Category Archives: General Theology

A blog in which I try to work out and articulate the thinking of the site in standard theological areas.

GOD’S HONEYCOMB

thFG797T2PA couple of years before I came to the U.S. I took a trip to Sicily. I used a beautiful book as guide, one that stands as a classic for travel in that mysterious island, half Africa, half Europe. It was Vincent Cronin’s The Golden Honeycomb and its title refers to the legend of a honeycomb cast from wax by Daedalus, the famed craftsman and father of Icarus. This holy grail of antiquity was reportedly last seen in the city of Syracuse on the Mediterranean isle.  The author’s guide was a spiritual quest for the honeycomb, if not a physical one. For me fetching up in Syracuse, New York, had quite some irony in light of that earlier journey. I wondered whether, like Cronin, I was searching for a golden honeycomb!

Did I find it?th[6]

The honeycomb has always been a fascination. Its hexagonal cell structure caught the attention of Greek mathematicians and was used by Roman architects. The way it is put together by a collective of small insects working together without blueprint is a parable of the amazing possibilities hidden in life itself.

The truly beautiful thing, however, is the end quality of the honeycomb’s overall design–it is a dense gathering of empty spaces. An ingenious architecture of emptiness, providing maximum space with minimum material. It seems totally fitting that into this amazing space something as fabulous as honey should be poured. An architecture of emptiness for a sweetness of the gods! th[6] (2)

 

Today, however, the vastness of outer space beckons us to darkness. What possible importance or meaning can we have in something so crushingly big? Meanwhile, at the other end, the saw of science cuts down to the smaller and smaller, and there seems to be absolutely nothing between the enormous orbits of neutrons and electrons! All this nothing is terrifying and threatens to suck our souls into endless, pointless…nothing.

But we should not step so quick! Somewhere along the line those electrons and neutrons resulted in the honeycomb, and at least at one point in the universe the point of empty space was given as sweetness.

atom-electrons[1]

We are faced with a challenge. The human imagination is itself a super honeycomb–a hundred billion cells inside the head folded over and around each other in impossible polygonal structures and sequences. What intricate pathways of thought are provided by our mind and our world! But is there a cast of thought which still remains to be wrought? Is there a sweetness to come, hardly yet dreamt?

We can imagine certainly that all this empty space is in order that it be filled with love. For love is the greatest sweetness we know, and it has its own special relationship to empty space.

Love is movement into empty space, taking the risk of movement to the other. Only empty space will make for love–to reach out to the other you have to cross empty space toward her. Indeed, love thrives on the nothing it crosses, in order to be truly itself. But, then, once it crosses the space, the space is changed. It is no longer nothing. It has become filled with something wonderful and new–the unique unconditional sweetness of love. Our hearts (which is just a word/metaphor for the deep sequences of the neural honeycomb in our heads and bodies) know and experience this.

Thus the architecture of empty space is the condition for the experience of love. The honey supposes the honeycomb. Can we say it the other way round, that the honeycomb begs the prior existence of the honey, in the metaphorical meaning we have given it? That empty space presupposes love? No, despite the attraction of the metaphor, that is an argument that takes condition to be cause. And if indeed we could say that and be sure–that the empty space proves the prior existence of love–then there would no more be empty space. It would be filled with a definite metaphysical something, and we would never truly learn to love. On the other hand, to take the empty space as the final definition of reality, and love as a noble but self-exhausting gesture into that dark night, that is also to go too far, and another form of metaphysics. How can we conclude with certainty that in the end love will not win? That it will not fill everything with the unconditional giving of love? That the honeycomb will not be crammed with honey? Indeed, to reach this conclusion goes against the character of love itself–which “believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Perhaps, therefore, what we could and should say is this: if one were to set up a universe for the sake of love, this is precisely the kind of universe you would have to set up. There is a love-fittingness to our universe!

For love continues to urge toward its further pouring out, just as the beekeeper will decant the honeycomb into a jar. And because it continues to urge to be poured out we get a sense of its eternity: its self-dispossessing, paying-it-forward going on forever. Love has to be eternal in this endlessly forward giving sense. And once we practice and feel the future eternity of love it creates its own modality of the past, pulling the past behind it. For love cannot arise out of the self-consuming entropy of present being. It demands its  own dynamic “before” to self-dispossess, and so create a love that would go on to self-dispossess, and so on.

That is why, I think, John’s Gospel has the audacity to say that “in the beginning was the Word. ” Because the Word was made flesh and experienced in Christ as the authentic movement of love, then for that to be possible the love must somehow always have been there.

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One day studying in Syracuse I came across a saying of the Stoics: “God drips through the universe like honey through a honeycomb.” Christianity was born in a world where Stoicism had a huge influence on the educated classes. It was one of the ways in which the Gospel gained purchase in Roman society and culture. Today we lack this cultural matrix; rather we have the emptiness of space. But, as I said, a metaphysical doctrine, like that of the Stoics, can now be seen as an obstacle to love. So our culture today is tailored for actual love not metaphysics. To seek to fill your particular appointed hexagon with honey, is that not the best chance of one day discovering the whole honeycomb of love? Of one day looking up and seeing those inconceivable reaches of space an endless artwork of gold?

Jesus And The Single Terrorist

Terrorism is not an enemy. It is the state of imagining an enemy, while the agent of terror does everything in his or her power to provoke that imagination.

An enemy is an opponent who seeks to take something from me, something tangible and factual. It is possible to see his face and watch the direction of his eyes and body for the thing he desires and wishes to take into his possession. Even though terrorists may ultimately seek something tangible and factual, their practice is to hide their faces and bodies before and as they attack so that we imagine them first: amorphous, monstrous, unappeasable.

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Terrorism is the pure metaphysics of violence. It is violence “itself.” The terrorist wishes to take away my peace, my whole world, not just part of it. Terrorism is the battle of the dispossessed against the whole world which dispossessed and excluded them in the first place. A terrorist is a mirrorist.

Terrorism is a way of being in a world where institutions have failed. Armies, uniforms, governments, universities, books, laws and lawyers, all that is irrelevant to the pure imagination of the terrorist.

If we direct our anger against named groups like Isis or Al Qaeda, with governmentsthYH2NU9P1 declaring war against them, we lose the underlying dynamic of terror. Attacking hard targets mistakes the phenomenon of Isis for a conventional enemy. The U.S. understands this. This is why the U.S. air strikes have made no difference and were never intended to make a difference. Why is the U.S. just now attacking oil trucks  while they could have consistently done this before if they thought they were realistically at war? Russia and France believe they can do a better job, and it is probably now just window dressing on the part of the U.S. in response. There are many who believe the U.S. actually created Isis for strategic purposes. Whatever the case the U.S. seems content with a low level permanent war, one that exists on the basis of the metaphysics of violence. There appears to be a synergy between the military industrial media complex and the metaphysics of violence. As Girard says, “Choose your enemies carefully, because you will become like them.” But after a while it is difficult to say who is choosing whom. thLD1NNCEH

The truth is that terrorism is a condition of chaos and it exists at many levels. It belongs to the loss of authority and the loss of meaning inherent in the collapse of sacrificial foundations. It is a way of being in the world, and the most knowing elements in international arms and politics understand this and exploit it. In comparison Putin is an old-fashioned cold war balance of power rationalist.

Girard in his way is a similar rationalist. In his final book, Battling to the End, he presented the rivalry between the great powers as the ratio of a duel, which becomes a final irrationality as they fight “to the end.” However, the terrorist is not a rival in this sense. He is militarily, materially, financially and politically no match for the great powers. And yet culturally he is. Why? Because by the use of modern media, brutal personal violence and the choice of soft targets at the heart of Western secularism he is able to achieve a reverberating symmetry with his cultural rival. Girard did not see the extreme asymmetry/symmetry or non-ratio/ratio of terrorism, and thus he did not appear to see the particular character of the crisis that resides, not simply at the end of rivalry, but in a paradoxical opposition of the single individual to the whole. It is precisely at this point that a solution begins to offer itself.

The single individual removed from the whole is a deeply Christian phenomenon. It goes back to the early nonviolent martyrs and, of course, to Jesus himself. Kierkegaard made it a central theme, in contrast to the Hegelian system. In our contemporary world Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning are powerful examples, and even the present pope, Francis, may be interpreted as such in relation to the Vatican curia and hierarchy. Thus within the depth of terrorism we might say there is the seed of its own overcoming. Not with the force of bombing or a vast army on the ground in the Middle East (the 21st century crusade that Islamic metaphysicians are longing for). None of that will counter the rivalry of the individual against the hegemonic whole. But the example of the nonviolent individual who is prepared to stand in dynamic contrast to the world, without entering into rivalry with its metaphysical violence, this is an irreducible point of meaning–one that can only continue to grow in power.

It is not the suicide bomber who is the real antagonist of the hegemonic state (he is already thoroughly co-opted). It is Jesus who has taught us how to be individuals, even the extremists who abuse the gift. His nonviolent assymetry/symmetry is an act of love which calls the whole to love. Jesus sets himself over against the world, not in violence but love. He is the original mirrorist, but with an impossible mirroring of love. Only love can mirror something that is not there in the first place.

Nonviolent Bible Interpretation VI: Gospel = Theological Nonviolence

To conclude a series on nonviolent interpretation of the bible we turn necessarily to the man from Galilee.

Jesus as cultural figure is so commonplace (both as doctrine and meaning), it is very difficult for us to get behind him, to identify a sense of his extrordinary novelty and singularity. Further below is a small thought experiment to try recapture this.

Jesus made a pivotal intervention in human history, explicitly teaching nonviolence (“turn the other cheek”), but even more crucially, displaying it in extreme, primordial circumstances.

The gospels set out the singularity of Jesus in terms of his identity as the Christ and of his relationship to the Father. The latter issue preoccupied the first centuries of Christianity and they understood the Christ/Messiah very much in the light of Jesus’ divinity.

But the relationship was conceived in Greek ontological terms, of being (“one being with the Father”), rather than the quality of the relationship, its phenomenology, as transformation of the nature of relationship itself.

Hence, the experiential basis of Jesus’ uniqueness was swallowed up in a doctrinal metaphysics of being, and we lost a human sense of why these immense claims were or could be made about him.

At Matt. 11: 25-27 we hear Jesus say, “Thank you Father that you have revealed these things to the simple, not the wise or intelligent.” The root meaning of nepios is those without speech or words (Latin infans), i.e. the pre-cultural child or unlettered adult. Jesus is saying clearly that his stuff is not revealed to those invested with conventional cultural knowledge, but to those ready to be humanized from the ground up. Those who are speechless in the old way, who are ready for a new human start.

He goes on directly to say no one “fully knows” or recognizes the Son except the Father, and no one recognizes the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. In other words, it is not possible to know the Father/Mother within the established cultural order. It is only in the revolutionary relationship that Jesus establishes that it is possible to begin truly to know God. What could possibly explain this exceptionality about himself?

If it is not some arbitrary demand to confess “Jesus as Lord” it has to be the radical nonviolence of God which cannot be known without the radical nonviolence of Jesus.

Conversely, when Jesus asks at Matt. 16:13-17 “Who do men say that I am?” and Simon Peter answers that he is the Christ, Jesus comments that it is “not flesh and blood that has revealed this, but the Father.” Flesh and blood is the universal cultural system we are in, and to recognize the Christ/Messiah is to be moved by the Father/Mother. Thus the nonviolent God also works to make known in our hearts the Messianic nonviolence of Jesus and allow us to confess him as the Christ-of-nonviolence.

Scholars uncritically assume that what is currently in their heads, and the heads of half of humankind, was always there, but it wasn’t. The affirmation of a crucified teacher of nonviolence as the key to history could not have happened without a transcendent event. Let’s try this thought experiment.

Imagine MLK Jr., that his fight wasn’t with racism, or militarism, rather with the religion of his own people. They possessed a national territory which they had achieved by exodus from the rest of America after the end of slavery, let’s say somewhere like California. There was a central institution, a temple, which everyone attended at regular intervals, by obligation. The people believed God had led them to California and the temple was the place he had chosen for his worship. However, the territory was currently occupied and under the control of the Nazis who began in Germany but were now in power everywhere. To fight the Nazis was like taking on the world order itself. But the people could never quit resisting, because the presence of the Nazis in the land was a blasphemy to God. At the same time there was the belief that the presence of the Nazis was a judgment by God on the sins of the people. So there was the added sense among opinion leaders that they now had to be absolutely faithful to God’s rules, in order to end the terrible Nazi curse they were under.

MLK began to preach: he behaved as if none of this mattered, the land, the temple, the rules, the Nazis. All that was important was a totally new move by God that had to do with him and his preaching, with relationship to him. Through this relationship there was the possibility of love, nonviolence and forgiveness for everyone around you. This was God’s move in the world.

What would people say?

The matter did not end there. MLK clearly had enemies among the temple and rules people. But instead of hiding out in the desert and spreading his teaching untroubled by authorities, he headed to the temple and he shut it down, claiming full authority over this central symbol. All the people gathered round him, hanging on his every word. They expected something overwhelming: that this totally new outrageous teaching would get a sudden all-powerful confirmation from God, so that it would wipe out all opposition, including the Nazis. At this point the temple authorities understood a direct challenge has been made and they decided to take MLK out. For some inexplicable reason he did not protect himself or even hide sufficiently carefully, but allowed himself to be discovered and captured. His followers are disoriented and scattered, the crowd turns against him. The temple authorities hand him over to the Nazis who torture and humiliate him in the most horrendous and public way, making him a joke and a disgrace to the whole world. He is strung up in a public place and dies a slow, crushing death. He shows great courage and perseverance but he dies all the same. Next day is Sunday. He remains dead. The only possible conclusion: this man suffered from terminal religious delusion.

From where then will come the psychological resources to assert not only the teaching of this man, but that he does indeed represent the true meaning of God? The man who preached these things had entered a pit of unmediated horror and all that could be felt was the echoing brute triumph of violence. It beggars belief that unlettered disciples could invent the gospel out of violated, condemned hearts, and afterward continue peacefully in nonviolence and forgiveness.

To entertain this understanding in respect of Jesus is willful a-historicism, projecting on first century Galilean Jews the default sense of Christian truth embedded after two thousand years of slow-drip cultural presence. As one of our group said, Christian meaning is imprinted in people’s minds today as a kind of collective myth, and they assume it would always have been as easy to embrace the story culturally as it is now. They don’t recognize how profoundly they have been shaped, and how impossibly this easy acceptance could have occurred originally: absent the transcendent event of the Resurrection.

The Resurrection is the unnegotiable affirmation of theological nonviolence, and it could not have been imagined into existence! It is only when we understand the profound newness represented by Jesus and his death that we also recognize the organic truth of the resurrection. If the resurrection is understood simply as a confirmation that Jesus is divine then the suspicion will at once arise that it’s a religious fiction. In its proper context, of Jesus’ revelation of theological nonviolence, it becomes unavoidable.

Finally, a key aspect of the gospel narrative is Jesus’ mental suffering in the garden of Gethsemane. Matt. 26: 36-46 shows his horror facing the cross. The fact that the Father/Mother wills it does not demonstrate a perverse will to punish, rather the converse: because the Father/Mother is given over entirely to the risk of creation and its violent self-affirmation, so in imitation Jesus must surrender to the generative violence of human culture, in order to transform it. Jesus removes himself three times from his disciples, separating himself from actual humanity to do something new. Mark’s exthambeomai is to be out of one’s mind, paralyzed with terror. Matthew uses the standard word for grief (unto death), but keeps Mark’s ademoneo, the strongest word in the NT for depression and stress, a loathing for existence. These are very powerful words and they represent the depth of Jesus’ alienation from life as he faces the truth of human culture and its bottomless foundation in violence. Jesus must enter this human hell in order to bring it to love from within. The narrative of Jesus’ internal agony is unique in  ancient and classical literature: no other hero is shown to undergo such terrifying loss of self-meaning. But it is precisely this interiority or subjectivity in crisis that guarantees Jesus has entered the core of our violent existence in order to bring it to love.

It is the infinite gesture of self-giving in Gethsemane that is raised up in resurrection. Gethsemane is the phenomenological core of resurrection: the story of one is not credible without the story of the other.

To confess Jesus, therefore, is to confess the dramatic in-breaking in human history of theological nonviolence.

Battling Undone

Five Propositions in Favor of the Future

1. Original violence (as described by Girard) is the de facto origin of human culture but not the prospective will of God, which according to Genesis is the Sabbath blessing of life.

2. Jesus came not to compensate for sin but to undo it by means of a new way of being human, thereby bringing about the Sabbath blessing and fulfilment of God’s purpose.

3. The loss of sacrificial foundations due to 2000 years of the gospel has exacerbated human violence to the point of extreme crisis (the argument of Battling to the End.) This looks like the inverse of God’s purpose and a failure of the gospel. But God’s will for creation cannot be reversed. Its ultimate triumph is guaranteed by God’s faithfulness. (Genesis 12:3; Isaiah 45:18, 55:10-11; Revelation 21:1-5.)

4. The standard solution to this quandary is to displace God’s purposes to a supernatural, supra-terrestrial space–“heaven.” Aside from this not being a typically biblical viewpoint it leads itself to a fatalist, rapturist mindset which tacitly or explicitly colludes with the violence. A “new heaven and a new earth” is not to be conceived as another planet somewhere in magical space but this earth radically transformed. “A new heaven” confirms this: the “supernatural” itself is to be renewed as part of a revolution in human transcendence; i.e. no longer violent. It is this revolution which signals and makes possible the new earth.

5. To have faith in the triumph of God’s project on earth is, therefore, neither optional nor whimsical. It means to stake your life on the belief that in the midst of human crisis something dramatically and wonderfully new is emerging. The very consistency of this belief in committed Christians at once provides humanity with an alternative future, within the living moment.

Tony Bartlett

Reckless Beauty

Such beauty should never be in the hands of children, especially badly brought up ones, but that is exactly why it is beautiful!

What is called the Eucharist has been given over into the hands of businessmen, metaphysical accountants and lawyers, but even they have been unable to destroy it. Its sheer profligate giving leaks through the control of temple priesthood, creating a new universe, beyond imagination.

I have calculated that during my time in seminary and afterward as a priest I received the communion bread and wine 7000 times. I could perhaps add another thousand for the times I took communion as a child and teenager. Over the course of the years my experience went from a queasy awe at the holiness of the wafer, to a profound sense of giving and humility, to strange, overpowering love, to finally an absolute nothing. The last feeling came in situations such as the one where a generous local pastor invited me to the table even though I was not “in good standing” with the hierarchical church. When I went up I was grateful for the personal gesture but I felt its utter meaningless. The institutional semiotics that are part and parcel of formal “communion” stood four-square against me.

And, now, paradoxically, it is semiotics that have become the whole point. Forgetting the first and last situations (of holiness and exclusion), the experiences of eucharist spread over those eight thousand times often come drifting back to me, and with a generosity which defies calculation. They come to me purely as sign, a remembered meaning, a memorial moving on the neural pathways of the brain. I believe now and understand that you cannot keep ownership of a sign. As the Sesame Street Muppets might say, how can you own the letter “W”, or the letter “P”! How can you copyright the alphabet? Or, bread as a sign? It’s only when you rig the eucharist as priestly sacrifice—including in the Protestant traditions, as recall of substitutionary death—that you bring it back to the language of mimetic exchange and hence ownership.

In fact in received atonement theology Christ is the supreme commodity—something offered to God as substitute or compensation for sinful humans—and therefore “owned” by the priestly “offering” class. But Rene Girard has given us insight into the violence that is at the root of all exchange (do ut des). At the same time he has highlighted the infinite nonviolence of the gospel which lays that violence bear, and strives to bring new meaning to humankind.

Such reckless beauty to make of a single human body a sign! One of sheer giving to spread abroad in the world! The body of Christ is the transcendental signifier of a new human way, the logos, the word. And the bread and its story is sign of the sign: deep visceral-neural sign of radical newness! Which makes Jesus a directorial genius-artist as well as Messiah: the Martin Scorsese or Andy Warhol of biblical first centuries. Indeed he is Messiah as first-person genius-artist.

Then there’s the consequence. The more this sign is understood in and for itself the less the sign-possessing priesthood makes sense, and the more a sign-proclaiming priesthood is called for. The more the hidden articulations of violence come to view, in the broad revelation that Girard describes, the more the offering priesthood becomes archaic and nonchristian. It is God who first makes the offering to us and gives us it as digestible sign, and all we can say is “mmmmm, thank you”: hence eucharist! A sign works at the level of constructed human meaning and this sign works at the root level of source code. All the Christian community can do is celebrate this source code and stay in its presence, over and over until our root meaning is changed.

Here is the best sense of “metanoia,” a reprogramming of human meaning. Christianity has always been a radical remake of religion, amounting to a new religiosity without duties to God, only the embracing of God’s first giving to us. Over the years, with the accommodation to empire, it took back many aspects of archaic religiosity, above all the exchange of sacrifice as fundamental relation to God. But today God’s true reckless beauty is returning fully to view, and it’s happening because it has itself worked tirelessly at the level of the sign to change our human point of view. At every eucharist we have partaken of the altar’s semiotic destruction, at the same time as taking in a code of unbelievable human newness.

Tony Bartlett