The Well is Dry

empty well

The well is tapped dry.

I dropped a coin over the ledge, leaning my shoulders over the abyss as my arms held me in place.  I listened as the coin plummeted to the bottom of the world.  Then it happened.  It was swallowed by the darkness.  The darkness swallowed it whole, the hole that swallows all wholes; it never made a noise; it never reached its destination; the well was empty with the darkness that swallowed everything.

I cock my head to the left, pitch my ear to the right, and stare at the wooden frame erected over the well that is apparently dry and defunct of use.  The wooden slats are held neatly in place, hugging one another tightly as cob webs are strewn from the miniature trusses that hold this cap over the darkness in place.  There is a pitch that holds the wood together; its boards being aged on the right side of the moon, apparently preventing the shrinking that would have exposed this hole for what it is.  The wood is a dark mahogany, that has grown darker with age, or perhaps it has grown darker from the dark beneath it, just as the moon gets its light from the sun in front of it.  The wood has a precarious position, such as Nietzsche’s sparrow, suspended over this abyss, only it remains without wings and is instead supported by columns that themselves have not the task of sitting over a dried up vitality that is this hidden indentation.

I listen as the coin was swallowed, waiting for an echo, a clink, a subtle sound that might suggest something is alive in the this wholesh hole into which coins go to die.  My ears were attentive, and my hands held onto the wooden beams for support.  No vibration.  No wind.  No noise.  Nothing.  The wood refracts no sound.  It reflects no light.  There is no living water in this well…this well is filled with darkness.  This darkness beneath enveloped in a spacious cavernous pit saliently thrusting itself into the earth, as porous particles of light radiate into this sheet of nothing, a darkness that not even the light can overcome.  Isaiah and John sit speechless peering over the ledge…

Precariously this empty well is contained in its place.  It has stones walls that descend to its presumed bottom and rise up out of the ground, at a quaint 3 and a half feet.  The stones hug one another closely, placed by a master artisan.  The beauty of its construction is matched by the terror of its design.  These stones are impregnable.  They are wed at each joint.  Their rough edges and roundedly smooth surfaces buttress their neighbors in a fortress that contains the darkness of the dry well.

What was meant to provide structure and security, now contains madness and despair.  It contains coins that never return and water that has disappeared.  These stones hold back the nothingness of a creativity that is lost and a exuberance that has been pillaged by the salt of time.  The stones are cool to the touch, just as one’s hand can notice if one dips their arms and phalanges into the crisp presence of the dark plane contained therein.  The coolness is refreshing, but it is a revitalization that betrays our senses.  It is cool to the touch not because it has life but because nothing is there.  Even these stones mock this reality, as mossy edges now cover their surfaces to disguise the absence of dead water and an empty well, a well run dry.

As I sit crouched over toward this wall, inspecting these stones, staring back at this wooden ceiling and hearing nothing inside this cage of nihilistic absence, at once an act of art and now also an act of creational treason, my hand touches these stones.  My fingers, the same ones that grasped into the well disguised as subsisting life, now feel the timelessness of these weathered and empty stones.

These stones seem to mock me with their silence.  They stare at me with their faceless expressions; The moss a testament to my stupidity rather than my anemic profundity.  I sit here, bent over, elbows on my knees, staring at the dry ground around this now dry well, and I do what becomes instinctual.  Like a man so long ago, I write in this dirt beside this empty well.  I write what I do not know, but what must be written.  I stare at the instantaneous production of semiotics.  I stare at the ridges of the dirt made by the tip of my life.

I take both arms off my knees, lift myself up and in a flash of Humean conviction, I drop one more coin, just in case the first careened into oblivion by accident.  To my chagrin, accidents are for Gods, not men.  God’s make gardens and then repent.  Men make a mess and then find no repentance, just a coin that plummets into the well that was never supposed to run dry.

I back away from the well, pulling my head back from under the protective cover of this behemoth of silence, encased by the hands of men and rocks of earth that live to tell us we too shall become empty.  This well, a microcosmic disclosure of the death that is pending…of the death that sometimes kills what we never thought would die even as it still lives inside of us.

My mind cannot handle this dry well.  My hands cannot tolerate grasping nothing.  My body cannot withstand having no one to claim it, nothing to renew it.  As I back away, I crouch once again, and stare back at the ground, my feet having now blurred the writing that was written with words unspoken and a language not yet created.  I sit and stare…in silence…my hand leaning against the encasement of a well that won’t give back, despite the romantic appearance of it architecture.

My head bends down, leaning heavy from my shoulders, as if Atlas can no longer carry the weight.

Sometimes, as one kneels over such places, losing parts of our selves, the coins that once splashed in wells such as this, we stand impotent.  This well has run dry.  The saints used to say the only proper response to such reality is doxology: praise in the darkness.  Yet, such praise is often swallowed by the demons in this well, the apparitions of hopes gone awry.  I cannot sing doxology in this place, not beside this well.  I cannot lie to my soul or myself long enough to speak words over a well that simply steals my voice.

What can I do, as the dirt beneath my feet contains vestiges of words written only momentarily?  I can do nothing but be.  I sit, crouched, yet close enough to my own oblivion to lean my head against its walls, feelings its jagged terrain press upon my forehead.  I hold myself with both arms, leaning forward into nothing, only protected by these barriers of moss and compressed minerals.  I stare blankly at the feet of the well, feeling nothing but gravity pressing upon my frame.

What can I do?  I can do nothing…but weep.  Tears trickle down the arch of my nose, to the tip of my face, the furthermost point a tear can travel and still claim to be mine.  I stare at it as it hangs on this edge of my being, waiting to fall and perhaps water this now barren place.  I wonder as it leaves me, if it will be enough to water this earth, seep beneath this ground and penetrate this stone laden bunker, perhaps convince the darkness that it needn’t be so mean and empty.

Yet, as the second tear crosses the pores of my skin, and moves slowly across the ridges of the face by which people know who I am, I taste the reality that neither doxology nor even tears can erase this beautifully laden scar.

 

God is a Dumb Idea

zappas quote

It is fashionable nowadays to hate on Christianity and theology.

Any idiot with a keyboard thinks themselves a philosopher because they can debate an evangelical who’s extent of biblical, philosophical and theological nuances is the dictum “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.”

SMDH.

It’s not that Christianity, or the vehicle of its transmission, theology, is above reproach. It certainly should be reproached, but not in the remedially cultural way as such is found on all sorts of social media and in popularly published books by the world’s favorite anti-religionists. Just because Dawkins says something doesn’t make it gospel, and just because a person believes in God doesn’t make them a victim of a logical fallacy. Oh how many “scientists” and lovers of empiricism would make David Hume, Isaac Newton and Galileo, roll in their collective graves over their trashy arguments and shallow thinking.

As if contrarianism is the new sign of intelligence.

If you’re gonna bash idols people, you better know what you’re picking up.

So what’s the beef? What seems to be the objection to doing Christianity, to doing theology, to…*hold your breath…gonna say the “g” word* to do careful thinking while simultaneously employing the term “GOD.” God is the problem, right?

To some, God is the Illusion or Delusion. Of all the problems religion has, God is the biggest…so let’s just chalk God up to the big nothing, dismiss why this word is operative, and claim superiority because we are not naïve.

In other words, the problem that seems to plague theology is a problem of metaphysics and God is about as metaphysical as it gets.

But is this warranted? Should we, SHOULD YOU?, dismiss it simply on the grounds of our, YOUR, presumed ideas of God and metaphysics?

The objection that theology, and Christianity, offers a rank metaphysic is true. To a degree this is true, but only to a degree is this true, but only as this question, the metaphysical one- continues to look for the answer to the primordial question of “what is.” Metaphysics is often speech about the ridiculous, using conceptions that border on laughable, using certainty that doesn’t exist…but such does not have to constitute all metaphysical speech…or speech that is concerned with the question of “what is.”

The pre-Socratic and Socratic traditions gave different answers than Christian theology to the question of “what is” yet it seems they do not experience the same sort of denigration as any form of metaphysical reflections encountered today, especially a metaphysic grounded in the conviction that there is a transcendent otherness that is at work in the creativity of the universe. Randoms acts of good matched by equally random acts of violence that creates newness in its wake.

Thales doesn’t seem to take near the flak that Christian theology takes. His questionable hypothesis regarding water as the standard constituent element of the question of “what is” is apparently redeemed because he is also the beginning of modern philosophy with his dismissal of mythology as a the first reasonable assumption one must make before beginning philosophical inquiry. After Thales, nearly all philosophers had succumbed to his critique of mythology and had to account for substance, flow and flux, apart from mythology.

Yet Thales is a man that would not make an “A” in any standard philosophy class today writing a term paper defending water as the ultimate metaphysical reference point. For a postmodern protestor, water cannot be the ultimate element for all elements are equally acceptable because they refuse ultimacy.

The real kicker is this, however: The pre-Socratic philosophers provide insights into the role of logic and modes of correlation between reality and experience, and also the ineffable transcendent character of the world that cannot be reduced to a metaphysical naturalism as is so easily done today by those who claim to be the empirical rationalists that believe and apply the scientific method (as if there is a singular thing known as such).

The very idea of science being hegemonically valued over theology as if to critique theology via realism is failing to understand its founding conceptualities. It is like critiquing Aquinas’ biology with 21st century knowledge. It simply cannot be done nor is it fair to the logical coherency of Aquinas’ positions nearly 800 years ago. It cannot be a fair critique because it does not critique the coherence of his logic and the ideas as they stand within their own intellectual current and context. It is simply too easy to critique a wholly other idea with a definition that is utterly foreign to the concept itself.

So yes, theology is a metaphysic but as such this does not imply a particular metaphysic, nor does it preclude other forms of knowledge whereby “what is” may be ascertained and neither does it imply that thinking this way will make poor thinkers, for indeed, academic theology is so broad in the fields of the humanities that one would be hard pressed to find another discipline that requires so much of our intellectual efforts to be done responsibly.
Theology is not the simple act of quoting scripture or rottenly defending dogma with an appeal to an invisible authority. Theology is not the act of asking inelegant questions that have preordained answers.

To the contrary, theology is the act of asking “what is”, “what is truth,” and then foraging the markers of humanity that have asked this very question.

Good theology will not stop at the bible nor will it bashfully start there. It will press into what a priori ideas have already been received and integrated into our schematics that make reading the bible possible at all. Why do we even receive the bible and how do we read it? It will engage thinkers that few dare to handle, Nietzsche, Cicero, Eckhart, and Bertrand Russell to name a few. ..Marked opponents to theo-logic. It will also engage more congenial thinkers such as Augustine, Wesley and even Jesus, in an attempt to bring in the nihilistic and the mystical into divine cooperation as historical revelations of what it is we seem to be thinking when we think the idea of God.

But all this cannot be said without being spoken and written…without theology acting semiotically.

Theology is a semiotic, a construction. And as such it is never given, foundational, or fundamental. It is always conditional. It is always a statement that expands the historical, lyrical, philological, architectural, genealogical, philosophical and literary condition of its timefulness. Theology is never simply revelation; it is foremost imaginative creation.

Theology does not in totalitarian fashion claim to epistemically finalize our speech or ideas…on the contrary, and following the arguments of Rowan Williams, proper theological speech simply opens up the possibility for more text, more life, more acts, more speaking.

So it may be en vogue and a cultural marker of intelligence to announce open hostility to theology and its objects, but to this I would say, those that object do not understand the object of their objection. Neither do they understand the origin of true philosophy they seek to invoke when lumping all of metaphysics, theology, philosophy, genealogy, and Christianity, etc., into the same odorless vapor.

Because Theology is not saying everything; it is saying many things, and it is not the positing of a supreme metaphysic that is outmoded by scientific empiricism, not a revealing of an ontological thing we call God that is physically somewhere out there.

What theology says is that the place from which the primordial question even comes is from a place that transcends us, surpasses our humanistic love affair with ourselves and that that place of reflection is best captured in theo-logic around the symbol of God; this is why you should study theology.

Theology does not ask you to believe and think of God filled with God, it asks you to think the symbol of God creatively. Theology is the renaissance of ideas around the ultimate question of substance, flux and change and we just happen to call the regulative principle of its discourse God.

God might be a dumb idea, but its the best word we have to try to captivate the reality that we are all dumb anyhow…we just refuse to believe it.

Sex is Divine: Zizek, Jayadeva and the radicality of Incarnation

Jayadeva

When the falsely innocent Christlike figure of pure suffering and sacrifice for oursake tells us: “I want nothing from you!” fails miserably – we should not forget that these are the exact words used by the Priest to designate the court in Kafka’s Trial: “The court wants nothing from you.”  When the falsely innocent Christlike figure of pure suffering and sacrifice for our sake tells us: “I don’t want anything from you!,” we can be sure that this statement conceals a qualification “…except your very soul.”  When somebody insists that he wants nothing that we have, it simply means that he has his eye on what we are, on the very core of our being.

 

Wondrous dwarf, when you cheat demon Bali with side steps

Water falls from your lotus toenails to purify creatures.

You take form as a Dwarf, Krishna.

Triumph, Hari, Lord of the World.

 

The incarnation is the perverse core of Christianity and the perverse core of the perverted god’s that desire the absolution of a person for the sake of their own divine egos.  The incarnation has historically been the doctrine of the divine overtaking the human form in the person of Jesus and using this medium to exact divine revenge and quench the thirst for the apparent ontological masochistic necessity that the God of the Bible seems to display.  What sort of God is this that takes over our way of being, the form of our human flesh, and uses it to appease his own ineptitude of not securing a tree in the Garden that would not be violated?  Could we not have saved our flesh had this God not created this obvious temptation?  This is what a pervert does and this is the practice of perversion.  The pervert sacrifices the innocence of another person in order to gain something from them, typically sexually.

Sex and violence have always been partners.  How useful is a doctrine of the incarnation if it is continually used to reinforce a theology of perversion and furthermore place the object that it sacrifices, humanity, into
the debt of the God that asks for the sacrifice?

This is the string that is attached.  Christ has died, and in this required death, we are in debt, even though God does not need our currency.  If this is the case, than why require the currency of flesh?  Sigmund Freud was right, we do owe death a debt.  Only the debt we owe, as so finely articulated by Zizek above, is the debt of our being, our flesh, because the Christ figure has given us his being, his flesh.  There must be an alternative way.  The divine has always been playing games that have not limited their play to the fertile crescent.  Jayadeva also plays similar games of violation and psychologically twisted debtful obligation.

I will argue below that by reading the incarnation through the work of Zizek and Jayadeva, one is left with the incarnation as a sexual ethic that is embodied between two people.

Zizek argues for the end of the incarnation as a transcendent referent and for a more embodied discourse that takes on the Pauline insistence of ethical living.  Jayadeva makes very clear that the incarnation is the articulation encounter one has had with the Big Other (read God) that typically occurs under the auspices of a sexual encounter.  While the encounter that Jayadeva describes is thoroughgoing sexual, one needs to penetrate beneath the sexuality to the core that pushes the encounter to occur in the first place.  This is known as the drive or Freud’s Trieb, even though this methodology may be a trifle anachronistic (we all read from somewhere).

The trieb is not only the locale that cannot be localized, it is also the thing deep within oneself that longs for the fulfillment and rest that can only occur, according to Jayadeva, in the encounter with Hari.  When the trieb is left empty, it is sorrowful and lacking.  It is the mourning Rada.  The body demonstrates outward signs of mourning, until the Divine, or Hari, once again comes home from wandering and offers a temporary place of rest.  Then the ankle bracelets may resume their ringing, though briefly.

Jayadeva unmistakably articulates the necessity of sexuality for human being/becoming in relation to the divine, particularly as that experience that is best known as jouissance, or painfully pleasurable arrival…or what most Christians call heaven.  Thus, the incarnation is a sexual ethic that is to be lived between people, between two subjects that might not know one another exist.  This is evident in the amount of failed relationships that occur, not because love and sexuality is not present, but because an incarnated sexual ethic is not embodied.  If Jayadeva were writing/righting today, perhaps he would suggest that the only Big Other (read Lacanian sense of Other that is not oneself i.e., structure of language, trauma, or the feminine) that is left is the other of the person.

For Zizek, questions of divine culpability go to the heart of the Christian God.[3]  For this reason, Zizek argues for a radically different approach to a doctrine of the incarnation than may be found in Athanasius’ De Incarnatione.  Zizek spots the perverse core of Christianity, and in so doing the pervert Christianity historically calls God, and calls for the forging of a new direction not located in transcendence.  For Zizek, the incarnation is not a statement about the importance of transcendence, but a statement about the importance of the body, the immanent reality of living people caught in living structures of truth seeking and fulfillment.  God needs the world and drains transcendence in the process.  Jesus, known as the Christ, is the desublimation of the transcendent God of Judaism.  Judaism could never bring God to where it was/is, thus it negated any sort of anthropomorphic identity to the Supreme Creator.  Zizek argues that this negation of anthromorphic concepts, however, necessarily places Judaism on the road to making God man, on the road to Christianity.

Zizek describes it thus,

“it is the Jewish religion which remains an “abstract/immediate” negation of anthropomorphism, and as such, attached to, determined by it in its very negation, whereas it is only Christianity that effectively “sublates” paganism.  The Christian stance is here: instead of prohibiting the image of God, why not, precisely, allow it, and thus render him as JUST ANOTHER HUMAN BEING, as a miserable man indiscernible from other humans with regard to his intrinsic properties?”

For Zizek, what occurs in the incarnation is not the propitiation of sins in the form of a human being or the restoration of the divine image that was lost at the fall, but the handing over of the world to humans.

When Christianity asserts that the divine THING has come in/as Jesus of Nazareth, the THING that is beyond, known as God, is shown to be absent because Jesus is present.  Zizek interprets Jesus as a figure within the symbolic order or the drive/thing/law schemata, wherein the drive toward rest is always directed toward the thing that is supposed to give rest, i.e., God, but such rest is always prohibited from fully resting because of the prohibitions from the Law separate a person from the THING or destination.  Jesus, however, traverses the Law and makes the divine present and therein ends transcendence.  He makes the destination of the drive apprehensible, thus offering a place of rest and an end to the excess of sin that is produced in seeking the relationship with the divine via attempts at becoming divine.

This means that the event of the Christ is not an event that brings one into relationship with the BIG OTHER God.  Christ does not do our work for us and pay our debt through his divine threshold of pain.  Rather, the incarnation, the coming of God to humanity, the shrinking of transcendence, is the event that gives us the chance to be free from our excessive quests for the unattainable THING, God, for in Jesus, says Christianity, God is with us.

Yet, Zizek writes, “Christ is not the contingent material embodiment of the superasensible God: his “divine” dimension is reduced to the aura of pure Schein.”

The Incarnation, therefore, is a statement about the end of transcendence into immanent transcendence in the Christ figure, Jesus.  Jesus as the incarnation is not the living apprehension of an ontological other, but the dismissal of that Other and the freeing of humanity from its haunting and obsessive quests toward something else.  In turn, Zizek argues, this freedom from the excess of looking for the THING that is present in Jesus allows a person to love and act ethically.

What is most important in the incarnation, therefore, is the possibility to embody agape and to act in loving ways toward the opposite sex, abolishing all sexual barriers.  The power of the incarnation to release one from metaphysical whims produces a reality wherein there is no Jew, nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.  No wonder the “Christ was a traumatic scandal.”

Zizek offers readers an alternative reading of the incarnation.  In so doing, he offers readers a different kind of incarnation resulting in the adaptation of an ethic of agape that destabilizes dominant worldviews and begins a constructive theology.  The incarnation is the event that makes true ethical behavior possible because God is (us) with us.  Jayadeva will finalize this embodiment for us.

While Zizek and Jayadeva could be juxtaposed,  together they provide a coherent synthesis and ground upon which incarnation can be expanded to the embodiment of a sexual ethic.

This essay began with the quote, “You take form as a Dwarf, Krishna.”

Krishna, like Jesus, is an embodiment of something.  Both are individuals that come from elsewhere.  Both are individuals that interact with humans and seek to satisfy the excess of the human quest for the place from which Krishna and Jesus come.  Krishna is the coming of the THING.  Unlike much of Christian tradition that places a Law between the THING and the person, Jayadeva is the wall effacer.  There are no restrictions in Jayadeva that could prohibit the person from experiencing the THING of God, except God’s wandering ways and lustful lies.  Jayadeva wants to make St. Teresa’s “coming” a reality, but in so doing one realizes that one cannot really “come” because Hari is never always there, he is always already never there when he is there.

 

When Hari and Rada are together, their experience is beatific and mystical, yet, it is one that does not last.  It leaves both Rada, and Hari (even erstwhile he is promiscuous) wanting for more.  If they had found fulfillment in one another, then the trieb of Hari would be of no consequence.  One cannot help but notice as the poem moves that Hari must be dreaming of others, which he does in fact pursue, “The wondrous mystery of Krishna’s sexual play in Brindaban forest IS Jayadeva’s song.  Let its celebration spread Krishna’s favors.  At the end, however, Krishna exclaims, “Glance at me and end my passion’s despair.”

The poem may be read as the story of unquenchable desire that simply exhausts the ability of the other to end passion whatsoever, particularly the passion of the god’s.  Who/what, after all, can quench a divine libido?

Therefore, one is left with an incarnation of Jayadeva as linguistic explanation after the encounter one has with God or one can argue that the incarnation is the ethic that is not expressed in Jayadeva, thus reading against the texts sexual obtuseness, while at the same time reading with it.  If the incarnation allows for a real ethic, as proclaimed by Zizek, this ethic must look different than is described in Jayadeva, particularly in that Zizek challenges Jayadeva’s insistence on questing after the suppression of passion by attaining the THING, Krishna, God, one’s rest!

If Jesus as incarnation is the power to free one from the excess of trauma, than what does this say about being free from the traumatic effects of the relationships the gods have with people, particularly Rhada?

Reading Zizek alongside of Jayadeva indicts the Gitogavinda for its sexual hierarchy, yet it does locate the place of heaven and incarnation as being between two peoples in sexual encounter.  The sexual encounter is brief and simply complex, but the insistence on its placement in the development of Krishna as a God, and Rhada as the subject receiving the impalement, testifies to the inability to fully describe a REAL sexual encounter, one that is ethically responsible and fulfilling for both parties regardless of the passions that are quenched.  The dialectic is that the moment initiates more moments in hopes of finding the real one.  Rhada and Krisha fall together, they fall apart and then back together again, but they never arrive.  Zizek, however, suggests that this arrival is already here making the journey null and void.

 

 

 

 

 

Hamartia and the REAL Faults in our Stars

hamartia

 

Hamartia is a lack. A negation. An absence. It is not a sin. It is the absence of landing in the right place, evading ones spot, presuming the spot, or target, was important enough to be hit originally.

The New Testament writers are correct: it is a wide landing, a missing of the proverbial bull’s-eye but the landing in itself implies a landing still.

But what if a ricochet occurs, and not only is the mark missed wide, but what if the “it” never lands? What if “it” transgresses infinity?

What if the hamartia never finds a home. What if what one was doing finds oneself in the place of undoing and the undoing just “is” because the hamartia remains in orbit…encircling everything but never finding anything?

One can peer into the abyssopelagic contours that contain the constant ringing of the hamartia that eternally misses. One can stare into the obsidian destitution that contains a plethora of cascading lights.

But the lights never shine on anything. They only illumine themselves. They are nothing but silent noise. Sparkles of madness.

The hamartia just rings through the halls of infinity.

Hamartia, typically translated “sin” doesn’t have to mean its translation. It can just mean landing elsewhere, even if elsewhere is nowhere. Its precise determination as a resting place that alluded its object.

The object is empty.

But suppose this is not the result of the carrier of hamartia. Suppose it’s a mark missed even when it was attempted to be hit with precision, care and a dream that burned hot until it incinerated its own content; content that turned into Thomistc straw.

Suppose hamartia is the most intended unintentional thing that has ever happened. Suppose volition meets boundlessness and the boundaries become forever blurred. Suppose this happens and it takes itself nowhere even as it misses the place that used to be somewhere.

 

Hamartia diagram

Hamartia, viewed in this realm, is not the transgression of an originary command or the lack of following the rules of Paul’s Christ. It is, rather, the eternal recurrence of unintended return that starts but has no end. Its end and its beginning is its own endlessness.

There is nothing that can be done about; it just Is. This is the sin that cannot be forgiven because forgiveness is a someplace that cannot hold the no-place. The mark is missed; Pandora refuses her box.

There is nothing more hamartirian than missing wide, landing nowhere and exceeding the balm of forgiveness that disguises no place as placed.

It is the deepest agony. The most profound sense of purposelessness. The ambiguity of ontological ambiguousness.

It is the burning of a thousand hells within, around and enveloping this hamartia because even hell spits it back out when it tries to land. This hamartia finds noplace, not even in the place where God is absent.

The Dark night of the soul is what they call it. The shade of St. John of the Cross patiently offering his silhouette. It is the night that outshines the sun.

Hamartia: the paralysis of going nowhere but having to be somewhere or the somewhere that is the nowhere. The mark that is missed because it can never be hit.

The disenchantment of totem objects decorating the sacred halls that no longer contain the element of the taboo…and lacking this…so too do they now lack our concern, let alone a concern that is ultimate.

The Nakedness of God revealed in the insulation that can no longer warm the heavens.

But all of this could be avoided if the hamartia had never occurred at the originary moment of its release. If the bow of Heracles had never been pulled back and caught in the cross hairs of the Christ.

What if the allure, the whispering from out of the closet, had…
rather than wandering on this Yellow Brick Road?
Ah…the hamartia, the beguiling moment that is never found because it never could be on this journey…the ricochet that never rests. The existent non-existent allurement of the thing that presses itself into creation without having any weight.

Hamartia being lost in a sea of woods, drowning in the idea that will never be thought, on the trip that leads to no place, captured in the words that do not matter and laughing at us from out of the darkness in which no one resides…

At the dream that should have never been dreamt.

This is the REAL Fault in our Stars.

Shiny New Humans: A Story & Theology of Personhood

old man window

The walls to the lunchroom were tattered and torn.  It gave the feel of a war zone; it was.  Just not the kind most people imagine.

Floor tiles along the corridor were chipped and worn.  The smell of paint filled the air, as if chemical warfare was present and I would stumble into a trench at any moment.  The lights above us gave off the dull buzz of a light trying to pierce more than its fair share of fog.  Dull plastic covers acting as a shield for the fluorescent sun lined the hall above our heads.

The corridor was empty, but lined along its pathway were holes blown into the walls.  Some people would call these rooms; they resembled caves.

Doors open; you’re invited.  Curtains pulled; please rescind this open invitation.

Lies posted on the back of the taverns: “get well soon” and “thinking of you” and “we miss you.”

Lies. There is only one way to leave this place. 

The lie of optimism extended to someone to pacify our guilt as the cave we have built for them will hide their faces from the light of our day.  Visitors are rare; people don’t like visiting the front lines where death and our life finally stare at one another through the barbed wire of uncertainty.

The sign said “excuse our construction.”  I couldn’t help but wonder if any real construction was present in this facility.  The walls could be repaired, the caves could be covered but those living here found themselves at the end of the earth’s garbage heap, discarded to the demilitarized zone of a world only populated by its prisoners and occasioned by those we pay to clean up the bodies.

I came to a break in the path; it led to the place that is somewhere, but when you arrive you have really arrived nowhere. 

I stared out at the lunch room, loud murmurings and crooked faces decorating the landscape.  A sea of white hair, wrinkled garments and arthritic hands betrayed my senses; I sensed more than I wished.  Disheveled masses of flesh… persons, at least I think they were persons, were being attended to in the wasteland of rectangular boundaries.  There was snow outside, 3 inches on the hand rails of the sidewalks; it was colder inside.

I’ve never been frostbitten until I saw the eyes of these no longer shiny new humans.

Someone was humming; She couldn’t hold her fork as it’s blunt clanking against her bowl rang across the room over, and over, and over, again.  Another was wearing a bib that stretched to his waist as he coughed up the food he was attempting to eat.  Saturated in spit, the fellow of no more than 40 smiled, coughed, gagged.  He was wearing a Stetson but this was no commercial.

Another lady, sitting in her chair with supports to keep her upright, could not perform the simple task of drinking her milk.  She was attended to by a few of our mercenaries who took turns.  The milk would hit her lips, run across the side of her face and then down her chin.  She would utter unintelligible profanities, perhaps cursing her plight, cursing that her mind and her body were no longer harmonious; cursing that she could no better drink milk than she could make her mouth utter what her mind contained.

Then I saw him.  The patriarch of the family.

We tapped his shoulder.  He was turned around by a hired hand.  He stared up at us, piercing us with his crystal blue eyes.  I thought I saw his childhood when his eyes met mine.  I saw life.  Recognition.  It’s that kind of look that says “I know you” but “I have no idea why you are so familiar.”  It is fidelity and betrayal in one glance.

Then there was that grip.  No one has a grip like him.  We stooped low to hug and embrace him, shaking his hand with my right hand and pulling him as close as possible with my left.  He knew the motions.

But his hands could still grip like a man 30 years younger.  He had the kind of hands that swallows yours when you shook it, the kind of grip that lets you know this man is more than the shell of his body.  I looked at his hands as he shook mine, his fingers still firm and resolved, and his veins still protruding with intense rage.  I’d seen these hands my entire life, felt them as a kid who wrestled against them and admired them as they incarnated the mountains they once occupied.

Muscle memory.

His body lay trapped in his godforsaken chair, his legs symbolic stubs of atrophy that have finally immobilized him.  From this chair to his bed and from his bed to this chair: his daily journey.

We sat down next to him, pulling chairs up alongside the table where we would share a meal.

Is eating at the same table the same thing as sharing?  We shared space cause words were not present.

We were brought coffee, I got the “good stuff” as apparently everyone else got the “bad stuff,” you know, coffee without the stimulant that makes it worth drinking.  Grandpa had hot chocolate.  Of course he did.  He’s always had a sweet tooth.  He drank two cups.  We helped him stir his cocoa and watched as he balanced the petite white mug from the table to his lips, his hands shaking the entire time.

The image of his once powerful hands now unable to balance an elevated crevice encapsulated with glass.  A feather had never been so heavy.

He didn’t waste time.  He drank his cocoa quickly and then they brought “food.”  They even brought me some.  I ate it out of courtesy and thankfulness.  Grandpa’s food was mush.  He has no teeth now so all his food must be puréed.  He began eating; we watched. 

He fell asleep.

He woke up. 

We tried speaking with him.  He couldn’t speak more than a few words, single sentences, the utterances of a man suffering from the PTSD of losing your wife, losing your home, losing your bearings and, finally, losing your shininess.

One of us left the lunch table to use the restroom.  Grandpa had been asleep a few minutes.  The bowl of portage that was some form of pureed beef stew, now found itself as a thumb rest for his massive hand.  Here lays a human, one that was once so strong and now whose hands had forgotten their place.  He woke up, I held his hand in mind, wiped it clean.  The man who would once refuse the help of anyone, especially when it comes to personal space, now has no choice.  His hand was held there, lofted above the table, as now the one that had served so many people must now suffer the service of others.

When he awoke one of us had returned.  He was startled.

We hadn’t been there.

He stared blankly surprised by our presence.  It was Groundhog Day only it happened in a matter of minutes.  I asked him if he had received any calls from family members.  I named them.  His reply, “They might have.  I don’t know.”

It was not a confident declaration.  It was the timid, exhausted, voice of a man that had resigned himself to his station, trapped in a body that can no longer do what his mind desired and a mind that no longer remembered the desires of its heart.

Then I felt a presence behind me.  A woman in a wheelchair bumped me.  I turned and looked, she is missing her leg from the kneecap down on her right leg.  She says “I’m just playing.  I’m not doing anything wrong.”  She continued…making her way around me and she said again, “I’m just playing.”

She knew where she was.  She was lost.

I stared at her and as our eyes met I wondered what she saw when she saw me.  I saw her.  I saw them.  I told her “it was fine”…but she was promptly exiled away from me and told to “wait” until lunch was over before going to her cave.  She couldn’t find her way alone.  She wouldn’t know how…she could no longer follow the path of her shinyness.

We tarried a little while longer.  We watched him finish his food.  We watched as those around him struggled to eat, struggled to talk, struggled to exist.  What would take many of us a matter of minutes had stretched into an entire hour of eating.  The finished menu you ask?  2 glasses of cocoa, a muffin that crumbled into a thousand pieces when you peeled it off the paper, and 1 bowl of pureed beef stew.

An hour later it was over.

We said goodbye.  We bent down as when we arrived.  We hugged him.  He kissed our cheeks as he has for years.  It was still grandpa…yet there is something also pulling him away that we can’t stop.  Here is the body of my grandpa…his body is here, it is still him, but inside he is fighting the war no one else can see…it’s a war we know is happening because now he’s at the place where we put all the humans that no longer shine.

Theology of person

As I recount this narrative, the sounds, sights and smells of visiting my grandfather in his extended care facility on New Year’s Day, a care that is necessary due to medical complications and logistical circumstances that are too much to overcome, it occurred to me that such places are where we put the humans we no longer want.  As a society, these places are not even human recycling centers; they are just drop offs.

There is nothing flashy in this insight.

But it struck me anew because at one time all of the people by whom we were surrounded were once shiny new humans.  As I sat and observed these folks that could no longer “function” in society, the people that required care due to some medical condition beyond their control, it struck me that these same lives that are now in the process of being forgotten were at one time the occasion of smiles, swooning admiration and the pride of their parents.  At one time, these people who now defecate on themselves can hardly stay awake during a meal, whose minds are being riddled with dementia and whose limbs are no more of a hindrance than a help…these people were once celebrated.  They were new at one time.  They were shiny and lustrous.

They were shiny new humans.

That’s hard to imagine isn’t it?

It’s hard to imagine that the lives of those that might now trouble a weak stomach by their very appearance, at one time, were the apple of someone’s eye.  At one time they were held up in a church, dedicated, or baptized.  At one time, their mother held them to her breast and kissed their heads; they were the prize after 9 months of laborious carrying and birthing.   At one time they ran on playgrounds, made their parents proud in a spelling bee.  At one time they sat on their fathers lap, heard bed time stories and were nestled in the sheets of a home filled with the warmth and love of parents.  At one time, they were new and shiny.

At one time, they were human; they were desirable.

They are no longer so.

In places like this they reside, proverbial warzones, with all the usual characters waiting to take their lives and harden the siege upon their bodies.

When there is no one left to call our name, our name is lost in its unspokenness.  Or is it?

A simple visit to an extended care facility can become the catalyst for some profound anthropological questions.

What makes us human?  When we have removed the person from the community of which they are apart, either the community that is public, private or ecclesial, from where does their humanity come?  Are we known as human because of some biological trait or does our humanity come from having our name known and spoken?  Is this final act of separation, one that may or may not be justifiable, our attempt to dehumanize these masses of flesh so that eventually, stripped of all personhood, we can rid ourselves of their uselessness?

If our humanity is such only because of others, what becomes of those who have lost all the others?  The question gets even thicker, and more dialectical, in its irony as we consider what it is that constitutes the human being.

Unlike Kant would suggest, our worlds are not given to us via experience alone.  It is our lone ability to apperceive that gives us our personhood and makes us an agent.  It is indeed our apperception that fits into transcendental (above the person) categories through which we can arrange and make sense of the world, but that world is never absent the one that taught us to speak and welcomed us into it.

We are all members of an originary community.

There is no premature material that we arrange to gain our individuality.  Individuality, in the strict Kantian sense of perception that sifts and arranges data, is impossible because such arrangement is the result of our public consciousness via experience with others in the world they gave to us.  As theologian Robert Jenson notes, “The world that I receive and unify in my experience is always already the world interpreted in the discourse of a community, first the community of the trinity, then the human communities I thereupon inhabit.”

Sorry I just showed my theological hand…yet I think a Lacanian hand regarding language is also not too far afield for any agnostic readers.

From a theological perspective the community via which “raw” data is assimilated is a given to us, but only a given via a grace that is God’s triune community in the history of the world, thus making ourselves part of the divine community.  Our first, and foremost, marker as a person is not, therefore, our biology; it is our relationality.  First, as conversation partners with the divine history and secondarily with one another as creatures of grace within that history.

It’s a history we did not choose nor assimilate as individuals, but was given to us.  It’s a history in which our humanity is located as such.

The very people that gave us the world and taught us to speak by holding us in their hands are now being displaced from the world through the very ones that were once recipients of a world they did not create but were given through them.

In a very strict sense, then, the humanity of God is a prerequisite for the humanity of these persons who are now ostracized in the ghettos of the medical community.  As their humanity is found in God, there humanity is also restored and maintained via the life, death and resurrection of the God that became human and restored the dark places where the world attempts to place the dead.  Their humanity is found in this Passion because this Passion is what calls us by name as we stand outside the tomb feeling its emptiness.

While our identity is very much linked to the humans through which we relate, and our negation of life is very much attempted by the world when we reach a certain age wherein we are thanked for our words but dismissed for our bother, our identity is never totally dependent on what us humans cease to pronounce.

To a degree, a proper sense of theological anthropology is predicated on the other, but in another profound way our identity is never lost simply because we are tossed to the margins of the world and put in places wherein our human needs can no longer be a bother for other humans.  This is because our identity is never presumed because we are named by another creature, but because we are named by the one that makes creatures a community!  My identification, the identification of my grandfather, the man that could not eat without coughing up his food or the lady that could not stop her mouth from uttering profanities even while milk seeped over her chin…all of our identities are first found in the human community that is unified in the story of God in Christ, and this story presents us with our identity even when the names and faces of some of God’s human creatures are forgotten.

It is not the case that our identity is primarily spiritual and therefore personnel; it is the case that the identity of our community of humans in the story of God’s relationality with the world (via others) is what first and foremost grants us an identity that can never be taken away even as parts of humanity (who largely have forgotten the triune God) cease to utter our names.

The masses of flesh and bone, of unintelligible words and grotesquely fashioned faces, of people who spit on the floor and others who find their hands covered in beef stew puree…these are all persons whose names are forever spoken in God even as Christ will one day resurrect this miserable life.

Because we are named in God, and God is present in the resurrected presence of Christ via the power of the Holy Spirit, our names are never unspoken and our personhood is found in God and his human community wherever it is incarnated; this universal story that continues to call out our names.  And it is this story that we never leave, even as those around us choose to slowly write us out of the story we gave to them.

So when people forget to call him dad, or grandpa, and his peers have long forgotten French…there is always Christ who calls him son, a son amongst sons and daughters.

In God, our names and identities find rest.

Advent Sermon: God Comes into the Lights of Evil

lantern

Did you see it?  Did you see them?

All around us, in the darkness, there are lanterns.  Lanterns in the darkness that surround us.

We peer into the darkness, squinting our eyes, attempting to make out a shape or hear a sound.  We peer into the darkness trying to see who’s there.  We peer into the darkness trying to see what is there.

We look and look…we seeing nothing, but specks of light in an ocean of darkness.

The walls of our lives are high…there are times we feel totally safe, as if the walls of our lives cannot be taken.  Yet, as we keep watch in the tower that rises above these walls, we can’t help but notice the lights in the distance, those lanterns, flickering outside the walls of our lives.  We are safe in here…yet out there, darkness creeps closer, and pressing against our lives…the darkness merges ever closer attempting to confuse the cities of our lives with the presence of the darkness.

We see the lanterns.  Still flickering.  Still burning.

In the darkness is the reminder that there is something pressing against us that we cannot make out, that we cannot see, that we cannot hear.  Yet, there is it…it’s presence of the ominous light of silence.  The lantern in the darkness letting us know all might not be well.

“Hear the Word of the Lord given to Isaiah the prophet, “Now it came about in the days of Ahaz, the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, the son of Judah, that Rezin the King of Aram and Pekah the son of Ramaliah, King of Israel, went up to Jerusalem to wage war against it, but could not conquer it.  When it was reported to the House of David, saying, “The Arameans have camped in Ephraim, his heart and the hearts of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake with the wind.  The Lord said to Isaiah, say to Ahaz, Take care and be calm , have no fear and do not be fainthearted because of these two stubs of smoldering firebrands because they have said let us go against Judah and terrorize it, and make for ourselves a breach in its walls.  Thus says the Lord, “it shall not come to pass.”  Then the Lord spoke again to Ahaz, saying, “ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your God, make it as low as hell and as high as heaven.  But Ahaz answered, “I will not ask, nor will I test the Lord!”  Then he said, “Listen now, of House of David, is it too slight a thing for you to try the patience of men, that will try the patience of God as well?  Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.  For before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken.”  Isaiah 7.10-16

We did not come here today care free.  Not one of us came to this place with a perfect life, without problem, without deficiency.  Not one of us came here unaware that there is something, someone, some opposing and broken force, camped outside of our cities that seek to press against us and overcome us.  We’ve seen the light flickering in the darkness and it fills us with fear and anxiety because we know the lights will move closer and those things holding the lights will seek to breach the walls of ourselves and our homes as they seek to terrorize us and destroy us…

Some of us may already see ladders mounted on the walls and we can only imagine what is it at their bottom, attempting to make their way up and occupy our cities.

What is attempting to occupy you?  What is it that is attempting to overcome you?  What do those lanterns in the darkness mean to you as they move closer, and closer…ever closer to our presumed safety?  What is that makes you shake as a tree in the wind when you hear its marching, see its presence moving closer, maybe begin to hear the faint war songs of those things that seek to take away all hope, all future, and all attempts of salvation?  What are those realities in our lives that announce to each of us…let us go up and terrorize them!

Let us breach their walls and overcome them!

The absence of love.

In our families, between husbands and wives who have forgotten how to love, and have instead chosen to co-exist.

Between children and parents, who take one another for granted, ungrateful for the gift that they are to one another.

Relationships that are shipwrecked on selfishness and torn apart by stubbornness.  The absence of love…people who are so lost in each other’s presence that they are not even sure how to have a simple conversation anymore.

The absence of economic certainty.

Funny thing, in times of economic turmoil and strife, we often take our frustrations out on one another, when one another is all we have to make it through.  Do you have enough or is “not enough” threatening your family?  Is not enough the thing that keeps you from being happy?  Do our pursuits for economic certainty get in the way of us finding ourselves, seeing our loved ones, or cast a vision of the world that simply creates another version of, not enough?

The absence of contentment. 

Discontent seeks to overtake all of us.  Discontentment…it eats us alive and pushes us to create another future wherein we can ensure our contentment.  We are not satisfied with who we are, where we are, what we are and the reason we are here is because of everyone else around us…

The presence of temptation. 

What temptation haunts you?  What thing is it that no one else knows about, that is constantly there, whispering your name, whispering for you to enter?  What thing is that you have never been able to overcome and it has paralyzed you physically and spiritually so that you have even begun to question whether God can forgive you or that you can even resist this stranglehold it has one you?  What is it that seeks to press up against you, from out of the darkness…

What carries the lantern and reminds you that it is always there?

“And I will give you a sign, behold, a virgin, a son, Immanuel.”

invading army

As we stand here, in our cities, worried about what is drawing near and camping all around us, seeking to overtake us at any moment and throw our lives into the abyss, we hear a word of the Lord.  And the word of the Lord is…have patience.

Immanuel.

You may see these things lurking outside your walls.  You may be hearing them try to convince you that there is no deliverance…there is no hope…there is no answer to the problems that fill our lives and threaten to break our relationships.

The Good News of Immanuel, of the sign of God, is that these things do not have the final say.  They are not able to overcome you…they will not breach your walls, they will not have victory, they are nothing but smoldering firebrands whose days are numbered…and by the time the Son comes, by the time Immanuel is in our presence, they will be things of the past and would have given way to a future whose motto is no longer, “us all alone”, but “God with us!”

And here is the beautiful thing about Advent:  Advent happens in the midst of occupation; in the midst of a threat to our lives!

Advent is God’s statement that when the world seems bleak, when your life seems to be threatened, when you have more questions than you have answers, when brokenness and loneliness is attempting to fill your home, when temptation is seeking to become a permanent fixture in your daily existence…when it seems like the terror you’ve been living with has no end…just then, at that moment, when you are unsure about even asking God for a sign…God gives us one anyway and his name is Immanuel.

God.  With. Us.

God is coming to dwell with us Church.  When it would be easier for God to leave us alone to the mess we’ve made, our God makes himself known not as one that determines our lives in some far off place, but as a God that knows that only one answer will do: Immanuel.

In reflecting on the Immanuel passage in a sermon Saint Augustine writes:

“You must remember, brothers and sisters, what a tremendous desire possessed the Saints of old to see the Christ.  They knew he was going to come, and all those who were living devout and blameless lives would say, “Oh, if only that birth may find me still here!  Oh, if only I may see with my own eyes what I believe from God’s Scriptures!” The saints knew who from the Holy Scripture that a virgin was going to give birth as you heard when Isaiah was read: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb and shall bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.”  What Emmanuel means the Gospel declares to us, saying, “which is interpreted God with us.”  So do not let it surprise you, unbelieving soul, whoever you are, do not let it strike you as impossible that a virgin should give birth and in giving birth remain a virgin.  Realize that it was God who was born, and you will not be surprised at a virgin giving birth.  So then, to prove to you how the saints and just men and women of old longed to see what was granted to this old man Simeon, our Lord Jesus Christ said, when speaking to his disciples , “Many just men and prophets have wished to see what you see and have not seen it; and to hear what you hear and have not heard it.”

I propose the words of Jesus to his disciples are not only to them, but to us also…and the words of Augustine are not merely for his church, but for us in the present…

For indeed, many just men, women and prophets have wished to see what we see and to hear what we have heard…lives spent in anticipation and expectation longing to see what we see and hear what we have heard and experience what we have, and are, going to experience.

The question this advent becomes for us all: when we see, will we believe?  When we hear will we listen? “Therefore, the Lord said to you Church, “Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son and she will call his name Emmanuel…which translated means, God with us.”

As the lanterns burn around the camps of our lives: Emmanuel.  God with us.  Amen.

God is Nothing: Lacan Wrestles with Thing 1 & Thing 2

thing one and two

“In the symbolic order, the empty spaces are as signifying as the full ones; in reading Freud today, it certainly seems that the first step of the whole of his dialectical movement is constituted by the gap of an emptiness”

-Jacques Lacan in his “Response to Jean Hyppolite’s Commentary on Freud’s ‘Verneinung.’”

Everyone wants something.  They strive for something…some-thing.  We as a society are fixated on the things, the little ‘beings’ or objects to which our attention is directed and for which our work is given.  When we look at the world we see it through the lens of things, of a bunch of somethings, and we turn all of our ideas, hopes, aspirations and longings into various things that we can pursue, participate in or master.  The world is full of things, and as Hannah Arendt is apt to tell us, we have given the world around us the thing nature that it is; the world and its things are “thing-ified” (if I can so gently make that word up) because we have taken the world from what it is and we have conceived of the contents of the world within the limits of what constitutes thingness…what constitutes possession for only a thing can be possessed.

We work for homes, for cars, for piles of things.  We work to secure our lives through the things of our investments…we secure our relationships by the things we invest in them and we derive all meaning from the fact that we are able to take our ideas, generate an imaginary world and then divest ourselves of what is real in search of the always illusive thing.  This quest keeps us questing, keeps us defining, keeps us pursuing the thing/things.

We have made the world so dependent upon the idea of thingness that we cannot even conceive of anything that is not a thing.

I am here reminded of Dr. Seuss’s story The Cat in the Hat.

In this quaint little tale, all of everything (the state of affairs within the children’s home if you will) are fine.  Everything (which is really nothing if you remember…more on this in a few more paragraphs) is fine.  UNTIL someone comes into the life of the children and begins to give the room a “thing” nature.  The Cat in the Hat releases “things” into the house, which ironically disrupts everything (which was really nothing as the Mother left the children alone).  The Cat brings in the thing nature…even brings in real characters known as Thing 1 and Thing 2…and they do things, they play with things, they value the fun they are having with “every-thing” and it is this chaos of thingness that is valued…that even the children valued.

For a short while the “things” happening were a new creation, a new way of being, a new diversion from the nothing they were really experiencing.  They valued this new “thing” and they did not listen to the goldfish swimming in his bowl that was full of nothing and going nowhere, yet somehow the fish in the nothing place that goes nowhere was able to see what happens when “things” get out of control and usurp the space of nothing.  These things were valued, that is, until after several attempts by the goldfish sternly reminded the children that these “things” need to stop and “everything” needs to be cleaned up and ordered aright once again.  In other words, we need to get back to the real that is nothing.

The releasing of everything and its chaos into the nothingness of the empty home wreaked havoc even as it also preoccupied the children for a short time with new “things” to watch, see and do.  Into a room of nothing, everything was created…and everything that was created was shown to be nothing more than a diversion from the Real of life that happens apart from “thingness”…the  mundane space which conditions who we are…the space that is more determined by nothing than by the false ontology of thingness.  The children thought the “things” were fun and properly teleological in orientation, yet by the end of the story they discover it is a teleology that goes nowhere and does nothing more than distract us from what really conditions the spaces inhabited by our lives.

We have not given the world a thing nature for purely entertaining reasons as these children were so apt to do (though we have done this), but this thing nature has occurred because of our misdirected sense that what is and what will be is constituted more by the presence of a/the thing, than by nothing.  We have filled our worlds with things to rid ourselves of the nothing…yet the joke is on us.  We cannot rid ourselves of nothing even with the thing as Lacan so aptly notes above.

We have done this, not only in regard to the physical things we enjoy, but also into those metaphysical realities to which we give allegiance and service.  Of course, in our late capitalist culture, the world has taken on the very nature of the thing.  That is why we live.  But why has the thing nature also dictated how we think our faith, our God and the meaning of our lives?

Because we have so thoroughly conceived of the nature of reality as the nature of the thing, it seems that God, Jesus, faith, the ecclesiastical community, our salvation, etc., have all become nothing more than a long list of things; a long list of possessions that give us identity.  They are things that are, things that matter, things that will be…God is nothing more than the thing to which I pray or the thing I fear.  The church is the thing I do on Sunday to ensure I am in proper relationship with the Thing I call God so that this God will bless me with another thing.  My faith is the thing that makes me who I am and conditions how I engage the world…and my salvation is the thing I have because so long as I have it this thing is mine…and because I have all these things, I AM SOMETHING.  To be without these ultimate metaphysical things, things that are grossly conceived as all other things in our language and habits, is to mean that I am nothing, no one, not a something.  These things make me who I am.

I can “see” them.

I can “feel” them.

I can experience them.

I can “touch” them.

I can think them.

These things have become concretized into our thing schematization because we can think the world only in relation to the thing.

But this is where we are wrong.

The thing does not make us who we are or create our worlds.  The thing has no ontological purchase of its own; its only purchasing power comes from us who invest the currency of the thing with value.   The thing is not an end and it is not a beginning.  Thingness is not realness and it is not absoluteness.   We think our lives, worlds and faith(s) are all about being properly directed toward the right thing, but what Lacan discloses to us is that it is not the thing that shapes who we are or where we are going; it is the nothing that does all this.  We want to think there is something, yet our lives are all really the result of the reality of the nothing…the nothing that is disguised as some-thing via the thing that is really nothing apart from the nothing that makes it a thing.

All that may sound a bit circular, confusing even.  I promise I am not writing to confuse.  So let me break this down and then argue the point a bit further:

There is not anything other than nothing.  Nothing is…there is no such thing as a thing apart from the nothing which gives rise to the world in our vision, though this is a world that rests its things on nothing; it’s not a world that ends nothing with a world of things.

We have so conceived of the world via a thing nature, or a particular type of ontic character, that we have left behind the role that nothing plays in making us everything we are…even as this idea of absence and nothing is still nowhere to be found.

Nothing conditions how we speak, what we value, what we pursue, those “things” we are fearful to pursue.  Nothing is what places us where we are and it is only relation to that nothing that meaning can be created or generated.  This is one of the main thrusts of nihilistic philosophy.  It is not a philosophy that argues for some sort of black hole abysmal reality where there is no meaning; on the contrary, it is only because nothing is that everything can have meaning for a thing only has meaning in relation to nothing.  Apart from this frame of reference, a thing is lost in itself without any analogous referent from which it may make sense.  Apart from nothing a thing is not even a thing…and therefore, apart from nothing we too are nothing.  Thus, nothing is.  So while we strive to forget nothing by thinking everything, we lost in the process an important part of ourselves and what makes us who we are.

Lacan goes well beneath Heidegger’s own idea of Geworfenheit here…

Lacan notes, “But the subject has a no less convincing sense if he encounters the symbol that he originally excised from his Bejahung.  For this symbol does not enter the imaginary, for all that.  It constitutes, as Freud tells us, that which truly does not exist; as such, it ek-sists, for nothing exists except against a supposed background of absence.  Nothing exists except insofar as it does not exist.”

He goes on to the quote at the beginning of this essay, “it certainly seems that the first step of the whole of the dialectical movement is constituted by the gap of an emptiness.”

What Lacan is observing in his response to the famous psychoanalyst Jean Hyppolite is that our lives are negotiated more from the gaps of nothing than by the imaginary worlds we have built for ourselves.  Nothing is the condition of meaning because the symbolic order rests on this negation of things in order for meaning to be construed.  It is only  because there is an absence that a presence appears.

The bejahung that Lacan mentions is Freud’s term for our original primordial inception into the symbolic order.  It is the original affirmation that we did not affirm.  Our place in this order, an order which does not exist but exists apart from itself, is really nothing…it’s a place we cannot place anywhere, it is nowhere, yet its constitution as nowhere means that it is the nothing that is somewhere.  The bejahung is our inception into that order (language, symbols, sounds, meaning, body language, ideas,etc.), an original inception that is no longer available to us but surfaces in us at moments of repressed desires, visions, déjà vu, dreams, etc.  It is the place into which we are plunged and emerge with the symbolic, with language, yet we cannot recount the making of the symbolic or its highs or lows.  We are people of symbols yet the genesis of the symbols have long been lost in ek-sistence of the bejahung that’s nothingness allows for the existence of other symbolic things, which really do not exist.  Or as Lacan notes, “Nothing exists except insofar as it does not exist.”

Thus, our worlds and the things we fill them with are really nothing and they reside nowhere but the places we have granted them to reside.  The emptiness of our minds, the places where we do not think but where we really are, is more indicative of our condition then are all the things we create and all the imaginary’s we fabricate.

So if our worlds are really conditioned by nothing and the foreclosure of our language into a specific symbolic order, what does this mean for those things that mean most to us…those things that we can place our in our hands, our heart and our minds?

It means that we are not driven from or toward the places we can grasp, but we are perpetually the creation of what has grasped us even as it has nothing to grasp us with.  The gap between there and here, where and there, is the gap and nothing that makes us as much who we are as all the fabricated things we have created to hide from the gap that is nothing, yet has made us everything.

These spaces that are nothing are really the spaces that fill our lives…it is the nothing of the lives we wish we could have that surface in our consciousness and produce the world we think we see.  Only because the fabrications of our worlds do not really exist, because they are nothing, do they present themselves into the symbolic order as an imaginary thing.  The fact that things appear to us in the present and we aim for them in the future, only do so because they are nothing and do not exist anywhere, thus our very “thing” nature of the world is really driven by the world we do not see toward the place we do not know with “things” that aren’t really there…meaning they are the things that are not really us or the real that remains allusive.

If the thing nature of the world we have created is merely that which has taken us away from the place of nothing, and nothing…or that which is no longer available to us, is that which constitutes our moving, thinking and being, than what does that say for our faith and its objects if we continue to call them things?  Perhaps, to begin this conversation aright…we should begin not by saying all those things that are things and then seek about defining them in our possession…but perhaps with Lacan, we should take a more apophatic approach.

For if as a people of faith we claim that God is where we come from, where we are and where we are going…perhaps we are not discussing a thing known as God…

Perhaps what we are saying is that God is nothing

The Perverse Core of Atonement: Sacrifice or Relationship?

Redeemed Jesus Passover Lamb

For me, all doctrines and dogma are “fair game” and worth critical examinination.  A faith that is not able to withstand questions is an antique to be admired, not a faith that dares to walk and encounter the world with us.  The atonement, by virtue of its function in faith and theology, cannot be an antique!  It must be an idea that we carry with us…even when we are not sure what we are carrying or how it “works.”  So I wish to continue thinking atonement under a different rubric than my last post: the rubrics of sacrifice or relationship.

The old line on atonement theory/theology is that Jesus had to die to “atone” for our sins…and because of this act God is now able to be in relationship with the world, his anger being subdued by Jesus’ blood.   If you’ll revisit my previous post, I outline this in greater detail.

Most Christians would gladly agree with this simple statement of faith and the Catholic Church re-acts this very idea each time it performs mass and sanctifies the host.  But can relationship and sacrifice both be equal ends leading to the same goal of salvation or do they occupy different ends and different goals?  Is God primarily interested in being appeased or being in relationship?  Can both sacrifice and relationship be the goal of God killing Jesus  (this last phrase will make more sense a bit further down)  or does a blind embrace of a satisfaction theory of the atonement (and also its penal substitution relative) possibly contradict the at-one-ment that Christians testify in the very act of affirming Christ and him crucified?  Can God be both firstly loving yet also firstly burning in anger and does the vision of God cast by the life of Jesus lead us to believe that Jesus would have believed human sacrifice to be God’s answer for saving the world?

If we contend that God had to kill Jesus in order to save the world, then we are saying that relationship with the world is an accident of the substance of Jesus’ death.  In other words, Relationship was not God’s primary goal; It is the byproduct of this horrible event of propitiation. First and foremost, God’s honor had to saved and the only way to do this was to make someone else pay the price.  We are brought into relationship with God not because God first desires relationality with the world, but because God was first so offended that he had to kill Jesus to pacify his blood lust…and only consequently, as a result of this action, we are then brought into relationship with God…back into that edenic state into which we were first created.  So of primary importance is not that God desires to be in relationship with the world.  The primary object of importance is that God cannot be offended, and that such offense can only be pacified by blood.  If this is not the case, then please explain to me why animal sacrifice (and even human) was so central, not only in Judeo-Christian traditions, but in a myriad of other faiths.

Timothy Gorringe in his book, God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, violence and the rhetoric of salvation, talks about how blood propitiation emerged in Israel, and then by extension, would also be a useful paradigm through which the early Christians interpreted the violence done to Jesus.  He writes,

Propitiatory sacrifices sought to turn away God’s anger.  In seeking to understand the bulk of the texts which deal with this form of sacrifice we need to bear in mind that the emphasis on the rites of atonement characteristic of the Pentateuch derives from the period after Exile, which was the most traumatic event in Israel’s history.  God had made a covenant with the House of David, and was understood to have made an eternal commitment to Zion.  Now Jersualem was destroyed and the Davidic Kingship at an end.  What had gone wrong?  The answer was that Israel had sinned and was being punished for its sin.  In order to avoid another such catastrophe sin had to be avoided, but if it could not be avoided…, then the Priestly writers believed, sacrifice was available as a means of atonement” (p37)

(This is a dense paragraph and requires more attention than I can give it for this topic.  Paramount to my thoughts here is the origin of sacrifice and the “why” and “how” of its development.  I would strongly encourage you to peruse this book if you don’t have time to read its entirety)

This is the goal of killing Jesus.  The world has obviously not avoided sin, so Jesus, who is interpreted as God God’s self in later Christian councils and in the Gospel of John, kills God’s self.  This is important because the reason we don’t think about Jesus as a sacrifice of human proportions is because to many of us Jesus is not a human, he was God.  And it’s no big deal to us humans when God kills God’s self; its just what we’ve come to expect God to do.  It’s as if we give God a pass on human sacrifice because we have lost to history the reality that Jesus was a human.  YET, there is no evidence that Jesus was God, this is a category of faith, something that we believe in without any historical veracity… yet there is ample evidence that Jesus existed and he did so as a human being in ancient Palestine, yet the fact that he was human is lost in this debate because to bring up the humanity of Jesus is to raise some heinous questions of God, questions we’d rather not go near.

Jesus has been interpreted as HAVING to die to be a propitiation for the wrong humanity has collectively done against God via the first sin of Adam and Eve.  The relationship that creation has with God, as a consequence, is unambiguously perverse.  For surely if God were all loving to the degree that he desires relationship above violence, one would think that a God who is inscribed with all the “omni’s” (omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient) could somehow in his mightiness be able to forgive by tapping into one of his omni-powers and bypass condoning  human sacrifice.  If God desired relationship with the world, one would think God could accomplish this however God would like, yet if the primary point is not right relationship, but restoring God’s honor, then Divine narcissism precedes Divine love…and the primary point is not a relationship, but punishment and incarnate hubris prior to any relationship.  But what if this is exactly what God was condemning on the cross??  What if they very thing we think the cross affirms is the very thing God is condemning in this event??  What if the cross means the exact opposite of what it is popularized to mean and THIS was the Gospel intention?? (I will write an entire blog making this argument in the future).

Oddly, this whole mechanical way of viewing salvation seems in stark contradiction to some of the very parables spoken by the very Jesus this very God verily needed to kill: the Beatitudes (see esp Matthew 5. 38-48, wherein Jesus teaches an inverted from of the Mosaic Lex taliones…yet God cannot follow the very teachings of God’ self when it comes to sin??  I’m just asking), the parables of vineyard workers (Matthew 20.1-16), and the prodigal son (Luke 15.11-32) to name a few.

This is precisely Slavoj Zizek’s critiques Christian belief and describes it as having a “perverse core”.  In his book, The Puppet and the Dwarf, Zizek describes the current façade of Christianity to be one of a perverse God that circumvents around a perverse core.  The perverse core is this: God’s plan of salvation is pointless because God has no one with which to contend but Gods-self.  In other words, all the mechanizations of Christian salvation that begin with Adam and Eve (following the usual Christian profession of God’s powers…God presumably “knew” what would happen with the garden debacle) are strange because God has no one to impress but God’s Self.  Why would God “have” to do this, or “have” to do that as a part of creation or salvation of a creation he created but then somehow lost?  What is it that forces God to “set up” the world in the fashion that God did in order to get himself to forgive the world that he knew would falter?  Why even start this game of cat and mouse in which millions of people will make the wrong “choice” or be born into the wrong culture…and thereby be damned?

Some might say that God would do this to be in relationship to some of us, yet, is it really worth creating because of a hedonistic need to have objects to worship yourself when you are quite capable of existing apart from the worship of those said objects, aka, creation?  And if it is about having “some”people respond in freedom, if one had never created for the sake of not having millions/billions of people damn themselves by not rightfully worshipping yourself, then those who do respond would have never had a conscious mind to know what they were missing out on precisely because they would have never had bodies within which their minds could function.  As a consequence, no harm would be done…And as Jacobus Arminius rightly notes, if God creates with the intention of damning creation, then the very act of creation is a great evil perpetrated by God…and since God is good, God cannot do such evil acts.

For Zizek, If God is God (as countless Christians profess, “God is God and I’m not”), then God can forgive without a blood sacrifice, a human sacrifice, because God is the maker of the rules, not one who must submit to the rules created elsewhere.   God can set the parameters… so why parameters of such infinite violence and suffering?   So what is the “end game” of atonement?  Relationship or blood sacrifice?

I can hear a quick rebuttal, “but God had to perform discipline on humanity for our offenses.  It would not be justice if God let ALL of creation off the hook.”  Ok, but why?  Because the Bible says so?  Could it be that our own inherent need for justice, and the relationship of justice and violence, shades the biblical text to such a degree that we have clouded the text with what justice means in anthropomorphic terms rather than in strictly transcendent terms, so that God looks an awful lot like our desires rather than desires that are totally other than ours?  * Ludwig Fuerbach has now left the building.*  What does God gain by having justice performed on a much inferior, lesser grouping of beings known as human?  How is it justice when the plaintiff is infinitely more resourceful than the defendant and indeed the outcome of the trial is immaterial to the plaintiff?  And this is Just??  Never mind conspiracy against creation that would surely arise if God has all the “omni’s” yet remains inculpable.  Does God possess justice ontologically or does God need justice performed for him, by himself, upon himself, in order to have a part of himself he would not otherwise have if not for the performance of the much needed justice?  So now we’re saying the perfect God lacks??

Let’s go further, maybe this is our response, “God had to punish Jesus because to just forgive creation out of mercy apart from violence would show God to be weak and not just.”  To whom would God look weak?  Who does God have to impress?  The Devil?  If embarrassment is a category of being, a necessary category that sits along side of dishonor and honor (key concepts in classical atonement theology), then amongst whom is God worried of being embarrassed by not having his honor restored through the punishment of a victim that symbolizes the offense that dishonored him?  If God’s primary goal is salvation (healing) and relationship with creation, why would God choose to do so through an endless amount of violence when God can have just as easily chosen to simply forgive the offense without the need for a sacrifice…you know, the same kind of forgiveness that Jesus teaches in the NT?

What I really want us to consider, at a much deeper level than normal, is what our theology of atonement says about our doctrine of God.  If we continue to reinforce a substitutionary or satisfaction type theory of atonement, what type of doctrine of God does this reinforce and why are we comfortable with conceiving of God so?  Is our doctrine of God, that flows through and from our theology of the atonement, consistent with the Word we see in Christ or do we see something different here…and, like my previous post argued, should we begin to re-articulate a theology of the atonement that seeks to bring people into relationship with God via their theological worldviews rather than cast a vision of the God of Jesus that makes this God a highly suspicious character with a severe personality disorder?

I am sure there are ample hesitations and rebuttals to my thoughts here.  This essay is not meant to be a thesis defending my argument at every turn from possible detractors…yet these are initial remarks as I continue to think the atonement during this Lenten season.  I am sure that someone out there is wanting to chime in and tell me about “free will” (to name just one objection).  I have anticipated some of these remarks and will post a response in my next blog.  But I also encourage you, the reader, to respond to where you think I may have gone astray or where you think I may have been frustratingly correct in offering some food for thought on atonement.  I will respond and might even write a post specific to your reaction or request…but if I have succeeded in at least making us think about God’s intention: relationship or sacrifice…I would have been pleased.  At the end, however, I have no greater desire than to think about God and Christ and to do so honestly as a fellow quester of truth…wherever it may be found.

Other-Wise Atonement: Thinking about the Human Sacrifice of Jesus

What-is-the-Atonement lamb pic

 In the past week I have had three conversations with fellow Brothers in Christ in regard to our ideas of atonement and its relationship to ministry and life.  Chief among these concerns has been the reality that more and more folks, especially folks under 30 (I am 31 FTR) are abandoning organized religion and churches.  It is my belief that such is not happening because the present generation is irreligious or lack faith.  To the contrary, they are very motivated by faith and mystery, it’s just that they seem to be embracing newer philosophies of faith found elsewhere because the way Christianity has been taught, preached, etc, has seemed to them quite bankrupt.  If I reflect on my own teenage years and youth group experience, many of the folks in my youth group are not interested in the faith and if they are, they are not very active.  Most have left the fold of the church.  Why?  Well, I think a large factor is because the church is not speaking to them anymore, and what it has said in the past has been shallow, totalitarian and just an extended version of Aristotle’s Ethics.  Their impression of the faith is kiddie pool theology, where everyone stays in the 3 Ft section because Christianity occupies no other section…and in this 3 ft section we swim continually, never venturing beyond the buoys that separate us from the scary “deep end.”  This, coupled with our horrible ways of reading the Bible as a flat story that simply contains maxims for life and ethical advice…wedded with our biblical literalism at every turn of scripture, has given the impression that our faith is shallow, overly experiential, and has little to offer after we say a prayer of forgiveness.  This is tragic and it saddens me.

As per my recent conversations, I have decided to post a practice in theology of thinking out loud (with you the reader as my company) on the subject of atonement.  I have recently argued amongst friends that the atonement should speak to the existential lack that is inherent in our context…that the atonement is still powerful but not in a uni-dimensional kind of way.  For us to speak to the generations of Christians that have left the church, and to those who will never come to our churches because of their impression of Christianity, we need to do as the church has historically practiced and ask how the atonement functions, what it does, and why that matters for people who don’t feel the weight of Luther’s guilt nor do they really desire God to wring the blood from Jesus beaten body over their head so they can be camouflaged when God peers their way.

So, I want to mention the most popular theories of atonement, or theories of how we understand what Jesus did by dying on Calvary, and how we might shift gears a bit to think the atonement differently.  This essay is not meant to be extensive, and much finer minds have done a better job of descandalizing the cross as some of you might interpret this blog to be doing, but it is my attempt to do theology in an honest way and wrestle with the Cartesian mind that we all possess, if we would only be so honest and not hide behind the fear of where our inquiry might take us.  To my brothers that have occassioned these words, I give thanks for your friendship and treasure your dialogue…and I pray others might find these musings more than useful.

 Let’s get started.  First, the substitutionary theory of the atonement has not been the king of the Christian block since the time of Christ.  There are several theories of atonement, or ideas about the “why” of the passion, that have had prominence in our faith: Ransom, Moral/Love, Satisfaction, and Penal.  Scripture testifies to ALL of these…and ALL of them are problematic, even scripturally, but most traditions accentuate one of these or combine them…but in the theology and faith of the church they were separate and did not emerge at once.

Ransom: Introduced by Origen 3rd century.  This is the idea that Satan, the prince of the world (so Origen was a dualist, sue him and sue most Christians alive today who are equally dualistic), had to have a payment from God for control of creation.  God decided to Kill Jesus as a ransom payment to Satan.  BUT, the trick was resurrection.  God let Satan receive payment and then took his payment back on Easter.  God tricked the devil.  This idea coalesces nicely with Christians who hold that creation is in a Struggle between God and Satan and that Satan is indeed the controller of earth…yet through this act God has no usurped Satan and defeated him again.  So I’m not sure what Pentecostals are still getting excited about with this spiritual warfare stuff; the battle is over, so to speak.  God paid the ransom in this theory because we did not have the “money” to make the transaction…and the rest is history.

Moral/Love: Abelard introduced this 12th century.  Abelard contended that Jesus died to show how much he loved the world and died as a perfect sacrifice expressing what it means to fully love creation…offering a model for how we should love one another even to our own deaths if need be.  The implication is also that as a supreme act of love God let Jesus suffer and die as an example of God’s ability to let evil happen to us so that we might be able to live into the resurrected reality of Jesus and be better people, hence the “moral” part.  He argued that Christ’s Life and death were examples of God’s supreme love to us so that all humans will be able to respond in return by loving God and finding salvation through the intercession of Christ.  Violence is allowed in the world because we are refined by fire and made holy in its furnaces, turning our hearts to God because of his example and being made holy as we live through the violence we all encounter.  There is more to this idea in Abelard’s work, but he wrote this AFTER the next theory by Anselm.

Satisfaction: This is the idea that Jesus was killed to satisfy the honor of God.  It really emerged from the way society was structured during the period of feudal Lords, etc, and was patterned after such societal norms of dishonor, honor and glorification.  God’s honor had been violated in the fall of Adam and Eve (ent), and as such, his honor had to be restored.  However, nothing is great enough to restore God’s honor but the sacrifice God’s self…ENTER Jesus the God-Man;  So God’s wrath was satisfied through the human sacrifice of Jesus.  This is also consistent with the practice of Jewish Temple in killing animals to satisfy God’s anger.

Penal Substitutionary:  This emerged most thoroughly in the Reformation and was crystallized by Calvin.  It is the idea that humans are utterly depraved and cannot be saved except that God would take a substitution for our sin; the old addage is “Jesus took my place” and many of us sing songs to this effect each Sunday in worship.  We are deserving of death; the only way we can experience life is for Jesus to die for us and then IMPUTE his righteousness upon us…so that after the death of Jesus when God looks at the world….he no longer sees our horrid sinfulness, but he sees the blood of Jesus covering our transgressions.

 These are the major theories, but there are others.  I encourage you to read the theologians mentioned above for the finer workings of their atonement theology.

The testimony to multiple understandings of atonement mean thinking the death of Jesus is not nearly as clean and neat as most Christians think…but the other thing that makes atonement a sticky issue is that we are heavily influenced by the Western Church.  Origen was part of the Alexandrian school, so too was Augustine (where one finds substitutionary ideas fit right at home)…Anselm was West also, so too was Thomas Aquinas (transubstantiation)…Abelard was Western but he was bucking the system during his time.  He was often criticized by other theologians, but he attracted many students and was a “go to” theologian for philosophers during the Enlightenment period.  However, in the East, substitution and penal theory did not reign the day…many of the Fathers from the Antiochene school placed a much heavier emphasis on incarnation and theosis because of resurrection, not because of a hyper penal idea of atonement.  So as for Christianity, the witness is actually split and there are theological, and biblical, problems with espousing any one idea/theory.  This is why I am inclined to be more existential in regard to the atonement and be open to multiple meanings that speak to our world, not dictate one method over another.

But the Gospels did just this; they interpreted the atonement within paradigms that made sense, and then translated that to their contexts from out of the story of Jesus they told.  The Gospels are telling the story of Christ and making sense of the crucifixion of Jesus…narratively attempting to make an appeal to how one might understand atonement.

Allow me a brief Gospel of John Excurses.

NO Gospel works/refines an idea of atonement in great detail, yet John goes to greater lengths here than any Evangelist, but it makes sense for him to do so.   John argues that Jesus IS the sacrificial lamb.   The importation of a fairly developed atonement theology in the Gospel of John makes perfect historical sense considering the historical context of the Johannine community that had been expelled from Temple post-70AD and were trying to make sense of being a Jewish Christian without a Temple…what better Christological affirmation than that we don’t need a Temple, we have the lamb sacrificed at the same TIME ON PASSOVER as it would have been happening in the Temple in the 30’s whichever specific year you prefer…but the Synoptics have Christ crucified BEFORE Passover…not during…clearly John is making a theological point.  So John is constructing an atonement theology, but it is within his context not outside of it.

Origen, Anselm, Abelard, the Reformers, they are all wrestling with how to understand how the work of Christ brings humanity into relationship with God; how does it restore brokenness to a sense of wholeness through the broken and bloody body of Jesus…and they did so in language and metaphor that was a.) biblical …but also b.) could speak to their listeners.  They did not speak past their listeners, but they proclaimed why the death of Jesus matters and why it should matter to their hearers and in their context.  The Spirit led them to do so.  From an existential perspective, I call for doing nothing but the same: speaking Christ to the world in such a way that they hear, listen and have an “aha” moment about how the at-one-ment of Jesus brings them to at-one-ment in God.  This doesn’t mean that classical understandings are mute.  They are still important and still carry currency for many, but to preach the lifting up of Christ to a world that feels separated from itself and others…is not to proclaim that you need to take a shower in the blood of Jesus, but to preach that through the act of his death he has put an end to sin and violence…he has swallowed death into his body and thereby all those things that seek to wreck our lives and create disharmony.  Yet the death, and massacre of Jesus, would not be complete without a resurrection to say that such violence and sin does not win; it is swallowed up in the grave thereby meaning so too has the sin (think hamartia here…missing the mark), death and utter lack that seeks to wreak havoc in our lives been laid to rest the with grave cloths of the paranormal Jesus who comes to all us Thomas’ who still think death is still an issue.

What I am arguing, albeit with an existential bent ( I am heavy on Kierkegaard and Heidegger here), is that while we may want to say that the work of Jesus is primarily this, or mostly that, and then tell people “no, this is your problem and here is your answer”…the better approach is to discover what it is that keeps folks up at night, what concerns them, where do they sense lack in their lives.  If Christ matters than it matters to them and the world in which they live; we do not need to tell them they live in a false world and then attempt to renarrate their lives with a story and concepts that are utterly foreign, and therefore, would be devoid of meaning.  We do this not to relativise the gospel but to be aware that people will seek for truth according to the questions that plague their being. And my argument is that the atonement of Jesus contains the answer, but the theological world that drives a person may be different from one individual to the next, and necessarily so too will be their questions, and so too must be the appropriation of the Christ event into their lives.

William P. Jones, in his book, Theological Worlds: Understanding the Rhythms of Alternative Christian Belief, talks about it as we all have different OBSESSIOS (problem, lack, brokenness in us) and therefore we all have different EPIPHANIA (an awakening to our angst and its solution) that show us our problem, what we need, and how to become whole through various answers that is offered by the Christ in his work.  The theological worlds in which most folks live, according to the work of Dr. Jones, are the following…and my experience also seems to validate this:

Separation…Reunion

Conflict…Vindication

Emptiness…Fulfillment

Condemnation…Forgiveness (this model gets a disproportinate amount of attention in our Churches)

Suffering…Endurance

By extending our understanding of atonement past a purely penal or substitutionary model (and thereby by extending our willingness to see why Jesus STILL matters to the world), we are actually able to see how Christ connects people to God through his death…and we do so beyond the realm of pagan blood ritual, though biblically we may still find meaning here.  It may be, in fact, that many folks are connected through the theological world of condemnation and forgiveness…but more and more people, in our context, are typified in the other 4 worlds.  The solution is not to tell those folks they’re wrong, and therein tell them their concerns and questions about faith are wrong, but to say, “well, the work of Christ can heal that part of your life and here is how.”  By appealing to the existential angst in an individual we are doing the same things as the Gospels, and the church Fathers: we are speaking into the lives of people and proclaiming why exactly the news of Jesus is good.  It’s good because whatever their malady, whatever their internal struggle, the atonement of Jesus is more than satisfying a primordial God who got his feelings hurt; the atonement of Jesus restores creation through violence as God’s statement that creation is no longer to use violence and sin as a means of negotiating the world.

This reality is affirmed, not because we are part of the Western Church and affirm all the theological baggage therewith, but precisely because we believe in the Resurrection.  The Resurrection makes these things true and it is what makes the Christ event relevant to folks in the now.

To conclude, I mention a brief Pauline excurses.  It is telling that even Paul, the one who paved the Roman Road, placed much greater emphasis on Resurrection than Passion.  He did address Passion elements, but did not hinge his entire theology thereon.  His famous chapter in First Corinthians 15 is not a perpetual statement on Passion and a Mel Gibson esqe love affair with violence in his movie titled “The Passion.”  (FTR, I really like the movie).  It does not read “If Christ be not slaughtered than our faith is in vain…If God be not appeased than our faith is nothing…”  (forgive me for too much liberty if you feel I have taken it there) but Paul over and over again says, “If Christ be not raised…”  The Resurrection is the difference maker…not a particular view of the atonement;  The atonement is utter meaninglessness if not for the peculiarly paranormal event of a Jesus not staying dead.  The resurrection is what places us in right relationship with God because in order to overtake death and sin…God does not need a human sacrifice, God just needs to overcome death through the only means possible: the loss of life in a physical body and the raising of that very body to end death’s residence in human history, in time.  Thus, if there is any doctrine or dogmatic stance one needs to take to be firmly Christian, it is the paranormality of resurrection, not a refined idea of atonement that has a diverse witness in text, tradition, reason and experience…a concept that while appearing to stand on the “solid rock of faith” is actually a bit more like nailing Jello to the wall.