Sunday, December 23, 2012

The U.S. Crisis

I have never quite felt a sense in the U.S. like the one I experienced last week. The U.S. crisis is not fiscal, political, military, or even cultural in any usual sense. It's as profound and hard-to-name as it is evident; like some strange tropical illness with which a relative is suffering, and nobody can seem to stop it.

Founding a nation on "self-evident truths" must always be a risky business let alone when those truths claim the equality of all people. Generally speaking equality will be either a recipe for satisfaction or for constantly renewed conflict. Perhaps the real truth of the matter is that U.S. "equality" was always based, in uneasy parts, on a mutual measure of Christian individual salvation and a huge continent in which such saved individuals could lose (and find) themselves. The 2010 movie, True Grit, and the book it is based on, are convincing depictions of the cultural marriage of these two factors, with the gun as the great settler of scores against both backdrops. Now, for better or worse, both the ideology of Christian salvation and the open horizons of migration are eroded. We are left staring more and more fixedly at each other, yet more than ever armed.

The horror of Sandy Hook and the barely less horrific response of the NRA, made public a week after the shootings, brought day-to-day U.S. society almost to a spiritual halt; or at least to a kind of moment of clarity. As if the fever (our own fever) cleared just enough for a moment, for us to recognize the true character of the crisis.

A twenty-year-old man named Adam entered an elementary school and for every one of his own wretched, miscarried years he slaughtered a first-grade child with an automatic rifle, shooting each child between three and eleven times. Having previously killed his mother, he also killed six adults at the school, finally shooting himself. The cold mathematical fury of his actions combined with the extreme youth, vulnerability and innocence of his targets, plus his own rabbit-in-the-headlights-look in the photos available, managed to exceed by an order of magnitude the shock of all the previous mass shootings in the U.S.

The U.S. love-affair with guns slammed with the force literally of a bullet into its much greater love-affair with kids. There were calls at once for increased gun-controls, led by the President who declared "words need to lead to action" and directed the Vice-President to head an interagency effort, coming up with answers to the issue of mass shootings.

Such controls seem to be simple common sense--and do so to many NRA members--but the response by the NRA leadership demonstrates that there is something greater in play here than common sense. Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre called for armed guards in every U.S. school, fingered "mental health" as the culprit, and uttered the eternally classic line, "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

This kind of vision implies a complete breakdown of the idea of civil society, in a dystopian one-for-one mirroring of the violence of the lone shooter which the supposed intent is to counter. Those who carried lethal weapons in ancient city states from Canaan to Greece to Verona and Venice always belonged to the warrior class, the aristoi (from which comes aristocrats), those who were "best" in a variety of fields, above all fighting. The ordinary populace, tradespeople, and peasantry in the fields, may have had weapons stashed away but they did not carry them. (Hence the biblical "meek of the earth," as in psalm 37:11 and Job 24:4.) That way, violence was reserved to a special class, those who were, you might say, professionals in the field, and then also the soldiery which developed around them. Modern police are largely in fact a product of the time when aristocrats gave up carrying weapons and keeping beside them groups of armed retainers. What LaPierre is, therefore, talking about is a level of near-universal (re)arming never seen before in human history: armed guards at every corner and concealed-carry on the part of numerous others, together with weapons whose lethality is unparalleled. The NRA is talking about a steady state of civil war where you're never sure who or what the enemy is or whether the next moment will be your last. A Christian mutuality of individuals has been sundered apart into an original violence, and equality in violence becomes the final measure of a man (or woman).

This is the crisis we're facing. You could call it a spiritual crisis, except "spiritual" seems normally to refer to a separate realm of spirit which only secondarily has concrete consequences. You should perhaps then call it anthropological, because that indicates how we concretely structure our humanity. Most of all you could call it "Christian" because the half-born message of the gospel in the West has brought us to this decayed and dangerous form of equality, a kind of zombie Christianity filled with violent atomization and atomizing violence. This form of equality has lost all sense of solidarity with the next man or woman, completely unwilling to trust them for ordinary business of life. It has been replaced instead with a war of all against all, a long slow bleeding war which has already been engaged in many minds.

As Girard says it, "(T)he Western world is in a perpetual state of crisis, and the crisis is always spreading." (Violence and the Sacred, 238)

In these circumstances the Christian message is called to take on a powerfully renewed self-understanding. Because it was a version of Christian belief that helped put the crisis in place it is only a re-imagined and re-vitalized Christianity can help resolve it. First, then, it is urgent that Christian ministers work to transform the basic sense of how Christians think of themselves as humans. Their dominant body/soul anthropology is critically outmoded and is deeply prejudicial against organic human solidarity. Next, violence itself must be taught, not seen on one occasion as a moral aberration, and on another as a magnificent heroism. Rather it is something essentially and horribly human, a kind of spirit or essence itself which has made humanity all that it has known for hundreds of thousands of years. But now this essence has reached an elemental inner crisis because of its exposure to the gospels...being brought literally to light. Because of that light human violence is sweating and blowing up in our faces like dynamite itself. Yet, just as Jesus predicted in the gospel, at the very same time as the human crisis evolves it's also the very time for the "sign of the Son of Man" to appear. That is, the sign of a nonviolent relational humanity, surrendering to each other in love.

This sign and its teaching will be a far surer way of protecting the children than a nine millimeter in every teacher's desk.

Tony Bartlet, Contributing Theologian

P.S. This blog is also published at Hope In Time, another blogspot I'm looking to develop.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Advent into Christmas

In my blog Imaginary Visions of True Peace I have added a second Advent meditation, a short story, and a Christmas meditation. The Need for New Hearts comments on Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, the Sandy Hook shootings, one of my short stories and more. My story Parry the Penguin's Visit to New York is about, well, a visit to New York by a Penguin named Parry. The story is amusing but instructive. Any Girardian can guess what happens to a penguin who tries to check into a New York hotel. My Christmas meditation Celebrating the Prince of Peace brings in Sandy Hook again to look at what the Christ Child would teach us about what has happened.

Friday, December 14, 2012

New Church Architecture: Human Beings..

The role of the Christian minister is to transform the core information which constructs a human being, through Christ to bring about "the new human." This may appear either a fairly empty, or deeply relevant statement.

The Christian movement has always been a matter of information and the way it recreates, or reprograms, human existence. The gospels end with the command to "teach all nations" and their main data involve the immense claim of a crucified man risen from the dead. To believe this, to be informed by it, is to accept quite a bit of reprogramming.

Over the centuries the institutional, established character of the churches has to a degree disguised this fact, but at the same time the physical composition of churches always remained a matter of conscious information. Those buildings on every corner proclaim loudly they are programming systems, with their stain-glass windows, their bells, their steeples pointed at the sky, and all the dense array of signs and symbolism within.

But today they also look more and more outdated, because their information systems have been displaced, if not destroyed, by an unforeseeable, epochal shift.

That street-corner church with the dim lights glimmering within used to be the only game in town in terms of a free, universal and fascinating system of signs that could be and was downloaded in the lives of individuals. Now we have all of the same thing on our computers or smart phones ("It's free and always will be," as Facebook says it, with a billion profiles a couple of clicks away). This should not be taken as simply a provocative or opportunistic comparison. The advent of the World Wide Web, Social Media and The Cloud provides a simultaneous, universal, intimate and deeply layered communication, and it replicates a great deal of the anthropological function which used to be filled by the churches. I personally regard this as a major reason for the steep drop-off in church allegiance of the under-thirties. It's much easier, and surer, to connect with some form of human meaning online than in church.

What does this imply then for church ministers? For certain, some will claim the WWW cannot help you when it comes to sickness or death. But is that what the church wishes to be reduced to, a pallbearer at the end of a life? (OK, there's also birth and marriage as the other rites of passage, but internet celebrations of the pics of these events are progressively at least as important as any church service. And, yes, again, there's the role of churches in moral education and socializing of youth, but really, both quantitatively and qualitatively, how does that compare to the role of the media in doing exactly the same?)

There is now a huge acceleration of the ecclesial consequences of our contemporary digital situation: most of all we are brought to understand with dramatic new clarity that the church is about how we are informed by Christ and how we inform each other in Christ.

Here is a parable. Just as church architects and masons figured out how to make the clustered columns and capitals for Gothic cathedrals, the joints for the vaulted roofs, and the filigree stonework for rose windows, so the contemporary pastor, teacher, priest, leader, must figure out how to build with and through believers a more and more radically human church, how in fact to make a new human architecture.

This may sound vague or metaphorical. But a recent and growing trend in theological reflection has begun to include the findings of neuroscience. See, for example, "Neuroscience and The Mind of Christ" where the author, Derek Flood, argues for a concrete neurological sense in which the mind of the Christ becomes in fact "the brain of the Christian."

This can be understood also from a Girardian perspective. If violence first generates our human world, including its possibility of language and, therefore, necessarily the structural development of our brains, then the new human "generation" brought by Christ must at some physical level act to re-structure the same brains. It also makes perfect sense that just as some of the discoveries of neuro-science have validated Girard's basic insights, the new nonviolent humanity of Christ would play out at the neurological level.

In which case the obvious way forward is not to try and tempt people back in the temples, what might be called "Big Box" Christianity, but adapt to the new transforming reality of an information world, by getting to the micro or neural level where its truly exciting meaning lies. Without a doubt people need large places to gather in, but much more urgent is to understand the radical meaning of gospel information within the human self. Christianity has always been about good news but so often it has gone the big-box way because, well, the architecture of stone is so much more impressive!

In fact the real job of the "minister" (she who serves) is to build together with a specific group or groups the mutual brain architecture of new humanity. To put up those neural pillars that can withstand the mechanical forces of a violent world, to construct the inner windows permanently shaped to plunge into the endless peace and forgiveness of Christ, to joint the roof beams of the beloved community that recognizes itself on sight! Everything in these situations has to be face-to-face, not the bland single face of the priest, or the hyper face of the evangelist, because only in that direct download situation is real human change possible.

Quite some time ago I took a trip to South America. On some nameless Brazilian river lost in the gallery forest we rounded a bend and encountered a "town," four rows of cane and thatch houses in lines receding from the river. My priest guide told me that the parish priest held a meeting in each of the rows during the weekdays to read and reflect on the following Sunday's scripture. Then on the Sabbath they all came together in one of the houses to share the fruit of their smaller gatherings. The image of those low roofs and their nightly meetings has remained with me. It has the horizontal, human look of a contemporary cathedral.

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian

P.S. I am glad to welcome to this blog Andrew Marr OSB, someone whose whole life is based on the new architecture of the human. The post below is his introduction and contains links to his many wonderful writings and reflections.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

An Imaginary Garden of Real Peace

Tony Bartlett has generously invited me to post on this blog from time to time. As some of you know, I have my own blog called "An Imaginary Garden of Real Peace: the Stories and Teachings of a Benedictine Monk." I have been writing this blog for a bit over two months now and have accumulated several posts. Although the blog does publicize and promote my books, I am using it to develop Girard's mimetic theory in dialogue with Benedictine monastic spirituality. My most recent post is A Leaky Basket: Judging Judgmentalism which tells a couple of my favorite stories about the desert monastics of the fourth and fifth centuries that deal with the peril of judgmental attitudes. The post before that is an Advent meditation called Prepare a Way for the Lord. Going further back, there is much more in the way of glimpses of issues in mimetic desire. I have also posted sample chapters from my book "Tools for Peace" that introduce mimetic theory and Benedictine spirituality. I have also posted a sample story from each of the collections I have published. It is my intention to post an update report on my blog roughly every two weeks with links to the newest blog posts and articles and stories. I am posting to my blog at least once a week, sometimes more. If you want to be current with my blog, you can follow on Facebook or Twitter. I will appreciate any help any of you can give for spreading the word of the blog to anyone you know who is interested in mimetic theory or might become interested if given a chance to read about it, as well as to anyone who might be interested in fantasy stories aimed at young readers as well as older ones. With Christmas coming, ask yourself if anyone you know (maybe yourself included) would like "Tools for Peace" as a Christmas present or one or more of the fantasy story collections: Born in the Darkest Time of Year: Stories for the Season of the Christ Child, Creatures We Dream of Knowing, or From Beyond to Here. I hope readers will find these stories enjoyable as well as another helpful exploration into mimetic desire and its social ramifications.

Monday, December 3, 2012

From Darwin To Daniel

What follows is not a blog; they are the notes from a recent bible study. Interest in the subject and the contemporary need to "take back" Daniel from violent hermeneutics suggested they be posted here.

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Daniel is one of the last books of the Hebrew bible. Parts of it were written only 160 years before Jesus' birth. It could be compared with Darwin's Origin of Species, a book written in the recent past (middle of 19th century) which significantly affects present perspective. The worldview of fervent Jews living in the time of Jesus was as profoundly shaped by Daniel as many people are today by the writings of Darwin. The Dead Sea Scrolls contain fragments of eight manuscripts of Daniel, making it second only to Isaiah with twenty one copies. The Pharisees' belief in resurrection depends crucially on the book of Daniel. And, of course, the gospels are deeply informed by Daniel.

The comparison of Darwin and Daniel is not relevant just in terms of timescale: it works in terms of how people are shaped in respect of violence, something acutely pressing both at the time of Jesus and today. Is violence something inscribed in the nature of existence? Or is it something the biblical God is working to overcome? Daniel suggests the latter.

Christians today are called to acquaint themselves with Daniel's dramatic compositional process, in order to gain an accurate sense of what is at stake in the book, and in the gospels which frequently depend on this work.

The make-up of the book explains some of its nature. It consists first of a series of five accounts known as "court stories," telling of the Jewish youth, Daniel, in exile in Babylon. From chapter seven onward there follows a series of four visions experienced by Daniel and centering on the devastating circumstances of the attack by a Syro-Greek king, Antiochus Epiphanes IV, on Jerusalem.

The two sections are bound together by the figure of Daniel and a common thread or theme of successive violent kingdoms, ruling the world yet always under the imminent judgment of a God of justice and right.

The court stories circulated in the post-exilic period as a response to the dominant Babylonian, Medean, Persian and Greek cultures. These were military powers experienced at first hand by the exiles, which held total military control over the territory of Judea and Jerusalem.

In the context of national and cultural defeat the stories show the true superiority of the wisdom that comes from the God of Israel. God's Wisdom completely transcended that of the pagan court figures who claimed mantic insight (the dominant mysterious knowledge of those cultures). The God of Israel reveals to Daniel dreams and signs experienced by the kings and, within those dreams, the real truth is opened up. The truth is that these proud kings and kingdoms are destined to be overthrown and replaced by another kingdom, one established by God. (See especially chapters 2 and 4; note 2:31-45, the four kingdom sequence, which is then overwhelmed by a stone "not cut by hands." The stone becomes "a kingdom that shall never be destroyed.")

Stepping back, it is impossible to overstate the traumatic effect of the 6th century exile on devout Jews who survived it. If Exodus produced the national consciousness of Israel, with king, prophets and temple, Exile produced the Jews, a people conscious of the near-intolerable drama of being chosen by a God of justice. All through the post-exilic period their existence was balanced between the twin realities of abandonment by God and God's enduring commitment.

The Daniel court stories demonstrate the latter and they do so with a growing consciousness that the character of God is qualitatively different from that of the kingdoms of pride and violence that rule the earth. This is a critical step, distinguishing God's power from that of the violent empires. A key comparison to make is with the book of Ezekiel which fully identifies God's action with the atrocious violence of Babylon (see especially chapter 9). In Daniel God never threatens to use the violence of the kingdoms, let alone identifies with it. He rules the earth by sovereign divine power in which there is hardly any imagined or figured violence. The symbolism of the single stone invisibly cut out and striking the feet of the statue (2: 34) is both passive and as ascetic in terms of violence as it can get, and yet still be effective. This breakthrough constitutes the core revelation or "apokalypsis" of the book of Daniel, and powerfully underpins the vision section that follows.

In the 2nd century BC a new crisis erupted in Judea. The last remaining area of Israel had existed as an anonymous colony of the Persians, and then of the splintered kingdoms arising from Alexander the Greek's conquest of the world. Judea first came under the Egyptian line known as Ptolemies and then, at the beginning of the second century, it was taken over by a Syrian dynasty known as Seleucids. The Syrian regime proved itself more offensive and violent, both militarily and culturally, reaching a peak offense in the figure of Antiochus Epiphanes IV. (1 Maccabees 1, for account of Antiochus' actions.)

The book of Daniel shows Antiochus as perhaps one of the first truly "secular" rulers of history. It describes him as exalting himself above any god and honoring only "the god of fortresses," i.e. the god of state power (11: 36-38). Through a combination of Jewish assimilationists in Jerusalem (cf. 2 Maccabees 4: 7-20) and Antiochus' own eager arrogance he set out on an anti-Torah kulturkampf, trying to suppress the practice of Jewish religion and institute the worship of Zeus in the temple. This occurred between the years of 168 and 164 and it became the greatest crisis that Judaism had to confront since the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the exile itself in the 6th century.

The experience of the crisis was so fierce that it provoked in members of the Daniel group (i.e. those who had maintained the traditions about the mystery-revealing Daniel) an upsurge of dreams and visions which disclosed the secret of what was really going on, always in the key of the court stories. The visions were attributed to Daniel himself, setting them in the period of the exile, the archetypal time of trauma. Added to the court stories they created what we now know as the book of Daniel. Understood in this way the book of Daniel becomes a startling reading of intolerable present violence from the sense of a God as "other than violence" who was revealed in exile among the nations. It also witnesses to a group of pious Jews who practiced a de facto and even spiritually valued nonviolence. (For a fascinating parallel account of a group of Jews responding nonviolently out of piety see 1 Macc. 2: 29--38. This group and the Daniel group cannot be far apart, and may even be the same. Cf. Daniel 11:33--35.)

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The literalist reading which takes everything as indeed foretold in the 6th century must be rejected, on these grounds.

1. It ignores the placing of the book of Daniel in the Hebrew bible. It is found in the Writings (ketuvim), the last section of the bible, not in the grouping of the Prophets (nebiim). In other words the physical composition of the Hebrew bible implies that Daniel comes chronologically at least after Malachi, the last of the prophets in the 5th century. In fact the early second century Wisdom book, Sirach, knows and mentions the other three "major prophets," Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, but it knows nothing of Daniel

2. The literalist view does not recognize that the supposed 6th century foretelling gets the critical circumstances of Antiochus' death wrong (Daniel 11:45; Antiochus died in Persia, not Palestine). It is this error which enables us to conclude that the text was written during the events of the persecution but before the actual date of death in 164.

3. The literalist view glosses over the actual creative device of a blow- by-blow account (especially chapter 11) of the violent history of the 3rd and 2nd centuries: vague enough not to be exactly a report, but far too detailed and precise compared to any previous biblical prophecy.

4. In view of all the above the literalist reading neglects the creative process of imagination and composition, and therefore the full "grammatical" meaning of the text which must involve what the author and text intend to convey and the means chosen to convey it. The compositional device of dealing with 2nd century events by speaking of them back in the 6th century exile witnesses the dramatic need to underline the structural revelation of violence: something which it had taken four centuries of powerlessness to assimilate and understand.

5. The literalist reading thereby passes over the actual human experience of trauma and violence, remaking everything as "supernatural" and "foretold," actually trivializing revelation and downplaying any new awareness or understanding of human violence given by inner understanding. It thus in fact short-circuits biblical revelation and reinstalls the old order, reinventing a god of violence; while the book of Daniel represents a hugely significant shift away from such a god, a shift which reaches its fulfillment in Jesus.

6. The literalist reading reduces revelation to information, rather than seeing it as transformation, and neglects the preparation of the heart needed for interior insight.

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The visions presented by the book of Daniel begin with the most famous one, in chapter seven, that of the four military kingdoms represented as beasts from the abyss and the heavenly court session involving "one like a son of man." The discussion is always focused on this figure: an angel, the people of God, a single human individual? These alternatives imply the underlying question of whether the figure can in any way warrant the New Testament ascription of "the Son of Man" title to Jesus. What is so often missed is the stark contrast between this "human being" and the beasts. There is actually no violence on the part of God. The destruction of the beast takes place in a passive form without emotional violent signals. Authority is given to the human figure simply as a fact and without any kind of battle. In other words God is installing a kingdom of humanity, without military violence. The nonviolence and nonretaliation of God's people is also clearly signaled at 7: 25. Whoever or whatever the "one like a son of man" is the figure's core identity is nonviolence.

Chapters ten to eleven introduce a closely related figure of "one in human form," and also the angel Michael (10:20--21).. These two figures now contend at a cosmic level with "the prince of Persia" and "the prince of Greece." Once more there is a displacement of violent engagement. There are no violent emotional signals, only the sense of a struggle at another, more significant level. Typically the cosmic conflict was simply added to the human one (in the Qumran writings and in the "Left Behind" books). But it should much rather be read as taking the conflict out of human hands. If once again we read the text as a new sensitivity which sees God acting at least without human violence, and on an unknown transcendent level, we are both faithful to the insight of the Daniel group and much better placed to see how the book may have informed the decisions and actions of Jesus.

Finally, the doctrine of the resurrection comes at the beginning of chapter twelve (1--3), on the crest of a wave and as a sudden blinding flash. But it makes total sense. Resurrection belongs to biblical nonviolence and biblical nonviolence to resurrection. Because there is another, transformed order of life, rather than violent retaliation, it is possible to turn the other cheek. And because a group has been prepared to turn the other cheek they have achieved insight into the radical truth of resurrection. Jesus was the first completely to entrust himself to this insight of the book of Daniel, to put it to proof and turn it into gospel.

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian