cjbanning: (Default)
On November 8, 2016--the night Donald J. Trump was elected to be the 45th President of the United States despite losing the popular vote by a record number of votes--New York Times columnist Ross Douthat posted the following tweet:
This is apiece with many similar statements Douthat has made over the last year or so, responding in part to Francis Fukuyama's opus The End of History but also much more directly to the progressive and social liberal use of the famous line of uncertain attribution, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." For perhaps understandable reasons coming from a social conservative, Douthat objects to this sentiment, and those objections have served as a constant refrain within his columns, blog posts, and tweets. Two representative columns are The Case for Old Ideas and The Myth of Cosmopolitanism. I suspect there are blog posts which made the argument even more directly and concisely, but they fail to come up in a quick Google search.

In Checking Charlie Hebdo’s Privilege, Douthat argued that "Rather than a clear arc, [history] offers what T. S. Eliot called 'many cunning passages' — in which persecutors and persecuted can trade places, and even the well-meaning can lose their way entirely." But surely this oversimplifies, if not willfully misunderstands, just what progressives mean when they invoke the arc of history thesis. The belief is not, and never has been, in what Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, in a sermon published in 1853, called the "continual and progressive triumph of the right" (i.e., "the right" as in the morally correct, not the political right):
Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
But progressives who accept the arc of history thesis also agree with Parker that from what we can see we are sure the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. We don't require historical omniscience to be optimistic about the direction of human history.

One can understand the argument that the ascension of Donald J. Trump, first in the Republican primaries and then in his surprise victory on Election Night, somehow refutes the "arc of history" thesis. But such an argument actually seriously misunderstands the thesis it attempts to refute, refuting only a caricature in its place. To believe to be on the right side of history is not to believe that one's position is infallible in the short term, incapable of losing elections. After all, one of the fundamental tenets of the arc of history thesis is that the arc of the moral universe is indeed long--and is not a straight line, either.

Insofar as Douthat is simply reminding us that those who believe they are on the right side of history can in fact be mistaken, it is of course difficult to disagree with his corrective. But by repeatedly (despite his own Catholicism) effectively denying the directionality of history altogether, he implies that just because progressives could conceivably be wrong on any given issue, we ought to assume we are wrong on every issue, and concede the debate to the religious conservatives before it has even begun. It's as if Douthat thinks a belief in one's own side's objective correctness ought to be somehow reserved for conservatives alone. And by attacking the arc of history thesis itself, Douthat sidesteps having to engage with the actual content of progressive and left-liberal arguments, why it is exactly we believe our positions to be on the correct side of history and those of conservatives on the wrong side.

For me, my belief in the directionality of history is a fundamentally Christian belief; before my conversion to Christianity, I understood history as being chaotic and directionless, but such a belief no longer seems to me possible, being incompatible with the fullness of the Christian hope and promise. And as a Christian, my new belief in the directionality of history is rooted in Scripture, in particular the deuterocanonical Book of Wisdom:
It was Wisdom who delivered a holy people, a blameless stock, from a nation of oppressors. She rewarded the labors of a holy people and guided them on a wondrous quest, becoming their shade by day and their starlight at night. And when these just people stood in victory over the godless, they sang of your glory, God our Deliverer, and in one voice praised your power and called you their champion--because Wisdom gave speech to those who could not speak and brought eloquence to the lips of infants. (10:15, 17-18, 20-21)
The above passage is part of a larger narrative, spanning the 10th through 12th chapters of the Book of Wisdom, which describe Wisdom's presence at crucial moments in the Biblical narrative, beginning with Adam and Eve. These are shown not as discrete divine (or quasi-divine) interventions, but part of a pattern of Wisdom leading and guiding the people of Israel through human history. By constructing this greater narrative of divine presence in history via Wisdom, the author of Wisdom is thus putting forth what I call a "theology of history": a speculative account of the significance and directive principle(s) intrinsic to human history from a position within a particular faith tradition. As Peter Enns notes in Wisdom of Solomon and Biblical Interpretation in the Second Temple Period ("Ps-Solomon" refers to "Pseuodo-Solomon," i.e. the author of the Book of Wisdom writing pseudepigraphically as King Solomon):
In the light of Ps-Solomon’s clear purpose—giving encouragement to a people facing the possibility of death—one begins to see a possible motive behind not only his reference to death as an “exodus” in the opening chapters of the work, but also his choice of Israel’s exodus experience as one of the primary themes of chs. 10–19. Israel’s exodus, her passage from death to life, as it were, is presented by Ps-Solomon as the prime biblical portrait of what Wisdom is doing now in the lives of these persecuted Alexandrian Jews—in their own passage from death to life, their own exodus.
Simillarly, in the Gospel According to St. John, Jesus promises before his death to send humanity the Paraclete (another name for the Holy Spirit, meaning "Advocate") to "abide with us forever"--that is, throughout the entirety of human history (14:16). According to the Episcopal catechism, the Holy Spirit is revealed in the New Covenant "as the Lord who leads us into all truth and enables us to grow in the likeness of Christ."

In the Book of Revelation, St. John the Divine writes of a "millenium"--a period of time during which Christ reigns over the Earth. As a postmillenialist, I understand this to describe the current epoch of human history:
Postmillennialism holds that Jesus Christ establishes his kingdom on earth through his preaching and redemptive work in the first century and that he equips his church with the gospel, empowers her by the Spirit, and charges her with the Great Commission (Matt 28:19) to disciple all nations. Postmillennialism expects that eventually the vast majority of men [sic] living will be saved. Increasing gospel success will gradually produce a time in history prior to Christ's return in which faith, righteousness, peace, and prosperity will prevail in the affairs of men [sic] and of nations. After an extensive era of such conditions Jesus Christ will return visibly, bodily, and gloriously, to end history with the general resurrection and the final judgment after which the eternal order follows. [. . .] Postmillennialism also teaches that the forces of Satan will gradually be defeated by the expansion of the Kingdom of God throughout history up until the second coming of Christ.
So in a sense, I agree with Douthat that history's only arc is the one described in Revelation--but I believe the millenium (understand to figuratively describe a long period of time rather than a literal 1,000 years) to have already begun. Postmillenialists take very seriously the third petition of the Lord's Prayer: "Thy will be done on Earth, as it is in Heaven." The millenium is thus understood to be characterized by increasing peace and social justice--the arc of the moral universe bending towards Christ, the Prince of Peace--as the Kin-dom of Heaven is established (through the work of the Holy Spirit) upon the planet Earth. This understanding of history recognizes the power of human beings, when empowered by the amazing and unmerited gift of God's grace, to serve as the hands and feet of Jesus Christ.

Taking this Biblical understanding of history and synthesizing it alongside the great philosophers of history--Hegel, Marx, Kojève, Foucault, Kuhn, Fukuyama, et alii--yields the theology of history I tried to articulate in part in my essay, History and Christ. As I noted there, it is hardly an accident that Hegel also wrote of a "spirit"--geist--at work in human history. These philosophers helped to identify the dialectical mechanisms through which God is at work in human history. This is of course appropriate because the God of the Trinity is Godself dialectical: three hypostases in perichoretic conversation with one another. (The relational ontology of the Trinitarian relationship is of course prefigured by the relationship between YHWH and Wisdom in the Hebrew Wisdom literature.) To quote Karl Rahner, "the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity" (and I would add, is the social Trinity): God's work in history is a reflection of Who God Is.

Linear history can thus be said to have a progressive nature--i.e. the changes from era to era (scientific advances, evolving moral norms, new forms of polity) can be said to represent in the aggregate objective improvements in some sense, even if what we are not always able to articulate quite what that sense might be. (I suspect both Wittgenstein and his cousin Hayek--a beloved philosopher of the intellectual right--might be helpful there, but that's another subject for another post.) I do not, like Fukuyama, think that modern liberal democracy represents the end of history. But I do think it is the pinnacle of what we have achieved so far, and I certainly do not claim to know what comes after. I also--again pace Fukuyama--do not think the project of liberal democracy itself has yet come close to achieving perfection, as so many important civil rights and essential freedoms remain under attack by structural systems of sin and injustice.

I do, however, see the expansion of civil rights and social justice which I've have witnessed even in my own life as a, however incomplete and impartial, unfolding of the Kin-dom of Heaven. And since my political left-liberalism is grounded in my theological belief in the human dignity of all people as divine image-bearers, I bear no apology for understanding this theological unfolding in explicitly political terms.

Yet if this is the case, how do we explain President Trump? I will not spend time here making the Christian argument against Donald Trump, as that has been done adequately elsewhere, often by religious conservatives (and thus, obviously not every anti-Trump argument linked here is one I personally endorse, since I was and am unequivocally pro-Clinton and many of these . . . aren't, to say the least): Yet we can accept that Trumpism and Christianity are mutually incompatible and still believe that history is guided by the providential hand of God's Holy Wisdom. Believing that God is present in the historical dialectic does not mean that God personally and directly micromanages every historical event. Given the concupiscient nature of fallen humanity, there will be setbacks and backlashes. Humanity will collectively stumble and fall.

And while I believe that God is present in the overarching dialectic of human history, I also believe that God respects the free will of human beings created by God in God's own image, that our free will is the exceptional sign of that divine image within us. The belief that there is an arc to history, then, does not require an ignorance of, or a blindness to, that arc's many curlicues.

But this is no reason to abandon those central virtues which define the Christian vision: faith, hope, and love. After all, the fact that the Hebrews stopped to worship a golden calf did not mean that God's Wisdom was not leading them to the Promised Land of Canaan; the fact that we have stopped to elect Donald Trump POTUS does not mean that She is not still leading us today to the Kin-dom of Heaven.

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, writing in the Huffington Post in 2013, put it eloquently:
The moral arc of the universe is about the transformation of that which “is” to that which “can and must be.” That includes the redemption of every single life, transformed with the vision of a more just and equal world; a vision that [Martin Luther] King[, Jr.] dreamed of and preached about 50 years ago this week. The most dangerous mistake we can make is to be blind to the continued injustice or assume that the moral arc of the universe moves towards justice on its own and that we are not a part of the bending. [. . .] Believing in the moral arc of the universe that King talked about is more than a faith statement — it is a hope statement — and many people have lost their hope. But we are meant to be used as instruments and with God’s assistant [sic] we can help bend the arc.
And thus, motivated by faith, hope, and love, I reject Ross Douthat's cynicism towards the arc of history, and say with Theodore Parker, Martin Luther King, Jr., and thousands of other Christians that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it does bend towards justice. Alleluia, alleluia!
cjbanning: (The Bishop)
I'm hard at work on my post(s) about the affinity between Wittgensteinian metaethics and progressive Christian moral theology, but in the meantime I'd like to direct you to the post From Rome to Canterbury: My Journey to Anglicanism by Thomas Bradshaw over at The Empty Nave. This past Sunday--which was, of course the Feast of Pentecost--I had the pleasure and honor of witnessing Thomas make a mature public affirmation of his faith and commitment to the responsibilities of his baptism and receive the laying on hands by the Rt. Rev. Frederick Borsch. I'm proud and pleased to have been (in his words)
an inclusive, wise lay-minister and vestry member, who would later become a good friend--that pushed me to study hard and nourished my hunger of a greater theological education than what was available for me.
I should also note that some eleven hundred miles away on that same day, another dear friend of mine--Ruth Ellen of Patron of Poets, Scholars, and Nuns--was also receiving the sacrament of confirmation.

As I witnessed the confirmation of Thomas and the rest of his confirmation class, I of course remembered my own confirmation by George Councell (our diocesan bishop) in June 2008, but was also struck by the form used for the reception of candidates who have already been confirmed in another denomination:
N., we recognize you as a member of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church, and we receive you into the fellowship of this Communion. God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bless, preserve, and keep you. Amen.
I have frequently noted that one of the things I like about Anglicanism is that it is very clear as to the distinction between the Communion and the catholic Church, with the former only being a branch of the latter. Thomas was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church and confirmed in the Episcopal Church; Ruth Ellen was baptized in the United Church of Christ and confirmed in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. I myself received both my baptism and my confirmation in the Episcopal Church. But we are all members of the same, one Church:
There is one Body and one Spirit, just as you were called into one Hope when you were called. There is one Savior, one faith, one baptism, one God and creator of all, who is over all, who works through all and is within all. (Ephesians 4:4-5)
Pentecost is often called "the birthday of the Church." As I've mentioned before, I find this somewhat misleading, and prefer to think of it instead as a preliminary coming of age, one of many different milestones of maturation from the teachings of the prophets to the confession of Peter to the resurrection at Easter to the ascension into heaven to the outpouring of the Spirt on Pentecost to the great ecumenical councils and beyond all the way to the eventual instantiation of the Kindom of Heaven in its fullness. One of the authorized collects for the feast of Pentecost states that on that day God "opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of [the] Holy Spirit," the other that God "taught the hearts of [God's] faithful people by sending to them the light of [the] Holy Spirit."

As an Anglo-Catholic, I believe that the Church subsists in the apostolic churches as governed by the historic episcopate, but also that the elements of truth and sanctification found outside those structures compel towards catholic unity under apostolic authority. I'm reminded of this quote from Fr. Richard P. McBrien's 101 Questions and Answers on the Church, which I previously quoted in my essay History and Christ:
[Jesus Christ] is the great sacrament of our encounter with God and God's with us. The Church, in turn, is the sacrament of our encounter with Christ and of Christ's with us. And the seven sacraments, in their turn, are sacraments of our encounter with the Church and of the Church's with us. Indeed, the other members of the Church are sacraments of encounter for us and we for them because, in the Christian scheme of things, we experience and manifest the love of God through love of neighbor.
On this past Saturday--the day before Pentecost, and the penultimate day of Easter--my family buried my paternal grandfather. One of my duties consisted of picking some of the readings to be used at his funeral mass at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church. I chose Wisdom 1:13-15, 2:23-3:9 as the Hebrew Scripture reading and Acts 10:34-48 as the New Testament reading. I chose the passage from Acts in part because it is traditional to read from that book in the Easter season, and part of the reason I extended it beyond the suggested reading of 10:34-43 was (beyond the fact that I needed to fiddle with it and I like long readings; my cousin-in-law, who read the Hebrew Scripture reading, which I also extended, was less than thrilled at me) because the following section seemed especially appropriate for the day before Pentecost (as the priest noted in his homily):
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.

Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.
This is, of course, a story of radical inclusion. We are the Church, but the Church is God's, not ours. We don't get to set the boundaries.

cjbanning: (Trinity)
As preached to the Church of the Ascension during our service of Morning Prayer, this twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, November 18, 2012.

1 Samuel 2:1-10
1 Samuel 1:4-20
Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

In Joss Whedon’s 2005 science-fiction film Serenity, the disheveled spaceship captain and smuggler Malcolm Reynolds, who had lost his Christian faith in an interplanetary civil war, kneels down in front of a statue of the Buddha while disguised as a woman and mockingly says, “Dear Buddha, please bring me a pony and a plastic rocket.” This comment is, I think, evocative of the discomfort both Christians and non-Christians alike sometimes have with petitionary prayer. After all, isn’t Christianity a religion about selflessness and self-sacrifice and love of neighbor? How could we possibly make that fit with getting down on our knees and giving God our grocery list of needs and wants?

That sentiment might only be intensified over these last few weeks as so many so relatively close to us find themselves without their homes or livelihoods. When they have lost so much, we might be wary to bring our own petty wants before the LORD. I think this is what prompted one of my friends to post as their facebook status:
I don't care if your electricity is restored, please stop praying
- God
I should note this was almost immediately after the hurricane, before the utter seriousness of people going weeks without power made itself clear. But when I objected that I couldn’t imagine God ever saying “please stop praying,” no matter how superficial the subject of the prayers might be, I was told, “but it was still funny.” I’ve listened to friends complain about their mother-in-law’s habit of praying for finding good parking spaces, or their sibling’s prayers for the success of his business. Countless times I’ve encountered critics pointing to two groups of fans of rival sports teams, or rival political candidates, praying to the same God that their respective team will win, as if that was nothing more than an absurdity.

It would be wonderful if we were all perfect people whose only desires were high-minded, for world peace and an end to global poverty. But we’re not perfect people; we’re human beings, our very nature wounded by the reality of sin.

But that’s okay. Because that’s where Jesus Christ, who is a perfect person, the only perfect person, comes in. And because of this, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering.” This refers, of course, to our ultimate hope, that we will come to share in Christ’s resurrection. But it also applies to all of our little hopes, our petty desires, our secret wishes, our hopes for the future. We approach God as who we are, wanting what we want, and it is a good and rightful thing to put those needs and desires before the LORD, that God’s will might be done. We trust in Jesus to wash us clean.

For me the best example of this is found in Psalm 137, in which the psalmist prays that the heads of babies might be dashed upon the rocks. Clearly, this is not a righteous desire for a person to have. But given the historical context of the psalm, amidst the Babylonian captivity, it is arguably a very human one. And so Scripture provides us with this example set among many examples of how to pray of a person in their human brokenness reaching out to God from within that human brokenness.

The great Hindu activist Mahatma Gandhi put it this way: “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one's weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”

The God who took on our human nature and was born of the Blessed Virgin Mother in order to suffer a painful death on a cross wants to be invited into our suffering, our longing, our weakness. Don’t get me wrong, God is present with us in our suffering whether we extend that invitation or not, whether we are aware of it or not. But that doesn’t mean God doesn’t appreciate being given the invitation anyway.

These are the dynamics at work in our Hebrew scripture passage this morning.

By many standards, Hannah had a comfortable life, with a husband who loved and supported her. But that wasn’t enough to satisfy her. She wanted a son--a daughter wasn’t good enough!--in order to keep her husband’s other wife from mocking her.

And so, as is good and right, she brought her desire before the LORD, that God’s will might be done. And “in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the LORD.’”

No doubt Penninah too prayed to the LORD, asking God that she might earn the love and favor of her husband which had been given to Hannah instead. And yet, unlike Hannah, Penninah did not receive what she had asked for. Indeed, there is a story found in the Jewish midrash which provides a fate even worse for Penninah: “Hannah would give birth to one child, and Peninnah would bury two; Hannah bore four, and Peninnah buried eight. When Hannah was pregnant with her fifth child, Peninnah feared that now she would bury her last two children.”

God did not give Hannah what she asked for and deny Penninah because God loved Penninah any less than Hannah. Nor was it because Hannah knew some special way to pray in order to ensure the result she wanted, to force God’s hand. No, it’s just that, in this fallen world, it’s a simple fact that we don’t always get what we want, no matter how hard we pray, no matter who we are.

And no matter what the Rolling Stones might say, neither do we even always get what we need. Every fifteen seconds, a child dies from hunger-related causes somewhere on Planet Earth. That’s a problem worth praying over. But prayer alone isn’t going to the solve the problem.

Prayer is not a magic spell or a letter to Santa. God is not a genie in a bottle.

Hurricane Sandy did not hit the shores of our region because people didn’t pray hard enough. Nor was it to punish the godlessness of the New York-New Jersey metropolitan region. Barack Obama was not re-elected President because God likes Democrats better than Republicans. Nor was it to pave the way for the Antichrist, as Texas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffries suggested before the election.

Our Lord Jesus Christ warns us against this type of superstitious thinking in today’s Gospel passage. The earliest written of the four canonical gospels, St. Mark’s gospel was probably written in the immediate wake of the Roman destruction of the Jewish temple, the center of Jewish life and religion. Like a flood-displaced North Jerseyan or our Texan pastor, the Jewish community found their very world turned upside down and inside out. Part of the evangelist’s task, then, was to help them understand how to make sense of the significance of this sort of event of seeming apocalyptic proportions in terms of their Christian faith and practice. And Jesus says, “Do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.”

Do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.

Jesus warns us against those who come in the name of Christ and yet lead many astray, the pastors and pundits who would turn hurricanes into instruments of a wrathful God and elections into the first phase of the apocalypse, who would have us make a false choice between religion and science, who twist and pervert our faith so it stands in opposition to the God-given gift of human reason, who use our scriptures and traditions as weapons with which to bludgeon.

Hurricane Sandy hit our shores because a tropical storm came in contact with a cold front which intensified it and propelled it towards our region. Barack Obama was re-elected President, for better or worse, because he received more votes in the electoral college than did his opponent.

Do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.

Christian prayer is not--or at least should not be--an attempt to flatter a capricious deity into giving us what we want. Instead, it is a chance to enter into relationship with the Triune God who, as Parent, Child, and Spirit, always exists in and as relationship. True relationship works both ways, which means that in some mysterious way I do not pretend to understand, our prayers have the ability to transform God. But equally important is the fact that we need to be open to being transformed ourselves when we pray. This is the very essence of prayer.

Amen.
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
Or, as my friend Ruth Ellen and I like to joke, should the plural of Jesus be Jesi?

Anyway, it's been several months since I've posted to this blog, in large part because I've been working full-time and going to school full-time and that combination unfortunately doesn't leave very much time for blogging. I certainly have a number of topics queued up that I'd like to talk about, including but certainly not limited to completing my series on what I want from an Atonement theology.

Tonight, however, this "Do you believe in a red state Jesus or a blue state Jesus?" quiz I've seen passed around a little on Facebook has caught my attention. I've only been able to answer about roughly half the questions, and many of those only by making major mental caveats. I thought that, in a rare moment of free time, in might be worthwhile spending some time deconstructing the questions I couldn't answer.

Do you believe Jesus was crucified because he was the Son of God who took upon himself the sins of mankind to save the world from God's wrath? Or do you believe Jesus was crucified because he preached radical social change that threatened the powerful and the wealthy?

I believe that Jesus was and is God's Only Begotten who took upon Christself the sins of humankind to save the world. But Scripture is clear that the thing Jesus was saving the world from was death, not God's wrath.

I think that Scripture is also pretty clear that those powerful figures directly responsible for crucifying Jesus felt threatened by Jesus.

Do you believe Jesus was a healer who provided free universal health care to "the least of these," and so should our government? Or do you believe Jesus' statement, "My kingdom is not of this world," means Scripture can't be used to justify universal government health care?

This one was the easiest to answer, because that's not what John 18:6 actually means. Here's the Bishop of Liverpool:
Not only is it impossible to square this with the teaching and activity of Jesus as set out in the Nazareth Manifesto in Luke chapter 4 about healing the sick and liberating the oppressed, these rendered words of Jesus misrepresent what he actually said. The original Greek text has Jesus saying something very different: “My Kingdom is not FROM this world”. In other words, faced with the power and authority of Pontius Pilate Jesus was telling him and the world that his own authority to rule came from God.

Everything Jesus did and taught was about extending the rule of God on earth. It’s there explicitly in the Lord’s Prayer where Jesus calls us to pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom and the doing of God’s will on earth as it is done in Heaven.
So, yeah, universal healthcare is a Christian imperative.

Do you believe that "salvation is found in no one else" besides Jesus? Or do you believe that "God is defined by Jesus but not confined to Jesus" and that Jesus embodies one of many paths to God?

I don't know what "God is defined by Jesus but not confined to Jesus" is supposed to mean, so I can't know whether I believe it or not.

In the Gospel according to St. John, Jesus says
I myself am the Way--
I am Truth, and I am Life.
No one comes to the Divine Parent
but through me.
If you really knew me,
you would know the Divine Parent also.
From this point on,
you know the Divine Parent,
and you have seen God.
All who are saved are saved through the power and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. There is no salvation outside the Church. The previous two sentences draw on Christian language to express a truth which is universal.

What they do not say, however, is only people who identify as Christians can be saved. I hold the Second Vatican Council's position that "those who seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do [God's] will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience--those too may achieve eternal salvation." In a sense, there is no salvation outside the Church precisely because the true Church of Christ is large enough to contain everybody, Christian and non-Christian alike.

Do you believe Jesus is going to return one day, descending from the clouds with an army of angels to fight the final battle between good and evil? Or are you focused on creating Jesus' kingdom "on earth as it is heaven" and not too worried about who's left behind or whether Jesus is coming back -- or perhaps never even left?

I suppose I don't dogmatically discount the possibility of a literal return, although I'll admit to my share of doubts. But I am a liberal postmillenialist who, yes, is much more focused on being the agents of God's liberatory kindom becoming established upon Earth, for we are, as St. Teresa famously wrote, the hands and feet of Jesus on Earth.

Do you think people who describe Jesus as prophetic mean that he had the ability to see into the future? Or do you think describing Jesus as "prophetic" meant that he was more of a prophet willing to speak truth to power and suffer the consequences?

Okay this is a question of what the word "prophet" means in the context of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. And I don't there is any question that "making prophecies" in the sense of seeing the future is simply something that prophets were often supposed to have done, but was not their defining characteristic by virtue of which they gained their prophet status. Rather, a prophet was--and is--simply an intermediary empowered by God to express the will of God to the people. I suppose that "willing to speak truth to power and suffer the consequences" expresses this idea decently enough in a somewhat looser way.

Have you ever asked strangers if they've accepted Jesus as their Lord and savior? Or do you think of evangelism as more helping people in need and hoping they see Jesus in your actions?

As a purely factual question, no, I don't think I've ever asked a stranger if they had accepted Jesus as their Lord and savior, in part because that's such a darned Protestant question to ask! But I don't think either option given really encapsulates what we need Christian evangelism to be, which is a way of articulating what the Church of Christ has to offer to the world in the 21st-century world which doesn't reduce her down to being little more than either just a social justice organization or a Get Out of Hell Free card.

Were you inspired by watching Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" because you thought it showed how much Jesus was willing to suffer to save mankind? Or were you revolted by Gibson's film and thought its long and bloody depiction of Jesus' death reflected Gibson's obsession?

I have not seen The Passion of the Christ. The part where it's based on the writings of a female German mystic intrigues me somewhat, but knowing of "its long and bloody depiction of Jesus' death" and Gibson's prejudices and, yes, obsessions really kills any desire to ever do so. But by the same token, I can't honestly critique something which I haven't seen.

Do you think the most important biblical passage that distills Jesus' message is John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son," and that salvation is determined by your acceptance of Jesus as savior? Or do you think it's Matthew 25: "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me," and that salvation is determined by how you treat the poor and vulnerable?

I found this question the most frustrating out of the entire set of ten because it actually asks two very different questions, one about Jesus' message and one about salvation. Let's take the one about Jesus' message first, and then tackle the soteriological one afterwards.

When we look at the overt teaching of Jesus, the things said and done by Jesus of Nazareth as written down by the New Testament, then I think the words that St. Matthew quotes Jesus as saying are a good distillation of that ministry: "Every time you did this for the least of my sisters or brothers or siblings, you did it for me. As often as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me."

But! When we look at the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ with the benefit of hindsight, through the lens of the evangelists and the other New Testament authors, a new significance emerges, one that can be seen as being articulated in St. John's words at the beginning of that gospel, a gospel not coincidentally written a good thirty years after St. Matthew's was, giving the early Church time to come to terms with that which was not only explicit but also in implicit in Jesus' ministry: "Yes, God so loved the world as to give the Only Begotten One, so that those with faith might not die, but have eternal life."

Both of these messages are true. Both of them find their meaning in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And one of them is not more important than the other. The choice between John 3:16 and Matthew 25 is, of course, a false choice, for they each reflect different but equally important facets of Who Jesus Is. That's why we have four different canonical gospels, after all.

And yet we can see how these two important messages--both of them true--about the significance of Jesus' birth, life, death, and resurrection could lead to a degree of confusion about soteriology. In the passage from St. Matthew's gospel, as in fact is quite common in the synoptic gospels, Jesus seems to be preaching works-righteousness, that human beings will be saved or damned based on their actions in this life:
To those on the right will be said: "Come, you blessed of my Divine Parent, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world!"

To those on the left will be said: "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and the fallen angels."
But in fact, this seeming confusion actually stems from the false binary the CNN quiz offers. It actually turns out that both of the possible answers the quiz gives to the soteriological question--both "salvation is determined by your acceptance of Jesus as savior" and "salvation is determined by how you treat the poor and vulnerable"--turn out to be heretical.

For the Calvinist, it should be obvious why this is so. Both possible answers share a certain assumption, that salvation is determined by our actions, whether by our acceptance of Jesus as savior or by our treatment of the poor and vulnerable. But under Calvinism, we actually have no ability to determine our own salvation. It's all determined by God, by God's decision either to extend the free gift of grace or to withhold it.

Of course, I'm not a Calvinist, and under free-will theism, the question becomes a little bit trickier, because under free-will theism, once we have been empowered by God through what is known as prevenient grace, we then gain an ability to determine our salvation or damnation. But it must be stressed that this determination rests solely upon our response to this free gift of grace, and not to any action we are capable of performing by ourselves apart from that gift. So by themselves, neither an acceptance of Jesus as savior nor loving treatment of the poor would have the power to save. Grace, and grace alone, has the power to save. Period.

The classic debate over the role of faith and the role of works is a question of what is known as "justification"--how it is that we become to be considered righteous in the eyes of God. But our justification is really a consequence of our salvation. It is not a precondition for it.

Have you ever rebuked an evil spirit in the name of Jesus? Or do you think the biblical stories of Jesus casting out demons were not literally true but metaphors for Jesus' ability to make broken people whole again?

I don't think I've ever rebuked an evil spirit in the name of Jesus. I think that the gospel accounts of Jesus casting out demons signify the ability of the Christ to make broken people whole again regardless of whether or not they were literally true. I don't see why understanding demons as "merely" metaphorical should prevent someone from rebuking them in the name of Jesus. As an Anglo-Catholic I tend to think that the richer the liturgical life of a religious community, the better, and I don't see any reason why an exorcism can't be a legitimate and spiritually fulfilling ritual. I think there's space for broadening the understanding of demonic possession to include the possibility of it supervening in cases with emprically-discernible causal determinants, without carving out a metaphysical realist niche for possession which I would be unable to see as anything other than superstition.

Do you believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead after his crucifixion? Or do you believe that Jesus' resurrection was symbolic and not dependent on his body rising from the grave?

I think everyone, regardless of whether or not they believe the bodily resurrection was a literal historic event, would agree that the event was symbolic in the sense that it has the capacity to act as a signifier. That doesn't seem like it should be controversial.

I tipped my hand to my own position in my post What I Want from an Atonement Theology: Resurrection Emphasis when I wrote:
I wasn't present at the Empty Tomb, so I cannot testify to what was there. If the Resuurection qua historical event was necessary to reconcile humanity to God, then that's how it happened. But what I can, and as a Christian must, testify to is the importance and indispensability of the bodily Resurrection of the Christ as a spiritual truth.
Note that I'm careful to include the bodily resurrection as part of the spiritual truth of the Risen Christ. Setting the bodily resurrection up against a symbolic one, as the question seems to do, has the capacity to lead us into Gnosticism, where the body becomes undervalued. Instead, the fact that Jesus' physical body was resurrected in the gospel accounts represents a critical element of the spiritual truth the story is signifying, one we ignore at very great peril.

Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!

These truths, regardless of whether or not they ever have been or ever will be instantiated in literal historical sequence, are the truths which set my heart alleluia-ing. The choice cannot be one between Jesus as symbol and the Risen Jesus. Jesus always is, and must be, both at the same time.
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
Recently, I took a train up to New Brunswick to attend a young adult retreat hosted by the Diocese of New Jersey. There's a lot I could say about the event: I had a blast, came away renewed, and we did a lot of great hashing-out of the notion of original sin during the Ask-a-Priest period (in response to a young woman's question about the RCC doctrine of the Immaculate Conception) that ties into thoughts I've been thinking in such a way as to merit a post of its own. (Of course, at this point the topics which merit posts are legion, and the actual posts, not so much.) But for the moment to want to write a bit about a subject which came up during our lunch conversation.

Possibly in response to one young woman's giving up Facebook for Lent, we were discussing all the multitude of ways technology has shaped out lives. When one of our retreat leaders, the Rev. (and always awesome) Gregory Bezilla, asked if we ever thought about how Christianity fit into it all. I replied that I've often wondered just what what the implications are of Facebook (and of Dreamwidth and Livejournal and the cyberspace age in general) on the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body (affirmed in the Apostle's Creed, the creed of the baptismal covenant): if our body is that part of our selves which has extension in physical space, then isn't our Facebook, which can extend that self to a computer in California or Boston where a friend sees one's status update, part of our body? And insofar as it extends us through "virtual" space the way our physical body does through physical space, then doesn't it represent a "virtual body" just as real and as legitimate as is our physical one? Doesn't this blog allow me to express and/or mask what I am thinking in much the same way as my face does?

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger discussed a concept similar to this in his notion of Zuhandanheit ("ready-to-hand") in which a tool, through the experience of the user, is fused with the body. Heidegger argued that in using a tool (like Facebook, or the Dreamwidth blog I'm writing this) it becomes experientially invisible to us, an extension of our selves. The technology disappears completely as we focus on the immediate performance of the tool. (Full disclosure: most of the previous paragraph is recapitulated, often verbatim, from various websites, in particular this slideshow. It's been a couple of years since I picked up my Heidegger, although I do remember my professor, Tom de Zengotita, explaining this particular point.)

As I wrote above, I don't know what the implications of these thoughts are for the resurrection of the body, if it means that we should perhaps imagine the Facebook servers rising from the ashes on the day of the general resurrection. I don't know--but I do think the notion merits serious consideration

Now it is of course possible to think of information and communication technologies as something completely alien and foreign to our bodies and souls, as "the machine" which oppresses us. We can--but I don't think we should; indeed, I think doing so is seriously damaging to our Christian spirituality. We are not called to be alienated from that which God and/or human beings have created; at most, we are called to redeem it when it has fallen into sin.

There is a "strong" sort of transhumanism--where our humanity, and in particular our human bodies, is literally something to be transcended, escaped--which lies in conflict with our values both as feminists and as Trinitarian Christians, both of which should encourage us to celebrate our embodied natures. As feminists, we understand that the denial or devaluing of our embodied nature often represents a devaluing or erasure of femininity, femaleness, and/or womanhood (see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article Feminist Perspectives on the Body for a comprehensive overview) by declaring it either irrelevant or inferior. As Trinitarian Christians, the above-referenced doctrine of the resurrection of the body tells us that our physical bodies represent a key component of the whole human person without which we are incomplete, that we are not destined to live out eternity merely as disembodied spirits. And the doctrine of the Incarnation tells us that Jesus glorified our human bodies by becoming one us, a human being, with a physical body which suffered and died on a cross. Indeed, it was the Gnostics of old who heretically denied Jesus's humanity, asserting that the Christ existed as a spirit only and that the death on the cross was an illusion.

In contrast to that sort of transhumanism, I'm thinking of a sort of "weak transhumanism," something more along the terms of Donna Harroway's cyborg feminism--a "Cyborg Christianity," if you will--in which, rather than allowing us to transcend our humanity and escape our human bodies, technology allows us to dissolve the dualism between our selves and our bodies and more fully, rather than less, live out our embodied humanity.
cjbanning: (Default)
  • One of the Amazon reviewers refers to Tolstoy as being "essentially a liberal postmillennialist, believing in a humanistic method of success to the divine intent for man." Well, I'm a liberal postmillenialist (but not a full preterist, since full preterism is incompatible with the creeds) myself, so that's a point in Tolstoy's favor. I'm not exactly sure what the rest of that sentence, the part after "believing," actually means, though.
  • From Chapter 2:
    The command against fornication they [i.e., the teachers of the Church] do really recognize, and consequently they do not admit that in any case fornication can cease to be wrong. The Church preachers never point out cases in which the command against fornication can be broken, and always teach that we must avoid seductions which lead to temptation to fornication. But not so with the command of non-resistance. All church preachers recognize cases in which that command can be broken, and teach the people accordingly. [. . .] But in connection with the commandment of non-resistance they openly teach that we must not understand it too literally, but that there are conditions and circumstances in which we must do the direct opposite, that is, go to law, fight, punish.
    So since I (and other modern-day Christians who are in some sense or other social liberals) don't think fornication is always wrong, I can get away with not being a pacifist? (Admittedly, I'm not sure how we're defining "fornication" here. But there's a parallel equivocation in Tolstoy over "murder.")
  • From the same chapter:
    And to reply that that is evil which I think evil, in spite of the fact that my opponent thinks it good, is not a solution of the difficulty. There can only be two solutions: either to find a real unquestionable criterion of what is evil or not to resist evil by force.

    The first course has been tried ever since the beginning of historical times, and, as we all know, it has not hitherto led to any successful results.
    This seems to beg the question. That people disagree over what is to be termed evil is not particularly interesting, and indeed indicative of a healthy dialectic. It's true that I believe social conservatism to be evil, and the social conservative thinks the same of social liberalism. But we have a mechanism by which differing opinions on the nature of evil are able to engage with each other such that inferior arguments are placed to rest: it's the dialectic of history.

    Indeed, it's precisely my liberal postmillenialism which leads me to argue that our understanding of evil is improving over history in a way which will result in the final construction of the Kin(g)dom of God. (And note that when I put it that way, Tolstoy thinks that too.) Tolstoy's rejection of the Trinity robs him of the Spirit who, according to the Episcopal catechism, is revealed in the New Covenant "as the Lord who leads us into all truth and enables us to grow in the likeness of Christ." The deuterocanonical book known as the Wisdom of Solomon reminds us that God's "Wisdom guided Her disciples safely though all the tribulations" (11:9); "She rewarded the labors of a holy people and guided them on a wondrous quest" (11:17). (More on this in my essay History and Christ.)

    The notion that we cannot act unless we are 100% certain (and actual philosophical certainty, not just psychological conviction) of the moral rightness of our actions is a reductio ad absurdum in and of itself. Yes, we will err; that's a necessary result of our fallen human nature. But that doesn't free us from the obligation to fight for what we think is right.



cjbanning: (Trinity)
1. Godhead. The apophatic denial of God's non-existence.
2. Trinity. God is one Being in three Persons.
3. Chalcedonian Christology. Hypostatic union: Jesus Christ is two natures, one human and one divine, united into one Person.
4. Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience as complementary sources of revelation.
5. The Sacraments. The seven sacraments (baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, reconciliation, ordination, marriage, healing) are the means of sanctifying grace, rites in which God is uniquely active, visible signs of an invisible reality.
6. Ex opere operato. The seven sacraments are efficacious in and of themselves, by the very fact of the actions’ being performed, because Christ is at work in them in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies.
7. Baptismal Regeneration. The salvation of baptized persons (including those baptized by blood or desire, as well as by water) is uniquely mediated through the sacrament.
8. Real Presence. Jesus Christ is really present in the Eucharist. (Radical transignification.)
9. Perseverance of Eucharistic Presence. Real Presence is not dependent on the act of drinking or eating and continues in the consecrated hosts beyond the celebration of the Eucharist.
10. Adorableness of the Eucharist. Worship may be properly rendered to the Blessed Sacrament.
11. One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. The unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity of the Church of Jesus Christ.
12. Apostolic Succession. The spiritual authority placed on the apostles by Christ is passed through history via the institutional rites of the Church, i.e. the consecration of bishops. The one Church of Christ subsists in the apostolic churches as governed by the historic episcopate.
13. Ordained Presbyterate. God specially calls some people (of all genders, races, and sexualities) to undergo the sacrament of ordination; to represent Christ and the Church of Christ, particularly as pastor to the people; to share with the bishop in the overseeing of the Church; to proclaim the Gospel; to administer the sacraments; and to bless and declare pardon in the name of God.
14. Free Will. God has willed that human persons remain under the control of their own decisions. For its part, authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within a human being.
15. Sin. The existence of corporate evil—sexism and racism, transphobia and homophobia; poverty and hunger; totalitarianism and fascism—such that human freedom is curtailed and diminished.
16. Sola gratia. Since human freedom has been damaged by sin, only by the aid of God's grace can the Church bring the relationship between God and human beings into full flower.
17. Resistability of Grace. The free wills of human beings may cooperate with God so as to prepare and dispose themselves for the attainment of salvation; human wills can also refuse complying, if they please.
18. Universal Potential for Redemption. The birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are for the benefit of all humankind, not just an elect.
19. Kingdom of Heaven. Through grace, humans are called to use their free will to pray for peace, fight for justice, and build God’s Kin(g)dom on Earth.
20. Intercession of Saints. It is proper to pray to the Saints and ask for their intercessions.
cjbanning: (Default)
Getting Off: Pornography and the End of MasculinityGetting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity by Robert Jensen

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Jensen has written a wonderful 1970's-style second-wave feminist tract . . . in 2007. One might think some type of grappling with third-wave feminism (and I have to add my standard disclaimer whenever I use the wave metaphor that feminist theorizing and activism is a constant process that can't really be cut up into discreet waves as if nothing happened in between them) might be called for. Indeed, the back of the book even manages to promise something of the sort (and the same text appears on the Amazon page) when it notes that "Anti-pornography arguments are frequently dismissed as patently 'anti-sex'--and ultimately 'anti-feminist'." As someone who argues the anti-porn-->anti-sex-->anti-woman position, this intrigues me. But I don't think he's really interested in arguing with me, or any other feminist. (The things he doesn't seem to be interested in arguing about are legion, probably.) That's okay; the people who write book copy frequently miss the point. (Just look at the back of Heinlein's Time Enough for Love.) At the end of the day, people on both sides of that discussion can be united at being against bad porn.

But who in his (since I think we're assuming it'd be a he) right mind would be for bad porn? Okay, I'm probably being naive, but I find it hard to believe than any of those people are going to actually bother to read Jensen's book. So what's the point?

Part of the disconnect might be that Jensen and I simply hold different understandings of the relationship between theory and activism, and how (and even if) apologetics should be done. For Jensen, all the side roads of definitions and such are distractions from his main project of showing men the damage of pornography. But my mind doesn't work that way. I could engage in a theoretical debate with another femnist, for example exposing heteronormative assumptions in their work, because I know there's a set of shared assumptions. But to argue against Jensen's quintessential porn user? For me, that would require showing all one's work, not less of it. I know I'm not up to the task. (I've been wanting to make a post in my journal for years at this point on the "anti-sex is anti-woman" thing. There are objections I don't know how to answer.) The most I could possibly do right now (and probably ever) is try to sketch out my worldview with the hope that an interlocutor could at least understand if not adopt it: "this is what I believe, and why I believe it" but not "this is why you should believe this."

But at the end of the day, Jensen's book is only secondarily about porn or the porn industry. First and foremost, it's about masculinity, and I think recognizing that explains why he doesn't address some of the things he doesn't. If the fundamental question he is answering is, "How can a heterosexual man in a patriarchal culture mediate his sexual desires, experiences, and understandings through text and/or images?" then--well, I still don't think he's done a very good job of presenting a coherent vision, but he has at least put forth some do's and don't's, even if they're ones that might seem obvious to someone who is already a feminist, porn-positive or not.

I've seen a lot I like, too. His insistence that what is needed is an abolition of masculinity, and not just redefine it (144-145). (I'm not sure whether he thinks an end of masculinity would usher in an end to maleness, or not.) That men must join women in women-led causes as their primary mode of activism (147). And so forth.

I do think it's possible to step outside one'smaleness without stepping outside their heterosexuality--a project that, yes, I think would end up looking a lot like Jensen's. Indeed, it almost seems to me that any reconstruction of masculinity which starts on Dworkinist premises is going to end up in this trap, which is ironic because of course Dworkin was a lesbian, and her partner (and eventual husband) John Stoltenberg, who is someone I have read and is the main person I'm thinking of here other than Jensen, was a gay man. (And I see that Jensen's not a Kinsey zero either.) I'm not quite sure why I should even feel this should be so. Is it that they are just so deeply seeped in a 1970's second-wave aesthetic? Is it a result of positioning this reconceptualization as a primarily feminist move--which is to say making the moral criterion an essentially gynocentric one? Or is it even that any constructive project is by its nature opposed to the very project of critical, and thus queer, theory?

Now, as noted above, Jensen discusses the move to abolish masculinity versus the move to redefine it, arguing for, as would I, the former. This puts forward a possibility: any attempt to reconstruct masculinity is essentially an attempt to keep it intact, to re-inscribe separate gender roles, and since all sexism is ultimately heterosexist (and vice versa), this is heteronormative. I don't think this is the whole story, though--especially since the premise of my original question assumed the project was being (or at least, could be) heteronormative while still being feminist (which would presumably be to say, not sexist). It does raise the question, though: the two male feminists I know of who think that masculinity is something worthy of being discussed (instead of simply stipulating it as undesirable and then getting on with the feminist projects of radical critique and liberal activism) are both Dworkinists. Is this significant?

Similarly I think it is possible to step outside of one's heterosexuality without examining one's maleness. But these are probably unstable positions, and once one is used to the theoretical move of examining one's privilege, it does get easier with time.

One of the fundamental issues is whether (sexual) desire is, and/or has to be, transitive, with desirers and desireds--whether desire implies objectification--or whether an intransitive form can be hypothesized; if the former, then objectification would need to be in some way reclaimed and revalued, as giving up desire doesn't seem a viable option. I think the question needs to be asked whether specific instances of sexual objectification can be broken off from its support of gendered patterns of oppression. That at least some such instances can be such seems clear--it can be used to satirize, to deconstruct, or expose those patterns, for example. But writ large? Objectification would need to be something that people do to each other--like kiss or make love--but which (like kissing and making love) they don't do all the time, something which can be turned off instead of being embedded in a persistent gaze of one gender towards the other.

The best treatment I really know which is fair to both sides of this debate is Joanna Russ's Pornography and the Doubleness of Sex for Women, as linked in the on-line essay That Classic Combination: Sex and Violence, which I found helpful in its treatment of Russ' essay.


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cjbanning: (Default)
Mikhail BakuninFor the past century, and in all likelihood for much longer, philosophical theories of radical utopian negativity have had consistent appeal. From the anarchist atheism of (pictured) Mikhail Bakunin's God and the State to the anti-patriarchialism of radical feminists such as Mary Daly or Shulamith Firestone, this mode of critique has remained popular with academics and political radicals throughout the 20th century and, now, into the 21st. The underlying mechanism remains fundamentally the same: the entirety of power relations are understood to be centralized in a single hegemonic structure—be it theism, patriarchy, or reproductive futurism—and upon that structure war is declared. This is the quintessence of all which is radical; as Lee Edelman points out in his book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, "the means by which specific constituencies attempt to produce a more desirable social order, remains, at its core, conservative insofar as it works to affirm a structure, to authentical social order" (2-3). Radicalism, then, is constituted by an attack on the idea of social structure itself.

It is true, on the other hand, that radically negative philosophies have tended to envision their "structureless" utopias as surprisingly orderly if not ordered. Consciously or unconsciously recognizing the incoherence of these utopian visions, most such theorists either de-emphasized them in favor of focusing on critical attacks against the hegemonic system, or abandonment of them all together in Frankfurt-style pessimism.

One of the newest versions of this familiar pattern is Edelman's particular brand of queer antifuturism. Edelman extends the above insight by noting that conservative politics—which is to say, any politics which seeks to affirm a social structure—inevitably "intends to transmit" that structure "to the future in the form of its inner Child" (3).

By pairing such a critical insight with an ethic of change, it would seem that the radical negativist takes on the eschatological requirement of envisioning a new order. Almost universally, however, the radical negativist manages, or at least to claims to manage (while discarding the similar claims made by all who have come before her), to exclude her own position from overall dialecticality. For Edelman it is Lacanian psychoanalysis which provides for him the possibility of an unmediated position of "truth" outside the structures of power. For Bakunin, natural law served a similar purpose; for feminism, it is the lived experience of real women.

Still, few such theorists are able to put forward a compelling positive ethic; at most such a theory can only be what Jana Sawicki, in discussing French theorist Michel Foucault in her book Disciplining Foucault, calls “anti-theory”: “not a theory, but an instrument for criticizing theories” (53). Unable to tell us how we should live our lives, they are only able to tell us, with a Frankfurt school pessimism, what is bad about the way we do. Such insights comprise the bedrock of what is often called, appropriately enough, "critical theory," and lend themselves to the practice of literary criticism—but in a manner which is easily caricatured: fundamentally, the conventional moral order of a fictional world is simply turned upside-down. Evil witches become messianic agents of resistance (as in this post on the queerness of Disney villains), while wise wizards are no longer friendly mentors but indoctrinators of the hegemonic social order.

This is critical theory at its purest, but also at its least interesting. Critical theory is most useful when it finds what are commonly called "slippages": moments when the hegemonic discourse under attack falters and, in that faltering, things can be seen as they (it is argued) truly are. We see that what at first seem to be inversions really aren't; that the text in spite of itself has provided us with, for example, a construction of villany fashioned out of precisely that thing which we fear the most: the truth.
cjbanning: (Palm Sunday)
So, my friend Elizabeth has started a practice of writing "unpreached sermons": what she would say if she were preaching that Sunday, even though she isn't. I've really been inspired by the practice, and want to take it up in the new liturgical year as an intellectual/devotional exercise. So, while I'm obviously not licensed to preach in the Episcopal Church in this universe's reality, if I were to give a homily today, this would be it.

My goal is to have it finished by the Sunday it'd be preached on if it were going to be preached, so I can then compare it to the other sermons I'm exposed to that day: Fr. Nathan's, Nate Hulfish's (which is the odd one out in not following the liturgical cycle), and, of course, Elizabeth's. Then I can see how the trains of thought are similar or different. I expect them to be very, very different, even though Fr. Nathan, Elizabeth, and I will be preaching on the same texts.

1st Advent

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-9
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

So, on this, the beginning of a new liturgical year, all of the readings are about endings. Which makes sense, of course; it's also the beginning of Advent, a season of anticipation, a time when the Church waits for the coming of Christ, as figured in the celebration of the Incarnation at Christmas, but also as figured in Christ's "second" coming: the coming again in glory. Advent is the time of the year when we look to the future.

And so, in the passage from St. Luke's Gospel, Jesus directs the attention of the gathered crowd to the eschaton, to the end of the world as we know it. The evangelist has Jesus begin by prophesying the destruction of the temple, an event which to St. Luke and his community must have seemed apocalyptic in its importance, and then goes on to remark on other signs of the end times: signs in the sky, and upheaval upon the Earth.

Now, obviously, a great deal of time has passed between St. Luke's time and our own, and a whole lot of history has happened in between. Empires have risen and fallen. Entire continents have been discovered by peoples previously ignorant of their existence. Human beings have set foot on the moon. The "time of the Gentiles," as St. Luke has Jesus call it, has lasted nigh-on two thousand years.

But even in the time when St. Luke was writing his gospel, it had already begun to become obvious that the notion of an imminent eschaton, of an end of the world that was just as likely to be twenty seconds in the future as two thousand years or more down the road, was already quickly becoming untenable. In the passage immediately preceding today's assigned gospel passage, St. Luke has Jesus say to the people:
"See that you are not deceived, for many will come, saying 'The time has come.' Do not follow them! When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end."
A paradigm shift had already taken place, ushering in a worldview focused not on waiting for the end, but rather on living in the time in-between. And now, living in the 21st century, it seems much less clear that the eschaton will ever be an event within history, taking place this Tuesday or next Tuesday or indeed any Tuesday or any other day ending in -y.

But, then, what is the use of all of this talk about the end of the world? Is there any value that we can collect from Jesus' lesson of the fig tree? Is there even any point at all in thinking about the eschaton?

The answer, my dear sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ, is a resounding "yes."

Stories need endings. What if we ended the old fairy tale with Red Riding Hood in the stomach of the wolf, or still on the path picking flowers? What if the prince were still out searching for the foot that would fit into the slipper of glass or gold? What if Snow White and Sleeping Beauty simply slumbered on? Without endings, we don't have stories at all; simply chronicles, mere listings of events. Endings are what allow us to take chronicles and fashion out of them a narrative, to deduce a moral. They are, as John Gardner put it in The Art of Fiction, "not simply the end of the story, but the story's fulfillment."

How we end the Christ story, then, is no idle question, even if it concerns events which exist only in the unrealized future, as the hope and dream of a human people. How we end the Christ story has powerful implications as to how we live our lives in the here and now, for the ending to that story has the power to transform the very meaning of what we choose to do in the present.

For some, the second coming of Christ can act as an excuse to defer dealing with our problems and our neighbors' problems on a systemic level, for surely Christ will take care of them when Christ comes. All that's important is that we hang in there, following God's commandments until either we die or the Rapture happens, whichever comes first. If we succeed at that, we win the game, and if the rest of the world goes to hell in a handbasket, well so be it, as long as we faithfully executed our own duties to spread the Gospel and save souls, as long as we've spent that time doing our works of mercy, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, as Jesus directed us. "Politics," the desire to engage power and wrestle it out of the hands of the oppressors, can become a dirty word.

This type of worldview has the ability to produce powerful saints: the Dorothy Days and Mother Teresas of the world, the St. Clares and the St. Francises, those who trust in God to take care of the big picture and go about living out their vocation by performing one small service after one small service, feeding the hungry one person at a time. "How the final solution will be brought about is in God's hands," wrote Day in 1959. "The immediate solution will always be the works of mercy."

These types of women and men are called to an important vocation, and their example is one which should inspire and uplift us, and thus holds in it the power to change the world. But it is naive, I think, to think that it can change this sick and fallen world all on its own, and to wait for Christ to have wrought these changes is to put God to the test over what can be performed by human hands.

Where would the Catholic Worker movement be without its newspaper, its attempt to remake the world, to shake it up even beyond the streets of New York City, to change society as a whole radically and fundamentally? We cannot forget that even as the fight for social justice is personal, so too is it political. It requires--as Day and Teresa and Clare and Francis all knew full well--an engagement with the world: rewriting laws, shifting cultural norms, changing the way we as a society use language by coming up with new vocabularies. Setting the example as Christians who love one another and care for our neighbors is an absolutely necessary prerequisite, but it is a beginning, not an end. We cannot rest on the laurels of our works of mercy. We must lobby; we must demonstrate; we must protest; we must agitate; we must vote and encourage others to vote; we must educate. We must not only feed the hungry, but also work to end hunger. Not only visit those in prison, but reform the prison system.

We must, as Mahatma Ghandhi said, be the change we want to see in the world. We must make social justice happen.

There's another way of telling the end to the story of Christ's involvement in the world, a way of telling it in which it is not a mere deus ex machina where the benign God arrives and sets everything right because we are too depraved to do it ourselves. It is an eschatology that's focused not on messianic expectations in a distant future, but an ongoing rebirth in the here and now: not a realized eschatology nor an unrealized eschatology, but an eschatology continually in the process of being realized. And we're the ones who are doing the realizing. The story of Christ's return, the lesson of the fig tree, the promises made to the Hebrews, these stories are important because they fill us with joyful optimism in telling us that a redeemed world is possible, to allow us to be a forward-looking people, but it falls to us to be active agents in the world's redemption.

It is not only Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, not only Christ, of one Being with the Parent God, who is called to "execute justice and righteousness in the land" in the apocalyptic vision of the Christian Church, to be the "righteous branch" risen up for David. It is the Church itself, holy, catholic, and apostolic. It is all of us. We are called to change the world.

The coming of Christ is not an event which exists solely in the past, in a Christmas night millenia past, or in the future, in a triumphant, rapturous return. The coming of Christ is, instead, a constant process which is always going on, a continual revelation of God through Christ and Christ's Spirit as God works in and through the world. The liturgical calendar recognizes this fact as each year we wait anew for Christ's coming in the season of Advent, and celebrate it anew in the season of Christmas. And we, the followers of Christ right here in this room and throughout the world, we the Church, we who are the Body of Christ, we are the agents, the vehicle of that coming.

Amen.
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My Prayer

"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

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