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.,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?]