Rumination


Stumbled across this today. the blogger, James McGrath of Butler University, leads off with a statement that I have made many, many times in my college and university courses:

It never fails to amaze me how, time and again, conservative Christians will, in the name of “the Judeo-Christian tradition,” “Christianity,” “faith,” or even the Bible itself, repudiate things that the Bible in fact says, and says in places quite clearly.

His specific case in point is how many conservative Christians, such as Steve Kellmeyer, in a badly misguided article, think that the doctrine of God’s ineffability is a clear and obvious biblical theme and that, because the almighty is ineffable (insert joke here), cannot and does not change his mind in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

A couple of comments here. McGrath and many other professors and teachers (including myself) know that this is just wrong. There are numerous instances in the Bible of God changing his mind about X, Y, or Z, or where he is at least willing to entertain arguments that may sway him from a different course of action from the one he has decided on (Abraham’s discussion with God over Sodom and Gomorrah comes to mind here, as does the Binding of Isaac; for the former, check out Exodus 32.14, 2 Samuel 24.16, Amos 7.3-6, Hosea 2, Jonah, 1 Chronicles 21, 15, Jeremiah 26.19… ).

I would go further here, however, and argue that the Jewish tradition fundamentally depends on this aspect of God. In Judaism, a central tenet is that we can, and in fact are obligated to, challenge God in the face of injustice. This is present in all three parts of the Hebrew Bible, and it is the dominant motif in the rabbinic literature of the Mishah, Midrash, and Talmuds, and, more contemporarily, in the Hasidic tradition of the Baal Shem Tov. Not only do we have the audacity of chutzpah to challenge God as “Lord of the Universe” to “do what is right?” in the same line as Job, Moses, Abraham, and so on, but the tradition of the Bible and the rabbis is that this is an argument that we can win, not just make. God is a God who responds, and does not just humor us by listening apathetically.

Second comment: This aspect of Judaism has not had much of a carry-over into Christian tradition. This is unfortunate; the development of Christian doctrine has led to the doctrine of ineffability and transcendence of God, such that he cannot be swayed by impassioned argument and challenges to justice as in the case of Christianity’s sister religion of rabbinic Judaism. In Catholicism, it is possible that God might entertain the petitions of the saints, and that Christ can be swayed by appeals made by Mary. Protestants don’t generally have this system available to them, but to the extent that God is addressed at all, it still goes through the intercession of Christ himself. This is to say that this obtuse figure of God in Christianity is not Biblical in the strict sense, but it is to say that it is the result of the dogmatization of Christianity that hangs, often, by only the barest of threads to something “biblical.”

Clearly, we teachers of Bible and the Abrahamic religious traditions have our work cut out for us.

I’m supposed to be working on the dissertation, but I’ve gotten bogged down in some nasty German linguistics. Last night I was doing some reading designed to kind of “wind me down” and came across what I see as a prophetic comment from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Letters and Papers from Prison. So much for winding down. I’d love to hear some thoughts on the implications of this for the church today. And I mean that in the nicest possible way.

“And we cannot be honest unless we recognise that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur [even if there were no God]. And this is just what we do recognise – before God! God himself compels us to recognise it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8.17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering”.

PS – Thanks Jack.

St. Benedict reading a bookBooks can be holy objects, and reading is a spiritual discipline. I thought I would here present some thoughts from the Christian ascetic and monastic tradition on books and reading.

1. Antony was so attentive at the reading of the Scripture lessons that nothing escaped him: he retained everything and so his memory served him in place of books. (Life of Antony)

2. The books read at vigils should have divine authority: the Old and New Testaments and explanations of them given by recognized and orthodox fathers. (Rule of St. Benedict)

3. During Lent, they should each receive a book from the library that they are to read straight through to the end. (Rule of St. Benedict)

4. On Sundays, all should devote themselves to reading, except those who are assigned to special duties. (Rule of St. Benedict)

5. Reading is bound to silence. … Constant and attentive reading done devoutly purifies our inner self. (Peter of Celle, The School of the Cloister)

6. I consider a room without reading to be a hell without consolation, an instrument of torture without relief, a prison without light, a tomb without ventilation, a ditch swarming with worms, a strangling noose, the empty house of which the Gospel speaks. (Peter of Celle, On Affliction and Reading)

7. Reading is the food, light, lamp, refuge, solace of the soul, the spice of all spiritual flavors. (Peter of Celle, On Affliction and Reading)

and finally…

8. Study is hard work. It is so much easier to find something else to do in its place than to stay at the grind of it. We have excuses aplenty for avoiding the dull, hard, daily attempt to learn. There is always something so much more important to do than reading. There is always some excuse for not stretching our souls with new ideas and insights now or yet or ever. (Sister Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict)

crows.jpgCity living doesn’t often provide the opportunity to sit in quiet and try to hear the sounds of nature in the stillness. This morning afforded me the rare opportunity, though. After getting ready for my day, I was able to sit in silence and enjoy some lectio before heading to the university to teach.

I read a short passage from the Psalter (Ps. 137). It’s an exilic Psalm, written by someone despairing of being away from home in a strange land, someone who wondered how to make the best of their new environment. I kept returning, over and over, to the first four verses:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?

I have been thinking lately of New Hampshire, reflecting on the White Mountains, the former years of deep snows, the seacoast, the lake behind my house, the woodlot and swamp on the other side, and have been hearing songbirds perched in the giant white pines. This time of year the lake will, of course, be frozen over, and fathers will be taking their sons out to the ice to build a little campfire and try to reel up some perch, bass, bluegill, and crappies. I wish I could be out in my woods, trudging along the paths in the snow with my snowshoes, rather than holed up in a tiny apartment in the city, with nothing but the sounds of trucks, jet planes, snowplows, and arguments.

After I closed my text, I sat back in my chair, and suddenly noticed the silence. There were no trucks, no planes, no human voices, music. But it wasn’t silence. Instead, I heard what I have not noticed in my three years here. Outside my window, the clear call of a half-dozen black crows mingled with the chirping of house finches and sparrows.

I do not know where the crows live, but they are an ubiquitous presence here, often doing a better job of keeping our street clean than than property management or city workers. I do know where the sparrows and finches live, though; they live in the bushes surrounding my building and in the attic.

While I was sitting, enjoying the caw! caw! caw! of the crows and the unmistakable chirping and peeping of the smaller birds, I felt as if they were answering the question posed by the Psalmist. My feathered friends were singing the Lord’s song in an alien place. Crows and birds are not native to city apartment buildings. But they have learned to call this place their home, much better than I am these days. And so the two of us live in exile, one longing to return home, the other building sukkot, knowing that however long they stay here, they will be provided for and carry out their existence in the best way they can, in this place.

… of Matthew 21.31-32. Dedicated to today’s whitened sepulchers.

paraphrase.jpg“Look, I’m trying to set it straight with you guys. The abortionists and gays and the liberals! are gonna be in God’s world before most of you guys who think you’re in the Right. I mean, guys like John, King, and Wallis, and Edwards and Obama talked about hope and justice and you don’t give them the time of day, but “those other guys” do, and even after seeing what King did and Wallis is doing and what Edwards and Obama are fighting for, you still won’t change your minds and believe them!”

ashuramain01.jpgRan across this in today’s Washington Post online: “Bloody Ritual, Modern Meaning.” Check it out; it’s a short take on the passion of Imam Husain (a grandson of Prophet Muhammad) as observed and commemorated during the week of the tenth of Muharram. The Ashura festival, as it is also called, combines extensive liturgies and dramatic passion plays re-enacting Husain’s martyrdom at Karbala (in Iraq) at the hands of Umayyad caliphs from Damascus in 680 AD/CE, or in Islamic reckoning, 61 AH. The WashPost piece focuses on its ritual observance in Kabul.

Like most universal rites of commemoration, the Ashura practices vary from location to location, but there are always passion plays of the event, and there are always ritual displays of mourning for Husain, and it is this that studies and documentaries tend to highlight, condemn, and criticize as being offensive to modern sensibilities. The mourning rites involve symbolic mortification of the body, and the methods involve everything from rhythmic beating of the chest to serious flagellation using knives whipped over the back. Religion scholars have long noted the similarities of these types of practices to medieval Christian ritual processions of penance.

But such comparisons miss the point of Ashura. It is true that there are some similarities between the martyrdom of Jesus and the martyrdom of Husain, and both have come to have cosmic significance in Christian and Muslim (especially Shi’a Muslim) ethos and worldview. Both stories likewise served as identity markers and the memory of them are celebrated as foundational for the community memory. Still, the point is not the blood-letting in itself, but rather to protest an unjust death brought about by the injustice of spreading tyranny.

In the class I’m teaching on Holidays, one of the points we’re discussing now is the inherent and latent power of holidays to function in the service of the status quo AND to protest and challenge it. And in fact, when we dig deep enough to the narratives underlying many of our holidays, the story is, more often than not, a story that challenges power, and that in succeeding generations, that story is smothered over with re-interpretations to maintain the social order and try to minimize the potential that holidays have to upset the status quo of those in power. In other words, holidays and ritual celebrations in holidays are extremely dangerous, and the more visible the expression of this the ritual is, the greater the potential for the latent and suppressed power to challenge tyranny, empire, exploitation, consumption, and so on, is feared. It is for this reason that many holidays throughout history have been outlawed by governments or at least severely restricted and monitored (e.g., the Passover in the first century).

The WashPost article highlights this by electing to point out the Ashura observance in Kabul, which is one of the most bloody and violent locations for the annual commemoration of the 10th of Muharram. The effect is to stir up fear, and judging from the comments on the site by other readers, it seems to work. Unfortunately. Because Ashura and Muharram have a lot to teach those of us outside of Islam. Our Muslim brothers and sisters here provide us with an example analoguous to the passion of Jesus as a righteous act that symbolizes the rejection of the abuse of power and empire in a way that our (meaning, my own tradition of Christian) lame passion plays have totally lost. Understand, I don’t advocate self-flagellation with sharp instruments, as in Muslim practices of matam or medieval flagellant movements, any more than I advocate self-crucifixion as an acceptable imitation of Christ. Instead, I advocate recognizing the ability of our religious observance of holidays to challenge the abuses of imperialism, and I can think of no better public example of this than the rites of Ashura on the 10th of Muharram. It is a demonstration of a passion for justice. Prophetic justice.

Word Made Flesh.Whatever else Christian faith may be, it is incarnational at its core. It is common for us to think of this in the classical expression of “God becoming man,” but the gospel of John speaks of it in terms that are not spoken of nearly as much. For John, the incarnation is the Word becoming Flesh.

I offer up some thoughts of reflection on the idea of Word becoming flesh.

Flesh is passionate and desirous.

But it is not only passionate and desirous for other flesh, but also for knowledge.

Knowledge for us comes in the form of Words, and we are oversaturated with words in the twenty-first century.

Knowledge is erotic. The Bible tells us as much in its Hebrew expression, and the classical Greeks knew this to be the case in Homer as well.

To know something is to regard it, and as Jane Hirshfield notes, “what we regard must seduce us, and we it, if we are to continue looking.” The power of the Word is in its power to seduce us and to awaken desire for knowledge.

Adrienne Rich: “I dreamed you were a poem, I say, a poem I wanted to show someone…”

Rich, again:

What kind of beast would turn its life into words?
What kind of atonement is this all about?
-and yet, writing words like these, I’m also living.

and:

I have written so many words
wanting to live inside you
to be of use to you

The Desert Fathers of the Christian tradition believed the flesh to be evil on account of its capacity for passion and desire, and so they fled into the desert, long the archetype of dryness, infertility, and anti-passion. Yet it is in this environment where passion and desire are awakened most. They also had a profound mistrust of the written word, and yet their own words were assiduously recorded onto parchments. It was as if the Fathers knew the eroticism of knowledge and the desire for the Word.

The connection between parched desire and parchment may be more than coincidental.

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