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.

“Inasmuch as”: impartation & participation

SRI LANKA-ATTACKSPredictably,  the attacks upon Sri Lankan Christians while they worshiped last Easter Sunday (both pictures in this post are of shrapnel-ridden, blood-stained statues from those attacks) have again brought front and center conversations about God’s goodness in our world. Tell us again exactly how it is God is perfectly and unfailingly benevolent and powerful in a world awash in such evil (natural and moral)? Each tragedy sees the same debate points posted and argued. With every renewal of this discussion it seems there are some from the ranks of every view on offer who defect to some other viewpoint. I’m not here to review the options or argue for a benevolent theism. Instead, I’d like to try to express an aspect of my own faith journey. Atheists, you’re excused for the time being. This is ‘siblings talk’ for the moment.

As I say, all I want to offer here is a description of how these attacks got me and Dwayne into considering as aspect of the Christian story and experience that I hadn’t previously contemplated. As Dwayne and I recently talked through these issues something dawned on me.

Let me begin a couple of curious passage that describe the intimacy of Christ’s identification with those who suffer. In Mt 25.31-46 (Parable of the Sheep and the Goats), Jesus bases God’s eschatological judgment of us on the loving service we render to the destitute (i.e., the hungry, the poor and the homeless, the sick and the imprisoned). You know the conclusion: “Inasmuch as” we provide food, clothing, care, etc., to the destitute and imprisoned, we “do it to Christ.” And equally, inasmuch as we do not care for the poor and needy, we do not care for Christ. In loving and caring for those in need, we love and care for Christ – actually, personally, really.

The same identification is behind Paul’s admonition (Col 3.23-24) that Christians do all they do “as unto the Lord,” and here Paul surprisingly adds “not unto men.” Not unto others? Surely we do unto others what we actually do unto them, even if Christ is also therein served (or not). But the adversative “not unto men” turns the tables on our priorities and the direction from which we view things. It is Christ who is first served or not, and others are therein implicated. Christ is the truer, more significant object of our intentions and actions than are others who are by virtue of Christ implicated in our actions. But who views themselves and the world this way?

This relating to Christ as the object of our actions (good or bad) is evident in Christ’s confrontation with Paul in his conversion experience (Acts 9). The risen Christ appears to Paul and asks him, “Why are you persecuting me?” and declares “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” This is not unlike the Matthew 25 passage. The risen Christ identifies with his body – those who follow him (in Acts 9), but equally, even if more broadly, he identifies with all poor, all needy, and not, as some mistakenly read it, “poor Christians” (but not poor Muslims), or for dispensationalists (if there are any left) “poor Jews.” Does Jesus participate in the innocent suffering of the world? It would seem so. He is more truly present as the object of our actions than the poor and needy we perceive. This shouldn’t surprise us. Christ is, after all, more truly present in every sense than any person allows him/herself to be present. He is present fully/completely, without diminishment of intention or perception due to selfishness or compromise. None of us is able to ‘show up’ so genuinely and unreservedly. In this way, our suffering becomes his own. But faith opens our eyes to this  presence and opens it to our participation.

This brings me to the second set of curious passages. If the first set of passages describes the sense in which Christ is present in our suffering by virtue of his own participation in the innocent suffering of the world he loves and sustains, the second describes the sense in which our suffering becomes a transforming-redemptive participation in his own historical suffering. I’ve commented on these passages here and here, but let me quickly mention them. First, in Phil 3.8-11 Paul views the Cross as participable, as sufferings we are able to share in. Paul’s desire to “participate in Christ’s suffering, becoming like him in his death.” Secondly, in Col 1.24 Paul views his own suffering as “filling up in his flesh what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings,” a very curious perspective, but incomprehensible as participation if the Cross be understood in penal-substitutionary terms. Then in Rom 6.3-5 Paul again views the Cross as participable, and lastly in Heb 13.13 we are instructed to “go to Christ outside the city, bearing the disgrace he bore” which, whatever else it may be, invites us to participate in Christ’s sufferings. Participation, not substitution, is the transforming logic of the Cross.

Sri 5

I’d like to suggest that these two realities (Christ present in our sufferings, on the one hand, and our presence in his, on the other) form a single, transforming-redemptive unity – an asymmetrical relational unity which is itself the saving power of the Cross. We participate in the sufferings of the Cross by intentionally introducing the narrative of the Cross into our own meaning-making structure. This brings both the guilt and despair of sinners and the true nature of innocent suffering to light for transformational meaning-making as each receives its truth from Christ’s suffering. For the latter (the innocent victims) in this case, how Christ suffers becomes how we see ourselves as suffering, and so how the Father was with Christ in his sufferings (Jn 16.31-33) becomes how God is present with us in our suffering. It’s a relational unity because two subjects (Christ and us) are intimately related, so much so that both are objects of the same victimization. But the relationship is asymmetrical because one subject’s experience (Christ’s) alone has the power to define and transform the experience of those who interpret their suffering within the (transcendent) framework of meaning-making established by and offered to all in Christ.

However, participation in Christ’s sufferings defines not only how we self-perceive within our suffering (as essential as that is), it defines how we perceive and respond to others who persecute and victimize, i.e. forgiveness. Forgiveness is a necessary fruit of participation in Christ’s sufferings, and we have not participated in his sufferings until we, like him, extend forgiveness to our persecutors. It’s not enough to know I suffer innocently and to come to possess in Christ an enduring identity that no worldly suffering can deconstruct. What is this new identity if it is as unforgiving as the old? To participate in Christ’s sufferings is to be given his suffering as a place in which to experience my own, to suffer inside of his suffering, and what can this be but to suffer as he suffers, i.e. for others, in love, and to know that every victimizer is forgiven within the very event that establishes my own freedom from the victimizer. I am free from him and united to him at once, in Christ. So to not forgive is to have misrelated myself to Christ, and so to have failed to participate fully in his sufferings.

Of course, none of this is possible if one views the Cross in either penal-substitutionary terms (God pouring out our wrath-as-punishment upon Jesus) or in terms of God abandoning us existentially to suffer the consequences of sin as despair and godforsakenness (viz., Boyd’s view), for neither of these perspectives on Christ’s sufferings invites us to participate in the Christ’s sufferings. Both write us out of participation in the Cross, and to that extent they deliver not good news, but the worst news of all.

Risen indeed

rise

Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed, and yet
The face of Christ is also seen in the neighbor in need, may the
Power of resurrection come to kill all the greed, help us to
See those who bleed, help us to
Free to be freed, help us to
Really receive, believe, achieve, and conceive of the Spirit
Who breathes, retrieves, relieves, and intercedes; he
Movin’ like a centipede, got us
Lovin’ all our enemies, got us
Flowin’ in his energies, while he
Showin up in our inner me’s.

(Dwayne Polk)

Jesus re-creates humanity with a Cry

Still feeling this strongly, as true as ever…

An Open Orthodoxy

the-view-from-the-crossWatching the sunrise this morning on this Good Friday, I had a thought inspired by recent discussions of Jesus’ Cry from the Cross – “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Here’s the thought I had.

God creates ex nihilo or out of nothing. This ‘nothing’ isn’t a certain sort of something out of which God creates; we are not assembled into being from other more fundamental parts or created events. From the finite perspective of our conscious experience, this nothingness represents the Void whose absolute closure threatens to consume our present existence with final meaninglessness. The Void represents the nothingness from which God calls us to be. But it occasions a necessary and fundamental choice to relate to existence in one of two ways – either peacefully, giving our finitude to God in trust, or despairingly, anxiously, in the fragmenting narratives of self-assertion and fear.

I…

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