Monday, June 10, 2013
I have posted on my blog Imaginary Visions of True Peace my own comments on the 2013 Theology & Peace Conference in Recovering Racists
An earlier post called Will and Desire offers a contemplative thought.
Another blog post called Unwinding the Judgment of Solomon comments on the first two novels in a series in progress of great significance for mimetic theory as the author Neal Shusterman paints a harrowing dystopia of a severely sacrificial society, a future American we pray will not happen.
Back to contemplation: starting today, the abbey has now made available an e-book version of "The Indwelling God,"an introduction to contemplative prayer. I have distributed some hard copies of this pamphlet but those of you who prefer an electronic version can get it in that form for $1.00. Coupled with this essay is the article "Resting in God's Desire" that makes a good companion piece as it brings in mimetic desire and how contemplation can help us live constructively with it. This e-book is available on the abbey's website. PayPal is accepted.
Saturday, June 8, 2013
The 2013 Theology & Peace conference, "Lynching, Scapegoating and Actual Innocence," just concluded in Chapel Hill N.C. Our reflections were led by two black theologians and one white. It was a life-changing experience for the racially mixed group which attended. Here is a first response after our return.
Ah, dear God, no! Suddenly those images appear in my head.
Drifting into view between moments of sleep and awaking. Not a dream but a daylight nightmare. Hateful historical postcards from the heartland.
Ah, my white soul, my massacring white soul. Where can I go to get away from you?
In the old spiritualized, immaterial, Greek sense that soul of course is colorless. But as Kelly Douglas Brown showed us so convincingly this theory actually became a cover story, a philosophical fiction playing out in the real world with terrible consequences of white privilege and violence. The Greek soul belongs to a heavenly, higher, perfect realm of “light”. A white body bespeaks something closer, “nearer” to this heavenly space. While something black, the color of the earth, must be lower, inferior, perhaps not even having a soul at all, just a body. A black body.
Ah, my platonized Christianity, what horror!
Up there, as Julia Robinson showed us in so many mind-rending slides, swinging between the bright sky and the dark earth is the black body, beaten, tortured, monstrous, surrounded by a host of onlookers, white in their white-souled innocence. A holocaust offering of sheer meat for a platonic god who is also a sacrifice-demanding wrathful deity. For, after all, this god needed the death of his very own son as a displacement for universal divine wrath, so why not demand the death of these expendable black bodies for instances of human wrath? It was ever the one and same cultural frame.
Meanwhile, all the other black bodies know in their hearts and memories it could have been them as the selected victim.
Oh, body and soul, where will we go to find freedom?
Where indeed! Black theology allied to Girardian theory shows us that the God of Jesus has always been with the black body suspended lynched and crucified on a tree. That’s the point, and it always was the point, and now the whole post-platonic community of Jesus is beginning to understand this, white and black. White because Jesus reveals the victim and undoes all the violence fastened upon him or her, and now the meaning of Christianity is not to get to an ethereal otherworld, but to transform the violent material existence of this one. Black because as James Cone wrote “’Calvary’…was (always) redemption from the terror of the lynching tree.” “Oh see my Jesus hanging high” Black Christians sang, and they knew that Jesus’ death already transformed their body terrors, and by extension those of all other human victims.
Lynchings are now faith, in the strange paradoxical, subversive language of the gospel, and they are faith for black and white alike. They are a faith which leaps beyond the dangling monster on the tree into a radical future of life. Because Jesus was the first monster: for the temple authorities—“He has blasphemed”; for the emperor—“There is no king but Caesar”; for the ungovernable crowd—“Crucify him!” But for the God who raised him from the dead he was the beloved Servant and Lord of creation, of a new creation without violence, without victims.
The Black body knew this truth, despite Anselm, despite Calvin, and before Girard. This for me was the great discovery of our conference. From now on Theology & Peace cannot go forward without the active participation and leadership of people of color. (This was already evident in the splendid election of Julia Robinson to our board!) The black body experience has become an icon and pathway for the transformative post-platonic Christian faith that we long to build.
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
How Can We Come From Violent Origins if We're Made in the Image of the Nonviolent God?
Grace and peace, dear readers. My name is Lindsey Lopez, and I'd like to thank Dr. Anthony Bartlett of Theology and Peace for letting me guest post on this blog.
As a Christian pacifist, I find Rene Girard's anthropology to be a crucial key to my Biblical hermeneutic. Before encountering Girard, reconciling the violence of scripture with my conviction that God is Love was a difficult, painful task that shook my faith and left me feeling dishonest. Did I have a right to circumvent the nastier parts of Scripture in order to hang on to what was beautiful? Could I affirm some of it without affirming it all? Was I being a bad Christian to downplay the violence? But how could I be true to myself and my core convictions if I gave the violent passage of scripture equal value with the loving ones? Girard's anthropology, exposing the depths of human violence and identifying violence itself as the foundation of human civilization, and further showing how the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ exposes and breaks down these structures of violence, was a Godsend. It allowed me to better understand the violence of scripture when I realized that the original human understanding of the divine was born through violence. The violence of scripture reflects the early human understanding of God. While it shows the story of a people who put their faith in the violence of God toward others, the Bible also shows the slow weaning away from violence of this same people, first through the Hebrew Scriptures and ultimately through the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ. Girard provied with me to have a model for understanding the narrative of Scripture as a trajectory of human evolution from violent toward nonviolent as it grows in relationship with God. To be able to understand salvation not as a means of escape from God's wrath but as a means of transformation out of our violent selves into the peace and love of Christ has made me a more faithful and enthusiastic believer and disciple. And yet, as I bound my theology together with this anthropology, something still didn't fit.
Girardian anthropology posits that the definitive moment for human evolution, that marked the transition from the animal to human, was a murder, and hat from that murder and the refusal to see it for the violence that it was came human civilization. (For a succinct explanation of how the founding murder came about and how civilization and religion were based upon it, I recommend James G. Williams' intro to Girard's I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.) And as I said, this anthropology appeals to me because it explains how steeped we are in violence, while Girard's analysis of the passion and resurrection of Christ shows howhrist leads us out of this violence. But reconciling humanity's violent origins with the nonviolence of God led me to a paradox. I wondered, “If humans are made in the image of God, and God is absolutely nonviolent, what does it mean that the defining act of human consciousness was an act of violence?”
I think this concern came about subconsciously because I was trying too hard to reconcile evolution with Genesis. Even though I understand that humans evolved from other primates who evolved from more primitive life forms, part of me still pictures humanity beginning in a celestial garden as a single pair made in the perfect image of God.The language of the “fall” implies a state of perfection or innocence from which we descended, and that image jars with the picture of distinctively human consciousness evolving from a murder.
It finally struck me, as I was listening to the Beyond the Box podcast of Virtually Christian with Dr. Anthony Bartlett, that my thinking was entirely backwards! Being made in God's image need not mean being made perfect before falling and being redeemed. Virtually Christian, which explains how humanity is continuing to evolve in heart and mind from our violent natures into the peace of Christ, and also The Joy of Being Wrong by James Alison, which explains how we cannot understand original sin except retrospectively from the vantage point of seeing the mess we are coming out of in the light of Jesus, helped me reach this understanding. There was no pristine humanity before Jesus from which we “fell”; rather, we are created to “rise” to Jesus. We are created with the potential to form and understand meaning and to be transformed by the meaning of Jesus. In fact, if Girard says that human consciousness was formed by an act of violence, but the absolutely nonviolent Jesus is the truly human one, then we're not done evolving... we're not fully human yet... we're still in the process of becoming, being transformed. We're evolving because of Christ into his body. This is how God is forming us in God's own image, and God's not finished with us yet... In the light of Christ we look back at all the violence we were and are still involved in and see that we are sinners, but we can only see this because we're on the way out.
As I think about it, I realize that this perspective actually does help me reconcile scripture with evolution. There is so much in the creation story of Genesis that aligns with Girardian anthropology, if I don't get caught up with the little hiccup of the idea of Adam and Eve being formed with fully human bodies out of dust. It's a story of rivalristic desire suggested into the human consciousness by a third party. Eve is tempted by the serpent to try to become more “like God;” Adam then takes a cue from Eve, and this creates a foundation of distrust and acquisitive desire that seeps into Cain when he murders his brother in a jealous rage. In pre-scientific terms, Genesis illustrates the fundamental human condition of mimetic rivalry. Furthermore, scripture itself illuminates an evolution, not of the body but of the heart. We can trace the trajectory of our addiction to and entrapment within violence from Cain's murder of Abel to Lamach's 70-fold vengeance and beyond, but then we see God slowly reshaping the heart toward peace, through the sparing of Isaac to the prophets and finally to the passion of Christ and the nonviolent church that followed. Evidence of physical evolution can be upheld, rather than contradicted, by scripture if we see through the trajectory of the story that God molds not only bodies but also hearts and minds over an enormous period of time.
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
For the Ascension, a tough feast to understand but a joyous one, See Jesus' Escape to the Kingdom where I speculate on why Jesus was ready to make a getaway.
For Pentecost, celebrate The Holy Spirit's Fiery Desire
Then there's the Trinity. I suppose one could try to do the math. My suggestion along those lines is to think of the Trinity as an infinite number set comprised of three infinite number sets. Don't think that would work in the pulpit? Try telling the story of The Eternal Round Dance.
Going back a couple of weeks, I published the paper called Mimetic Hospitality that I read at the Hospitality Initiative in Oakland, MI on May 4. I used mimetic theory to suggest that there is a deeper problem behind our fear of the Other. Charles Mabee was the convener. Sandor Goodhart also spoke at the meeting.
When I am preaching (every fourth Sunday or so & some festivals) I am posting the basic thrust of my sermon. If you want to get these posts before the preaching date or just wish to keep up with my posts as they come out, you can follow on Facebook, email, or Twitter.
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Tuesday, April 30, 2013
We can give three different meanings to the word “church,” the first two pretty ordinary, the third exciting, if perhaps perplexing. (But if the new were not perplexing it would not be new.)
The first in order is, as you would expect, the actual, historical churches. From the smallest store-front iglesia to the big multinational organization, these bodies are everywhere and are instantly recognizable and comprehended by that name.
The second meaning is the ideal sense, the one which theologians and preachers use to invoke the new community God has gathered through Christ, the new Israel. It is usually employed to connote the actual church institution, but there is often a slightly fuzzy edge to it extending beyond denominational boundaries to all the other actual churches.
The third sense shares nothing with these first two, because the church in the third sense simply doesn’t exist. It doesn’t even have the ideal theological sense because that sense is so historically grafted into and merged with the actual churches the new sense resists also that naming. It is something toward which we are yearning, but without any desire to pre-define in any of the old categories.
Why? Because human existence itself is at a moment of profound crisis and one way or another the churches have participated in creating that crisis. From the earth-denying ideal of a Greek heaven, through colonialism and oppression of native peoples, to present day materialist, prosperity and violent end-time gospels, the churches are intertwined with the toxic story of the West. Despite that the leaven and light of Jesus is as strong as ever--actually even stronger--so there is a growing demand from both within Christianity, and from the world itself, that something decisively new be born.
But may anything more be said about the “third church,” anything that is not simply a matter of mystical yearning? It would be strange in fact if that were not possible. The ferment of Jesus is strong enough and precise enough to give us a fairly clear idea of what the future will look like.
Without a long exposition we can say the third church will have these characteristics.
Frist, no hierarchy: there will be no elite class of negotiators between God and the rest, rather the mutual service of disciples in community. Second, no heaven: the goal will not be individual security in a heavenly afterworld, but transformation of the human space for the sake of the new earth promised by scripture. Third, an anthropology and theology of nonviolence: nonviolence is not simply recommended by the Sermon on the Mount but is a holistic understanding of revelation itself and the human change it intends. Fourth, a martyrological practice, in the sense of martyr as witness: nonviolence is not a theory, but a profound way of life which witnesses before a violent world.
So then, what possible relationship can we have to this thing which we are able to describe but which does not yet exist? The phenom of what is called “emerging church” speaks to the searching for something new. But it is vague and undefined and still seems shaped more by social location and youthful sensibility than radical Jesus anthropology. So I don’t think it can claim to represent this thing still unborn. Yet at the same time I am sure that very many of the groups who identify under this umbrella, and others too, are actually part of the gestation process. You could say the third church is busy being born among them.
Finally, it might seem arrogant, at best idiosyncratic, to claim a future coming of some nebulous third church, sidelining the massive institutions of Christendom and all the proud traditions of piety and polity. But does not God raise up children of Abraham, and a fortiori children of the Father, from the very stones? From the very planet earth in its crazy third-millennium spinning in space, yearning for some believable God-given peace?
Friday, April 26, 2013
I added some more reflections on Christ's passions, tying it in with lynching (inspired by James Cone's book) with Postcards of the Cross. This will help prepare those going to the conference at Chapel Hill.
Beyond Oblivion also touches on Christ's Passion by commenting on the sufferings of the protagonist of the Gatekeepers Series by Anthony Horowitz, one of the more impressive YA fantasy sets.
Related to the Passion is my blogpost on the near-sacrifice of Isaac Abraham Out on Highway 61. As the title suggests, Bob Dylan joins the conversation along with Soren Kierkegaard and Wilfred Owen.
Rising to the Life of Christ offers another Easter meditation, imagining the risen life in the nonviolent God.
My article How Are We Saved? points the way toward an Atonement theology based on the risen life of Christ rather than the death of Christ, which tends to steer one to a punitive atonement.
You can also go to the full blog page of Imaginary Visions of True Peace to read through these entries.
Thursday, April 4, 2013
Recently returned from Chapel Hill with Cathy Gibbons, preparing for the upcoming T&P conference. While we were there, for a little down-time, we paid a visit to the North Carolina Museum of Art. Not looking for anything in particular, but somehow a couple of the current exhibitions proved a revelation.
The first was "Object of Devotion," a collection of alabaster carvings from medieval England used as altar pieces in churches and private homes. The second was a very contemporary display, "0 to 60 Seconds, The Experience of Time...," a set of pieces which reflected the feeling of time in our modern world. From stop-motion cameras catching random images of you on a live screen as you walk by, to a panoramic photo of a Brooklyn cityscape made of superimposed shots over several days, the effect was always to empty out the thickness of the present moment. In its place was a fragmented emptiness in which the the flick of a digital counter seemed the only real information on offer.
In contrast the alabaster images were heavy with presence. The figure of the Crucified was the most often represented, flecked by blood and surrounded by various saints and ecclesiastics. Sometimes there was also God the Father, figured as an old man, almost cradling the tortured figure on his lap as he received the sacrifice of the victim and gestured a satisfied blessing. What made the carvings doubly interesting was the work of Protestant iconoclasts who in several places had chopped away faces and hands. The reformers saw the concrete representations as idolatrous and the heavy sense of presence a human corruption of biblical belief. The only true communication with Christ's atoning blood was via the semiotics of the word.
You could see immediately how the Reformation amounted to a first deconstruction of sacred presence, emptying out the world of the dense material of blood and sacrifice. In its place it put a much freer word-based presence, finding in the text of the New Testament the personal assurance of Christ's blood shed to make us righteous. This other, written presence also had its cultural day, filling millions and millions with a sacred glow. In the Protestant nations that meaning also stood firmly behind the whole of society giving it metaphysical weight and energy. But now for the artists and poets, the women and men who are sensitive to the quality of the times, all that has almost completely gone, crumbling into digital fracture and fragility. A world without the sacred. Why?
It is the deconstructive quality of the Passion itself which brought about the Protestant revolt. The iconoclasm would not have happened had not those images of bloodshed and torture already come into crisis for a significant group of Christians. There was an in-built dynamic in the gospel account which made the violence of the passion more and more an event of actual human violence, making the feeling of human guilt ever greater and more conflicted. So it was, within the framework of legal atonement which dominated the Middle Ages, the disclosure of violence simply demanded a more absolute or transcendent sacrifice. Thus, even as Luther and his successors transferred atonement to an inner written contract with God, they raised the sacrificial meaning of the passion to an ever-greater power, an unyielding penal substitution performed before a God of wrath.
And yet, and yet. That could and would never stop the slow, steady erosion of sacrificial meaning brought about from within the gospels themselves, the collapse of sacrificial order which Rene' Girard has so convincingly demonstrated. And so, in turn, we get to the present moment, when the Protestant sacrificial scheme no longer stands behind culture, just as the Catholic scheme was lost for many societies back in the 16th century.
Of course both Catholic and Protestant cultures can double down on the past and its sacred presence. The fact that institutional Christianity seems always to reinvent that old presence, even as the world has lost it, is surely one of the reasons for overall declining churches, along with the declining formal language of Christianity. You can only repeat the old formula for so long, before the incongruity makes Christianity simply a museum entertainment.
Where, then, is the new sacred for our age, one that might fill those empty digital spaces with meaning? Is there anything that can speak at the heart of contemporary time, which might even produce a new type of art?
The answer must surely be yes! If we agree that the loss of sacred presence is an effect of the gospel itself then the transformation of time must be part of that loss: only that secular inspiration can only see as far as the emptying out. It does not see the deep nonviolence and compassion which is driving the process. Perhaps that is because most Christians themselves don't see it. They don't see or feel future Christ-time leaning deep into present time, a gentle, forgiving future which, in a nutshell, is the new sacred. So they are lost betwixt and between, between a disappearing archaic sacred and a heavenly world where transformation is supposed to happen, but does so with less and less conviction in a modern world.
Time is relationship. Much more than the earth's orbits of the sun, time is profoundly a human event where we are stretched through the fabric of our own life and bodies, remembering where we have been, those we have been with, and anticipating to whom will we go as bodily creatures. It is the bodily relationship of time which makes it much, much more than the sequence of clock days. Our bodies spread out behind and before us invisibly, but nevertheless in a very real and concrete way, yearning for the world of love which can complete them. So it is our human time is now supercharged with the future of the gospel, bending us toward the infinite wound of compassion opened by Christ in history: what might be called the "black hole" of a new creation formed purely by love.
The art that recognizes this is perhaps not fully born. But, then again, perhaps it is partially present in an exhibition like "0 to 60", with hints of compassion scattered among the fragments of time. One particular exhibit was a replica house made of see-through gauze, with table, chairs, sink, toilet etc. It was not hard to imagine a gaze of compassion dissolving those opaque walls, opening them up to an inconceivable future.
Tony Bartlett, T&P Contributing Theologian