A LOVE SUPREME

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The System

We are beyond purpose. We arise from an infinite love for infinite love alone. There is no purpose that is big enough to account for us.
—James Finley

Before breaking for discussion on Kierkegaard’s view of the self, we had been discussing the relationship of economics and spirituality. In the first post, my position was that American economics is based primarily on economic expansion, which translates into profit. Economic expansion is at the heart of our entire American system. If the economy stops growing or if there is a recession, then this is a sign of “bad times.” No one questions it. Each party in the prior election agreed: we’ve got to get the economy going again. It is an unquestioned assumption.

In order for corporations to manufacture profit (and to expand the economy), consumers must buy more and workers must produce more. This produces a culture of discontentment and dissatisfaction, the subject of my second post You are your dollars. We have to find our identity in the products and services that Corporations produce. In this society and in this culture, we are most fundamentally economic units. As workers, we have the pressure to produce goods and services—we must produce more to grow the economy. After work, we put on our consumer hats and go off to make our purchases, the reward of contributing to economic growth, and now as the consumer it is our patriotic duty to buy goods and services and keep those dollars flowing through the economy.

We work, we spend.

If you would like to dispute the point, I am open to alternative thoughts, but as it is, I would say that we perceive of ourselves at a most basic level as being economic units. In this disposable society where discontentment and dissatisfaction are normative and even patriotic, this means that so many (if not all) of our relationships are mediated by the monetary system.

Jesus gets at this basic concept when he says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In other words, what we invest in determines our self, our nature, our souls. So, the one who “gains the whole world and yet loses his own soul” is the self who has invested himself into the economic system of the world. The self is equated with being a worker/consumer. The treasure is in the system, so by definition the self is lost.

The heart of the Gospel is reconciliation. “Therefore if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5)

The system defines us as economic units. We define ourselves as economic units. Everything is mediated by money. And this leads me to my primary contention in this post: the system defines itself as disconnect. I have used the term “the system,” and now I am defining it strictly in terms of the disconnect. Or more to the point, the system is self-defined as disconnectedness. This is the level that is most basic to its core, to its being.

This is not to say that “the system” in all of its disconnect does not produce good. Neither do I mean to suggest that there are no meaningful connections within the system. We are so fundamentally relational beings that meaningful relationships still occur. They always break through. But consider: deeply profound relationships are the exception that proves the rule. We notice meaningful connections because they happen so infrequently. The rule is disconnect. The system’s survival is at steak. A content, connected society isn’t interested in economic expansion as its highest priority. A discontent, disconnected, and disposable culture will continue to work harder and buy more. This is good for the economy and feeds the system.

Another clarification: there is no Wizard of Oz.

When Dorothy & Co. showed up to present their queries to the Wizard, they found a man behind the curtain, pulling the strings and operating the big mechanism. All it took was the little dog to pull back the curtain and reveal a weak and comical old man. But this is not the system. The system is disconnect, so there is no one person to blame. The big bad CEO’s are not to blame. In fact, those with the most wealth are the most embedded within the disconnect, so in a very real way, my most basic disposition toward those with wealth is love.

Because there is no one person behind the curtain of the system, we can say “fuck the system” in love, kindness, gentleness, respect, and goodwill. The system is the disconnect. To say “fuck the CEO’s of America” is to perpetuate the disconnect by reacting with a violence that deepens the disconnect.

In a fucked up system, everyone who participates is fucked.

The Gospel is about reconciling all things with each other: ourselves with each other, ourselves with nature, ourselves with our selves, and our selves with God.

Fuck the system.

In Jesus’ name.

Amen.

14 comments:

Like a Mustard Seed said...

Is the system really defined as the disconnect, or is the "system" really just a macro-scale symptom of the disconnect within each and every one of us?

Daniel

Jonathan Erdman said...

Daniel,

My thought is that's it's both....and I think one can legitimately look at it from both perspectives.

I tend to favor a "system" approach as a starting point, because it seems that one of the things that is true of human beings is that we can develop patterns of behavior, states of mind, perspectives for thinking, and ways of being that kind of get stuck over time. We develop habits, and then these habits define us and identify us. But I think we first pick up these habits of mind/body/spirit/etc. by reacting to the world that we live in. For me, then, I start with systems, asking questions about what it is that shapes our perceptions/habits without us being conscious of what is happening.

Once we can identify that our ways of being are taken from the system around us, then perhaps we can take steps toward transformation.

It's a good question you raise. That's just a brief explanation of my m.o., at least at this point in my thinking.

What do you think?

Like a Mustard Seed said...

So is sin then just our habitual reactions to the environment which has shaped us, or is it something which precedes all of that?

What "system" was in place when Cain murdered his brother? Was he merely the product of a corrupt pattern of thinking, or was he corrupt in his heart?

What do you mean by "we first pick up these habits of mind/body/spirit/etc."?

According to the Bible, it is the condition of our mind/body/spirit which informs the habits we develope...

Daniel

Jonathan Erdman said...

Daniel,

From my read of the Scripture, there is a good deal said about "the world" as a system that conforms people to its pattern. So much so that Paul repeatedly tells his fellow believers that they need to be aware of the world and of the pattern of their thinking. I would go so far as to say that the Gospel is most fundamentally the openness of the mind to the new reality that God is giving to us what we cannot attain by our own efforts and works. So, Paul doesn't just say "you are dead to sin," he says, "reckon yourselves dead to sin." In other words, recognize what is already true and live in this mindset. The "new creation" and the "new man" are firstly a new mindset.

I tend to see sin as primarily a submission and participation in the system of the world. Of course, I don't think that's all that is there, it's more complicated than that. But I think the Bible is far more about the external than the internal.

I grew up in an environment where sin was reduced in its entirety to an internal phenomenon: you are bad. But in re-reading Scripture, I more and more think that this is an over-simplification of the biblical record.

Take Ephesians 2, for example. This is the classic proof text to make the case that sin is exclusively internal. But after Paul says "you were dead in your transgressions and sins," he immediately notes, "in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh [sarx] and following its desires and thoughts." So, Paul is clearly talking about a system of oppression that we participate in and lose ourselves in. That is, our being "dead" in sin is not just a matter of some original/internal corruption, it is a matter of external forces.

So, I think that "sin" is very complex. It is an internal and an external phenomenon. This is my understanding of sin from reading Paul.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Daniel,

I see that I didn't actually answer your questions.

First, I would say that Cain's problem, from the biblical narrative, was clearly a matter of a corrupted pattern of thinking, not an internal corruption. God even warns Cain: "sin is crouching at your door," and if you continue on this path then it will lead to some nasty stuff......and Cain did, and it did lead to some nasty stuff.

When I say "we first pick up these habits of mind/body/spirit/etc." I mean that we learn things by living in the world, by being absorbed in the world. This seems to happen with children/babies most clearly when they are infants, but we continue this pattern throughout life.

You said So is sin then just our habitual reactions to the environment which has shaped us, or is it something which precedes all of that?......I would say, "no." I don't reduce sin down strictly to a reaction to one's environment. To do that would be to deny that we could do anything about our situation. But the Gospel invites us to live in a new reality of God's making: a new world, a new creation, a new person. We can construct a new reality.

Like a Mustard Seed said...

I am curious to hear more about your upbringing and how it has shaped your perspectives on the validity of sin being more internal vs. external... (in my experience, such background is really helpful is seeing more clearly where everyone is coming from...)

I will flatly say, that I've become convinced, in the last few years, that sin is first an internal problem, which then manifests itself in external ways...

In that verse in Ephsians you quoted, it says, "All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh [sarx] and following its desires and thoughts..."

What I am also curious about at this point is your take on the role of the Holy Spirit in our renewal, because when I hear you say:

"But the Gospel invites us to live in a new reality of God's making: a new world, a new creation, a new person. We can construct a new reality."

It doesn't sound like there's much acknowledgement of the fact that it is only through spiritual rebirth that we can even begin to experience a new reality...

Is new life in Christ merely an intellectual redirection, or does something have to happen internally, in our spirit, in order for rebirth to really happen?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Daniel,

You asked: Is new life in Christ merely an intellectual redirection, or does something have to happen internally, in our spirit, in order for rebirth to really happen?I would be uncomfortable with this either/or. I think that we are most basically holistic, not a collection of parts: intellect, spirit, mind, body, etc. So, I think that, yes, something is "reborn" in the spirit but something is also awakened in the mind. The rebirth (as I read it in Scripture) is holistic. Do you have a more compartmentalized view of the human self? Or perhaps I am missing your point entirely! =)

I would not be someone who believes that we are primarily intellectual and not spiritual, if that is your concern.

In terms of the life of the Spirit, I think it is a mysterious thing, and I'm not sure I know how it all works, truly.

In terms of Ephesians 2, I agree with you in emphasizing that in the system we are encouraged to follow our cravings/desires. In American consumerism, this takes the form of keeping us always wanting our next purchase. So there is something internal that needs to be addressed, but I would suggest that it cannot stop there. If we address the internal without confronting the external system/forces that profits from our spiritual demise, then we risk falling back into the system but just giving it another name (like "the church"). So, many people realize now that most churches operate according to the basic principles of the greater American system. Sometimes the two are even explicitly linked: Christian and American become synonyms.

My point of brining up Ephesians 2 is that the two are interconnected: sin is both internal desire gone a muck as well as the result of greater forces that seek to keep us "dead."

Personally, it helps me to have a new vision for my internal life when I can recognize that I have been jerked around by external forces. "Be as shrewd as snakes but as innocent as doves."....Also, in regards to my personal experience, I found myself so obsessed with what was happening internally that I was becoming spiritually narcissistic: I was working harder and harder on having the right mindset, walking with the Spirit, etc. Finally I realized that this wasn't the Gospel at all. The Gospel is about relaxing into the grace of God, which is both inside of me and external. It's about God giving of himself ("God is he who gives God," as Augustine says). So, instead of being consumed with my inner self, I could just chill and live. The Gospel of grace is a gift of God, 100% unconditional gifting. My focus has ceased becoming a "get it right" and is now an openness to accepting the gift and grace that surrounds me, that is deeper in me than I may ever realize. As Paul says, "Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift."

So, that's me and my personal story in condensed form.....I am interested in learning from your personal experiences.

Like a Mustard Seed said...

Yeah, I definitely don't think we are necessarily "compartmentalized" in our selves, but I would say that in order for the mind to be renewed, to learn to think differently, there must first be a renewal of the heart... I am still learning about the mysteries of what God does in the heart myself...

I totally resonate with your thoughts on American consumerism, and the way the church has borrowed the same tactics... I guess I just look at it as sinful people, who have learned to appeal to our basic fallen nature... (greed, lust, pride, etc...) Isn't that what marketing is all about? Appealing to people's flesh? The corporate church tries to fill seats the same way McDonald's tries to sell Big Macs...

Just wanted some clarification on your statement, "sin is both internal desire gone a muck as well as the result of greater forces that seek to keep us "dead." What are those greater forces? Is it just the broader economic infrastructure, or the spiritual forces of darkness? If you mean the latter, then I agree...

Also things make more sense after hearing how you struggled with feeling "spiritually narcissistic"... Because it's true, that if we just get so obsessed with our own selves, we can miss the bigger picture, and see that we live in a whole world that is fallen and seperated from God... We do have to come to a point where we learn to just relax and live in God's grace, where we are not on some never-ending quest to be good enough internally...

I guess my experience was a little different, as most of my legalistic effort was poured into trying to be outwardly good enough, so maybe that's partly why this discovery of the realities of the inner nature was so huge for me... But in the end, it was still all about learning "to accepting the gift and grace that surrounds me", as you put it...

Jonathan Erdman said...

Daniel,

That's interesting about the way you struggled with legalism and how that was somewhat different than my experience....and yet we wind up in similar places. Very cool. Thanks.

You said: Just wanted some clarification on your statement, "sin is both internal desire gone a muck as well as the result of greater forces that seek to keep us "dead." What are those greater forces? Is it just the broader economic infrastructure, or the spiritual forces of darkness? If you mean the latter, then I agree...I think that this is a really important question you raise. The theologian Walter Wink has studied and written quite about about "the powers." His position, if I understand it right is that these two powers that you mentioned above ("the broader economic infrastructure" and "the spiritual forces of darkness") are actually one and the same. That is, the intangible non-material spiritual entities described by Paul and others as forces of darkness or "powers of the air" (Ephesians 2) is a description of those same intangible, non-material spiritual entities of darkness that make up the economic infrastructure that keeps people in spiritual darkness.

At this point, I tend to agree with Wink, which is why in my critique of American consumerism, I make it a point not to criticize actual people or actual Corporations. It isn't the actual entities themselves that the "struggle" is against, because "our struggle is not against flesh and blood." There is a more basic force and power that permeates the environment and makes all of us think and act and feel like we are reducible to economic units. We can't pin this on any one person (like a CEO or politician) or institution, even though people and institutions might certainly themselves be explicitly participating with the greater powers. Ultimately, the struggle is against that System that darkens the spirit and keeps people caught in endless cycles of (as you point out) gratification of the flesh.

Like a Mustard Seed said...

Yeah... I think all that you described in that last comment is so true, and summed up in the bible with the term "the Kingdom of this World"...

I've also found it really interesting how the bible uses Babylon as a way of representing the broader "system", as a city that stands in contrast to the city of God, Jerusalem... It's crazy how in many ways Babel, (which later became Babylon, I believe) was more or less the cradle for everything that was to follow in terms of worldly kingdoms, the idolatry, the economy, the infrastructure. It was the first example of mankind really coming together in an attempt to build our own earthly society, with man at the center, instead of God. The more I learn about the history and context surrounding Babylon, the more it makes sense why God uses it as a way of describing the entire worldly "system", where Satan works through a myriad of avenues to keep people in darkness, and in rebellion towards God...

samlcarr said...

When we discuss particularly Paul, I feel my own problem is that I don't relate Paul's Christ to Jesus the Messiah. For Paul there is no question that everything flows from the reality of the Messiah. It is Christ the Messiah who has effected the transformation in Paul.

In the context of your discussion, there is no question but that the Messiah demanded a fundamental 'self' redefinition in those who came into contact with him. His own self carried-contained a transformational challenge. That challenge was rejected by 'the world' but could not be overcome by 'the world' (to loosely adapt a Johannine thought).

We are to see ourselves primarily as sons and subjects of our father god.

I'm not sure if I'm actually getting at anything here, but nonetheless thank you for a fascinating post and an excellent discussion.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Sam,

Great observation.

In John's Gospel, one of the main motifs is that people are responding (positively or negatively) to Jesus, the person. That is, they are responding to the Word made Flesh.

The term aletheia is used almost forty times in various forms, but it is not a response to a propositional truth or even a spiritual truth that is in view. Rather, Jesus embodied truth in flesh form. His life emanated truth by the way his being was oriented toward himself, God, and others. So, when people saw him, heard him, or heard of him, they were responding to this full sense of aletheia.

I think Paul builds on this and suggests that we can all embody aletheia in the same way. This is found in Paul's letters in many forms, but the one that stands out the most to me right now is this idea of being "in Christ."

Embodying truth in this way does nothing short than to challenge the whole system, down to its very core.

Anonymous said...

Just to give you a little encouragement that your are harldly "old." Old is your frame of mind, not the mear candles on your cake. I have had relatives telling me since I was 7,12,16,21 that I was going on 35yrs old. See age is all in perspective. I would say, anyone blogging from the age of 10 to 100, awesome! Get your thoughts out there, and let people know how you think, what you believe, ect... (Just to let you know I have been dealing with allergies since I was five.) Just because you've got a little allergies and a soar throat doesn't mean you need to start picking the linning of your coffin! Anyways, I have known you for about a year, and I say, I have seen no "old geezer." I rather be considered an "old geezer" that's fun any day, then a "young thing" that is ignorant and boring! HEy, and you still have all your teeth, so your doing great!

Anonymous said...

Just to give you a little encouragement that your are harldly "old." Old is your frame of mind, not the mear candles on your cake. I have had relatives telling me since I was 7,12,16,21 that I was going on 35yrs old. See age is all in perspective. I would say, anyone blogging from the age of 10 to 100, awesome! Get your thoughts out there, and let people know how you think, what you believe, ect... (Just to let you know I have been dealing with allergies since I was five.) Just because you've got a little allergies and a soar throat doesn't mean you need to start picking the linning of your coffin! Anyways, I have known you for about a year, and I say, I have seen no "old geezer." I rather be considered an "old geezer" that's fun any day, then a "young thing" that is ignorant and boring! HEy, and you still have all your teeth, so your doing great!