Occupy Rome: Politics, Ecology, and the New Testament Critique of Empire Part III

This is the second in a series of exerts from a paper I wrote which attempts to offer a reading of several New Testament texts as an eco-political critique of the Roman Empire. You can find the first here and the second here.

Obviously recognizing that the conflict “inherent in the fundamental political-economic religious structure” was “between the Romans and their client Herodian and high priestly rulers on the one hand and the ordinary people on the other” (Horsley, 28), and  with the oppressiveness of the elitist aristocracy ever-present within village environs, Jesus’ primary focus was the poor (Matt. 25:34-36, Mark 10:21-22, Mark 12:41-44, Luke 4:16-19, Luke 6:20-21, Luke 11:39-42, Luke 12:16-21, Luke 14:12-14, Luke 16:19-25, etc.). As such, Jesus, as depicted in the Gospels, is found performatively opposing, scathingly speaking out against, and constantly clashing with the temple and its officials (Matt. 23, Mark 12:38-40, Luke 20:45-47, etc.). Jesus demands social, economic, and political justice. Jesus denigrates the authority of the temple-state, the client kings, Caesar, and the Roman Empire, itself, because of the exploitative and oppressive practices of inequity. Jesus treasonously calls for “the direct rule of God” (the Kingdom of God) over and against the rule/kingdom of Caesar, he demands adequate sustenance, and commands the “cancellation of debts” (i.e. the Lord’s Prayer, Matt. 6:9-13, Luke 11:2-4) (Horsley, 3). In fact, the word used in Greek for ‘kingdom’ (basileia) is also translated as ‘empire’, and was ordinarily the word used for the Roman Empire (i.e. to speak of the ‘Kingdom’ or basileia of Heaven/God is to speak of the Empire of Heaven/God) (Carter, 94). Yet, perhaps, where the Gospels best symbolically illustrate the depth of the political and ecological nature of Jesus’ movement is in the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

All three of the Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 3:13-16, Mark 1:9-11, and Luke 3:21-22) describe a very similar scene as the initiatory moment Jesus’s ministry. The Gospels introduce John the Baptist, who is, himself, an objector to the political-economic structures of the Roman Empire. John, in rejection of the systemic violence of imperial civilization, has withdrawn from society to live in the desert, where he is found ‘preaching,’ openly criticized not only the scribal and pharisaic members of the priestly elite but, also, and especially, the Herodian client king. John has drawn a crowd out into the wilderness to be baptized at the Jordan River. A midst the crowd is Jesus, who has, himself, come into the wilderness to be baptized by John. The imagery of the ‘wilderness’ and the ‘Jordan’ is highly evocative and deeply symbolic, especially in reference to Israel’s past. The wilderness and the Jordan specifically allude to one of Israel’s greatest moments of liberation, the Exodus. Warren Cater notes that both the wilderness and the Jordan are “associated with God’s deliverance of the people from tyranny in Egypt,” a message well-received by a people who are in desperate need of deliverance from the tyrannical oppression of Rome (30). Randall L. Kohls notes that “Israel’s…life as a partner with Yahweh begins in the wilderness, and…it was in the wilderness that Israel was born a nation” (65). Thus, part of what the Gospel writers seem to be suggesting in their depiction of John, Jesus, and the crowd gathering in the wilderness at the Jordan, as Kohls goes on to explain, is the initiation of a brand new Exodus, “the starting point for a new history,” and “a fresh start reminiscent of the deliverance from bondage in Egypt,” that is, the renewal of Israel (68). Yet, what the Gospels depict as transpiring here in the ‘wilderness’ is even more deeply political. John is calling for repentance and offering forgiveness and salvation outside of the temple and without the temple-state officials, negating their hierarchical authority. Given that the high priestly elites, loyally aligned with Rome, profited from the ‘sale’ of forgiveness and salvation via temple taxes, tithes, and the commerce of sacrificial ‘offerings,’ what John is doing is politically subversive. Kohls points out that “by declaring the possibility of forgiveness apart from the temple, John is undermining the system that is functioning in Jerusalem” (69). The Gospel writers seem to be subversively suggesting that salvation is not to be found at the center, “the hub,” the temple, the state, but rather, “at the margins,” in the ‘wilderness’ (Kohls, 69). What is being offered is a radical egalitarian democratization. What is performed in the wilderness at the river Jordan is nothing other than a political protest against the corruption inherent within the temple-state.

Yet, the significance of the ‘wilderness’ is doubled down and is not only political but deeply ecological. Immediately following Jesus’ baptism by John, Jesus retreats into the wilderness for forty days, where he encounters trials and temptations (Matt. 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13). Many exegetes have simply interpreted this vignette of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness as representing little more than a time of preparation and another allusion to the Exodus. However, theologically, symbolically, and especially ecologically, there is far more still to be mined.

In Mark 1:13 the Gospel writer offers a simple four word phrase that may be the key to unlocking and understanding not only the richness of the scene but, perhaps also the entirety of the New Testament’s political-ecological program. The Markan author writes that Jesus was “with the wild animals”. The phrase “with the wild animals” in Greek, ēn meta tōn thēriōn, expresses a filial togetherness, a close kinship, an inter-relationality, a “harmonious coexistence” as M. Eugene Boring makes clear (48). Such a peaceable cohabitation and interdependence between Jesus and the wild animals in the wilderness directly alludes to the mutual interconnectivity found within the Garden of Eden depicted in Genesis, announcing a new beginning, not only a new beginning or renewal of Israel but, the renewal of creation, a whole ‘new creation’ in opposition to the disharmony of imperially oppressed people and “devastated…countryside” (Horsley, 31). Richard Bauckman writes that “Jesus in the wilderness enacts, in an anticipatory way, the peace between the human world and wild nature that is the Bible’s hope for the messianic future” (Bauckman, 76).  In other words, what is being proposed is a radical revamping of society and civilization, a ‘messianic’ call to begin to live into a new political reality of an eco-political eschatology, a kind of ‘utopian’ eschatological expectation of “the righting of all wrongs”, including those done to nature itself (Bauckman, 124). The Gospel writer is illustrating the performative enactment of a realized eschatology within the restructuring of a fully immanent totality (i.e. politics, economy, and environment).

The eschatology expressed within the wilderness scene (both the Baptismal episode at the Jordan and Jesus “with the wild animals”) is the New testament at its most politically ecological, as it affirms that ecology “signifies not nature, but relation” (Bryant,*my emphasis added). The implications are found in “not only extending the range of human participants in political decision-making, but also taking full account of nonhuman participation in the assembling of the social” in an effort “to recognize that nonhumans are already involved” in the social assemblage (Holifield, 653). The social is not a binary opposition to nature but, an emergent event within nature. There is no outside of nature. Everything is always-already ecological. As such, the political ecology of the eschaton’s ‘new creation’ is both a pronouncement and a protest, it is, as Marx might say, “in one mouth the expression of real misery and in another is a protestation against real misery” (3). There is a conscious awareness of present conditions but, is scathingly and subversively critical of them rather than complicit with them. An eschatological eco-politics, thus, proceeds dialectically, because, as Marx elsewhere explains, it “includes in its comprehension an affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state…and is in its essence critical and revolutionary” (Marx, 17). Yet, the revolutionary impetus of the radical politics inherent within the eschaton’s ‘new creation’ may find its clearest expression in the letters of Paul….

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What’s in a Name?: Is ‘God’ in Need of Upgrade or Obsoletion?

I must admit I’m certainly not one of the most original thinkers; a thinker? yes, original? probably not so much. I try to counter-act my apparent lack of originality by at least being well-read. I’m usually reading between 5-7 books simultaneously and I scour the Internet and social media for articles of interest with the hopes of happening upon an unseen connection that may spark a bit of inspiration.

In one of many meanderings into social media and forays into the world-wide-web of information I came across an article on Michael Dowd‘s website entitled, “God is Reality Personified, Not a Person.” A great title for sure and an intriguing read.
In the article Dowd’s primary thesis is simply this: “God is not a person; God is a mythic personification of reality…not an invisible friend or otherworldly entity.” Agreed! He goes on to specify that “ALL images and concepts of God are more or less meaningful interpretations and personifications.” Anthropologically speaking, this point simply can’t be overemphasized.
In this regard, Dowd highlights the fact that “we humans have always been in an inescapable relationship with a Reality that we could neither fully predict nor control.” Similarly, I do think the concept of ‘God’ was an important stepping stone in the evolution of humanity. At one time it was an idea that held an immense functionality (Prof. Lloyd Geering gives a wonderful talk on precisely this point, you can find it here). It served as what Ken Wilber might call a “Theory of Everything”. However, as Wilber explains a good theory of everything is “not fixed or final” but, rather is one “that has served its purpose if it helps you get to a better one” (xiii). In other words, ‘God’ functioned as a kind of a prehistoric/ancient innovative technology, and like most technologies, over time may have become outdated, outmoded, and obsolete. In this regard, I wonder if perhaps theologians, in their total reliance upon what they believe to be the necessary preservation of the ‘God’ hypothesis, are, in effect, trying to force dial-up to function optimally within a Broadband world.
It seems that many theologians and religious thinkers, whether liberal or conservative, radical, orthodox, or heterodox, weave such an elaborate, complex, and, an often contradictory tapestry in an effort to make the idea of ‘God” work, one cannot help but think to ask, “if it takes such an immense amount of effort and strain to justify a particular idea, perhaps the idea itself is fundamentally flawed?” Even though I have garnered much from various theological thinkers and many religious academic or intellectuals, I still wonder if ‘theology’ carries far too much baggage to be genuinely helpful and if ‘God’ is far too value-laden to be of use. Paul Van Buren goes so far as to suggest suggests that terms such as ‘theology’ and ‘God’ are “either meaningless or misleading.” Thus, the more I have ventured into the studies of history, human origins, language, ethology, ethnology, neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, and ecology, the more I think that Geering has a point, perhaps as he suggests ALL ‘talk’ regardless of what it is about cannot be anything other than ‘human talk’, and ‘theology’ is nothing other than anthropology (Geering, 3). (This is not to say, however, that I think that there are not paths to think beyond the ‘human’; see The Ecological ThoughtEcology Without NatureLarvel Subjects.)
It seems then, (although I may be mistakenly oversimplifying) that we have one of three options. Though I can’t say at this time which if any of the three are better or more helpful:
1) neologism  –  in this case that is re-naming ‘God’, inventing new words, phrases, concepts, or ideas to be used in place of ‘God’.  This seems to only offer more confusion rather than more clarity, as it would only be an elite or select few that would maintain any sense of familiarity. Here, I think of Caputo’s “Event”. This is a beautiful concept but, as a friend of mine astutely observed, “what everyday person hears the word ‘God’ and thinks of the event?”
2) re-appropriation – in other words, preserving the verbiage, rhetoric, and ‘name’ of ‘God’ while reformulating its contents and meaning. For example, another friend of mine takes the Paulinian idea, “God IS Love” quite literally, suggesting that whenever and wherever there is love, there is God. In his usage Love is God. Here, he simply uses “God” as a kind of symbolic place holder/synonym for love. While I can sympathize with this move to an extent and while I’m sure this re-appropriation works for him individually. I think it similarly succumbs to the same pitfalls of neologism. There seems to be a break down of practicality, praxis, and performance. We simply do not engage with “god” and “love” in interchangeable ways when observing the realm of everyday religious practice. Love is a verb, not a noun, personal or proper. Love is not and should not be an ‘object’ of devotion, worship, prayer, veneration, or observance. Love is an action, it is enacted, it is performative. (But, in this idea’s defense, perhaps, ‘God’ needs to go through a re-verbing process.)
Dowd, too, alludes to a kind re-appropriation in his article:
[W]e see an enigmatic power operative in our everyday lives, giving us our life and all good gifts yet also limiting us in nearly every conceivable way, and finally taking our lives away. This is real life! This is reality as it really is, whether or not we like it. There can be no argument whether or not this reality exists. If you don’t want to call it a power, call it a force, an up-against-ness, or simply the universe as it really is. As Bultmann points out in his essay, we are not talking about some metaphysical idea here. We are talking about an unavoidable actuality. Words may fail us, but we all know this reality intimately, personally.

Here, Dowd says that “For me to look into the awe-filling fullness of life and pronounce the name “God” means a commitment of my life to reality-based living…Reality is my God, evidence is my scripture, and integrity (living in right relationship with reality and helping others do the same) is my religion.” Yet, Dowd, when quoting Rudolf Bultmann. poses what I think is an important question to consider: “Why call this mysterious power ‘God’? Why give the enigma, the mystery that drives us this way and that and hedges us in, any other name but ‘the enigma’, or ‘fate’?” These are questions I have constantly asked myself when it comes to ‘God’. Perhaps, we should simply let our yes be yes and our no be no, in other words, perhaps, we should simply let ‘Love’ be love, let love stand on its own two feet, unmasked and unfettered. Why can’t we simply let the enigma be the enigma and let mystery be mystery? Are these not strong enough ideas and words on their own? Or am I being hypocritical here? Elsewhere I have written about how much I admire the philosophical use of language, that is, the way in which philosophy dramatical alters the meaning, significance, and content of common place everyday language in ways that are then anything but ordinary.

Finally…
3) rejection/abandonment – letting go of ‘God’, disengaging from its usage, dismissing its utilization, and declining its employment. Many credible thinkers that are steeped in theology suggest just such a route (Geering, Cupitt, etc.). This needn’t be an antagonistic maneuver. It can be reverent as it can recognize that these ‘theorizations’ have been useful in the past but, they have served their purpose.
 As a committed non-theist/atheist I must confess that I greatly lean towards rejection and abandonment, as I have no use spiritual or transcendent aspects of ‘God’ but, as an equally committed academic student of religion I still recognize that there is a kind of ‘power’ and magnanimity in the word and concept of ‘God’, especially in its ability to encapsulate and evoke that which is of ultimate concern.  I cannot say with any absolute certainty that complete rejection is actually the best way forward. I am simply unsure. Consider the immense immanence, materiality, and earthenness found in the following passage by Zen Buddhist priest Brad Warner from his book Hardcore Zen:
 
Everything is sacred. Every blade of grass, every cockroach, every speck of dust, every flower, every pool of mud outside a graffiti-splattered warehouse is God. Everything is a worthy object of worship…Truth announces itself when you kick away a discarded bottle of Colt 45 Malt Liquor. Truth rains on you from the sky above, and God forms in puddles at your feet. You eat God and excrete truth four hours later. Take a whiff—what a lovely fragrance the truth has! Truth is reality itself. God is reality itself. Enlightenment, by the way, is reality itself. And here it is.

Do we replace the word ‘God’? Do we invent whole new trajectories of ‘God’ language? Do we maintain its usage, its structure, and completely overhaul, renovate, and remodel its interior content? Or do we simply walk away, tip our hats, count our losses, and make for the exits, discarding the verbiage by the wayside as mile marker monument to where we have been and how far we have come as a species and culture? I don’t know…

What’s in a name? But, more importantly, where do we go from here?

The Horror of Philosophical Language

In a recent blog post entitled “Philosophical Language“, philosopher Levi Paul Bryant highlights the way in which certain fields and areas of study, especially and specifically philosophy, seem to participate in a kind of subversion of language, that is, the distortion of normalcy in everyday speech. Bryant describes this endeavor as “an athleticism of language,” explaining this to be “an inventiveness that challenges and disrupts  what the analytics call ‘ordinary language'”. To which I respond with an excitedly affirmative “precisely!” This can be witnessed in nearly every philosophical work of merited weight, importance, and vigor. Commonplace words, terms, phrases, and even ideas are packed and loaded with a plethora of seemingly extraneous ‘meaning’, significance, nuance, and subtlety, making language that was commonly and ordinarily understood anything but. Here, as Bryant explains, “Philosophy breaks language from its moorings, sending it flying in new trajectories…and unheard of directions.” We may think we know but, we have no idea.

In one regard, I think this is not so much the insidious desires of the philosopher alone but, may actually be the evolutionary nature of language itself. Here, it would seem that the subversiveness of language with its disruptive un-mooring and inventive new trajectories is indicative of its emergent properties as a ‘complex adaptive system’, that is, a dynamic and fluid system in which behavioral mutations and adaptations evolve, and continue to evolve, individually and communally in conjunction with alteration eliciting events in agency interactions. In other words, language, adapts itself to the necessities, requirements, and demands of changing events within the progressive interactions of agents. Language reflexively twists itself into new permutations aiding agency in its ability to adapt to changes within the environment.
Lacan’s theory of the symbolic order proves useful here when he explains that “language is not man’s creation and instrument, it is man who ‘dwells’ in language.” Said another way, Laurie Anderson supposed that “Language is a virus”. It continually replicates itself, spreading infectiously, and the more we try immunize ourselves with its understanding the more it mutates into ever more resistant forms. It would appear that we may be in a kind of parasitic relationship with language, language is a parasite and we are the host. If this is the case language was never ‘ordinary’, never safe but, always already twisted, disturbing, and disruptive.
This, in a way, seems to be in keeping with what Bryant is suggesting when he proposes that Philosophy’s ability to disturb the commonplace usage of ordinary language is “always a bit grotesque and shares a resemblance to science fiction; even before science or fiction existed.” In his book, In the Dust of this Planet, Eugene Thacker attempts to outline and explicate Philosophy’s ‘sci-fi’ underpinnings and methodology, which also seems to go a long way in uncovering and explaining philosophy’s ‘monstrous’ use of language. He does this through horror…
Thacker writes that “one of the greatest challenges that philosophy faces today lies in comprehending the world in which we live as both a human and a non-human world – and of comprehending this politically.” Thacker expounds,
On the one hand, we are increasingly more and more aware of the world in which we live as a non-human world, a world outside, one that is manifest is the effects of global climate change, natural disasters, the energy crisis, and the progressive extinction of species world-wide. On the other hand, all these effects are linked, directly and indirectly, to our living in and living as a part of this non-human world.

Zizek writes that “speech does not only register or express a traumatic psychic life; the entry into speech is in itself a traumatic fact.” Zizek continues saying that “speech tries to cope with the traumatic impact of speech itself.” However, Zizek goes on to state that this reciprocity should also be reversed, stating that, “speech does not simply express/articulate psychic turmoils; at a certain point, psychic turmoils themselves are a reaction to the trauma of dwelling in the ‘torture-house of language’.”  Thacker suggests that this seems to be illustrated by the ‘fear’ induced by horror, or, more specifically, the horror genre. Here, Thacker proposes that “horror be understood not as dealing with human fear in a human world (the world-for-us), but that horror be understood as being about the limits of the human as it confronts a world that is not just a World, and not just the Earth, but also a Planet (the world-without-us).” Horror is indicative of the unknowable, the ineffable, “the paradoxical realization of the world’s hiddenness as an absolute hidenness” (Thacker, 171). This is the experience of the confrontation with an ecological totality that is ultimately and primarily ‘non-human’. Thus, Thacker proposes that this is “the paradoxical thought of the unthinkable” and “In so far as it deals with this limit of thought, encapsulated in the phrase of the world-without-us, horror is ‘philosophical’.” As such, horror is nothing short of an “attempt to think about the world-without-us philosophically.” Here, philosophy is horror, and horror is philosophy, in so far as it bears an air of mysticism, becoming a kind of ‘secularized/atheistic’, negative or apophatic theology.

If this is the case, as Thacker suggests and Byant alludes, then how else could such a realm be explored or thought about but by the contagion of an infectious linguistic viral fluxing, the grotesque mutations of philosophical speech, the twisted and tumultuous inexpressibility of traumatic trajectories, and the whole new, ‘wholly other’ disturbing directions of a mysterium tremendum. Language, in symbiosis with philosophers, becomes like elves transformed to Orcs, once serene, beautiful, majestic, and regal creatures “taken by the dark [daemonic or daimonic] powers, tortured and mutilated” evolving into a brand new species aimed at ending the reign of man, that is, revealing the ecological essence of the world. As Thacker elucidates, this is not “the world-for-us” of the ‘World’, nor is it the “world-in-itself” of the Earth, but a nebulous in-between, “impersonal and horrific,” it is the “world-without-us” of the Planet.
Zizek suggests that “Language, by itself, is lying.” “[H]ow” then, “does one rethink the world as unthinkable? – that is, in the absence of the human-centric point of view, and without an over-reliance on the metaphysics of being,” as Thacker asks? Here, Zizek expanding upon Elfriede Jelinek answers, saying “‘Language should be tortured to tell the truth.’ It should be twisted, denaturalized, extended, condensed, cut, and reunited, made to work against itself.” In between gods and monsters may we summon challenge and disruption, invention and subversion, with the horror of philosophical language.

Ecology of the Incarnation: A/theology, Ecocriticism, and the Gospel

A few months ago was involved in a discussion in which I was being asked to explain my commitment to veganism/vegetarianism. Throughout the course of the conversation I focused primarily upon ecology but, peppered my dialogue with religious, or more specifically Christian symbols, rhetoric, and language. Although, I did my my undergrad in Religious Studies, I am something of an outspoken atheist/non-theist/post-theist, a fact my conversation partner was all too aware. Needless to say my extended reliance of ‘Gospel’ language struck my associate as odd and questioned the intentionality of it use in our dialogue. Below is a bit of my explanation and response. I welcome your thoughts. Enjoy!
My use of gospel language is both intentional and habitual. This is indicative of my background and my residual framework. It still is something of a lense through a view things. But, there is something else going on that is intended. I remain sympathetic to not only the gospel language but, the impetus of what I believe the gospel tradition to be. Ecology, has, for me, allowed for a methodological bridge to discursively and dialogically reconcile my Atheism and my latent Christianity into something of a reflexive union. It provides me ethical practices but, it also opens the door for my atheistic ethicality, rooted in philosophic materialism (i.e. reality comprised of matter and energy), to have an enriched significance through an ecological or ecocritical partnership with Christian symbols.
For example, the incarnation, the idea that God became man, the Word became flesh, is the utter embodiment of God. This is the most philosophically materialistic of any of Christianity’s theological concepts or ideas, as its operative significance is wholly hinged upon divinity merging completely and bodily with ‘earthenness’. Here, God becomes indistinguishable from ‘creation’ and is kenotically self-emptied into the world and into matter. The ousia specific and essential to the incarnation “is not only specifically human, it is also creaturely” (10, *my emphasis added). This is because, as Sallie McFague makes clear, “the model of the body includes all life-forms, indeed, all matter on our planet,” and thus, the “body is a model that links us with everything in the most intimate way” (17). Thus, the modus operandi of the incarnation is not ‘God’ become ‘man’, this would be a diminution of the radical and revolutionary potentiality of the incarnation as its severely limits its scope.  Instead it is God become ‘creaturely’. The incarnation is ecology. This means that the applicability of the concepts and ‘ideas’ of incarnation, redemption, even resurrection do not and cannot stop at the door of the human. It does and must extend down to literally everything ‘earthen’. The orphan, the widow, and the stranger is synonymous with the sow, the calf, and the hen, the land, the water, and the air, dispossessed and disenfranchised. Who are ‘the least of these’ equated as the disguised ‘Christ’ anything and everything in need, ravaged by the wiles of empire, and voicelessly defenseless;  the ground hungry and needing something to eat, thirsty and needing something to drink; the environment itself as a stranger, or what Timothy Morton aptly calls “strange strangers”, needing to be invited in; the land stripped naked and yearning to be clothed; species in prison and sick needing to be visited. Who is my neighbor? All of the above and more.
Here, I’m trying to extend the circle of care and concern wider than simply our own species, realizing that the human/non-human/animal dichotomy is a false binary. Here, I’ve often quipped that I am religious but not spiritual. Although this is stated with a bit of sarcasm it is quite evocative of my position, I am devout, not in the way of a commitment religious institutions, dogma, or doctrine, but in the way of being devoted to the rigorous routinization of  ‘ritualized observances’ (terms used loosely) of moral and ethical praxis. This to me is essential to any and all philosophies, how is it lived out? Where, when, how, and what does it look like with boots on the ground, and carried through to their fullest conclusions? If it doesn’t translate into practical application and the alteration of one’s engagement with what Husserl referred to as the “life-world” I greatly question its validity and usefulness.
Linzey, Andrew. Animal Theology. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995. Print.

McFague, Sallie. The Body of God: An Ecological Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993. Print.

The Fray: A Weaver’s Dilemna

Almost a week ago I came across a blog post that an associate of mine shared on Facebook. The post, written by Patheos blogger Ryan Bell, was entitled “Watch Me Unravel“. Here, Bell discusses the ‘unraveling’ experience of one’s whole world view of ultimate concern coming undone and the temptation of nihilism that comes along with it. These grand and over-arching narratives are the myths in which we live by. As author Daniel Quinn makes clear, “A culture,” is nothing more than “a people enacting a story”. These ‘stories’ provide us with the means of describing and defining who and what we are, how it all works, and what it all means. In some cases they are the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves to make ourselves believe. And when these stories, these narratives, these world views come apart at the seams it is the deepest agony of existential angst. It is the feeling Nietzsche described of the Earth being unchained from its sun, moving where we know not, “Backwards, sideward, forward, in all directions…plunging continually,” not knowing up from down, “straying as through an infinite nothing,” set adrift on an infinitely boundless sea of an horizonless ocean without an objective or ultimate guide, without an absolute or supreme compass. To quote Qoholeth, it is “Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly Meaningless!”.

Bell explains his own process of coming undone. Brought on by the severe “cognitive dissonance” of his irreconcilable and incongruent religious worldview, Bell began the arduously paradigmatic undertaking of unraveling; moving from fundamentalist to liberal Christianity, and beyond, eventually arriving at a kind of humanistic post-theism.

My initial thought after reading Bell’s blog was “This is my story!” My own experience of dissonant unraveling is a mirrored parallel to that outlined by Bell. I grew up, born and raised, completely enmeshed by the pentecostal/charismatic brand of Christian religious fundamentalism, though something always seemed a miss and askew in my relationship with this community but, I knew nothing else. The older I grew, the more I probed, until my questions became bigger than the confines of such a devoutly conservative sect. When I could no longer ethically align myself with the theology and soteriology of this fundamentalist church I made my exodus. I briefly experimented with forming something of a house church. A small group of individuals would meet at my home every other week with the distinct and determined purpose of reexamining, reevaluating, and critically analyzing our faith. It was a constant struggle and it fell apart almost as quickly as it came together. I chalked it up to my own lack of knowledge and so I made the decision to go back to school to study religion. About this time I made my way to a very liberal ‘open and affirming’ UCC church. I was reading voraciously,  New Testament scholarship, Biblical criticism, theology, philosophy,  sociology,  anthropology,  and the list goes on and on. I made a special connection with the UCC pastor and under his recommendation I began studying process theology, himself being a rather committed process person. This was a refreshing perspective at the time and I began to adopt a more panentheistic approach. Still my questioning continued never completely satisfied by any theological position I came across. Finally, it occurred to me that all these divergent theologies were complex and elaborate attempts to make the ‘God’ idea plausibly functional. I began to think that if it took such an extreme amount of effort to make the concept of God work, then perhaps it simply wasn’t an idea worth keeping, perhaps it simply didn’t work. Thus, I began to seriously explore atheism and at last this made sense, this truly resonated with me deeply, it was like coming home.

Obviously, Bell’s story not only struck me but, also stuck with me. I commented to the post with the following response:

“The unraveling I’ve come to embrace and even appreciate, I’ve also come to accept and understand pessimism and nihilism as valid and conducive philosophical positions. However, what continues to be a great difficulty is the lonely and isolated placelessness.”

To which a Facebook friend commented in kind, saying:

” I have been able to “re-knit” the yarn into a humanist/naturalist worldview that, while it doesn’t provide much optimism, there still are small glimpses of hope interspersed. The “sweater” I’m reconstructing is helping me to value each day more, knowing that time is a precious commodity.”

Since then I’ve not only continued to ponder the post but, also the comments above.

I sympathize with these sentiments and yet, I remain skeptical of “re-knitting”. These ‘knitted’ or ‘woven’ “sweater” worldviews, even when reconstructed from the remnants of an un-threaded system, still seem to maintain the scent or lingering specter of what Lacan refers to as the Big Other. Here, two other blog posts I read recently touch and expand upon this point: the first by philosopher Levi Paul Bryant simply titled “Atheism” and the second, “I Believe in Gods” by Kester Brewin.

Bryant explains that for him atheism is not “a thesis about religion,” nor is it “a thesis about the supernatural or the magical or the divine,” but rather “a thesis about masters.” Bryant explains that ‘atheism’ is ” a rejection of all masters, whether they be divinities, kings, fathers, mothers, intellectual figures we fawn over; anything raised over the rest.” “Atheism,” then, Bryant writes “is the recognition that there is no being, divine of otherwise, that is deserving of the place of master or sovereign.” In this regard, Bryant details that what atheism positively affirms is “a commitment to fraternity and sorority and other unheard of ways of relating to humans and nonhumans on a flat plane“.
Thus, Bryant elaborates that “atheism” is not simply “a synonym for that which rejects myth and magic” but, “is a synonym for anarchism, that which is without arche or sovereign…it is a synonym for those that would fight any would-be gods, whether they be divinities or fathers or kings of leaders.” Therefore, Bryant concludes that “Atheism targets not so much an end to divinities…as an end to fathers, kings, mothers, and masters…It wills only an egalitarianism of actors.”
Likewise, Brewin acknowledges that we are surrounded and inundated by the the ecosystem of Big Other systems, saying that “all around us are people who are living in service of and devotion to gods,” that is, what Bryant calls “masters” and the “worldviews” Bell analogously references as being ‘sweater-like’. Here, Brewin, too, proposes an anarchistic, bottom-up criticism from below which resists, rejects, and revolts against “the dehumanising demands of divinity” and “the systems that we have put ourselves in service of,” stating that “the most human thing we can do – and thus, paradoxically, the most godly – is to lay down our devotion to these gods” and to actively seek “the death of all gods.” Perhaps, we should, as Nietzsche suggested, philosophize with a hammer.
This raises several questions for me: isn’t every ‘weaving’ or ‘re-weaving/re-knitting’ of a ‘sweater/worldview’ an act of constructing yet another master, god, or Big Other? And, if so, wouldn’t any ‘sweater’ I could construct or knit deserve to be unraveled?
Perhaps, it is better, or at least more honest, to simply sit Shivah among the strands, falling fallow amidst the frayed, fragmented, and fractured fibers.
Perhaps, we should theologize with scissors.
Perhaps we should devote ourselves to what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “the art of suffering.”
Perhaps, we should learn what Rob Bell has termed “the art of failure”.
Perhaps, we should adopt what is known in Navajo culture as the practice of ch’ihonit’i. The word translates to mean “there is an exit; there is an outlet; there is a way out”. In the Navajo weaving tradition chi’ihonit’i is what Jill Ahlberg Yohe defines as a “purposeful mistake,” in which the weaver purposefully leaves or creates a flaw in the piece, such as an unfinished or frayed corner. It is believed that this creates an outlet or an exit for the spirit that gave rise to its construction to escape; it is not pigeonholed to the piece,not constrained by the construct. As Yohe explains that this practice simultaneously materializes “the positive attributes of human imperfection and humility,” while also creating “a symbolic path for the survival of the weaving tradition to continue into the future.” This culture proposes that perfection is not something to be desired or even sought, as it is ultimately a negation of our humanity.
Perhaps, everything we construct should be purposefully flawed. Perhaps everything we do should intentionally fail and fall short.
Perhaps, every ‘sweater’ knit should be deliberately frayed and prone to unravel.
This is our outlet, our exit, our escape, our means or making sure that whatever Big other, be it god, master, father, mother, ‘sweater’, worldview, that we are unconsciously serving, which may have even inspired our constructs, can be exorcised. And we are allowed to always remain open to the process of a new, continual, and perhaps even an infinite and indefinite unraveling.

Protest of the “Nones”: Religious Disavowal as Social Critique

Due to the incredulous pace of my normative work-a-day life, between wife, kids, work, school, and all that comes with them, there is often an immense gap between the event in which an idea for a post is sparked and its actual construction. The negative of this is that sometimes the post verges upon being outdated before it is ever published, however, interestingly enough, what often occurs as a result of this delay is that the initial event and the originating idea begin to correlate and connect themselves to other unpublished thoughts and events that otherwise may have appeared to be unrelated. This writing is certainly one such example. With that in mind, I hope you will excuse the fact that portions of this writing are based on news stories that are now almost a month or so old. Yet, I hope you will alos still see the relevancy that they still maintain. Enjoy!

A few months back I was reading a fantastic book by Jenifer Michael Hecht called Doubt.In this work Hecht offers an in depth historical overview of the greatest doubters of the world throughout the ages. There were so many elucidating passages that years worth of blog posts could be composed of all the impacting snippets.
One such passage that was particularly striking came from a section of the book highlighting the work of Fredrick Douglas. Here Hecht quotes a portion of a speech Douglas gave in 1852 entitled “The Meaning of Fourth of July for the Negro.” Douglas states the following:
The church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors…. For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! Welcome atheism! Welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by these Divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke put together have done!
Douglass then goes goes on to say that the antislavery movement will cease to be an antichurch movement as soon as the churches join the antislavery movement. So far, he howls, “YOUR HANDS ARE FULL OF BLOOD.”
These words penned by Douglas are stirring to say the least and they have remained stored in the back of mind since I read them. Douglas’s critique gets to the very heart of the way in which many religions, and Christianity in particular have blatantly betrayed the tenets of its own tradition, favoring power, exploitation, and oppression over compassion, equality, and justice. In his own words this is precisely why the antislavery movement was also an antichurch movement, because the church had failed to stand on the side of the antislavery movement, choosing instead to remain complacently tucked into the deep pockets of the powerful. Though slavery has been abolished his words are no less cutting, no less poignant, and no less relevant. The church has continued to neglect its duty to serve those that are the refuse of a greedy capital driven society, choosing instead to continue its apathetic stance within the comfort and security of consumeristic civilization.
The prick of Douglas’s commentary became all the more clear when I came across a news article several weeks ago describing how activists from the Occupy London movement chained themselves to the pulpit in St. Paul’s cathedral. It seems that during a Sunday service on the anniversary of the forced dismantling of the Occupy encampment formerly located outside the cathedral, four women dressed in white entered St. Paul’s and chained themselves to the historic pulpit. Written upon a white umbrella held by one the protestors were the words “throw the money changers out of the temple.” Simultaneously similar signs and banners were held outside of the cathedral. Surely such measures would have pleased Douglas, as it seems to be a performative enactment of his brand of  protesting a/theology.

If this were not enough of a correlation, when the Occupy encampment was forcibly removed by legal means the protestors released a statement “accusing the cathedral authorities,” in Douglasian fashion, “of neglecting their Christian duty by siding with the rich and powerful.” The Occupy activists stated, “In the fight for economic justice, Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple, but you invited them and instead evicted us.” Rather than unite with those that could very well be they’re greatest allies the Church once again chose to align itself with the elite idols of the empire. In a centuries old occurrence of Stockholm Syndrome the church continues to hold the hand of its captors, embracing tyranny, inequality, injustice, and playing the part of a harlot, going to bed with capitalism.

Is it then any wonder that a group that is on its way to becoming the fastest growing, and the second largest, religious affiliations is a group that adamantly claims no religious affiliation. This demographic known as the religious “Nones” now account for one in five American adults. One article also points out that “Now, more than one-third of those ages 18 to 22 are religiously unaffiliated. These ‘younger millennials’ are replacing older generations who remained far more involved with religion throughout their lives.” These under-thirty individuals have no interest in identifying themselves religiously and no desire to “label themselves in any way when it comes to their faith or lack thereof.” They do not see themselves as being a part of any religion. While “Nones” are not necessarily antagonistic towards religion(many do in fact think that churches as well as religious and faith based communities can and do make positive contributions to society), the common consensus voiced by 70% of the “Nones”, however, is one that remains suspicious and distrustful of religious institutions, stating that they “believe…religious institutions are too focused on money, power, rules, and politics.”
In an interview in September of this year even former Catholic Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini himself stated that “Our culture has aged, our churches are big and empty and the church bureaucracy rises up, our rituals and our cassocks are pompous.” Martini went one to say that “The Church must admit its mistakes and begin a radical change.”
This seems to sharply coincide with Gallup poll findings which indicate that U.S. confidence in religion is at an all time low and that most Americans believe religion is losing clout. Its seems now that some 56% of Americans express having little to no confidence in religious institutions. Though this should come as no surprise, especially given the rapid and dramatic rise of the “Nones”, it seems remarkable when compared to the statistics of just seven years ago when 50% of Americans believed that the influence of religion was on the “upswing.” Yet, as one reviews the near five decade span of this question being posed, one will unavoidably see the indication of a distinct downward trend. This could be indicative of not only a further move into a post-Christian and post-ecclesiastical world but, potentially a movement towards a post-religious world.

Perhaps then, revisiting the critique of Fredrick Douglas, Occupiers, Activists, Millennials, Protestors, and “Nones” will all cease to be anti-church movements when the church becomes part of anti-capitalist, anti-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian, and anti-corporate movements, joining the fight against the social and economic inequality and injustice rather than supporting the systems and structures that perpetuate and uphold oppression and exploitation. I would venture so far as to say that those who oppose the church and other religious institutions will cease to do so when the church begins to oppose itself, dialectically negating its own structures and traditions and in essence becoming anti-church itself.

Dialogues of a Christian Atheist, pt.1

Last week I released a post entitled “I Don’t Believe in God but, I Take Jesus Seriously.” This entry managed to stir quite a bit of dialogue, discussion, and debate between myself and a few close friends. It was nice to know that something I wrote helped to solicit and foster such an engaging discourse. As a result I thought it might be beneficial to share several portions of this conversation. Feel free to interject.

I should also preface what follows by saying that I am in no way philosophically or theologically learned enough to significantly, meaningfully, or effectively participate in the argumentation of such a rich and complex subject, so feel free to disagree and throw away anything I have to say. Nearly 80% of what I say is 95% bullshit 50% of the time. (Did I mention math really isn’t my strong suit either?)

Directly below you’ll find the comments of one of my friends to the aforementioned post, after which will be my response. Enjoy!

 Isn’t the fact of accepting the concept of a incomprehensible God still a construct of your imagination and hence putting you into the same dilemma? Seems like a paradox to me. Could it be more that we were created to look upon him with our own imaginations so that we might learn how much bigger he is than we can conceive and hence realize the magnitude and vastness of the eternal form? (God) my 2 cents…

Yes and no.To start, the idea that you present in your concluding remarks does not evade the paradoxical either, but falls neatly inside as a further example. Steeped within the very rhetoric of your expression is found the very traditional image of a creative Male/Patriarchal, omnipotent, supernatural being that has imbued humanity with wonder and imagination. This is just as much a cognitive construction as any other.

Thus, to be free of paradox is an unattainable objective. One could say that existence itself is an entangled mesh of contradiction, paradox, and that which is often found to be counter-intuitive. Paradox is inescapable. Also, in many ways the reconciliation or resolution of paradox is phenomenologically and existentially irrelevant, i.e. often it has little to no bearing in one’s lived experience of the world.

Too, I’m not sure that I’m “accepting” the concept of an incomprehensible God.What I am suggesting is not a critique of “a” conception but, a critical objection to “all” conceptions, as such that no conception is free of subjective construction. To quote Paul Van Buren once again, the word God itself is either “meaningless or misleading.” I’m not rejecting a particular idea of God but the idea of God itself. Nor am I proposing that God is utterly inconceivable of infinitely beyond conception. I’m suggesting that perhaps “God” simply isn’t there.

This is not to caste conceptions of God in a harsh light. I am not saying that one should be required to abandon their ideas of God (as would a Dawkins or a Hitchens). What I am asking for is the acknowledgement that there is no conception of the divine that is not personally posited. There is no God that “exists” (for lack of better word) that was not brought into existence by those who believe that God exists. Perhaps, then, a more accurate rendering of the opening lines of Genesis should read, “In the beginning, when man created God…”

To be clear, however, this should not be read as an attack. I’m not opposing theism. I’m not opposing religion. I don’t believe in God and here I am very intentional in my use of the word “believe.” It is just that, a belief, and one that I choose to lend ascent to in the way that a theist would “choose” to believe in God. It is a decisive move. I choose this path of “rejection” for much the same reasons that “believer” would choose affirmation. It is existentially provisional. It instills something ( I use this word loosely) within my being that is transformative to both my material reality and my engagement with the world. I am compelled to love more deeply, called to a more critical concern, if my hands are the only means by which love enters the world.

My stance is ultimately one of utility and pragmatism, as all such beliefs are. I am concerned with functionality. If holding a conception God lures one to love, then I will stand in affirmation of that system of belief. If it takes there being a “God” for one to love their neighbor as themselves then I will abide in solidarity that person’s belief. If a six day creation and a literal, infallible, and inspired “Word of God” causes one to love their enemy, to feed the hungry, to cloth the naked, and to stand with the orphan, the widow and the stranger, then by all means cling to that but, do so with an open hand and a humble heart. For me, however, the absence of the Big Other is more alluring action. To fill the void left by the absence of the divine compels me to a deeper place of calling more so than the “presence” of any idea of deity ever could.

Perhaps tomorrow I will awaken to a renewed sense of imbibed theism. Perhaps years from now I will look upon these writings as the confused ramblings of a mixed up kid and as the confessions of a damaged mind but, for now, if I am honest with myself, with those whom I love and care for, and with those who love and care for me, this is a space in which I feel I MUST dwell, if for nothing else than for a season.