Category Archives: Anthropo-theology

This is where I both explain and develop the anthropology which underpins a revolutionary new style of theology.

Beloved Lies and Lepidoptera

butterflies[1]Nature has provided for butterflies a bush of special delight. It is called Buddleia and in high summer it can be found crowded with the showy-winged insects all attracted by its sweet yet faintly rank scent. When numbers of them start feeding it’s a riot, as if they can’t get enough of the stuff. In my yard in England we had a bush, while two yards down there was another one. When mine was crowded the other one was too.

When there’s the threat of war, when the world begins to sweat the scent of violence, the news media flock like common butterflies to their backyard bush loaded with all that deadly nectar. They tell their breathless stories, fluttering their bright wings, highlighting all the violence as if it was naturally and singly on tap in their bush and their version is the only possible one. They do not see, don’t want to see, that just a couple of yards down there’s another bush with another riot of butterflies telling the same story of violence but from a completely different perspective.

Even worse–and this is where simple Mother Nature can no longer guarantee the metaphor and we have to allow in a specifically human element–one set of butterflies is secretly sipping from the very same poison nectar as the other. The more one riot of fluttering wings tells the story from their point of view the more the other riot of wings, two yards down, drinks excitedly from the purest well of the same violence! The more the story is told from one point of view, the more its content is imitated, but precisely from the other point of view!

Western news media depict Russia as aggressors in the Ukraine just as surely as Russian news media depict the West in the same way. And the more one side flutters feverishly the more the other, glancing covertly behind them, does the same. Even as you read this I am sure the thought is suggested, well, really aren’t the Russians aggressors? But that is simply our in-built response to the whole systemic rivalry between “Russia” and “the West” outside of which the massive interests of cultural institutional violence will not allow us to think.

Thanks be to God through Christ we can become free of this thinking! One day the earth will wake up to the horrible untruth of systemic rivalry, be it between individuals or political powers. Systemic rivalry is the original sin of our human condition and people feel it gives special meaning to existence. But it is more and more implausible the more it pushes us toward disaster. One day we will wake up to the possibility of peace as the meaning of existence, and toss our beloved lies into the dustbin of history!

Salt Solution

In Syracuse N.Y. salt is ubiquitous, in the names of the roads, in its salt-springs history, and at this time of year just about everywhere you look. Anything that goes on wheels, or upon which wheels go, is encrusted in a thick grime of salt. After big storms, followed by melts and cold snaps, the roads are white, not with snow, but an astringent paste of the briny stuff, one you can taste in the air.

Jesus famously described discipleship in terms of salt losing its savor and being thrown out to be trodden underfoot (Matt.5:13). Commentaries say it’s strange, the compound NaCl is not known to lose its flavor, so what was Jesus talking about? My guess is on the steep inclines of Nazareth and Jerusalem people did just what they do now, on the occasions it did snow and freeze they put salt on steps and gradients. And when the wind blew and you got a tongue-curling taste of the stuff it was just like it is now, dull, cloying, unpalatable.

What Jesus was talking about was not salt losing its flavor in a chemical sense, but losing its precise human quality as seasoning. Too much salt and it’s no longer edible. Actually, it’s disgusting. A literal sense of the Greek word “to lose flavor” is “to become stupid, dull, doltish”… so Jesus is saying that when salt is spread underfoot it loses its tang, its meaning as salt and, instead, tastes, well, stupid, just a bad parody of its table self. All he did was reverse the order of events–first “no tang/bad parody” then “thrown out,” for the sake of his parable.

So, what does it mean for today’s disciples, intended to be “the salt of the earth,” but subject to the possibility of becoming bad parodies fit only to be trodden underfoot?

In many ways Christianity is already spread universally underfoot. In the West it has a massive historical and cultural presence which makes it appear part of the geography, of not much more vital significance than an old road paved over or an outline of ancient walls in an archeological site. Back in 2004 the announced European Constitution did not mention Christianity, prompting bitter complaints from the Vatican. An alliance that progressively emerged between the pope emeritus, Benedict, and some European atheists, for the protection of Christendom against Islam, only serves to highlight the parody-like version of Christianity that was being defended, one that has already ended under foot!

Here in the U.S. Christianity may appear more vital and contemporary but the same underfoot quality is all around us, evidenced by the now European style decline in many mainline churches, particularly and tellingly among young whites. At the same time the barely hidden undertow of violence revealed in many attitudes and situations in fundamentalist Christianity is its own unwitting but evident parody of the Sermon on the Mount where the salt parable appears. (http://m.rollingstone.com/culture/news/love-and-death-in-the-house-of-prayer-20140121)

It seems we are failing the salt test.

What would it mean to seek to be table-salt Christianity today? How is it possible to be salt that dramatically changed the taste of human life for the better, giving life to the earth in the 21st century? To answer this question you have at once to take into account an entirely other perspective about the “spread abroad” quality of inherited Christianity. Elsewhere I have argued that Christianity has had such a profound cultural impact it decisively and progressively affects our underlying responses and opinions, above all in our recognition of the victim through an undertow of Christ’s compassion. This paradoxical impact explains why there is in fact so much implicit Christianity in so-called secular culture and why it is so easy to find a kind of diffused humanism and spirituality entirely away from the churches. For this kind of thing Jesus used parables of seed and its amazing, unstoppable growth. If we take the liberty of mixing this phenomenon with the image of the salt, it’s as if the whole world is suspended in a kind of saline solution! Everything today is mixed with Christianity.

However, this is of very little comfort when there are also many accumulated crises facing humanity. As a planet we have desperate decisions to make about inequality, poverty, the climate, weapons and war. Never in fact has the need for genuine disciples been more critical. I would say, therefore, that it’s the single tangy grain of salt resting in the water which reveals what the whole medium really is.

A grain of salt is by definition a small thing, but a passionate condensation of salt in an ocean enables all the water around to know what its life really is and to be more and more drawn to it. It enables the whole solution to come alive in the life that already is its own.

Such a single grain can be achieved only in direct relationships where it is possible to see the qualities of compassion, nonviolence, forgiveness and peace at work. It is a challenge, and failure and false-starts are a constant possibility. But we know for sure it cannot happen in the big Christendom-style operations based in power relations and which today are more and more simply thrown-underfoot. The objection is sometimes made that small communities do not have the sociological presence and effect of the big operations so you absolutely have to replicate them. This kind of thinking does not understand the seasoning power of a single grain of salt, that tangy thing Jesus was talking about!

Tony Bartlett

Light Bulbs

I’m going to try something which I actually think is of the essence in contemporary theology. So bear with me, and you’ll see!

Systems—the way things are put together—control our thinking so much more than individual critical reflection. You are obliged to go to grade school from early childhood, and, in the vast majority of cases, when you emerge in late teens you have learned, implicitly, much more about systems—of authority, of grading, of competition and categorization—than any real knowledge in any actual field.

And that is only the most obvious, clunking instance.

Marshall Mcluhan’s’ book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published in 1964, coined the famous phrase “the medium is the message.” A “medium” in Mcluhan’s concept is a means of communication, but much broader and more structural than what we would normally understand in those terms: because it’s not the content, but the delivery system itself that is key.

For example, an electric light is a medium because on its own it radically changes the character of the human environment.

Similarly railways and highways change the meaning of the land, turning it into endless sequence, without beginning or end. And the printed word shifts our thought-world to continuity and linearity, overlaying complexity with seamless “rationality”.

And now there is the internet, the latest and most powerful example of a world-shifting medium. Incorporating in itself several previous media, it creates an explicitly named “cyberspace,” bringing with it a dramatic presence and simultaneity of all parts of the world.

Where is this leading? Without going into a long discussion of the points of convergence of this viewpoint with other contemporary thought (for example, the work of people like Illich and Debord) we can make a swift, radical connection to the thought of Girard.

Girard has conclusively shown that violence is the original human medium, the primary system of human communication.

Girard describes two stages in the work of violence, first disorder, then order. In the first the primary human group is in a chaotic-but-relational state of rivalry, with everyone angry with everyone else. In the second phase it is the group victim or scapegoat who gathers all the violence into herself and so provides order and shape to the universe. You could say, therefore, that the first state is the truly primitive system, the ur-medium so to speak, and then it is the group victim who is the very first true objective medium, organizing violence into order and communication. In this sense you might say violence is to the victim what electricity is to the T.V., structurally contained in the developed medium and making it work.

In turn the group victim is the practical beginning of human culture, so Girard would have absolutely no problem in seeing him or her as the original medium in this light too. All primitive new technology, agriculture, or the arts (including writing) are continually associated with gods. But the gods are original victims, so the cultural meaning of these developments arises from the beaten body of the victim, which provides transcendent definition and order to the transformed material conditions. So, we conclude, all physical media are firmly rooted in the original human medium of the victim.

But, then, if a single man should voluntarily enter the condition of the “original medium” and fill it with love, nonviolence and forgiveness what would be the results? Surely there would be a quickening of the pace of development of new media, because change is freed from the trauma of original/originating violence. And that is exactly what seems to have happened under the cultural impact of Christianity, with the ever increasing tempo of change from the printing press, through mechanical transport, through radio and T.V., and now to the internet. But this is only half the story.

The nonviolence of the new “original medium” must also leak through in the new media, showing the deep effect of their liberating conditions of origin. This is the argument I made in Virtually Christian (without invoking Mcluhan), showing that a “photon of compassion” continues to appear regularly on our electronic screens, our movies and in our audio songs, because of the generative role of the gospel.

But the final impact is still to come. The new “original medium” is an absolutely new level of communication in history, one which reboots humanity as such, together with all its media. There will always be, therefore, a profound human need to return to its primary scene to embrace and integrate the new humanity it brings. This in fact is the meaning of “church,” the situation and experience in which we rehearse Jesus’ cross and resurrection as the new primal human communication. It is the same as the light bulb which changes our world beyond recognition, except a billion times brighter!

Tony Bartlett