Saturday, February 25, 2012

Answering Santorum (Or Five Talking Points for a Peace Christianity)

It's a truism in the Mimetic Theory community that liberals and conservatives start imitating each other when they get mad. They say opposite things but they say them with the same reciprocal and scapegoating anger.

 "You are taking away my freedom! No, you are taking away my life!"

In fact they are not saying all that much opposite things. When it gets down to it each side sees the other as threatening what is of absolute value. (Where in fact would you chose to put liberal and conservative either side of the paragraph above?) At all events the visceral anger is a recipe sooner or later for murder.

And that puts the socially committed Christian in a considerable bind. Indeed a long time before the situation gets to murder a Christian is aware of Jesus' teaching that all kinds of name-calling are against the meaning of the Kingdom and incur the same end-times judgment. To call someone a "fool" brings the whole world crashing down, in the end...

So what do you do as a Christian to raise your voice, to get a hearing, when the stakes are so high and the only voice to get heard is the last one to say the loudest, cruelest thing? How really do you present something that has enough force and strength to get heard and yet does not re-enter the Colosseum of name-calling?

Jesus was a fantastic speaker and preacher. He used stories that often had a very sharp bite to them (think the parable of the talents, and of the laborers in the vineyard, the virgins and the lamps...). He spoke a clear and present critique of wealth and hypocrisy, plus issued harsh apocalyptic warnings. The sweet Jesus meek and mild can too easily be stripped of these elements. But can we speak like him?

Our situation is complicated because so much of Jesus-style language has been hijacked by fundamentalism, lacking the profound disclosive truth of his own personal journey, and it comes off simply as violent. We are all too aware of how righteous language slips so easily into righteous rivalry.

And yet the need for effective language becomes critical when national politicians employ theology to claim higher ground and do so denying legitimacy to their opponents. Rick Santorum suggested recently that Barack Obama promotes “some phony theology. Not a theology based on the Bible." Specifically, Obama has "a world view that elevates the earth above man."

Apart from the fact this is holy war politics Santorum also invokes some of the worst elements of popular dualist theology to discredit Obama's policies. His deformed viewpoint can be well answered by those in the theological know but how can it be countered on a more general or populist level? How can we do the kind of thing Jesus did, addressing multitudes?

One answer is to provide a different positive language to people and to do so by insisting in season and out of season on this new language. Then it's not a matter of kicking up dust in Santorum's face down in the arena but gradually making a way of thinking and speaking so familiar and persuasive that it acts on its own to disqualify his words. What is needed is a new fabric of language that holds together at so many edges that it becomes a dynamic world view in its own right.

To this purpose I offer five theological "talking points" below. They can be added to, changed or reduced: they are not, as the saying goes, set in stone! MT people will recognize the anthropological underpinning and they will surely know how and where all have already been addressed by Girardian scholars. The purpose here is to try to give the language in some bare essentials so that it, or something like, can perhaps progressively become a kind of native theological tongue.

1. Christianity is about a death which catalyzes earthly compassion, not a legal transaction for the sake of eternity. Salvation is a different human relational basis, and grace and the Spirit are the divine agents of a new humanity.

2. Interpretation begins from the end-term of scripture which is God's character as revealed in Jesus, not from a punitive atonement which colors the entire narrative with deep violence. Revelation therefore has its own history. It is seen as a struggle for understanding leading finally to the transformed eye of Jesus' gospel. In this understanding apocalyptic metaphors are not elevated into metaphysics (viz. hell) but are judged both as part of the ongoing struggle for understanding and, again, in the final light of the character of God.

3. Love is the definition of election, election is not the definition of love. Augustine and Calvin introduced a destructive principle into Christian thought by placing sovereign election as a principle superior to love. This is entirely intelligible to a Roman-law mindset, but does not reflect the mystery of self-giving love which is the end light of revelation.

4. Compassion and solidarity are the core anthropology of biblical revelation. Solidarity is not the same as state socialism which may be seen as a vertical force. Solidarity is an upwelling of unity with other people "from below" and realizes a higher (more human) form of freedom. Solidarity is inherently democratic and seeks to enshrine itself in policy for the sake of a transformed earth.

 5. Our after-death destiny is understood as an earth-based "sleep" which is a survival of our basic identity in communion with Christ. It is perhaps a kind of "cosmic life support" which is not full consciousness, but neither is it extinction. At all events it looks toward the restoration of full bodily existence in Resurrection which is the true New Testament goal (rather than "immortality of the soul").

Tony Bartlett TinR Theology & Peace

Thursday, February 9, 2012

This Pound of Flesh

OK it's true, it's been too long since the last one. I apologize.

A blog is supposed to be something on a quick tempo, a smart, digital-style frequency, not every new moon!

I would really love to do that. But somehow I can't. It goes with being a theologian-in-residence of a radical new theological movement: you need time to let the coffee percolate. It's partly the subject matter I must choose, and partly the method or style in which I comment on the material. The first is challenging, the second has been called (well, once anyway, to my hearing, and not to mince words) "ponderous..."

Take for example what I want to talk about right now: death overcome by resurrection. That's a challenge. The Greeks laughed at Paul for even bringing it up, and it's still foolishness (and a scandal) to most philosophers. So then, how shall I approach the topic? Well, I want to root it in human and material possibility, not in the sheer miraculous. And at once you see what I mean. To move away from the mythical and the fairy tale and the imagined supernatural, is to stretch people's thoughts further and deeper then they often want to go. It is indeed asking them to ponder, to think more deeply, to weigh the matter with all its mass and gravity. And if this thing is weighty, or heavy to lift with the mind, the easy option is to dismiss it, to drop it. But then if you let it drop nothing changes. There is no new vision.

And yet there really is a new vision to communicate, and it is always my dream and desire to do so, So let me see, one more time, if I have lightened the load if only a smidgeon, enough to tempt you to bear the burden of my blue-moon blog!

In all the recent firestorm over the existence of hell, or "eternal conscious torment" as its juicily called by true believers, there was very little mention of resurrection. This is strange because resurrection is the New Testament selling point to the pagan world, the new deal that beat out several existing versions of the afterlife. John says the wicked are raised to judgment (5:29, an open-ended concept which is not the same as a sentence to eternal torment) but you'd wonder why God would bother at all if the wicked are already in conscious hell (judged spiritually at point of death, as the broad Western tradition has it), unless God was particularly sadistic and wanted acute bodily agony added to the spiritual pain of perdition. However, putting all that aside, the point is something happens to the WHOLE of humanity and this is consistent with the restoration of all of creation as Paul describes it (Romans 8: 19-21).

So what happens? What, you could say, is the deep meteorological forecast for that glorious day of resurrection?

According to Karl Rahner there is no rigid distinction between the material and the spiritual. As he explains it the "spiritual" is simply the possibility of matter to "return" to itself in relationship. Matter is always bent in or over on itself and ultimately the reason for this is that matter is rooted in an absolute relational ground which is God. Again according to Rahner, the first place we know the singleness of matter and spirit is in the human. So good theology does not invent a scheme of essential forms of being and then fit humanity to it, as the Greeks did. Rather it lets humanity itself teach the radical unity of matter and spirit.

The discovery of mimetics by Rene Girard powerfully underscored the human unity of matter and spirit. You could say imitation is the spiritual. The fact that I become so totally identified with the "other", either in violence or compassion, is the event of the spiritual. There is nothing else to it. And the discovery by neural science of the actual neurons which make this happen--the repetition within our own nervous systems of motor signals received from outside ourselves--demonstrates conclusively the identity of the spiritual and the material.

We know that this kind of imitation also happens with animals, but recent experiments show it happening even at some level in plant life. Plants emit chemical signals for self-defense which other plants are then able to imitate. It seems beyond doubt that material nature is constantly wired into itself, repeating the "other" in itself and in relation to itself, all the way up and down the chain of complexity, from human to atom and back to human again.

In a framework like this resurrection is simply the time and place where the relation of matter to itself reaches an intensification which is completely generative. It is the point where human beings imitate an unending, boundless form of life, and all creation does the same with them. The ideal of "hard" science is always to find the indestructible, the infinitely powerful, the bottomless well of energy. This is a distorted copy (read violent) of the true current of life which is so astonishingly gentle, so nonviolent, so loving, as to be virtually invisible to normal human culture born in and through violence. The biblical story is of a millennia-long struggle to shape a space and an experience that can provide the authentic signals of this other life. The person of Jesus is the masterpiece of this process, the definitive set of signals corresponding to genuine endless life, and the cross is the single summary of those signals. It makes perfect sense that the cross and Jesus' death into the depths of the earth should translate in the space of thirty six hours into resurrection.

Both Paul and John used the figure of seed and sowing for resurrection. In doing so they intuitively cast this event in its most natural and correct frame: "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit...." To be a Christian is to imitate in life and death the revolutionary material transformation brought by Jesus.

And so, yes, the challenge is to think like this rather than some magical supernaturalism. The power of the resurrection is truly divine, but it is not Thor-like, a lightning strike from an angry above. There is a God-given potential in material nature for infinite life, but it is founded in a mystery of absolute nonviolence and self-giving and that is the deepest challenge of human existence, as well an absolute scandal to manipulative science. It has taken aeons of inconceivable gentleness folding over on itself finally to become the astonishing message of the gospel.

Most Christians I have encountered much prefer the lazy thinking of supernaturalism. They want ghosts, spirits, a world beyond, and some fairy-tell scene of resurrection essentially redundant to the afterlife. It is this supernaturalism which in fact has fostered the fractious and cruel idea of the "Rapture": resurrection as an other-worldly event for the the privileged few followed by disaster on earth. A true regard for gospel resurrection cannot but place it at the heart of the material realm, which God created as good and for the sake of final Sabbath blessing. And, oh yes, in this context "the resurrection of judgment" could easily mean a dramatic and painful crisis of truth for anyone who died in willful violence. What the outcome would be afterward is hidden from us. But it seems hard to believe that with creation transformed in explosive life before their eyes anyone would still choose not to be part of it.

So, how is that for pondering?

And I'm telling myself now the word ponder is related to "pound," i.e. sixteen ounces. To ponder like above is to weigh and value the "pound of flesh" God has given us. It is the only medium in which we can possibly know the ultimate amazing mimesis of resurrection!

Tony Bartlett TinR Theology & Peace