Hugo wrote a nice response to my last post here.
February 26, 2006
February 23, 2006
This post at Verbum Ipsum (and the post it links to) reminded my somewhat distracted brain that I’d meant to give Hugo a fuller response to the debate we were having in this post. For those of you who don’t want to dig through the 50 other comments (and I don’t blame you) I wrote that my own idea of salvation was more “apocalyptic”, because I think it involves more than creating a good community here on earth. Hugo said that he believes in the afterlife but he’s not interested in offering his youth-group members “pie in the sky”, just love here on earth.
The phrase “pie in the sky”, from that old Woody Guthrie song, has a way of getting trotted out whenever you say to a certain type of Christian that the afterlife is important. It invokes the old Marxist belief that heaven is something the powerful promise to the oppressed so they’ll put up with suffering in life and not try to create a better world. So in order to show your solidarity with the workers, you need to downplay the importance of the afterlife.
I’ve been wondering for a while if this is really the attitude of oppressed people, or if it’s just the attitude of middle-class activists who purport to speak on their behalf. Because, in fact, it seems like the attitude of someone whose life is so cushy they’ve never met a problem that somebody couldn’t solve. Famine, plague, natural disaster, death — all these don’t really register on the radar. True, modern technology has given us the capability to alleviate a lot of these things, but there is much beyond our scope; and it must be acknowledged that all those come with costs. (I mean to write a post about the costs of modern medicine one of these days, but that’s another issue.) And speaking for myself, I think my own struggle with problems that even people of the best intentions seem incapable of solving (which I will not elaborate here) makes the promise of heaven all the more important.
But there are a few other points I want to make. One, it’s certainly not necessary to invoke heaven to keep the masses under your heel. In fact, some pagan empires did just that. My religion professor in college remarked that the ancient Egyptian view of the afterlife preserved the social structure on earth, thereby underscoring its inherent rightness. The theme of inversion in the Beatitudes — the exalted shall be humbled, and all that — may be somewhat blunted by being pushed off into the future, but it’s still radical.
For another thing, saying, “You’ll be rewarded for being good by going to heaven after you die,” is only a recipe for complacency if you subscribe to a certain idea of “being good.” Certainly the Mennonite concept of what it means to follow Jesus in this life is not simply to approve of the status quo. That’s why I don’t like the sort of either/or option that Hugo offered: either you believe kingdom is something we create here, or you believe it’s totally unrelated to anything going on here. This dichotomy does not make sense to me. All those Jesus parables about the kingdom being something that starts small and grows into magnificence suggest that regarding the kingdom as either fully here, or fully not here, is missing the point.
Tripp recently reprinted an essay by an Orthodox priest arguing that the Jesus-era belief in resurrection was not opposed to social justice, but was in fact its handmaiden. He uses the example of the Maccabean rebels:
The origins of that hope of the resurrection were probably varied and
complex, but at least one of its chief components was Israel’s inherited
sense of justice. Thus, they reasoned, “How could the just God permit the
continued persecution and slaying of His servants with no hope of matters
being set right in the future?” And they answered, “Well, no, it just isn’t
possible, so there certainly will be a resurrection in the future, at which
time the righteous God will adjust the accounts of history.” …
It is not difficult to trace in 2 Maccabees 7 the argument leading to that
conclusion. … Thus, their testimony, or martyria, commences with the
first brother’s assertion that the righteous man will die rather than be
unfaithful to God (7:2). But this willingness to die makes no coherent moral
sense if death has the last word on the subject. Therefore the second
brother affirms a final resurrection in which God will vindicate the moral
decision of the righteous (7:9).
The promise of heaven, then, affirms that working for justice in the present is the right thing to do even if you seem to be failing horribly. What does the kingdom-now vision have to offer along this line? It does not, it seems to me, make any allowance for failure. The people who are unfortunate enough to live now, in a time of social injustice, are either paying the penalty for not being perfect or are just out of luck. Those who die for the cause may tell themselves that future generations will yet see the kingdom: but even assuming that’s true, why all the luck to those born late?
All this about martyrdom and willingness to die is a long way from Hugo’s youth group, but that’s exactly the problem. Hugo may regard his kids as “saved” by the warm embrace of his agape love, but what if the authorities decided to come around and start hauling the teens off for torture, rape, and murder, and All Saints was unable to stop it? Would that unsave them? I think that the futurism of the New Testament, the sense that things were yet to come to fruition, wasn’t just from the fact they erroneously thought Jesus would come back very soon (as Hugo told me) but that they were facing persecution. Would it really have been sufficient for them to know that their deaths would eventually enable Hugo to create his loving youth group? I don’t know, but somehow I think they died for more than that.
And what of those dead martyrs? In The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, Robert Wilken writes that the Roman-era church considered its dead to be part of the congregation: “In the liturgy all the members of the church, past, present and future, were fused into a single community that included the patriarchs and prophets, the Virgin Mary and apostles, martyrs and saints, and those whose names are known only to God. … The company that celebrated the liturgy was not confined to this world.” I admit that the veneration of saints sometimes borders on ancestor worship, but any movement that expects people to be willing to die for it should not regard people as irrelevant once they pass from this world.
Finally, I agree with Lee’s point that regarding heaven as irrelevant elides the biblical connection between sin and death. Why are people so selfish — why do we serve our own interests at the cost of others’? In a world under the reign of death, it makes sense. Agape love may not, when it come to it, be fully possible until we are freed from the world where we survive at the expense of other living things.
Ed Schroeder helped articulate this point of view for me when he said that turning salvation into ethics makes the Gospel “small.” Although perhaps “small” is not the ideal word, since one wouldn’t want to belittle the “universal rule of love and justice in the world.” If such a thing were achieved, it would be huge. But it’s still smaller than what was promised, and that’s the thing. However big our social schemes are, God’s scheme is bigger.
February 15, 2006
I may not have been doing much on the blog lately, but church seems to be turning into a little soap opera. Our pastor did his last service on Jan. 29, which not surprisingly amounted to a big send-off for him. It also happened to be the church’s quarterly healing service, which is generally somber, since people bring prayers for whatever ails themselves, their friends, or the world. It was extra somber because a longtime member of the church had just been found to have cancer in her brain. I don’t know if I’ve ever been to such a miserable church service; at one point, everyone around me appeared to be crying.
The other day somebody else was diagnosed with cancer. And have I mentioned another person suffered a second-trimester miscarriage recently? It’s been quite a time at PMC lately.
At our congregational meeting last Sunday, the head of the leadership committee (like Quakers, PMC has a committee for everything) said they’d decided to hire a “transitional” pastor, hopefully by the summer. When asked what that meant, he said this would be a temporary leader who would shepherd us through the transition process, enabling the “grieving, healing and releasing” after the loss of Jim Brenneman.
The questioner said, “It sounds more like a therapist than a pastor.”
“Well … it’s both,” said the head of the leadership committee.
It will be interesting to see how this works out, although I wonder how much of the church it is actually necessary for. I’ve been at PMC a little over a year, and it was a year when Jim didn’t even preach all that much, so while his leaving was a shock it’s not much of a personal loss for me. And I know I’m not alone, since PMC’s growth and its large population of transient Fuller students means that a lot of people there haven’t really been around that long. The Fuller word-of-mouth network is still feeding newcomers to us, and I wonder how they’ll feel about being instant participants in the grief counseling of the small group of old-timers who are deeply mourning the loss of Jim.
But God knows there’s enough grief of all sorts going on in church these days. I suppose if there are pastors who actually specialize in these life passages, we need one for many reasons.
February 9, 2006
I mentioned a few months ago that I’d read the Book of Revelation for the first time, and found it mostly off-putting. The other day I mentioned this difficulty to Telford, who said that the way he teaches the apocalyptic genre is that its closest modern analogy as an editorial cartoon. In September, in fact, he used a post-hurricane cartoon as an illustration in class. From his description, it must have been this one.
I can see why he chose that cartoon, because it conveys its message purely with image, unlike most other cartoons that label its characters or add captions to make sure you get the point. By doing so, it manages to convey two messages at once: that Bush is indifferent to the suffering of others, and that he’s oblivious to the danger to himself.
At the same time, of course, it is extremely contextual. The image of being underwater implied the flooding of New Orleans only at that moment in history; if I came across it even now, I wouldn’t know what it was about unless I saw the date. The image of Nero fiddling while Rome burned is more lasting, but still depends on a certain shared cultural knowledge. The idea is that Revelation commented on current events in a similar way, by using images that were outlandish and yet instantly recognizable to the people of the time.
All this suggests two things to me. One, that editorial cartooning, like fairy tales and rock music, is a modern form of “low” art that descended from much grander, even sacred, origins. I had never thought of it that way before, but it might say something about the current hysteria going on over a certain set of editorial cartoons. To say that they’re “just” cartoons is perhaps underestimating the impact of such absurd images. (On the other hand, the fact that Bush manages to be president despite being probably the most cartooned person on the planet suggests that this impact might be diluted by abundance.)
The other thing this makes me wonder, heretical though this may be to Protestants, is how much this makes Revelation worth studying today. What’s the point of reading the text yourself if you need an expert to explain practically every single image in it? If the Spirit was, in fact, speaking to people in such an extremely contextual fashion, I wonder how much it is even meant for us all these years later. And the underlying message of it all — God is in charge, he will overthrow evil empires and reward his followers — appears elsewhere in the Bible, often in more comprehensible form.
So have any of you out there studied Revelation? Is it worth getting some tour guide (Telford recommended Bauckham) to take you through it all, or is it one of those things that’s better read about than actually read, if you see what I mean?
February 8, 2006
Both Jennifer and Pleroma (a blog that I didn’t realize was active again, I must admit) tagged me for the “Four Things” meme that’s been going around. Like Eve, I feel that my answers are extremely uninteresting, but I guess somebody must be interested since they asked.
Four jobs I’ve had:
1. movie theater attendant
2. bicycling ice-cream vendor
4. ad copy writer
Four movies to watch over and over:
I haven’t had any of these since I was a kid. (Though I did rent the DVD to watch Fellowship of the Ring again recently; don’t know if I’ll plow through the whole series.)
Four places I’ve lived (all of these are in California):
1. Mill Valley
2. San Francisco
3. Mountain View
4. Los Angeles
Four TV shows I love to watch:
I’ll admit I’m hooked on Lost, though my love for it waxes and wanes. Past TV shows I’ve loyally watched include Star Trek, Xena: Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I love those woman warrior plots).
Four places I’ve been on vacation:
1. northeast Vermont
4. Minnesota (yay!)
Four websites I visit daily (in addition to the assorted blogs in the sidebar):
1. Arts & Letters Daily
2. IPOhome.com (well, on workdays)
3. My Yahoo!
Four favorite foods:
1. Rubio’s shrimp burritos
2. C&O’s chocolate cheesecake
3. my own zucchini pancakes
4. manhattans (what, isn’t that a food?)
Four places I’d rather be right now:
See: vacation spots. Also, anywhere of natural beauty around here with John (who knows the locations of natural beauty around here better than I do.)
(Edited to add: OK, I realize now that most of those vacation spots probably aren’t the best places to be in February. To be honest I kind of forgot that it’s winter, because the Santa Anas are blowing and it feels like the Sahara out there.)
Four people I’m tagging:
Seems like most people have already gotten this one, and anyway the meme’s gotta end somewhere. But if you, dear reader, want to take a shot at it, be my guest.
February 7, 2006
A point I would add to the last post, which I think I was winding toward, is that the “Is it oppression or religion?” question is a false dichotomy because one of the few sweeping statements I’m willing to make about all religions is that they inform how you deal with bad things happening to you. (This is true of any philosophy of the universe actually, whether supernatural or not.) Your faith is going to help interpret not only how you respond to oppression, but why and in what way you’re being oppressed. Westerners, for instance, generally think that being deprived of a secret ballot is a greater oppression than being bombarded with images of scantily clad women, but a lot of people in the Muslim world (and probably outside it too) would disagree.
So if someone responds to oppression with atrocities, that’s a judgment against their religion. In fact, how people respond to being on the losing team can tell you a lot about what their faith is like. Back in this post I theorized that one reason Christians lost so many people to Islam in the first place was that they’d forgotten how to live faithfully as the underdogs, so when their armies failed to keep Muslims from taking over there wasn’t much to keep people on board. So if people believe God tells them to try to regain power with increasingly desperate acts of violence, there is indeed a religious problem.
But that doesn’t mean that the perpetrators of oppression are therefore off the hook, or that they are not implicated in the evils that follow. That was why early Christians could both accept apostolic advice to suffer Roman persecutions patiently and also read Revelation’s vision of Rome’s defeat. So even if all the doomsaying about Islam is true, it is still incumbent upon Christians to treat their fellow humans in a, well, Christian fashion. Throughout history power periodically inverts — first pagans were on top, then Christians, then Muslims, now Christians again — but the rules of good behavior remain the same.
February 6, 2006
After I wrote my post considering the popular determinist explanations for terrorism, a couple links at Get Religion reminded me of the popular opposing argument: that terrorism is really caused by religion. This reviews a book that argues that radical Islam has been more important to terrorism than colonialism or poverty; this argues that the American military is seriously underestimating the power of the faith of their opponents.
The way this seems related to the last post is that to ascribe something to someone’s religion, in the modern discourse, is virtually the same as calling it causeless. While various attempts have been made to provide mundane explanations for faith (father issues, social control, general desperation), the predominant way of looking at in secular America seems to be that faith is something some people just have; it intrudes from some spirit realm without reference to circumstances or evidence. That’s why the argument that terrorism is caused by oppression tends to be pitted against the argument that it’s caused by religion; one posits a traceable cause, the other does not.
I’ll leave it to my Catholic friends to point out the problems with the modern faith vs. reason dichotomy. But on my part, I wouldn’t exactly claim that people’s faith is rational, so much as that it very often stems from, and is affirmed by, mundane experience. Ralph Peters uses words like “intoxicating,” “soul-shaking” and so on to describe faith; but people of faith that I know, even very strong faith, rarely seem to have such lightening-bolt experiences. My impression of the Islamic world is that it’s pretty much the same. In fact, from my limited knowledge of Islam it’s Sufism, which everyone seems to regard as the nice, non-threatening denomination, that places the most emphasis on personal, mystical experience of God; the factions that produce terrorists seem to be a lot less interested in that sort of thing. (From what I’ve heard, in fact, many Middle Eastern terrorists aren’t all that religious.)
A much more convincing (to me) account of how someone gets dangerous religion appeared in a New Yorker article from December that investigated Osama bin Laden’s youth. The reporter, Steve Coll, interviewed an unnamed source who went to high school with the young bin Laden. Coll sets the scene by describing a phenomenon of which I was unaware:
A schoolmate of bin Ladenâ€™s told me that during the eighth or ninth grade, around 1971 or 1972, bin Laden was invited to join the Islamic study group. In that period at Saudi high schools and universities, it was common to find Syrian and Egyptian teachers, many of whom had become involved with dissident Islamist political groups in their home countries. Some of these teachers were members of, or were influenced by, the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization founded in Egypt in 1928 by a schoolteacher, Hassan al-Banna. The Brotherhood was initially a religious-minded movement opposed to British colonial rule in Egypt; later, following Britainâ€™s withdrawal from the region, the Brotherhoodâ€™s leaders continued their struggle against the secular, socialist Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, who took power in 1952. …
In Saudi Arabia during the nineteen-sixties, King Faisal welcomed exiled teachers from Syria, Egypt, and Jordan, even if they were influenced by the Brotherhood, because he believed that they had been unfairly persecuted for their religious and political beliefs. He also hoped that their emphasis on Islamic teachings might help to inoculate Saudi Arabia against ideas such as socialism and secular pan-Arab nationalism, which were then spreading through Arab societies. Moreover, as he expanded Saudi Arabiaâ€™s schools, Faisal faced a shortage of qualified instructors of all kinds.
Bin Laden’s classmate says a lot of boys joined at first just because the group leader had the keys to the sports cabinet, and he promised to let them play soccer. But as they went along, the lessons grew more radical and scary. Finally, after hearing a story praising a teenage boy for killing his heathen father, the source bailed out of the group. But bin Laden stayed on, and, he says, started dressing in traditional clothes and hectoring everybody else about their decadent lifestyles.
The story is, I admit, somewhat shakily sourced, but it strikes me as credible because it is so familiar. Heck, in general outlines it’s not that different from me falling under the influence of Telford Work. It’s not so much a question of mysticism as of authority. Who is your most convincing teacher — the one who seems to explain reality in a way that fits with how you live it, and with what you aspire to be?
And in a sense, the account both agrees with and confounds common explanations for terrorism. Was it caused by Western colonialism? Sort of. The teacher’s radicalism was forged in an anti-colonial Muslim movement; but bin Laden himself came from a privileged background and had little or no personal experience of oppression from the West. It was by no means determined that anyone from his general environment should become what he became, since most of his classmates were still more interested in soccer. But to focus only on his rational self-interest would be to miss the point. In every social unit, there are going to be certain people who take it upon themselves to defend, reform and/or revolutionize society. The religion does not create this, but it definitely provides the interpretive framework for why and how this is carried out.
Ralph Peters recognizes social context enough to blame the media for creating a bad environment (that ever-popular conservative fallback). But apart from the fact that his attacks are both caricatured and basically useless, I wonder if the large-scale media really has as much power over this kind of thing as he thinks. The story of Osama bin Laden was one of old-fashioned face-to-face contact, and especially in the developing world I suspect that that is still the key conduit of social attitudes. Which is why rooting out the “root causes” will probably be a matter of generations, not of days or even years.