karl Marx raises his disdain for any story that focuses its attention on an “other world” to ground the meaning of the life we experience. The truth of this world, as Marx sees it, is made of the power relationships expressed through money and control. The truth of this world is the subjugation of the working classes by means of ideology, coercion, and religion – that great opiate by which the masses are kept from demanding all that they deserve in this life.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of man is a demand for their real happiness…. Religion is only the illusory sun about which man revolves so long as he does not revolve around himself.

Properly then, according to Marx, history’s task is to write the real story of what goes on in the world, without reference to “higher” realities or other worlds. The task of history is to set down the meaning of the only world we know in concrete political and economic terms, cutting through all the bourgeois cultural accretions that obscure the real power relationships. Continue reading “creeds and criticism :: history lessons (part II)”

creeds and criticism :: hellfire and history (part I)

“I reject any creed that would send the Dalai Lama to hell.” I watched an author of fiction (one I’m quite fond of) offer this phrase at a book release last year. As he spoke, the vast majority of receptive ears were attached to heads nodding in agreement and righteous indignation.

Inner monologue: “Who could possibly be so stupid as to send the Dalai Lama to hell? What group of people could possibly hold a set of beliefs that would send such a man to such a place? They must be ridiculous! The Apostles creed is bunk! We’d be better off if it were never repeated again!”

So… wouldn’t we as a species make it a few steps further along our evolutionary journey if we dropped the self-righteous possession of truth in pretty little formulas? Weren’t the creeds the attempt of the powerful majority in the early church to subjugate all dissenting opinions? Who in their right mind would want to follow such a legacy? Continue reading “creeds and criticism :: hellfire and history (part I)”

manifold-option quiz :: political theology

Here’s a question that I’m working through right now. I’m looking for some help from outside my own head. What is your gut reaction to the question below? If you don’t feel qualified to answer the question then you are exactly the person I’m looking for – give it your best shot. I don’t feel qualified to ask it – so if you don’t like the options provided, feel free to invent your own, combine mine, or do something else altogether. Continue reading “manifold-option quiz :: political theology”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer :: violence and responsibility

I wanted to make the paper [Bonhoeffer and Violence] I’ve written most recently for a seminar on Bonhoeffer available. (If Bonhoeffer is a new name to you, let my friends introduce him). The paper tackles a major question that cuts across both Bonhoeffer’s biography and his theology:

What is a fellow who can say the following sentence doing involved in an assassination conspiracy? “There is no thinkable deed in which evil is so large and strong that it would require a different [i.e. a violent] response from a Christian.” This question looms large in many ways, especially as both Bonhoeffer and questions of violence have appeared in the conversation with Casey lately.

I’m sure that you’ll see more Bonhoeffer here soon, he and I are spending a lot of time together these days as I write my thesis on his moral epistemology (i.e. the answer to the question, “How do we know what to do?”).

Seven Stanzas at Easter :: John Updike

Resurrected Christ
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

[Written for a religious arts festival sponsored by the Clifton Lutheran Church, of Marblehead, Mass.]

herds more words

I’d like to draw your attention to a little feature I just added here. As I talk with people, occasionally they ask for a copy of some of the papers that I write. I’m not sure whether people actually read them, but I get asked frequently enough that I thought I’d make a few of my better academic efforts available here. You’ll notice a link on the left to a page called “essays and papers” (clever, eh?).

At present, there’s one paper that wrestles with the theological meaning of creatures dying on our planet long before humans were around to sin. What does it mean that God seemed to have created a universe in which death plays a role? Secondly, there’s a paper on the poet G.M. Hopkins. Without being a mystic, he seems to see Jesus everywhere. Jesus appears in his poetry in really unexpected places. The paper explores his understanding of God’s presence in the world, especially in light of the incarnation. It deals with one of Hopkins’ main influences (a really great medieval monk) John Duns Scotus

theology and power :: what’s the use?

Here’s an excerpt of a conversation that I thought others might want in on – feel free to add your two bits, eh?:

I’m going to throw a few words back; you said:

    “I’m really trying to figure things out – especially the power of nations against nations…especially “doing” theology while comfortably existing in a nation – I mean really – how does this work. Maybe they are right – in order for our ‘lil theology centers to keep tick’n out happy theology that “cares for the poor” we better keep piling money into our military piggy bank…because ALL nations will do this, so we better be the best at it.”

If theology is a detached “merely academic” enterprise, then you are right; theologians are the worst of the bourgeoisie – lazy, overfed men (and women) peddling metaphysical delicacies to those with the capital to buy a few years of listening leisure. Continue reading “theology and power :: what’s the use?”

of birds and bugs :: a self to speak and spell

‘As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme’

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

— Gerard Manley Hopkins

I admit that I would leave this poem to stand alone on its own merit, or the hope that someone might be enticed to get acquainted with Hopkins (I can hardly recommend this strongly enough!). But I’m inclined to add a few words of my own to Hopkins’, if nothing else, to set this poem in the context of his thought as a whole.

Hopkins, a 19th century British convert to Catholicism and a member of the Jesuit order, was convinced that God’s assumption of human nature in Jesus Christ was profoundly good news. He recognized the significance of God-become-human in far deeper ways than most of us ever encounter. He thought (I’ll attempt a paraphrase – and hope not to embarrass him), “If God shows up in a manger in Bethlehem, why, he might show up anywhere!” Hopkins expected to see, and saw, Jesus show up through lots of particulars in his forty-four short years of life (see the poems: “Hurrahing in Harvest,” “The blessed virgin as compared to the air we breathe,” and his lengthy masterpiece “The Wreck of the Deutschland“).

Hopkins saw that if God valued a particular moment, a particular body, a particular place enough to plant himself there – then all moment, bodies, and places must be tremendously valuable. God must be quite excited about all the particularities, intricacies, and anomalies that he has spun out into the world. This is the main theme of “Kingfishers”; each created thing has its own existence as a gift, be it a bell, piano string (“tucked” to make its own particular tone), or stone dropped to “plunk” uniquely in a well. Each is uniquely valued in God’s eyes. Each flame and flower announces to the world, “Here I am! I am here to be what God has made me for.” Far from being a faceless speck – only one anonymous bit of carbon amongst a vast sea of faceless “others,” the good news of God’s becoming human is that he plays in ten thousand places. That means that all of those ten thousand places (or ten million) are wonderfully dignified.

I’ve been told that Christians are the people who ignore the realities of this present world, preferring instead to stare off into the clouds and sing pretty hallelujahs. There may be some empirical truth behind the accusation. But if Hopkins is right about the meaning of the events by which we recognized God-among-us, Christians are the ones looking to find Jesus wherever he might be found today (see the poem Ribblesdale). Continue reading “of birds and bugs :: a self to speak and spell”

naming names :: God in public

On the cutting edges of our postmodern culture, anyone who is willing to say “God” in public while knowing what she means is liable to be understood as downright dogmatic, if not a fundamentalist. We the people of the grand tradition known as Western culture seem to be cultivating a grand suspicion of any specificity with regard to the transcendent. We prefer to acknowledge (agnostically, of course) the presence in the cosmos of a general transcendent fog with emotive and motivational powers, but are allergic to attributing personality, or worse, a NAME (!!) to any being we can’t poke with a ten foot pole. Furthermore, suggesting that the named deity in question has specified particular forms of adherence and enlightenment is subject to even more suspicion. In most circles (but not all), it is socially advantageous to be “spiritual” (lest one gain a reputation for shallowness or materialism), but being “religious” is akin to a minor case of leprosy. At the very least, admitting that one names God along with others in an (gasp!) organized fashion is a social sin that must be overcome by one’s personal charisma or alternatively established social status.

First of all, let’s be honest, “spirituality” characterized by avoidance of anything so structured as dogma, doctrine, or theology is a set of beliefs as well, however disorganized. In fact, it is a theology, (albeit a minimalist one where less is more!). Is there any reason to prefer this “standard” cultural theology to a more historically rooted, orthodox brand? I’m willing to admit a few:

(1) No one will ever fight a religious war, burn a heretic, or exclude someone else in defense of his or her own private “spirituality.” Continue reading “naming names :: God in public”