Thursday, January 29, 2015

One Metaphysic to Rule Them All

This is a game. Join in if you wish. A friend and I have been discussing which thinker of the 20th century created the most robust metaphysic. Of course, there isn't one right answer. But since it's the 20th century, on the tail end of modernism, a last discussion of one meta-narrative to rule them all isn't completely out of bounds.

So here is how I would assess things. If we were to go with a philosopher, the obvious choice would be Heidegger. Except Heidegger is forever going to be tainted by his connection to Fascism, so he is out. This leaves some later philosophers, and although much can be said for Foucault, or Derrida, or even alternative thinkers like Girard or Husserl or Arendt, in the end, I think we would have to name the century Deleuzian.

However, philosophy does not provide a complete metaphysic, so we drift out from there, and consider some theologians. Although much is made of the Barth-Balthasar pairing, and this would be very legitimate, given how each of them wrote a body of work that really attempted to be complete, I would give the century in theology to Dietrich Bonhoeffer if we are speaking of Protestants, and Rahner or de Lubac if we are speaking of Catholics. And Schmemann or Bulgakov if we are speaking of the Orthodox.

Yet this does not yet cut it. This is simply theology. More complete metaphysics are on offer from some of the greatest creative authors of the 20th century. If we move in this direction, the obvious choices include J.R.R. Tolkien, and his progeny, such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Lloyd Alexander. Although C.S. Lewis made an attempt, he was more of an apologist than a creator of worlds, so Tolkien is a more appropriate choice. Le Guin is my favorite in some ways even above Tolkien, if you consider her entire oeuvre. And into this category of 20th century thinkers I would also place such novelists as Dorothy Sayers and G.K. Chesterton.

If I were to take the next generation still in the 20th century, I would go for Discworld (Pratchett), who creates an entire universe that points in an interesting way towards the 21st century. And of course there is Rowlings, whose universe is much more robust than she is often given credit.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement

Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement. By Catherine Keller. Columbia University Press, 2014.  Pp. 394, paper.  

Let's start with one of the more important considerations. Of all the authors writing theology in English today, Catherine Keller must be ranked as perhaps the best and most innovative prose stylist. Her command of the language is incredible, and to such a degree that it might be said that Keller's contribution to constructive theology is as much in her use of language as it is in her proposal of concepts or analysis of the tradition.

For this reason, if for no other (and there are plenty of other great reasons), I recommend you read this book, then delve back into Keller's earlier works, especially her work on Revelation (Apocalypse Now and Then), and her most recent work on process theology (On the Mystery and The Face of the Deep).

Keller is patently a process theologian, deeply influenced by Whitehead, but what makes her unique among process theologians is the creative and grounded approach she takes to such theology, engaging, as she does in this wonderful book, contemporary physics, transcendentalist poetry, medieval theology, and contemporary philosophical work in relational theology.

Just listing these entanglements gives some indication of the breadth and depth of the work, but it is never inaccessible. Cloud of the Impossible expects much of its readers, but it is far from "impossible" to read.

If nothing else, one take away from the book is the extent to which the "cloud" itself stands as a symbol and image in Christian tradition. I certainly had not considered it as intentionally as other dominant motifs in Scripture like temple, Torah, body, baptism, or meal, and yet the more one looks at the breadth of the tradition, from the cloud that went before the Israelites, to the famous anonymous spiritual work Cloud of Unknowing, it becomes apparent that clouds are not a minor motif in Christian thought, but rather a dominant motif frequently overlooked.

Dig a bit deeper, and one discovers that clouds played a central role in the theology of such eminent theologians as Clement of Alexandra, Dionysius the Areopagite, and Gregory of Nyssa. For some reason, our vision of clouds has been clouded. Part of Keller's task in this work is simply to draw our attention to what had always already been there.

Additionally, because climate change is a core ethical issue in Keller's theology, the entangled relationship between clouds and climate comes forward. Clouds and climate change permeate the book. Towards this end, Keller makes frequent epigraphic use of lyrics from the enigmatic environmental indie band Cloud Cult--and to good effect. The epigraphs in the book sent me to Spotify for a re-listen to the albums, and they are splendid explorations in musical form of the theology developed in Keller's work.

Keller herself does an excellent job of describing the book's overall agenda. "The task before us will be to stage a series of encounters between the relational and the apophatic, or, to paraphrase, between the nonseparable and the nonknowable. Many of these encounters will take place as readings of nontheistic texts, requing little God-talk. But the series will nonetheless unfold chapter by chapter as the pulses and queries of a theology constructing itself even now" (6). This sentence lines out the agenda. Another sentence, nearby, illustrates her prose: "The Cloud of the Impossible hopes to demonstrate, billowingly, that these relations that materialize as selves and as collectives, the relations that crowd, that differ and matter, come also apophatically entangled in and as theology. For at a certain point the darkness--just where it turns theological, beyond all light supremacism--begins to glow: 'in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence'" (8).

The book begins at Sinai, with a consideration of Shekinah, God's presence as cloud and dwelling. Keller emphasizes that the unnameable name of God draws out the basic oscillation she is seeking to enact between enfolding and unfolding, saying and unsaying, possibilizing and making impossible.

Part 2 of the books shifts from Nicholas of Cusa and the Shekinah to a look at scientific, philosophical, and poetic explications of ontological entanglement. She makes splendid use of the quantum phenomenon described by Einstein as "spooky action at a distance." She also engages the philosopher most responsible for bringing Whiteheadian philosophy into complicated conversation with post-structuralist philosophy and psychoanalysis--Deleuze.

After a brief and wonderful journey through Walt Whitman, Keller then proceeds to outline a theopolitical mutual implicating of planetary entanglement in our ecological crisis with a constructive apophatic theology of love. This is a fascinating concluding proposal, because what it implies is that possibility itself, posse ipsum, may be precisely what love is, what Keller then terms an amorous cosmopolitics.

If I have one quibble with the book, it is her use of Nicholas of Cusa. As a constructive theologian, she seems to have built Cusa into that which she already needs to propose what she is proposing, rather than taking Cusa for what and who he is. But this is nothing that ultimately takes away from her theological proposal. In some senses, it will strengthen future readings of Cusa, because theologians of Cusa will have to, as Keller proposes, say and unsay in order to say more clearly how his theology differs from her interpretation of it.

What remains is what Keller has become known for, surprising sentences that knock the top of the head. Here is one, worth the price of the book: "After all, still, the God question. With one last gasp of theological authority, let me therefore say unto you--that for which God is a nickname cares not whether you believe in God. Doesn't give a damn. Isn't in the damning business. What matters, what might matter endlessly, is what we earth-dwellers now together embody. Not what we say about God but how we do God" (306). That'll preach, if you dare, but you'll get entangled in it, literally. Which is the point.

[Forthcoming as a review in Word & World: Theology for Christian Ministry]

Monday, January 19, 2015

Best Reads for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

This past year, I have become convinced that the reconciliation paradigm for race relations in the United States is a faulty approach, and plays into many of the white racist biases of our culture. Because the experience of various races in the United States is incommensurable, a paradigm based on parallelism of experience simply perpetuates the power dynamics intrinsic to racism as embodied in contemporary North American culture.

A couple of recent books have especially convinced me of this. The first was James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree
  which illustrates that even white liberal Protestants of the 20th century failed to connect the horrendous lynchings in the south to the crucifixion of Jesus, even while they attempted to address racism theologically.

A second book, Dear White Christians (Prophetic Christianity)
makes the most compelling argument I have ever read for reparations as the essential paradigm for race relations, over against reconciliation. It is really a must read.

Of course, the recent movie Selma is also convicting, because it illustrates the degree to which the Civil Rights movements was a Black Church movement, and how infrequently the white church participated in the movement.

Some recent excellent essays on Selma include:

Why the Oscars' Omission of 'Selma' Matters

What went wrong with the Oscar hopes for 'Selma'?

What the hell happened to 'Selma'?

Selma and Clergy

Then there is perhaps the most important book ever written in English on race and theology, J. Kameron Carter's Race: A Theological Account

He and some colleagues have written an essential post today that is worth the time on King's faith as driving his activism.

Finally, this brief post from Huffington Post on MLK Jr.'s name change, includes a podcast with Paul Rauschenbush that is totally worth a listen:

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Cursive Contains the Cosmos (or something like that)

Earlier this week 5 News was outside Butterfield Trail Elementary asking parents their views on proposed legislation requiring cursive be taught in Arkansas elementary classrooms. The reporter looked cold and was slow in getting takers, and my daughter seemed thrilled to watch the proceedings, so I agreed to talk. Here are the results:

I was ill-prepared to answer the question as thoughtfully as I'd like. Honestly, I think like quite a lot of us, I hadn't given cursive much thought. Everybody has their personal history with hand-writing. Mine is not a glory story. I promptly stopped using cursive some time in middle school and reverted to print, which I've used ever since, except on signatures and checks. My hand-writing is terrible. I much prefer to type.

Having given the question more thought, I've decided there is a more interesting question, one worth pondering. Rather than discuss: Should cursive be required? I'd like to ask: What is cursive, after all?

So, first of all cursive is joined-up writing (the way most other English-speakers title it) or in some places, simply "handwriting." Print writing, the type I use most of the time, is non-continuous, block letters, like the type of this blog post.

Qur'an in classical Arabic cursive
Joined-up writing, or continuous writing, has some advantages of speed in writing, but the most important technology introduced with cursive is simple: You lift the pen from the page less frequently. This was especially important when people wrote with quills, because they were fragile, splattered if not properly used, and broke easily. Joined-up writing reduces considerably the lifting of the quill from the page.

The origins of our cursive are in Arabic. The long flowing script of Arabic manuscripts inspired Medieval Latin cursive, which inspired our modern cursive. I didn't know this until I started researching this post, but a ton of languages have cursive, including languages I've studied but never seen the cursive equivalents, like Greek. Even languages very distant from Geek and Latinate employ cursive, including Bengali, and Chinese, which employs joined-up writing more within individual characters rather than between the words (likely because Chinese is written in a radically different way than left-to-write continuous).

So that's cursive. This leaves us with a couple of questions then. First, is cursive advantageous yet today for writing with speed? To this question, I'd answer no. If you really want write fast in the modern era, learn to type. Typing is our speedwriting technology. I think we will also shift quickly to voice-to-text technologies, so the next wave of speedwriting might be those who learn how to use voice-to-text tools efficiently. Handwriting of any type is on its way out, and not coming back, at least where speed is concerned.

As an example, see this fascinating essay by Richard Powers, a wonderful novelist who dictates virtually all his writing:

A more compelling argument can be made for cursive, however, and this is the argument from beauty. Certain types of handwriting are clearly more beautiful than others. This is also true of print, block letters, it's why we download and use various fonts. It's why some books are more pleasant to read than others, more pleasing to the eye. Print matters.

So too does handwriting. Honestly, I wish I had better handwriting. I'd like people to be able to read my handwriting with ease, and pleasure.

Lindsfarne Gospel, c. 700
Now, if you google calligraphy on, well, Google, one of the top hits is Shindig Paperie, a small business right here in Fayetteville that teaches it. I probably should sign up for a class. The point of calligraphy, its beauty, is its expansion of cursive. It is writing with long continuous strokes, as opposed to built up lettering which, although also beautiful, draws letters non-continuously by lifting the pen or quill.

Calligraphy is also the space in which writing truly passes back into the religious. Handwriting has always been focused at least to a degree on the maintaining and passing on of religious texts. In ancient periods, there were probably two primary groups who learned to write: those in power, who needed to keep political and economic records, and those in religion, who were tasked with copying religious texts. Think of the scribes mentioned frequently in Scripture.

Some calligraphic practices became high art. Pictured above, for example, is the beginning of the gospel of Matthew. Calligraphy in Arabic became especially elaborate, because of the injunction against graven images, so the text itself became the basis for much art.

But many traditions have, over time, turned handwriting and script into art. One of the most enduring is Nasta-liq, Persian calligraphy. Another is the calligraphy of Mi Fu of the Song Dynasty, China.

An example of anemic writing, by Zhang Xu
Interestingly, cursive has even drifted at times into non-meaning, abstract forms. Asemic writing, which was employed especially in avant garde artistic movements, actually has its origins with Zhang Xu of the Tang Dynasty (c 800 CE) who wrote in "crazy" calligraphy.

St. John's Bible, 2 Kings 2
I guess one might consider these types of writing the equivalent of speaking in tongues, in script. I find it fascinating that in a way commensurate to the transcendence of specific spoken languages by speaking in tongues (or Vonlenska), certain authors and calligraphers have transcended handwriting itself, either through artistic expansion or a drift a way to script of any specific sense.

That being said, a majority of calligraphy is still written for the beauty of it. One of the most famous recent examples is the St. John's Bible ( It is the first hand-written, illuminated manuscript written in the modern era. Like ancient manuscripts of almost any era, it was commissioned by a monastic community, Benedictines, but in this case it is illuminating a manuscript in a contemporary translation, the New Revised Standard Version.

Perhaps the problem with requiring cursive as a simple lesson to be learned in elementary school is this: It focuses primarily on the functionality (you need to learn cursive to be able to sign your checks... but in that case let's all just shift to fingerprints) rather than the art and beauty of it. If cursive is about beauty, it would better be taught in art classes. So let's have more art. Let's do calligraphy. Let's illuminate our homework, and create a next generation of young people who, through a variety of means, transcend the written word itself into something that takes wings, in whatever medium, so that art and language and voice and text all meet in a cacophony of gorgeous transcendence.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Ezra & Nehemiah: Mission from the Rubble of Empire

Of all the texts of Scripture, Ezra & Nehemiah seem to get considerably less press than the rest. It is not entirely clear why. Perhaps new construction is always more appealing than reconstruction. Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of Israel's return from Babylonian captivity. Ezra's focus is the rebuilding of the Temple. Nehemiah records the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. Both also recount the restoration of Torah observance and other ritual and religious practices of the returning exiles.
It's fair to say that David and Solomon, the kings responsible for the original construction of the Temple, centralizing political and religious life in Jerusalem, were sexy, attractive men, wealthy and successful and strong. They built structures worth celebrating. Ezra & Nehemiah are restorers, recoverers of what was lost. And they restore not on their own terms, but proceeding from the magnanimity of Cyrus the Great, the only other person (and a Gentile at that!) besides Jesus Christ himself who is called in Scripture Messiah (Isaiah 44:24; 45:1-6).
In an increasingly secularizing world with millions of refugees the world over, and increasingly diverse migrant communities inhabiting the many cities of the world, I believe Ezra and Nehemiah should interest us more. They are a biblical record of a time not unlike our own. They give witness to faith in the midst of flux, hope in the middle of rubble, new life between the shadows of first life and resurrected life.

The books are written mostly in Hebrew, but also in Aramaic. This illustrates the changing linguistic situation in the era (circa 450 to 400 BCE). 

Politics were also in flux. The Babylonians took people into captivity when they over ran them. The Persians had a different practice, allowing exiles to return home and rebuild, even allowing them to reconstruct their religious and political institutions. This was a wonderfully ecumenical practice, but it did meet resistance in the locales where exiles returned. Imagine if the land on which you lived were suddenly restored to the people you had displaced. It might be the right thing to do, but it wouldn't be popular, and you wouldn't want to move.

Ezra and Nehemiah succeeded, under the protection of King Darius and King Artaxarxes, in rebuilding the temple, what historically is termed the Second Temple. Some form of this temple remained in place until the siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple in 70 AD.

Jesus spoke of the temple, and Christian theology has often emphasized that Jesus Christ in his body lived out the temple narrative. His temple was destroyed, and rebuilt in three days (John 2:19). The most direct way to describe a Christian understanding of temple is to say that what was then centered in an actual temple in Jerusalem has shifted to the body of Jesus Christ, present in and among his people throughout the world. Similarly Torah observance, centered in Jerusalem, had already shifted in the exilic period to synagogues, so wherever a minion gathered around Scripture, there was Torah observance. The Christian faith with integrity continued this practice, so that Christianity no longer has a geographical "center" per se but is instead wherever the people of God gather and the word is proclaimed and the sacraments administered.

We live today as a church in anxious times. We wonder if we are headed into exile in our own places, in our own culture and era. The church has declined in many places where it once was established. It has not been taken forcefully into exile in the painful military manner of the Babylonian captivity, but it has suffered loss, and seems to be in a long slow decline, which some perceive as a direct attack.

We wonder what it means to rebuild. The church, whether it is re-rooting in communities it had once abandoned, or is seeking to maintain a remnant in places abandoned by empire, can learn much from the experience of Ezra and Nehemiah, even if the particulars of their cultic and political restoration are decidedly different from those today.

In particular, we can wrestle with the portion of Nehemiah that makes most contemporary readers uncomfortable. Nehemiah emphasizes the purity of Israel, the building up of walls to protect Jerusalem, and the purification (including putting an end to intermarriage and more), because he knew in a foreign land, the only way to maintain the identity of this people was through walls.

Christians yet today wrestle with this. Some come to the conclusion that "walls do make Christians." I think here of that famous work of Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, Resident Aliens, and really any argument (of which there are many) that Christians are to be, in some form or another, a peculiar people.

The only way to make yourself peculiar is to have proper boundaries. Even if the boundaries are intentionally porous, the boundaries still matter.

Self-differentiation is, for Ezra and Nehemiah, a holy practice for a holy people. It's the only way to restore.

So we ask ourselves today, in the many forms of secularity we inhabit (and that inhabit us): What can we learn about secularity and a global refugee crisis, what we can we learn about a world of migrants and people on the way, from the restoration of the temple and Torah in Jerusalem under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah?

Even more importantly, what is it about this story of Ezra and Nehemiah that makes us avoid it? Why won't we stare it down, but instead mostly avert our eyes and look away? Is it an indication of how stuck we are in our current faithful engagement with secularity that we are unwilling to give these books the attention they deserve?

Another way of saying it might be, to be radical: Does neoliberalism have such a strangle hold on us that we are blind to portions of Scripture most essential to us today?

Monday, January 12, 2015

10 Vitalizing Spiritual Practices for Communities of Faith

The new year is a chance to cultivate a new habitus. I'm hoping our faith community will increasingly exercise some of these. I offer them in the spirit of mutuality. Perhaps you will cultivate some of them in the places you live, and you will offer your own in the comments.

Both/And Thinking

Too many people think either/or. Either you like contemporary worship and dislike traditional worship, or you like traditional worship and dislike contemporary worship. Either you are good at working with children, or you are good at working with the elderly. Either this group can have its way, or that group can have its way.

But much of life needn't be either/or. Instead, cultivate both/and thinking. Just because somebody has a gift in one area doesn't mean they lack gifts in all others. Just because I like Sleater-Kinney doesn't mean I automatically dislike Taylor Swift.

Sometimes in the church we call this the difference between a gospel of scarcity vs. a gospel of abundance. Either/or thinking assumes there is never enough to go around. Either you are rich or you are poor, and somebody else's success is at your expense. A gospel of abundance assumes that there is enough to go around, that the arrival of newcomers in a congregation is also good for old comers, and that long-standing members have gifts to share with those who are new.

Cooperation, not competition, is the name of the game.

Everybody has a ministry in this church. What's yours?

Nobody bottle necks ministry in the church. Committees don't exist to tell people whether they can or can't do the thing God is calling them to. Instead, everybody has a ministry, and the only question remains, "What's yours?" People don't share ideas to get other people to do them. Ideas are owned. If you want to see something happen, you help make it happen.

Re-rooting in the neighborhood

Lots of churches float like Laputa above the neighborhoods in which they are situated. They may have elaborate theories in place about love of neighbor, but they know very few of their actual neighbors... and their neighbors don't know them. So adapt at least some of the lovely ministries the congregation organizes to get out and be in the neighborhood of the church. Or just get out and walk. Walking is a completely under-utilized and under-valued spiritual practice. We could do a lot worse for our neighborhoods than simply walk them and pray while we walked. Who knows what we might encounter? This concept of re-rooting is described especially well in The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community.

Get real about social issues

Faith communities do a bit of soft talk about social justice issue, but our walk is considerably less than adequate. Take, for example, the argument in Dear White Christians (Prophetic Christianity), where Jennifer Harvey proves rather convincingly that the Christian desire for reconciliation is misguided, because of the incommensurability of the experience of race of blacks vs. whites, and thus a reparations paradigm is better. Or A Framework for Understanding Poverty; A Cognitive Approach, which illustrates how little most faith communities are actually aware of how they are bound and constrained by assumptions about class and wealth.

Equip one another, and learn in community

We need each other for challenge and growth. Christian leaders who organize huddles, learning communities designed for discipleship and leadership development, often note that essential to such groups is an appropriate balance of invitation and challenge. We need each other for mutual encouragement and invitation, and we also need each other to challenge each other, so we can observe, act from, and learn from, the kairos moments God places in our lives. Are you in a group that challenges you? Are you being discipled and discipling?

Create safe space for faith exploration

Sometimes I think the most apt description of the kind of spirituality we host in the ELCA, and the kind of spirituality I attempt to host as a pastor, is to create safe space for exploration in faith. Rather than giving all the answers, are we creating space for everyone to raise, identify, and ask questions? Is it okay to doubt, struggle, wonder? In our own congregation, one of the primary places people feel safe doing this kind of exploration is in our catechumenal process. Lay led bible study gathering around the gospel from Sunday morning brings our lives into conversation with the text, trusting that the Holy Spirit is present wherever this is happening.


Oh wow, if only the church were known as the go-to place for art. Oh wait, it already is! Just think about it. Where else can you hear live music every single week for free? Where else can you join with others in boisterous song and not have to drink? Where else are instruments themselves art (organs)? Of course there are many places that offer space for art, from community centers to public school. But it is worth noting that the church is an art house, and if we let it be so, it can often be a mighty fine one. It takes much work to strive for excellence, and sometimes the church has traded in rather mediocre fair, but we are up to the challenge of Arcade Fire or Banksy. We can make beautiful things.

To reach people we've never reached, we'll need to go places we've never gone

Most of the church most of the time is designed to reach the 40% of the population every other church is trying to reach. This means about 60% of the population is not the "target market" for the church, and all our frenzied activity as churches continues to aim for the 40%, most of whom are already at least somewhat predisposed (though increasingly not as much) to be interested in faith community affiliation.

To bring the gospel to folks not in that 40%, we're going to have to go places we've never gone. By this I mean places, literally, like clubs and shops and streets and cities and homes and countries. But I also mean emotionally, open to experiences and feelings and risks we've never encountered.

Shift from membership to mission partners

I've never been very comfortable with the language of membership for communities of faith. It makes the church seem like a club you join. Unless of course you take a more archaic definition of membership, where we are members (as in limbs), bodied together. But I prefer the idea of doing faith together as being partners in mission. We are all in this together, each called by God, and so we accompany each other on the journey. This means there aren't clients (members to be served) and patrons (staff or pastors who are supposed to supply services) but rather a whole community together in God's mission to the world, mutually strengthening one another for that common mission.

Like going on a walk together, all walking the same way.

Digital and real together

In a way this is like the both/and thinking above. But basically, ministry in digital and real contexts don't have to be mutually exclusive, and they aren't. The ambient intimacy of social media can enhance the face-to-face time of faith communities, and it can extend, in remarkable ways, the ministry of the church to those who struggle with being in real body community. I think here especially of those who have anxieties or phobias about large groups, or simply those who are less mobile. Streaming sermons, building relationships on-line, being available in digital chat contexts, these are not distractions from real ministry. They ARE real ministry. And when all of us who are part of faith communities start realizing we are doing ministry when we tweet or post status updates, the work of the church will be enhanced and spread in miraculous ways.


Undergird all the above with prayer. Form groups to pray the daily offices. Invite people to pray for and during the most vital moments of the congregation's life, such as worship or council meetings. Weave prayer into everything. Pray without ceasing.

Be Bored Together

Having just listened to this spot on NPR, I add one more. Be bored together.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Abusus non tollit usum: on satire, faith, and freedom

We subscribe to the newspaper. It arrives on our driveway each morning. I’ve never met our delivery person, but I’m quite thankful for their early morning forays, especially in these very cold days of winter. Additionally, I keep a few apps on my iPad up front and in heavy rotation, including Longform, Reuters, Digg, and Instapaper, all of which are designed to help me stay up to date on news from a variety of sources both national and international.

My problem, however, as a pastor and as a person, is I don’t always know what to do with the news I read. Certainly, I can take time to pray. If nothing else, reading the newspaper becomes the basis for expanding the prayers I pray, extending prayer support to people and places I wouldn’t otherwise encounter.

And yet, there is also a burden in reading the news. A certain kind of powerlessness is engendered. There is so much we now know about, and seemingly so little to do about it. I can be confused, and hurt, and angry, for example, by the recent news of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. I can despair of interfaith relations, wondering if we will ever understand and truly empathize with one another, or whether cultural misunderstandings of various sorts will always be so endemic and deep as to eventuate in violence, world without end.

I can post #JesuisCharlie in my social media, standing in solidarity with all those like the imam in Paris who called the journalists at Charlie Hebdo martyrs for liberty. I can also sympathize with those of various religions who feel like some free expressions by journalists and cartoonists go beyond the pale. There are things I’ve seen and read I’d like to unread or unsee. Perhaps we all have.

A secular world is no easy world to live in. It is a world in which the possibility of belief, and the possibility of unbelief, are all possibilities, in every place, even within every person. It is also a world in which the possibility of extremism is ever present. It is a world in which we can confuse extremism of whatever stripe with the faith tradition it purports to represent.

The logical dictum, abusus non tollit usum, is worth memorizing. Any abuse does not take away proper use. In other words, even if some journalists go beyond the pale, publishing deeply offensive images or texts, this does not take away from a proper understanding of the value of freedom of expression. Similarly, even if some religious extremists kill in the name of their faith, this does not mean the faith tradition they claim is invalidated in total because of their violence.

Extremism is extremism. It is the constant work of those of us who value peace, faith, integrity, and the middle way to stay to that middle. It is our job to empathize as much as possible with those who have for whatever reason gone down the road of extremism, to do the hard work of healing society so less extremists are made, and to sympathize with those who suffer at the hands of extremists, and seek to create policies and situations in which such extremism cannot win the day.

Part of our work, then, as readers of newspapers, as informed citizens and people of faith, is to become even more informed. For my money, this means reading not just the newspaper, but also books that help us understand the faith traditions of others. One of my favorite recent books that helps Christians understand Muslims is Miroslav Volf’s Allah: A Christian Response
  Volf, a Christian theologian, approaches Islam in a deeply empathetic and constructive way. 

A great movie evoking a similar level of empathy is Of Gods and Men
a French movie about nine Trappist monks who lived in harmony with the largely Muslim population of Algeria, up until their kidnapping and assassination during the Algerian Civil War of 1996.

Reading one book won’t change us. Nor will viewing one movie. And yet all of these steps, from praying over the news, to engaging cultural resources that deepen our understanding of others, will take us steps down the road towards listening better to those different from us. 

If you find yourself enraged, confused, full to overflowing with desires to take action that remain unfulfilled, let me recommend these steps. Allow those feelings to push you into actions of empathy and sympathy and understanding. We may want revenge. We may wish to directly right wrongs. But in most instances, we will heal ourselves, and heal the world, much more faithfully, if we do the hard work of turning our unresolved emotions towards deepening understanding of the complex world, and the complexity of our neighbors, in which and among whom we find ourselves.

Friday, January 09, 2015

The State of Exception and the Freedom of the Oppressed: Schmitt, Taubes, and Benjamin

"All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development--in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver--but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts. The state of exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology. Only by being aware of this analogy can we appreciate the manner in which the philosophical idea of the state developed over the last few centuries." (Carl Schmitt)

"I had quickly come to see Carl Schmitt as an incarnation of Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor. During a stormy conversation at Plettenburg in 1980 Carl Schmitt told me that anyone who failed to se that the Grand Inquisitor was right about the sentimentality of Jesuitical piety had grasped neither what a Church was for, nor what Dotoevsky--contrary to his own conviction--had 'really conveyed, compelled by the sheer force of the way in which he posed the problem." I always read Schmitt with interest, often captivated by his intellectual brilliance and pithy style. But in every word I sensed something alien to me, the kind of fear and anxiety one has before a storm, an anxiety that lies concealed in the secularized messianic dart of Marxism. Carl Schmitt seemed to me to be the Grand Inquisitor of all heretics... he can be read and understood both as a jurist and as an apocalyptic prophet of the counterrevolution." (Jacob Taubes)

"Carl Schmitt thinks apocalyptically but from above, from the powers that be; I think from the bottom up. Common to us both is the experience of time and history as delimited respite, as a term or even a last respite. Originally that was also a Christian experience of history." (Jacob Taubes)

"The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the 'state of exception' in which we live has become the rule. We have to find a concept of history corresponding to this. Then our task will come to be the creation of a real 'state of exception' ; and in this our position in the struggle against fascism will improve." (Walter Benjamin)

"Schmitt's fundamental vocabulary is here introduced by Benjamin, made use of, and so transformed into its opposite. Carl Schmitt's conception of the 'state of exception' is dictatorial, dictated from above; in Benjamin it becomes a doctrine in the tradition of the oppressed" (Jacob Taubes)

"If I understand anything at all of the mystical historical construction that Benjamin here constructs with one eye on Schmitt's theses, then this: what is superficially a process of secularization, of desacralization, the dedeification of public life, a process of step-by-step neutralization right up to the 'value freedom' of science as an index of a tech-industrial form of life; this process also has an inner face that testifies to the freedom of God's children (as in the letters of St. Paul), hence an expression of a reformation that is nearing its completion" (Jacob Taubes).

To Carl Schmitt: Letters and Reflections (Insurrections: Critical Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture)

Monday, January 05, 2015

Silence is not silent

We have three in the house under the age of ten. So if silence golden, it's a precious metal in short supply around these parts.

Perhaps this is why I've come to cherish it all the more. Some nights, I just sit in the office and close my eyes and reduce the input to the ambient sounds of the house. I especially enjoy the rich thrum of the furnace, dogs periodically calling to each other in their night alarms, or the unfortunately rare rain that comes in winter months and caresses the roof.

Krista Tippett recently interviewed Gordon Hempton, an audio ecologist. In the interview, he talks about the last quiet places, including the Hoh Rainforest in his own part of Washington state on the Olympic peninsula.

I remember hiking this forest some years ago while on internship in Seattle, and especially remember the audio quality of it, akin to a cathedral.

Hempton does not define silence as the absence of sound. Instead, he considers silent places those places where outside sounds do not intrude. According to this measure, he calculates there are less than 100 places on earth that are silent for at least 15 minutes straight. And none of them are protected.

Late in the interview, Hempton mentions that listening to nature can be excellent training for listening to others. I would agree.

Listening to the actual sound around us is also, as I mentioned in the sermon this past Sunday on light and the star that guided the wise men, an exercise in discovering what was always there that we lose sight of, or rarely see, or overlook, or simply don't perceive.

Knowing there is light even in the spaces we look through seeking light elsewhere... discovering sound behind sounds... knowing we are always enveloped in sound, enveloped in light, so that even our silences are not silent, and our dark places illuminated... well, there's something comforting in that.

It doesn't take me all the way down the road in the spirituality of recent authors I respect, like Barbara Brown Taylor in her Learning to Walk in the Dark, because in my own Christian form of thought, there remains a valuable place for words, for sound, for illumination.

But I have grown in my respect for silence, for darkness, as perhaps a place God especially meets us and seeks us out.