Friday, April 22, 2011


Anyone who writes (or is driven to write) has some single big thing around which his or her writing is always turning, always navigating. It's an unavoidable bump in the road which the individual's work comes up against, goes over, or simply crashes into, perhaps sometimes breaking down completely.

In good writers, the best writers, this bump is hugely productive. There is enormous skill and discipline exercised in returning to the bump again and again and making the writing do the most amazing things, sailing over the bump, screeching round it, even dislodging the bump entirely and carrying it off like a trophy impaled on the front of the hood. I think of themes of "affliction" and "the void" in Simone Weil, the continual dissolution or disillusion of the ideal in Orwell, the vast undertow of sensuality held in check by Augustine's relentless tide of thought.

I am not putting myself in any way in this company, just simply recognizing the community of the bump: And I have to say, in my case, it something to do with space. More precisely, the lack of it. My bump is really a big hole in the road.

Probably many people lack space. Perhaps even most people on the planet are prisoners of worlds not their own, where they don't actually belong. But it was my poor fortune to be exiled from space in a very particular way, one in which the sucking away of space reached into the depths of my personal being. I was chosen to be a Roman Catholic priest from an extremely tender age by a combination of genuine spiritual instinct and an upbringing that saw the surrounding culture as, in so many words, evil, with the Roman Catholic church as the only viable social alternative. Add the default Platonism of RC discourse back in the fifties and what resulted was the vacuuming away of a huge amount of the earth and its actual territory.

Because of this I used to love travel to foreign countries. As all the signs and symbols were strange I didn't have to assume automatically this was bad space, and it was possible briefly to relax. Now at a point in time when I am about to become a U.S. citizen I rejoice in a perception of the basic neutrality of U.S. landmass for me. It's not native soil, but neither is it alien like my actual land of birth was.

But then what is truly good space? What would it be to experience space as life? It is the possibility of breathing freely. It is moments and occasions when your being and person flow seamlessly into the surrounding environment and you are at one with your world. It is connectedness to everything because the signs and signals of grace have filled the world with peace, joy, love.

Here is Simone Weil, and I have to say I feel a certain affinity with this particular writer's bump!

"All the natural movements of the soul are controlled by laws analogous to those of physical gravity. Grace is the only exception. Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void. The imagination is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass."

She is talking about empty space and how it can be experienced as grace. I am talking about something somewhat different, the denial of space completely. But then they are related, because if at a certain point the lack of space can be accepted voluntarily as an emptiness, a letting go, a desert waiting to be filled, then in line with what she is saying--but widening the frame to the full scriptural dimensions-- it can make real world transformation begin.

The tension of Christian existence is never toward annihilation--it does not produce Nirvana, the blowing out of the real. Rather it is toward an astonishing reconstitution of the real, the recreation or refreshing of our world by love, with and in all its variety and splendor. To believe in Christ in a world of violence is never simply a vague wishing away of the human space. There is always the concrete witness of the Spirit as love which is a strange physical ability or power to accept the disassembly of the present real and connect it at once to the assembly of the final real. And in fact the only way to reach the final real is to undergo this disassembly which is the overturning and undoing of all our human violence.

In the present Holy Week and Easter time what better description could there be of the cross and resurrection? Crucifixion is the ultimate denial of space: unable to move, to go anywhere, to hide yourself from shame, your own body your intolerable fixed point. But then in the unfathomable depths of the Christ exactly this non-space became an endless space of grace, the inexhaustible sign of love for the real. How could this infinite space of love not be raised up in deathless life? How could it not become the new creation witnessed by Mary of Magdala on one ordinary first day of the week back in first century Palestine?

As for all those holes in the road? Really, perhaps just openings to an empty tomb...

Tony Bartlett

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sunday Bomb and Second Sowing

Sunday morning and it's like a bomb's gone off.

The streets are deserted. No survivors.

I sit at my desk, part of the aftermath, resolutely unable to go to church. And why should I? The arena in which the gospel must now be sown has moved on from those medieval landscapes, Catholic or Protestant, in which all the churches were born. This is now the postmodern world, the bombed out world.

The post-Christian world. The apocalyptic world.

Moreover, it is exactly the kind of world which the more it sees itself as post-Christian the more it is uniquely Christian.

The truth is all the people wiped off the streets by the Sunday bomb are floating in some strange comfortable Jesus-loving space, without gods, without shame, and with a world fully harnessed for their good, for their proper human narrative. Certainly, yes, there are growing threats and crises to terrify us--and that is another reason why it's correctly called the Sunday bomb--but if that should drive people back into church they could only go with a built-in sense of cynicism that would quickly drive them right out again.

It is a European world and increasingly a North American world. A world brought about by long exposure to the gospel and an equally long exposure to the church and its multiple fatal compromises with violence, with war, with hierarchy and its uses. So the streets are empty because, simply put, you can be a better Christian staying in bed than going to church.

And, emphatically, that's not just a negative reaction. The streets are empty because they are also full, thick with human meaning, a meaning gradually put in place by the relentless spread of the authentic Christian spirit of community and brotherhood under the rational guise of Greek democracy and rights. And now there's also the internet, a technical explosion of communication that does and can only mimic the communion of love dreamed of in the scriptures.

For sure there are churches that remain open. There are the traditional gangly spires and faux facades dotting the landscape, offering the comfortable persuasion that nothing really has changed. God is in his heaven and these are his chosen means of preserving the divine order here on earth as in heaven. Even so they uphold a Sunday ideology that has less and less credibility and is little more than a cultural relic, a kind of Sunday vacation from lived-world reality. Fundamentalists understand this and carry the old-time Sunday fight to the rest of the week, invoking their Sunday fantasy against all-comers. Only the community churches and mega-churches really get it. With their rock bands, multi- media, sports clubs, kids spaces and general Starbucks ambient they make Sunday as much like the rest of the week as possible. But of course in the process they strengthen the Sunday bomb. People can just as well stay at home if it works better for them!

The Sunday bomb is an exhausted Western post-Christendom basking in the irradiated glow of the Christian gospel that can never be unannounced, never un-exploded. God has become one of us, the ordinary everyday human, leaving all the gods undone and all their empires exposed. Everyone feels it, lives in it. Christianity has in fact won while the churches have lost, because they grew up battling the gods and doing deals with the empires. And, connected exactly to that, the Sunday bomb now leaves us an intensely dangerous world, full of failing empires armed to the teeth.

What is needed then is a second sowing of the Christian message, a fresh seeding in a soil that has been hybridized and prepared by the gospel itself. (With its own epistemology--of uncertainty and hope, its own strange metaphysics--of relationship, its own psychology--of desire affirmed as love.) Now is the time for an ekklesia that is faithful to the full radicalism of the gospel, for it is the only thing that can truly take root in a bombed-out irradiated world.

Communities of this ekklesia are not identified by Sunday worship, because they belong to the Sunday bomb not the Sunday of heavenly order. They belong to a world full of the anxiety and chaos of the absence of the gods, to a world where war has become the only mode of public existence. Taking root in this world they can show the way on the impossible path of forgiveness, the only path there is left. And the world itself understands this. It is haunted by the possibility of the impossible, and cannot believe in any Christianity short of this. The world itself is looking for communities of a second sowing, intentional gatherings of nonviolence, contemplation and common life, full of hope and truthfulness in an irradiated world.

And, oh, I can agree, it's not impossible that such communities also meet on Sunday. But I haven't found one near me.

Tony Bartlett, T&P Theologian in Residence