Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Politics & Theology

It’s very difficult to intervene in the US political debate without seeming partisan, or showing some sign of scorn or vindictiveness. To tread on the territory theologically does not exempt you from the danger, it could increase it. But the Word should never be silenced: it has a long history of talking truth to Pilate, doesn’t it?

But today, in point of fact, it’s a good deal more complicated than that.

These days Pilate could be attending church and it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. In speaking about politics, therefore, you may quickly be speaking about some version of established Christianity. Which means politics today are already theology.

Take the recent debate over Obama’s tax package. On the political right, there’s a bottom-line argument that taxes are bad per se (including and especially for the very rich). Behind the dogma of trickledown economics (continually exposed by Paul Krugman, nobel prize-winner for economics) there lurks an implication that all redistribution of wealth is an illegitimate imposition on the Christian man and woman. Ah, yes. There it is, showing up like a mother tongue, a theological layer to the discussion. For where else can that easy, righteous, and ferocious assumption come from except theology, the certainty of a theological truth? And a very powerful one at that. It goes like this: God saves individuals formally, one at a time through the cross of Christ, and any attempt to invoke a necessary collective sense to existence (apart strangely from the universal requirement to spend on the military) is an evil reversion to sacraments and works. Forget that Jesus said you cannot be my disciple unless you give up all your possessions (Lk.14:33) and the way to give them was to the poor. These are superfluous remarks on the part of the Lord.

They are superfluous because this stripe of theology believes Jesus’ teaching is simply a series of symbolic and ultimately tiresome commentaries on the single, obsessive demand to be “saved”. Jesus’ pedagogy and practice are by no means a radical intervention in the core structure of our humanity. They are not about this life, about life during life; rather they are always about a legal contract dealing with life after life, life after death.

It’s true that down among the churches the political exploitation of theology only carries so far. It’s not just mainline churches which are losing members. Evangelical churches have lost and continue to lose droves of young people disillusioned with the tendentious character of some of this politicized theology (or theologized politics), The sense that this thinking supports the agenda of the rich, and the circles of power hidden within circles of power, becomes a major turn-off. And at the same time there is a steady shift of evangelical-style churches and theologians who are making a quiet exodus from the human narrowness of this approach, seeking a more historically and humanly relevant salvation, and one that reflects the overarching narrative of the scriptures.

But on its own this exodus does not create a different climate of political discourse. Really it makes little difference at all. What happens in fact is the airways and the political talk shows, and the millions influenced by them, remain immersed in the high-tide of individualist theology. They represent the toxic reservoirs of a theological era whose heyday is a bygone, but continues very much to be a payday.

By virtue of being a longstanding cultural default this kind of theology permits radio and T.V. presenters to assume a righteous theological tone, as if anyone who thinks differently is neither godly or American. They then add in a roiling anger, which of course has a “biblical” pedigree but is also very much a contemporary zeitgeist in the U.S., something which these presenters both harness and stir up. From a Girardian perspective it seems pretty straightforward to identify this anger as a snowballing sacrificial crisis resulting from the ever-increasing undifferentiation (free-floating violence and rivalry between groups and individuals) in U.S. society.

So what then is the solution, if any? To reply politically in the same angry tones is really just to stoke the fires. That is why the strangely radical thing for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to do back in October was to hold a Washington “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear”, i.e. to try and stake out a presumed middle-ground between extremes and mock the escalation of rhetoric. But the trouble is in the face of a sacrificial crisis with theological overtones sanity and comedy have very little chance. Ginned up “anti-government” anger had a direct effect on the last elections and the political direction of this country. Which brings us straight back to theology.

Because the terms of the debate are set theologically the job of advancing a new theological paradigm is both urgent and truly radical. In other words it is a matter of taking the discussion to theology itself, of carrying through some kind of theological renewal that is itself a subversion of past theological models. Theology and Peace seeks to do this from the starting point of anthropology. It claims that we really cannot do theology without an underpinning of anthropology. That theology itself is both a product of anthropology and an overturning of anthropology: because violent human thinking and action have produced our thought about God, but in Christ it is progressively transformed from within. Into what?

Into something wonderfully new, something generous and forgiving, something loving and supportive of others and their needs. By means of mimetic anthropology we understand from the get-go that “no man is an island”, that we are all "a piece of the continent.” Individualist salvation before God completely ignores the structuring effect of the other on who I am, on what I hate, on what I want. It ignores the modeling that is always taking place between the other person and me. But rather, on the contrary, we should say because of the pre-conscious imitation that is always going on between humans, none of us is saved alone, and conversely none is damned alone. We are saved precisely because of what others do for us and because of what we do to others, and we are damned in the same measure.

In short, the gospel does not put before us a choice between killing and not killing, between hatred and co-existence. No, it says either we provoke others (scandalize them) with our desires, our arrogance, our rivalry, our indifference, or we come to their assistance in peace, forgiveness, love, and giving. Jesus’ whole program is much more subtle and profound than we have given him credit for. Because he is implicitly using a mimetic psychology he says indeed the choice is between scandalizing or healing, between provoking and reconciling. That is what the six antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount are all about—telling us to deal with the mimetic roots of behavior (not “an eye for an eye” but “turn the other cheek”) before it comes to actually breaking one of the commandments… And as for sacraments, in the light of this anthropology we can say there is a pre-sacramentality to all human existence. Because the “other” signs to me, at an organic level, what is either good or bad, the other truly is a sacrament of myself, and I of the other. And there is no getting away from it, for Protestants as little as Catholics. We either give good signals (learned from Jesus) or we end up in murder. (Note how these sacraments are not about salvation-by-works, the mass etc., which is another form of legalism, but what they’ve always been meant to be—living signals of a new human existence.)

So, you get the point. If politics were ever to embrace this theology, rather than the present horrible meta-legalism, how different would North America look? How different the world! We have miles and miles to go before it can seriously take hold. And of course it must seriously impact Christianity first, something which can happen only hand in hand with practice, with experimenting and discovering how a human change in Christ might be shaped today and how on that basis our thinking will change. We have our work cut out for us, but then again has not the core signal of a transformed world already been transmitted? We live in its radiant radio-frequency. Indeed, isn’t that the "peace on earth" message of the Bethlehem angels? I wish a Merry Christmas these days, and the birth of Christ in our world every day!

Tony Bartlett, T&P Theologian in Residence

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Proximity & Peace

I read recently the summit of Mt. Everest now has network cell phone service.

This blog, on this Theology & Peace webpage, is part of the digital electronic storm that effectively puts everyone everywhere in contact with everyone everywhere.

And don’t the words “everyone, everywhere” inevitably recall the description given to the rule of faith back in the fifth century—what is believed everywhere, always, by everyone? But this time the “catholic” thing is not a religious belief or organization but a way of being human and it has every chance of totally shaping our human destiny.

Before reflecting more on this in light of Theology & Peace, let me quickly report a couple of points connected to our emerging theological enterprise and its webpage. The Board of T&P recently amped up its theological commitment by appointing a “Theologian in Residence”, someone whose job is to foster our doing theology in key planning and formation areas , and in web communications precisely like this blog. The person given this job, through the 2011 conference, is yours truly. I am thankful for it and can hardly think of a more wonderful thing to be doing at this moment in time. (Isn’t it so absolutely beautiful that my “residence” as a theologian is not in the hallowed precincts of a cathedral close but among movable meetings and the electrons of the internet?)

The other point is also related to our web presence. Jim Warren has been volunteering as our web management person since early in the year and doing a fantastic job. Now he has been appointed to the job officially and we can look forward to his services through 2011. I mentioned Jim and used something he’d written in my last blog (find it directly below). His original piece can be seen at his own website which is one more compelling strand in the multiplying Girardian network of books and websites (go to http://www.biblicalpeacemaking.org/ and click on the Articles tab).

But what about this electro-catholic media world, this self-generating, constantly redoubling world of digital communication? I also read recently that 15 million new cell phone users are added in India every month. (That’s right 15,000,000!) According to a study released by the Kaiser Family Foundation today’s 8-18 year-olds devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes to using entertainment media across a typical day (more than 53 hours a week). And because they spend so much of that time ‘media multitasking’ they actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media content into those 7½ hours. The name given to the research is appropriately “Generation M2”, a generation that is media times itself, a generation living inside a virtual space made of media.

I have tried to find terms that adequately describe this stunning new level of human experience. A couple of candidates have been “horizontality” and “proximity”. The first refers to the dimension of human awareness implied by constant communication across planes and surfaces. It makes the lived world of sense experience self-multiplying, a bit like being in an endless hall of mirrors where the mirrors themselves create scenes and sensations that are then reflected by other mirrors, and so on indefinitely. My guess would be that this would subversively alter any traditional sense of the cosmos where meaning and truth trickle down “from above” and are mediated by appointed hierarchical figures. Instead the immediate world of sensed experience provides the realm of meaning, if only because it continues powerfully and again and again to replicate itself all around us.

The second term, “proximity”, evokes the element of communication between human individuals. The Nielsen Co., analyzing the cell phone bills of 60,000 subscribers, discovered that the average 13- to 17-year-old sends and receives an incredible 3,339 text messages a month, over 100 a day. Even if these figures were somehow exaggerated they tell us that there is an enormous flooding river of communication between people, especially youth, and this must continually set desires in motion and work powerfully against traditional or inherited self-images. Everyone is depending on everyone else for who they are and what they mean. The movie The Social Network makes plain the origin of Facebook in the mobilized desires of individuals in a specialized social group—originally the students at Harvard—who all want to appear as cool, hot, successful, sexy, desirable. The movie is a highly perceptive account and makes clear that this dynamic pre-existed the internet (of course), but it shows how the internet has now created a virtually universal social scene and one where these exchanges of desire play out in minutes across cyberspace. What Proust described of an elite and restricted cast of members in the long summers of Combray now belongs to over half a billion people updating their status, or checking on someone else’s, moment by moment.

From a Girardian perspective this can look pretty dire. It means there is truly an enormous crowd out there with all the terrifying, onrushing power of the mob. There have been a number of well-publicized cases of cyber-bullying resulting in the suicide of an individual, giving us the word, ugly in every sense, “cyberbullycide”. And aside from the individual cases there is a continual random tide of violent and hateful expression released on public comment forums like CNN online news, Youtube, etc. There can be little doubt that the anonymous communication of the internet can give breath to a free-floating rage without restraint of custom or community. Girard’s technical term for this is “undifferentiation”, meaning the situation where the absence of clear lines of social difference between people produces a steadily rising tide of anger and violence. Not at all a pretty picture.

However, from a Christ-centered point of view horizontality and proximity can mean entirely the opposite thing, and this is surely the emphasis we want to give at Theology & Peace. Jesus is the one who first provoked the horizontal world—Emmanuel, God-with-us. And the intense proximity of the digital universe cries out for an even more immediate proximity of the face-to-face. Ah, would that the church understand this! In the world of cell phones and Twitter the gospel offers a subversive realization of the horizontal and the proximate, one that brings to effect the radical underlying project first provoked and intended by Jesus. The immediacy of the group that can look into each person’s face and forgive and love, rather than the serried ranks of formal worship, this is the one real and salvific response to the digital explosion around us. What would the church be like if it conceived of itself as an endless honeycomb of cells or groups practicing relational nonviolence, rather than various versions of the skyscraper office? Would not this respond to our electro-catholic world with a much more authentic relational wholeness, the life of the Trinity in our veins? We are in a world transformed, one catalyzed into life by the destabilizing forces of the gospel, but we continue to act as if we were serving a god of a pre-gospel world.

Tony Bartlett, T&P Theologian in Residence

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Of Pears, Peers, Spit and Tears

This blog already appeared on the Wood Hath Hope site. But it seemed far too "Theology and Peace" to warrant not posting it here. Coming to grips with Augustine has to be part of any renewed theology of peace.

Jim Warren, my Christian magician friend, sent me a piece he’d written, on a passage in Augustine’s Confessions. He’s commenting on the famous episode where the coming giant of Western theology is telling how as a sixteen-year-old, he once robbed a pear orchard. From the vantage point of his now forty-plus years and evolving Christian consciousness, Augustine is musing painfully on why and how this shameful act was possible. He did not do it for the pleasure of eating the pears for, as he says, he threw most of the “enormous quantity” to the pigs. The picture he paints is rather of a gang of boys spurring each other on and, as Jim relates it, clearly an instance of the power of mimetic or imitative desire. Here is a key passage which Jim quotes:

It is true that if the pears which I stole had been to my taste, and if I had wanted to get them for myself, I might have committed the crime on my own…(and) I should have had no need to kindle my glowing desire by rubbing shoulders with a gang of accomplices. But as it was not the fruit that gave me pleasure, I must have got it from the crime itself, from the thrill of having partners in sin. (II.8) Jim then comments: “So Augustine penetrates to a much more profound level of insight than the typical romantic idea that the thief steals because of the intrinsic desirability of the object. Desire was certainly at work, but in a way different from how we typically frame it. He describes himself possessed that night by a “glowing desire,” kindled from “rubbing shoulders with a gang of accomplices.” (II.9) The image is one of kindling a fire by the friction of rubbing wood against wood. The desire thus kindled does not have an independent existence; it does not originate within Augustine himself, in isolation, as a function of his relation to the pears. Rather, this desire springs into being as a function of his relation to his cohorts.”

In other words, it’s not the pears but the peers… Jim says that Augustine’s psychological analysis brought him very near to the insights of Rene Girard about the imitative character of desire, including its frequently violent outcome, as in the theft and destruction of a harvest of pears. What then struck me was the following. 1) Yes, Augustine has incredible powers of introspection and is right on the track of mimetic desire, and 2) he completely misses it as a structural principle! The reason he was so close to this anthropological principle and yet did not identify it is because he subsumes the whole thing within the Platonic metaphysics of the immortal soul and a doctrine of original sin. And this led me in turn to reflect on how profoundly the whole Augustinian framework has affected Christianity and how it is now at last all changing. I can’t believe how plain it all now seems, and I hope I can make it just as plain in the next couple of paragraphs!

Augustine is one heck of a smart guy. He is called by his contemporary Jerome (the same Jerome who translated the Greek bible into Latin) “the founder anew of the ancient faith” (Epistola 195). When I first came across this remark I thought it outrageous but I feel now it was no exaggeration. The first thing you need to know about Augustine is that he was a rhetorician, the most brilliant of his generation (and perhaps a thousand years after that as well). Today we would be more likely to call him a writer (his literary output was truly amazing) because he is so absolutely good with words, phrases and composition. So, thinking about Jerome’s remark, the first flag is that he is the producer of texts and a complete master of his craft.

Secondly if you read the Confessions you will see that Augustine’s path to conversion to Christianity came via a prior conversion to Neoplatonism (actually he calls it Platonism and in terms of the basic derivation of the philosophical viewpoint he is correct). Without going into any kind of detail—which is unnecessary because we are all so profoundly affected by the spirit of Platonic thought—we may say that what Augustine got from Plato was the intellectual conviction of a heavenly otherworld made available by the immortal intellectual soul which carries in itself the light of that world. Here he is, talking about his encounter with “the books of the Platonists”: These books served to remind me to return to my own self. Under your guidance I entered into the depths of my soul… I entered, and with the eyes of my soul, such as it was, I saw the Light that never changes casting its rays over the same eye of the soul, over my mind…. What I saw was something quite, quite different from any light we know on earth. It shone above my mind…. It was above me because it was itself the Light that makes me, and I was below because I was made by it. All who know the truth know this Light, and all who know this Light know eternity. It is the light that charity knows. (vii, 10)

Cutting to the chase, I would say that what Augustine is doing here, and throughout the Confessions, is constructing the Christian God out of Platonic thought, just as Plato constructed the true otherworld out of the intellectual soul and the death of the body. Plato goes round and round in a circle from innate ideas (like math) to the immortal soul which remembers them, to the return to the heavenly realm by the soul after death of the body. It’s very important to underline that effective construction of any circle of thought involves the casting out or elimination of the element that disturbs it—in Plato’s case the body. Deconstruction in its contemporary sense is the path of reflection which brings to light the cast out or eliminated element in the construction of any circle of thought. In Augustine’s case what is cast out—on top of Plato’s casting out of the body—is historical or earthly salvation, the very thing that the gospel proclamation of God’s kingdom seems to be urgently proposing! And so Augustine crossed a line, refounding Christianity on eternal principles derived from human cultural violence, i.e. the casting out of something (the body and the earth). Ever since Christians have gone round and round in an eternal circle, from the God beyond this world, to the soul intended to live with this God, to the almost complete devaluing of the earth and history, and back again to the God beyond.

It is true of course that Augustine is too much of a Christian and biblical scholar to get rid of history and historical salvation completely. When he’s commenting on the books of the Platonists he says he learnt so much about God and the Son of God in them, but he also says that what he didn’t learn of was Christ’s self-emptying and his redemptive death and the coming of charity or love by these means. (vii, 9 & 20) Nevertheless, these elements are included at a subordinate rhetorical moment after he’s laid out what he’s learned from the books, and so the essential framework is maintained. He even says: If I had not come across these books until after I had been formed in the mould of your Holy Scriptures and had learnt to love you through familiarity with them, the Platonist teaching might have swept me away from my foothold on the solid ground of piety, and even if I had held firm to the spirit in which the Scriptures had imbued me for salvation, I might have thought it possible for a man who read nothing but the Platonist books to derive the same spirit from them alone. (vii 20) In other words the final intellectual and aesthetic reference remains these books and nothing he has learned in the scriptures has provided an alternative intellectual principle. Later in his career Augustine did add what he considered a biblical notion to his thought of God—predestination of souls for heaven or hell. But this simply made things worse. By adding historical initiative to an eternal concept—a changeless divine will beyond the world—he ended up with the absolute inverse of a God of history: a God who has made up his mind for ever and always about the saved and the damned and nothing on earth—including the incarnation of the Word itself—will make any difference. In other words the casting out of history is even more absolute, and the construction of the dogmatic circle ever more fixed.

But now—and this is where all this has been leading—we have the emergence of an intellectual framework not borrowed from Plato, one arising directly from the scriptures themselves, and able to provide a rigorous meaning related directly to humanity and its history. This is what Jim was talking about, what Augustine guessed but then saw in terms only of the soul and original sin. Through the work of Rene Girard we are beginning to see that imitative or mimetic desire is not just a chaotic effect of some mythic sin by our first parents but it is the principle itself of humanity. It is what produces human beings, through their intense ability to imitate, through the violence and group victims this produces, and through the consequent birth of ritual, language and law: the emergence of human culture. But then, and of astonishing importance, it is the bible which is the singular narrative which has revealed all this to a self-deceiving world and at the very same time the possibility of a new human way. Deconstruction itself has to be part of this pulling away of the veils and it means we are now in a completely new situation.

What, therefore, is the goal toward which the gospel is leading, if not a new anthropology, a new way of being human? Rather than the immortal soul as the final point of reference we have a new humanity of love, shown us in Jesus, rising up against the world of violence and beyond all deconstruction because it does not exclude or eliminate anything. All this of course demands a whole lot more treatment, but let me give a quick illustration of what I’m saying. Instead of an eternal principle somewhere off the earth we are offered a new anthropological principle very much on the earth, the dramatically new humanity of Jesus.

In recent bible studies we have been reading the gospel of John and in that context I was struck by the mention of bodily fluids! Nothing in John’s gospel is there by accident. It all has a sign value or what also might be called the character of a signal. It’s meant to lead you deeper into the new thing that is so hard to sense at first. If the gospel talks about Jesus’ spit mixed with mud (9:6) or about his tears (11:35) these are signals to lead us deeper into Jesus’ new humanity. They are not there just to satisfy curiosity. And what is this humanity? It is the absolute handing over his self, his body, to others in love. Spit and tears join with the water and the blood which flow out at 19:34. They are all signals of endless self-giving, of expenditure without reserve, and it is endless or without reserve both at the moral level of Jesus’ character and person, and at the ontological level of how this character and person are raised up as deathless after they have given themselves to the last. In other words, spit and tears become grace: a grace lodged within spit and tears, as spit and tears, not as some ethereal, otherworldly immortal soul. Or, to carry the deconstruction all the way (and in admittedly a challenging image), the only immortal soul we now know is spit and tears condensed, evaporated and raised up for ever, as love.

Tony Bartlett

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Discounting 313

I already posted this blog on Wood Hath Hope but it seemed too obviously T&P not to have it here--with a different title! It's all about new spaces.

First, just a little history.

In the year 313 the Roman Emperor made Christianity a licensed religion. Constantine said licet, let it be permitted. For the first time in its history the movement of Christianity had official and final Roman approval, and it was already older then than the present U.S. Republic. Imagine that: 275 years without any secure government recognition, without having a king or an emperor at your back, without a sure place in society, without public symbols and celebrations to declare your right to exist. 275 years of civic contempt, mixed with oblique influence when people of status became Christian, then punctuated at other times by outbursts of lethal persecution.

When Constantine gave state permission to Christianity he had just won a decisive battle in which he had invoked the Christian god—a voice had spoken to him in a dream (in a later account it became a vision) telling him that he should emblazon the heavenly sign of Christ on the shields and helmets of his soldiers. He thus began the process of the militarization of Christian faith. True, there were already Christian soldiers in the Roman army, but they were there because they had been pressed into service, and seemed faithfully to adhere to the church’s absolute prohibition on killing--if not why was there no hint of a rebellion when Christian soldiers were subject of a harsh purge from the army under Diocletian about twenty years before? In other words they were there as a formal fill-up-the ranks presence, ready the moment the war was over to abandon the profession. Constantine realized somehow that it would be possible to enlist the support of this radical yet influential movement by calling a halt to the bitter persecution of his predecessors and then progressively according rights and privileges to the church, and at the same time creating the self-serving myth that the Christian god had spoken to him directly pledging his support. Christians of course had to want the end of persecution, and they probably shared a general desire for the peace of Roman society rent by continual civil war. Whatever the reasons the combination of Constantine’s moves got the Christian movement to accept the deal he offered and progressively they saw all this as the work of God. (There is at least one monumental image of Constantine’s vision adorning the walls of the Vatican.) A fateful hour had dawned, the seduction of Christianity by the state and its military apparatus. Within the space of one year the bishops were ordering Christians to remain in the army (Council of Arles, 314), within a decade there were religious wars with Christian orthodoxy on one side and heresy on the other, and within a century Augustine had formulated his doctrine of “just war”. The rest is history.

Or a kind of history.

When the emperor says licet Christianity is licensed. It’s allowed to exist by the say-so of the archaic human system built on the death of the victim. And then very quickly it appears that Christianity agrees reciprocally with the state’s mode of existence, with its violence. Christianity becomes franchised by the state, by a human system of violence. And in return Christianity franchises the state, its relentless natural violence. A separation-of-church-and-state motif does not overcome this, rather it effectively masks it. Within the separation lies a mutual collusion. And if biblical people invoke Romans 13 (submit to civil authority) as proof of apostolic support for this situation they conveniently overlook both the vastly different condition of Christianity at the time of Paul’s writing (a tiny apolitical group) and Paul’s more basic theological distinction between the Christian body and the wrath of this present world order.

As is obvious all this has been hashed out before. The discussion between the Christian peace tradition and the position of the mainline “just war” churches is old, bitter and unresolved. What I’m saying, however, wants to add something different. The franchising of Christianity by the state is breaking down from within. The crisis of violence in our 21st century world is of itself dissolving the implicit alliance of Christians and the state, instead opening up a new space where Christians are unfranchised, unlicensed, unofficial….

A new possibility is emerging, created by our contemporary historical crisis of elective wars that never end and the parallel systemic experience of destruction of the environment. The world system can be seen to be terminal and this puts people in a new situation, especially Christians who can recognize that this new situation is, in an amazing upside-down way, the transforming work of Christ. If Christians have colluded with the state and its just wars, Christ and the gospel of the forgiving and innocent victim never have. And so the more and more the world resorts to violence the more and more its violence is seen as...violence. The act of violence becomes implausible, inconclusive, inept, crazy. Our history is spinning into greater and greater chaos because of the refusal of the true answer--the forgiveness and compassion of Christ, which at the same time become the more evidently necessary the more they are refused. Thus Christ has opened up a new opportunity for his followers to return to their original unfranchised, unchained state, to find the gap in the world order where they can truly exist.

In this gap the gospel is free to speak itself in boundaryless transformative terms, without distinction of friend or foe, terrorist or freedom fighter, us and them, righteous and impure. I quote Scott Hutchinson. “The forgiveness at the heart of gospel life removes barriers, loosens bonds, unburdens, sets people free, leads to the mutuality of gifting and being gifted. Exhilarating, fulfilling, and terrifying! The source, of course, is God, whose radical self-giving transforms and endlessly offers life.” And progressively the actual space that Christians occupy is no longer demarcated by the built walls of their franchise but by this new open unmediated space that Christ has created in our time, dissolving the historical nexus of 313.

Tony Bartlett

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Culture's Noise, God's Silence

Theology and Peace board member, Adam Ericksen, discusses the insights of both Rob Bell's Pneuma video Noise and mimetic theory.

For more of Adam's work, please see The Raven Foundation at http://www.ravenfoundation.org/

Friday, April 23, 2010

Forced out of The Matrix

Two of my friends who serve on the Theology and Peace board have, at different times, used the image of "The Matrix" to describe the relationship of Girardian Christians with the culture around us. It always seemed an interesting analogy, and I've even used it in a sermon. But I only recently came to understand it fully.

You may remember the "Matrix" film trilogy, in which human beings have lost a war to machines and computer programs, and are now kept in pods where the energy their bodies generate is used to power their mechanical and electronic overlords. To keep the humans pacified, their brains are linked to a computer program which causes them to see a pleasant, ordinary world where they live full, if imaginary, lives. Only a small group of humans know the awful truth, and they struggle to free their fellows from their bondage.

In recent weeks, I think I have come to an awakening of my own, and like many such experiences, it has been jarring and painful. A few weeks ago, I received a call from a parishioner, saying her house was on fire. I quickly headed to the scene of the fire, and stood with two church members and friends as we watched firefighters come and go from their smoky home. In the course of the couple of hours I was with them, I was told that the fire had been intentionally set. That would be the first of many shocks, that day and in the days to follow.

My administrative assistant, who also did bookkeeping for our congregation, was arrested and charged with two counts of arson. She was subsequently charged with theft, for having allegedly embezzled more than $100,000 from our church. Within a few hours, my world was turned upside down. A woman I had trusted enough to have given her a key to my own home sat in jail. The arson victims were without a home. Nothing I knew when I woke up that morning seemed to be true anymore.

The next few days would bring more shocks. Those shocks would bring me to realize that we live in a violent world. I've known this in theory, I guess. I've been reading the works of Rene Girard for a few years now. I know his contention that human culture is founded on violence. But my congregation, and I, could always see the violence as somewhere else, someone else's problem. We felt insulated from it.

Now, violence had touched us more deeply than we could have ever imagined. A violent crime had been committed in our midst. In the Book of Acts, Saul of Tarsus is confronted on the road to Damascus with a horrible reality--he has been violently persecuting Jesus and his followers. In a moment, what he saw as his duty, the dictates of his faith, a thing worthy of honor, is revealed for what it really is--the violent persecution of innocent victims. For Saul, this is a crisis. He neither eats nor even sees for three days.

I can relate. I fell into a deep depression and lost 10 pounds in the first two weeks after the arson fire. I saw violence everywhere. The detectives, whose power is based on coercion and fear, were in our office quite a lot, complete with holstered guns, in those first few days. My assistant was jailed, cut off from family and even from those of us who would like to have had an explanation for her actions. And she faces decades in a place of violence and pain. Having lived in this culture, she sought a violent solution to her problems, leaving suffering victims in her wake.

My congregation has been wonderful, caring for the needs of both families affected by these events with prayers, and meals (we're Midwestern Christians, after all). Yet I worry about the possibility of conflict. I ask those who are angry to imitate Jesus, and not the offender, in their reactions to these events. Most listen to me, for which I am grateful. Some do not. I have come to understand that revenge is imitation of one who has wronged us. As Christians, Rene Girard has taught me, we make a choice to imitate Jesus. I am grateful for this insight, and do my best to pass it on to others around me.

I know now that the world is a violent place. Like those poor struggling humans in "The Matrix"; like Paul on the road to Damascus; I have been confronted with a reality that is both freeing and painful. I now see that Jesus came to free us from our violent ways, to offer us another path. I understand why Paul was in such crisis that seeing, eating, functioning was too painful. I don't think it's too much to say that I have shared that experience with Paul. I can no longer pretend that my world is peaceful and safe in the way that I believed it was 5 weeks ago.

After being blinded on the road, after three days of struggling with the revelation of his own violence, Paul meets Ananias, a member of the Damascus church. Ananias does the most remarkable thing...he embraces Paul. Paul, the persecutor of the Church, is embraced by the very Church he had intended to destroy. This new community becomes Paul's safety and solace, and the Holy Spirit becomes the source of his strength.

I, too, have had to find new sources of safety and strength. Police with guns no longer help me feel safe. An adversarial system no longer seems like a source of justice. But, thanks to the insights of Rene Girard, I know that my strength comes from following Jesus. The Holy Spirit stands with me and advocates for me in this violent world. Something like scales have fallen from my eyes.

The weeks and months to come will bring new stressors. There are court dates yet to come. I will again be confronted with the painful realities of life in this culture founded on violence. I know, however, that I will not go through these moments alone. My congregation has stood together well, striving to be the Church in this new reality--and getting it right a remarkable majority of the time! And the Holy Spirit will stand with me, strengthening me and reminding me that all of this will end in resurrection.

I am deeply grateful to Rene Girard and those who introduced me to his work, for helping me make sense of these difficult days. Theology and Peace has been invaluable to me, and I am honored to work with the T&P board to make this knowledge available to others.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Horizontal Reform

Tony Cicariello—who is on the Theology and Peace board— sent me a copy of Hans Kung’s open letter to Pope Benedict XVI, printed in the Irish Times last Friday (4/16, available at http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2010/0416/1224268443283.html).

Kung is the lion of Catholic liberalism, author of significant theological work, including rapprochement between the Catholic tradition and Protestant faith. In his letter he states that he and Joseph Ratzinger (now the pope) were the youngest theologians at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and are now the oldest actively working. He says the Roman Catholic church is in the worst credibility crisis since the Reformation and the present pope is very largely accountable. In particular he holds Ratzinger institutionally and personally responsible for engineering the global cover-up of child rape perpetrated by priests. He ends by calling for reform, and especially that the RC bishops should summon an ecumenical council to deal with the crisis.

It’s so telling that a theological voice dating from fifty years back is calling for a council. How can it possibly happen? Not only is the episcopal college full of Vatican placemen but the necessary theological groundwork is just not there. Where today are the Rahners, the de Lubacs, the Congars, the John Courtney Murrays?

At the same time, the revolution today is not in theology as such: it is carried in and by the information world.

This is a completely different human system that the one the Vatican knows and is shaped by. The Vatican is all about the control of meaning through a vertical information system. But today information and meaning are transferred across a horizontal surface which has no allegiance to traditional vertical operations.

In this world not only is the Vatican at a loss, but much more positively Christian meaning can arise anywhere, and does. It is irrepressible. In this kind of world RC reform is going to happen locally, and communicate itself across a horizontal surface.

It’s high time members of the RC tradition began to grow a para-Catholic church, locally based, emergent, welcoming, vitalized by mimetic anthropology and transformational faith. Then the episcopacy would sit up and take notice. And then ultimately it might be possible to have a truly profound and generative ecumenical council. Let’s see, San Francisco I ?

But in the meantime why not try T&P 3, in Chicago 25-27 May!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

T&P Blog

Welcome to the Theology & Peace blog. Contributors to this blog will be trusting, suspicious, full of hope, despairing, loving, forgiving, angry, frustrated, funny, prosaic, curious, cynical, compassionate, tough. I.E. fairly representatively human. What’s going to be different is a sustained sense that overall God is making human beings better! What other purpose could God possibly have? If God is either i) about punishing humans or ii) waiting for us to die so he can bring us to a better place, or iii) a combination of both, then God is so all-too-human as to be really a human construction. If on the other hand God is like Jesus and is concerned to shock this world into creational perfection through enduring love, well that’s much more worth the trouble. That God is so perfectly human! Mimetic anthropology, mirror neurons, nonviolence, peace, high culture, popular culture, mainline church, emerging church, online, offline, all these and more are in the toolkit of the writers. We’d love to have you with us. Peace!