Saturday, May 28, 2011

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: R. T. Smith (II)

Here is one more from Smith for good measure. Let's see if I can keep it up with a third in a row next week.

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Full Moon with Bells

By R. T. Smith

As the solstice moon
with its Latin landscape
rises waferlike
above the quay,

moonlight and frost
embroider the slate
with a guidebook
Irish beauty, and I shut

off the radio's report
of your sad story --
rape by a neighbor,
the court forbidding

a foreign abortion,
the power of Rome.
Where is mercy?
The boats are in,

the city still, the priory's
new bells summoning
all of Galway to vespers.
Now I imagine you

moongazing through lace
curtains as the tides
of your body ossify,
the first blue milk

forming intricate
as snowflakes high
in the winter air.
I want to reassure you,

but the words fail me,
and neither sweet
litany nor the Host
glowing can show me

anything holy
in the bishop's decree.
The faraway moon's
ancient names I whisper --

Mare Serenitatus
and Lacus Somniorum --
offer no solace,
while worshipers approach

the altar, their eyes
too filled with piety
to see. In Dublin
the state ministers

caucus over blue cigar
smoke and brandy,
but no absolution
echoes in the bronze

of those vernacular
bells, as the country
ices over, Patria
, cold core

of the heart, dark face
of the moon.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Reading Eccentric Existence: Chapter 7: "Personal Bodies: Meditation on Job 10"

This post belongs to an ongoing series engaging David Kelsey's Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology, as part of an online reading group for the year 2011. For more information, read the introductory posts here and here.

Previous posts: Chapter 1A: "The Questions"; Chapter 1B: "What Kind of Project Is This?"; Chapter 2A: "The One with Whom We Have to Do"; Chapter 2B: "The Kinds of Project This Isn't"; Chapter 3A: "The One Who Has To Do With Us"; Chapter 6: "To Be and To Have a Living Body"

Section of text: Chapter 7: "Personal Bodies: Meditation on Job 10"

Pages: 281-308

Guest reflection by Steve Wright:

Kelsey turns to consider how the human creature is personal. He reserves the notion of "person" for humans alone within the present consideration. In part this is out of a concern to avoid conflating trinitarian doctrine with anthropology through a univocal use of the language of "person" (pp. 286-87). This purely anthropological theology of personhood covers areas usually treated under the topic of the imago Dei. Kelsey has not eschewed the imago Dei, but has chosen to defer its presentation until later in the work. Likewise theology will be wary of uncritically adopting the dominant Western story of the human person, which often results in predicating "non-person" of human beings who do not fit within this narrative (p. 288-89).

In the previous chapter Kelsey read the story of Job's birth given in Job 10 in two ways: as the story of his being born with human DNA, and as the story of his being given a body which he is to regulate within its context of relation to God and other creatures. It is these two stories told contemporaneously which are the truth of human embodiment, the narrative of actual living human bodies. This unity is the "integrity" of the human narrative. But this integrity is frail and prone to dis-integration when either story is stressed at the cost of the other (p. 282). A human person's integrity is "frail through and through" and upheld only by the creative relating of God (pp. 283-86). The implication to be drawn from the previous chapter is that God's creative relating is the only condition of living bodies, without such a relation there simply is no life. This is not to say that God is then obligated to endlessly uphold these lives, Kelsey attempts to maintain God's transcendent freedom: "God creates dying life" (p. 284).

The uniquely personal aspect of the human creature, Kelsey argues, is not a quality or ability such as rationality or speech — though this latter ability has its place. It is, according to Kelsey's idiom, the human creature's ultimate context which makes one personal: God's relating. The relating by which God makes humans into persons is not identical to creative relating. God's creative relating is unmediated — this, Kelsey asserts, is the point of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo — but God makes a human personal through the mediation of language (p. 291-93). "God, as it were, talks human living bodies into being personal" (p. 293). These two modes of relating are not entirely discrete, for God creates personal bodies, without which humans could not be persons (note the distinction between "personal" and "person" with the logical priority of the former). Being personal, then, is not our choice, though "it is a status out of which one may or may not intentionally live" (p. 296).

Making God’s relation to humanity the ground of the human “person” protects from the instrumentality of upholding human dignity simply for the sake of the common social good. This occurs through the marriage of classificatory and evaluative use of “person”. When the common good dictates that a certain subset of humans are detrimental to the ongoing life of the community they are stripped of their status as “persons” (p. 290). Rather than this, it is God’s address that makes us persons; we are persons because God relates to us as such.

There is also a distinction to be drawn between actual persons and perfect persons. Perfection is not required for personal actuality, but neither can it be discounted if Jesus was a personal human body (p. 297). Perfection here is not a created state, but how one relates to God. The correlate relation — to other creatures — is read through the so-called "mandate of dominion." This is a royal role, Kelsey explains, which arises from the intractable link to other creatures and entails their well-being (p. 305). Anthropocentrism is correct only so far as the human is "qualified by the remainder" and recognised as "the first among equals" (p. 305). That is, the actual personal living human body carries a vocation to promote the fecundity of creaturely existence.


Is Kelsey's distinction between creative relating and the making of persons sufficiently delineated by the use of language, given that the primary mode of God's creative activity through theology tradition has been that of speech?

Is "person" utterly equivocal predicated of humans and of the divine persons? Is there nothing to learn about one from the other?

What are we to make of the status of death given Kelsey’s affirmation that “God makes dying life”? Is death finally a rival of life?

Do you think that Kelsey's use of the phrase "first among equals" helps or hinders his argument for the nature of the relation of human persons to non-human creation?

Is it just me, or is this discussion of personal bodies lacking some somatic weight?

Next reading: Chapter 8: "Faith: Flourishing on Borrowed Breath," pages 309-332

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: R. T. Smith (I)

It has been 15 weeks -- an eternity in blog time -- since my last Sunday Sabbath Poetry post. Certainly this is by far the longest stretch of absence in the series, having consistently had something up almost every week for two and a half years, then . . . nothing. No doubt not a few may have wondered if I had given up the game.

Only busyness and business, however. As I have mentioned as explanations, but so often now as to have become creeping justifications, the perfect storm of thesis writing, application waiting, graduation walking, and out-of-state moving conspired to eliminate all regularity in my blogging plans.

As it stands, the final move is still a couple weeks off, so the boxes and indeterminacy will retain their unsteady effects on this space for another month at least.

That said, it's never a bad time to pick things up where they left off, however unceremoniously; so here you go. I'll post a favorite of R. T. Smith's (a recent discovery for me) this week and the next, each from his 2001 collection Messenger. Enjoy!

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By R. T. Smith

Locked tight in blue
velvet as a fossil
saved in slate,

the fiddle my father
played in church,
on the courting porch

and for the Masons
of Griffin, Georgia,
is covered in dust.

Bridge missing, scrollwork
chipped and pegs
spoiled with chrome,

it harbors a secret
in its sound box:
Carlo Bergonzi,

fece in Cremona,
An authentic
antique made

from bird's-eye
maple, fir, the glue
and varnish kin

to Guarneri and Strads,
it is, he says,
our single treasure.

The bow, now
missing, was tipped
with amber and fine

as heron bone.
The strings are
raveled to floss.

And yet, he lifts
the hourglass shape,
snugs the chin rest

and pretends to serenade
mother with ghostly
tones, his wrist

deftly turning, fingertips
gripping a shadow,
as rosin scent

somehow sweetens
the kitchen air.
Is it "Raglan Road"

that animates mother
or "Shady Grove"?
"The Kerry Trance"?

When she stops wiping
dishes to begin
her bashful shuffle,

I start to sway myself
and savor the legacy
they offer -- illusory

tunes, a past relived
with vigor, a vintage
Italian fiddle that kept

their story musical
until the marriage
melody became

their lasting dance.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Reading Eccentric Existence: Chapter 6: "To Be and To Have a Living Body"

[Unfortunately, this series has taken a three-month break, what with finishing my thesis, hearing back from doctoral programs, graduating, and preparing to move. Along with others, I have kept up the reading, but have not been able to post about it. The post below and next week's are by a guest writer; after that I will likely trim the format to largely scattered reflections on broader sections and arguments in Kelsey's work. If you have a piece or your own thoughts you would like to contribute, by all means email me and I'll put it up.]

This post belongs to an ongoing series engaging David Kelsey's Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology, as part of an online reading group for the year 2011. For more information, read the introductory posts here and here.

Previous posts: Chapter 1A: "The Questions"; Chapter 1B: "What Kind of Project Is This?"; Chapter 2A: "The One with Whom We Have to Do"; Chapter 2B: "The Kinds of Project This Isn't"; Chapter 3A: "The One Who Has To Do With Us"

Section of text: Chapter 6: "To Be and To Have a Living Body"

Pages: 242-280

Guest reflection by Steve Wright:

Kelsey’s goal in this chapter is to reflect on the human as a creature. He chooses to do this by putting forward a theology of birth. This reflection starts from a reading of Job 10. Job’s lament is that he has been born, that he exists at all. For Kelsey birth is the manner by which a human person comes into existence. Birth need not entail the passage of a baby through the birth canal. A human can be born without the thinning of the cervix at all. Job employs metaphors for gestation according to the science of his day: “Did you not pour me out like milk and curdle me like cheese?” – a reflection on the hardening of semen into a human body. God is the primary agent in this pastoral process, and the ancient metaphors were amendable to this divine role. Contemporary science need not banish such reflections on God’s creative work in human birth, but now the story is of “molecular exchanges among biochemical energy systems” (p. 248).

Utilising scientific insight, Kelsey explains, we can begin to refine our understanding of birth and embodiment. The boundary of a living body is not demarcated by the largest organ, but a living body can only be understood in its environment; biology and ecology together form our understanding of living bodies (p. 248, 265-270). This is the “proximate context” of human embodiment. Moreover, a body does not cede to entropy, but preserves homeostasis. Thus a body has a telos which interacts with its environment. A being has life to the extent that it participates in this interaction. This disallows the possibility of disembodied life which transcends all temporal and spatial conditioning. Such a being is as dead as a rock (p. 249). A body is “the singular manifestation” of life. This teleonomy includes fact that there is no physiological necessity for death. A body is resistant to thermodynamic decay, so the best explanation for death is evolutionary. An environment would need infinite resources and energy to sustain an eternal population.

So far for bodies in general, but what makes a creature human? Kelsey focuses on the DNA of the human creature as the point of identification and human continuity. This is not to say that all creatures comprised of human DNA are human bodies. But the DNA of a skin shaving or an embryo, while itself not a complete human being, holds the potentiality of a human being. Here is the centre of Kelsey’s argument: the actuality of a living human body comes of being born. (p. 254). It is God taking that potentiality and being the agent of its actuality. Theological anthropology has to do with such “actual living human bodies”, even though potentiality is a sort of actuality. This focus on DNA and birth, Kelsey argues, safeguards the content of anthropology against developments such as the possibility of machine or extraterrestrial intelligence (p. 259). Theologically, God creates at the point of birth, and what is created is simply a “newly born actual human living body” (p. 264).

There is a second story of birth to be told. One does not only “is” a body, but “has” a body. Because Job can protest his birth, he is distinguishable from his body (p. 271). Job does not tell the story of a dualist anthropology, but he has been entrusted to care for and regulate the body which he is in relation to God and other creatures. Just so he both has and is a body. This relation of the body to God, rather than interior individuality, forms the basis of the “unsubstitutability of human persons” (pp. 273-75). Kelsey describes this as a “theologically appropriate individualism”, by which he means that we are responsible for the way we respond to God’s creative relating, not as atomised individuals, but as members of social networks and proximate contexts. That God creates us within social contexts and neighbourly relations is the basis of our respect for the dignity of others (p. 279). Response to God’s creative action and upholding neighbourly dignity form a singular horizon in the Christian world.


Do you think that Kelsey’s attempts to protect anthropology from the potential discoveries of machine intelligence or extraterrestrial intelligence by emphasising DNA and birth are adequate in the face of technological developments such as wetware and the prognostications of futurists that a human intelligence will soon be transferable to a computer system?

For a theological theory of embodiment, the major contextual theologies of body are conspicuously absent. What might Kelsey’s theology of birth gain from a more robust engagement with gender theory or black theology?

Kelsey’s definition of birth as a “temporally extended process” (p. 247) beginning with the fertilisation of an egg by a sperm and culminating in the ability to live independently of its mother is complicated by the fact that a sperm is no longer necessary for the fertilisation of an egg, and the moment of independent existence is exceedingly hard to identify in the case of a premature birth. And yet he stakes a large theological claim on this definition. Is Kelsey’s definition unambiguous enough to be theologically decisive in the way he intends?

Next reading: Chapter 7: "Personal Bodies: Meditation on Job 10," pages 281-308

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Eucharistic Meditation and Prayers (with same for the Collection)

Eucharistic Meditation

Since the earliest centuries of the church, Christians, when baptized, have engaged in a series of what are called denunciations. Just as baptism involves the positive profession of faith in Christ as Lord, so it also involves certain rejections. Typically, the question is asked in this way: “Do you renounce sin, death, and the devil and all his ways?”

Each of these is rightly taken to be an enemy of God and of God’s mission in the world. Sin names the disorder in the world that is opposition to God’s good will; death names the power that stands against God’s creative word of life; and the devil names the demonic forces that work against God’s purposes in the world

This morning we gather at the Lord’s table as those baptized into Christ, the Son of God, and having received the gift of the Holy Spirit we come at once as forgiven sinners and as children of God the Father. We are therefore gathered at the table of Christ as the body of Christ, members one of another, ready to receive from sister and brother the body and blood of Christ.

We do this at the very threshold and intersection of divine and human timelines. As Paul writes, “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26). As we partake of Jesus’ broken body today, we remember Jesus’ wounded body in the past, even as we remember his future coming in his risen body. Communion, then, is the cross-section of past, present, and future in our life with God

So we come to this table this morning to remember: to remember that the one true God has come near in Jesus Christ; to remember that the same God who raised up Israel from Egypt has raised up Jesus from the grave; to remember that God is present among us even now by and through his Spirit.

Even more, as a people baptized into Christ, who have renounced sin, death, and the devil and all his ways, we come to this table to be reminded of God’s victory on our behalf: reminded that because of the Father’s mercy, all our sins have been forgiven—they are no more and no more have power over us; reminded that because Jesus is risen from the dead, we have been freed—freed from the fear and power of death, for Jesus reigns as Lord even over death; reminded, finally, that because the Spirit is with and among us, there is no power, no force, no authority or demonic enemy that can triumph over us—God has triumphed, once and for all.

And because God meets us at this table to remind us of these things, we remember also that there is no one—not a single man or woman in all of creation—who is excluded from the hospitality of the Lord’s table. All are sinners, are all lawbreakers, all deserve condemnation. Yet beneath the cross of Christ and at his table, there are no divisions or enemies, for here all are welcome, all are forgiven, all are one body. And we know that the Lord of this body loved and died for his enemies, and calls us to do the same after him. In response to love like that, what else can we do but follow, and give thanks.

Let us pray.

Prayer for the Bread

O God,
you are our God,
and by your grace
you have made us your people.

As your servant has said,
you stir us to take pleasure in praising you,
because you have made us for yourself,
and our heart is restless until it rests in you.

So we ask that in taking this bread
which is the broken body of your Son,
make us a people who remember;
make us your people of memory,
who remember the victory of the cross.

Help us to remember Jesus:
friend to the poor,
breaker of chains,
lover of enemies.

Make us faithful disciples
who follow his way,
who keep this feast of love’s memorial—
knit together as Christ’s body
even as we receive it from one another.

In his name and by your Spirit we pray,

Prayer for the Cup

O God,
you are our God,
earnestly we seek you
as thirsty people long for water
in a dry and weary land.

You have told us that,
should even a mother forget the newborn at her breast,
you will not forget us, your children.
You have told us that,
in unbroken fidelity,
our very names are engraved on the palms of your hands.

Make us mindful, therefore,
of the great cost of your love,
and so make us people of your costly grace
who do not sin that grace may abound
but rather in thanks walk the path of the cross.

Wash us clean
and let us hear your word of forgiveness
sung over us in joy.

O God,
we ache with hope
for the coming of your kingdom,
where we will share this cup anew with him who is our life,
Jesus the risen Christ,
in whose name and by whose Spirit we pray,

Comments on the Collection

Now is the time when we, as a community, share our resources for the sake of building up the body.

On the one hand, we do this, in Paul’s words, “not that others might be relieved while some are hard pressed, but that there might be equality” (2 Cor 8:13). In that spirit we gather together our financial means so that we might be more than the sum of our parts: that missions might be supported, that ministries might be sustained, that the hungry might be fed, that those in need might receive aid and those hurting might hear the good news of the gospel.

On the other hand, the order of having the collection after communion can be misleading, because the salvation we’ve received in Christ is not a matter of exchange. God does not give us his grace on the condition that we “pay up” afterwards. The gift of the gospel is precisely its lack of conditions. The good news is good because there is nothing we could have done, nothing deserving about us, and nevertheless God saves us sheerly out of his great love.

So as we give of our means this morning, for the sake of the mission of God in the world, give not out of guilt or compulsion, much less to “pay God back” for Jesus. No—give out of the overflowing joy of knowing God in Christ; give out of pure gratitude for being loved by the God of the universe; give out of the freedom that comes in knowing that wealth does not bring happiness, but often as not, temptation and greed, even idolatry; and so give because money can only be a means to an end—namely, the missional end of serving those in need to the glory of God.

Let us pray.

Prayer for the Collection

O God,
giver of all good gifts
and Father of the heavenly lights,
bless this collection of the gifts of your people.

We ask this day that you would
fill the mouths of the hungry,
clothe the bodies of the naked,
shelter those without home or family,
comfort those in prison.

We ask also this day that you would
bring your kingdom near to us,
make your will done on earth as it is in heaven,
build up your church in all the world,
come near in love for the sake of your glory.

Finally, we ask that you would do these things
both by the gifts we share together today,
and by the gifts of the Spirit
with which you have equipped your people.

Make us, Lord, a people of witness
whose lives reflect the life of your Son,
empowered to love and to service
in the way of the cross.

In the name of your gift to us, Jesus,
who gave us the gift of your Spirit,

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

"Petition" by Franz Wright


By Franz Wright

at the foot of the universe

I ask

from this body
in confusion

and pain (a condition

which You
may recall)

Clothed now in light
clothed in abyss, at the prow
of the desert
into everywhereness—

have mercy

Mercy on us all

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

John Howard Yoder on the Political Strength of Renouncing Violence

"We have always been taught to understand the nature of power in society so as to expect that the way to get useful things done is to find a place at the command posts of the state. We have suggested already that the man in power is not as free or as strong as he assumes, that he is the prisoner of the friends and the promises he made in order to get into office. But an even more basic observation is that he is not at the place in society where the greatest contribution can be made. The creativity of the 'pilot project' or of the critic is more significant for a social change than is the coercive power which generalizes a new idea. Those who are at the 'top' of society are occupied largely with the routine tasks of keeping in position and keeping balance in society. The dominant group in any society is the one which provides its judges and lawyers, teachers and prelates -- their effort is largely committed to keeping things as they are. This busyness of rulers with routine gives an exceptional leverage to the creative minority, sometimes because it can up the scales between two power blocs and sometimes because it can pioneer a new idea. In every rapidly changing society a disproportionate share of leadership is carried by cultural, racial, and religious minorities.

"What is said here about the cultural strength of the numerical and social minority could just as well be said with regard to political strength. The freedom of the Christian, or of the church, from needing to invest his best effort or the effort of the Christian community, in obtaining the capacity to coerce others, and exercising and holding on to this power, is precisely the key to the creativity of the unique Christian mission in society. The rejection of violence appears to be social withdrawal if we assume that violence is the key to all that happens in society. But the logic shifts if we recognize that the number of locks that can be opened with the key of violence is very limited. The renunciation of coercive violence is the prerequisite of a genuinely social responsibility and to the exercise of those kinds of social power which are less self-defeating."

--John Howard Yoder, "Christ, the Hope of the World," in The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1971), 171-72