Saturday, January 4, 2014

Seek the Living God

       

Someone once asked George Bernard Shaw, the pop atheist of his day, what he would say to God if he found himself at the pearly gates. He is said to have replied, “not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence.” A lot of atheists ask for “proof” of God’s existence, as if empirical knowledge could settle the question.

The god the atheists reject tends to be a very powerful being within the world—if not in the world why would it be subject to empirical proof?—that can do powerful things (maybe help a field goal veer inside the uprights, or help your son get into MIT). That’s why the more impolite ones among them will compare theism to belief in fairies or Santa Claus.

Luckily, that’s not the God described by classical theism. What atheists are denying is what David Bentley Hart in his book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness,Bliss calls a “demiurge,” some sort of invisible being within the universe, perhaps the most powerful being and the first being, that on occasion will interfere with the laws of nature to do a miracle or two. Again, most theists don’t think of God in these terms, but rather talk about God as the Being of beings, the ground of Being, beyond being, the transcendent source of all, and a slew of other phrases that all amount to denying this sort of demiurge view.

In theology we call this the difference between the univocity of being (there’s only a quantitative difference in beings; God exists in the same way we do but is a really big super-powerful entity) and analogy (there is a qualitative difference between us and God).

We could put it this way: it’s not as if you could stack up the goodness of trillions of people and make something closer to God. Rather God is transcendent Goodness itself, which is the source of all our goodness while remaining wholly different. This is a fairly elementary theological point, yet one finds it readily abused in a seemingly infinite barrage of fashionable atheist polemics.

This little concept is also why God creating the world does not fall prey to the “infinite regression” (the very not-profound question: “if God created the world, who created God?”). That question would be confounding to a demiurge that was simply the first being that created the rest of stuff, but then would need its own maker. What theists posit is a God who is the source of any created matter (even whatever existence was around that could allow for the big bang). As Aquinas argues, it’s a part of the nature of all that exists to be caused, so we need an “uncaused cause” to explain the problem of existence (why is there anything at all?). Any purely naturalist account will only give another cause that needs its own cause, so materialism can never really face up to the question of why or how anything exists. This is what’s in question in the actual God debate: a transcendent reality that precedes everything that exists, not an invisible being or force that made a bunch of stuff.

I obviously haven’t tried to exhaustively prove and defend the existence of God here, I simply ask that people know what it is they are rejecting. Interesting atheists are hard to come by these days. And of course, it would be unfair to act as if bad Christian theology and witness weren’t part of the problem. As Stanley Hauerwas likes to say, Christians get the atheists they deserve.

One might object that I am only talking about the God of philosophers, while the God of the Bible is just such a demiurge, an impish being meddling in people’s affairs. Some writers talk about this in an unsavory way as “Greece vs Jerusalem.” However, if you look at the apostolic preaching (not to mention Jesus’ thoughts on the issue) you will find a consistent attempt to enlarge the concept of God beyond the demiurge. When Paul and Barnabas heal a crippled man, some people begin to treat them like gods. This is what they have to say:
Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the Living God, who made Heaven and the earth and the seas and all that is in them. (Acts 14:15)
Paul and Barnabas tell them to think bigger. Seek the reason there is anything at all—the Living God.


*I owe the stimulus for some of these thoughts, the title, and the pulled quote to Elizabeth Johnson's Quest for the Living God: Frontiers in the Theology of God which I hope to talk about in the upcoming posts*

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Profane

                Lot’s of people have a special fixation on “bad words,” particularly children. There’s a special cocktail of shock and glee evoked by the sound of an “f word” or “s word” in a room full of people. Why just today I caused considerable excitement when I told a student to press the Shift key and some students misheard me. There’s a class of words that we as a society have deemed “bad words” (though the boundaries are very fluid—compare what’s on network TV now to even 15 years ago).
We’ve given these words an embarrassingly inaccurate nomenclature: curse words, swears, profanities. Most of the time when we use this language we are not literally cursing (with the exception of phrases like “damn you” or maybe “go to hell”). We are not expressly invoking evil on someone else. The same goes for swearing. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus condemns swearing oaths, but he seems to have in mind invoking God to give our fickle human plans some gravity, and instead commends us to let our yes be yes, and our no be no. We are not technically making any profane oath when we yell “shit!” when we lock our keys in our car. “Obscenity” seems a little closer to the mark. It simply indicates words that are not polite to say. But even that isn’t very precise. I might tell someone, “GET OUT OF MY WAY!” Strung together these are impolite words, but I’ve technically not uttered any obscenity.
At this point you might be wondering, “What the hell is he getting at?” Well, I merely want to suggest we think closely about the [religious] concept of profanity. Hopefully, I’ve said enough to indicate that I harbor no pious prudishness towards R-rated language. But I do think secular culture has flattened out the world to such a degree that we feel a degree of puzzlement that we would consider anything vulgar, or unholy. You need look no further than the mass consumption of raunchy movies and music. We are de-sensitized to much that we know is supposed to be vulgar, and things we might see as a no-biggie, would be shocking to other generations. For example, I know scores of pre-teens who play games like Halo where you basically go around killing indiscriminately with high-powered artillery on the slightest of premises. The very word profanity literally means “outside the temple.” We’d look down at this type of pre-enlightenment distinction as superstitious, (is one building literally holier than another?). We just tend to think differently about profanity these days. We’re afraid to call anything profane. It offends us.
I occasionally run into this aversion when I talk to people about Christianity. Even Christians sometimes feel uncomfortable with ideas like confessing sins and calling themselves unworthy. 
I think I am attracted to thinking about this concept because it negates modernity’s flattening of everything into one homogeneous plane without any notion of the sacred (as a side note: this secular viewpoint is often too readily accepted by Protestant and Evangelical lines of thought). What do we consider holy, and what do we want to build a hedge around? That is what’s truly at stake in deciphering what’s “profane” or not. We ought to create holy spaces and times in our lives, that we set apart. I’m not puritanically against raunch (in fact I’m looking forward to The To-Do List). But I am convinced there are holy places, practices, things, and people that are vulnerable, and susceptible to corruption, and are worth protecting.

St. Paul tells the church at Corinth not to “eat the bread or drink the cup unworthily.” Catholics have deduced from that the doctrine that one may not receive Holy Communion without going to confession, and fasting for an hour beforehand. It may seem easy to mock these, particularly the latter, but they’re exactly the kind of holy-making practices I mention above. What do we have to do to prepare ourselves to receive God? That is the point. St. Paul tells us we bring ourselves under judgment when we don’t so “discern ourselves.” God cares about what we decide is holy, and how we treat the holy in our lives. We must examine ourselves to receive Christ in holiness in the Eucharist, thus to become a holy body in the world, no less than the body of Christ (cf 1 Cor. 12:27). 

Lenny Bruce will serve as a decent theologian on this topic, "certain words offend me...Segregation offends me."

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Jason Collins and NBA Theologians?

This week, Jason Collins of the Washington Wizards, became the first male athlete from one of major sports leagues to come out as gay. We shouldn’t inflate it beyond all recognition; a millionaire with some degree of celebrity isn’t putting quite as much as a queer or trans teenager who finds themselves kicked out and homeless for coming out. But his coming out is still brave and has some symbolic importance. What I find interesting are the myriad reactions to the news from a wide range of athletes, journalists and other random figures.

 This is what I find so fascinating about the hot-button issues called “homosexuality,” “gay marriage” etc: They take ordinary people from all walks of life and hoist them into the theologian’s chair. When they are confronted with different sexualities, it solicits from them a theological account. What is the bible? How should it be read? What does it mean to love someone?

Unlikely people are being forced to become theologians. In the 19th century, people like John Ruskin discovered a sense that people like medieval craftsmen were in a way doing theology. There was a stronger sense that all sorts of different people were doing theology in their various labors and daily lives, and theology is something of a democratic endeavor. Our current historical moment is an opportunity to recover and develop this sense.

There were some reactions to the news that gave explicitly theological reactions. Leroy Butler was offered a large sum of money for a speaking engagement at a church. After he gave a remark in support of Jason Collins, the pastor of the church canceled the engagement unless Butler “retract the statement and ask God’s forgiveness.” Butler admirably refused, remarking, “only God can judge.”

Then there are comments with implicit theology.  Take for example Kobe Bryant’s tweet:
Proud of @jasoncollins34. Don’t suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others#courage#support#mambaarmystandup#BYOU,

There we see straightforward encouragement, that at the same time seems to beg the fundamental religious questions. I am also fascinated by this tangled web of a comment from LeBron James:
With teammates, you have to be trustworthy. If you're gay and you're not admitting that you are, you're not trustworthy. It's the locker room code; it's a trust factor.

To be fair this remark was made in 2007, and LeBron’s views may have changed. There is some element of truth in what he is saying. Collective endeavors need a certain openness to be effective, a place where people do not suffocate who they are, to use Kobe’s phrase. But he is wrong here to place the onus on the closeted teammate. The team (or Church, or society) creates the conditions that either make one shell up their identity or offer it to each other openly. This to me, seems to be the Christian significance of “coming out.” One offers oneself, becomes vulnerable before the other, and solicits the other to loving acceptance (or rejection). Of course, there are thousands of other ways this happens besides coming out, but this is one that’s put to us with urgency in the public light. Christians should rise to the occasion.


http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/breaking/chi-church-leroy-butler-jason-collins-20130501,0,5651036.story

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Where was God in Boston?


Where was God in Boston? Approaching the Question

Believers and non-believers alike are often forced to uncomfortably pose the question, “Where was God when…” Theodicy (the genre of Christian theology that attempts to give an account of suffering and evil) is the most commonly practiced of Christian apologetics, yet it is often where the least sophisticated un-nuanced answers are given. Some Christians (perhaps with a more fundamentalist impulse) frame it as God’s judgment. Yet most people would reject this. The God most people believe in wouldn't kill innocent people for the crimes of others.
So what answer can be given, particularly in the sensitive time immediately after a tragedy? Polite company usually sees fit to defer the question until heads have cooled and hearts have healed a bit. That suffices for philosophical matters, but what use is it for a pastoral perspective? There must be a response that can be useful for those who have suffered directly, and for those who suffered indirectly as compassionate  members of a national community. It’s just such a response that I’d like to sketch in these few paragraphs.
Slowly over the course of a few days, I learned that the half dozen people I know in Boston were all safe and sound. Some friends and relatives were at the race but were gone by the time of the explosion. I was just another typical citizen feeling incensed by the tragedy and following the manhunt with a horrified curiosity.

Where God is

I don’t intend to develop a systematic account of evil. I only intend to offer one minor point that is central to my Christian understanding, and all the other pieces of an account could fall into place on its basis. It is something seemingly obvious to say, but is sometimes passed over by those preoccupied positing an airtight system that gets God off the hook. To the formulation, “Where was God when…” one must respond that God was with the suffering in the person of Jesus Christ. Whatever anguish, humiliation, pain, and ultimately death that one may suffer, God has participated in it in Christ. Or rather, our suffering is a participation in the passion of Christ.
This participatory angle is put nicely in Ron Hanson’s novel, Mariette in Ecstasy. Mariette, a novice nun who experiences the stigmata, is asked by her superiors how she endures the pain of her long, ascetically severe mystical experiences. She simply answers, “I think of the souls in purgatory.” One can find redemption and spiritual value in pain without diminishing that suffering, or pretending its not there. All we endure is a part of a bigger picture of God's salvation. 
God is not an impersonal being that creates humans and then stands back like the “blind watchmaker” cliché. Rather, God intimately involves himself in all our pain, experiences it in its fullest, and then redeems it.
The fact that he fully redeems it is central (the events of the triduum can never be completely sundered and isolated from each other). Our suffering, called up into his, now has purpose. In this way, the Christian explanation is more satisfying then the nihilistic, secular one. Paradoxically, the atheist has a harder time explaining evil and suffering than the Christian. In Christ, the Christian has an account of suffering that sheds light on it: it is a form of self-giving that is a part of God’s self-giving love to the world, perfectly exemplified in the cross. The one who uses suffering to deny God invests the suffering with meaning and metaphysical significance that it wouldn't have without the cross. Why would our human pain be any different than the random violence found elsewhere in the natural world, if not for a loving God that invests in the human lot. This incarnational approach gives purpose without resorting to juvenile answers (“God needed another angel”). It’s really the only thing I can think of to say that isn’t insensitive (“God is displaying his wrath for some decision of your legislature”) or cold and useless (“allow me to refute the proposition that God cannot be fully good and fully just”).
                This also charges with meaning the somewhat trite sounding sentiment that God is with the first responders and people helping. Wherever there is a self-giving love at work, there is Christ on his cross. Surely this is the son of God.

Pray for our enemies?

 With all that on the table, we may now wish to invoke the Christian truism that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. This is not immediately directed toward the victims (that part of the forgiveness process comes a little later on). But I was somewhat perturbed by newspaper photographs of people taunting and cheering a police car with the captured suspect. We correctly feel the impulse of joy and relief when such a dangerous person is apprehended. But is it more than that? Isn’t even primarily a satisfaction in “getting even” that we feel? And is this spiritually healthy for someone who identifies as a Christian? These are similar questions I asked at the time of Osama Bin Laden’s death.
Rowan Williams treats Acts 4:10 in his book on the resurrection to describe how Easter works toward our salvation. Here’s the verse:
“All of you...should know that it was in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead; in his name this man stands before you healed.
He emphasizes the “whom you crucified” to show how the risen Jesus confronts the very people that wounded him. This is the only way people are changed. They encounter the risen Jesus, with his wounds mysteriously present, and everything is transformed. This is the common thread in all the apparitions of Jesus.
Williams cites a Romanian novelist who pushes this need to see God in our enemies to its absolute limit. He describes a terrorist who felt anguish for his killing of innocents. He hanged himself in his cell. “And any criminal hanged in his cell is Jesus Christ on his cross. Our God, our God, why have you forsaken us?”
This is a tremendously provocative statement. But it’s very serious. Can we see God in our enemies, and not just the petty ones, but the ones that terrorize us and threaten us fundamentally? Can we do it in a way that holds out hope for all the lost, but does not expiate them of all responsibility or draw a false equivalency? I believe it is not just possible, but necessary to heal all God’s creation that is declared good from the beginning. It’s left to us to confront the world that causes us suffering, present the wounds of Christ, and transform it in the encounter. Lord, have mercy. 

[By way of aside: I don’t wish to be political in this piece. But perhaps it’s worth dwelling on the contemporary failure to enact common-sense gun laws. On just about every other night in Chicago, as many people are killed by gun violence as died in the Boston bombings. One can distinguish the Boston events by calling them “acts of terror.” But neighborhoods on the West Side like Austin and Lawndale (where I work) as well as the South Side are terrorized by violence to the same degree. Some children I teach are practically locked in their houses by parents who are justly afraid to let them play anywhere outside. I am not naïve enough to think that gun regulations are going to solve the problem of violence in our society, but surely it’s a small piece of the puzzle that we can enact, right?]

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Lent in Review: Praying the Daily Office

Happy Easter! Remember that Easter is 50 days and not one Sunday. Keep the festivities going.

I've had an opportunity to reflect on the Lent now past, and gleam a few brief lessons I didn't quite expect. As one (of my many) lenten disciplines I said the Daily Office everyday: Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer, Compline. Usually by myself, occasionally with other people, sometimes at work, sometimes at home, sometimes in very strange places. In quick numerated form, here is what I learned:  

1. Prayer gives a certain rhythm to the day. Prayer orders the day. It paces things out in a way that feels right. Setting off certain times of the day as holy claims time itself as part of creation that needs to be consecrated to God. Not to mention, it enriches our day in manifold ways.

2. Examining your conscience and confessing your sins makes you a more sensitive, attentive person. Until I started doing it everyday, I never quite realized how much time the Daily Office prayer spends confessing sins to God. When I spend time doing this, I reflect more on my day. I become more attentive to what I'm doing during the day and how I'm relating with people, and I'm more likely to clean up my act a little. I think in today's ideology, confessing sins sometimes gets a bad wrap. It can be a powerful spiritual practice.  

3. Sometimes all you can offer to God is sitting your ass in that chair and reading the words in the prayer book. When you do anything 4 times a day for 40 days, you're bound to go through some streaks where it's pretty tedious. There are many times when I'm not at all in the mood. Sometimes I can get myself in the mood, sometimes not. There were plenty of times when I had to restart the Our Father or the Creed 3 different times, because of whatever daydreaming tangent I'd get lost in. But I think there's something powerfully forming about discipline. If you bring yourself to something everyday, it's bound to start shaping you.  

4. Failing miserably isn't always the worst thing in the world. There were plenty of times where I forgot my prayerbook or were otherwise prevented from doing the prayers proper. What I'd usually do to compensate was to start praying a string of whatever prayers I've managed to memorize. I took to this habit pretty naturally, and found myself praying things in my head all the time, almost involuntarily. It's akin to having a song stuck in your head. Reflecting on these words all the time really helps one find peace in the day.

Yes, and skipping one always made for good confession fodder at the next prayer time. It sounds cynical, sure, but I'm being sincere. Here, I draw inspiration from the saints who had terrible mistakes and failures all the time. In their stories, their failures are always an occasion for God's mercy, and not simply for scandal. In daily prayer, and our Lenten disciplines more broadly, we encounter our own limits and also God's grace made manifest.

I suppose I could go on but these seem the most worth discussing. I'll conclude this little post with the words that conclude the Daily Office: The almighty and merciful Lord, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bless up and keep us.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

An Archbishop and an Atheist

Recently, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams had a public conversation (quasi-debate) with famed "New Atheist" and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Full video of the event was released on the internet, and made for a very interesting watch.



Dawkins has a great deal of insight into scientific matters like evolutionary biology, quantum mechanics, string theory, etc. But what really stands out is how inept his atheism becomes in the face of prescient philosophical questions. When put in a tight (if not inescapable) spot, he lashes out and goes into ad hominem mode, or refutes positions Williams had not taken.

Williams critiques the idea that evolution can account for every aspect of life including consciousness. He dissects vulnerable positions like Daniel Dennett's that "there is no evidence for consciousness." The idea that it is an illusion, or that it does not meet certain criteria, assumes correct perception, and a consciousness assessing those criteria. So the "ultra Darwinist" position becomes incoherent. Dawkins replies that a soul hiding inside a body is just as untenable. Well who said anything about that?

What's perhaps most frustrating about Dawkins is his completely ahistorical triumphantly secular vantage point. 'I don't see why you need Genesis' to explain anything meaningful about human life. Why would Williams "shoehorn" it into his beliefs? Dawkins constantly operates on the assumption that he's working from scratch, casting away all tradition to always make decisions on scientific, empirical evidence.

But doesn't secularism and atheism have a history? Doesn't it come from certain cultural assumptions? Terry Eagleton has critiqued the New Atheists for the ideology purveyed by their brand of atheism.

It's a dubious subtraction story. Once we shed childish religious beliefs like the Genesis creation account, we discover our true moral capabilities, that have been held back by religion. They are naturalizing a morality, a vision of the meaning of life, that has a positive history, and is not just some benevolent natural view that's been fogged up by religion.

Nietzsche is the last profound atheist who legitimately tried to break from all transcendent foundations. He tops the New Atheists in profundity, because he has a real sense of what a strict atheism costs. He breaks with all Christian foundations, and tries to rigorously establish a purely imminent (human) locus of meaning and morality.

He reviled the Christian past, and saw how easily others weakly fell into those assumptions. Sometimes Dawkins avows the ultradarwinist POV, saying that evolution accounts for simply everything. But other times he seems to borrows from the Christian philosophical tradition to talk about things like beauty.

Rowan Williams has a fitting reply to that. He cites a very moving passage from one of Dawkins' books describing in flowery detail the intricate beauty of the universe. "You're not just describing the universe," Williams retorts. "You're in love with it. Well, where does that come from?"

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Retreat to Order of Julian of Norwich

I went on a retreat this weekend to the Order of Julian of Norwich in Waukesha, WI. They are an Episcopalian contemplative order of both monks and nuns. Their service to the world is constant prayer, along with occasional hospitality to weekend guests like me. It was a weekend of reading, relaxation, and complete silence. Part of their way of life is to keep entirely quiet, so as to better hear the "tiny voice of God." It was a refreshing couple of days, but also terribly challenging.

Silence is a powerful, but frustrating spiritual practice. Each time I passed a sister I was overwhelmed with the compulsion to overwhelm them: "How are you? How did you become a nun? Do you miss your family? What do they think? How do you know who to pray for?" etc. When I talked to the mother superior of the house about contemplative prayer she gave me insight. She told me about the fluctuations in her prayers, how sometimes she has remarkable experiences and sometimes she just hears the Gilligan's Island theme on a loop. "Sometimes all you can do is sit your bottom in that chair, and that's what you offer to Jesus." Our presence and our desiring, no matter how wretchedly flawed, can be a gift to God.

Silence also makes one more sensitive and aware. When few words are spoken, the small things take on a greater significance. Small gestures, facial expressions, brief encounters--they are somehow more telling.

On Saturday, I followed their schedule completely. This meant beginning the Daily Office with Morning Prayer at 5am. "Coffee is ready at 4," one of the sisters told me with a completely serious face and matter-of-fact tone. Groggy though I was, I loved spending the day like that. I watched the sun rise and set. I saw the different shades and types of light. It's hard to believe how powerful that is. In my busy world there's just light, work, then dark. It was remarkable to see all the different hues the day has to offer.

Participating in the prayer with them was interesting. It was of course lovely, slow, and peaceful. But it was also a bit difficult for the uninitiated. Especially with no musical training, it was tricky to catch on. I felt a bit like Garth and Kat from the snl sketch, who caught in their unpreparedness, have to make up their songs on the spot. One closely watches the other and sings poorly about half a second after the other.



"It's hard to deceive yourself," Mthr told me about the silent, contemplative life. Our world has built too many structures and superstructures. It's become all to easy to deceive ourselves. It has become such that we continue in our same way of life, knowing full well that we are deceiving ourselves. "I know very well, but..." is our modern adage [If we need an example, we may think of the current ecological crisis: everyone knows full well how dire the situation is, but we lack the political will to do anything about it]. Would that we would all take a contemplative turn this Lent, to stop deceiving ourselves and do all the necessary pruning to live a fruitful spiritual life.