Soren got it

pearlBasically everything we’ve been trying to say about the unbroken nature of Christ’s knowledge of the Father’s affection throughout his suffering and its saving-transforming power in us:

“When around one everything has become silent, solemn as a clear, starlit night, when the soul comes to be alone in the whole world, then before one there appears, not an extraordinary human being, but the eternal power itself, then the heavens open, and the I chooses itself or, more correctly, receives itself….” (SK)

That happened on the Cross – for all of us.

Thank you Soren Kierkegaard – you genius you.

The myth of ‘divine withdrawal’

Recent conversations bring me back to this truth: The scandal of the Cross is that it is not the narrative of (divine) withdrawal that many make it out to be. I’m convinced the time has come to withdrawal from all talk of divine withdrawal, to abandon all talk of divine abandonment, and to forsake the myth of godforsakenness.

“The Cross is a narrative of approach, of nearness, of presence. It is where God, in the full simplicity of triune love, insists upon being with us, thus judging (viz., rendering) all narratives of divine withdrawal, from within the circumstances that create those narratives, to be myths and fabrications of despair and dereliction. The real ‘cry of dereliction’ (as theologians have named it) is not that cry Jesus utters on the Cross (“My God, My God! Why?”). On the contrary, the real cry of dereliction is ours: “Crucify him!” There is the only despair and dereliction connected to the Cross, the dereliction that hangs Jesus on it, while the only real sanity in view is Jesus’ confidence in the Father’s love. The dereliction is heard in a thousand other cries – cries that give up altogether, but also cries that scream their despair all the louder. Much of our despairing dereliction gets published as Christian theology.”

An Open Orthodoxy

crucifixionWhy the gruesome picture? Because sometimes theology gets in the way.

I continue to contemplate the crucifixion. Where was God? What was he up to? What was his part in this? What happened there that day which God gives to faith to perceive that so radically transforms the world? God-talk these days is full of references to ‘divine withdrawal’, and to the Cross as the quintessential manifestation of divine withdrawal. I’d like to reflect here a bit upon that idea.

• If we understand God to be inseparably present to creation (as its creator and sustainer – a fairly unobjectionable reading of Scripture), then talk of God “withdrawing” from can only be a figurative expression for the phenomenological aspects of our suffering. We experience ourselves and the world in ways we explain by removing God from the scene. If God were “here,” here would be different that it is, so…

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Editing yourself

edit1

I’ve posted a lot about the Cry of Dereliction, where Jesus, on the Cross, cries out (Ps 22’s opening line): “My God, My God! Why have you forsaken me?” I’ve often expressed why we ought to reject the view (of Moltmann and others) that the Father in fact abandoned Jesus, the understanding that what gives the Cross its power to save is not Jesus’ enduring our abandonment of him but the Father’s own abandonment of him, not what we did to Jesus but what God did to him, and thus Jesus’ loss of identity and assurance of filial affection. In focusing on Ps 22, however, I never noticed Ps 42. Dwayne brought Ps 42 to my attention this morning, and I’m shocked.

Psalm 42 (NRSV)

1 As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
2 My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God?
3 My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”
4 These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
a multitude keeping festival.
5 Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help [6] and my God.
My soul is cast down within me;
therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
from Mount Mizar.
7 Deep calls to deep
at the thunder of your cataracts;
all your waves and your billows
have gone over me.
8 By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.
9 I say to God, my rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
because the enemy oppresses me?”
10 As with a deadly wound in my body,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”
11 Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.

Like Ps 22, this is the heart-cry of an innocent person victimized by the crowd. You can hear the crowd hurling insults, asking “Where is your God?” Even the psalmist asks God, “Why have you forgotten me?” Ps 22 all over again. But this can hardly mean the author believes God to have turned his back on him.

On the contrary, everything about the psalm presumes the author’s conviction of God’s presence. Indeed, no one who believes God has forsaken him takes the time to complain to God, for to lament or complain to God is to address him in the belief that he hears. The language of the heart in its outcry offers the pain it has, but this is not to despair in believing oneself abandoned by God.

The psalmist addresses himself, speaks to his soul, even edits his own complaint. “By day God commands his love and at night his song is with me” (v. 8) is followed immediately (v. 9) by “I say to God, my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me?’” only to conclude “Why are you downcast O my soul? Hope in God!” Thus the author occupies a place, a perspective, that has not itself fallen under the spell of the lie of godforsakenness, a perspective from which he addresses himself, “Why are you downcast? Why do you feel forsaken?” What must we be to be able thus to address ourselves in such a manner? This is the person as a window open upon and within the transcendent, given by God, not constructed by us from resources provided by anything in this world. This is our givenness as such, and the Cross reveals it authoritatively, finally. Jesus on the Cross could have as easily quoted from Ps 42 as from Ps 22. They are identical frames of reference, both written from the Void.

Even if we must suffer our way through a thousand false avenues and dead ends to discover it for ourselves, ‘Abba, Father’ remains our deepest and truest identity, that which speaks us into being, even in the dark night of the soul. There is no conceivable way God can forsake that, for to exist – to be at all – is to be given, to be spoken into being by God, to be his very speech, and that places us in the most intimate immediacy with and in God. The Cross, then, is a narrative of presence, not of absence, even if it is presence within absence.

You keep thrillin me

bernini

Here we are — alone. It’s just you and me.
It’s cool when we out on the town, but I love our privacy;
I need your presence to myself, guess I’m selfish,
But your love breaks me outta my shell like a shellfish.

Feelin’ you so much I can barely stand it,
All of my being — you understand it, you command it;
Talk to me softly, even when you’re killin’ me,
I feel no fear, the way you keep thrillin’ me.

Intimacy unparalleled, every moment’s a lifetime,
With you I die a thousand deaths, and you my only lifeline;
Unity with you is my one and only pleasure,
Divin’ deeper into you, lookin’ for my treasure.

(Dwayne Polk)

Face to face, even as I am known

mirror

1Cor 13.12 (DBH translation): “For as yet we see by way of a mirror, in an enigma, but then face to face; as yet I know partially, but then I shall know fully, just as I am fully known.”

I’ve lately been pondering just what Paul proposes as the object of our knowledge here. I grew up thinking something like this – ‘I know God partially (not fully) now, and someday I’ll know God just as completely as he knows me’. I took the ‘just as’ to measure the completeness or depth of the knowledge and God as the object known. And since God’s knowledge of me is utterly exhaustive, I looked forward to the day when I’d know him ‘just as’ he knows me.

I’m thinking now this is probably not what Paul had in mind. I suspect that it was his own self which he confessed to knowing partially and so his own self he looked forward to knowing completely, as God knows him. The fact that he compares this knowledge to that which we gain ‘by way of a mirror’ suggests as much. It is ourselves, not others, we behold in mirrors. We should also pause here to appreciate that mirrors then did not yield the near perfect, high-resolution reflections we enjoy today. They were cloudy and imperfect. In antiquity there was no way a person could see him/herself with anything like the clarity and exactitude with which people beheld others. How different ‘self-perception’ and even our very relationships have been affected by the modern advancement of quality mirrors and photography. Today you don’t need others in order to gain an appreciation of your own image; you can look into a mirror or take a selfie and have a perfect image instantly.

What I’m wondering is:

(1) Do you agree that what we know partially now (and completely later) is in fact ourselves?

(2) Depending on what we understand the object of knowledge here to be, what’s the larger point? If ‘self-knowledge’ is in view, how’s that impact Paul’s point in the chapter?

The fact that the main point has to do with ‘love’ makes interpreting this as ‘self-knowledge’ a bit odd. I’d expect the knowledge to be outward, knowledge of others. But I can’t construe it as our coming to know God as completely as God knows us. And if the ‘face to face’ knowledge which will also be ‘knowing as we are known’ is our ‘knowing ourselves as God knows us’, that does change how the passage is understood.

If the ‘depth’ of knowledge is not the point of comparison, however, perhaps it’s the ‘mode’ of knowledge that’s in view, i.e., ‘face to face’ (unmediated presence/knowledge) as opposed to ‘by way of a mirror’ (partial, mediated knowledge). But this seems strange too, for ‘face to face’ describes a mode of relation/knowledge that is other than ‘by means of a mirror’, and if self-knowledge is what’s in view, what’s the switch from ‘by means of a mirror’ to ‘face to face’ even suggest? Self-knowledge is already by definition a kind of unmediated knowledge in which ‘face to face’ and ‘in a mirror’ are essentially the same.

That said, the real (risky) point I want to make is this. I suspect that as we are known is not particularly a reference to God’s knowledge of us at all, but to the immediate (unmediated) mode in which others know us. This whole context (mentioning prophecy, gifts of knowledge, etc. which transpire between believers) is about human-human knowing and relations. If we can’t imagine knowing anything as completely, fully, and exhaustively as God knows that thing (including ourselves), then perhaps the point here is that someday our knowledge of each other will be free of the limitations and ambiguities that constrain us now (hence our need for prophecy and other gifts). But someday such limitations (and the gifts they occasion) will be eclipsed by a more direct face to face knowing (immediate presence) of one another.

Ideas?

Like a Ducati

ducati

Spirit like a symbiote, permeating my body,
Give me inner strength like doing spiritual pilates,
Flowin’ in the Spirit, ridin’ low like a Ducati,
Taste and see the Lord is good, betta than manicotti.

Lord, preserve my sanity, cuz we live in an asylum,
We some crazy species, think we need another phylum,
The President speaks stacks of lies, and the people pile ‘em,
Evangelicals past and present, cannot reconcile ‘em;

Me and broski just stay focused, going for the long run,
If you lookin’ for some fake believers then you done found the wrong ones,
Drunk in the Spirit, you’d think that we had some strong rum,
Strength is in our weakness, we only stand in the Strong One; the…

World may find me bat-ish crazy, but just look at my surroundings,
People layin’ foundations without inner grounding,
Even as climate change prepares to give us a poundin’,
Lord, I pray we fall forever in your River, drownin’.

(Dwayne Polk)

Prayer — being at a loss for words

Evagrius speaks of the highest form of prayer (“pure prayer”) – as having three qualities: (1) It is “unceasing” (1Thess 5.17), (2) it is “imageless” (forms no image of God in the mind), and (3) it is “wordless” (it passes beyond the limits of finite words and concepts).

My guess is that “images” and “words” are linked. “Words” are inseparable from “images.” When we reach a communion with God that is outside the mediation of all images, that communion will be wordless as well, ineffable (not an experience of God ‘in’ and ‘through’ and ‘in terms of’ relating to words and their meanings). That’s my sense of what Evagrius means by prayer being “free of thoughts.” To say X is to take a step away from X. Think about it. So long as our experience of God consists in saying things to God about him, we remain a step removed from being (experiencing ourselves as) immediately present with/to him. When you think about it, the same is true of intimacy with other people. If you mouth is open and you’re spouting words, you’re not as intimate as you might otherwise be.

Not to be misunderstood, Evagrius advocated praying with words too (using the psalms, praying Scripture, etc.), a lot. So it seems imageless/wordless communion with God was for him the goal, but we must use words to get there. “Wordless” prayer isn’t something we just up and decide to ‘do’, i.e., it is not a refusal to use words. Rather, it is where one arrives from exhausting language (not refusing to use it) in the contemplation of God, experiencing transcendence as one comes to an experience of oneself in/with God that words can neither comprehend nor express (“joy ‘unspeakable’ and full of glory”?). Denys Turner says it well:

…You cannot understand the role of the apophatic, or the extent to which it is necessary to go in denying things of God, until you have understood the role of the cataphatic and the extent to which it is necessary to go in affirming things of God.

…the way of negation is not a sort of po-faced, mechanical process, as it were, of serial negation, affirmation by affirmation, of each thing you can say about God, as if affirmative statements about God were all false; nor is it…simply adding the prefix ‘super’ to already superlative Latin adjectives predicated of God…. Rather…the way of negation demands prolixity; it demands the maximization of talk about God; it demands that we talk about God in as many ways as possible, even in as many conflicting ways as possible, that we use up the whole stock-in-trade of discourse in our possession, so as thereby to discover ultimately the inadequacy of all of it….

…the ‘way of negation’…is the encounter with the failure of what we must say about God to represent God adequately. If talk about God is deficient, this is a discovery made within the extending of it into superfluity, into that excess in which it simply collapses under its own weight.

Language ends but we keep going, not because language is false or untrue, but because there’s more to us (and God) than words. One still exists, just on the other side of the limits of finite images and words. This is why prayer is ultimately a subversive act in the world; it refuses to derive one’s essential value and identity from the politics or the market. “We” are more than words, so words have to fail at some point. For Evagrius, I think, it is only words in prayer that can get us to wordless prayer (the ineffable communion of the soul with God).

What I wonder about (and hope is true – because I love words and don’t want to give them up!) is whether when our experience of God escapes the confines of finite images and words, when we are comfortably wordless in God’s presence, we are still able to employ images and words to share, teach, celebrate with others, etc. Obviously this must be the case. That’s why mystical language (and poetry – and theology, at its best) strains the capacities of language so.

Fiending your presence

Dwayne1

Addicted to the Presence I’m fiending,
Falling in love, I’m careening,
Feels just like I’m dreaming,
Hot under the collar, I’m steaming;
But I stay on froze, keeping my
Cool from the head to the toes, acting a
Fool among the friends and the foes. Never a
Tool for the lies that I oppose.
I can’t get enough. You betta know that,
Wanna reap all your grace, so I sow that,
Tryin’ to stay in the Big Picture, like I’m Kodak,
Love in my heart, exploding – no blowback.
I can’t let you go, because I
Have no other place to go, gimme your
Spirit, then I’m sure I’ll glow,
Teach me your wisdom, then I’m sure l’ll grow.

(Dwayne Polk)

Rorschach creation

ror2Kudos to our good friend Chad for a recent question that inspired these thoughts.

Rorschach, a Swiss psychologist, developed his inkblot test to study a person’s psychological/emotional health. It’s a projective (not an objective) test; that is, you’re shown abstract inkblot images that have substantial form to them but which are sufficiently ambiguous. The mind wants to fill in the gaps and resolve the ambiguity and interpret the image definitively as a ‘this’ or a ‘that’. How an individual fills in the blanks reveals that individual, for we each project ourselves in our interpretation of things. What you see reflects as much your own state of mind as it does what’s on the card. I previously appropriated the Rorschach inkblot test as an analogy for thinking about how we ought to read the Bible.

Chad asked whether the Rorschach test might be an analogy also for what the universe itself is, how it works, as created and given to us by God as a context for the emergence of mind and personal existence. I think it’s a helpful analogy, if we take the dynamics involved in the Rorschach test to suggest that creation (the cosmos in its entirety as a Rorschach image) is inherently ambiguous. It presents us with sufficiently suggesstive ‘forms’ of things – a stage upon which we shape and determine ourselves through our questions: Who are we? Why are we here? What is the meaning and purpose of existence? We project this internal struggle against the backdrop of how the world confronts us. And it’s important to note that humanity appears to be alone in its capacity to contemplate the meaning and purpose of the whole in this way.

Existence imposes itself upon as a desire or drive for meaning, as questions begging to be answered. And over time we become the answers we offer in acts of interpretation. But not just any act of interpretation will do, because there are despairing/violent interpretive acts that are mis-interpretations. Is there an act of interpretation sufficient to resolve the whole Rorschach image of human existence into a unified, meaningful composition? This, Christians claim, is what God accomplishes in Christ. Christ takes the human journey, assuming the entirety of our interpretive embeddedness in the universe, and he interprets creation successfully (non-violently, lovingly, in unfailing love of and submission to God, including our suffering, etc.). He then offers his own humanity as an interpretive act (as logos, as a peaceful-pacific divine-human rhetoric) in whose completeness all may resolve themselves peacefully. Christ embodies humanity’s Rorschach ambiguities and with them resolves creation into its final and peaceful way of being.

To my mind, this is another way of expressing what the Orthodox describe when they talk about the Eighth Day of Creation, the idea being that creation isn’t really created, hasn’t finally arrived at its creative potential, until its meaning is universally resolved through the free acts of participation by all sentient beings in the one definitive and universal act of creative interpretation which is Christ himself. Divine incarnation into human being is thus God personally submitting himself to a Rorschach test (where the ink blot isn’t just a card but is phenomenal experience itself, the whole range of human existence from conception to the grave), comprehending the whole on an existential scale universal enough to resolve its inherent ambiguities, so that those who make Christ’s pattern of perceiving and meaning-making their own live in its life-giving power.

Children of wrath

Children of wrathRandom observation. I work with a Bible Society dedicated to publishing the Scriptures in Arabic. It’s wonderful work. Love it. I recently tripped over the phrase “children of wrath” in Eph 2.3. Nearly every translation I looked at understands this phrase to describe human beings as born under or deserving of divine wrath. As a rule I’m extremely reluctant to disagree with unanimity when it comes to long-standing translations. But it does rarely happen that the unanimity one faces may not be that of free minds but rather that of a majority assuming that what’s gone before is right.

“Children of wrath” in Eph 2.3 does not, I submit, mean ‘deserving of wrath’ or ‘subject to wrath’ or ‘born under wrath’ but rather ‘characterized by wrath’, that is, a wrathful or angry disposition or temperament. The wrath is ours here, not God’s. I’m not suggesting the phrase “wrath of God” describes a fiction as if God in fact does not will that there be painful consequences for actions. Divine wrath is a realty, but it is not what Paul has in mind here.

There are several ways to take the genitive “children [tekna] of….” Used figuratively (as it is here), one may be a “child of _______” (fill in the blank) to the extent one is characterized by that quality or property described. Consider some examples:

(1) “children of Zion” (Joel 2.23) meaning those who inhabit Jerusalem,
(2) “sons of thunder” (Mk 3.17) of James and John’s angry, violent temperament,
(3) “children of wisdom” (Lk 7.35) describing those who are wise,
(4) “children of disobedience (Eph 2.2; 1Pt 1.14) meaning those who are disobedient,
(5) “children of the light” (Eph 5.8) describing those who love and live in the light,
(6) “children of cursing” (2Pt 2.14) describing people who curse others (not those “cursed by God”),
(7) “children of the flesh/promise” (Rom 9.8) describing characteristic behavior of those living “according to” the flesh or spirit.

It makes much better sense of our passage, given Paul’s description of the actual behavior of the Ephesians (including “sons of disobedience” in preceding verse v. 2), to take “children of wrath” as describing their formerly angry-violent disposition (roughly equivalent to the more descriptive “sons of thunder”) and not their previously being by nature “subject to divine wrath.” Wrath/anger does not always refer to divine wrath. But observe Paul’s instruction in this same letter (4.31) that we “get rid of all bitterness, rage, and anger…” (cf. Col 3.8; 1Tm 2.8; Jm 1.19f). Paul describes what Rene Girard called the escalation of mimetic violence characteristic of human social behavior, the natural tendency to default to angry, wrathful, and violent modes of discourse and relating.