Tuesday, June 28, 2011

William Stringfellow on the Apostasy of the American Churches

"Where both or either the secular unity and the churchly unity of the church, as given in Pentecost, are dishonored and where, consequently, some secular distinction and/or some charismatic gift is idolized, the members of the church become apostate. As an idol, it resembles any ordinary principality or else becomes a satellite of some other idol. This was a variety of apostasy which evidently sorely tempted Christians in Galatia; it is popularized and gross among the American churches. The inherited churchly institutions in the United States are typically engaged in inducing people to join, support and attend church -- described and disclosed in this truncated and distorted sense -- in order to worship the church, not to glorify and enjoy God, and in order to enhance some churchly cult, not to esteem and enact the Gospel. The sanction for this appeal is a venerable one -- the sale of indulgences. Men are persuaded that by serving the church, by spending time and money and talent on the church, they can accomplish an exchange for merit and gain a justified status with God. Yet secreted in the idolatry of church is the same futile worship of the power of death inherent in any idolatrous relationship. And from that, even when it is shrouded in the trappings of church, has Christ set men free."

--William Stringfellow, Imposters of God: Inquiries Into Favorite Idols (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1969, 2006), 59

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Søren Kierkegaard

From time to time I like to share prayers as poems, or poems that are prayers, and the one below by Kierkegaard -- typically pugnacious in its unflinching clarity -- hit me this week in the gut; so now I pass along this prayerful suckerpunch to you as well.

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Not to Admire But to Follow

By Søren Kierkegaard

O Lord Jesus Christ,
Thou didst not come to the world
to be served,
but also surely not to be admired
or in that sense
to be worshiped.

Thou wast the way and the truth--
and it was followers only Thou didst demand.

Arouse us therefore
if we have dozed away into this delusion,
save us from the error of wishing to admire Thee
instead of being willing to follow thee
and to resemble Thee.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Reading Eccentric Existence: Reflections on Exceptionless, Unimpairable Anthropology

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"; Chapter 7: "Personal Bodies: Meditation on Job 10"

Theological reflection:

In reading through Parts 1 and 2 of Kelsey's work -- on, respectively, the triune God relating to humankind creatively and to draw it to eschatological consummation -- a theme has emerged that warrants pointing out, meditating on, and working through. Particularly in Chapter 6, "To Be and To Have a Living Body," and in Chapter 15A, "Who and What We Are as Eschatologically Consummated Creatures," Kelsey is insistent on maintaining what I will call an exceptionless, unimpairable anthropology.

Which is to say: according to Kelsey, no set of acceptable anthropological definitions may contain exceptions (e.g., those who are mentally handicapped or born lacking certain widespread capacities) or impairments (e.g., those who have lost the ability to see or to speak).

Note what Kelsey says in Chapter 6:
There is plenty to dispute in each proposed marker of the class "human," but they all share one major drawback. Each relies on a property that undoubtedly characterizes most living human bodies, but only in varying degrees. Some of them, such as "rationality," "self-consciousness," and "language-using," appear to be missing in newborn human beings and only appear through a developmental process. Some disappear in the dementia of some of the aged, even though normal maturation may earlier have developed them to a high degree. Some are destroyed by accident or disease. Some never develop, through some malfunction of normal developmental processes. Were these characteristics employed strictly as the criteria of human beings' humanness, one would have to conclude that infants and profoundly damaged human beings were not human. But in that case, one would have to say that Christian theological anthropological claims do not apply to such living bodies, which is theologically unacceptable. To avoid that conclusion, it has regularly been necessary in theology to introduce mediating categories such as "potential 'human' living bodies" (e.g., infants) and "former" or "lapsed 'human' living bodies" (e.g., those who are profoundly damaged). These categories, mediating between the "genuinely human" and the "quasi-human," too easily appear to be euphemisms for "not really human." The advantage of a criterion based on Homo sapiens DNA is that it identifies in a more clear-cut way the subset of living bodies of which theological anthropological claims are made. (258; emphasis added)
Connect these remarks to what he later says in Chapter 15A:
There is no warrant for supposing that eschatologically transfigured or glorified nonphysical bodies are perfect bodies in which the imperfections and disabilities that were among the factors constituting their concrete particularity as pre-mortem physical bodies have been removed, healed, or corrected. Such a claim cannot be said to follow any trajectory of thought rooted in the narrative logic of accounts in canonical Christian Holy Scripture of God drawing humankind to eschatological consummation. . . . [Earlier in the book, I] set aside the traditional claim that God creates absolutely perfect living human bodies on the grounds that the concept of absolutely perfect human bodies is incapable of coherent explanation and exposition.

What is theologically at stake here, of course, is the status of imperfections (e.g., wounds) and "disabilities" as properties constitutive of the concrete particularity of eschatologically glorified human bodies. Is the concept of an eschatologically glorified human body inconsistent with the ascription to it of bodily imperfections and disabilities that could serve as some of the properties by which it is recognized in its concrete particularity as continuous with a pre-mortem human living body one had known? I urge that it is not. I suggest that there are no theological grounds for rejecting the proposal that eschatologically glorified bodies, spiritual bodies in Paul's sense, continue in their concrete particularity to have the imperfections and disabilities that were properties constitutive of their concrete particularities before death. (540-41; emphasis added)
I assume it is clear what I mean by "exceptionless" and "unimpairable." The former specifies the rule that one cannot make claims about what it means to be a human being that contain a single exception, the latter the rule that human persons cannot be damaged "in" their humanity (i.e., whatever it means to be human cannot itself be impaired).

From what I can tell, these sorts of parameters (E.U.A. for short) are becoming more common -- even a trend -- in anthropological work, whether theological, philosophical, or otherwise. In general, and certainly as evidenced by Kelsey's arguments in its favor above, the reasons behind the trend are sound and worthwhile, and so this broad turn in thinking may indeed by the right one. However, I want at the very least to raise some questions for it that are worth answering as we continue this line of thought.

(N.B.: I am a newbie to this discipline, and more or less clueless in the realm of disabilities studies, so for those with more knowledge and experience in those areas, please proceed with charity. I am sincerely looking to learn, not poke holes.)

1. Kelsey claims there is "no warrant" theologically nor a single "trajectory of thought rooted in the narrative logic of accounts in canonical Christian Holy Scripture" that would lead one to suppose that "imperfections and disabilities" will be "removed, healed, or corrected" in the eschaton. He combines this claim with another he opposes, namely, that eschatological bodies will be "perfect bodies." But need we make these two claims the same? Can we not say that, in some sense, there might be some imperfections or disabilities that might be "removed, healed, or corrected," without going so far as to say that "glorified body" equates to "perfected body"?

2. Is there any way to differentiate between various "imperfections and disabilities"? A martyr's wounds (like the paradigmatic stigmata of Christ) seem to be fundamentally different -- that is, on both a conceptual and a practical level -- than a person's being born with eyes that do not function correctly, and so cannot see. Is it inherently inappropriate to say that, at the resurrection, the former will remain as a constitutive component of that person's particularity, while the latter will somehow be healed? What if a person born blind has that hope herself? What are generous but critical ways in which to talk about such things without being either insensitive or prejudice-assuming?

3. Shouldn't the flow of time come into play as a theological factor in these discussions? What of a person physically unable to walk for years, but who (through medical and therapeutic means) comes to walk later in life? What of a person whose mental impairment comes through an accident late in life? What of those persons who lived prior to modern medicine whose disabilities or physical/mental challenges are addressable ("fixable") today?

4. How are we to understand both sickness and disease and the vulnerability of damageable bodies in connection to sin, death, and something like a "fall"? Kelsey argues (and I think him correct) that the vulnerability of embodiment and finitude appropriately belongs to a world created by God and deemed "good." But what of disease? Do Alzheimer's, HIV/AIDS, Cholera belong to a "good" cosmos? How are the ravaging consequences of such things taken into account as "removed, healed, or corrected" in eschatological consummation?

5. A related question involves profound mental and physical impairments, particularly for persons born with them. Do these belong to a world without sin, to an "unfallen" world? Do they, or their consequences, therefore belong or remain in a righted-world, a healed and restored cosmos purged of sin and the power of death?

6. Another similar question, related also to temporality, is the matter of complications that lead to the death of infants and children. In what ways can we speak coherently about the "imperfections and disabilities" that were involved in such tragic deaths without also speaking of their being (again, somehow) righted or undone or healed by God in glory?

7. As regards the biblical narrative, the single glaring instance of something like "imperfections and disabilities" being responded to eschatologically by God is of course the enormous repetition of stories of Jesus' healing in the Gospels. Kelsey does not deal with this in his argument, and I have seen at least some Christian theological arguments that claim we should seek to qualify (if not outright disallow) the import of these texts for normatively shaping the way in which Christians think about such things. If the latter approach is correct, why, and on what grounds? If the healing stories are germane to the question of resurrected life and eschatological transformation -- relevant as a picture of what happens when the reign of God comes near to the lives of people experiencing some kind of limitation on their personal flourishing in community -- how are they so? What do they say about both the "now" of persons living with some kind of "imperfection" or "disability" and their "not yet"? How, in other words, should they form our hope for life in God's kingdom?

8. Is it helpful at all to identify generic features of human life, not as markers of some human essence but as descriptors of what it is like, generally, to be in the midst of living human community? If one excludes such descriptive features on the grounds that they do not apply to everyone -- infants, in Kelsey's example, or elderly persons with dementia -- what are we left with to talk about regarding what actual human life is like "on the whole"? In other words, if aliens were to set down in the midst of nearly any human community on the planet, they would be bound to discover language-using, art-making, sex-coupling, food-eating, divinity-worshiping, child-rearing, violence-erupting, land-tilling, animal-relating, technology-creating, family-networking, story-telling, group-indwelling creatures we call "human." Of course, not every individual or community can claim every single one of these features. But do these features not tell us something about what human existence is like? Is there not a way to think about and discuss them without slipping into needlessly essentialist (and so prejudicial) talk?

9. Finally, is identification of human being by Homo sapiens DNA really a solution to the historically disputed anthropological alternatives? Was there really no sure way of telling what was human before the last 150 years? Can we not imagine some global catastrophe that would set human civilization back technologically (and thus scientifically) that would render this answer untenable? What of areas of the world where DNA is not a viable cultural idiom? Are their cultural ideas of how to identify human being translatable with this claim?

I'll leave my reflections/questions at that. I look forward to hearing others' thoughts, both those who have read the book and those who have not.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Devendra Banhart

I realized, while I was listening to this older (i.e., not from the last five years) favorite playing the other day, that I have never featured Devendra Banhart for a S.S.P. post. The lyrics are simple, the song equally so, but it's a wonderful song and worth passing along. Enjoy.

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Heard Somebody Say

By Devendra Banhart

I heard somebody say
That the war ended today
But everybody knows it's goin' still

Our motherlands and motherseas,
Here's what we believe

It's simple:
We don't want to kill

Oh, it's simple:
We don't want to kill

Oh, it's simple:
We don't want to kill

Monday, June 13, 2011

Learning the Difference Between Ads and Art from David Foster Wallace

The following quote from David Foster Wallace -- with the point I'm highlighting found, predictably, in a footnote aside, here denoted by an asterisk -- jumped out at me this week as a particularly clear and helpful articulation of a point I've long struggled to put into words:
Whether it honors them well or not, an essay's fundamental obligations are supposed to be to the reader. The reader, on however unconscious a level, understands this, and thus tends to approach an essay with a relatively high level of openness and credulity. But a commercial is a very different animal. Advertisements have certain formal, legal obligations to truthfulness, but these are broad enough to allow for a great deal of rhetorical maneuvering in the fulfillment of an advertisement's primary obligation, which is to serve the financial interests of its sponsor. Whatever attempts an advertisement makes to interest and appeal to its readers are not, finally, for the reader's benefit. And the reader of an ad knows all this, too -- that an ad's appeal is by its very nature calculated -- and this is part of why our state of receptivity is different, more guarded, when we get ready to read an ad.*

*This is the reason why even a really beautiful, ingenious, powerful ad (of which there are a lot) can never be any kind of real art: an ad has no status as gift, i.e. it's never really for the person it's directed at.

(A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments [New York: Back Bay Books, 1997], 288-89, 89n.38)
This seems to me exactly right. It is, on the one hand, an important point for those of us who find ourselves worried by -- and yet also concerned that said worry might by overly critical or moralistic -- the weirdly unreflective enjoyment of commercial advertisements by friends and family (and society in general). On the other hand, it is a sharp reminder for artists who dip their toes -- or more -- into the marketing world that there actually is something at stake in the crossing of that threshold. I am thinking especially of Christians who go into marketing, and of Christian artists involved in the creation and production of ads.

This is not even to mention the sad state (which is only to say the continued existence) of "Christian" as well as church advertising. DFW's indictment should land most squarely here: How can the gospel be artful -- be, as it in fact is and therefore should be presented as, a gift -- if "it's never really for the person it's directed at"? I'm not the first person to say this, but it's high time churches in America rethink their strategies of "getting the word out."

Update: Check out this pertinent exchange from a hitherto unpublished interview with DFW, in today's The New York Review of Books:
OK: Can pure art free of any commercial or propaganda value exist in your opinion?

DFW: I’m suspicious of the word “pure.” It’s a very, very high standard to attach to a word like “art,” given that the basic situation is a continuum. Let me give you an example: my wife is a fantastic artist and painter but she doesn’t attempt to sell her work for a great deal of money. She hasn’t made any attempts to get a lot of galleries or museums to buy her work. She’s had shows and she can sell stuff when she wants, but mainly she makes them as gifts for people. It’s very interesting for me to watch her work. There’s a whole art world in America, where you develop a name and a reputation and your art becomes more and more valuable, and you can end up very wealthy. She’s afraid of that whole process because she believes it will take something out of the art that will make it less fun for her to do. And for her it’s the most important thing of her life.

So she is for me—I’ve only been married two years—watching her work and then going into the garage where I work, and trying to do my work and trying not to think about, “Oh, what does this reviewer from The New York Times say,” to find myself preoccupied and distracted by all kinds of what are really petty and immature and vain distractions is very educational. It may be that the only way in America to produce pure art would be to remove oneself from the public sphere and produce that art only as gifts, where there’s no money involved and no attempt at publicity or publication involved. The problem is that if everyone does that, then there is no public arts here. So it all becomes really a paradox that I’ve spent a lot of the last years thinking about, and I don’t have an answer.

The rest of the interview is worth reading as well.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

On the One Thing Needed to Secure the Church's Existence

As we continue the move-in process and begin to get settled here in New Haven, the posts will remain scant around here for some time more. However, I wanted to offer a very brief comment that is in no way original, but bears repeating.

In Robert Jenson's Canon and Creed, he makes the statement that "the canon without the creed will not serve to protect the church against perversion of the gospel, and neither will the creed without the canon" (p. 32). Similar claims abound, and seem only to provoke counter-claims, concerning what is the "one thing needed" (whether it be an actual single thing or some combination) to somehow ensure, insure, protect, ground, establish, guard, or otherwise solidify the existence, endurance, and faithfulness of the church (or of the individual believer). Whether it be narrative, Scripture, discipline, creeds, creed + canon, magisterium, habits, locality, retreat, family, knowledge, activism, politics, whatever -- some thing or things, construed or combined, believed or possessed or enacted, will inevitably (and, however great a challenge, reliably) secure the life and faith of the church over time.

To repeat the one well-worn response to this omnipresent argument that is worth endorsing: There is no such thing, and never will be.

Not only is something like trustworthy security, however articulated, a mere illusion, a flat impossibility from the start; it simply does not belong to the church's form of life. Signing up for discipleship to Christ rids us at the outset of any expectation of security or enactable longevity. ("Just five easy steps to a faith/church/life you can count on.") Whatever solidity or perseverance our faith or community experiences (a better word would be discovers; the best: receives) will be, without exception, a gift from God beyond our plans and capabilities. Such a gift will itself not be an achievement we can claim, much less a possession we can get our hands around. And it will not be something like ground beneath our feet or a fence around our faith or a roof above our heads. Rather, it will be like birds which do not store away, but are fed, like flowers which do not labor or spin, but rise up beautiful and extravagant out of the soil.

There is, finally -- to conclude with an odd but, I think, representative euphemism -- nothing for the church to hang its hat on except God. All else is either a servant, a signpost, or a mirage thereof.