I am now blogging at a new blog: erdman31.com

If you post comments here at Theos Project, please know that I will respond and engage your thoughts in a timely manner.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A few thoughts on grace....and Lolita

I just finished my reading of Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita. It was better than I had expected, more powerful and even (dare I say it) redemptive, in its own way.....more on that later.....I thought I would post some extended thoughts from Herman (my future brother-in-law), who has a very thoughtful blog. His perspective is Christian, but Eastern Orthodox. The Eastern view of faith is quite different, and for many in the U.S. (particularly from evangelical backgrounds), the Eastern take on faith can be so unfamiliar as to even seem non-Christian.

So, here are a few of Herman's thoughts on sin, atonement, brokenness, and grace that might remind me of my readings of Lolita:

Let's say there's a murder, and we know who committed the murder.

We human beings didn't know it was going to happen before hand. We can't do anything about it afterwards. We can't raise the victim from the dead. We undo their relatives' exerience of sorrow. We don't know if the murderer will ever do it again. We don't know if the murder was overcome by an uncontrollable rage, or if he plotted for months. We are all fragile human beings, who could be murdered ourselves, and we are afraid.

And given those facts, it's actually pretty logical that human beings tend to react by punishing, imprisoning, or even executing the murderer. That is the only thing we can do. We're pretty powerless in the situation otherwise.

But God isn't. God knew it was going to happen. He knows what is going to happen in the future. He was there. He knows what it's like to be murdered. He can raise people from the dead. He knows the person's motives, state of mind etc. He can prevent the murderer from ever doing it again. God cannot be murdered as God, and as a resurrected man, Jesus can no longer be hurt. His approach to wrong-doers, whether murderers or shoplifters is radially different to ours.

We re-act. God is. I can't express strongly enough my horror and dilike for the western idea that God is angry with us, in the same sense as humans get angry. Yes, we have to use metaphores from human life to express truths about God, but the truths cannot be contained in our metaphores. God is, he does not get angry.

Or, as an Orthodox priest once put it (I may have already said this, but it bears repeating): "Orthodoxy is the lack of one-sidedness."

I think that whatever suffering we experience now, or after death (hell), is the product (like a chemical reaction, or a law of nature) of our own opposition to God. All death, sickness and sorrow here on earth are the product of our collective sinning because we sin when we are hurt.

Or, but another way, our turning away from God, on its own, is a sufficient cause for all suffering, whether now or later. God doesn't need to interfere, or subject us to something more than the direct results of our own actions. We're doing that just fine on our own.

We are wounded by the fallen world, and in our woundedness we contribute to the ongoing fallenness. All suffering is suffering at the hands of each other and ourselves, not at the hands of God. God is.

So grace, on this account, is the process where we learn how not to contribute to the fallenness, and where we can become healed from our wounds. Grace is God teaching us how not to be hurt, and how not to hurt.

[From the comment section of Holistic Christian Sexuality and Community]

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Revelations and religious experience

Speaking in tongues. Ecstatic prayers. Calm assurance. Visions. Revelations.

What to make of religious experience. Neurosis, psychosis, or psychopathology? A real connection with God, the angels, the spirit world, or the demonic? Something of both?

Paul is no stranger to dealing with the question of religious experience. To the Church at Corinth, he advises that it is good to go after the lofty spiritual experiences, such as speaking in tongues; but to love, however, is greater by far.

Paul tells the Galatian church that his gospel was received by a revelation, directly from the boss:

For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me was not of human origin; for I did not receive it from human beings nor was I taught it, but I received it by a revelation of Jesus Christ. Galatians 1:11-12

After a bit of a delay, I am continuing with my reflections on the book of Galatians, one of Paul’s more radical epistles. In Galatians, Paul sweeps the entire “law” aside in favor of freedom, breaks down ethnic, gender, and class distinctions, and mercilessly attacks anyone who opposes his gospel.

Yet before we get into these issues in more depth, I want to pause and look at Paul’s radical individualism. He bases his presentation of the gospel on an isolated revelation from Jesus Christ. This idea of personal revelation has been present in Christianity ever since Paul, with many throughout the centuries believing that they have received something directly by God: through visions, by an intense study of the inspired scriptures (as though directly given by God), through intense religious feelings, or by being taken up in trances.

When Paul says that he received his gospel by a revelation of Jesus Christ, he is clearly talking about a direct transmission of some sort. What is less clear is what this implies. Is Paul saying that his gospel should be given special consideration because it was transmitted directly from Jesus? The answer would seem to be “yes,” at first glance; however, Paul himself never actually makes the connection. Paul never says, “Look, I heard this gospel from Jesus, so that establishes it’s authority.”

In his commentary, Dieter Lührmann, takes pains to say that Paul is not developing an argument for the truth of his position based on religious experience: “Theology for Paul is not a retreat into his own religious experiences, which could perhaps establish his authority, but as such would not be transmittable. Theology, rather, is the unfolding of the content of the gospel, which has eschatological meaning for his own existence, as his interpretation of the Damascus experience as a ‘revelation of Jesus Christ’ shows. The gospel can also acquire such meaning for others, because its convincing power lies not in the personality of the preacher but in its content, which brings salvation.” (page 19)

What Lührmann says above is interesting. If one appeals to one’s own religious experience, then it is not transmittable. I think this is a good point. The only way a personal religious revelation is transmittable is if someone else seems to have the same experience. But what happens in the church, or in any faith community, if the religious experiences start to vary? Bob feels that God spoke to him and told him that the church needs to spend more money on electric guitars for the worship service. What if others hear different voices?

Many contemporary evangelicals believe that this is precisely why we need an objective text like the Bible: The Bible can resolve differences and provide us with “the answers.” But this experiment has failed for at least two reason. First, there are as many different interpretation of the Bible as there are people reading it. Next, the Bible itself doesn’t come to us as the book of answers, but only as a collection of scriptures that present diverse approaches to faith. This does not, in my opinion, make the Bible less appealing or even truthful, but in fact gives us texts that are dynamic.

As we read through Galatians, it is clear that Paul doesn’t appeal to his revelation experience to make his case. He cites the Hebrew scriptures, he develops arguments, he appeals to the Galatian congregation’s own religious experience. Paul does not use his revelations as grounds for the truth of his gospel….but still….he does mention it. His gospel is not of human origin. It’s directly from Jesus Christ. Despite the fact that Paul does not directly use his revelation to push his gospel in terms of making an argument, the fact of the matter is that revelation from Jesus Christ does seem to give a person a bit of spiritual credibility.

This leads us into a discussion of the tension between personal/individual religious and the community. On the one hand, the personal nature of faith is very important. Religious experience can be deeply meaningful and transformative for each individual. On the other hand, an important element of religious experience is being a part of a religious community. That is, a believer finds that simply being a member of a greater whole is itself meaningful. For many, isolated religious experiences are secondary to the participation in a religious tradition that may span hundreds and even thousands of years. One feels a historical communion with saints and sages of the past.

The tension is in the book of Galatians itself. Clearly individual revelation is important to Paul. He sets himself apart from any received tradition, presumably as a superior form of communication. However, Paul does stand in the Jewish tradition, and it is the Hebrew scriptures that become central in his argument for a gospel that is based on the “promise” not law. This promise/law discourse is found in 3:15-25. At the end of chapter three, Paul says that “you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus,” and that all were baptized into Christ. As such, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” In 5:6 Paul says that circumcision nor uncircumcision are of any value. The only thing that counts is faith “being at work” (energoumene) through love.

So, while Paul places incredible emphasis on his own personal revelations, he stands in a tradition, argues from that tradition, and encourages those in the congregation to be one in Christ through the expression of love. This last point is somewhat astounding, considering how much Paul rails against his opponents. He suggests, ironically, that those who oppose him by emphasizing circumcision should go all the way with the knife and castrate themselves. At the close of his letter he suggests that his opponents only want to look good. They don’t keep the whole law, even if they suggest that others do so. And while Paul bears the marks of Christ on his body, his opponents sell out the real gospel in order to avoid persecution.

Things at this point are quite muddled and confused. Do we each just go our own way, according to our own personal revelations and individual religious experiences? Or do we try to hold together some sort of community of diversity? The book of Galatians just kind of leaves things confused. Paul condemns his opponents in no uncertain terms, and yet he doesn’t have a detailed plan for what happens next? Do the Galatian churches kick out these folks? If so, what is the litmus test? Paul himself isn’t entirely clear on defining what such a litmus test should be. Or do the churches try to work things out so that they can all stay in fellowship together, respecting differences and disagreements? Based on Paul’s letter alone, any number of possibilities would work.

On this point, I interpret Paul’s letter to the Galatians as an example of how difficult it is to work out our individual religious experiences within the context of a faith community. Experiences come into conflict with each other; our ethics and values might be in conflict; and our entire perspective on “faith” might be so different from someone else that we just have a difficult time finding any common ground. We all think that we are right. Those of us who are religious usually relate with Paul in some way, believing our revelations or ideas of faith are that which should prevail.

Sometimes we should stick it out with the community. Over the long run we find that it is worthwhile to stay together, and maybe over time differences become less and less important, as the relationships form into something that is much more substantial that our individual perspectives on faith. And yet at other times it is in fact necessary to break the ties and go our separate ways. It might be easier to stay, it might take courage to leave. Sometimes faith communities are together, but nothing seems to be gained (for anyone) by that union.

It’s tricky, but the tension is in the text, and I’m glad for that. In reading Galatians (and many of the other epistles of Paul), I am comforted by the complexity at work in the lives of individuals (like Paul) and the greater faith community. We do the best with the wisdom and discernment that we have, and try through all things to love each other, whether that means working things out together or going our separate ways.

Religious experience is often a mystery, even to those who experience; perhaps especially to those who experience it. As far as I can see, navigating these experiences in the context of others is a delicate and complicated matter. Even Paul seems to run into the complexities.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Kinesthetic Prayers

As far as I understand, most contemporary theories of education understand that there are different learning styles and different learners. Some people learn by listening, these are audio learners; others are visual learners, so they best retain information that they read or see with their eyes; still others learn best through their body, by actively engaging in an activity, such as writing out information or putting together a puzzle.

Yesterday while conversating with Tamie, I began to wonder about the history of prayer. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with very kinesthetic prayers; prayer is an experience of the body. People will weep and lament in loud voices, they will rip their clothing and sit in dust and ashes. They will dance to express prayers of joy and thanksgiving. They will set up physical representations of faith (such as digging a well or some form of a memorial). They bow and prostrate their bodies. They lift up their voices.

Somewhere along the way in the Christian tradition, prayer was turned into a mental/cognitive activity or into an inner emotional experience. This is why I wonder about the history of prayer. How did prayer get to be an exclusively inner experience? When did Christians decide that the physicality of prayer was no longer important?

I'm not sure what the answer is, but I imagine it has to do with the modern Western obsession with the "inner life" of the mind. Descartes famously (or infamously) withdrew himself from the outer world to discover a more pure, foundational truth in the rationality of his mind.

There is also something intriguing in this discussion related to gender. Traditionally, the mind has been related to the male, while the body is feminine. Women have been the ones who bear the children and nurture them, a physical activity. Men are the decision makers, the masters of mental processing. Men are the educated ones. Women take care of the "practical," physical matters.

Body energy seems to be something that is related to all forms of Eastern religious expression. Buddhism and Hinduism developed yoga and trantric practices to bring the body and the inner person into proper alignment. Muslim practice dictates prostration in prayer, stopping five times a day to physically demonstrate devotion and surrender to God. And, as I mentioned earlier, the Hebrew scriptures use many words to illustrate the intense kinesthetic energy that goes into prayer.

I tend to be someone naturally inclined toward the inner life of the mind and the emotions, primarily focusing on the mental processes. For me, it has renewed me to incorporate physical motion and acts of devotion into my acts of prayer. It becomes a time for me to let go of my thoughts and feelings and engage my body in an act of faith. Physically bowing is a release; using prayer beads allows me to direct my energies of prayer into the world; and speaking my prayers also connects my inner life with the external world.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

We find Alice tired and bored. Sitting on the bank on a hot day, she wants nothing to do with her sister’s book; it has no pictures or conversations, no images or dialog. The day is static and still, conventional and dull.

Then it’s down the rabbit hole and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland begin. In the next Alice book, Through the Looking Glass, it is the mirror that acts a portal, transporting Alice to another world: a world of imagination, creativity, excitement, and absurdity.

Lewis Carroll wrote his first Alice novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (or Adventures for short) in 1865. The second, Through the Looking Glass (or Looking Glass) followed seven years later. The books were highly popular from the very beginning. Lewis Carroll, of course, was only his pen name. (A writer of nonsense fairy tales ought never to take his real name.) The tales of Alice that he writes are funny, entertaining, and charming.

The novels can be read just for the fun of it, with no strings attached. This is one of few great novels that one can just sit back and enjoy, without feeling the need to explore “the deeper” mysteries and darkness of human existence. And yet on the other hand, these texts are not without substance. After all, Carroll was a professor of mathematics and logic and Oxford. The substance of these texts, and any potential lessons they can teach, emerge through their playfulness. Not merely that play itself is valuable, but that the context of triviality can serve as fertile ground for reflection. Perhaps this itself is one of the most profound lessons of reading these novels, especially in politically polarized societies.

So, I want to proceed in a playful manner. These novels open us to imagination and absurdity in a way that can prove quite enlightening.

“Oh dear, what nonsense I’m talking!”

The adventures of Alice play with absurdity. The novels seek to loosen the edges, allowing us to be surprised and delighted. The text continually surprises us, constantly playing off of our expectations for things to be a certain way. All dialog and interaction that Alice encounters in Wonderland inverts our conventional sense of how things should be; but it does so in a way that allows us to imagine a new possibility, if only for a brief moment. Only for a brief moment, because the text wants to shake us up in a playful way, without taking itself too seriously.

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know that I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

When dialoging with the Cheshire Cat, Alice asks for a reason, for some rationality to explain why the Cat believes that Alice is insane. The Cat provides a reason, but it isn’t quite convincing: “You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Many of the characters in Wonderland abide by their own rules, by their own set of standards. The Duchess states that, “Every thing’s got a moral, if only you can find it.” But each of the dogmas of the characters is so bizarre and so unlike any other standard that the result often becomes chaotic, exasperating, and certainly quite hilarious!

Taken as a collective whole, Alice’s experiences with the creatures calls into question the point of conventionality, of fixed and rigid systems of thinking and language. At every turn, a bizarre comment or inquiry upsets another axiom.

“Better say nothing at all. Language is worth a thousand pounds a word!” (Looking Glass)

Does language master us? Or is it the means of mastering our world? A means of mastering others?

Alice always tries. She often follows out the reasoning of the characters she meets, seeking to match wits with them. In this way, Alice can come to represent conventionality. Humpty Dumpty says as much to Alice: “You’re so exactly like other people.” (Looking Glass)

Alice presses. Language, it seems, stretches us. It stretches the creatures to the full extent of their absurdity. It stretches Alice out of her conventionality. Wonderland is not the place of books with no pictures or conversations. In Wonderland, words come alive. They do something that creates excitement and new ways of seeing the world.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Alice asks the question of morality: who has the right to change words and make them mean such different things. Humpty Dumpty changes the question. It isn’t about what we can do, it isn’t about who has the right to change words. This misses the point. Using language is a creative process. It is about asserting one’s self.

Wonderland upsets the dogmatic world of books without pictures or conversations, and to do so it stretches language in all sorts of bizarre directions. “All events in the Alice books thus feel like non sequiturs.” (“Introduction” by Tan Lin in 2003 edition) As absurd as they are, these non sequiturs are the linguistic agents that help Alice to break out of the dullness of normality.

The non sequitur is “that which does not follow.” A non sequitur works in a way that is opposite the cliché. Clichés are trite and boring, they operate only to advance the narrative to the next sequence. Clichés are dull and lifeless. Non sequiturs, on the other hand, make us think differently. They shake things up.

Clichés are easy, and they are familiar. Because of their familiarity, they are not questioned. The reader goes through them and onto something else. The non sequitur is unfamiliar and strange. It is absurd. And as such, we have to stop. In the Alice books, they are devices to make us laugh and to question our assumptions. Clichés lock us into convention, while a non sequitur can help us break out of routine and think in imaginative and creative ways.

In the first Alice novel, the Queen inverts the typical order of the courtroom and makes the absurd assertion, “sentence first—verdict afterwards.” A similar circumstance occurs in Looking Glass, where the criminal is to be punished prior to the crime. “The crime comes last of all.”

“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,” the Queen remarked.
“What sort of things do you remember best?” Alice ventured to ask.
“Oh, things that happen the week after next,” the queen replied in a careless tone. “For instance, now,” she went on, sticking a large piece of plaster on her finger as she spoke, “there’s the King’s Messenger. He’s in prison now, being punished: and the trial doesn’t even begin till next Wednesday: and of course the crime comes last of all.”
“Suppose he never commits the crime?” said Alice.
“That would be all the better wouldn’t it?” the Queen said…
Alice felt there was no denying that. “Of course it would be all the better,” she said: “but it wouldn’t be all the better his being punished.”

Language becomes a tool for the imagination. It refuses to settle the matter; rather, it suggests strange possibilities….even impossibilities, which paradoxically can become possible if we only try hard enough. Imagination and creative language can make the impossible seem possible.

“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Chasing after the wind

It is the white rabbit that stirs Alice out of her boredom on that hot day by the bank. So, Alice chases after the white rabbit. But the white rabbit is chasing after someone else: “The Duchess! The Duchess! Oh my dear paws! Oh my fur and whiskers! She’ll get me executed, as sure as ferrets are ferrets!” When Alice meets the Duchess, we find that the Duchess must hurry off to play croquet with the Queen. The Queen, for her part, cannot execute her subjects fast enough: “Off with his head!” And her subjects, of course, are always anxious to avoid being the object of a beheading.

The constant motion is a circle of pursuit. We find deep meaning in the motion, in the chasing, but it all has a certain futility to it. Ah, but not futility in the sense of a brooding existentialist. This is a futility with a sense of humor. The Alice novels illustrate that the futility of our motion may be worthwhile, even in the midst of its triviality and absurdity; indeed, they are important because they are silly.

“Alice’s conversations, when they don’t end unsatisfactorily in silence, tend to go in a circle.” (Tan Lin)

In the West, we tend to live in a linear world. This is particularly true in our modern world, especially in the U.S. If our economy is not growing, then we are panicked. We must always be making progress, moving forward, ad infinitum. To truly appreciate and appropriate the circularity of the Alice novels, we must change the paradigm and realize that circularity, however absurd, allows us to center and enjoy.

The circularity means that we are circling around something in order to appreciate it. This circularity of the novel gives the text a certain lightness, a lightness that is also a spiritual and psychological virtue that is rare in a linear world obsessed with progress.

Our desire to go somewhere is parodied in Alice’s dialog with the Cheshire Cat in Adventures:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.

In Looking Glass, Alice suddenly finds herself in a shop. An old sheep is keeping shop. There are many wonderful items to purchase, but Alice cannot actually find any of them. As soon as she tries to fix her eyes on an item, she finds that it shifts or fades away, and when she is able to fully focus her eyes on the shelf, the shelf is empty. But she can see that there are items on the shelves above and below, so she tries to fix her gaze on another shelf to see these items, but she finds that they also vanish.

The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things—but the oddest part of it all was, that whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty: though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold.

The Sheep’s shop illustrates that economic desires are always shifting and changing, like the shop that the Sheep is tending. As we read in Ecclesiastes, “The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.” And again, “Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire: this is also vanity...” Desire is that which we see, not with our eyes but with our desire. As such, the object of desire can never fully be brought into focus, and whatever shelf we fix our desire turns up empty.

“Quests for mastery are continually frustrated in the Alice books.” (Tan Lin) Mastery bows to absurdity. The true mastery comes from giving up mastery, from being able to laugh at ourselves and cultivate a lightness of spirit and a sense of humor.

Alice sighed and gave it up. “It’s exactly like a riddle with no answer!” she thought.