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My Science Textbooks, the Demagogue, and God's Missing Body (3)

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My Science Textbooks, the Demagogue, and God's Missing Body (3)

Part 3 of a 4-part post. Here are parts 1, 2, and 4.

The fundamentals and the markers of Christian identity are perpetually elusive. We have the historic creeds of the church, of course, but these raise the same issues raised by bibliocentrism. No unmediated access, revised understandings of the text to incorporate new data, and what constitutes participation. And the perennial problem that assenting to “right doctrine” cannot be equated with living, dynamic faith.

We know from church history that not even the church can entirely agree on what constitutes it. The church has split on various occasions (first the Eastern and Western churches, and then later when Protestantism broke from the Western Catholic church). It’s not outside of church tradition to splinter off and start a new structure. And even before this, we have in the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple writings abundant evidence of debates about what it means to be the “real Israel.” (Just, for example, read the Esther and Nehemiah. Both have very different ideas of what it means to be a Jew. Esther–a Jewess living in Babylon–has no qualms about marrying a pagan king. In Nehemiah, intermarried with non-Jews is verboten: you can be a proper Yahwist if you are married to foreigners. Both are Jews in different physical and social locations, and both have different ideas of what being a “true Jew” entails.)

The issue of identity markers brings us again to the problem of the larger body and the individuals within it, and what is a Christian. So we have prophets who constantly tell us to return to the early teachings, be they of the early church, Jesus, or the historic creeds–individuals calling the body back to its true self. But let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that “being true to the true body” means embodying the teachings of Jesus or emulating life of Jesus (as many Christians would say it is). What are we to do with those people of other faiths or no faith at all who actual do embody this spirit and who do the kinds of things with their body that Jesus did. They are not within the Christian markers of identity, not baptized, not confirmed, do not profess Jesus with their lips. Are they part of the true body even though they live outside the very True Body where God is supposed to be most fully present?

So what is a Christian? Who is a Christian? Am I a Christian?

I continue to think of myself as a Christian, but thinking is not the same as existing, moving, as a body within a larger body. I interact with people, some Christians and others not, in a wide variety of contexts. I try to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God.

I’ve gotten all my cards punched. I’ve prayed the Sinner’s Prayer. I’ve been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I have three higher degrees in Bible and theology. But more than that (because we all know you can have three Bible degrees and still be an asshole): I’ve tried really hard to be a Christian. I’ve tried to love people and do what I think will help usher in the kingdom of God on earth. I’ve never expected being a Christian to be easy. Life in itself is difficult. Living with an awareness of bodies and being committed to redeeming or re-creating the structures that have proved toxic is hard no matter who you are. But I think I always expected the hardest pressures to come from outside the church body. I was not prepared for the resistance within.

Here, naturally, my sacramental theology kicks in, but this exacerbates the sense of God’s missing body. God is supposed to be present in the eucharist, the priest, and the faces of the people kneeling beside you taking communion. Communion–that food you can’t get outside of church. That covenant meal that might feel less awkward and less funerary if everyone at the table lived like they actually gave a shit about the world Jesus came to save.

Communion and participation in the sacraments was less of a conundrum for me when I was an evangelical than it is for me now that I’ve turned to liturgical strains of Christianity. In an evangelical context, participating in the body meant trying to have meaningful relationships with other Christians. Since the church was “the people” not the physical architecture or the liturgical structure of the Sunday service, you could “do church” anywhere. Having coffee with a friend could be church (as long as you did some praying and ‘fessing up). Church was less the ritual of the Sunday service or the sacraments and more about the relationships.

If I were still an evangelical, I would have no intellectual qualms about stepping away from traditional church structures, away from the weekly rituals and sacraments. I mean: isn’t that how we grew up? Who among evangelicals or post-evangelicals doesn’t have the odd house church in their history started by some unordained white man in a Hawaiian shirt who thought God would be most fully present in his living room? If that’s what being a Christian is, can’t I just grab the nearest bunch of likeminded Christians and pitch a new tent?

The Sacramental Body

Because there wasn’t much sense of tradition to retain in an evangelical context, we felt okay doing pretty much whatever we wanted as long as it didn’t conflict with the morality system we’d created. Now that I have a keener sense of tradition, I’m less comfortable leaving the sacraments behind, even if I’ve lived most of my life devoid of many of them. I grew up without many aspects of church that I think are important to maintaining a sense of Christian identity: confession, regular communion, reciting of the creeds. I crave these, not because I think it’s the only way to “do church” or for God to be present, but because they are dramatic performances that aim to help us embody stories of re-creation. These rituals (in theory) are supposed to keep grounding us in the traditions about God’s presence in the world, helping us to be God-in-the-world.

Writing this makes me sigh with the weight of the missing body. What if God isn’t here in this eucharist and in these performances? What if we don’t take God from the church to the world? What if God has wandered out into the world, and we keep running after him to pull him back inside?

My desire for the grit of liturgy only highlights a problem with church I’ve had for as long as I can remember. My closest and most meaningful relationships have never existed in connection with the body that met on Sundays. Many of these relationships have been with Christians, but always in other contexts like school or work. The only time I’ve felt the actual weekly gathering of Christians felt life-giving for a sustained period of time was during my year in Oxford, where most aspects of my life converged. I was living with other Christian students and many of these went to the same liturgical church. I found the liturgy profound and life-giving, but I was also learning a lot in my academic courses at Oxford from a variety of teachers from different persuasions and faiths.

Maybe my question isn’t really what/who is a Christian, but why do I continue to identify as a Christian. Should I? The tensions between the larger structure and the convictions of the individual exist everywhere–they are not unique to religion. We can’t quit all the worlds we inhabit. I would still be part of a mass, one thread in a great web. My concern is the adaptability of the structures we choose to inhabit (insofar as we can make a conscience choice). It’s clear to me that conservative American evangelicalism has lost any power it once had to speak prophetically into the culture. There may be faithful individuals living and moving in evangelical contexts, but as a body it has a bad habit of spitting out its prophets. But maybe this is nothing new. Maybe prophets were made to be vomited up.

Is a body still malleable, still open to change, still moving? This is an issue that has often troubled me in the twenty-two years as a Christian. I have known individuals open to growth and change in various ways, but the majority of gestures I have witnessed from churches were gestures of self-preservation rather than growth or openness to change. Even my Christian university experiences were like that (though some were more open than others). Even in the educational context that taught me to think and question, there were still places we were intellectually not allowed to go, at least not publically. There is a very real fear of otherness that rears its ugly head in various ways.

Maybe this is not particular to Christianity. Maybe institutions and large bodies are just resistant to change (just look at America’s (in)justice system). But when is it time to quit the body and how do you decide if it’s redeemable? Or, even if it is redeemable, if you’re really the one most suited to help redeem it? You don’t quit a marriage at the first sign of trouble, but you also don’t want to cling on for years and years and years hoping your spouse will change.

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My Science Textbooks, the Demagogue, and God's Missing Body (2)

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My Science Textbooks, the Demagogue, and God's Missing Body (2)

Part 2 of a 4-part post. Here are parts 13, and 4.

Being True to the Body 

Being "true" to a body may mean adherence to the explicitly held beliefs and practices, but it can also mean the implicit values that are inherent to the structure itself. And sometimes (often) we experience tension between our individual convictions (or lived experience) that seem irreconcilable to the larger body. Within the context of the church, departure from orthodox teachings and practices of the church is often viewed negatively.

At the same time, however, Jewish and Christian tradition both have a long history of individual dissent within the body (I’m not saying this is necessarily unique to Judeo-Christian tradition). The Israelite prophets depicted in the Hebrew Bible are some of the earliest evidences of this strain–speaking and performing words against the practices and beliefs of larger bodies, whether the bodies are other nations or Israel itself.

Every prophet views herself as either hearkening back to some earlier teaching or upholding and/or advancing the real heart of the body. It is not understood as a revolt against the body so much as a call to the body to come back to its origins, to its “true self.” A contemporary example of this would be those evangelicals who consider the embrace of Trump to be contrary to the values of the Bible in general (and more specifically the teachings of Jesus). The true structure, they maintain, the real heart of Christianity, has been lost and replaced with a terrifying specter, a false image.

However, as a cradle Protestant, I know how elusive agreement on what constitutes the “true body” (and “trueness to the true body”) can be. To what image do these prophets call the body back?

One of the key features of the Protestant Reformation was of course a call to return to the text of scripture and use this to measure church tradition, teachings, and practices. In the evangelical community of my youth, there was again this odd divorce between what thought and said we were doing, and what we were really doing. On the one hand, we espoused the text of the Bible as primary. On the other hand, the majority of us (even our pastors) didn’t have a lot of education in biblical exegesis and interpretation. We were able to live with the impression that we were under the direct authority of scripture without a Pope or authority to interpret for us. We had a direct line to and from God. We thought we had unmediated access to God’s word. In actuality, we had (as everyone does) presuppositions, traditions, ways of reading that we all brought to the text without knowing it.

None of these mediators–whether they were individual Bible readers, church leaders, the Pope, or Bible scholars– could function as a univocal, definitive authority on how to understand God’s word without the whole system collapsing. We presupposed that presuppositions were inherently bad, that we had to check our theology, our minds, our everything at the door and come to the Bible as a clean slate. But presuppositions are not only not-bad (how’s that for a sweeping endorsement?) but inevitable. Presuppositions can become bad when they are considered normative and the system closed, the body refusing to be challenged by other voices (whether they come from within the body or outside).

If that idea is raising your hackles, I suspect it’s because you (like me) were raised with a closed view of scripture. The idea that scripture speaks univocally is demonstrably false. That’s just not the scripture we have. Such a view taken to its logical conclusion would have to exclude the possibility of Jesus as a new, inbreaking revelation of Yahweh, for in order to understand Jesus’ identity, the New Testament authors simultaneously invoke Jewish scripture and go beyond its original authorial intent.

The Bible (both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament) was composed by many authors speaking in various times and places. This doesn’t mean there is never any agreement between the voices of the Bible or that what we have is a bag of completely divergent voices. On the contrary, there are common themes, metaphors, patterns of thought that keep cropping up. Newer texts engage in dialogue with older texts.  

One point of basic unanimity between the books of the Hebrew Bible is monolatry: worship of one God. (Unlike monotheism, which holds that only one God exists, monolatry allows for the existence of other deities, but maintains that only worship of one particular God is acceptable.) The Hebrew Bible is unapologetically monolatrous. Yahweh and Israel have entered into a covenantal relationship, and thus worship of other gods constitutes infidelity to the covenant. At the same time, within these “orthodox” texts, we have evidence Yahwistic Israelite faith that does not always adhere to monolatrous orthodoxy. An example would be the Israelite worshipper portrayed in Judges 17-18 who does not appear to be familiar with “orthodox” thinking on making cult images (more on images below). Another example would be the cases of religious syncretism in Israel, say, when King Solomon erects cult centers to other gods (1 Kings 11). These are portrayed negatively in the biblical texts. Solomon loses the kingdom for this offense. It is considered a breach of Israel’s covenant with Yahweh. Yet at the same time, these breaches do not disqualify Solomon (or the worshipper in Judges 17-18 for that matter) from the covenant community. They are still Yahwists and still Israelites.

These points of agreement in the biblical text do not negate the idea that the Bible is polyvocal. The Hebrew Bible’s unapologetic monolatry is a actually a very good example of the dynamism of the biblical texts because Jesus’ entrance into the scene redefines monolatry and monotheism  in a way that runs counter to Jewish monotheism. The Bible is not not a closed system. Christianity holds that Jesus is the same God of the Old Testament. That one God exists in three co-eternal person: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is a new idea. This is unorthodox.

Viewing the Bible as a closed system is contrary the Bible’s own polyvocal witness. There cannot be one defining voice. The Word of the Lord, if it is really to speak to us “at many times and in many ways” to different peoples and contexts, must meet us as the words of the Lord–in the smallness, in the lowercase, in the plural. I think you can argue plausibly that this is what God did in the incarnation of Jesus (more on that below).

In short: when I studied biblical exegesis (and a smidge of church history), I realized that the quest to make the Bible the locus of faith is not only wrongheaded, it was impossible. There we were–just me and my Bible. I had all my exegetical tools, my linguistic knowledge and backgrounds knowledge, and all the knowledge that was to be had in the Western intellectual tradition. At last, I could really be my own pope.

But there were three related problems here, as any Bible scholar with an ounce of self-awareness will tell you. First, having better tools with which to study the Bible still didn’t give me unmediated access to the text–I still brought to it all the other structures I inhabited. My social location still influenced how I read the Bible. My whiteness, my economic status, my gender, etc.–I didn’t get rid of any of these coming to the text. The second problem was that being able to elicit more historically-informed readings of the text did not constitute participation in the church, the alleged True Body. Being part of a body isn’t just giving assent to doctrines or even the stories you tell (though this is part of any body, not just religious), but a space you inhabit (whether willingly or unwillingly). Whatever “true participation” means, Bible study alone wasn’t it. The third problem was the just the old issue of what constitutes true participation (we’re back where we started).

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My Science Textbooks, the Demagogue, and God's Missing Body (1)

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My Science Textbooks, the Demagogue, and God's Missing Body (1)

Part 1 of a 4-part post. Here are parts 2, 3, and 4.

A demagogue rises to power in my country and begins to quash freedom of the press, and all I can think about is how my science textbooks told me global warming was a myth.

An odd patch of memory on which to fixate. I have other, more pleasant (or at least more interesting) memories of my science education: the warm, enthused faces of my science teachers (moms and dads from my homeschool group), the unnerving dissection of a frog, the thrill of doing research and experiments for a biology project on smell and emotional memory.

Global warming. Our textbooks–I can't remember if they were put out by Bob Jones University Press or A Beka–took great pains to remind us of a fact we already knew: global warming was a myth. Like evolution, there was no real science to back it up, it was nothing but a meaningless speculation. The fact that there was consensus among most scientists about the reality of global warming meant nothing: most scientists did not know God.

There is nothing–I surmise in retrospect–inherently contradictory about these two statements:

  1. God is real.

  2. Global warming is real.

Nor is there any innate philosophical tension between these:

  1. God created the world.

  2. The world was created through the process of evolution.

The first is a statement of origins, the second is one of process. They are not mutually exclusive.

And yet global warming and evolution were both seen as threats to Christian faith by the evangelical community of my youth. If embraced, they would poke holes in a very intricate, locked system of how we read the Bible. Because we equated true faith with adherence to that system, if the system fell, faith would, too.

So we bunkered down and waited for the apocalypse. For some, apocalypse was quite literally imminent, and they literally bunkered down. For others, the bunkering mentality manifested itself as a refusal to engage with any ideas or people outside our circle unless it was for the express purpose of "witnessing" to them to convert them and bring them into the fold. And that kind of interaction isn't real engagement, isn’t a posture of turning, seeing, and knowing–it's a posture of control.

Accepting global warming was dangerous–a concession to the atheist scientists who crafted their godless theories of evolution to prove that God was dead.

I write about these memories knowing that people and movements are complex, and North American evangelicalism is no different in that respect.  But it's the very complexity, and the ease with which we all became subsumed into the monolith of ideas that makes me angry. We can perpetuate lies simply by inhabiting systems and never challenging them. 

Anger at institutions–religious, political, collegiate or otherwise–is a tangled mess to unravel because you know there are individuals within this broader body who both represent the body and at the same time rail against it. Their very presence within the body is like new wine in old wine skins. They threaten to make the whole thing burst, collapse.

I know many thoughtful evangelicals, both leaders and lay folks, who speak out and prophesy against untruth and injustice. People who denounce the demagogue and urge those who worship him to turn their eyes from this idol.

And I know that even some of the less thoughtful folks are more than this terrifying spectacle.

But the problem of the monolith remains: the great mass that was instrumental in Trump's ascent.

I am livid. White-hot rage. Blood-spitting anger.

I don’t know why people are surprised by evangelical support of Trump’s ascent. "We threw a bunch of gold in the fire, and out came this graven image!"

No, Trump didn’t come out of nowhere. Trump was waiting to happen. It was only a matter of time before a god of glittering gold arose, a god we shaped to look like us, to embody our values, to show our true hand.

A friend asks me why I am still a Christian. This question leads to so many more. What is a Christian? And whatever that is, am I still that? If it means inhabiting a corporate religious body, can I justify being a Christian?

What is a Christian?

The catechetical answer to what is a Christian might go something like this: anyone baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is part of the covenant community of the church. (The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches might view the other major branches of Christendom as “brothers in error,” but still kin in the faith.) Most Christian traditions have a public affirmation following baptism when a person comes to a certain age, something that expresses that person’s willing commitment to continue participating in the covenant community into which they were initiated through baptism.

In liturgical traditions, this is called “confirmation,” a sealing of the covenant that was created in holy baptism. In anti-liturgical traditions like the ones I grew up in, the public affirmation is often the baptism itself (“believers’ baptism”), sometimes accompanied by a verbal testimony of how the believer came to faith.

These practices recognize and try to remedy an inherent tension in any body, be it social, religious or political (or a mix–it’s always a mix, isn’t it?): the individual’s participation in (and conflict with) the larger structure. We live and move in relation to social bodies, but also exist as individuals, distinct persons, and cannot be reduced to the bodies we inhabit. Individuals participate in systems, but are not always true to them (I’ll talk a little more about what being “true” means below). Confirmation and other public affirmations of the faith attempt to express the individual’s willingness to try to be true to the communal body which they have entered, whether that entry was by choice (believer’s baptism) or by the choice of your family (infant baptism).

This tension between the individual and the larger frame of the corporate body was present even in the evangelical tradition in which I was raised. We railed against the externals of the Catholics (who we believed were trying to work their way to God), but at the same time had our own sets of external motions that were needed to verify and legitimize “true faith.” We all knew individuals, Christians who “talked the talk” without “walking the walk,” and viewed this as a divergence from true faith as defined by the values of the corporate body. One side of our rhetoric denied the necessity of individual action, while another side of our rhetoric created its own web of moral hoops through which to jump to achieve true faith. You didn’t need to dress a certain way, refrain from using curse words or watching certain movies to please God–God would accept you. But if you wanted the church body to accept you, you most certainly did.

God was weirdly wed to his body and estranged from it all at once. We could create our own body and rules for it without explicitly pinning its creation on God, but still wield the rules as divine authority since it was through us–in our communal body–that God was to be found in the world. God would still love you if you were outside the body, but if you wanted to encounter God, you had to get past us, jump through all our hoops. If you wanted to experience God, you needed to go to the True Body, and to get there, you had to be true to that body.

This was the conundrum of God’s body. I couldn’t meet with God apart from his body. But I’ve always been at a loss as to where exactly God’s body is to be found.

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