Q: Science or Religion? A: Art

When people learn that I have a background in physics and am now studying theology, they are often surprised, seeing the two pursuits as divergent. I often stumble through some inadequate explanation that both fields ask “the big questions”, so really, I’ve just been doing one thing this whole time.

And there’s something to that, but that’s just a shorthand way of explaining my interests.

Of course, I’ve gone to grad school in both fields, so these aren’t just casual interests. Both pursuits stem from my insatiable curiosity coupled with my anxious, all-too-often desperate, need-to-know. To know what? Everything. And that just gets exhausting.

There’s a question certain music fans like to ask to sort out someone’s tastes, “Beatles or Stones?” My answer, invariably, is “Velvets”. There’s just too much that gets left out of the Lennon/McCartney vs Jagger/Richards dichotomy. Namely, Lou Reed. The underside, the dark side, the wild side, the truth.

That’s where I’ve come in my travels in science and religion. Both have helped me immensely (which is more than I can say for the Beatles). Yet neither has the corner on reality. Something more is needed that moves beyond the confines of each while simultaneously calling out something more from each. Art doesn’t trump science or religion, art stands as a reminder that there is no trump. That any claim of trump is bullshit.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to post works from some of my favorite visual artists. People who have called me out on my pretensions, and have opened me up to worlds I hadn’t imagined. I’m not going to say a whole lot about what I share. I might offer some context or share a little of why the artist or piece matters to me. Mainly, though, I just want to bear witness to a little of what I’ve seen that has helped me see better. I hope you find something good here.

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Divorce Isn’t For You

Image

A recent blog post on marriage (Marriage Isn’t For You) has been making the rounds recently. I found the post to be a nauseatingly trite treatment of a difficult subject. I want to look at how damaging this kind of thinking can be when presented in such simplistic terms, but before I do that, I want to look at how the author is making an interesting case for divorce.

I want to look at how the author is making an interesting case for divorce.

Let’s say that I take the author’s advice when I marry. If “you marry to make someone else happy” as the author instructs us, and if I am unable to meet this criteria (a fool’s errand if there ever were one!), then does this criteria not require that I divorce my unhappy spouse? Even if I am happy in the marriage? In this case, no matter how happy I am in my marriage, my ethical responsibility is to divorce if I cannot make my spouse happy. If I were to remain married, say out of a sense of duty or because of my vows, then it would be clear that the happiness of my spouse is not my criteria.

At such a crisis point, I either need to drop the pretense of being in the marriage “only for the Other”, and continue the marriage under more honest terms, or I must divorce my spouse due to my failure to have what the author calls a “true marriage.”

A third option is to remain in the marriage with the original criteria in mind, but without the naiveté that such criteria can be met. After enduring the reality of an extended marriage, I may realize how naive it was to believe that making my partner happy would be a consistently attainable goal. Reflecting on the difficulty of actually-existing marriage, I may nuance the criteria (especially since a strict adherence to the criteria may demand divorce). In this instance, the initial naiveté is lost, though the orientation toward the Other remains largely the same: I desire to make you happy, and will continue to pursue this desire in the absence of its satisfaction. I will continue to seek your happiness even though I do not see it arriving yet.

 If I remain steadfastly committed to producing the happiness of my spouse, and yet this happiness never seems to arrive, am I really acting in love?

This approach seems to match the pace of actually-existing marriage better than an expectation that I will immediately be able to make my partner happy. Yet if the mistake in the first instance is impatience (“I have not made you happy, so I must either divorce you or stop pretending it is possible to make you happy”), is not the possible mistake in this third option the danger of an abundance of patience offered in the name of virtue? If I remain steadfastly committed to producing the happiness of my spouse, and yet this happiness never seems to arrive, am I really acting in love? What if my spouse’s continued unhappiness is the result of marriage to me, despite my noble intentions and martyr-like commitment? What if I am the chief obstacle to my spouse achieving even modest, intermittent happiness? Can my commitment to remain married coincide with my commitment to produce my spouse’s happiness? Or do I need to consider the possibility that divorce for the sake of my spouse may be the most loving act possible?

What is the actual function of my emphatic claim that all I want is to make the Other happy?

It appears that an exclusive emphasis on the happiness (or needs or desires) of the Other can produce the opposite of the claimed goal. Just as actually-existing Communism and Capitalism produce results that are at odds with the lofty ideals these systems claim to serve, so too can a slavish adherence to the exclusive “love” of the Other produce results that do not match the lofty ideals invoked. With the recognition of the disjuncture between ideal and reality in Communist and Capitalist practice, the real critical work of asking what is actually driving those systems begins. If Communists don’t really have the concerns of working people in mind, what are they actually trying to accomplish? If Capitalism doesn’t actually lead to greater freedom, what is the Capitalists actual goal? Likewise, if I claim to be committed to the happiness of my spouse, but don’t actually produce this happiness, what is the actual function of my emphatic claim that all I want is to make the Other happy?

The language of extreme love masks an extreme hatred.

Several possibilities come to mind. One is the desire to avoid my impotence. If I am only interested in making you happy, and you are not happy, then perhaps by stating my ethical purity of my intent, I am able to subtly suggest that the fault lies with you, you for whom I have sacrificed everything! In this case, such a proclamation of love covers a proclamation of hatred. We find this love/hate dichotomy operating in certain forms of Christianity. Here, one is told that God loves sinners so much that He sent His only Son to die on their behalf as the ultimate act of love. If, however, you are not convinced by this, then you can go to Hell. Literally. This theology uses the language of extreme love to mask an extreme hatred.

An extreme offer masks an extreme demand.

Another possible account of the disjuncture between my claim to seek the Other’s happiness and the Other’s actual experience of unhappiness is that in making my claim, I am able to both claim my ethical purity while also levying a radical demand of the Other. If true love claims to demand nothing for the Self, but to be only “for the Other”, then can the Other offer love without having to meet exactly this extreme criteria? In this case, the offer of selflessness for the sake of the Other is at its root a demand of selflessness from the Other. “This is what true love is, and if you truly love me, you will love me in this way. Whether I love you in this way or not.” Here, an extreme offer masks an extreme demand.

An obsession with the Other makes one partner in the relationship “the problem” when there is unhappiness.

There is a different approach to the difficulties of love and marriage. Instead of an exclusive emphasis on the Other, there can be a focus on mutuality. In a mutually loving relationship, it is not necessary that both partners be in identical states at all times. What is important is that over time, the relationship is good for “us”. I may choose to be unhappy for a time because that allows for us to be healthy over the long term. Likewise, I may accept my partner’s unhappiness for a time for the same reason. Instead of a neurotic obsession with making my partner happy (and there is real horror in being forced into happiness!), an emphasis on the overall health of the relationship extends my concern from an immediate problem concentrated in one person, to a longer-term concern extended across both members of the relationship. An obsession with the Other makes one partner in the relationship “the problem” when there is unhappiness (and There Will Be Unhappiness). A mutual relationship unweights this emphasis on the individuals in the relationship, allowing for breathing room, creativity, and engagement with the struggle to love, to be loved, and to love mutually.

In the same way that Communists and Capitalists destroy people in the name of liberating those same people, so too can we destroy the one we love in the name of love. If we are in a genuinely mutual relationship, then we can never act unilaterally on the behalf of the Other. Rather, we act in mutual partnership with the Other for the sake of us. The Biblical notion of “two becoming one” is helpful here. It is not “two becoming two who love each Other to the exclusion of Self,” but two who become one, and in that oneness, love the Other when they love the Self, and love the Self when they love the Other. This is not a one that becomes a singularity, an undifferentiated one in which both partners are always in the same state (of mind, emotion, or what have you). This is a oneness in which both elements, both people, are mutually-constituting parts of the whole. Like the towers that together compose a suspension bridge, there is no “I” without “You”, and no “You” without “I”. If this is the case, then there is no validity to the notion of doing for “You” without doing for “Me”, of loving “You” without loving “Me.” Mutuality does not claim to love the Other to the exclusion of the Self, and does not make the implicit demand that the Other love in such a fashion.

Marriage isn’t for you.

Divorce isn’t for you.

They’re for us.

*I recognize that marriage is a complicated and problematic social institution. I use the term here as short-hand for a loving relationship.

The Broken God

This is the first sermon I’ve shared at St Lydia’s.
It is based on Psalm 22 and Matthew 27.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I don’t know of a Psalm with a more striking opener.

If that’s where we’re starting,
where do we go from here?
Where is there to go?

Well, the Psalmist turns directly to the past:

“Our ancestors put their trust in you, they trusted, and you rescued them.”

The Psalmist turns to look at God at work
with other people at another time.

When he turns back to the present in verse 6,
he doesn’t see people being saved by God,
he sees himself and those who scorn him,
mocking him and telling him to

“Trust in the LORD
let the LORD deliver;
let God rescue him
if God so delights in him”

Next, the Psalmist recalls when God was present to him,
in the past, at his birth, and in his youth.

But now?

Now he is surrounded,
assaulted,
“poured out like water”,
and says that
God “has laid him in the dust of death.”

He pleads for God to deliver him, to save and rescue him,
but God is nowhere to be found.

After visiting the past,
and pleading with God to save him in the present,
the Psalmist looks to the future:

“I will declare your name to my people,
in the midst of the assembly I will praise you”

Is he bargaining?

Is he telling God that he will praise God if God will save him?
If God will show his might and rescue him?

Or is he more noble than that?

Perhaps he is proclaiming that he will praise God,
because he “trusts in the LORD, who will deliver”

But these are the words of those who scorn him!

He seems to be adopting their logic.

So, what is going on here?

My relationship with this text starts with Christ on the cross.

The first lines of this Psalm are Christ’s
last words in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark.

I think this is amazing, really.
Jesus quotes poetry on the cross.
And the line he chooses
is the darkest line of the Psalm.

He doesn’t soften the blow the way the Psalmist seems to,
the Psalmist who looks desperately to the past and to the future,
apparently unable to face the absence of God in the present.

But I should be careful here.

The experience the Psalmist and Christ are describing is subtle.
They aren’t actually talking about the the absence of the experience of God,
they are talking about the experience of the absence of God.

What’s the difference?

If they had no experience of God, they would be talking about the absence of the experience of God.
No God, no experience.

But they are talking to God about God’s absence!

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This names an experience of the absence of God,
which entails a sense of loss
and is experienced as abandonment.

We can’t be abandoned by someone that was never with us.

So on one level, Jesus is addressing God,
by talking about God’s absence.
That’s a rich paradox, and I want to come back to that in a minute.

But first I want to look at the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus quotes Psalm 22 because for me,
my relationship with this text starts with Christ on the cross.

In Matthew and Mark, the Gospel writers describe the scene of Christ crucified.
Like the Psalmist, Christ is subject to scorn.
Some standing near the cross say

“He saved others
(the past)
He cannot save himself
(the present)”

“Let Him come down, and we will believe in Him”

Sound familiar?

To my ear, this sounds both
like those who scorn the Psalmist,
and the Psalmist himself!

Those who mock Christ,
those who scorn the Psalmist,
and the Psalmist himself
all seem committed to what St Paul calls “signs and wonders”.

They want to see God act in might and in power,
otherwise, they either end up mocking or losing heart.

So what does Christ on the cross do?

He hears this mocking challenge,
he cries out again,
and he dies.

But then the Gospel writers bring in a new voice.
Standing at the foot of the cross is a centurion,
a Roman guard, who, after Christ dies,
exclaims, “Truly this was the Son of God”

This may be an even more disturbing line than

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

“Truly THIS was the Son of God”???

At least in the Psalmist’s cry we have a notion of a powerful yet absent God.
The centurion, by contrast, claims to see God present –
in a weak, suffering, and dying human.

As I’ve been wrestling with these texts,
I’ve been reminded of GK Chesterton’s observation that,
“God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”

I am drawn to Psalm 22 and the account of the crucifixion, because I identify with Christ’s cry of abandonment by God.

I guess you could say I’ve pretty much become an atheist at this point, too.

I don’t see the God of Power the Psalmist seems to long for,
and which the onlookers at the cross pledge to believe in
if that God shows up,
and shows off.

As a friend of mine likes to say,
I’m at least a functional atheist when it comes to that God.

As far as my experience goes,
it doesn’t seem like that God exists.

But I hear something that I recognize in the centurion’s cry.

After he watches Jesus suffer,
cry out to the God who has forsaken him,
and die,
it is THEN that the centurion says,

“Truly, this man was the Son of God.”

It is not after the Resurrection,
it’s not after a show of power,
it’s not after Jesus climbs down from the cross
and kicks ass for the Lord.

No, the centurion sees God in this crushed, broken, and suffering human,
in weakness and in doubt, in death and in defeat.

Is God there?

Does God exist?

To ex-ist means to stand out.

This doesn’t seem to me to be a God that ex-ists,
who stands out,
who makes a big show,
who has a mighty presence.

What the centurion sees
seems to be a God
who in-sists,
who per-sists,
who re-sists.

A God who in-sists
on living and dying with the suffering,
who per-sists
despite being crushed,
and who re-sists
calls for shows of brutal power.

This sounds like a God who, to quote the Psalmist,

“does not despise nor abhor
the poor in their poverty,
neither is the LORD’s face
hidden from them;
but when they cry out,
the LORD hears them.”

This seems to be a God who is with those who cry out to God,
a God who takes up their cry,
takes on their suffering,
even their suffering of separation from God.

A God who loses God.

If we are looking for a God of might and power,
we may not find that God to be present,
but if we look to those who suffer,
and hear their insistent,
persistent cries of
resistance,
we may hear, too,
God’s voice
mingled with theirs.

In my life, I don’t see God, I don’t feel God.
As far as I can tell,
the God of power, signs and wonders
has forsaken us.

What I do see is the the body of Christ.

Sometimes,
I see love amidst brokenness, suffering, and despair,
as we share the cup and the bread of our lives.

The Psalmist says

“I will declare your name to my people;
in the midst of the assembly
I will praise you.”

What I can say is

I declare this name, Christ, to you, my friends,
the body of Christ.
And I praise this broken God.

Amen.

All Flags Burn / Burn All Flags

Godspeed You Black Emperor-44-S

Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Film Projection

It’s Flag Day in the U.S., so inevitably the conversation turns at some point to the Pledge of Allegiance and the claim that the U.S. is (or has been) “One Nation, Under God.” This is often met with one of two responses. On the one hand, this phrase is seen as the intrusion of the religious into the public sphere, as a violation of the separation of Church and State. On the other hand, this phrase is seen as a last bulwark against a tide of godlessness, or a reminder of an era when the U.S. was a Christian nation.

Neither position captures what I see as a question of idolatry. On the one hand, I see the use of the phrase “Under God” as an appropriation of religious language for the service of state power. The evils perpetuated by the state are sanctified by the use of the dominant religious language, and the state’s purposes are identified with divine purposes.

León Ferrari,  "La civilización occidental y cristiana"  (Western-Christian Civilization), 1965

León Ferrari, “La civilización occidental y cristiana” (Western-Christian Civilization), 1965

On the other hand, I think of Jesus’s words at the Last Supper. Before he was executed by the state*, Jesus told his followers that, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” My first concern is that love, not national testimony, is the mark of the disciple. Much more importantly, however, there is a deep irony in the appeal to a state as representative of Christ. All states and all empires are predicated on violence. No state or empire is “Under God.” God is under all states and empires: states and empires kill God, every day, all over the world. In Turkey, in Syria, in Guantanamo; by gun, by starvation, by drone.

In León Ferrari’s “Western-Christian Civilization”, we see a crucified Christ nailed to an American war plane. Is Christ a weapon to be deployed against a national enemy? Is Christ crucified as a victim of war? I think both are the case: when we use Christian language to prop up the state, Christ is crucified by being used as a weapon.

The desire for power over others is a dominant form of idolatry in the contemporary U.S. The State desires the power that religious sanctification offers. The Church desires the power that national recognition offers. I believe that for the Christian, the desire for power over others must be renounced, and that all attempts to sanctify power over others with Christian language must be confronted as counter to the way of the God who is daily murdered by the State.

There is hope in the fact that all flags burn.

*Admittedly, this is an anachronism on my part. Jesus was crucified by an empire, not a state, though this only enhances the connection to the current U.S. context.

Fugazi, “Place Position”

All origins are accidental
Got no papers and no roads lead home
Anymore
Chance is the root of place position
All maps are random all scales are wrong
Legal illegal no passion for the difference
Legal illegal false premise forge the nation
May all your borders be porous
Free transmission smear genetics
C’est la vie
Yawn yawn yawn
I can’t stifle my boredom
So why not act your age
Fear of contagion the violence of a fence builder’s dream
That masks the phrasing of “all the pleasures of home”
Legal illegal
I want to go home

(The) Blaspheming God: 
Deconstructing the Shibboleths of Belief, a Radical Theology Exegesis of Job 42:1-6

Mark Tansey, Doubting Thomas, 1985

Mark Tansey, Doubting Thomas, 1985

Then Job answered the Lord: 

‘I know that you can do all things,

   and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 

“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,

   things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 

“Hear, and I will speak;

   I will question you, and you declare to me.” 

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,

   but now my eye sees you; 

therefore I despise myself,

   and repent in dust and ashes.’ (Job 42:1-6)

The Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.’ (Job 2:3)

Introduction

The Book of Job is composed of a wisdom dialogue bracketed by a folk tale that introduces and concludes the book. The folk tale tells of a wager between Satan and God: is Job only righteous because he has received God’s blessing? God allows Satan to kill Job’s children and take his possessions, and destroy his health, barring Satan only from taking Job’s life. The wisdom dialogue then breaks in and relates the conversation Job has with his three friends. After they argue for a few rounds, God breaks into the argument and calls Job into direct dialogue. Job’s final response to God is quoted above. The dialogues end after Job’s dialogue with God, and the folk tale returns to conclude the story, affirming Job’s righteousness, condemning his friends, and restoring to Job health, wealth, and family.

The Book of Job is full of theological problems, which has contributed to its lasting appeal. In this exegesis I focus on the question of “the last word”: what are we to make of this story, what are we to make of God’s declarations from the whirlwind, and what are we to make of Job’s final response in Job 42:1-6? Who has the last word, and what is the last word? To work through this, I first look at how others have tried to make sense of this passage. I then follow Carol Newsom in using the Bakhtinian notions of monologic and dialogic to critique these attempts, and finally offer my own “last word”, requiring a return to a “first word”, found in Job 2:3.

Pious Lies?

With others, John Collins has argued that the central question in Job is that of “why the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper”. For Collins, and many others, the main concern is that of justice – God’s justice. Job’s complaints are clearly understood as protests of innocence of wrongdoing, an innocence to which both the narrator (2) and God (3) attest. The main concern in this framework is how to make sense of Job’s suffering in light of God’s justice.

“[Job’s] honesty, however, is not tantamount to wisdom. He has to live with the fact that the universe does not revolve around humanity, let alone around Job. The justice of God, if that be the proper term, cannot be measured by human standards.” (1)

While Collins does not offer a thorough account of how Job’s suffering comports with God’s justice apart from indicating that God’s justice is not focussed on human suffering, Kathryn Schifferdecker lays out an argument based on her understanding of creation in Out of the Whirlwind. She claims that,

“Job’s own world has descended into turmoil or chaos, and he attempts to inflict that chaos on creation itself; first by cursing creation, then by ascribing chaotic tendencies to God. Job’s challenge to God’s order cannot go unanswered. In the divine speeches, the creation is, as it were, re-created. More accurately, God reaffirms the order already established in creation from the beginning, an order Job had tried to negate.” (4)

Schifferdecker frames the question of justice in terms of chaos and order, and insists that despite Job’s experience of chaos, the universe remains a place of order, and that this is the point YHWH  makes in the rebuttal from the whirlwind. The “last word” for Schifferdecker is that the cosmos is not ultimately chaotic, despite her acknowledgment of Job’s personal experience of chaos. So although Job’s world has fallen apart, he should not be misled into believing that the world does not hold together, that God’s creation is not whole.

The notion that an overall order is maintained is challenged by God’s statement in Job 2:3, an admission that God has brought suffering on Job “for no reason.”  Yet Job is not initially aware that his suffering is “for no reason” – thus his insistence that his suffering be explained. Yet right at the beginning of the story, God lets the cat out of the bag, and the reader knows that what Job seeks is not to be found. What are we to make of this disturbing knowledge? Adele Berlin addresses this concern:

“The reader is given knowledge which [Job] does not have – the knowledge that God is testing [him]. Obviously, it would not be a valid test if Job knew about it. The question is: why is the reader told from the outset. The answer is that this allows him [sic] to perceive the events differently from the way that Job does. For Job, the question is: what does God want of me and why is he doing this to me? For the reader, the question is: will Job pass the test? Our knowledge that it is a test lets us accept actions on the part of God that are contrary to our picture of him [sic]. Without this knowledge we would be puzzled and/ or incensed, much as Job is; with this knowledge we accept God’s actions, knowing that he [sic] does not really intend for them to be carried out.” (5)

For Berlin, being “let in” on God’s dirty little secret is what allows us to accept God’s abuse of Job. The knowledge that God is testing Job allows us to accept the injustice of Job’s suffering. There is a reason, after all: to prove that Job will be righteous “for no reason,” he has to suffer “for no reason.”  As James Crenshaw notes:
“God reminded the Adversary that Job has held securely to his integrity, “although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” This allusion to the absence of any reason for destroying Job’s “hedge” recalls the Adversary’s initial question, “Does Job fear God for nought [that is, without cause]?” and amounts to a triumphant shout.” (6)

Apparently, if we follow Berlin, the knowledge of what God is up to allows us to set aside our obvious concerns about God’s allowance of Job’s unmerited suffering. I cannot make sense of Berlin’s claim that God “does not really intend for them to be carried out.” In the narrative, Job’s suffering is linked directly to God’s releasing Satan to do his worst. God does intend Job’s suffering, quite explicitly. Being let in on the secret does not relieve us of the problems this presents.

Throughout his encounter with his friends, Job has pleaded his innocence. When God responds as the voice in the whirlwind, no mention is made of Job’s actions: he is neither condemned nor vindicated. Instead, Job is confronted with the “seemingly magnificent irrelevance of much of the content of the divine speeches,” (7) as God demonstrates his might and challenges Job to respond in kind (although God does not respond to Job in kind).

And yet, after this massive display that consistently ignores Job’s pleas, Job responds in 42:1-6  with claims of ignorance and acts of repentance. Crenshaw asks,
“Earlier, he had spoken things which he did not fully understand, for which Job despises himself and repents in dust and ashes. No reading of this final speech by Job removes the perplexing features nor explains why he feels obliged to repent over incomplete knowledge. Where has Job’s integrity gone?” (8)

Also complicating our understanding of the close of the story is the restoration of Job’s health, wealth, and family following this act of repentance. As Martin Pope notes, “the Epilogue upholds the discredited doctrine of exact retribution.”(9)

These “explanations” seem wanting: framing the concerns of Job in terms of justice has led to Schifferdecker’s claim that there is (non-obvious) order despite (obvious) chaos, and that our concern should be with the former rather than the latter. Whereas Schifferdecker seems to ignore the plain claim that God has acted without reason, Berlin takes this acknowledgement as reassuring, yet she does not make clear how our knowledge of God’s secret sheds light on Job’s actual suffering in ignorance. And Crenshaw seems to join the friends in turning on Job and accusing him of abandoning his integrity!

What are we to make of these approaches? The key, I believe, is to turn to Collins’ other insight:  “[Job’s] near-blasphemous candor is preferred to the piety of those who would lie for God.”(10)  And yet even near-blasphemy may not be nearly enough.

Job the Blasphemer?

Job is affirmed time and again as a righteous man who tells the truth. Throughout his dialogue with his friends, he expresses his outrage at his unmerited suffering. He bears no false witness against God – God has indeed allowed Job’s suffering to happen apart from any act of Job’s. In fact, it is precisely Job’s righteousness that has made him a target – in a sense, it is his righteousness that has caused his suffering. He has earned his punishment by living a righteous life.

It is Job’s righteous, honest protest that moves God to speak. As Catherine Keller writes,

“It is to Job’s angry uncertainty rather than to the pious shibboleths of his counselors, that YHWH responds. For all his wounded rage, Job is honored with the single largest divine speech in the Bible. … The drama of Job stages a shocking theological honesty: here is a truthfulness deconstructing the shibboleths of belief.” (11)

Job has held steadfast to his search for the truth, whereas his friends have lied, as Collins observes, to protect their (beliefs about) God. This is crucial: God responds not to Job’s questions themselves, but to Job’s honesty, to his willingness to interrogate his (beliefs about) God.

In responding from the whirlwind, God reveals that although he is pursuing the truth, Job has accepted a framework that is at odds with the truth. Job has been right to ask questions, but he has been demanding answers of the wrong person.

“The whirling wisdom takes no responsibility for the ills that befell Job. … Job presumes belief in a heavenly Sovereignty using the catastrophes of history and nature to punish the wicked. The divine mystery revealed in the whirlwind, in other words, seems to have nothing to do with [Job’s] anthropomorphic and anthropocentric projections. … [T]he divine voice claims responsibility for the broad sweep of the universe … but not for any specific events in the lives of people.” (12)

Job and his friends share the same theological framework: this frame remains unquestioned by Job.  God’s disruptive/disjunctive response rejects this framework. Seeking a “God’s-eye” perspective will not do. If Job is to grow in wisdom, it will not come in the form of divine revelation.

To understand the shift in framework, it is helpful to employ Bakhtin’s notions of monologic and dialogic, which Carol Newsom has applied to the Joban narrative. (13)

Monologic approaches truth as a unified system, and treats an author as the “ultimate voice” who determines the “message” of a story. (14) Monologic takes the form of propositional truth. Monologic assumes that truth is straight-forward and can be mastered/understood by the individual in a finalized form.

In contrast, dialogic truth emerges “at the point of intersection of several unmerged voices”, in conversation – a conversation that can’t be “summed up” into a monologue. Dialogic truth is embodied, personal, and “persons, not propositions, are the participants”. Dialogic truth has unity, but it is the “unity not of a system but of an event”: it is unfinalizable. “In a dialogic text, the author gives up control – and the author’s voice is just one voice, not the ‘real’ voice. And in a dialogical story, the most difficult task is the (unfinalizable) ending!” (15) Dialogic speaks of that about which we can say nothing (final), and yet about which we must (finally) speak.

Newsom quotes Bakhtin:

“Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth.” (16)

So the Book of Job presents us with the form, if not the content, of truth. Dialogue is how truth that is uncontainable by the individual must be pursued. In dialogue, new possibilities emerge, assumptions are revealed and challenged, and truth can begin to emerge between individuals.

Yet Newsom is emphatic that dialogue is not to be confused with dialectic, because dialectic (and here she seems to be thinking in Hegelian terms) arrives at synthesis, an essentially monological resolution. I agree with this concern, although I believe Job can be faithfully read from a Left Hegelian perspective where the antagonism between thesis and antithesis is named and left unresolved – there is no Aufhebung of the fundamental antagonism. The crisis remains subject of conversation, subject of dialogue. A Left Hegelian reading comports well with Newsom’s claim that “wisdom dialogue … privileges argument over resolution.”(17) In many ways, the beginning coincides with the end, “the dialogue begins … with the bitter complaint of a righteous sufferer.” (18)  This is to say that the conversation begins and ends with truth. As Adorno notes, “The need to let suffering speak is a condition of all truth,” (19) and we find this affirmed throughout the dialogues of Job.

This affirmation comes first at the opening of Job’s dialogue with his friends. Whereas Job responds to the loss of his children and wealth with pious acceptance, and responds to his bodily afflictions in the same manner, he does not piously accept his friends’ “wisdom.” If Job were to follow the pattern, then “we [would] expect Job to make a third remarkable word of unconditional acceptance in response to friends.” (20) But he does not. Instead, Job enters into dialogue.

In this light, Job’s sustained complaint is the twist – the third resignation is absent, at least until God speaks – and even then we must ask if this is proper resignation. (And one is tempted to ask: is there not a (missing) third encounter with Satan? If in the first two encounters, Satan asks whether Job will maintain his righteousness in the absence of wealth and health, might this third encounter have Satan ask whether Job will maintain his righteousness in the absence of meaning?)

What is essential here is the move into dialogue. Newsom observes that the monologic folk tale is interrupted by the wisdom dialogue, and yet the monological folk tale returns at the end. Does monologic, then, have “the last word”? Newsom argues against this reading, because the structure of the book itself puts the two modes (monological folk tale and dialogical wisdom) into dialogue. (21) And yet there is irony in the fact that the monological folk tale is the source of meaninglessness – the fundamental antagonism- it is the folk tale that reveals God’s (lack of) motive. (22) Newsom claims that this rupture between the tale and the dialogue “produces a character who has made a decisive break with a previous worldview and a previous identity within that worldview.” (23)

Is this really the case? Is Job not still very much within the original worldview, albeit in a mode of protest? It would appear that Job’s honesty has yet to draw him into the blasphemy necessary to fully confront his situation and take responsibility in the face of it. Despite his dialogical question-asking, Job has not gone far enough – he has not followed his wife’s wise advice to  hold fast to his integrity, curse God, and die. (24) And so God must blaspheme on Job’s behalf.

(The) Blaspheming God

Newsom is vexed that with the arrival of God in the dialogue, the divine “last word” will destroy any vestige of dialogic, bringing the entire book to a monological conclusion. She notes that through the wisdom dialogue, there is a “movement from dialogic to monologic as the voices are progressively shown to be inadequate.” (25)  This move is finished in in Job 42:1-6, which Newsom reads as Job’s capitulation.

“The reader is thus apparently encouraged to embrace the vision of the divine speeches with their non-anthropocentric representation of the world in which the chaotic, although contained within the reliable structures of creation, is nevertheless an irreducible element in existence.” (26)

Further, she points out that, although God “officially condemns Job’s friends, they “are vindicated – Job bows to God and is restored.” (27) Has the divine voice destroyed dialogue? Newsom’s solution is to suggest that the double-ending – Job’s alleged capitulation in 42:1-6 and the folk tale epilogue – produce tensions (are the friends vindicated? etc.) such that this ending is “gesturing toward closure while signaling that the issues raised are far from settled.”(28)

While I share Newsom’s concern that the divine voice not collapse dialogue, I do not find the contradictions in the close of the story sufficient to keep dialogue alive. It seems too easy to describe these concerns as “too wonderful for me,” and drop them.  While Newsom seeks to avoid the monological approaches, the “pious lies” discussed in the first section above, her argument here is not convincing.

There is an old Jewish tale that is helpful here:

“Two rabbis are arguing over a verse in the Torah, an argument that has gone on for over twenty years. In the parable God gets so annoyed by the endless discussion that he comes down and he tells them that he will reveal what it really means. However, right at this moment they respond by saying, ‘What right do you have to tell us what it means? You gave us the words, now leave us in peace to wrestle with them.’ “(29)

I believe that what we see happening in Job is parallel to this tale. In the tale, the rabbis rejection of God’s offered wisdom strikes one as blasphemous. Yet if we understand truth as dialogical, their blasphemy is seen as deeply faithful. In Job’s dialogue with his friends, blasphemy is judiciously avoided, and God’s goodness is appealed to in order to make sense of Job’s experience. In the Book of Job, it is God who must make the blasphemous claims in order to show Job the blasphemy of Job’s fidelity. It takes an outrageous rejection of the entire (actually blasphemous) framework Job and his friends share to shake Job loose of his misunderstanding. Keller writes,

“How does the creator’s delight in the complexity of the nonhuman creation answer the question of unjust human suffering? Certainly not in … a reassuring sense … So to Job’s impassioned challenge of God’s goodness the answer is: [Leviathan], the monster of chaos!” (30)

There is no divinely ordained and maintained order that will account for Job’s experience. Job is right to be in dialogue with his friends, but wrong to expect God to provide him with meaning. It is in Job’s honest recognition of this that he comes to repentance – his repentance is not a compromise, but an admission that he has “uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” Job held a blasphemous understanding of God, and it took God’s total rejection of Job’s questions to reveal this to Job. In response, Job repents of his sin of faithfulness – realizing now he had been repeating the shibboleths of belief right along with his friends, even though he thought he was in dispute with them.

Now we return to “the first word”. Contra the claims of Collins and others that the problem the book addresses is that of the suffering righteous and the prospering wicked, this problem is merely the question that draws Job into confrontation with God. God’s response puts Job in confrontation with himself, and his own understanding. The narrator reinforces this in Job 1 by declaring Job’s innocence and the causelessness of God’s act. We know from the start there will be no monological truth coming from God. Job’s “last word” acknowledges there will be no “last word” from God. The end of this dialogue does not end dialogue. As the history of the reading of the Book of Job attests, this is where the conversation really gets started, and truth begins to emerge among those in the conversation.

It is now that Job has encountered God, that he can embrace the folk tale’s “last word” in the midst of his life. God restores Job, not because of Job’s merit, but because it is in the midst of Job’s life that he can continue to live in the event of the “last word”.

“[E]ven for one as hurt as Job, new life can take place, … because he has refused to suppress piously the turbulent truth of his own experience, but has grieved and raged and confronted the meaning of life. Ex profundis”. (31)

Endnotes

1 John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2004), p 505

2 Job 1:1

3 Job 1:8, 2:3

4 Kathryn Schifferdecker, Out of the Whirlwind (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 67-8

5 Adele Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (Sheffield, The Almond Press, 1983), p 54

6 Crenshaw, 102

7 Marvin H. Pope, The Anchor Bible, Job (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1973), LXXXI

8 James Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, an Introduction (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p 108

9 Marvin H. Pope, The Anchor Bible, Job (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1973), LXXXI

10 John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2004) p 517

11 Catherine Keller, On the Mystery (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 39.

12 Catherine Keller, On the Mystery (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 75.

13 Carol A. Newsom,  The Book of Job as Polyphonic Text, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no 97 Mr 2002, p 87-108

14 Ibid, 97

15 Ibid, 98

16 Ibid, 99

17 Ibid, 102

18 Ibid, 102

19 Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics (London: Routledge, 1990), p 17-18

20 Carol A. Newsom,  The Book of Job as Polyphonic Text, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no 97 Mr 2002, p 103

21 Carol A. Newsom,  The Book of Job as Polyphonic Text, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no 97 Mr 2002, p 104

22 Of course, it can be argued that God’s motive is to win a wager and demonstrate Job’s righteousness to Satan, although this remains an empty and therefore meaningless motive.

23 Ibid.

24 Job 2:9. Newsom makes the connection between Job’s integrity and cursing God (and therefore revealing the wisdom of Job’s wife) in The Women’s Bible Commentary (Louisville, Westminster John Know Press, 1998)

25 Carol A. Newsom,  The Book of Job as Polyphonic Text, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no 97 Mr 2002, p 105

26 Ibid, 106

27 Ibid, 107

28 Ibid, 107

29 Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God (Brewster, Paraclete Press, 2006)

30 Catherine Keller, On the Mystery (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 76.

31 Ibid.

Villains of All (Denomi)Nations: Radical Theology as Piracy

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On May 7, 1694, in rebellion against brutal conditions and labor without pay, first mate Henry Every led a mutiny of the sailors on Charles II, declaring, “I am a man of fortune, and I will seek my fortune!” After successfully commandeering the ship, Every was elected captain, and rechristened the Charles II as The Fancy. Every and crew went on to become the most celebrated pirates of their day, capturing fortune for captain and crew, and leaving a dangerous example of successful rebellion in their wake.

In his fantastically raucous book, Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates and How They Can Save Us, English math teacher and theological pirate @KesterBrewin presents a history of piracy, emphasizing the way that piracy emerges throughout history at times when the Commons become enclosed by those in power. Piracy is a rebellion against the exclusive possession of goods by the few at the expense of the many.

Brewin presented his work recently at Subverting the Norm: Can Postmodernism Theology Live in the Churches?, a conference organized by @PhilSnider and @KSMoody. The conference was a gathering of academics and practitioners of radical theology. Participants (and they were participants: one-third of us presented at some point during the two-day conference) came from a variety of academic, denominational, and non-affiliations. All came to further the developing conversation around radical theology, and to get to know those involved in the mutiny radical theology represents.

Jack Caputo (not on twitter – for shame!) quickly substituted “radical theology” for the more bland “postmodern theology”. If flying the “postmodern” flag helped bring people into the conversation, hoisting the Jolly-Roger-esque “radical theology” flag was a sign of this theology’s new identity.

Brewin points out that sailors lived brutally short lives. Their deaths were recorded in the crew roster: a small skull and crossbones with wings next to a name indicated a death. After mutiny, pirates took the symbol (sans wings) as their flag, proclaiming that “we are the dead”: dead to the navy, dead to the demands of the empire. Much like the later Anarchist rallying cry of “No Gods, No Masters!”, or the Lacanian proclamation of the “death of the Big Other”, the pirates under the Jolly Roger established the possibility of their future on the rejection of their past.

Caputo describes radical theology as the radicalization of some context. Every radical theology has a history and tradition it engages. There is no radical theology outside the church, then. Radical theology can only live “in” the churches, as it were. But can it live there? This is the question that generated the conference, and continues to be engaged as the conversation spills over onto twitter and the various blogs run by conference participants. @TrippFuller broadcast a number of key talks and panel discussions via his @HomebrewedXnty podcast.

Caputo’s description of radical theology radicalization of a certain tradition draws a strong parallel between radical theology and piracy. In a mutiny, the ship is commandeered, not rejected. If piracy is a rebellious response to the enclosure of the commons, it rejects enclosure because of the value of the goods enclosed to all. Radical theology, like piracy, does not reject tradition and theology, but stages mutinies that liberate and redistribute the goods.

So radical theology is a deeply faithful spiritual practice (1) that responds to the event that produces the goods in question. In Caputo’s terms, it is a response to the call of the event that is harbored in the Name of God. Each tradition names the event in a way that encloses the event in some way – radical theology responds by staging mutinies against all attempts at enclosure.

Radical theology, like piracy, is also a generous form of engagement – it is “for others”. Pirates were termed “Villains of All Nations”: the rejected ones who dared rebel against the empires that had enclosed the commons. As outsiders, pirates were free to welcome all to their ranks. They were much like the Christians who Paul described as the “trash of the world”. The fortune recaptured from enclosure was distributed among the pirates. Power was likewise organized along democratic lines.

So far, so good, but how does this play out in contemporary practice? The STN conference staged some successful mutinies against enclosure. Costs for participation were kept low, conference attendees were often presenters, and the “names” that presented attended other sessions, and circulated as “part of the crew” as it were. Q and A sessions translated easily into local pubs, where conversations continued long into the night.

@ikonNYC presented a panel discussion where ikon participants shared their experiences in organizing a radical collective in New York. Key to the conversation was a demystification of the experience in order to encourage others to start their own groups according to the needs of their communities. Radical collectives, like radical theology, radicalize their context, and so need to focus on what is to come rather than what has gone before.

@laserpony, @keegzzz, and @perrodin and @adamdmoore of VOID collective presented a radical liturgy experience which radicalized the STN space. They offered a liturgy that concluded with Eucharist. As each participant received the bread and wine, the words of ministration were simply, “There is no secret”, a blessing, indeed, for a group of people encountering loads of new schools of thought, complete with new vocabularies and library-length book lists.

And yet the STN conference had major failings. Despite the variety of perspectives presented by the “headliners” (who engaged gender, colonialism, abilism, racism, and other sites of enclosure), attendees were largely conventionally educated, straight, white males. Attendees @michaelcarlbudd and @XochitlAlvizo staged a mini-mutiny in calling out organizers for setting a key panel on diversity in a breakout session, rather than highlighting it at a plenary. Organizers responded quickly, moving the panel to the fore, and setting two panels in dialogue with each other to tackle head-on the ways in which STN had yet to subvert the norm in question. This final plenary stood as the clearest evidence of the potential for radical theology to succeed in its attempt to break enclosure, and set clear expectations for the next STN conference.

Mutiny is an event, a response to event, an ongoing engagement. Mutiny does not establish a new, fixed, and perfect order. Henry Every became one of the most successful pirates of all time, and committed atrocities as he did so, atrocities against women and slaves that perpetuated the very kind of enclosures mutiny rebels against. No Gods, No Masters? No Big Others, and No Heroes, then, but Mutiny, mutatis mutandis.

(1) See the work of Katherine Sarah Moody (@KSMoody) on radical theology as spiritual practice, and on the measurable impact on the lives of those engaged in the project.

Christ and the End of Meaning

“Resurrection is not the restoration of what has gone before, something anticipated in the natural rhythms of life, but the abandonment of that kind of expectation in the faithed certainty of new life beyond the point where “possibilities” leave off. Forgiveness is not an adjustment in the balance of one’s good and bad deeds but the end of that kind of calculation altogether. And the reign of God is not the realization of human political hopes but the end of the present order along with its possibilities.

The break of human continuities that “Christ crucified” entails, which only faith can receive and affirm, marks faith as genuine. Anything lacking this element of discontinuity would be content for seeing or knowing – not faith! The authenticity of faith can be checked, then, by what it affirms. There is a unique relationship between what faith itself is and what it faiths. To faith is to live without power over the future; and that surrender of power over the future is precisely what “Christ crucified” entails. To “faith” is to be “crucified with Christ.”

– Paul Hessert, Christ and the End of Meaning

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I Deny The Resurrection

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Annibale Carracci, The Dead Christ

“Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think…

I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.” – Peter Rollins