Saturday, January 21, 2012

In Other News . . .

What a crappy day. Between the sick wife and no water, I do believe this is one of those days I shall, at some point, look back upon and shake my head in wonder as to how I made it through.

I've been wanting to read the new defense strategy the White House announced a few weeks back, but other interests and things have interfered. I have, at least, the link to it. In the near future, I hope to take a look at it.

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Single Word

Last night's Christian Believer class was on the doctrine of atonement. A great benefit for me was a deeper appreciation for this particular teaching, and the way various "theories" - ransom, substitution, moral example, Christus Victor - all work together to illumine the depth of the confession this one word contains. Along with discussing the Scripture and historical readings for the week, each week there is a video presentation of a Christian scholar discussing some aspect of the topic for the week. This lesson, it was Leander Keck, New Testament scholar and former Dean of the Divinity School at Yale. In the course of Keck's discussion, he notes the links between the Hebrew "kippur", as in Yom Kippur, "kapporeth", the word used in Leviticus to describe the lid or covering of the Ark of the Covenant, and the word the rabbis used in the Septuagint - hilasterion. Interestingly enough, a couple centuries before the LXX, St. Paul uses this very word in Romans 3:25. Here, from the NRSV, is Romans 3:21-26:
21 But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. (italics added)
I was unaware not only of the word itself, but of the long history of scholarly dispute over its use by St. Paul, and what, precisely, he means by it in this context.

This morning, I typed "hilasterion" in to Google (a lesson here for those who aren't sure how to work this whole Internet thingy), and found, among the 27,600 hits available in the first three-tenths of a second, these three articles that make clear just how unclear the meaning of this word is.

For the moment, I want to set to one side the debate itself. As a total novice, a newcomer to it, recognizing just from the reality of such an extensive debate, I have no opinion beyond accepting that such a thing as a debate over the meaning of this word exists. The main point in highlighting this is two-fold. First, it is a constant source of amazement how much of our understanding of our faith can hinge upon words the meaning of which is just not clear. In this case, much of our understanding of St. Paul's teaching on the meaning of Christ's death hinges on just how, exactly, we understand this particular word.

Second, I bring this up as further testimony in an on-going discussion on the reality that I am constantly learning new things, reminded of my own ignorance. Which is why, while I would defend to the fullest extent my understanding of the faith at any given time, I would never under any circumstances presume to claim that understanding as final.

Most definitely, I would never assume to claim clarity concerning the Biblical witness, which is why life-long study and the surprise that accompanies it, is part of my life.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

What Makes Something Real?

In 1950, my mother made her final installment payment, and took the subway from her apartment on E 51 St. near Second Avenue over to Brooklyn to pick up her new sewing machine. She would always remember that ride for two reasons. It was her first trip to Brooklyn. Instead of going under the East River, the train rode on tracks underneath the bridge. My mother has always had a phobia about heights and bridges, so she made sure, on her return trip, to find a route that went under the river.

It was a Necchi, that sewing machine. Complete with sewing machine cabinet, it had an electric treadle. Sitting on the sewing machine stool, which opened up to store sewing material, she pressed her knee against a small lever that operated the motor, turning the machine. The Italians made great sewing machines, the Olivetti and Necchi. The former was probably more popular. The Necchi, though, was built to last. My mother's, built and bought during the Truman Administration, sits in their house to this day, fully functioning, with all the original parts and extras. Needing only the occasional squirt of oil to keep the moving parts from stiffening, it should run well for another sixty years.

At this point, you're probably wondering what the heck my mother's old sewing machine has to do with the alleged subject of this post. Trust me when I tell you, the relationship could not be more vital.

Capitalist ideology limits an understanding of reality to that which can be exchanged for another thing of equal value. In advanced capitalist economies, the value of any item is the price it fetches on the market of goods. Anything that cannot be so priced, anything that is not both reified and reduced to its price on the market, is not real. The inexorable, totalitarian logic of capitalist ideology pushes society toward denying any other reality to all things. If it doesn't have a price tag, if no one wishes to pony up some money for it, it isn't real. Even marketing flirts with this in the midst of denying it. Consider the Master Card commercials that list the price of various purchases, then ends with the tag line that, these particular items, when used together by people to make memories, create an experience that is "priceless". Yet, isn't this Romantic nod toward human sentimentality actually enforcing the worthlessness of the experiences in question? After all, they would have been impossible without first purchasing the items in question; they, it would seem, are the truly and really valuable items. Because they have an exchange value. Because they have been and can be priced. The rest is, as noted above, so much sentimental guff.

The creation of useful items and their exchange was once a means to an end. The reality of these items was not determined by their exchange value, but by their usefulness for the purposes for which they were made. Some of that same process lingers even in advanced capitalist society, where items of greater durability tend to have higher value than those of less durability. Once purchased however, and actually put to the use for which they were intended, their value as determined by the market decreases substantially. Unused, however, they hold their value. Consider, for example, how collectors value an unopened toy as compared to one that has been opened and played with.

There is another way to think of what makes a thing real. Built and sold on the market, some items, like an old Necchi sewing machine, become more than just an electrical/mechanical contraption that is useful for making clothes and curtains, for stitching together a child's Halloween candy bag or stuffed animal. The item, used for the purposes for which it was constructed - a toy that's played with, say, or a settee that is sat upon - becomes an integral part of the lives of the people who use it, or are effected by its use. Its reality, then, is determined not only by its usefulness, its success at performing the tasks for which it was constructed. By being a part of the lives of people who share experiences due to that success, its usefulness is appreciated; its value becomes a function, then, not of its potential or actual price on the market as a commodity. Its value rests now on its vital connection to the life-experiences of the people who use it. It is far more real as a link in the warp and woof of human life than its moment on the market, a bar code attached.

We human beings make things real. What is real has value. This word, much misused and misunderstood, is not a function of market forces or reducible to any given's commodification. A thing becomes what it really is when it becomes integrated into human living. Until then, it is formless, a heap of matter without use or any reality of its own. Whether its an antique sewing machine, a yo-yo, a car, a chair, what-have-you, the inexorable press of capitalist ideology, reducing these to their exchange value distorts, at a fundamental level, what provides them with reality. Their value does not reside in what others are willing to pay for them. Their value, hence their reality, is the result of human use, the function and role they play in human interaction.

Because my mother made use of that old Necchi sewing machine for decades, its reality has become an integral part of my family's life, its memories and experiences. Reducing its reality to the amount of money others might be willing to pay for it strips away that reality, reducing it to little more than a heap of metal, sitting on a block of wood, shapeless, nameless. This is the lesson I've learned from thinking about this old piece of Italian craftsmanship. It is not real because it has a price; it is real because, put the use for which it was made, it provided for real experiences for our whole family.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Beginning And End Of God-Talk

Along with ruminations on William Stringfellow, Per Crucem ad Lucem also has a variety of ruminations on the thought of Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. Surprisingly, perhaps, for a contemporary English prelate, Williams has a long CV, and a recent work is criticized, from the perspective of method, in this thoughtful post.

Reading it, I found echoes of recent thoughts I've expressed - on the way doing theology is a never-ending process; my own warnings at resting safe on any particular conclusion; the way the Spirit has of disrupting even the most cogent self-satisfaction - and heard the warnings and criticism of similar thoughts expressed by the Archbishop.

As a response, I can only say that theology is not a "thing" humans do. We too often associate it with other human intellectual pursuits, in particular philosophy, from which it often borrows vocabulary, and with which it remains in dialogue. Yet, the two things are very different. Indeed, theology can rightly claim not to be an "intellectual pursuit" at all. Rather, it is a faithful pursuit of understanding, striving to make clear using different vocabularies that which we proclaim in our life of faith. The beginning of philosophy, it is often said, is wonder. Wonder that there is something rather than nothing. Theology, on the other hand, does not begin with wonder.

It begins with praise. It begins with the faithful acknowledgement of the reality of salvation God has granted in Jesus Christ, to us through the power of the Holy Spirit. We encounter this reality in our life of worship, in the sacramental practices by which the Body renews itself and restores us. We encounter this reality in prayer, as the Spirit takes our mumblings and stutterings and makes of them something coherent. We encounter this reality on the pages of Scripture that begin the journey of unraveling the encounter between God and creation.

While I do indeed, and will continue to insist, that we should never rest easy with what we feel are, in the words of Archbishop Williams, "a captivity to trivial optimism … and lying cliché", this should not prevent us, even as we continue to try to make sense of this marvelous mystery in which we find ourselves living, from continuing to participate in the praise and thanksgiving which birthed it. Unlike the kind of doubt and skepticism that can pervade philosophical thought, even the most thoroughgoing doubt and pervasive God-questioning rarely leads an honest theologian from saying, praying, and singing the reality that God's love, offered to the world in Jesus Christ through the Spirit that is the Love that binds Father and Son together, is the strange and wonderful thing that keeps them going.

The end of theology, like its beginning, is always and only praise. I wouldn't even claim a more enlightened praise, or a more deeply-felt thanks. Rather, I would just say one with a bit more clarity. It is one thing to put all one's works, including one's theological musings, under the shadow of the Cross. No matter how faithful, now matter how brutal, no matter how honest they will always fall short because they are human works trying to make sense of the God who is Wholly Other. Which is precisely why prayer and praise, song and sacrament, living and working in the Spirit are always the end of theology, just as they are the beginning.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Something New

It seems the simple reality that we can never know enough in order to be certain about what we believe is far too difficult a concept for some. Which is fine. Resting in their certainty, they may well have the kind of peace that passes understanding in their own way.

Me, I'd rather assume, from the get-go, that I pretty much don't know anything.

Over the past few days, thanks in no small part to the links provided by the blog Faith & Theology, I have encountered the most generous blessing. Yet another theological blog, Per Crucem ad Lucem, has explored the thought of Anglican lay theologian William Stringfellow. When I say "explored", I mean that I stopped at nine posts on various of Stringfellow's writings and his life.

I wish to post here, in part, some of what Stringfellow wrote, in a book entitled Instead of Death on how the transformative power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer changes even our sexuality. I would urge anyone to go and read this, indeed all, the posts on Stringfellow. The tantalizing hints in the works cited seem to show he was one who, as T. F. Torrance has said of all good theology, thinks in Jesus Christ. Anyway, enough of my babbling. Here's Stringfellow:
How then shall one discover who one is as a human being if sex provides neither the means nor the answer? And how shall one be emancipated from the power of sin in sex and in other realms as well?

In Christ.

In Christ. That means in beholding Christ who is in his own person the true human, the person living in the state of reconciliation with God, with himself, with all men, with the whole creation.

In Christ. That means in discerning that God ends the search for self by himself coming in this world in search of men. For the person, [sic] who knows that he has been found by God no longer has to find self.

In Christ. That means in surrendering to the presence and power of death in all things including sex and , in that event, in the very midst of death, receiving a new life free from the claim of death.

In Christ. That means in accepting the fact of God’s immediate and concretely manifest love for human life, including one’s own little life. Finding, then, that one’s own life is encompassed in God’s love for the world.

In Christ. That means in knowing that in the new life which God gives to humans there is no more a separation between who a person is and what a person does. That which one does, in sex or anything else, is a sign of who one is. All that one does become sacraments of new life.

In Christ. That means in realizing radical fulfillment as a person in the life of God in this world; such radical fulfillment that abstinence in sex is a serious option for a Christian though it is never a moral necessity.

In Christ. That means in enjoying God’s love for all humanity and all things in each and every event or decision of one’s own life.

In Christ. That means in confessing that all life belongs to God, and but for him there is no life at all’.
In a previous discussion of the relationship between Stringfellow's possible homosexuality and his life of faith and theology, the blog writer cites a discussion of some thoughts of Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury. This summary of Archbishop Williams does indeed capture the living heart of what Stringfellow says in the above passage:
1. The gospel, the good news spoken by God to the world in Jesus Christ – is God’s command. To put it the other way around, the command of God is not extraneous to the gospel, as if God, while saving us in Christ by the Spirit, said, ‘Oh, and there’s another, unrelated thing I wanted to talk to you about’.
2. The connection between gospel and command is intelligible. That is, it is possible for us by attending to the Gospel to understand how and why we are commanded and such understanding is the fundamental task of Christian ethics.
3. The gospel so understood provides the criterion by which we discover what truly is a binding command upon us. Faced, for instance, with a range of biblical commands about slavery, women, usury, polygamy, and sexual relationships, the fundamental theological question is not, ‘Which of these is culturally conditioned?’ but ‘How, if at all, do these matters relate to the gospel?’ Theological ethics is a matter, we might say, of taking every thought captive to Christ.
4. Because this attention to the gospel is the fundamental task of Christian ethics, any approach that simply stops with the apparent demands we find in Scripture, without asking whether and how they connect to the gospel, fails to take the command of God seriously.
5. If there is some intelligible connection between the gospel and sexual relationships, there would be a binding Christian sexual ethic (a command of God regarding sexual behaviour) even if there were no passages in Scripture that explicitly treated sexual matters.
These thoughts, this way of thinking in Jesus Christ, with the Gospel as the central reality of our identity, bringing new life out of all the empty tombs in which we dwell, are tantalizing indeed. I am going to enjoy, over the ensuing days and weeks, reading more from Stringfellow. It is a good thing to encounter a challenge, something new and different, life-affirming and faithful.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Time Doesn't Stand Still

As a way of clarifying why I refuse to rest easy with my understandings of Christian Scripture at any particular time and place, I think an obvious point to make would be this - time and place are always changing. I am not the same person I was yesterday, last year, ten years ago. I have no idea who I will be tomorrow, in five years, in twenty years.

I often reference the Ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Few works have had the impact on the way I understand the faith and my life in that faith. It is important to understand this work that it was never finished. Indeed, some Bonhoeffer scholars think he would be unhappy with the publication of various notes and manuscript pages, some separated by years, that lack organization or any central theme. Which is why it is with caution I approach anything he has written in these pages; they are incomplete, lacking a center. All the same, the two things that have made the biggest impact upon me seem, to me at any rate, to be complete ideas. They open the reader to possibilities.

In this case, he makes it clear that "ethics" is and always has been a questionable name for the study of that part of the Christian life that includes not only the moral life of the individual and community, but worship and liturgy, private devotion and prayer, the relationship between the church and the state, and what was known, once upon a time, as the Orders of Creation. Bonhoeffer makes plain his discomfort with this by contrasting the study of "Christian ethics" with a consideration that what is right and proper for Christian is not a concern that their actions and lives are ethical or moral; rather, referencing abundant Scriptures, not least the saying of Jesus that we are to seek the Kingdom of God above all things, and concludes that it is our lot not to pursue "the good" (however we envision that particular word), but rather, each and every day, to seek in prayer and devotion, to do the Will of God.

Why each day? Simply because each day is new. We must set to one side the idea that God's timelessness has anything to do with our perception of what God is calling us to be and do. Like a blind man in a room with an elephant, we can't believe we have it all figured out from one, or even two, or perhaps many, encounters with various parts of the elephant.

We are being pulled forward in to God's Holy future, the true creative force in history. For this reason, each day brings not only more clarity, a smidge closer to that final Triumph for which we all live. It also rolls the stone in front of the tomb that has become our past. I would submit that God's will for us, however we understand that phrase, does not change. I would also submit that our understanding of that will for us, our perception of it, our openness to the Word for us, changes all the time. Everything changes for us, each and every day. Why should our understanding of Scripture, our perception of the whispered Word of the Spirit in our lives be any different?

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More