Wednesday, January 30, 2013

An Encouraging Review and St. Benedict's Wisdom about Human Discussion

Last week, I received a review of my fantasy collection From Beyond to Here from Kirkus Reviews. What they had to say about my book was quite favorable, which gives me some hope that this book and my other fantasy fiction has the potential to be helpful to both younger and older readers. You can read about the review and, if further interested, follow the link to my blog page for the book at Kirkus Review for From Beyond to Here.

Today, I posted a blog entry that offers St. Benedict's advice for human discussions and meetings. Maybe Benedict didn't have Internet access at Monte Cassino, but he already knew how one should conduct oneself in online conversation. They are the same rules for conventional face-to-face discussion. This post is available at A Way of Meeting with Others.

Update: I have just added a post after having just seen the movie of the musical Les Miserables.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Turning The Aircraft Carrier

How long does it take to turn an aircraft carrier at sea?

The question is proverbial, for the time and difficulty involved in changing an institutional culture. One of those behemoths at sea, under full power, will take for ever to turn round.

The contemporary springtime in Christianity has to struggle mightily with the question. True, you could hardly say of mainline churches they are "under full power," but the point is precisely the institutional culture, not current morale and size of congregations.

A key part of that culture is the inherited theology, something which comes with the stones and the bells: as unquestionable as cake at a birthday party! And no theme perhaps has been more unquestionable than the necessary violence of an all-powerful and pure God dealing with human sin. An enormous part of institutional change today is the effective questioning of this thought. Gathering force over the latter part of the twentieth century, it has been applying the rudder surely and steadily to the mighty craft of Christianity.

But the ship has only shifted one or two degrees.

The reason is that institutional culture is at least as much anthropological as it is theological. That sounds complicated, but really it is the most practical and down-to-earth part of the issue. Changing Christianity is both a change in God and a change in human beings as believers. They go hand in hand, and you cannot have one without the other. If we change the character of God in people's minds, and at the same time God's followers are not visibly different, then we incur the runaway risk an average person will conclude there really is no point in 'church'. They will say, "We can be just as good outside a church as inside one, and God is cool with everyone anyway!"

So what may a different "anthropology" look like? There are two parts to the answer, looking in, and looking out.

On the inside, at the very least, Christians are challenged to believe they are on a transformative human pathway, and the path has an urgent character. In other words, change in the fundamental ways we relate to the world around us is actually more important than ensuring we "get to heaven when we die." "Nonviolence" may be a good shorthand term for this change, but it vital to realize this is not a new ethical code (although it may perhaps be given ethical expression.) The key is relationship, a living, journeying relationship which molds individuals one-with-another as they continue walking together in community. Very little of this can be accomplished in the idealized formal setting of Sunday worship, redolent with sixteen hundred years of vertical theology. There has to be a multiplying cell-system, of small groups committed to this common journey, knowing each other and changing each other through prayer, study, and some measure of service and common life.

On the outside, we must think about Christianity and the U.S. In the U.S. there is an extraordinary relationship between the state and religion. The first amendment says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." Of the three basic options, a state religion, a state atheism, and the "separation of church and state," the third obviously seems preferable. But it should never be forgotten that the state never does anything disinterestedly. To legislate originally against the establishment of religion is also to legislate for religion. The Constitution gives religion its assigned place alongside the state and requires, reciprocally, that religion grants the state a place alongside itself. And as religion constitutes an organization speaking on behalf of God, granting the state its independent space amounts to a kind of permanent blessing on the state.

Christians in the U.S. have become used to this comfortable relationship and as a general rule have a dewy-eyed, sentimental attitude toward the state. The situation is complex at the practical political level, but there can be no doubt that an anthropologically renewed Christianity will also have a radically prophetic attitude toward the state as war-fighting machine. Indeed this is part of the argument for cellular Christianity. Not having tax-exempt conditions (plant, endowments etc.) small-group Christianity can stand experientially on a humanly-renewed ground, beyond any collusion and blessing on war.

Jesus is a new form of humanity, and the state is the old form. As Jesus said to Pilate, "You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above." Far from reading this as a generalized backing by God of the Roman Empire, it means that the Father permitted this apparent power in order to reveal one much greater: the power of nonviolent love.

It is the concrete anthropological enactment of this love--viz. single cell Christianity--which has the power to turn the wheel of a ship two-thousand years big, toward a new human horizon.

Note. In point of fact how long it takes to turn a modern aircraft carrier is a military secret. But rumors are they may be surprisingly nimble these days, due to all sorts of advanced technology. It's possible that the advanced crisis of our times, so part and parcel of the Christian message, may make the church equally nimble. Maybe in less than twenty five years it really will be pointed in another direction entirely!

Tony Bartlett

Saturday, January 19, 2013

mimetic deities and a divine wedding

My last two posts make quite a contrast but they both have to do with mimetic theory.

Last week, I posted a short piece on two YA novels, "The Mark of Athena" by Rick Riordan and "A Confusion of Princes" by Garth Nix. In their different ways, both novels show us what a world made of mimetic rivalry looks like. If the Greek and Roman gods are real, as they are in Riordan's novels, and they really are the top divine dogs of the universe, then God help us! These fantasy novels are what a lot of young people (as well as older ones like me) are reading and some of them, as in these two cases, can offer both young readers and older ones insights into mimetic desire. I hope to have a post from time to time commenting on books such as these. Those of you with children who read or are teachers might find this helpful for guiding them to some fun books that help them understand the issues of MT. I am still hoping that the stories I have published will prove to be some help along these lines one of these days. Arachne, Athena, and a Thousand Princes.

This morning, I published a post on the Wedding at Cana in Galilee. Like some other recent posts, this is based on the sermon I am preparing for tomorrow's Eucharist. Working with this cryptic story has helped me see some interesting connections with other passages in John's Gospel.  Strange Wedding.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A New U.S. Religion

A new, nonviolent Christianity is breaking forth on the native soil of the U.S. Nonviolent both in practice and intrinsic theology. It will shine out like apple blossom in May!

Why is it possible to say this? Because there is no other place on earth so equally soaked in violence and the writings of the New Testament! The future here has nowhere to go, except more of one or the other, and probably of both. In biblical-historical terms, the Spirit of God chooses specific moments for aspects of God's work to come to clarity; and we are here in one of them. The present moment constitutes a "great emergence", as Phyllis Tickle calls it, a five-hundred year shake-up. I'm also claiming that it takes shape not simply as a style or sensibility, but specifically in terms of a theology of nonviolence. It will have its own authentic ecclesial expression, and it will renew the ancient churches.

The present near impossibility of US politics is one pointer. The extreme ideological divide around the nature of freedom, of humanity, of the U.S. constitution, results in gridlock in Washington, interspersed with wars of choice and endless extra-judicial drone-killings of those who are counted guilty simply by the fact they're killed. The resulting situation is spiritually toxic at a critical level, whether people think about it or not. Anyone who takes Christianity seriously is driven to a new searching of scripture, simply to detox.

Another indicator is the guns. The romance of the gun in the U.S. has morphed into a monster. The power of automatic weapons puts the immense sanction of the state into the hands of individuals, deciding in an instant the final rights and character of human existence. By means of the gun the trope of the individual has advanced to a twisted Augustinian god: sole, self-justifying, beyond appeal. It is now a spiritual disease which can only be cast out by seeking the more powerful nonviolence of Jesus.

A positive indicator is the stirring of the evangelical churches. The emergent and missional movement is out there looking for its soul. Theologians like Brian McClaren and Rob Bell push in the direction of nonviolence, but a conscious theology has not fully percolated to become a core evangelical theme. 

What is world-changing and dangerous and essentially Christian is nonretaliation, and love and forgiveness of enemies. Nonviolence arises from Christianity's deepest self, from the deepest self of the Crucified and Risen One. And it amounts to the new humanity, which is the eschatological plan and in-breaking of God.

Christian faith now is nothing less than this, and it can be learned only in a face-to-face group continually rehearsing the nonviolence of the Gospel as both teaching and life. At the same time it can affect and change the established churches--but only along this route.

Real evolution only takes place at the level of the cell, the single, small cell. Organisms as such cannot evolve. New organisms arise because of the new, transformative cell. This is true at both the biological and ecclesial levels. However, it may also be true, in a framework of social evolution, that established organizations can mimic and change under the influence of new ones. This is Tickle's point: the Counter Reformation among Roman Catholics imitated the Reform of Protestantism. But first there must be the new cells!

And today these cells of a new Christian humanity are indeed emerging and once they come fully to light the ancient churches may learn this new meaning--of their traditional existence!

The apple blossom can be seen! The voice of the dove is heard in the land!

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian

Friday, January 4, 2013

Christmas into Epiphany

During the Christmas octave, I published a blog post continuing the theme of "Celebrating the Prince of Peace" that is called "The Word became Vulnerable Flesh." With the twelve days of Christmas nearly over with the feast of Epiphany, I have published a post "Outcasts at the Manger."  These titles should be enough to suggest that these meditations, based on the Gospels, are inspired by Girard's thought. I hope these posts help to deepen your celebration of Twelfth Night.