Gollum the Evangelical

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Dwayne and I as a rule don’t devote space here to politics. But it’s hard to see someone you love lose their mind. Pastor John Pavlovitz expresses his disappointment over and assessment of evangelicalism’s political appetite and vision, and we concur entirely with his perspective. And we say that as evangelicals.

The rising tide of Sadduceaism has submerged us. It’s hard to avoid concluding that evangelicals as a cultural-religious phenomenon, as a faith tradition (to the extent 100 years can be called a tradition) are no longer teetering upon the precipice of irrelevance in danger of losing their credibility and voice. We are beyond that as a tribe. We have leapt off the edge and are in free fall. It’s over for us as a cultural-prophetic voice calling people to a rational, transformative faith and worldview. No longer a voice in the wilderness, we’ve nothing of moral consequence to say to the world.

Like Gollum falling into the bowels of Mount Doom with the Ring of Power in his hand, smiling and happy as he fell but oblivious to his fate, evangelicals descend, smiling and rejoicing with the Presidency in their hands, into their own consuming desire.

giphy

Expanding your vocabulary can be dangerous

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Just getting into Gregory Rocca’s Speaking the Incomprehensible God: Thomas Aquinas on the Interplay of Positive and Negative Theology, wanting to keep growing in the conversation about language and God-talk. In the opening pages, he summarizes the vocabulary used to express divine transcendence in the formative years of the Church. The main sources of these concepts, argued by Jean Daniélou, are Hellenistic Judaism, Middle Platonism, and Gnosticism (an interesting range of sources). Rocca reviews the vocabulary/conceptual contribution of each of these sources (pretty much focusing on negative names as expressed in the alpha privative; no mention of concepts for transcendence using the “hyper” prefix [Eph. 3:19’s hyperballousan, knowing love that “surpasses” knowing]).

It is no surprise that these key philosophical terms make their way into the New Testament. Rocca lists them (p. 8). There’s no avoiding their presence and function within biblical language and worldview. Even if you’re not an Orthodox (and I am not) and are not especially inclined to apophaticism (indeed, many are explicitly critical of it), there’s no pretending these terms don’t occupy an important place in the apostolic lingua franca. Consider the list:

  • aoratos (invisible), from Romans 1:20, where Paul states that the invisible things of God are known from the visible things of creation; the same word appears in Colossians 1:15, where Christ is said to be the image of the invisible God.
  • arrētos (ineffable [a concept I was once told was purely pagan and unbiblical]), from 2 Corinthians 12:4, where Paul describes how he was caught up in rapture to paradise and heard ineffable words. [One could add aneklalēto (unspeakable) of 1 Peter 1:8, where we exalt in joy unspeakable.]
  • anekdiēgētos (indescribable), from 2 Corinthians 9:15, where Paul praises God for his indescribable gift of grace.
  • anexereunētos (unsearchable), from Romans 11:33, which is a doxological statement declaring to be unsearchable the judgments of God concerning the fall and eventual restoration of Israel.
  • anexichniastos (untraceable or uninvestigable), from Romans 11:33, occurring as a general synonym for anexereunetos; it also occurs in Ephesians 3:8, which mentions the privilege of preaching to the Gentiles the gospel of the uninvestigable riches of Christ.
  • athanasia (immortality), from 1 Timothy 6:16, a doxology claiming that God alone has immortality.
  • aprositos (inaccessible), from 1 Timothy 6:16, a doxology starting that God dwells in light inaccessible.

Check yo prostate

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To those who collapse biblical faith and hope into American exceptionalism and a particular sociopolitical agenda, Dwayne rhymes the times for us.

American Evangelicalism is apostate,
Need to get that behind checked, like a prostate
Examination; it’s an aberration.
Holy prostitution claiming divine inspiration.
False prophesy, aiming for theocracy,
But only hitting the mark of idolatrous aristocracy.
Preachers of the Word making Faustian bargains
Using holy jargon,
But beyond godly margins.
Lord, separate the real from the fakin’,
Sift the world, take it and give it a good shakin’.
Help us discern, keep us from unnecessary snares,
Time to learn who’s of the wheat or of the tares.
(Dwayne Polk)

Hart-Norman on morality

DBH

I shared a portion of Hart’s comments re: consciousness. Toward the end of their discussion, Norman asks DBH about the proper grounds for morality, namely, whether some transcendent good is required to intelligibly ground morality. Normal doesn’t think any such transcendent ground is necessary. Hart responds:

“You say that what counts is compassion/charity. Why does it ‘count’? I’m asking this in a formal sense, not in a moral or emotional sense. It counts because in addition to that groundedness in sympathy, without which a moral life is impossible, there’s something else that can translate that into an imperative that goes beyond [recording break], and I’m talking about just the structure of moral desire. I’m not saying the good is necessarily there. I’m just saying how we encounter the world. It’s like the old issue with John Rawls, the political philosopher, his theory of justice—we can achieve a just society if we withdrawal to an original position where we pretend that we don’t know how we’re situated in society and then try [from there] to construct the just society. It’s an eminently sensible approach. The problem is he can’t account from within that system for the moral impulse to make that initial withdrawal. And so the question for me is, What happens in the structure of moral desire? (Just as in the structure of aesthetic desire, the desire for the truth…) And I’m saying you’re not going to be able to give an account of it. It simply rests in the facts on the ground. There will always be that element that’s found nowhere within the ensemble of natural facts, which is a transcendental structure. It’s an ecstatic movement towards that which is not simply concrete but that which allows you to see the concrete. “The light of the good,” is what Plato talks about, and I like that image. It allows you to see it as more than a momentary ebullition of emotion, sense, or impulse. But again, it’s the structure of moral desire that I’m talking about. How we encounter moral desire. How we experience moral desire.”

Objecting to Hart’s complaint that having compassion without any appeal to a transcendental moral ground is ‘not enough’, Norman asks how contemplation of a Platonic ideal helps? Hart responds:

“[W]hen I say it’s ‘not enough’, I mean it’s not enough as an actual phenomenological description of what we’re doing. I’m not recommending contemplation of Platonic ideals as the path to the moral life. I’m saying that horizon is already implicit in our moral desire and our moral action. You point to that when you say we’re trying to construct a more sophisticated and refined ethos on the basis of this experience of sympathy, and [you] talk about justice and honesty. Well, justice and honesty then become other names for obligation that makes itself felt even in at times, in spite of, the absence of sympathy.”

Cursed is he who judged by us hangs on a tree

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A poem on the Cross based on John 16.31-33

Do you now believe?” Jesus replied. “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

You will leave me, but He won’t.
You feel abandoned, but I don’t.
You’ve heard it said “Cursed is he
Who judged by us hangs on a tree.”
“Father, forgive!” is what I said.
You expect despair instead.
But the gospel there was writ by me
In the language of Our unity.
“But,” you ask, “What sort of diction
Would utter cries of dereliction?”
“He hangs abandoned!” you surmise.
But I was ne’er alone. Surprise!
Come closer then and take a look,
I got those words from your own Book!
I suffered what drives you insane,
Drank it down, all the pain,
From inside it all to say,
“I am my Father’s anyway!”
Did you really think that Hell,
Would God’s defeat know how to spell?
Not in all eternity
Could conceivability
Conjure up a way to severe
Son from Father. No, not ever.

(Tom Belt)

When you talk it gets light

Darkness

For friends I know who are in a dark place.

I promised a passage from Benner’s Presence and Encounter, which I’m presently (pun intended) reading. Just a paragraph or two:

Sigmund Freud tells the story of a three-year-old boy crying in a dark room of a home he was visiting one evening. “Auntie,” the boy cried, “talk to me! I’m frightened because it is so dark.” His aunt answered him from another room: “What good would that do? You can’t see me?” “That doesn’t matter,” replied the child. “When you talk, it gets light.” This child was not afraid of the dark but of the absence of someone he loved. What he needed to feel secure was presence. We all need the same; knowing presence is the ground of this basic sense of safety for all of us. (Emphasis mine)

A couple of pages later Benner adds:

Because humans are hardwired for presence, we will always be vulnerable to absence. Even Jesus knew this vulnerability. Nowhere was this more clearly expressed than in his cry of anguish from the cross when he sensed God having forsaken him. Jesus, like us, had to learn that the apparent absence of God is actually a face of the real presence of God. If the stable knowing of the presence of the one he called Father—the presence that so characterized the rest of his life—could be threatened at such a point as this, who are we to expect that we will ever be immune from such vulnerability?

Carefully then. I don’t really know Benner’s theology, specifically his Christology, well enough to draw any final conclusion from this. One could read him here as agreeing that the Son is abandoned by the Father in some absolute sense that rends the divine nature itself. That would not be a view I’d share. But one can also read him as affirming simply that the Father gives Jesus over to the same circumstances we universally associate with such abandonment. Why would the Father do that? As we’ve suggested: to demonstrate not that in Christ God becomes to the truth of our despair, but to expose that despair as illusory and false, to “talk to us in, or from, the dark.”

I suggest this is what the Cross is (among other things): God talking to us in/from the dark, a darkness we are afraid of but which Jesus faced on our behalf without surrendering (as we do) to the belief that the darkness can become all there is.

What does Jesus say of his immanent suffering? John 16:31-33 (which I’ve explored before):

“Do you now believe?” Jesus replied. “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (Emphasis mine)

Crucial verses. On these I earlier offered:

That pretty much rules out the divine abandonment view. Besides explicitly declaring that his Father would be with him in his upcoming ordeal, Jesus’ point (v. 33) is that how God would be with him on the Cross would ground their own peace in upcoming afflictions as a consequence of his having overcome the world. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is how the Father is with us in ours.

Let us remind ourselves, lastly, of Hebrews 12.1-3, which describes Jesus as enduring the Cross, even despising its shame. What kind of presence of mind could possess such a perspective on such suffering as to despise its shame? If Jesus is despising the shame of the Cross, he’s not succumbing to its threatening narrative. “For the joy set before him” he endures. Permit me another quote from an earlier post:

“Enduring” can only describe some persisting feature of Jesus’ conscious experience which the Cross could not wrest from him or define away, some unsurrendered belief the truth of which constitutes the saving power of the Cross as such. What can this be but Jesus’ confident and unfailing belief regarding his deepest sense of identity and purpose and the sustained conviction that he would again celebrate the joy of its truth—the truth of who he was and why he came?

This is how I take Benner’s second quoted paragraph there, as warning us that we are not exempt from experiencing within the created ordering of things every possible evidence for the truth of our worst fear, namely, that we really are, or we can be, alone and abandoned. But Jesus, rather than becoming the truth of such despair, disarms the power of the darkness to impose such a narrative upon us and he talks to us from the darkness. And when he talks, it gets light because his talking is light.

If I believe in you

7d2c2cebce4f220b413dc55d766c0ad2The 1975 (English alternative rock band), released a CD (entitled—hang on—“I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it”) this year which includes the single “If I believe in you.” Very interesting heart-cry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve got a God-shaped hole that’s infected
And I’m petrified of being alone
It’s pathetic, I know
And I toss and I turn in my bed
It’s just like I lost my head (lost my head)
And if I believe you, would that make it stop?
If I told you I need you, is that what you want?
I’m broken and bleeding, and begging for help
And I’m asking you Jesus, show yourself
I thought I’d met you once or twice but that was just because the dabs
Were nice and opening up my mind
showing me consciousness is primary
In the universe and I had a revelation
I’ll be your child if you insist
I mean, if it was you that made my body you probably shouldn’t have made
Me atheist
I’m a lesbian kiss
I’m an evangelist
And “If you don’t wanna go to hell then, Miss,
you better start selling this”
And if I believe you, would that make it stop?
If I told you I need you, is that what you want?
I’m broken and bleeding, and begging for help
And I’m asking you Jesus, show yourself
If I’m lost, then how can I find myself?
If I’m lost then how can I find myself?
If I’m lost then how can I find myself?
If I’m lost now then how can I find myself?
If I’m lost now then how can I find myself?
If I’m lost then how can I find myself?
Then how can I find myself?
If I’m lost now then how can I find myself?
Yeah, yeah, yeah
If I’m lost now then how can I find myself?
Yeah, yeah

Hart-Norman on being and consciousness

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David Bentley Hart on the Radio Program Unbelievable? (hosted by Justin Brierley) discussing theism/atheism with Richard Norman. It’s an often listened to episode. It might not interest everybody, but I particularly found certain of his expressions (bold) helpful, given where I am.

The passage is my transcription (from 27:55 to 33:22) of Hart’s response to questions put to him by Norman regarding what is meant by saying God is ‘being’ and not ‘a being among beings’ (quite the topic in theological debate recently) and then how it is that consciousness is transcendentally structure. The entire exchange is great. Given the nature of its being a call-in radio interview, there are interruptions, incomplete sentences, etc. so the transcription is a bit choppy.

First of all you have to be careful about what this very venerable classical distinction [is saying], between saying that God is actus essendi subsistens…and saying that he is a discrete being among beings. On the other hand if you’re going to talk about consciousness…I want to point out that subjectivity is not the sole emphasis there. If you reduce it to a phsychologistic portrait of consciousness rather than emphasizing the transcendental conditions underlying that, then you get a false problem.

One thing I found…is the tendency to imagine that in metaphysics the alpha privative always entails an ontological privation. That is, if you use a negative formulation then you’re talking about impoverishment. If you say that God is ‘impassible’, that’s often taken as meaning that he is bereft of those capacities that make human beings and other finite beings capable of experiencing pathos (a modification of their nature from outside), whereas of course traditionally these are meant to be affirmations that God infinitely exceeds the finite conditions in which we experience these things. Take the privative prefix in ‘infinite’. We say that there are finite, specific numbers. We say the infinite is not a number among other numbers in that way, but we’re not denying that the infinite is capable of quantity or extension. We’re saying—and this is the traditional formulation—that the reason you put this alpha privative prefix on these words is simply to indicate that all the positive aspects that a finite being possesses as conditions of his or its existence are possessed in an infinitely greater degree by the fullness of being that is God (including consciousness).

So first of all understand the metaphysical claim being made when you’re saying that God isn’t “a being.” If you have for instance two chairs in a room they’ll relate to one another in a specific way. One is here. One is there. They delimit one another. They each define…[pause]…whereas the relation of either of those chairs to God is not that kind of relationship. And therefore we say God is not another object alongside them….

The second question then is how that absolute being can also be conscious. Again, if in the traditional metaphysical sense you understand being as the superimmanent source of all the powers of existence, then consciousness is among those as, perhaps in some ways it’s the supreme expression, but I think here you don’t have to go that far to understand that his isn’t a problem, because as I said you’re starting from a psychologistic notion of subjectivity, which is one I reject. I would submit that even in your own consciousness you approach the world from what Kant would consider a sort of transcendental apperceptive position, that is, a transcendental unity not reducible to your changeable finite psychological identity or your physical or emotional constitution, and that I think cannot be reduced to physical processes…not even to your empirical ego. And I regard that as the most fundamental act of consciousness—unity and intentionality—as a participation in that unconditional source which is God.

I admit this gravitates toward an idealism which I happen to embrace. But if you take the ‘not’ of being (the alpha privative) as a statement of privation rather than what it’s meant to state, as just the difference of the modality of how we ascribe being to God, then you create a false dilemma because you’re treating it as an abstract category that then magically can also be related to as a person, and that is simply to impose modern ways of thinking about these words on a tradition that I think is richer and more coherent.

Lex orandi lex credendi

ig6mPDon’t freak out on me. I’ve used Alex Grey’s work to illustrate points before. His work can be weird and unsettling, but he’s also impossible to get away from once you contemplate it a bit.

I’m into another Benner book: Presence and Encounter: The Sacramental Possibilities of Everyday Life. I may get around to sharing a passage from it in a separate post, but for now I wanted to share something which reading his book brought to the surface for me.

Lex orandi, lex credendi (“the rule of praying is the rule of believing”) is an expression Christians have long employed to emphasize prayer’s primacy in and over belief and doctrine. Traditionally, it was liturgy (or worship) which led to theology. Theology and doctrine served liturgy as a way to express the meaning of the gospel’s transforming power in life and our celebration of it. One way to apply this to belief and doctrine is to measure the weight and implications of belief in terms of the effects they have upon the lived experience of prayer. Can I pray this doctrine? Can it inform, enrich, and expand my living as an act of prayer? Or—if you’re Fr Aidan—Can I preach it? It’s the same practical-existential concern.

People inevitably want to know what relevance a belief has for their day to day concerns. What difference does it make? And where people fail to see the practical relevance such questions have for life’s relationships, decisions, and vocations, they fail to engage those issues in a meaningful way for any length of time. So in focusing on the implications which a belief has for our understanding of prayer, we bring belief to bear upon one of the most practical everyday concerns of religious persons and thus have an opportunity to judge the existential support for truth-claims. For me, this is what lex orandi lex credendi gets at. Prayer becomes the primary existential stage upon which any theology may be examined and judged. Evagrius (Egyptian monastic of the 4th century CE) expresses it well: “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly, and if you pray truly, you are a theologian.”

More specifically, I want to know if all our living can become prayer, if we can, in the totality of our being and acting, at all times and in all circumstances, become an uninterrupted act of prayer. By this I don’t mean to ask if we can manage to carry on a conversation with God that runs continuously alongside all the day to day conversations and activities we attend to at home and work, like a software program running alongside other programs, as though these are different and competing spheres of engagement we juggle without letting either compromise the other. On the contrary, to say “life is prayer” or “I am become all prayer” is to say the mundane day to day conversations and activities are prayer. They are where I converse with God, and my conversation with God can enfold all those activities within its embrace.

Spiritualpractice-50This is only possible, I think, if God is embraced as the transcendent summum bonum, the end of all desire, whom we desire in desiring anything at all, even if we desire imperfectly. Learning to make God the end of all our conversations and actions begins with seeing God in all our actions and conversations. That vision then transforms all our living into an unending conversation with him, and we become all prayer. We see and converse with Christ perceived in all things. I respond to others in the belief that Christ is receiving the words I say, the actions I do. Is this imaginable? St. Paul seemed to think so. “Whatever you do,” Paul writes (Col 3.23), do it “as for the Lord rather than for men.” Does this mean only that our motivations are observed by Christ as a third party and that our actions, if motivated properly, are counted as ‘good’ because measured by Christ as the measure of the Good? I think he’s saying more, namely, that we can consciously make Christ the object of all our actions, so that what we say and do to others becomes the means of a more fundamental relating to Christ.

This is more than pretending that Christ is truly present in all things and acting accordingly. It’s relating to Christ in all things as offering himself to us and so transforming the mundane into the sacred. If I feed the hungry, I feed Christ. If I do harm to my neighbor, I harm Christ. If I befriend and do kindly to the homeless, I am kind to Christ. And in an important sense, I’m only rude, or kind, or helpful to others because Christ is, first and preeminently, present receiving my saying and doing. God measures our actions as summum bonum by receiving them, not by observing them as a third-party.

So if prayer is a conversation in which I recognize, converse with, and offer myself to God in Christ through the Spirit, becoming all prayer appropriates all created contexts as an extension of that conversation. We don’t pray alongside doing other things. We engage God directly in engaging anything. Again, this is more than seeing God in all things conceptually (which may be just an academic recognition of the truth that everything in our world is being sustained by God). It is meeting God in all things, conversing with him in all things, as personally as we meet him in ourselves, because the God we meet in ourselves is in all things, and how can we not converse with God wherever we perceive him?

                       Prayer
All that is real on thee depends
and from thy breath of love extends;
With thee infused all is;
To thee alone all sends
its praise back.
Beautiful. You are so beautiful,
in all things. I see you in their eyes
and deep within their depths I find
eternal surprise after surprise.

Divine Mångata

12725078_1704032533176899_126138029_nMångata is a Swedish word that refers to the Moon’s road-like reflection cast upon water. You’ve seen it on clear nights when the Moon is bright. Its reflection stretches out like a winding road of interrupted shards of light. It’s a true reflection, but given the nature of the water’s rippling surface, the moon’s reflection appears partial, broken, and imperfect.

Should this remind us of the way we (and our language) reflect God? We truly are a reflection of God, but finitude’s surface ripples with the inherent limitations of our ignorance, the pressing necessities of survival, the vagaries of mortal existence—need I go on?—which at the very least attenuate or impair our ability to determine the Moon’s precise shape, size, and nature. There’s a lot of the ‘water’ in the reflection. Indeed, any reflection is bound by the limitations and nature of the surface upon which an image is cast.

However perplexing it may be to think as deeply upon how our language (as mediating surface) appropriates God as we do upon God himself, I don’t see any happy ending for theologies that pretend there is no such tension. There may be no permanent rest from this tension in the middle ground between univocity and equivocity, but as unsettling as the middle is, the options on either end are dead on arrival. David Bentley Hart (“God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of creatio ex nihilho” (Radical Orthodoxy: Theology, Philosophy, Politics, Vol. 3, Number 1 [September 2015]: 1-17) laments (to be fair, Hart simply “states” it, but to me it amounts to an honest “lament,” for there is as much ‘letting die’ in theological language as there is hoping for a new day):

It must be possible to speak of God without mistaking him for a being among beings, an instance of something greater than himself. Between God and creatures lies an epistemological chasm nothing less than infinite, which no predicate can span univocally. Even Scotists believe that, within the weak embrace of a largely negative conceptum univocum entis, the modal disproportion between the infinite and the finite renders the analogy between God and creatures irreducibly disjunctive. But neither can theological language consist in nothing but equivocal expostulations, piously but fruitlessly offered up into the abyss of the divine mystery; this would evacuate theological language not only of logical, but of semantic content; nothing could be affirmed—nothing could mean anything at all. And yet, down the centuries, Christians have again and again subscribed to formulations of their faith that clearly reduce a host of cardinal Christian theological usages—most especially moral predicates like “good,” “merciful,” “just,” “benevolent,” “loving”—to utter equivocity, and by association the entire grammar of Christian belief to meaninglessness.

I want to play the Devil’s advocate here and ask “Why?” Why “must” it be possible to speak of God without reducing him univocally to the catagories inherent to our very thinking? Why “must” we be able to speak meaningfully of the identity and nature of that which we name “God”? And are not all possible answers to these questions dictated by the very categories and existential needs from which God is expressly said to be qualitatively, infinitely removed?