Friday, June 24, 2011

Jesus is the Way & the Way Jesus is

Radical Centrist Manifesto V
II. Centered on Jesus, Part 3: The Way Jesus is

It is not enough to affirm Jesus as the Way. We must also tend to the way Jesus is. Among other things that way is the way of life and peace. “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6). It is harder to get around Jesus' nonviolence and that of his earliest followers than some would like.

Jesus’ birth was heralded with the hope of peace: "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" Luke 2:14

He notoriously commanded his followers: "But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt." (Luke 6:27-29)

When he approached Jerusalem, he wept over it, saying, "If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” Luke 19:41-42

To his followers he said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” John 14:2

And his follower and apostle, Paul, seems to have taken the message to heart:

"Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery are in their paths, and the way of peace they have not known." Romans 3:15-17

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord. No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Romans 12:17-18

To live the way Jesus is toward the center where Jesus is means to follow the example of the Self-emptying One (Philippians 2) who died for us even while we were enemies of God (Romans 5:10) and even prayed for those who were killing him :“Father forgive them, for they no not what they do.” (Luke 13:34) Have you ever wondered if that prayer was answered? Or did the Father ignore the Son?

We can dare to live into this way because we believe Jesus when he said, “And I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!"(John 16:23) If he has conquered the world we do not need to. Nor do we need to live in fear or retaliation.

The peace of Jesus is inner peace. If we really believe that he has conquered the world and that he is with us always, we can receive his spirit of peace, letting go of the inner agitation of worry, defensiveness, and anger and, instead, cultivating the fruit of peace in our life.

But it is not just inner peace, it is interpersonal and relational, it is public and political. It is the meek and merciful who are blessed. It is the peacemakers who are children of God.

Thus all forms of violence – in thought, word, and deed – are out of place in the center with Jesus. Our thoughts about and toward others should be of peace, our words and actions should reflect peace. And in the world generally we should be about peace.

Does that mean absolute non-violence? I am persuaded that particpation in violence moves us away from the center. But even if we were to decide that some kinds of violence are necessary and justifiable for Christians, I think we should be much more critical of appeals to violence (Here is the sermon I preached just before the invasion of Iraq: Taking Up the Cross in a Time of War). And we should be distrustful of the appeal violence has to our imaginations.

But war is not the only kind of violence. If the mind set against God participates in death, the mind set on the spirit is about life and peace. I am persuaded that that means a consistent ethic of life and peace (See Consistent Life) that seeks to live counter the culture of death: war, the death penalty, euthanasia, abortion, and other realities like racism and poverty that diminish the life and peace of persons.

Another thing that Conservatives and Liberals/Progressives have in common is the peace they have made with violence. Both, in their way, are enamored with the idea that violence is necessary and redemptive. The NRA (National Rifle Association) and NARAL (National Abortion Rights League) have more in common than just some initials. Both believe in the right of individuals to resort to violence against an unwelcome intruder. Both defend the sacrifice of some for the sake of others. But, if Jesus has offered the perfect sacrifice then we do not need to continue to sacrifice one another (See No More Sacrifices).

That is not an easy way. It is the way of the cross. It is the way Jesus is.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Squatting Demon of Notre Dame

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I don't have much in the way of profound comment on this picture. I'm posting it here because I think it is interesting and fun. It is a picture I took of part of the Last Judgment scene on the main portal of Notre Dame de Paris. It was probably sculpted some time in the first half of the 13th century.

It is a picture of a demon squatting over a bishop and a king. The two earthly worthies are among the damned and this is their fate. The demon, squatting with her hands on her knees, appears to be about to urinate (at least) on their heads as they look up in dismay. It is quite funny actually. It would have originally been painted in bright colors and must have made quite am impression on folk as they entered the cathedral for worship. I imagine commoners got a kick out of seeing the powers-that-be tweaked in this way.

A few thoughts:

1. This counters what I think is probably a common impression that the medieval church was humorless. There is humor here, even at the church's expense.

2. Even as part of this magnificent, inspiring place of worship, humor was considered appropriate including in the awesome and fearful tableau of the Last Judgment.

3. Presumably the bishop had to approve this.

4. Even in the stratified, hierarchical world of the Middle Ages, it was accepted that all were equal in the sight of God and equally subject to divine scrutiny.

5. Bishops and other church officials along with kings and other nobility would have been reminded regularly that their authority was held in trust and subject to judgment.

6. It must have been particularly gratifying for commoners to be reminded that those who lorded it over them in this life would be called to account in the next.

7. Thus, those in power could, in theory anyway, be held accountable in this life.

8. It is no less true today that those who have been entrusted with authority ecclesial or political or otherwise should remember that they are accountable. There is a Judge who judges all. Who knows if that means you might end up with a grotesque, laughing demon squatting over your head. But, I wouldn't take the judgment lightly.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Story and Other Stories

Radical Centrist Manifesto IV
II. Centered on Jesus, Part 2: The Story and Other Stories

Lesslie Newbigin was a missionary and bishop in South India. He is a favorite of mine. In describing his experience in evangelizing people of other faiths, Newbigin said, "I approach them by saying I would like to tell you my beautiful stories about God and I would like for you to tell me your beautiful stories about God." It is a wonderful approach exhibiting a welcome humility, generosity and hospitality. It acknowledges that whatever beautiful truth we think we have to offer the world; we are bound to find beauty and truth elsewhere.

There is indeed beauty and truth elsewhere. I have read and reread the Damapada and the Tao te Ching. I've read the Analects of Confucius and the Bhagavad Gita. I have learned much from Buddhist authors like Thic Nhat Hahn, Ajahn Chah, and Sharon Salzberg. I sometimes pray using a Christianized version of metta meditation. As for beautiful stories, I've particularly enjoyed Journey into the West featuring the impetuous Monkey along with the Ramayana and Mahabharata and others. I confess I have not read the whole Koran. I have, however, spoken in person and exchanged beautiful stories with Moslems (what I said in one of those instances is here). I have been inspired, informed and edified by many of these beautiful stories. I believe that the Holy Spirit sings in and through many of them. Listening carefully and respectfully to their wisdom can be edifying.

It is tempting to leave it at that. It is tempting to claim that all these stories along with the ones Lesslie Newbigin told about Jesus and Christianity are equally beautiful and equally true. It is a popular approach. Among some who identify as "progressive" it is something of a shibboleth. But it does not actually work. I have written elsewhere about The Impossibility of Religious Pluralism. When we try to claim all stories are equally beautiful, we are just ignoring the fact that we actually have in the back of our minds another overarching story that incorporates all those lesser stories and that we consider even more beautiful. We use our own overarching story to measure the relative beauty and truth of other stories. There is no escaping this.

I know we have been told that we live in an age in which there are no metanarratives. I do not believe it. Everyone lives by some metanarrative. I doubt it is even true that there are no longer public metanarratives that we hold in common. I suspect we have just become less conscious of the metanarratives by which we live. And that is a problem.

Christians believe that all creation is part a central beautiful story spoken by a three-personed God who is love. This story centers on the self-emptying incarnation of God in the person of Jesus. Christians believe that to be the most true and most beautiful story. All other beautiful stories participate more or less in that story and are measured by it. It was always Lesslie Newbigin's hope that in exchanging beautiful stories others would be persuaded to see this and make the story of Jesus their own.

Christians should not embrace an exclusive, hermetically sealed version of truth that can learn from no one else. Christians would do well to look more carefully at the beauty of other stories and be open to learning from them. But still we claim that the story of Jesus Christ is at the center of all. He is the Way, the Truth, the Life. We claim - humbly, reverently, and gently if we are to be true to the story - that Jesus (as interpreted by scripture, the creeds, and the lives of the saints) remains Lord and the measure of all other stories.

That is not just the case with other "religious" stories. It includes the beautiful stories we are told by Wall Street, Madison Avenue and the Pentagon. It includes the beautiful stories of America and every other nation-state that would claim our ultimate loyalty. It also includes the beautiful stories we tell ourselves to justify ourselves or to affirm our own prejudices. Accepting the idea that all stories are equal, actually serves the purposes these other powers and keeps them off the hook.

Let us be prepared to see the beauty in all stories. But let's not kid ourselves or others that we believe all stories are equally beautiful and equally true or that we do not ourselves have a story that we live by and believe to be more beautiful and true. Christians centered on Jesus Christ should not be embarrassed to claim that we have a story to live and to share - the most eautiful story of all.

I came across the following related quotation from Newbigin:
I more and more find the precious part of each day to be the thirty or forty minutes I spend each morning before breakfast with the Bible. All the rest of the day I am bombarded with the stories that the world is telling about itself. I am more and more skeptical about these stories. As I take time to immerse myself in the story that the Bible tells, my vision is cleared and I see things in another way. I see the day that lies ahead in its place in God’s story.
A Word in Season: Perspectives on Christian World Missions
(h/t Writing in the Dust)

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Related: Beyond Velcro and Teflon, there is a Shepherd

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Trinity and Hildegarde's Vision of the Man in Sapphire Blue

The picture on the home page of this blog is a representation of a vision recounted by the remarkable Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179) which reveals something of God while maintaining something of the mystery. It is my favorite image of the Trinity. At first it is an aesthetic attraction. The deep blue is beautiful and peaceful. The radiating circles of orange and lavender focus the eye on the figure, but then also to draw the eye back out.

The image is dynamic. There is a sense of movement. It is difficult to tell if the circles are radiating from the figure or, in some sense, moving toward and into him. Perhaps it is possible for it to be both. The Sapphire figure seems to be coming toward us. The whole effect makes the picture pleasant to look at.

The Man in Sapphire Blue has an attraction that goes beyond the blueness. The figure has an aura of compassion. The eyes are large and somewhat sad. The hands are offered open in a sort of invitation as if for an embrace, beckoning us to enter with him into the mystery. Hildegarde, like other medieval people of deep prayer – both male and female – refers to the “embrace of God’s maternal love.” There is tenderness in that phrase that matches the face and posture of the figure.

The Man of Sapphire is Jesus. In this a vision of the Trinitarian mystery, Jesus Christ is the focus. The flame and light as the Father and Spirit, though they encircle and draw attention to Christ, are in the background. While Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of the Father, he becomes the prism through which we know the Father. And while Jesus is full of the Spirit, that Spirit is most fully known to us as the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

In the vision, the Sapphire Christ hangs down from the background circle of light which represents the Father – the “font of divinity” according to the Eastern Orthodox tradition. It is as if Jesus, the Son, is in the womb of the Father. Proceeding from center of the background circle of the Father is another circle, orange like fire, which Hildegarde identifies as the Holy Spirit.

Deborah Vess suggests:
The circles are superimposed on a square, which has four corners, and is, therefore, reminiscent of the earth itself. Also, squares provide a feeling of stability. The union of the circle and square, a common motif in many cultures, represents that harmony of heaven and earth. As Christ is in the center, the suggestion here is that Christ unites heaven and earth -- he was fully divine, but also fully human. [This can be found here].

The vision reveals something of the mystery of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as we have come to know God in the light of Jesus Christ. But what God is like beyond that remains a mystery.

More on the Trinity:

The Friendship Dance

The Threefold all-kindly

Friday, June 10, 2011

Radical Centrist Manifesto III

II. Centered on Jesus, the Cross and Resurrection, Part 1

At the center is the cross which stands as God’s great and fundamental challenge to all our usual ways of thinking and believing.

As a centrist, I hope to live at the center in the shadow of the cross knowing that the shadow is cast by the light of the resurrection.

I have written before o the significance of the cross and Jesus’ sacrifice there. I have also written on the significance of the resurrection (empty tomb and all) and why it matters. These are central. If you want to try to get around them or domesticate them one way or another to fit a different way of seeing the world, God bless you, but you are working from a different center.

Living in the shadow of the cross means being centered in Jesus – the only Son of God, the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, the Messiah – sent by God to free us from the power of sin, so that we might be restored to “harmony with God, within ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation” (BCP p. 849). Jesus presents the world with challenges some of which I identified in the first post of this series. But, he also presents us with promises:

"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." – Matthew 11:29

"If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." John 8:31-32

"These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full." – John 15:11

"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid." – John 14:27

"I came that they may have life, and have it to the full. – John 10:10

I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live." John 11:25

"Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them." – Matthew 18:20

I want to sink my spirit into the center of Jesus’ rest, anticipating the eternal Sabbath – a sabbath rest which, according to Maximus the Confessor is “a quieting of the movement of passions” (the agitations of the spirit related to the seven deadly sins - pride, enmity, envy, etc.).

I want to sink my spirit into the center of Jesus’ truth – truth about God and the world, the truth about humanity and the truth (good, bad, ugly and beautiful) about me.

I want to sink my spirit into the center of Jesus’ freedom – freedom from fear, anxiousness, impatience, vexation, the passions of sin. And freedom for love.

I want to sink my spirit into the center of Jesus’ joy so it permeates my being. I want to smuggle that joy into the world.

I want to sink my spirit into the center of Jesus’ peace – deep inner peace and equilibrium. Living out of that center, I want to live as a peacemaker.

I want to sink my spirit into the center of Jesus' life that my life might be full - may his Spirit heal me of whatever in me gets in the way of that fullness. And may my life be caught up in his life which is transfigured and eternal. And may I seek the fullness and flourishing of the life of others.

I want to sink my spirit into the center of Jesus’ resurrection – to live knowing that “our death is already behind us, and our resurrection before us" as Ephrem of Edessa has it, and to live now into the expectation of the new creation inaugurated in Jesus trusting that the fullness of its realization is in his trustworthy hands.

"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me." John 14:-2

I want to practice disciplines that will develop habits of thinking and being that will draw me deeper into that center which is Jesus Christ. Most everything else is peripheral.

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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Ephrem of Edessa (the Syrian) on Paradise

Before Lothlorien or Perelandra, there was Ephrem's vision of Paradise:

1. In the world there is struggle,
in Eden, a crown of glory.
At our resurrection
both earth and heaven will God renew,
liberating all creatures,
granting them paschal joy, along with us.
Upon our mother Earth, along with us,
did he lay disgrace
when he laid on her, with the sinner, the curse;
so, together with the just, will he bless her too;
this nursing mother, along with her children,
shall He who is Good renew.

Response: Blessed is He who, in his Paradise,
gives joy to our gloom

2. The evil one mixed his cup,
proffering its bitterness to all;
in everyone’s path, he set his snares,
for everyone has he spread out his net;
he has caused tares to spring up
in order to choke the good seed.
But in His glorious Paradise
He who is Good
Will sweeten their bitter trials,
Their crowns he will make great;
because they have borne their crosses
He will escort them into Eden.

3. Should you wish
to climb a tree,
with its lower branches
it will provide steps before your feet,
eager to make you recline
in its bosom above,
on the couch of its upper branches.
So arranged is the surface of these branches,
bent low and cupped
–while yet dense with flowers–
that they serve as a protective womb
for whoever rests there.

4. Who has ever beheld such a banquet
in the very bosom of a tree,
with fruit of every savor
ranged for the hand to pluck?
Each type of fruit in due sequence approaches,
Each awaiting its turn:
fruit to eat,
and fruit to quench the thirst;
to rinse the hands there is dew,
and leaves to dry them after
–a treasure store that lacks nothing,
Whose Lord is rich in all things.

5. Around the trees the air is limpid
as the saints recline;
below them are blossoms,
above them fruit;
fruits serve as their sky,
flowers as their earth.
Who has ever heard
or seen
a cloud of fruits providing shade
for the head,
or a garment of flowers
spread out beneath the feet?

6. Such is the flowing brook of delights
that, as one tree takes leave of you,
the next one beckons you;
all of them rejoice
that you should partake of the fruit of one
and suck the juice of another,
wash and cleanse yourself
in the dew of yet a third;
anoint yourself with the resin of one
and breath another’s fragrance,
listen to the song of still another.
Blessed is He who gave joy to Adam.
[from hymn IX of Hymns on Paradise, p. 136-138]

More numerous and glorious
than the stars
in the sky that we behold
are the blossoms of that land,
and the fragrance which exhales from it
through divine Grace
is like a physician
sent to heal the ills
of a land that is under a curse;
by its healing breath it cures
the sickness that entered in
through the serpent.
[hymn XI, v. 9]

Ephrem of Edessa (also known as "the Syrian") lived from around 306 to 373 and was one of the great theologians and hymn writers of the early church. He wrote in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic (the languge Jesus spoke), and thus is not nearly as well-known in the western church as he should be. His Hymnns on Paradise is a cycle of 15 hymns ranging in length from 11 to 31 verses (think of that next time you are tempted to complain about singing all the verses of a hymn in church).

I enjoy the imagery in the verses above and there are more like them in the cycle of hymns. And note that for Ephrem Paradise is not an escape from this world and physical reality. Rather, it is heaven and earth along with us renewed in paschal joy.

For the colors of Paradise are full of joy,
its scents most wonderful,
its beauties most desirable,
and its delicacies glorious.
[hymn IV, v. 7]

Monday, June 6, 2011

Jerome the Ciceronian

In a letter, Jerome (347-420) recounted a vision he had in which he was revealed to be kidding himself about his true loyalties:

Suddenly I was caught up in the spirit and dragged before the judgment seat of the Judge; and here the light was so bright, and those who stood around were so radiant, that I cast myself upon the ground and did not dare to look up. Asked who and what I was I replied: "I am a Christian." But He who presided said: "You lie; you are a follower of Cicero and not of Christ. For 'where your treasure is, there will thy heart be also.'" LETTER XXII. TO EUSTOCHIUM

This is similar to the point I was making in what I posted on Friday. I was particularly reminded of it when I read this piece on Ayn Rand and Jesus by Stephen Prothero this morning. Prothero might be overly-simplistic, but he still makes a good point.

And I came across this by church historian, Mark Noll, which makes a similar point to the one I was making on Friday:
To aim at being a biblical Christian above all else means that self-identity must come from Christian faith and not American citizenship. It means that we are first Christians, and only then capitalists, socialists, or defenders of a mixed economy. It means that we will be Christians who happen to be Republican or Democrats, rather than Democrats or Republicans who happen to be Christians. The faith will loom larger than support for social security, welfare reform, farmer relief, anti-abortion legislation, or a nuclear freeze. It is unlikely that anyone can fully succeed in setting so rigorously the demands of faith before other allegiances, but it is nonetheless the place to begin.
h/t:Musings of a Hard-lining Moderate

Friday, June 3, 2011

Radical Centrist Manifesto II

I. What it is Not, Part 2: Not a Mid-point on a Spectrum

To be a radical centrist is not to try to locate oneself at some mid-point of an imagined right-left spectrum. The idea of such a spectrum is itself an idol that creates a sort of conceptual trap.

To ask if Jesus (and Christianity in general) is more compatible with American Conservativism or American Progressivism is like asking in China if Christianity is more compatible with Confucianism or Taoism.

The truth is there are ad hoc similarities between Christianity and both Taoism and Confucianism. A Christian who converts from either of those might look back and say; “Now I know what that means in the light of Christ” or “Oh, I need to change my mind and behavior if I want to conform to Jesus.” In the end, Taoism and Confucianism have a lot more in common with one another as varieties of the Chinese heritage than either of them has with Christianity as such which operates under a different logic.

The same is true for the socio-political ideologies of Conservatism and Progressivism which shape the way their adherents engage the world and others in ways analogous to faith. Rooted in Classical Western Liberalism (which is why I am using "progressive" rather then the more common "liberal" to identify one of it's sub-traditions), both tend toward

* A fetishizing of the individual as autonomous

* A fetishizing of the modern nation-state as the fundamental and ultimate socio-political reality to which final allegience is given.

* An infatuation with the notion of abstractions, e.g., justice, freedom, reason etc, as universally accessible and independent of traditions.

Given these similarities, from a Christ-centered perspective, ideological Conservatism and ideological Progressivism do not so much occupy opposite poles of a spectrum as they are more like points on contiguous sections of a dart board more or less removed from the center.

To be clear, the point here is not that the heritage of Classical Western Liberalism is altogether bad, whether in its conservative or progressive manifestations. Doubtless there is good in that heritage (the break down of a fixed class system and the realizing of the equality of women come to mind) just as, from a Christian perspective, there is good in Taoism and Confucianism.

It is also true that even centered Christians will have sympathies one way or another. But, we need to be wary of investing too much emotional energy or loyalty in political parties, movements, and ideologies lest our allegiance to them compromise our allegiance to Christ and inhibit our ability to love our neighbor.

If we are not suspicious of these loyalties, we will again and again fall into the trap of trying to fit Jesus and Christianity into those loyalties. The result is a fractured and compromised Church with no witness. The religious right seeks to make God, Jesus, and Christianity safe for conservative values. The religious left (which is much more common in the Episcopal Church) seeks to make God, Jesus, and Christianity safe for progressive values. The one ends up playing servile chaplain to the red states while the other plays servile chaplain to the blue states. In their utter conformity, neither has a truly prophetic witness centered in what God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Because both are content to repeat the prejudices of this world, neither is able to bear witness to the new creation.

A radical Christian centrism will engage Conservatism and Progressivism both critically - wary of being drawn off center - and sympathetically - seeking such ad hoc congruities as might be found. But it will not accept a view of the world in which they are poles on a spectrum along which Christians must place themselves.

Follow-up post: Jerome the Ciceronian

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Related posts:

liberal donuts & conservative cupcakes

Idolatry of a Certain Sort?

Next Week: So, what might it be?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Why the Biblical Food Laws?

I'm reading Holiness in Israel by John G. Gammie and came across this which I find interesting:

Perhaps the earliest extrabiblical defense of the Hebraic food laws is found in the Letter of Aristeas (c. 150 B.C.E.). The letter, or apology, puts forward a stunningly appealing reason for the biblical food laws: (1) that edible creatures must have cloven hooves teaches that humans must be discriminating, that is, they should exercise reason and sound judgment; (2) chewing the cud is a symbol of memory and the importance of recollection; and (3) that predatory animals are prohibited teaches clearly how violence is to be eschewed and nonviolence embraced. (Letter of Aristeas, par. 136-69) - John Gammie, Holiness in Israel, p. 11