Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘peter rollins’

Sonnet 29

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

* * *

I haven’t read Shakespeare for a while but I rediscovered this one recently. If you’re unfamiliar with Shakespeare, not only did he write an impressive set of plays with piercing psychological and existential insights into humanity, he also wrote 150 sonnets on love, 150 alluding to the number of psalms in the Bible. Above is sonnet 29, which asserts the narrator’s consolation in love when jealously despising what other people have.

The first line determines the problem: The narrator lacks some fortune (possibly material wealth, or even basic means), and is somewhat looked down on by others around him.¹ This leads to sorrow (2), prayers with the accompanying feeling of being unheard (3), self-debasement (4), and jealously assessing those around him (5-8). There’s possibly a pun on ‘rich’ (5; cf. ‘wealth’ in line 13), although I’m unsure to what extent Shakespeare’s use coincides with our modern association with material affluence. The narrator is jealous of others because of their friends (6), and skills and freedoms (7), to the point that it undermines everything he himself enjoys (8).

When the narrator thinks on his love (9-10), he is like the lark (a type of bird) who sings to heaven in the midst of an imperfect world (11-12). To get to the depth of the metaphor here, Shakespeare’s classical sense of earth = imperfect (bad?) and heaven = perfect (good?) needs to be felt. The sonnet ends with an affirmation of the narrator’s love over the utmost of material and social capital in the metaphor of the king.²

This sonnet is in keeping with Shakespeare’s others which contrast worldly imperfections with the perfection of love. In Sonnet 66 the narrator desires death in light of social evils such as the poor having nothing and the rich having everything, rape, censorship, and general abuses of power, yet concludes he couldn’t because “to die, I leave my love alone.” Peter Rollins said it like this:

“If one believes that the world is meaningful, yet does not love, they cannot help but experience the world as meaningless. Yet if one believes that the world is meaningless yet loves, that person cannot help but experience their world as meaningful.”

Here, love is not affected by any externalities but is of primary importance when assessing life’s value. Regardless of what the narrator experiences, nothing can take away his sole joy, which is love. But maybe this is too simplistic a way of reading the sonnet, and especially assessing love. Here love is reduced to a consolation. Everything else sucks but at least you have love. Compare Sonnet 130: The narrator, quite humourously, and  in defiance of the history of poetry, humanises his female subject by denying her any deific qualifications:

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground

Just on the side, I looked up 'Aphrodite' on Google Images and one of the recommended searches was 'Aphrodite with clothes on.'

Just on the side, I looked up ‘Aphrodite’ on Google Images and one of the recommended searches was ‘Aphrodite with clothes on.’

Yet after this he concludes she is just as good as any woman whose devotee has cast elaborate, poetic, ‘false’ constructions upon. What becomes apparent is that the humanity, even imperfection, of the narrator’s subject is an essential component of their love. She is still ‘as rare’ as any woman who ostensibly commands goddess-like features. The same idea can be found in sonnet 29. Such is the ‘wealth’ of the narrator’s love that the narrator would not swap his state for that of kings (13-14). Of course, ‘state’ here can be read as the state of love removed from any other which-ways of material or social circumstance, but who’s to say the exact nature of the narrator’s relationship would improve or at least remain if he had ‘fortune’ and the attention of other ‘men’s eyes?’ In this sense the narrator’s love is not a just a mere consolation to his circumstances but his circumstances are essential to that love itself. His love becomes a reflection on his circumstances which would not be possible without them.

* * *

¹This quick analysis provides possible parallels from Shakespeare’s life.

²Probably primarily material. Although kings would have enjoyed all the pomp and ceremony of the court they would have had to deal with their subjects! Additionally, being a king did not necessarily meant you had any special ‘art’ or skill (7), but then again Shakespeare may be only construing ‘art’ as valuable as it is a means to freedom.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Hey friends, it’s nice returning to WordPress after being ‘away’ for a short while. In this away time I managed to have a little holiday, arrive back in Aotearoa, write a third of a novel (which is indefinitely stowed away somewhere on my personal internets for future completion), apply for bible college in March, read some more and then spend this last week playing far too many games. On a ‘more personal note’, I’m still recovering from a decisive dip in faith some readers will have picked up in the posts last year, a kind of Nietzschean ressentiment, creating truths to revenge myself against existence. Many of my thoughts still stand; I just hope now to express them with more grace and humility, not so much to tear things down, which is the easy and boring thing to do, but to focus on upbuilding, on actually say something. The purpose of this post is a kind of preparatory for my course this year. Ideally it would be beautifully referenced, demonstrating my wide reading on the subject and attempt to answer all the appropriate questions and reservations. Yet this is not so. See it as a kind of journal, something intended for self-reflection, but in this case happenchanced upon by others.

* * *

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

(1 Corinthians 1:20-25 NRSV).

Theology is the study of God. If you want to narrow that down then you can have a g/God, or the point of access to God, like good Christians will tell you that Jesus is the starting point for theology. Alternatively, you can have a specific focus, ecclesiology, the study of the Church, which is rooted in theology, etc. You could also give theology a wider application by saying something like the study metaphysics, that which is beyond the ‘physical’¹. That’s theology, or at least my sloppy definition of it. What, then, does it look like?

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_nKa-dM7PvEo/TJkYNV3AqlI/AAAAAAAAErg/ve3mpCslW-o/s400/jesustexts.JPG

“If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with truth.” — Dostoevsky

Some time ago on a jaunt through Wikiquote I discovered this awesome statement. It raises many questions. Why would you want something other than the truth? Does a good Christian not accept Christ as truth anyway? What does Christ have above the truth? Some beautiful deception? Having not read the context in which this quote appears, the best thing I can do is to possibly misunderstand Dostoevsky by taking his word for it. So what does ‘his word’ mean to me? Here truth operates within the circle of reason and language; Christ operates in a circle beside that. Language, composed of words, structures and myriad other complex nuances, signifies reality/experience and all that is contained within it (this includes what is only contained in it as a possibility, like absolute zero).  Reason can be the manipulation of ideas expressed in language (although there also exists a pre-linguistic reason, coming to conclusions without reference to language, not even an internal one²). The problem then with reason and its position in language is that it signifies; it is not identical to the reality it expresses.

Be careful not to misunderstand me. This is not traditional apophatic theology: our corrupted reason cannot express or think God (although I accept this in another time and place). Nor is this philosophy’s equivalent: How do we know that what we know is true? This is only to assign reason and language to their proper places within experience. It is a redistribution of wealth. As Heidegger says of Descartes, the doubting subject is not the centre of epistemology (method of knowledge), yet it is not absent from it. The doubting subject is not the source of epistemology but only a mode of it. We are thrown into the world before we make sense of it. This is the next point: although language is not identical to that which it expresses, it still expresses it. There is definitely some identificating going on. This, then, is the correct place of language and reason: A part of the whole, one site in reality where the rest of experience can be conveniently bottlenecked.

Note that this applies also to my description of language and reason. A mutiny is occurring at this moment. I cannot assume some metalanguage with which I deal with language, etc. What I can do though is to point somewhere with this contradiction in an attempt to distract the reader. Imagine a politician speaking to a large crowd and attempting to convince them of a certain ideology. Just when the speaker is reaching the crux of their argument, the crowd, as one, suddenly turns and leaves. There is no one left. The speaker may continue but their words will not be received. Or consider rehearsing words in your head for an upcoming job interview, but a Taylor Swift song comes on the radio and you can’t ignore it. The rehearsal sinks out of sight. This is the critique of reason, not with reason itself, but a force from the outside. I will acknowledge that my examples full short because they only exist in the language I am using here rather as actualities. This gap will always be present when speaking of such examples. All I can say is that if you want to take me up on this one I can just disable commenting on the post.

Language is one mode of epistemology. There are infinite others³, such as joy. I ‘know’ something about reality through the extent, variety, etc of joy I experience. Joy as a mode and the knowledge gained from it both exist pre-linguistically. If I am joyful semi-regularly then I experience the world with joy before I can translate that it into words and ideas. Maybe my experience is accompanied by words and ideas. This does not negate pre-linguistic joy as a mode of knowing but only shows it occurs beside our most linguistically recognisable mode, language.

If you’ve still energy after that little excursion then follow me back to the issue at hand, Jesus, who is theology. Jesus is intermodal. I want to avoid saying he is a particular mode because he appears in many modes (you could possibly say the same about joy and language). He is not confined to reason and therefore cannot be ‘reached’ through reason alone. He could possibly be reached without reason, but this would require a strict definition of reason and exceptional circumstances which I have no mind to express. Saying this is akin to saying it’ useless waiting for snow in the middle of Australia but it is possible we could still reach snow if we were somewhere else. Enter Dostoevsky’s Christ. This is the elusive ‘If’ with which Dostoevsky introduces the statement. Now reason is not an end, nor a meaningful end to an end. Reason can only be contributory, the ‘If not’. If Christ is not outside truth then I can reasonably say that this blog post can contribute to myself and others ‘reaching’ Jesus (or, as a good Christian would say, contribute to a medium for Jesus reaching us). As Peter Rollins writes,

a person may “believe” that they are utterly safe in a roller coaster and yet be too terrified to ever step onto one. The point is that the conscious claim (I am rational and know that this is safe) is a mere story that covers over the operative belief (I will not be safe). — Still my favourite, accessed here.

Jesus appears in our beliefs only if they have operative value. A person who practises prayer but often doubts its value believes in it more than a person who merely affirms it intellectually. Or Kierkegaard, “Even if one were able to render the whole content of faith into conceptual form, it would not follow that one had grasped faith”. That appears on banner of my blog. For me it sums up not only Kierkegaard but theology. A cute argument is not the site of God. Jesus exists not in saying “The watch must have a watchmaker”. He was a carpenter. Sound theology will always exist not in the abstract, the beautiful sermon or the journal article of intellectual depth alone, but in the lives of those who practise it. If I am to do theology it be in the open air, rather than in a vacuum. Theology encompasses more than the use of reason and language. A true theologian conforms to the character of Christ and takes part in the Kingdom of God4.

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sisterin need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

(1John 3:16-18 NRSV).

* * *

¹Physical literally meaning soul-like. Is the irony intended? That metaphysics is defined as that beyond the metaphysical? Maybe metamaterial (metasomatic?) would be better, but perhaps I’m missing the history involved in this coinage.

²This, of course, is a very lazy definition of reason. Linguistic and pre-linguistic reason are only relatively, not absolutely, distinct: The latter will make use of some non-linguistic signification as it needs to signify reality in some way in order to operate within, which therefore makes it linguistic, as language signifies. Linguistic signification must also depend on the non-linguistic for it to make sense to the subject, ie. we are distinct from the language we use. Therefore when I speak of two kinds of reason, I speak as a good relativist, of two different poles.

³’Language’ is a convenient way of naming a mode but in reality it will be composed of infinite infinitesimal parts which are also modes, the same going for any other examples I give.

4I must also anticipate here any Pentecostal ‘amen’. Reason, thinking, theology as mental education, writing books for Jesus, etc — these are not bad. They just need to be situated in their appropriate context.

Read Full Post »

“What good is it that an everlasting hope has been promised to us, but we have miserably failed?”

(2Esdras 7:120 NRSV).

* * *

After a short recess due to some unexpected lack of inspirations, I’m returning with a follow-up post on grace after It’s not easy being evilWhereas the former focussed on the necessity of entering grace through law, this will focus on some difficulties in law persisting after grace. I apologise ahead for the lack of footnotes and overuse of brackets. WordPress is not ideal for essay-like writings.

What makes grace possible? Certain passages in the bible that stress God’s omnipotence point out how nothing we do can ultimately sway his plan; because of God’s complete sovereignty, all redemption that a fallen world requires originates in him. For example, take the classic sermon attributed to Paul in Acts:

The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.

(17:24-27 NRSV)

A photo of John Milton on Instagram.

If God is God then he has no need for us to contribute to the success of his plans. He’s got it sorted. In one of my favourite Milton poems (ie. in one of my favourite poems), Milton explores his now relative inability to serve God after becoming blind:

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed[¹]
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

He complains that as he grows closer to God in his old age, his body prevents him from serving the Lord more fully. Yet his conclusion is akin to the description of God in Acts: The Lord is able to fulfill his will without the great works of Milton (cf. Paradise Lost, which is a great work, above that of Paradise Regained, ironically and quite tellingly making the Fall more central to being human than Christ’s redemption), only now requiring that Milton wait faithfully.

Isn’t this omnipotence partly what enables God to forgive sins? If freedom allows us to do otherwise than God intends (ie. sin) then the Lord’s omnipotence allows him to allow for that freedom independently of the fulfillment of his will. Paul expresses this asymmetry in a popular verse:

God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8 NRSV).

* * *

This alone makes me cynical of Zizek and Rollins’ atheistic enthusiasm towards the Christian legacy. God or the infinite, the Beyond, etc does not exist; he died on the cross. All we have now is the material Christian community, and the agapeic love thereof, which accepts us unconditionally (love the sinner, hate the sin). How then is this grace possible? The immutable alternative to sin and death, God’s ultimate and unchanging plan which exists in the infinite, has been shown to be wishful thinking, an illusion. Grace always was, and now knowingly, expressed in finitude, through imperfect believers.

I’m no scholar but humour me here. Say what Paul is saying in Romans is that it is impossible to fulfill the law through obedience to it, for various reasons, one being the universal sin of humanity (Romans 3:9ff), made known through the law (3:20), even taking the opportunity given by this knowledge to further assert itself (7:7-8). I think this can be possibly erroneously supplemented (in a good way) by some passages from the Messiah himself, and some good, commonsense examples. The Sermon on the Mount is a helpful place to start:

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire[…]

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

(Matthew 5:17-23, 27-30 NRSV).

Jesus cannot be seen here as just creating other absolute categories. The problem with law here is that its requirements are never absolute. Jesus points this out by relativising them. A lot of people could boast that they never committed adultery or murdered anyone. But how many could say they never indulged feelings of lust or hate for anyone? The temptation of people approaching this passage is to miss the point of what Jesus is saying by creating new absolute categories: No longer is it just wrong to sleep with the newlywed next door, it’s wrong also to think about doing so. I cannot dismiss that Jesus’ words righfully challenge smug law-abiders who think they’ve ticked all the boxes, yet in reality they missed the point of the law. Yes, taken. But we need to take our hermeneutics one step further. But what can also be taken from this passage is that Jesus is asking of us something impossible. It’s now wrong to think about committing adultery. What if it’s wrong also to want to think about doing so? This is all to easily dismissed as an untouchable depth of the depraved heart, which is not equal to ‘willful sins’ simply because we wake up with it in the same way we wake up hungry. Anger and lust are part and parcel with our humanity. Jesus asks us to not be something which cannot not be.

Perhaps this is why Paul cites ‘covetousness’ as an example of failure to live up to the law (Romans 7:8). With the possible exceptions of worshipping Yahweh alone and honouring your father and mother, covetousness is the law in the Decalogue most immediately obvious as an internal sin. As is already evident in the Torah, and then in later Rabbinic literature, case law and a whole range of imaginative possibilities were devised to determine what was and what wasn’t transgression in externally measurable circumstances: “If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity” (Deuteronomy 25:11-12 NRSV). Coveting occurs internally where things like husbands, genitals and hands don’t exist. It is not entered into with externally measurable circumstances but lurks in the infinite subconsciousness and coexists with the desires to drink water, yawn when you’re tired and scratch an itch. Of course, you don’t need to respond to those desires, but to be told not to desire in the first place, this is difficult.

Coming back to Jesus’ sermon, what is worrying (although I tend to always feel not somehow worried but inspired when I read this passage) is that he calls us to live so highly, to “be perfect” (v.48), as a part of adhering to the law, to the extent that if we neglect to live up to this perfection then we “will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (v.20). Jesus presents a potential disciple with a similar conclusion, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21 NRSV). The same language of perfection is used here. Although this “someone” had kept all the commandments (v.20), Jesus required yet more of him. The same/a similar theme appears elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel (12:1-14; 15:1-20; 23:1ff).

Not only are the requirements of the law infinite for internal things like lusting and coveting, both of which cannot be measured empirically (this is why psychology is a soft science; real scientists make conclusions about gravity and the structure of atoms, etc), but there is no way to way to live up to external requirements either. The Sabbath is for resting but that doesn’t mean you can neglect your bone-brokened donkey. If you’re walking along and see a piece of rubbish on the ground, you can put it in the bin nearby, but then you might see another, and then another. Is it right to spend the rest of your life cleaning up the streets or is it right to pick up one piece, ignore the others, and move on? Using violence to solve problems goes against who Jesus is, but what about in self-defense? It’s not needed. I can forgo the protection of my body to maintain my peaceful ideals. What, then, about defending vulnerable individuals? How do you intervene between an adult smacking up some kid? When do your actions become no longer defense on the part of another but unneeded violence? What we need now is a bunch of Rabbis to take Jesus as the new Torah, and then to meditate on the infinite extensions of “turn the other cheek”, producing a two volume commentary on Christian non-violence and every conceivable situation where the moral responsibility of the subject would be called into question. Peter Rollins’ parable, The third mile is useful here:

* * *

Back into the big picture, Jesus is pointing out the hypocrisy of the religious elite who hold a privileged place in society, along with access to the interpretations of the law, and therefore access to God. Paul takes the same kind of idea and shows how not just the religious elite but wider Israel had an exclusive status through the law that barred the Gentiles access to God (I’m here indebted to N T Wright for his gloss on Romans 2 — not hearers of the law (Jews) but doers (some Jews and Gentiles) will be justified at the judgement). What Paul and Jesus have in common here is that they are both criticising groups who bar others from access to God, which is not just an abstract, between-me-and-God spiritual superiority but a social superiority with far-reaching material consequences (eg. Matthew 15:5-6; John 4:9, 8:1ff; Acts 6:1; Galatians 2:12). It’s easy to get off topic when discussing the proper context of the passages. But Paul and Jesus’ presentation of an alternative to the law (while, of course, upholding the law) needs to be understood with what that offers, universal access to God and the material reality that comes with that.

Can Paul’s universality of sin and Jesus’ infinite requirements of the law then be removed from this context? I’m not qualified to give a proper answer. But, I can’t see, after first acknowledging the bigger picture, why not. Universal sin and impossible obedience are just that, universal. Paul sees this and presents an alternative, namely trusting/believing/having faith in God (Romans 3:21ff, 4:16ff; cf. Galatians 3:5) and living life in the Spirit (Romans 8; cf. Galatians 5:16-26). As Kierkegaard notes, in Christianity the definition of sin has shifted, “This is one of the most crucial definitions for the whole of Christianity; that the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith” (making reference to Romans 14:23, where Paul has now put his theology into a practical context).

Faith, after Abraham and the passages cited above, appears to me to be believing that God will fulfill his word(s). I tread carefully in giving a definition of life in the Spirit because of my Pentecostal background, which focusses on the response of the individual to the internal leading of the Holy Spirit, immediately connecting both faith and Spirit, although I will mention that this individualism² is not without biblical support (eg. Romans 14:5-12; Exodus 25:2; 1Corinthians 12:4-11). I am also aware of the emphases of Calvinist pneumatology, which hold some stakes in this definition, that is, that because of our total depravity (I actually get some sort of sick kick out of ascribing that to humanity, which no doubt some will cite as itself evidence of the doctrine) we cannot do good, let alone accept the message of the Gospel in faith, so that it is the Holy Spirit who works in our hearts and enables us to believe, also connecting two of Paul’s qualifiers for life in Christ. What appeals to me here is not our absolute dependence on God even for faith (which I disagree with, because it leads to determinism) but the framing of the Holy Spirit as God’s initiative, the topping up of what is incomplete in faith.

This brings us back to where we started, which is to acknowledge that Paul’s sermon in Acts continues with the words, “While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (17:30 NRSV). And this is to acknowledge that while Milton could not serve God as he previously could with his sight, the Lord asks him now to “stand and wait”. These are expressions of faith, universal access to God through simply believing what he says. But faith in itself is art for art’s sake. It falls to the same fate as our flawed obedience to the law. This then is the Holy Spirit, who works with us through faith to overcome the infinite requirement, “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13 NRSV). God is pleased with what we do. Under law we were incited to sin, yet under faith the Lord uses us through his Spirit to “uphold the law” (Romans 3:31 NRSV), even, as with Paul, become a necessary part in his plan by sharing the Gospel (Romans 10:14-15). Now the asymmetry of the omnipotent Creator and the finitesimal created is topped up and mediated through Holy Spirit in faith.

Under the new dichotomy of faith/sin against the old of virtue/sin (better, obedience-to-the-law/sin; Kierkegaard was dismantling Socratic, not Judaic understandings of sin), we are protected from the accusations of the law because by our faith God declares us righteous. This is not simply being acquitted from the responsibility to uphold the law, especially justice, but that through faith we now enter, with the Holy Spirit, into a new expression of law (Romans 8:2; 1Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2). We uphold the law. Yet we fail in obedience to the law, as cited before:

If, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! (2:17 NRSV).

Under faith/sin, sin is redefined as unbelief. Christians remain believing, being justified through faith, yet remain sinners naturally in accordance with the Mosaic criteria (when we remove Jesus and faith and all that and judge ourselves again from the start). We remain disobedient, as does everyone, yet we are declared righteous; there is an absolute, finite requirement, one that can be met with: Faith.

* * *

The transcendent God then does just what atheist criticisms accuse him of doing, making meaningful something truly meaningless and securing hope in something truly hopeless.  Who is on their side? Who adheres to this incompleteness of grace, the absence of redemption, which originates in some fantasy non-material world? One unlikely place to look would be Israel’s prophets. The truth of a finite expression of grace can be understood like this: What we do matters. Material actions matter. Although God will ultimately judge the world, our sins still affect those around us. It was not enough for Israel to be called by God apart from the nations to know him and be loved by him; Israel was also to serve him. Thus Ezekiel can say, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49 NRSV). Amos, speaking also of the neglect to provide for the poor and needy, writes of the Lord:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

(Amos 5:21-24 NRSV; it is worth reading the whole chapter (or the whole of Amos) to get a better idea of where exactly Israel had screwed up)

The offense of Israel’s actions is that they assumed their election overwrote social responsibility. Are there any similarities between Israel’s complacency under election and ours under faith? Yes. As with faith/sin, you could almost apply an election/sin to Israel, as to which Paul and Jesus also make reference (Galatians 2:15; Matthew 3:9; Romans 2:3). When faith or election fulfills the law then obedience becomes secondary. Although, with the Holy Spirit, we are led into obedience, disobedience maintains its consequences (Romans 2:8; Galatians 5:21). The absolute finite requirement of faith has become relativised and infinite, like its predecessor, the law. Thus Paul can say that he has not yet fully attained to the goal of his faith (Philippians 3:12). This verse can easily be read in the sense that Paul hasn’t died yet (cf. 1:21), as he’s speaking of the resurrection, but he’s also speaking of faith, righteousness before God, sharing in Christ’s sufferings, being found in him and knowing him (3:7-11), all of which are in the process of being attained in the present (this relationship of present incompleteness moving towards a complete future is elsewhere in, for example, Philippians 1:6 and 2:13-14, present salvation anticipating future). Elsewhere Paul can speak of his weaknesses, not just from suffering as a Christian, but facing responsibility (2Corinthians 11:28-29³).

Faith is now doubly incomplete. Firstly it privileges trust over obedience. Secondly, in the same way Paul cites scriptures to say there is “no one who is righteous” (Romans 3:10), he rightfully can say that there is no one who believes. What is more, if we embrace death of God theology to its end then there is no Holy Spirit, no perfect-ultimate will to top up our mistakes and bring cosmic redemption. We are left to our own devices where material action is both necessary and impossible. Yet even with God, material action is both necessary and impossible (improbable, without determinism or complete ‘sovereignty’, etc).

* * *

“What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1).

As with most things in life, this ends in despair. People looking for happier times should return to the days of Mario Kart, picnics and puppy love. Although the conclusion is decidedly un-Christian, I’m not yet ready to take some pat answers. Something about denial being the first sign of guilt. Antinomianism is the heresy where grace is like a license to do whatever you want, and you want to sin. Ironically, it comes from the Greek word nomos, meaning law. When grace allows you to do whatever you want, you’re operating under the heresy that literally means to be without the law:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

(James 2:14-17 NRSV).

We will always fall short of our material responsibilities at the same time as faith’s ultimate inability to hide us from them. The obvious answer is that at least you can try. Try to be obedient. Strive towards perfection. And whether you’re a theistic Christian and your failures are contrasted to the work of the Holy Spirit and the absolute condition of your heart, or you’re an atheistic Christian and Jesus’ challenge to live always beyond the law impels you to a radical life of helping others, note this: Striving is not being. Trying is a form of failure. This is the truth of human depravity: We have miserably failed.

* * *

¹”speed” here is a verb. I always tripped up on this until I realised that.

²When I say individualism I don’t mean it in the existential sense of the individual making meaning for their self out of their personal relationship with God/existence, nor do I mean it in the consumerist/prosperity gospel sense of serving God for the benefits he provides you as an individual, but I mean it in the sense of the community with emphasis upon the individual: We are individuals, separate people, and our individual actions contribute, for good or for bad, to the Kingdom of God.

³The NRSV translates the Greek pyroumai as ‘I am indignant’, which ignores Paul’s use of it in 1Corinthians 7:9, denoting the fire of lust. I’m no translator, but the NRSV doesn’t even provide a footnote with an alternative translation, where it is possible, and, I think, important.

Read Full Post »

Nothing is more readily evident than that the greatest attainable certainty with respect to anything historical is merely an approximation. And an approximation, when viewed as a basis for an eternal happiness, is wholly inadequate, since the incommensurability makes a result impossible.

–Søren Kierkegaard

* * *

Kierkegaard, aware of the advances in history and archaeology during his time, argues that that faith needs an objective basis, but because the objective is constantly under question and development then this objective basis is thus impossible and all objective content that we base our faith on — Jesus’ death and resurrection — is merely an approximation. The divide between subjective (our approximation) and objective (what we are approximating) should also be called into question: Truth that is fully subjective has no content because the approximation is the subject’s reading of the object and truth that is fully objective is obviously inaccessible because we access objects through our subjectivity. Truth is therefore always in the relationship between the subject and its object¹. Truth is a verb.

* * *

To make use of some other terms widely utilised by Kierkegaard, approximation also occurs between the finite (here subject) and infinite (here object). There is a bias in which particular finite activities are the sites of interaction with the infinite (Of course, all of finitude is in perpetual interaction with the infinite, but this is referring to Kierkegaard’s concern for eternal happiness of the individual, and more widely, the site where the finite is redeemed from evil/suffering by the infinite.). For example, take Paul’s words in one of his sin lists: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5 NIV). The key word here is idolatry, which brings to mind the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Sin is sin because it is a form of idolatry; it puts something that is not God above him. The first commandment could occur first because the following commandments are just variations on it. Alternatively, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (v.1) can be seen as the first commandment, and the prohibition of idolatry is just a variation on the reality of God’s identity, the most rudimentary truth. Thus even if the penitent’s words in psalm 51 are applied to David and Bathsheba, therefore sidelining David’s poor treatment of his good friend Uriah, they still make sense: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (v.4). Sin is idolatry and idolatry hampers the redemption of the finite through the infinite because the finite persists in it’s finitude, without acknowledged need for its definition in relation to infinitude: Idolatry is the relation of the finite to the finite, whereas worship is the relation of the finite to the infinite.

Idolatry somehow never appealed to me…

* * *

This, then, is the hypocrisy: Christianity privileges some finite means over others:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

(Hebrews 4:15-16).

Prayer is the relation of the subject (believer, etc) to its object (God). Prayer is an approximation, and cannot approach God as he is because this requires objectivity, which is impossible. Only Calvinism can overcome the idolatry of prayer by having God pray to himself through the believer as an instrument rather than subject. Is the answer to idolatry then relativism, that since prayer depends on a much closer approximation of God by treating him as he is due, as opposed to gluttony which involves a lot less conscious acknowledgement of God, the two swing back into their absolute categories and prayer remains worship while gluttony remains idolatry? Is prayer only worship or acceptable because it is less idolatrous than gluttony and vice versa?

* * *

This is the wisdom of Peter Rollins’ landmark book, How (not) to speak of God, where he examines the story of the Israelites and the golden calf. Actually, you should read the book, which is a lot more conclusive than this post. The Israelites were worshipping God, though through the medium of a golden calf, as is indicated by the almost laughable-from-our-perspective address to the calves:

He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.

(Exodus 32:4-6).

Put aside the last sentence with seems to be the author also encouraging us to laugh at the naivety of the Israelites (as also the writers of the gospels encourage us to laugh at the continuing of-course-I-wouldn’t-do-that faux pas (plural) of the disciples), and you could almost have the same religion with just a different approach. The only other difference would be an almost purely linguistic one, where God, instead of residing in the ark of the covenant, is the golden calf. That overt idolatry is linked with revelry only seals the deal. The revelry arises because God is met on our terms rather than his own, allowing Rollins to say, “it is the way one engages with an object or idea that makes an idol an idol rather than some kind of property within it”. Idolatry is not objective but relational. God is not an idol but our relation to him is.

I think this adequately demonstrates the connection between the golden [rabbit] and feasting and revelry².

* * *

The problem is that idolatry and worship co-exist within relationality. The gap between subject and object can adequately be called worship (everything is within God’s will, inclusive of sin, that to barely exist is to worship him) or idolatry (everything falls short of acknowledging God as he is, therefore acting in response to an approximation of him, which is idolatry). The latter is to be preferred. Freedom/human agency to some mysterious extent is necessary because otherwise God redeems only himself, which means pantheism, which is itself a cover for non-existence. How then do we overcome the idolatry of relation, continuing to relate as subjects, which is entirely necessary to redemption?

* * *

¹This insight was refined for me in Žižek’s second essay in The monstrosity of Christ, appealing to previous trends in philosophy, of which Kierkegaard is also a part.

²My study bible notes that the language around ‘revelry’ suggests an orgy. Maybe it was a rabbit, and the later interpolation of ‘calf’ was a polemically motivated attack on Hindu merchants…

Read Full Post »

When I was younger I used to share a room with my also younger brother. (If you are quite possibly a straight, single, Spirit-filled female between the ages of 20 and 28, now would be a good time to stop reading). Sometimes we had cabbage with our dinner. Sometimes various legumes. The body often responds to such stimuli in a unique way, a way that my brother the next day often bemoaningly reported wrested him from his sleep in the early hours of the morning. Sometimes the activities of my own volatile gases were enough even to wake me myself up. This then is an attempt not only to wake myself up through processing a healthy philosophio-theological diet, but to fart loud enough that Rollins himself will hear it.

* * *

Pete's new title

On recently reading Peter Rollins’ new book, Insurrection and following his blog for the last year and a half (?) or so, some particular ideas at the centre of his message have stuck out to me. I hope I’m not too late to the party…

In many senses the title of this post is erroneous. The ideas contribute to some of Rollins’ theology, but they are yet just a small part of it. Moreover, it appears that Rollins probably makes use of them through his reading of Zizek, who in turn is probably borrowing from Lacan, although my skinny selection of past reads cannot confirm that. I’m still giving philosophy a go at the entry-level so I probably won’t be able to throw around any of those nice words such as ‘ontology’, ‘telos’ or ‘Heidegger’. Anyway, this is my summary of the two ideas as they appear in the chapter ‘Story Crime’ (Insurrection pp.81-108, all page references refer to the UK edition), with some support throughout this post from various posts on Rollins’ blog:

(a) We construct an image of ourselves as a mask or story we tell ourselves, which in turn shields us from confronting who we really are.

(b) Our true self and our actual beliefs are not those which are reflected in this image, mask, story, etc, but those that are seen externally through operative beliefs, ie. our actions.

In regard to these ideas, I ask the following questions:

(i) To what extent is it possible to construct a sincere image of ourselves, one that authentically communicates who we are?

(ii) What are the problems in defining our beliefs as our actions?

(iii) To what extent is it possible to ‘believe’ (ie. operatively) in God as love?

* * *

Far safer through an Abbey gallop,
The stones achase,
Than, moonless, one’s own self encounter
In lonesome place.

–Emily Dickinson

(i) To what extent is it possible to construct a sincere image of ourselves, one that authentically communicates who we are?

Rollins use examples of a New York mobster who robbed and killed people writing a children’s book from prison, a pre-WWII write up about Hitler’s residence in Home and Garden magazine, and everyday use of social networking as examples of images we construct of ourselves to avoid the guilt of who we really are:

We all have a story that we tell ourselves about ourselves, a story which we begin identifying with from infancy, and as long as we don’t think too much about it, we are able to maintain this story. But the personal narrative often has little direct connection to the reality of who we are.

(p.88)

Now what if Gotti (the mobster) was to, instead of writing a children’s book that communicates his humanity, compose a memoir concerning the various events he participated in, ones that would later justify to the public his imprisonment, and with that reflect upon his own depravity (to make use of orthodoxy here) and let his readers know what led him to commit such acts? What if Hitler, when the writers for the magazine article showed up, talked instead of his hate for Jews and his desires to work towards a master race? “I’m treating you as honoured guests because my image to the English-speaking world depends on you guys, but know that in my heart of hearts I desire nothing but power and revenge and will strip millions of their humanity to move towards my goal.” In the same sense, Pete outlines our duplicit approach to social networking: “On our profiles we list all the films that we want people to think we like while failing to mention some of the more embarrassing ones[…]” (p.93). Porn immediately came to mind, although I think Pete is more so exposing yours and my secret covering up of our watching chick flicks, or worse, movies with Hulk Hogan in them.

The 'What I really do' recent meme is a good example of the divide between fact and faux

The problem arises that as soon as you decide to communicate to someone about the reality of who you are, your communication is conditioned by what others will think, no matter which angle you approach it from. Pete gives a good example of this in his post, How to hide a lie in a truth (via the Marx Brothers):

[…]take the example of a religious leader who is part of a community that actively holds repressive/naive views regarding such things as gender roles, gay and lesbian rights, biblical interpretation and scientific reflection. If the religious leader actually holds such views themselves they will quickly attempt to justify the churches position in a variety of (often contradictory) ways. However there is a more interesting phenomenon whereby the leader fully and freely acknowledges the repressive positions held by their community.

What is interesting about this position is how their willingness to admit that they materially participate in a repressive community operates. For when one speaks to such a person one is generally led to think that they are not what they fully claim to be. The honesty causes one to think that they are other than what they are. We are led to think that their intelligence and ability to admit the dark underbelly of their community means that they are better than the community they are part of, that they should not to be overly identified with that community and perhaps even that they must be trying to influence it for the better.

If I take Pete’s idea into another context, I find it impossible to speak to others regarding my darker self as my very speaking to them is inextricably bound to the desires of my darker self: “I speak maliciously about people I love behind their back”, communicated in humility to someone I love cannot be removed from my desire for them to see me in a positive light apart from my actions. In a way it justifies my behaviour because they see me as someone with enough humility to admit to my faults and therefore have the desire to overcome them. Even going one step further and letting them know that you’re telling them in part because you desire them to see you as humble cannot defeat your possible motivations. To tell someone your confessions are a result of a desire to be seen as humble and honest just bumps the desire up a step with the step you take: You tell someone you desire to be seen as humble so you may very well be seen as humble, and if you take a further step and acknowledge this hypocrisy then you again bring the desire into play, and so on into infinity.

But sincerity is not just difficult in literal verbal communication — we are defined in the eyes of others by everything we do. If this is the case then can any action be performed with sincerity? If I have a heartfelt, Spirit-inspired message to relay to the congregation, is it possible to deliver it sincerely, without desiring to be seen as an insightful young prophet, or rebellious intellectual iconoclast, depending on the nature of the message? If a Red Cross collector is standing at the entrance to a mall, is not my giving to her complicated by the fact that she’s standing right in front of me and asking for money?

But what if even what we do in secret cannot be done with sincerity? I cannot find where Pete acknowledges this (there are a few similar passages but the example I was looking for I can no longer find) so I’ll just have to use my own example, based on what I’ve read of Pete so far. In the Red Cross example above, even if the woman, the mall and everybody around me is absent — I approach a donation box in a society-free vacuum, whatever — I still cannot donate in sincerity. My ‘good deed’, my giving of money to charity is conditioned by what I think of myself: “I am a good person who usually gives when there’s a need so I don’t feel required to right now” or “I usually spend my money on myself so I really need to change the way I act”, etc — thoughts such as these influence our actions because we construct an image of ourselves, not just for others but one that we ourselves see, to communicate to ourselves who we are.

To go even further, even considering actions in negative relation to the image we construct for others and ourselves is still a consideration: “I will speak in church because I don’t care what others think” or “I will give to charity regardless of what I think of myself”. Once these factors have been introduced it is impossible to act sincerely because they will always be considered consciously or unconsciously. Our motivations are legion, and we never engage in action for just one reason.

The material upto this point I feel has largely been in agreement with Pete, but just appealed to me in light of Jesus’ words such as “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8 NIV) and “These people honour me with their lips but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15:8 NIV). Now let’s go a little deeper…

* * *

“I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.” — Jekyll in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

(ii) What are the problems in defining our beliefs as our actions?

After giving examples of how we cover up who we really are, Pete expounds a true measure for who we are:

Our material commitments will show us which master we love and which we hate; not what we confess in our poetry and prose. In this way, it is often the people around us who will be better at judging what we really are love than we ourselves, for we are very adept at hiding from ourselves the truth of our desires.

(p.98)

A later sub-heading reads “Our practices do not fall short of our beliefs; they are our beliefs” (p.102). If you’re not sold on this idea, take the example from Pete’s cleverly named post, I believe in child labour, sweatshops and torture:

Take the example of buying chocolate from a corner shop. If I know, or suspect, that the chocolate is made from coco beans picked by children under the conditions of slavery then, regardless of what I say, I believe in child slavery. For the belief operates at a material level (the level of what I do) rather than at the level of the mind (what I tell myself I believe). And I can’t hide in supposed ignorance either for if I don’t know about how most chocolate is made it is likely that my lack of knowledge is a form of refusal to care. For the very fact that there is Fair Trade chocolate, for example, should be enough for me to ask questions about whether other chocolate is made in an unfair way[…]

In the West we are very prone to think that beliefs operate at the level of the mind, however what goes on in the mind has no necessary relation to the material realty of our operative beliefs (those that we enact). For example a person may “believe” that they are utterly safe in a roller coaster and yet be too terrified to ever step onto one. The point is that the conscious claim (I am rational and know that this is safe) is a mere story that covers over the operative belief (I will not be safe).

You can also watch this video, I deny the resurrectionwhich goes along a similar vein if you don’t quite yet understand, and the Irish passion of the short video makes it all the more worthwhile to watch.

Apart from the brilliantly challenging nature of these words, and their biblical resonance (eg. 1John 3:18; James 2:18; Luke 11:28), I think Pete makes some assumptions which need to be addressed. If we go back to the examples of Gotti and Hitler, this kind of reasoning leads here:

The truth of Hitler is not found in the story he tells about himself but in what drove him to such monstrous evils. The [Home and Garden article] is exactly the type of story Hitler would have told himself about himself in order to avoid facing up to the disgusting truth of who he was. And, of course, the same is true of Gotti […], whose truth is found in the desires and drives that are manifest in [his] actions rather than in the fact that [he writes] touching stories for kids[…]

(p.92)

Now I don’t want to discredit Pete because I think he’s just making use of Hitler as an example, rather than holding only to what he writes here. However, the immediate danger is that our worst actions, our greatest failings are the benchmark by which we ourselves and others define us. We are our lowest common denominator. It is easier to draw this conclusion with Hitler, as he spent a larger proportion of his life engaged in explicitly evil acts, and continues to stand as a point of reference to evil for many. I think Pete makes the mistake of defining Hitler completely by his evil though, dismissing his personal life as a front or cover up for who Hitler really is: “Here we must avoid the temptation to be fooled by the subjective story of the other” (p.92).

Hitler at home... from the untimely show 'Heil Honey'

An example can be taken from Robert Louis Stevenson’s book, The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the quote from which introduces this section in the post. In the novel, Dr Jekyll, a learned, well-respected, philanthropic member of society devises a way to live out his secret and evil desires behind the guise of his well-loved self. He concocts a formula that allows him to become a completely different person, Mr Hyde, and explore his evil self. Stevenson hints at Jekyll-Hyde’s homosexuality, masturbation, and the use of prostitutes throughout, things that were widely condemned in the era he was writing. It is in one of Jekyll’s reflections before his death not too long after that he says of himself and Jekyll, “Even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both”. Jekyll was the sexually unbridled and murderous, hateful, Hyde as much as he was his loved and respected self. And even though he acknowledges the possibility of being both, his ending reflections center on Hyde being someone completely different to himself, a separate self whose actions he was unaccountable for. Jekyll then moves in the opposite direction to Pete — instead of embracing his darker side as that which truly defines him, he takes refuge in his subjective self. But what if his possibility, that he is both depraved and a loving person, rather than either, a better representation of the truth?

Faith in the Kierkegaardian sense is a passion. This is one side of the tagline under heading on my blog. Kierkegaard railed against the idea that as people we were becoming more perfect through every generation, with advances in science in and other forms of knowledge. To have perfect faith, all you needed to do was read a summary of the people who had gone before you and all the philosophers who had asked the right questions (namely Plato and Descartes). But for Kierkegaard, true faith was in the experience of finding, rather than building on what those before you had done. You needed to start from the start. This can be read as a metaphor for our daily lives. Everyday we cannot build on who we already are but must experience faith anew as a passion. To put Pete’s example to use, some days I have bought fair-trade chocolate as I feel the importance of buying ethically and teaching others to do the same whereas other days I have bought evil chocolate usually because it tastes good, is accessible or it’s cheaper. By the way, just while we’re on the subject, if you buy fair-trade Cadbury or Whittaker’s, it’s still evil. This sounds like an awkward defence of my actions to the greater internet. But it’s really just an example to show that “Our practices do not fall short of our beliefs; they are our beliefs” only means that sometimes we believe certain things and other times we don’t. Human caprice means our beliefs can change weekly, daily, hourly even, and revert back to what they were previously. I can simultaneously hold the desires to wear nice clothes and live simply. What if the possibility to intellectually assent to a particular belief and act otherwise is not so much an indication of my own unbelief, but my human weakness, a failure to live up to my beliefs?

* * *

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” Ephesians 2:8 NIV.

(iii) To what extent is it possible to ‘believe’ (ie. operatively) in God as love?

Towards the end of the chapter, Pete touches on grace as a way of transforming who we are:

In grace we are able to accept that we are accepted and, in this very act of knowing we do not have to change, we discover the ability to change. It is in experiencing the license of grace rather than the legalism of prohibition that real transformation becomes possible.

(p.106).

His definition of grace is part and parcel with Paul’s in Romans:

[…] the law does not stand in opposition to sin but rather is interwoven with it. In other words, the law and sin do not exist at opposite ends of a spectrum but rather occupy the same space and stand opposed to a fundamentally different mode of being (that of love).

(p.103; cf Romans 7:7-8:17)

Pete’s use of grace as a factor in Resurrection life to address our sinfulness, way of life, etc, does not seem to me like he has gone far enough. In the first part of the book, Pete examines how structures in modern churches shield us from facing doubt, the fear of death and the meaninglessness of existence by providing certainty and meaning. He then examines how we also avoid our own guilt (p. 87ff), which the rest of the chapter addresses (ie. a lot of the material I have just worked through). One place that Pete alludes to but doesn’t directly address, however, is apathy.

A bit of a classic there

Yes the books we read on apologetics tell us that we actually believe in God against our hidden doubts, yes our worship songs help us to overcome our true fears of death (I particularly like this one, like I actually enjoy and value it, but I realise what role it plays), yes we listen to sermons to get a sense for meaning when we fail to find it in life, yes we avoid facing up to our guilt through the use of mask we create for ourselves and others… and yes we avoid our own apathy by speaking concernedly of horrible events in the world as they appear in newspapers, shedding a tear among friends for the neighbour’s family who is struggling financially, and posting videos on Facebook of KONY 2012. As much as there are structures in place to avoid all these things, we engage in structures to help us push under the surface the fact that deeply down we care mostly for ourselves.

What then does grace have to do with apathy? Grace is apathy’s corrective, the great elixir. Rather than acknowledging my own responsibility to care for the poor, grace allows me to actually care for the poor because I am cared for. In grace I am loved and so I will love others. Our responses to our apathy have hitherto been legalistic: I must pray for Christians being persecuted in the Middle East; it is the right thing to do. Grace allows us to desire to pray for the persecuted, out of God’s love and compassion for them.

But what if grace is a part of the structure that allows us to avoid facing up to our own apathy? I’m surprised at Pete’s orthodoxy here. He leaves a very large stone unturned. The problem with grace as an answer is in its very definition: A gift from God. To receive a gift, the giver must first give it. Nobody can choose to experience grace because the choice is completely God’s. Some people receive grace and lives are changed dramatically from that point onwards. Some come intermittently throughout their lives to a timely point of grace that allows them to move on. Some continue to strive to do good but what their experience of grace is scant throughout their lifetime.

In a response to Richard Beck’s critique of Insurrection, (It’s not the size of the wand that matters, it’s the magic that’s in it: A response to Richard Beck), Pete writes of the necessity of community in facing up to the death of God (the Crucifixion experience, entailing the embrace of doubt, meaninglessness, death and guilt): “My point is that we need Christian community both in order to help us undergo this event [the death of God] and to help us bear the weight of it”. Community, like grace is not something that can be achieved on the individual’s part. In an Arminian sense, community is something both which I seek and that seeks me. If there is no community for me to be a part of then I must give this whole ‘love’ thing a go for myself.

So, in conclusion, to love with God at the center requires grace, which can act both as a structure to avoid my apathy and is not something that I can choose for myself.

Read Full Post »

“A relative and I became fond of smoking. Not that we saw any good in smoking, or were enamoured of the smell of a cigarette. We simply imagined a sort of pleasure in emitting clouds of smoke from our mouths.”

“They were not an assembly of devout souls; they appeared rather to be worldly-minded people, going to church for recreation and in conformity to custom.”

Gandhi, An autobiography or the story of my experiments with truth

* * *

“The most serious Christians have always been well disposed towards me.”

“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be other than it is, not in the future, not in the past, not in all eternity.”

Nietzsche, Ecce homo

Pilate presents Jesus to the crowd, “Ecce homo!” Latin for ‘behold the man!’. Nietzsche ironincally employs this title for his formative biography.

* * *

“God was introduced into the world on our terms in order to resolve a problem rather than expressing a lived reality.” Summarising Bonhoeffer’s deus ex machina, God out of the machine.

“The endless courses on apologetics triumphalist music, confident prayers and sermons of certainty don’t necessarily reflect the beliefs of the people offering them or receiving them. But everyone participates regardless, because they protect us from facing up to the anxieties of our existence.”

Peter Rollins, Insurrection

* * *

“So wel they lovede, as olde bookes sayn, /That when that oon was deed, soothy to telle, /His felawe wente and soughte hym doun in helle — ” sayn: say, oon: one, soothly: truely, felawe: fellow

“Man is bounden to his observaunce, /For Goddes sake, to letten of his wille, /Ther as a beest may al his lust fulfille. /And whan a beest is deed he hath no peyne; /But man after his deeth moot wepe and pleyne.” Or “For God’s sake it is man’s duty to refrain from his desire, whereas a beast may do whatever he pleases and when he dies he has no pain, but a man must weep and lament after death.”

Chaucer, The Canterbury tales

* * *

“If the Spirit does not move me, I move the Spirit”

Smith’s Wigglesworth, [I have neglected to record the title]

* * *

“The sixth commandment is ‘You shall not kill’. It is one of the shortest commandments and offers no commentary, explanations or variations. It does not say, as many Jews claim, ‘except in self-defense’, nor does it say ‘except when absolutely necessary’. It is one of the most plain declarative sentences in the Bible.”

“If the outbreak of war is inevitable, as seventeenth-century thinkers believed, history teaches the lesson that its inevitability does not rest, as they believed, on natural law, but on individuals incapable of conceiving another path.”

Mark Kurlansky, Non-violence, the history of a dangerous idea

Make love, not glaciers

* * *

“‘You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?’ ‘No, what do you say, Harrison Starr?’ ‘I say, Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?'”

“To teach wives of junior executives what to buy and how to act in a French restaurant.” On the function of a novel.

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-five

* * *

“God is the cause of all good things, some directly, others indirectly. He is the direct cause of Old and New Testaments. He is the indirect cause of Greek Philosophy. Perhaps we say that God gave Philosophy to the Greeks, till the Lord should call the Greeks. For as the Law educated the Hebrews […] so Philosophy educated the Greeks, to bring them to Christ. Philosophy, therefore, was a preparation.” Clement of Alexandria presents a view that contrasts somewhat sharply with Paul’s.

Quoted by John Foster, The first advance, church history AD29-500

* * *

“When Akbar was issuing his legal order that ‘no man should be interfered with on account of religion’, and ‘anyone is allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him’, and was busy arranging dialogues between Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Parsees, Jews and even atheists, Giordano Bruno was being burnt at the stake in Rome for heresy, in the public square of Campo dei Fiors.”

“To hold the belief that nuclear weapons are useful but must never be used lacks cogency and can indeed be part of the odd phenomenon that Arundhati Roy […] has called ‘the end of imagination'”

Amartya Sen, The argumentative Indian

* * *

“The experience that we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing is fundamentally a lie — the truth lies outside in what we do.”

“The misfortune of Israel is that it was established as a nation-state a century or two too late, in conditions when such founding crimes are no longer acceptable.”

Slavoj Zizek, Violence

* * *

“The human race is a monotonous affair. Most people spend the greatest part of their time working in order to live, and what little freedom remains so fills them with fear that they seek out any and every means to be rid of it.”

“It is everywhere the same in this world, toil and labour, joys and rewards; what of it? I am only contented in your presence, and I shall suffer or enjoy here before you.”

Goethe, The sorrows of young Werther

* * *

“I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.”

Robert Louis Stevenson, The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

One of my favourite Looney Tunes episodes. Tweety appears as Mr Hyde.

* * *

“Sleeping is no mean art. You need to stay awake all day to do it.”

“The true man wants two things: danger and play. For this reason he wants woman as the most dangerous plaything.”

“To redeem the past and transform every ‘It was’ into and ‘I wanted it thus!’ that alone do I call redemption.”

Nietzsche, Thus spoke Zarathustra

* * *

Since that fateful day in September last year when I left home, these books managed to find their way to me. If you have questions as to context then just ask, but things are never as interesting when they’re in their original context.

Read Full Post »

“I now go away alone, my disciples! You too now go away and be alone! So I will have it.
Truly, I advisee you: go away from me and guard yourselves against Zarathustra! And better still: be ashamed of him! Perhaps he has deceived you.
The man of knowledge must be able not only to love his enemies but also to hate his friends.
One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil. And why, then, should you not pluck at my laurels?
You respect me; but how if one day your respect should tumble? Take care that a falling statue does not strike you dead!
You say you believe in Zarathustra? But of what importance is Zarathustra? You are my believers: but of what importance are all believers?
You had not yet sought yourselves when you found me. Thus do all believers; therefore all belief is of so little account.
Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have all denied me will I return to you.”

Zarathustra to his disciples in Nietzsche’s Thus spoke Zarathustra (‘Of the bestowing virtue’, part one).

* * *

Favourite picture of Nietzsche. Who needs philosophy when you’ve got a mo’ like that?

A couple of years ago, Nietzsche’s name for me was a symbol of intellectual insecurity. He was the kind of guy for the spiritual giants who fasted twice a week, prayed four hours a day and always ended up with the right amount of money (down to the cent!) from God at the last minute for whatever obscure purpose¹. They would love God too much to be swindled by some philosophical naysayer. Or Nietzsche was for those thinkers who had spent forty years doing so (ie. thinking), that when it came to the time to think about Nietzsche’s thoughts the words passed by devoid of all their original passion and challenge. But the attraction to Nietzsche came when I expanded my still-intellectually-secure reading list and began reading Christians who took Nietzsche’s criticism on board and agreed with him, mostly in the sense of saying that Christian theology (maybe not practice, but definitely a lot of theology) historically focusses on the beyond, the eternal, the unseen, the ideal, etc, to the detriment of the here and now, the temporal, the seen and the real². On reading these friendly faces, Nietzsche has become for me no longer a symbol of fear but one of creativity, and hope for a new voice in any stiff and outdated theologies, rather than a challenge that needs to be countered.
But, to be honest, I was quite disappointed. After potentially finding some ideas to contribute to more thoughtful theological practice, I just didn’t gel with the guy. The opening excerpt is one exception (there are a few more). As this post mentions the relative undangerousness of Nietzsche, I might also do a post in the future about why he’s not as cool as I thought he’d be.
* * *

What’s Zarathustra actually saying? First of all, here’s the background. Zarathustra/Zoroaster was a Persian prophet/philosopher and the founder of Zoroastrianism, an ancient and today dying religion from the same primordial ooze as Judaism, Christianity, Islaam, etc — the Near East. Nietzsche wrested him from his historical context and characterised him in said book. Thus spoke Zarathustra was viewed by Nietzsche as his most important work and a lot of his vital organs are contained in it. The text throughout mocks the bible, portraying Zarathustra at once as the new Messiah and Anti-Christ. One of my favourites was, “If we do not alter and become as cows, we shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (‘The voluntary beggar’, part four). The existentialist heart of the opening excerpt is important to the other key ideas in the work, albeit not Nietzsche’s most important idea, in comparison to the emphasis with which he puts on others.

And after all that, here’s in short what the puppetted prophet Zarathustra is actually  saying: “My philosophy does not ask you to believe in me and follow my ways, but to abandon me and find your own way. Those who abandon me and follow their own reality faithfully are most loyal to me and the ones I thus return to”. Zarathustra, in contrast to Jesus, asks not that we follow him and conform to his image, but that we abandon him and become like ourselves³. At this point you may want to re-read the quote at the start and realise its genius.

* * *

A good (dead) friend of mine

But to what extent is Nietzsche’s critique of Jesus based on a caricature of him? Does Jesus actually want us to all be like sheep4? Or is Jesus more like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra than we think? Perhaps Nietzsche was not so much attacking Jesus as he really is but what the church had constructed of him. I’ll use an example from another name you may find difficult to pronounce. Kierkegaard, probably the best ever philosopher (who was not really a philosopher but more of a man of faith in my elevated, saint-canonising conception of him), also criticised Jesus for the same reason Nietzsche did, but with a different focus5: Kierkegaard recognised that it was the church and contemporary philosophy (rather than the saviour himself) that advocated conformity to a universal code of ethics, something that Kierkegaard criticised throughout his life as deeply non-Christian.

A biblical example of Zarathustra’s ‘abandon me and find yourself’ existentialism was used by Kierkegaard as the title to his landmark work on the subject, Fear and trembling:

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13 NIV).

Paul, one of the most defining figures in early Christianity with lasting significance, is writing to the Philippian church while in jail. “Hey guys, I’m not always going to be there to hold your hand and look both ways for you before you cross the road. You’re big kids now and it’s not me you should be looking to for direction. And it’s not conformity with the ethical law that makes you a good person. Now that you’ve received the Spirit, God will work in each of you according to his purposes”. Kierkegaard takes the sentiment and writes a lifetime’s supply of philosophy on it: We discover that the will of God is different for every person.

But before I move on, I’ve got to call Nietzsche back over here for some input. While Kierkegaard would say that good determined by society or the Church should not deter the individual from doing the good to which God has called them, Nietzsche would say he has not gone far enough: good determined by society, the Church and God should not deter the individual from being faithful to their individual reality. Nietzsche would say that Kierkegaard’s theological weaknesses are trapping him from fully facing and embracing his reality. But I’m just the guy that drives the van.

* * *

This is seriously the coolest picture of Moltres I’ve ever seen and a Moltres tattoo might be the place to start. Check out the rest of this guy’s work here: http://cockrocket.deviantart.com/ You can buy his prints.

Working in hospitality with a lot of travellers and passing-through-ers, and knowing a lot of people my own age, has generally brought me into contact with a lot of tattoos. And every now and then a stray thought (stray in the sense of a stray dog) tells me how cool it would be to get a tattoo. And then I’m totally pouring different glasses of wine for customers, and that beautiful aroma! But I don’t drink alcohol. I don’t see anything wrong with getting tattoos or having a drink; I just don’t do it. Herein lies the tension between the universal and the particular6.

The particular is what I’ve hitherto spent this whole essay explaining to you, whether Kierkegaardian, the call to follow the Holy Spirit7, or Nietzshean, the challenge to live faithful to your individual reality. But the particular can only be understood against the background of the universal. Universalism in this sense asserts things such as universal truth, and therefore universal ethics, the idea that the most virtuous person in society is he or she who conforms most closely to this code of ethics. For me, this idea stinks of mathematical simplicity and is in keeping with reducing people to numbers, statistics, and stick figures. But, necessarily, a dual embrace of the universal and the particular is required for living as a Christian. Most clearly, I think, and this example would be a common one, if in the universal I know that God is love and that the ideal person is loving, then in the particular I cannot say that God is asking me to kill someone. Note also, that in the same chapter to the Philippians, Paul first describes aspects of a unified community, the universal which he encourages his readers to conform to before he reminds them that God will work in them according to his purposes:

“Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:2-4 NIV).

Further, a mature understanding of the universal and particular requires the rejection of the two as a dichotomy. The rejection is based on who has claims to the universal. In some states in the USA, capital punishment is an accepted punishment for certain crimes. In other states, it’s no longer an option. Understand that there are particular claims to the universal. According to some, it is universally acceptable that those who commit certain crimes should be punishable by death; according to others it’s universally unacceptable. The individual therefore has the duty of constructing their own universal but living according to their particular. In my understanding of the universal, it is alright to drink and get tattoos, but it’s not alright to get drunk. In my particular, I have not been called to either drink or get tattoos at this point in my life. Not that I’m so righteous because I’m doing what the Lord asked me to do. I could tell you that he’s asked me to do a lot of things that by my actions I’ve laughed at. Tattoos and drinking are just two things I’ve yet been almost successful in.

* * *

I leave you with this poem from the very existential and forever readable Emily Dickinson:

How happy is the little Stone
That rambles in the Road alone,
And doesn’t care about Careers
And Exigencies never fears—
Whose Coat of elemental Brown
A passing Universe put on,
And independent as the Sun
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute Decree
In casual simplicity.

* * *

¹It’s amazing how manifold these stories of divine providence are and they never cease to shock me and capture my imagination. I had a quick lazy look for some but I couldn’t find any so if you’d like to know what I mean then just ask.

²N T Wright, for example would be one of the writers that helps me identify with Nietzsche’s critique; however it’d be my guess that Wright’s not in direct dialogue with the man himself but rather listening to what the world around him and onto-it theologians are saying about the Christian heads-in-clouds-syndrome, which no doubt this critique has been inherited by secular academia and onto-it theologians from reading Nietzsche. Peter Rollins, another guy whose writings influenced me, on the other hand, seems to be in more direct dialogue with him.

³Paradoxically, Zarathustra’s disciples can either heed his words and abandon him (thus following him by taking his counsel) or, in weakness, continue to follow him (thus abandoning him by not understanding or being strong enough to take his counsel).

4A pun.

5It’s possible that Nietzsche, coming onto the scene a few years later, south of a couple of borders, read the holy philosopher as he seems to be denouncing him in some parts of Thus spoke Zarathustra. If so, Nietzsche took on board Kierkegaard’s existential ideas but pushed them beyond the realm of faith. However, I haven’t yet heard of any direct and verifiable evidence of Nietzsche’s speculated reading habits.

6I first came into contact with these terms through Kierkegaard, but they may be Hegelian. I really don’t know.

7A deliberately charismatic reading of Kierkegaard. Note that Kierkegaard acknowledges two possibilities in the particular, (a) the aesthetic, which means living according to your own desires and (b) faith, living according to your best understanding of God. Pentecostalism goes horribly wrong when faith is confused with the aesthetic, resulting in an heavily individualist approach to Christianity, a practice that fulfills all your spiritual and fleshly desires under the guise of faith.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »