Authenticity, Worldliness, Critique, Theology

You think it horrible that lust and rage
Should dance attendance upon my old age;
They were not such a plague when I was young;
What else have I to spur me into song?

Old man Yeats knew what was true. If you have no anger at this world, anger at its willful stupidities, its grim indifference, its real sins: its murdering hordes, its smug myths, exploitive habits, its catastrophic wastes, the smile on its hyena hungry face, its jackal tastes, then you belong to it, and you are one of its apes — though animals should not be so disgraced as to be put in any simile with man.

Old age ought to know. Death will soon enough come to its rescue. Till the knowing ends, all that was wasted and wronged in youth — through ignorance, haste, competition, bad belief — all that was bored by middle age into one long snooze, has borne its juiceless fruit, and is now known for what it is: nothing has been righted here. Yet if desire can be kept from contamination, if it can be aimed, as one’s fingertip, at the root’s place, if it is not harnessed to the horses of dismal domination, but is allowed to be itself and realize life, then the flutter of an eyelash on a cheek will assume its proper importance; Wall Street may crash and the gods of money smelted back into the sordid earths they came from; yet, unfazed, our heads will rest at least on one another, a fall sun will shine on the sheets, your nipple shall enter my ear like a bee seeking in a bloom a place to sleep; life shall run through us both renewed; we shall feel longing, lust for one another; we shall share rage for the world.

– William H. Gass, “Lust”

via we shall feel longing, lust for one another; we shall share rage for the world. « Departure Delayed.

Brad posted this fragment of Yeats and the passage from Gass, noting that commentary could only swindle away the full effect. He’s right. But the paragraphs overwhelmed me  enough that I wanted to share them; and wanting to share them, it seemed that I ought to do more than merely ride the coattails of Brad’s extensive reading. So with some reluctance, I’ll risk commentary.

Several of Bonhoeffer’s early sermons—given to a congregation in Barcelona—contain an unmistakeable debt to Nietzsche. Bonhoeffer shares Nietzsche’s distaste for the world-denying character of religion and calls his congregation (as perhaps only a young and somewhat naive pastor could) to a life of faith that resonates with Nietzsche’s unconditional affirmation of life. While he moved away from the rather titanic, muscular language of those early sermons, he remained convinced that faith, and therefore theology, must always enmesh a person within the concrete realities of life—the sites of rage and lust and desire.

I bring up Bonhoeffer only because of the collision of two thoughts which emerged while I read the passage above. First, that Gass traces out Nietzsche’s affirmation of life in tenacious, wounded, and haunting words; and second, that theology worth its salt ought to come from an attitude akin to this one. Bonhoeffer’s affinity for Nietzsche is based, I think, on something like that second thought. Theologians should not hide in rosy constructions of the world’s goodness, but should think and write with gritty soil between their fingers and on their pages, obstacles that prevent the pen from tracing lines too smooth.

The point of this post is not to suggest my similarity to Bonhoeffer. Rather, even though I stand by my gut-sense that faith and faith’s thinking are best done in the mud,  I want to try to articulate some new-found second-thoughts about it, questions or qualifications.

First, to say that, “Theology ought to be like this!” is to set out a yardstick for “genuine” theology. It is to set up a high bar of “authenticity.” While such affirmations generally ring with a sincere ambition that theological thinking ought to reckon with the world in ways that it currently does not, they very quickly turn into bludgeons that measure the inauthenticity of others. Authenticity is an easy claim to stake, and perhaps for that reason it tends to generate more defense than creativity. I’m not  wholly against measurements or bludgeons—not even theological measurements and bludgeons—but I’ve come to recognize that “authenticity” only generates vague and capricious criteria.

Second, saying “Theology ought to be like this!” can amount to a dismissive effort to capture the power of a critique without really reckoning with its barbs. Too quickly assuming that “genuine” theology rises in anger against “willful stupidities, grim indifference, real sins, murdering hordes, smug myths, exploitive habits, and catastrophic wastes” ignores theology’s own historical complicity with all of the above. It too easily turns theology into an airtight ideology where every criticism is colonized, and that seems to me like a fundamental betrayal. Perhaps loyalty to theology in the face of powerful sentiments like Gass’s (or the more direct criticism of Nietzsche) does not simply add a transcendant amplifier to those sentiments (e.g. “This is the voice of faith!” or “God shares such a rage!”), but abides with them in a self-critical sobriety—a reception much quieter than Bonhoeffer’s early sermons and more like his risky, tentative prison letters, where so much seems unhinged.

image and likeness in Saint Basil and the ecology of the soul

It is commonplace among early Christian writers to distinguish between the image of God and the likeness of God in humanity (rooted in Genesis 1:27), though the distinction made theologically significant in various ways. While his younger brother Gregory rejects the distinction, Basil of Caesarea employs it with some regularity. This passage caught my eye today:

“Now, he has made us with the power to become like God, he let us be artisans of the likeness to God, so that the reward for the work would be ours. Thus we would not be like images made by a painter, lying inertly, lest our likeness should bring praise to another. For when you see an image exactly shaped like the prototype, you do not praise the image, but you marvel at the painter. Accordingly, so that the marvel may become mine and not another’s, he has left it to be to become according to the likeness of God. For I have that which is according to the image in being a rational being, but I become according to the likeness in becoming Christian.” [1]

In what precedes this excerpt, Basil has been quite clear that human beings exist according to the image of God as a function of their rationality—primarily expressed in ruling over the animals. As Basil continues, it becomes evident that to craft one’s life according to the likeness of God is to adopt the Pauline clothing metaphor and “put on” Christ as a garment.

At this point I wonder if there is some tension between the image and likeness, wherein the likeness of God (paradigmatically visible in the life of Jesus) actually begins to shape and determine the image (practical reason in its ruling function) in such a way as to introduce a kenotic humility and attitude of service into its exercise. This reading is at odds with Basil, but perhaps not so much as to contradict his broader intentions.

Reading this way recognizes a certain tension between the archetypical Image of God in Christ (who in the course of Basil’s homily primarily appears as the almighty Pantocrator) and the likeness of God which human beings are to “put on” perfecting their own kindness, charity, and virtue in emulation of Jesus. Secretly, and against the grain, I see the life of Jesus breaking into Basil’s text at this point, opening up fissures in his thoroughly confident notion of the power of reason (Logos in the Greek, of course) through which trickles of living water pour.

This kind of “crafting” would also temper the spirituality which Basil enjoins upon his hearers. Basil moves very quickly from the rule that human beings exercise over the animals to the analogous rule that human beings are to exercise over their own irrational passions and vices. Both animals and passions are subdued by reason. Most of Basil’s examples of reason exercising dominion over animals, however, are instances where human beings kill, cage, or domesticate by force. As a model for spiritual discipline (not to mention as a model for relating to animals generally), this is perhaps somewhat lacking. Attempting to eradicate one’s passions and vices by clubbing, spearing, and caging them is often an exercise in repression—one that ends in futility and frustration. The Pantocrator model of spirituality presumes unrealistic control on the part of a the subject by presuming that passions can actually be bludgeoned into submission.

Better, perhaps, is the spirituality whereby the passions are tamed by giving them a distance, recognizing their power but neither capitulating to them nor seeking to slaughter them on the spot. The sort of charity that Jesus showed to sinners in caring for their immediate needs without condoning their sin or joining in it provides a better model for confronting the disreputable elements within my own character.

[1] Basil of Caesarea, On the Human Condition, trans. Nonna Verna Harrison (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2005), 44.

worship and service :: theological epistemology is praxis

“The pluralism of biblical symbolism reflects the real multivocity of human experiences of salvation granted in Christ, experiences that are contextual and perspectival. The variety and even apparent incoherence of the corresponding symbolism can be but little reduced and never resolved through conceptual analysis and systematic theology. Instead, salvation and the cross must be integrated and appropriated through the kinds of Christian practices (liturgy and ethics) within which New Testament metaphors for salvation were generated in the first place.” 

The range of metaphors that Scripture contains for the salvific human encounter with God cannot be contained in a single book or system. The word of God itself strains beyond itself, stretching at the limits of the language in which it is heard to express what that salvation is and how it has come to us through Jesus Christ. In the end, Christians can only come to understand the various aspects and dimensions of salvation by participating in the worship and the life of service which is (or ought to be) found in the church. Salvation is about the liberation of economic and political justice—and one learns this by means of concrete solidarity with people whom Jesus loves. Salvation is about the forgiveness of human guilt and shame—and one learns this in the daily rhythms of the community that sings and prays to the God who has carried human guilt all the way to hell. Salvation is about transforming broken human lives into images of God’s faithfulness—and one learns this by proclaiming the gospel of God’s basileia (reign) and being transformed in the process. One learns the multi-faceted significance of Scripture’s teaching about salvation by actively participating in the community (the body) whose historical experience stretches across the centuries to include the writing of that very same Scripture. 

____________________________

Lisa Sowle Cahill, “The Atonement Paradigm: Does it Still Have Explanatory Value,” Theological Studies 68 (2007): 421. 

living the questions :: an incoherent odyssey

The Adult Education Forum at my church has begun a journey through a video series entitled “Living the Questions.” My reaction to this morning’s video and discussion may hold out promise for a series of posts in the weeks to come, and I would hope to extend the conversation started in the Forum to an even larger group of people.

Living the QuestionsThe video began with a fellow quoting both John Milbank and Alasdair MacIntyre. Naively, I got excited, thinking that this series might provoke some serious dialogue about faith and tradition. The fellow comfortably seated on a desert rock quoted to us MacIntyre’s definition of a tradition: a socially embodied and temporally extended argument.

But from that point forward, the argument was one sided, more of a monologue, really. Furthermore, it proceeded in a direction that neither Milbank nor MacIntyre would have relished introducing.

The first speaker after the introduction was John Shelby Spong, and after him Marcus Borg, followed by Matthew Fox—and a host of folks known for pushing the Christian faith to become… well… something else (or die, in Spong’s estimation). I do recognize some value in bringing these voices into the church—Christians are likely in their day-to-day lives to meet doubts and aberrations stranger than those presented by this cast of characters—we should at least be conversant with these lines of thought. But this video should not be presented as an argument!—at least, not in the sense of a conversation. The makers need not have turned to fire-breathing fundamentalists to balance the views on offer—where were Hauerwas, Wright, Hart, Marty, Williams? Balance, apparently, was not one of the goals of the series. Nor, it would seem, is speaking of the substance of Christian faith.

The metaphor of “The Journey” provided the thematic center for this morning’s episode. Faith is not a destination, we were told, but is exploration, questioning, wrestling, struggling. The one thing that remained certain throughout the presentation is that certainty is the enemy of authentic faith. We need to be willing to “not-know” more and to forsake the albatross of unpleasant beliefs. A few stanzas of the “poem” that came as supplementary material to the video will make this clear:

What would happen if I pursued God—
If I filled my pockets with openness,
Grabbed a thermos half full of fortitude,
And crawled into the cave of the Almighty
Nose first, eyes peeled, heart hesitantly following
Until I was face to face
With the raw, pulsing beat of Mystery?

What if I entered and it looked different
Than enyone ever described?
What if the cave was too large to be fully known,
Far too extensive to be comprehended by one person or group,
Too vast for one dogma or doctrine?

I risk taking the posture of moral indignation here, and I want to avoid it. But I left today’s Forum disheartened and sad—disappointed that our catechesis has come to giving a soapbox to figures who would like to kick out the pillars of the church’s historic faith. We are not in the fortunate position of being so literate in tradition that a few weeks spent teaching on the sacraments, or on the church’s teaching about wealth would come across as old-hat.

There is an oppressive insistence on journeying, and an oppressive privileging of “the journey” that robs people of the genuine hope that the tradition offers. Forcing everyone to reinvent the wheel and find the spiritual answers “for themselves” is not mercy, nor love—it’s modernism. The single mother of three children, who works two jobs to keep a family’s bodies and souls together is ill served by being cast out into the seas of uncertainty to begin her “spiritual journey”—she needs well-trained leaders who can teach her well, and aren’t afraid to do so.

When brothers and sisters are dying of cancer, are we being oppressively dogmatic in proclaiming Christ’s resurrection and the hope of wholeness in salvation? When our culture lacks a moral center, is it really all that doctrinaire for the church to point to discipleship as a coherent life?

How far can the church undermine its own proclamation and remain the church? I find the sort of faith that this video was promulgating to be self-centered, vacuous, and ultimately parasitic. Etymologically the word “tradition” is connected to the task of “handing down” what is received from one’s elders. If we are genuinely to conceive of faith as a great personal journey of exploration that may lead us, as it has led Spong, Borg, and Fox, to liberate ourselves of faith in Christ’s divinity, resurrection, and singularity, then what will be left to hand down? Are we, as Dawkins would suggest, abusing our children by teaching them about the faith? We are certainly robbing them of part of their “journey” if we teach them as a “certainty” what they could have discovered on their own some forty years later.

There is some value to be found in the video that we watched this morning. There is a pietistic element in the encouragement toward a journey that encourages personal appropriation and asking difficult questions. Being fully present at church entails a level of engagement that does not take everything for granted. Awe, worship, and wonder all rest on a holy curiosity that presses in toward what is unknown. If this were all that was being said, I would be content to be exhorted from the likes of the characters mentioned above.

Furthermore, I have argued before that the “we” of the creeds (as in “we believe) is not hegemonic but inclusive. Where you or I have doubts, the church may sustain us in its faith; just as we may help to sustain others in their darker times. We profess faith boldly to one another, sometimes beyond our own ken. There is indeed flexibility and room for “journey” within the church’s proclamation. Nevertheless, we continue to profess and proclaim. Faith does not exclude doubt, but it does ask doubt to listen peaceably.

“Living the questions,” however, all too quickly becomes a spiritual navel-gazing that neglects the people God loves. “Living the questions” can become a way to put faith in one’s own journey, rather than in Jesus Christ. Borg spoke metaphorically about walking the Labyrinth: “there is no way to get lost in the labyrinth, even though it is not a direct path.” Unfortunately, that is a difference between labyrinths and real life. Out here, it is possible to get terribly lost, and terribly confused, and to inflict terrible injury on others in the process. When my faith is placed in my own abilities, or in my own journey, then I am left terribly alone, and terribly unaccountable.

Honestly, if I genuinely thought that it was all about “my journey,” I wouldn’t be at church. The coffee is not that good. I can meet interesting and provocative people elsewhere. I can find a decent jello-casserole recipe online. This video only reinforces the message that the mainstream culture sends undulating in our direction with ceaseless pressure. “What do you want? How do you feel? Where do you feel good? Go there! Be that! Choose for yourself! Choose, choose, choose.” This isn’t Mystery; it’s capitalism. Nor is it the solution to the spiritual bankruptcy of fundamentalism; it’s merely the antithesis. Churches that want to prosper under the banner of this mantra are forced to pander to the culture’s whims. Frankly, Lutherans will never be that hip—and when I’ve seen them trying, it has been nothing short of painful.

Rather than searching for therapeutic value in the cross, we ought to return to our roots (maybe even deeper than Luther!), and teach the vibrant and dynamic tradition that we have allowed to turn stale while we blithely looked for something more interesting. Moreover, we should come again to Jesus, whose mystery stretches beyond any of our efforts to summarize, encapsulate, and formulate. Let us carry our questions to the cross, perhaps then we will discover which of them were worth asking in the first place.

faith, hope, and love :: opposites

Thanks to Ken, Ryan, and Tim for their answers, here’s my poke at the question. Of course comments are still welcome; I can’t pretend to have the final word.

The opposite of faith is idolatry

There is no opposite to faith in the sense of an total absence of it (so says Ryan), but there is an opposite in the sense that faith can be, and often is, misplaced. “Idolatry” is a word both tired out by misuse and loaded with cultic connotations, so perhaps it’s not the best one for this context. But I use it advisedly to suggest that the opposite of faith is to put foundational trust in something other than God. Most often these days (as Tim and Ken suggest in different ways) that takes the form of placing foundational trust in my knowledge and my experience, so that in our context, another opposite for faith might be pride.

The opposite of hope is resignation…

…because hope is something active, something that dies when it is not practiced. The hope of salvation then, is not the reassurance that I’ve got a cloud with my name on it, but rather reconciliation between enemies, the inclusion of the marginalized, the provision of daily bread—the embodiment of Jesus Christ in the present. Resignation is the mark of someone subject to fate. Hope is the fruit that grows in someone who prays in God’s name.

The opposite of love is fear:

I was going to say indifference, but I think that Tim’s answer gets even more radically at the source of indifference. To love means to commit oneself and one’s resources in openness to another. We are often indifferent because we fear, and perhaps rightly so, for a lack of time, a lack of resources, a lack of energy. We are indifferent because we project scarcity. The word “love” in Christian circles is often conjoined to the modifier “self-giving” which of course calls to mind the most basic definition of love that Christians can know—the cross. And, precisely there in the cross, faith, hope, and love hold together.

MacIntyre and McCandless :: the end of the wild

“What is crucial is that on which the contending parties agree, namely that there are only two alternative modes of social life open to us, one in which the free and arbitrary choices of individuals are sovereign and one in which the bureaucracy is sovereign, precisely so that it may limit the free and arbitrary choices of individuals. Given this deep cultural agreement, it is unsurprising that the politics of modern societies oscillate between a freedom which is nothing but a lack of regulation of individual behavior and forms of collectivist control designed only to limit the anarchy of self-interest. The consequences of a victory by one side or the other are often of the highest immediate importance; but, as Solzhenitzyn has understood so well, both ways of life are in the long run intolerable. Thus the society in which we live is one in which bureaucracy and individualism are partners as well as antagonists. And it is in the cultural climate of this bureaucratic individualism that the emotivist self is naturally at home.” [1]

This quote of MacIntyre could be the launching point for any number of fruitful conversations, but I’d like to set it alongside the film that Carolyn and I went to see on Friday night. Into the Wild is the story of Christopher McCandless, a restless college graduate trying to exercise the demons in his family (or at least their hold on him) by throwing himself into solitude, adventure, and unbridled exploration of creation’s wonders. If ever there were a model for someone seeking truth in “the free and arbitrary choices” of a sovereign self, McCandless (or the cinematic reconstruction of him) is that figure.

[Spoiler Warning—from here on, I discuss the plot a bit]

The story is tragic, there is no doubt. But it is powerful because it draws on an instinct present in many of us, the drive for purity, for truth, McCandless launches himself on a quest for truth, convinced that deep within himself—if only he puts himself deep enough into the wild—there lies a spark of divine truth that will emerge to outshine all the pain and corruption he has discovered in his short life. He follows the instinct for purity to its utter end; he will allow no corrupting attachments or relationships in his quest for natural/divine truth. Yet, in seeking to overcome the pain his parents caused him, McCandless leaves a sea of tears in the eyes of people who come to love a reckless wanderer. But, truth, for McCandless is a force more powerful than love.

In the end, when McCandless comes face to face with “nature,” that naked spark of truth he sought all along, it becomes for him a mirror. The realization that his own face is empty, nameless, sends him back to the relationships he abandoned. It is of course, too late, but his dying act reaches out from beyond his own death, calling out to his family by re-claiming their name.

McCandless is a tragic figure because he sought freedom apart from service to others; because he sought truth apart from love; because he sought knowledge in nature apart from any wisdom; because he sought healing apart from forgiveness; because he sought new life without facing the death that was already at his core. He lived out, to the extreme, character traits that we all value, and he died all at once the death that we subject ourselves to little by little.

MacIntyre notes that both bureaucratic scripts and individual quests for meaning are ultimately intolerable. The truth, it seems to me, lies neither in bureaucracy for its own sake—collectivist order to which individual lives are sacrificed; nor in the escape from every hindrance, beholden only to the voice within. There is a bureaucracy whose structure is upside down, whose Head washes the feet, whose last are first. A bureaucracy in which freedom is measured by service and in which control is first turned inward, to be expressed more fully in love for others. It is likely that McCandless never met that good news, or never recognized it if he did, so rare is its presence. May God grant his church the courage to live in its calling.

 ______________________________

[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd Ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 35. 

my new task :: working in tradition

I’ve given myself a new task.

I have come to the conclusion that my writing is actually Socratic. That might sound like self-aggrandizement. It’s not.

When I go to write. I usually set all my outlines, plans, and notes out in front of me, lay my hands on the keyboard, and then simply expect the latent brilliance that hides deeps inside me to come to the surface and display itself on the screen. When it takes a little while to emerge (as it occasionally does), I poke myself with a few questions, sure that a little gadfly-prodding will cause the aforementioned brilliance to produce itself in profligate measure. When that fails, I’ll read through my notes, come across someone else’s good idea, type it verbatim, and hope that this is the droplet which will then unleash the torrent of genius onto the page.

Seriously… I can do this for hours.

The final result is as Socratic as the method. In the end, all I’m sure of is how much I don’t know, how little wisdom is in me—on occasion that leads to bouts of depression…

So, I’m headed back to my roots, turning over a new leaf. From here on out, I’m committed to writing like a good Lutheran.

Here is how I imagine the process to work. I will start by confessing that I am depraved and incapable of writing a blooming thing. Get all the despair out on the table from the beginning. Curse the devil a few times in the process for good measure. If writing happens, it is surely grace through faith, and not anything that I’ve been able to produce on my own merits. Any good I write is the work of God in me, and not my own. In the freedom of writing like the sinner I am, I can labor away, lightened of the responsibility to exude brilliance from within.

This had better work. If my thesis takes any longer, I’m going to enter the late stages of Lutheran writing—and see if a cold pint or two helps…