Friday, April 29, 2011

On "Religion"-- Barth and Babel

"Religious righteousness! There seem[s] to be no surer means of rescuing us from the alarm cry of conscience than religion and Christianity. Religion gives us the chance, beside and above the vexations of business, politics, and private and social life, to celebrate solemn hours of devotion—to take flight to Christianity as to an eternally green island in the gray sea of the everyday. There comes over us a wonderful sense of safety and security from the unrighteousness whose might we everywhere feel. It is a wonderful illusion, if we can comfort ourselves with it, that in our Europe—in the midst of capitalism, prostitution, the housing problem, alcoholism, tax evasion, and militarism—the church’s preaching, the church’s morality, and the “religious life” go on their uninterrupted way. . . . A wonderful illusion, but an illusion, a self-deception! We should above all be honest and ask ourselves far more frankly what we really gain from religion. Cui bono? What is the use of all the preaching, baptizing, confirming, bell-ringing, and organ-playing, of all the religious moods and modes, . . . the efforts enliven church singing, the unspeakably tame and stupid monthly church papers, and whatever else may belong to the equipment of modern ecclesiasticism?
Will something different eventuate from all this in our relation to the righteousness of God? Are we even expecting something different from it? Are not we hoping by our very activity to conceal in the most subtle way the fact that the critical event that ought to happen has not yet done so and probably never will? Are we not, with our religious righteousness, acting “as if”—in order not to have to deal with reality? Is not our religious righteousness a product of our pride and our despair, a tower of Babel, at which the devil laughs more loudly than at all the others?"
 (Karl Barth, WGWM, 19–20)
I think Barth in this quote and  Dietrich Bonhoeffer elsewhere--are very skeptical of what they call "Religion". Both Barth & Bonhoeffer would be concerned with the way in which "Religion" can simply facilitate our own crooked desires--"our pride and our despair". However, their concern was not merely personal-- "my desire, my despair, my pride"--but, also institutional. Barth and Bonhoeffer both critiqued what they considered to be "the powers". This theme later gets picked up by the theological work of William Stringfellow & Walter Wink.

Barth's concern regarding "Religion" is also a concern with particularity. One can readily see how this thing, this term, this metaphor called "Religion" can and has served to rob real religious traditions of their particularity-- their own uniqueness. The "Religion" that Barth is battering seeks
to accomodate all religious traditions to a Hickean Exclusivism. This pluralistic proposal by theologian John Hicks argues that all "religions" are simply camped around the same mountain. In other words, Hick would argue that all religious traditions are really worshipping the same thing--the same God. However, here Hick is the example of "Religion" par excellence because he never lets us in on how it is that he has an unmediated, unitterupted, uninhibited view from above the highest mountain-top. Hick simply invades the territory of religious particularity, flattens out any difference, and continues marching on.

 Once particular religious traditions  have been relegated to "Religion" they lose all particularity; they are flattened and marched over. This flattening of particularity hides the very object of our gaze by way of a western liberal colonialism. This colonialism constructs a map in order to put everything (& everyone) in its "proper place". Of course, in Barth's situation he would have been much more concerned with how the Third Reich (Hitler)was positioning the Church via the institution of "Religion"--how Hitler wanted to white-wash the Church in order to flatten its particularity and peculiarity. One can see Barth's clear statement regarding such an accomodation in the "Barmen Declaration".

In much the same way as his "Barmen Declaration", Barth is here speaking out against the colonizing of God by humanity via our "righteous acts". Barth wants to make it abundantly clear that we cannot somehow tame God, postion God, or place God on a map. Rather, God has already and continues to position us via his Word.

Barth's attack on "Religion" & Institutions is a far cry from a western liberal relativism which is suspicious of all institutions and their practices.What is being attacked here is not "De vera religione" (the true religion) but, that false religion that is as old as Babel--the attempt of humanity to storm heaven through its "magnificent works".

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Bare Bones Easter Vigil Homily

St. Francis Episcopal Church, Great Falls, Virginia
The Rev. Benson E. Shelton, Assistant Rector
23 April 2011

(Section: Genesis 1:1-2:4a)
In the beginning of the heavens and the earth
There was only darkness.

In the poetic words of Johnson:

“As far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights…”
(J.W. Johnson—“Creation”)

All was dark.
All was silent.
All was still.

There were no song-birds to sing.
There were no creatures to crawl.
There were no plants to pray to the beauty
Of a dying sun.

Then, the Lord spoke his Word into creation.
And, the ears of creation stood at attention.

The Lord spoke his Word into creation.
And, the face of creation lit-up.

The Lord spoke his Word into creation.
And, the body of creation began to stir.

The Lord spoke his Word into creation.
And, there was Light.

(Section: Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18; 8:6-18; 9:8-13)

Then, the clouds came.
“The Fountains of the Earth burst forth.
And, the windows of heaven were opened.”
As far as the eyes of Noah could see,
Water covered everything.

All was water.
All was lost.
All was dark.

Outside the cold, hard, wooden-walls of the Ark

There were no song-birds to sing.
There were no creatures to crawl.
There were no plants to pray to
the beauty
Of a dying sun.

The Lord spoke his Word into creation.
And, the ears of creation stood at attention.

The Lord spoke his Word into creation.
And, the face of creation lit-up.

The Lord spoke his Word into creation.
And, the body of water began to stir.

The Lord spoke his Word into creation.
And, there was Light.

(Section: Exodus 1-8,4:10-31, 15:20-21)

Then, the light of the Sun beat down
On the over-burdened backs
Of the Hebrew people

As Pharaoh’s Phalanx backed them
Before a Body of water—
The Red Sea.

As far as the eyes of Moses could see,
Water covered everything.

All hope was lost.
All were cut-off completely.
All was darkness.

There were no songs to be sung.
There were no paths on which to crawl.
The Israelites were planted and praying
In the presence
Of a dying sun.

The Phalanx of Pharaoh would soon be
Falling upon the Hebrew People....

The Lord spoke his Word into creation.
And, the ears of Moses stood at attention.

The Lord spoke his Word into creation.

And, Moses stretched out his staff

 And, the walls of water lifted-up.

The Lord spoke his Word into creation.
And, the body of water began to stir.

The Lord spoke his Word into creation.
And, there was Light.

And, Moses led his people through
The valley of water
On dry ground.
(Section: Ezekiel 37:1-14)
But, the valley in which the Prophet
Ezekiel found himself,

Was Dry as a dusty, old, tomb.

As far as Ezekiel’s Vision could cast,
 Bones covered everything.

All was lifeless
All was dry
All was darkness

Then, God asked the prophet Ezekiel:

“Mortal, can these bones live?”
“Mortal, can these lifeless bones live?
“Mortal, can these dry bones live?

Ezekiel eeks out an answer:
“Uhm, Uh, uhhm only you know, Lord.”

Then, the Lord spoke his Word into creation.
And, the bones began to rattle.

The Lord spoke his Word into creation.
And, the bones came together.

The Lord spoke his Word into creation.
And, the body of bones began to stir.

The Lord spoke his Word into creation.
And, there was Life.

(Section: Matthew 28:1-10)
This Easter Vigil Night
We are presented with the same question:

“Mortal, can these bones live?”
“Mortal, can these lifeless, old, rickety-bones live?”
“Mortal, can these dry bones live?”

Unlike the Prophet Ezekiel we know
The answer to this question

Because we know the rest of
This stirring-story:

When Mary Magdalene
And, the Mother of Jesus
Saw Jesus, the Messiah,

Nailed to the cold, hard, wood
Of the cross they knew the Son
Had died:

“Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights…”

All was lifeless
All was dry as dust
All was darkness

The Word of God was Silent.
The Song of God had Ceased.
God, the Father Almighty,
Was Speechless.

“The Son of God was Dead,
And we killed him.”

In the words of those dry, dry, bones of Israel:
“Our hope was lost; we were cut-off completely.”

But, then, the wind began to stir...
And, as the Sun began to Fall
God, the Father Almighty,
Caught his breath.

And, as Mary Magdalene
And the other Mary
Made their merry way to see
The dry, dusty tomb
Of Jesus:

God the Father spoke his Word into Creation.
And, the Ears of Creation stood at attention.

God the Father spoke his Word into Creation.
And, the Face of Creation lit-up.

God the Father spoke his Word into Creation.
And, the Body of Creation began to stir.

God the Father spoke his Word into Creation
And, there was a Life.

God the Father spoke his Word into Creation
And, the Earth began to tremble.

God the Father spoke his Word into Creation
And, that heavy stone rolled away.

God the Father spoke his Word into Creation.
And, there was Light.

And, when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary
Came to the dry, dusty tomb
Of Jesus:

The Tomb was empty…


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Getting 'Real': A Meandering Blurb On Rabbits, Horses, and Sanctification...

(Me and Calvin)

As a Lenten Discipline I have been reading John Calvin's "Institutes on the Christian Religion." In the past I focused on Calvin's thought regarding what Protestant Theologians refer to as "sanctification." Sanctification is simply a fancy word for discussing the Christian's growth in holiness through the work of Christ. Many of us have met a person in our lives that exemplified such a sanctified life--a life so broken open by the grace of God that that life cannot help but be a witness to the coming Kingdom of God in our midst. But, I am equally as sure that just as many of us have "entertained [such a person] unawares" (Hebrews 13:2). Much as Christ was passed over in his life, we pass over witnesses of God's grace everyday. Many times the grittiness of Grace is easily over-looked.

However, there are those times when the wearying worries of the day subside and we find ourself smack-dab in the midst of grace. There are those times when we recognize God's witnesses all around-- the trees reaching forth their hands in silent prayer and the sun bowing before God's earthy-creation. God's Grace abounds; God's witnesses abound. Yet, many times we do not see ourselves as such a witness. We do not see ourselves as being broken open by God's Good Grace. We do not see ourselves as being consecrated by God. We do not see ourselves as God's beloved. We have been convinced that such sanctimonious speech is reserved for the likes of certain Saints.

Soren Kierkegaard presents us with one such image--an image that may leave us feeling as though we have two left feet -- that of a Dancer:

"Most people live dejectedly in worldly sorrow and joy; they are the ones who sit along the wall and do not join in the dance. The knights of infinity are dancers and possess elevation. They make the movements upward, and fall down again; and this too is no mean pastime, nor ungraceful to behold. But whenever they fall down they are not able at once to assume the posture, they vacillate an instant, and this vacillation shows that after all they are strangers in the world."
 (Excerpt from Fear & Trembling)
However, what for Kierkegaard was mere vacillation--a stutter step of hesitation betraying one's dancing to the beat of a different drum--John Calvin saw as a steady limp:
"That, with wavering and limping and even creeping along the ground, they move at a feeble rate. Let each one of us, then, proceed according to the measure of his puny capacity and set out upon the journey we have begun. No one shall set out so inauspiciously as not daily to make some headway, though it be slight. Therefore, let us not cease so to act that we may make some unceasing progress in the way of the Lord. And let us not despair at the slightness of our success; for even though attainment may not correspond to desire, when today outstrips yesterday the effort is not lost. Only let us look toward our mark with sincere simplicity and aspire to our goal; not fondly flattering ourselves, nor excusing our own evil deeds, but with continuous effort striving toward this end: that we may surpass ourselves in goodness until we attain to goodness itself. It is this, indeed, which through the whole course of life we seek and follow. But we shall attain it only when we have cast off the weakness of the body, and are received into full fellowship with him.”
(Institutes, 3.6.5 or pp. 1:689)
In typical Calvinesque fashion we are reminded of humanity's weakness and sinfulness. No longer are we in Kierkegaard's ideal world of "Knights of Infinity" and "Dancers possessing elevation"! No longer are we singing sweet songs of sanctimonious saints!

For Calvin there is no dancing, the Christian life is one of a steady limping towards holiness. For the everyday Christian, life is no dance. However, in today's world many want to feel a though they are dancers. Limping just does not seem as graceful! But, perhaps the subject of sanctification should not be cast in these terms. Perhaps, the subject of Sanctification should not be cast as a matter of dancing or limping.

Rather, perhaps, sanctification should be viewed as the process by which a person becomes "real":
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become real."
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."
"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit."
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
(Excerpt taken from The Velveteen Rabbit)
It is undeniable that God makes many dancers. And, for these dancers--these "knights of infinity"--we are thankful. However, it is just as undeniable that God presents many of us with two left-feet. Perhaps, by the time most of learn to "dance", "most of [our] hair will have been loved off, our eyes failing, our joints aching, and our body shabby". However, "by that time these things will not matter at all, because once [we] are real [we] cannot be ugly, except to people who don't understand." Becoming "real" is the sanctification of the everyday-- the gracefulness of the gritty.

What is in a Name? Tuning Our Ears to the Grammar of God

These two quotations are the lens through which I view God's Providence. They are also the source from which I draw the name of my blog.

"For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to 'lisp' in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accomodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness."
(Excerpt from Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.13.1, 1559)
"It is part of the unity of the divine revelation that the Spirit of God lowered himself, and emptied himself of his majesty, in the human style of holy men who were led by him, just as the Son of God lowered himself in the form of a servant, and as the whole creation is a work of the highest humility. Simply to admire in nature God only wise is perhaps an offense similar to the affront which is shown to a decent, reasonable man whose worth the crowd estimates according to his cloak. So if the divine style chooses the foolish, the shallow, the ignoble, to put to shame the strength and ingenuity of all profane writers, there is certainly a need for the illuminated, inspired, and eager eyes of a friend, a confidant, a lover, in order to recognize in such a disguise the rays of heavenly splendor. Dei dialectus soloecismus-
God speaks bad grammar... "
(Excerpt from J. G. Hamann's  Cloverleaf of Hellenistic Letters, 1759).
Growing up in the foot-hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains has influenced not only my view of grammar as such, but also my view of God's Providence - those unique ways in which we perceive God's hand working in our lives. In other words, I take a descriptive approach to both grammar and God's Providence.

My own experience of God's speech is one of babbling-stutters, interrupted glottal-stops, inarticulate mumblings, and sign-languages rendered in "bad-grammar." My experience of God's Providence rings out with both the deep-darkness of the hollows and the pointedness of the mountain peaks - the rushing rivers lilting to the steady trickle of a blocked stream wating to be free. This I take to be God's Grammar. This I take to be God's "bad-grammar." God's Grammar is bad not because it is incorrect, not because there is some magic formula by which we are to judge the careful and careless ways in which God speaks, but God's grammar is bad because it is place-ridden. God's grammar is bad because it smells of the Incarnation - of a God made flesh. God's "bad-grammar" smells of a body lying dead three days in a sealed tomb. God's "bad grammar" is graced with the grittiness of dust and ash blown by the stirrings of a harsh-wind. God's "bad-grammar" is bad not because it is incorrect, but because it is not easily understood. God's "lisping", "bad-grammar" takes the "eager eyes of a friend, a confidant, a lover, in order to recognize in such a disguise the rays of heavenly splendor."

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Lenten Meditation--The Death of My Father

On Ash Wednesday I imposed ashes on the foreheads of both young and old alike. I told everyone from a small child to an elderly man that they are dust, and to the dust they shall return. The following Sunday, the First Sunday of Lent, my father killed himself. On Thursday I watched as my father’s body was returned to the earth.

From the earth we come, and to the earth we shall all return.
His death has become my Lenten Meditation. I have not the detached, elegant-terseness of the much-maligned Meursault in Camus’ novel The Stranger. I cannot simply say, “[Father] died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” I do know. My father killed himself on the First Sunday of Lent. The last time we spoke was on Ash Wednesday.

Unlike Camus’ strange novel there was no telegram sent saying:
“[Father] passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.”

In my case there were only sincere voices passing through lonely telephones.

God does indeed speak bad grammar.

Marked by Ashes
Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933)

Ruler of the Night, Guarantor of the day . . . This day — a gift from you.
This day — like none other you have ever given, or we have ever received.
This Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness and possibility.
This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day, for we are already halfway home
     halfway back to committees and memos,
     halfway back to calls and appointments,
     halfway on to next Sunday,
     halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
     half turned toward you, half rather not.

This Wednesday is a long way from Ash Wednesday,
   but all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes —
     we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
       of failed hope and broken promises,
       of forgotten children and frightened women,
     we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
     we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.

We are able to ponder our ashness with
   some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes
   anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.

On this Wednesday, we submit our ashen way to you —
   you Easter parade of newness.
   Before the sun sets, take our Wednesday and Easter us,
     Easter us to joy and energy and courage and freedom;
     Easter us that we may be fearless for your truth.
   Come here and Easter our Wednesday with
     mercy and justice and peace and generosity.

We pray as we wait for the Risen One who comes soon.