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Posts Tagged ‘zizek’

I have just finished reading Christian Smith’s  insightful critique of biblicism, The bible made impossible: Why biblicism is not a truly evangelical reading of scripture. You can read the introduction for free through the Amazon link. Here are two critiques worth reading (the first two that come up on Google), although they should not distract from the overall worth of the text, which I highly recommend. I would love also to lend it out but let it be noted that I’ll do so quite sparingly as I think it’ll be a lot of help for my assignments this year!

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In the first part of the book, Smith defines biblicism as a distinctly American evangelical approach to scripture, based, give or take, on ten assumptions:

1. The words of the Bible are identical with God’s words written inerrantly in human language.
2. The Bible represents the totality of God’s will for humanity.
3. The divine will for all issues relevant to Christian life are contained in the Bible.
4. Any reasonable person can correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.
5. The way to understand the Bible is to look at the obvious, literal sense [intended by the author, possibly involving taking into account literary, cultural and historic purposes].
6. The [significance of any part of the bible] can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, or historic church traditions.
7. The Bible possesses internal harmony and consistency.
8. [Any part of historical teaching in the bible] is universally applicable for all Christians [unless superseded by later passages].
9. All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned through inductive Bible study.
10. The Bible is a kind of handbook or textbook for Christian faith and practice.

(Retrieved here, linked earlier. I reworded a few because I think the reviewer missed what Smith was saying in a few places).

This starting point could stand alone as something deeply important. Many Christians I have read, hung out with, or known otherwise would subscribe to some if not all of these. Most I reject in some way but the one I am most sympathetic towards is #5, although I would be open to exceptions, such where an underpinning philosophy in a biblical text has implications that the original author may have not realised at the time of writing¹.

Smith then goes on to show that the primary problem arising from a biblicist approach to scripture is that of “pervasive interpretive pluralism”, or honest, Spirit-led, deep thinking Christians coming to very different conclusions on important theological matters:

[…] the doctrines of God, Christ, revelation, atonement, salvation, baptism, the Lord’s supper, creation, hell, war, divorce, and remarriage. On all of these biblical and theological issues, we can identify three or four different views, not because those who hold them are trying to be contentious but because they read the Bible and come away convinced that their different views are correct.

(p.24)

This is the main problem on which Smith bases his argument, although a later chapter is dedicated to “subsidiary problems with biblicism”, which looks at things such as the actual lack of a biblical basis for a biblicist approach to the bible (ooh!) and one which I personally identified with, “Setting up youth for unnecessary crises of faith” (p.88). If my whole faith is based on biblicism then when either myself or others pose the tough questions my only viable responses are intellectual dishonesty or an honest end to faith.

In the second part of the book Smith details a Christocentric hermeneutic, that is first and foremost basing our faith on God’s work through Christ to redeem creation. Once that is sorted, a good Christology should inform both our reading of the bible and our treatment of theological and moral issues. The obvious criticism to raise here is that all we know of Jesus is from the bible. But how much of it really is? I liked this quote:

Faith does not simply rest on texts, but — also and more — on persons and events. Faith stands or falls not with the status of a holy text… but the knowledge and meaning of these persons and events, which can be mediated by the text.

(p.118, quoting James Barr).

For me, and I suspect most (all) Christians, our understanding of Jesus is mediated not just by scripture but church history/tradition, the community we come to faith in, and, yes, the real person of Jesus intervening in our lives, among other things. Of course this is going to be messy but who says an absolute commitment to scripture is any better? This is not to denounce the role of scripture but to restore to its place as a part of the whole. It still maintains a high place in Christian revelation. I have however known, and people may come to your mind also, people with little biblical familiarity to be very Christlike and others with a lot of biblical familiarity but little Christlikeness.

Smith goes on to talk about accepting complexity and unanswered questions in our approach to scripture and a puzzling chapter on questions concerning epistemology and authority. It’s not completely necessary but it nonetheless adds to his discussion.

I really enjoyed the prophetic nature of the book in its call to put Christ at the center. Regardless of the problems people have with Smith’s reasoning, I think all Christians can agree on that. I thought also that the structure was a very easy one to follow (traditional polemic — critique, followed by expounding his own position), the arguments were clear, most times giving sufficient evidence/examples, and Smith is widely read, which is good for those who want to explore other writers on the topics he discusses.

In conclusion it was theologically challenging and I see it as an important contribution to the discussion of what role the bible has to play in faith. Smith makes clear throughout that alternatives are still being worked out but his critiques of biblicism still stand. If you need me to explain anything or would like to discuss some of Smith’s ideas which I here present in a very limited sense then take me up in the comments section =)

* * *

I have now two minor critiques. If you wanted to know about the book or what I thought about it then you can go home now. You get an achieved. This next section is extra for experts. My first critique is Smith’s use of Roger Olsen’s distinction between dogma, doctrine and opinion (cited on p.135):

Some Christian beliefs are non-negotiable for any believer — such as the dogmas of the Trinity and the Nicene Christology. Other beliefs are those to which groups of Christians adhere with firm conviction but also disagree over with other kinds of Christians — such as Calvinist or Wesleyan systems of theology. Still others are beliefs that some Christians hold, sometimes with strong feelings, but that are far from being central, sure, and most important in the larger scheme of Christian belief and life. Examples of the latter include a preference for baptism by immersion or sprinkling, the commitment to homeschooling versus sending them to Christian or public school, and so on.

Smith’s argument follows that we need to learn to distinguish between the three and call each other Christian based on a shared adherence to dogma, with openness regarding doctrine, and especially opinion. At the risk of sounding heretical, I would actually go for a more open view of dogma, which I know is dangerous considering the wide witness to things considered dogma throughout church history (the trinity is one example). But the reason I say this is that even considering the great historical importannce of certain dogmas such as those laid out in the Nicene creed, to take an absolute stance on them excludes such contributions to theology as unitarianism and preterism, among others. I’m not saying that I support either of these theologies but I am saying both that Jesus can be found authentically in the lives of many who do not hold to the dogmas of the wider and historical church and that I would personally like to maintain an openness concerning heterodox beliefs. Maybe this is my sympathies with postmodernism coming through contra Smith’s critical realism (p.152).

My second critique is much more minor than the first and it’s only implicit in the book rather than a major point he makes. Throughout the work he makes continual reference to liberalism (in theology and our approach to the bible) as something to avoid. I was beginning to get annoyed at these mysterious mentions until he qualified them:

Theological liberalism is all about rethinking Christianity from an anthropological perspective, making it essentially about human consciousness and experience and progress. The view just elaborated — in which everything is all about its definition and existence in relation to the reality of Jesus Christ — offers the starkest contrast to liberalism imaginable. Liberalism wants to reconfigure Christian faith and doctrine in terms of modern, human categories and concerns. The view just elaborated says that every category, concern, idea, and identity must itself be reconceived in light of the ultimate fact of Jesus Christ. Liberalism wants to “demythologize” Christian stories and beliefs in view of “modern” scientific knowledge and plausibility systems. But the view elaborated here tells us that every knowledge system — including, if not especially, modern epistemologies — is literally lost and needing to be rescued and reoriented by the living person of Jesus Christ.

(pp.118-119, emphasis original).

Ultimately I am probably in agreement with Smith here in adherence to a Christocentric hermeneutic as opposed to a humanist or scientific materialist, etc³, but I don’t want to brush off ‘liberal’ theologies so quickly. I think an openness to and exploration of liberal theologies is a part of our humanity, which is a part of our faith. This might include the likes of biblical criticism or a death of god theology. Zizek, a marxist philosopher who makes use of Christian theology in his philosophy is relevant here in constructing a Hegelian Christology:

[…] the Greek gods appear to humans in human form, while the Christian God appears as human to himself. This is the crucial point: for Hegel the Incarnation is not a move by means of which God makes himself accessible/visible to humans, but a move by means of which God looks at himself from the distorting human perspective.

(pp.81-82, emphasis original)²

The point I am making is that as much as Christ was human it is important to entertain ‘human’ responses to him, however heterodox they may be, not with a desire to tickle our ears but with Christlike love to see God and the world from others’ perspectives, examine validities here and there, and take on that which is important.

* * *

¹One example, depending on your theological persuasions, would be Gal 3:28 where the egalitarian ethic does not appear fully realised in other texts.

²Zizek, S. (2009). The fear of four words: A modest plea for the Hegelian reading of Christianity. In C. Davies (Eds.), The monstrosity of Christ (pp. 24-110). USA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

³Perhaps maintaining sympathy towards postmodernism…

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“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.

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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…

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It’s like how they used to swallow whiskey before bed so they could sleep better. Maybe that was why I used to read my bible before bed. Sometimes it even worked.

* * *

I’m still pulling quotes out of Zizek’s Violence left, right and central because there’s a bit of profundity times infinity contained within those pages. Here’s what he has to say on suffering:

Opposite such a violent enforcement of justice stands the figure of divine violence as unjust, as an explosion of divine caprice whose exemplary case is, of course, that of Job. After Job is hit by calamities, his theological friends come, offering interpretations which render these calamities meaningful. The greatness of Job is not so much to protest his innocence as to insist on the meaninglessness of his calamities.

(p.152, Big Ideas series, 2006).

And:

This legacy of Job prevents us from taking refuge in the standard transcendent figure of God as a secret Master who knows the meaning of what appears to us as meaningless catastrophe, the God who sees the entire picture in which what we perceive as a stain contributes to global harmony.

(p.153).

Zizek here presents suffering not as a question that we look for answers to, but as a question of which answers are unworthy¹. Job asks God a whole lot of questions. God asks a whole lot back. Contrast this with a couple of verses from the New Testament. Paul writes to persecuted Christians and helps them deal with their suffering by attributing some eternal meaning to it: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2Corinthians 4:17 NIV). Jesus warns his disciples of martyrdom and in the inevitability of the death of sparrows must attribute it to God’s purposes: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care” (Matthew 10:28-29 NIV). How seriously should we take Job’s existential struggle with suffering?

Peewee Herman is no fool

If we view suffering in this guise, as a question, then the answers which diminish its value are shown to not actually be answers at all; the person who answers the question of suffering immediately negates it. To give an answer to the question of suffering is to attempt to say “Suffering doesn’t exist” because now the word suffering holds a meaning entirely different to that which we first understood it as. To suffer is, with regards to Paul, to brighten the light of eternal life by providing an earthly contrast. To suffer is, with regards to Jesus², to accept the will of God. We no longer read suffering as it is, a question. That there are answers actually says something fundamentally different to the answers themselves. Whereas the answers themselves by implication say that suffering doesn’t exist, the existence of the answers, and the need for the answers in response to a question, show that the question does exist, that suffering is a reality as a question without answers.

Right about now it would be meet to engage Zizek in the classic critique of nihilism, as his understanding of suffering is literally nihilistic, that is, without meaning. The critique goes that to say our existence is without meaning is to actually make a meaningful conclusion regarding existence. Therefore, to say suffering is meaningless overlooks the fact that you’re actually saying something about suffering — by designating it as a question you’re actually providing an answer.

This is my way of doing justice to Zizek, by misunderstanding him. The only authentic engagement with suffering is impossible, because it requires that sufferer only suffers, without reflecting at all on their suffering. This too, is the problem with Nietzsche’s amor fati, which although a central idea in his philosophy has probably not exerted as much influence on contemporary thought as his other ideas. Nonetheless, I’ll make use of my liberty and attack it. Amor fati, to love fate, that is to accept everything in life as your lot and not just bear it, not bemoan it, but embrace it and love it, including suffering, is in this sense also impossible. You can have your amor or your fati; you cannot have an amor fati though. To love necessitates a subject that loves; fate necessitates no freedom on part of the subject, and therefore no subject. You can have your amor by ceasing to live according to fate and deciding you embrace all that you have no control over, a kind of limited conception of fate, or you can have your fati by engaging with fate as fate dictates you. Already the words amor fati are pure tautology because they introduce a reflection into an existence that depends on the absence of reflection. To live literally according to this philosophy we must be as rocks coming down a landslide who are subject wholly to physical factors. Conscious rocks, somewhat hurt by the landslide, yet deciding to embrace the suffering regardless, are no longer subject wholly to physical factors because of their decision to embrace. Their reflection, amor, destroys their fati.

Carpe diem.

So I’ve pointed out how every reflection upon suffering, every answer to the question of suffering, is fundamentally the same. To avoid further caricatures of great minds, there remains the possibility that all reflections we impose on suffering, though fundamentally the same, are functionally and qualitatively different. I cannot yet say anything authoritative regarding philosophy, but please humour me. What if all misunderstandings, all accusations of a circular argument, have rested on a confusion of the terms fundamental and qualitative. There has been some universality in what everyone has said at any point in time because they speak through the medium of language, but that everyone has said something different at any time is also assumed. If all truth is subjective and I cannot say ‘truth is subjective’ because I am subjectively presenting a truth as objective can I then really not say it? What if my truth is fundamentally subjective, but qualitatively objective? And with this assumption, Nietzsche and Zizek can put forth alternative readings on the nature of suffering, even claim that they are not readings at all, despite fundamentally being readings, because qualitatively they are different readings.

To illustrate the point further, a few posts back I wrote on Nietzsche’s critique of selflessness: True selflessness is impossible because your desire to help someone is always a response to a desire within yourself. But Nietzsche misses an important distinction. Although every action is fundamentally selfish, slapping someone with a fish and cooking them a fish are qualitatively different.

With these thoughts in mind we approach suffering. Whether you define it as an opportunity for anxious engagement with meaninglessness or hope, either choice inevitably acts as an opiate or a crutch, only that each is qualitatively different.

* * *

¹I think Zizek’s point in his reading of Job nonetheless stands, but it is a little wishful. Although God doesn’t give Job direct answers, he still rebukes him, and when I read the text I get the feeling that it assumes there are answers behind suffering, only that they are unintelligible to us.

²Neither the quote from 2Corinthians nor from Matthew should be seen as a statement indicating Paul or Jesus’ overall interpretation of suffering; these are just examples.

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One of the most glaringly obvious critiques of Kierkegaard’s Christian existentialism is that you can pretty much remove your accountability to any action by attributing its source to God. In his landmark work on the subject¹, Kierkegaard exposes some problems with Kantian/Hegelian universalism, the philosophical ideas that focus on humanity moving towards a rationally justifiable way of acting ethically in all situations. Put simply, in any ethical dilemma there would be a right way to act, which the right amount of reasoning can allow us to discern. But Kierkegaard uses the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac to problematise this premise: According to the ethical, Abraham is nothing but a murderer, so how then can he be named the father of faith? Kierkegaard suggests an absolute duty to God, which sometimes transcends the ethical — God asks of us things that conflict with our notions of the ethical, but this is faith, as it puts God’s purposes beyond our own rationally discernible ones. To paraphrase Kierkegaard, if loving one’s neighbour is an expression of loving God then there is no love of God; love of God is just the language we use to describe our actions of love for our neighbour.

I love this neighbour

* * *

This again is the most obvious critique of Kierkegaard: If we are to “obey God rather than men” then sooner or later someone is going to do something stupid and try to justify it by saying they were serving God, whose purposes are higher than our rationally discernible ones. George Bush claims God told him, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan’. Pope Urban II initiated the first crusade with the belief that God was with his troops. No doubt these instances and others take inspiration from similar biblical stories (eg. Deuteronomy 2:24-25). In many instances people will actually believe that the Lord is leading them into violence, whereas there will be other people who decide first what they want to do and then attribute the initiative to God. Whatever the case is not to the point (although adherents of the former may be understandably annoyed by abusers of the latter), but rather that a person or group of people have the ability to justify, even gain support for, their cause by appealing to a higher, divine purpose.

Because I love Kierkegaard so much (having read three of his books, Sickness unto death and Fear and Trembling twice) I have to stick up for the guy here. I don’t want to believe that his conception of God has anything to do with the three examples given above. But I really don’t know enough about him to make that decision. However, I will make it based on his reading of Abraham’s story: Abraham never goes through with the sacrifice. Isaac remains alive and lives a life necessary to being the progenitor of the nation Israel. It seems that God only asked Abraham to be willing to sacrifice fully his son to display his complete trust in God. At the last moment, Abraham is provided a ram to sacrifice to God instead of Isaac (read all about it in Genesis 22:1-18). What is more, God had told Abraham earlier, “Your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him” (17:19 NIV), and yet even more definitely, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned” (21:12 NIV). On this Kierkegaard bases his argument that Abraham, as man of faith, believed the absurd, that God asked him to sacrifice his son as much as he would retain or ‘regain’ his son as the Lord would give Abraham descendants through Isaac. You could chance to say that God is justified in inviting Abraham to child sacrifice by the results rather than the source of the action. What is more, laws in the Torah present God as staunchly against child sacrifice (eg. Deuteronomy 12:31).

Blake’s depiction of Abraham and Isaac. “Don’t do it Santa Claus!”

So I have made a mild case for Kierkegaard’s acceptability. In making this case though, I have almost brought his argument back into the ethical. I am justifying to readers Kierkegaard’s position using rationality, as he inevitably also does, so we miss the point that Kierkegaard’s ethics aren’t grounded in interpersonal dialogue but the single individual’s trust and faith in God. What matters for him is not what others think, but what God thinks.

I’ve been pressed to think of other examples of the religious transcending the ethical. A while ago I linked to a video where in some cases even the commitment to marriage might be broken for the sake of God. Unfortunately, if you were one who clicked on it, the link was dead at the time. So here it is again. Anyway, it basically describes two guys leaving their families (at a time when they probably provided much needed support for their wives and children) to sell themselves as slaves and share the Gospel with other slaves. Another example was when I was at Eastercamp years ago and a speaker spoke on being led by the Spirit onto the mission field with his and his wife’s new child who later died on the field because they couldn’t give it the support it needed so far away from home. The story created a lot of division and many people didn’t like the speaker too much afterwards. That’s understandable. Unlike the story of Abraham, in these cases of the religious transcending the ethical, there are no great fruits to point to, or maybe there are, but only with great loss. I can make no attempt to justify the actions of the people in either of these stories, but only point to them as possible examples of what Kierkegaard is saying. In each case, if he is right, their actions shouldn’t justify them to people, but only to God as they are done in faith. They are still subject to the judgement of good Christians, and concerned people with two feet firmly on the ground.

* * *

If we take Kierkegaard seriously, in his words of prophetic flair, echoing the biblical, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 4:19 NASB²), then there remains the problem that what we designate “God” to be can be anything. As of yet I have only read one of Zizek’s books, Violence, and it was exhilarating. I almost only have good things to say about the guy. But I was let down by his defence of traditional atheism. Of course it’s probable that more much more thoughtful examples exist, but I must pick on Zizek here for a moment because his words indicate how easy it is for even super-smart people to fall into the weakness of this simple critique of Kierkegaard³. He starts by removing the definition of the religious suspension of the ethical away from common criticisms:

So it is not that you can just do whatever you want: your love for God, if true, guarantees that in what you want to do you will follow the highest ethical standards.

(Violence, p.116, 2009, Big Ideas series)

And then he digs at the roots of this idea, to provide a more deeply set alternative:

Fundamentalists do (what they perceive as) good deeds in order to fulfil God’s will and to deserve salvation: atheists do them simply because it is the right thing to do. Is this also not our most elementary experience of morality? When I do a good deed, I do not do it with a view to gaining God’s favour, I do it because I cannot do otherwise — if I were not to do it, I would not be able to look at myself in the mirror. A moral deed is by definition its own reward.

(p.117)

Admittedly, Zizek is primarily speaking of our motivations for doing good; it’s the assumptions behind his argument that are the problem. He supposes that the thoughtful atheist practice of good for good’s sake is an improvement on the previous good for God’s sake. Yet the central problem is that he is pitting one subjectivity up against another. In my relationship with God, the leading of the Holy Spirit, or whatever my Lord asks me to do, is expressed subjectively and therefore warrants the possibility of responses such as, “God wouldn’t ask you to do that” or “I’d rather make up my own mind than obey that god”, as people have different conceptions of the good. See where I’m going? To do good for good’s sake is just as subjective as to do it for God’s sake. You’re only changing the terms with which you refer to good.

* * *

Kierkegaard’s theologico-philosophy is an example of changing the terms. Throughout church history, different people have located the Spirit in different structures. This overview is a bit of a slaughtersome generalisation but it’s helpful in making the point I want to make. So you could say that in ancient Israel the Spirit was located in the prophets, whom God used to direct his people. When the Jewish nation it seemed became overzealous for the law and missed the God behind it, the Spirit then found himself into the apostles and those who walked with Jesus, maybe even some more prophets (a few Gentiles here and there) in the first century Church. Then as the Church grew in numbers and needed some point of centrality for its many members the Spirit was located in the bishopric and Church leadership, who quickly defined what it meant to be and not be Christ’s. A millenium and a half later, a bunch of northern Europeans got annoyed at the hypocrisy of certain churchees and decided that the Spirit was located in Scripture. Amid this history Kierkegaard steps onto the scene and locates the Spirit in the relationship between the single individual and God.

Kierkegaard, attested to as the founder of existentialism, may also be somewhat accountable for the individualism rampant in 21st Century Western civilisation, which is so fashionable to rail against that I just couldn’t help myself. We can see him as a precursor to individualistic practices of Christianity, where our theology meets all our own needs and serves to justify our own already constructed comfortable worldview, with me at the centre. In modern Catholicism, the Spirit remains located in the Church, who determines right and wrong, and how to interpret Scriptures and tradition. In modern forms of Protestantism, the Spirit is located in readings of the Scriptures in accordance with the denomination’s tradition, or continual attempts to read the Scriptures in themselves, based on the assumption that a theology would be kind of self-evident. And then in Pentecostal/Charismatic circles, the extra emphasis on experience and leading of the Holy Spirit plays a large part in the way we read Scripture.

What then can we say? What if we’ve been looking at it the wrong way, and the ball is actually in God’s court? I’m not saying this to dismiss human responsibility, but, depending on who reads the stories, there are instances in history where the Spirit seemed to take his own initiative when things got a bit evil, a bit human. One example is the Montanists in the early history of the Church, a group who found the Spirit located among their own adherents rather than in the authority of the Church (I read this post on them just a couple of days ago). The Spirit led them to prophesy and to take up their own practices distinguishable from those of the Church at the time. The Waldensians and Cathari are examples of similarly motivated groups that arose later in Europe. The Catholic encyclopaedia provides some deliciously almost unbiased histories, although you may want to look elsewhere as well. Kierkegaard arose at a time when the Danish Church held a monopoly over what it means to be Christian in his area. His religious suspension of the ethical should be read in this sense: The Spirit rose Kierkegaard up as a single individual counterpoint to the dry and passionless practice of the Church at his time. And throughout history, it seems, the Spirit rises up to indwell certain structures for a time when other structures have neglected to have God at the centre

* * *

¹A pun.

²The NIV overlooks the idiomatic value for something a little more specific, “We must obey God rather than human beings!”

³Zizek is not in direct dialogue with Kierkegaard, but this critique of religion could easily be substituted for a critique of Kierkegaard.

* * *

Further reading:

There’s an old school translation of Fear and Trembling here, but I’d recommend a newer one for more serious readers.

You can get an overview of the work and some helpful commentary on SparkNotes.

For some good reading on Kierkegaard’s use of and departure from Kant, check out this article here.

Roger E. Olson makes use of the universal/ethical and judges the Calvinist God against it here.

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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.

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“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.

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