Tuesday, August 28, 2007

When the Moon says Nothing

Yesterday the newspaper had a blurb about the full lunar eclipse that was going on this morning, and I can't remember ever seeing one before, so despite reading Merton until the wee hours, I set my alarm for 4:30 so I could watch it. I woke up and looked out my window; I could just barely get the right angle to see the moon, and by that time it was about halfway into the eclipse. There was a rather ghostly sort of halo around it, but by the time I drove out to Forest Park to have a clearer line of sight, it was nearly fully eclipsed, and the halo was gone. Nevertheless, it was still a marvelous sight, elegant in its simplicity, and I sat for about half an hour and just watched it. As the saying goes, "When the wise man points at the moon, all the idiot sees is the finger." It made me realize, though, that the final eclipsed state of affairs, while beautiful, wasn't anything flashy or 180 degrees away from the norm, like a solar eclipse or something -- the normal moon is just as spellbinding, so why don't I ever go out to watch it during its normal wax and wane...?

This afternoon was the first meeting of my class on Thomas Merton, and of course I was on high alert all day, reading as much as I could cram into the afternoon, as if those few pages would save me from what would otherwise be a disaster. Fr. Hellmann (the department chair) told me yesterday that he would love if this class could become a regular feature, and of course I thought, "YOU'D love it?!?" It's just silly how many people have done so much to enable me to do all this, from being a Brother of the Sacred Heart in the first place, to being at SLU, to being allowed to teach this class. Seven people actually showed up today, which is fine, but I am learning to assume nothing about final numbers -- it could go up or down for some time now. As circumstances had it, I opened a book of Merton's nature writings (called When the Trees Say Nothing), just at random, and I found a little thing on a lunar eclipse he observed, presumably from his hermitage. Since I have been planning to read a prayer or poem or journal entry by Merton before every class anyway, I figured this one would do. I quote it here in part: "The moon was beautiful, dimly red, like a globe of almost transparent amber...It hung there between two tall pines, silent, unexplained, small, with a modest suggestion of bloodiness, an omen without fierceness and without comment, pure." Oh God, let my words this semester be heavy with the silence that makes that kind of reality present! Mercy within mercy within mercy...

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Tuesday, 21 August

The first reading for today’s liturgy (Judges 6:11-24a), about Gideon being commissioned by the angel of the Lord to destroy the Midianites, is one of those texts that doesn’t sit well with our modern sensibilities because of the violence it has God demanding, but it is also a powerful and important text. The background of the story is that Israel is under the rule of the Midianites, and Gideon is using the wine press to thresh his wheat, so the Midianites don’t see it and force him to give it to them as tribute. The angel of the Lord shows up and hails Gideon in language reminiscent of that used with Mary in LK 1: “The Lord is with you, O champion!” Gideon doesn’t bite the hook, though, saying, “My Lord, if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are his wondrous deeds of which our fathers told us when they said, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?’ For now the LORD has abandoned us and has delivered us into the power of Midian.” This is Jewish theodicy at its best, and something that Christianity has largely lost. The Christian “tri-omni” God-image (omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent) tends to make God seem unchanging, which doesn’t leave us with much room to be angry with God, to vent our anger and grief, since God can’t be to blame. The Old Testament tradition, though, denies neither the reality of God nor the reality of their sufferings. This God is wild, unpredictable, changeable, and may well need to be called back to keeping God’s promises, as Jeremiah (“You have duped me, O Lord, and I have allowed myself to be duped”) and the lament psalms (“How long, O Lord?”), among other texts, so well point out.

The angel’s only response is to tell Gideon to do something about it – “Go with the strength you have and save Israel from the power of Midian.” Whereas the angel addresses Gideon as “champion,” however, Gideon turns the image around and asks how this can be (again reminiscent of Mary’s interaction with the angel in LK 1) since his family is “the lowliest in Manasseh,” (itself a half-tribe) and he is “the most insignificant” in his father’s house. If he had read his Old Testament, he would know that this is how God works – always choosing the underdog: the barren woman, the enslaved nation, the younger son. David would be chosen the same way: the youngest son in a family from the tiny tribe of Benjamin.

What happens next is interesting, if confusing: As a sign, the angel has Gideon prepare an offering of unleavened bread and a kid goat, and the angel accepts it, burning up the offering and then disappearing. Gideon apparently only now realizes that he had been speaking with the angel of the Lord, and is terrified that he would die for having seen such a being face-to-face (as was the common belief in that time – see EX 33:23), only to be told, “Be calm, (literally, “Shalom,”) do not fear,” again, just as in Mary’s encounter with the angel. Memory is important for hope, because it roots hope in God’s saving actions in the past – who God is for these people is disclosed by what God does, and what God does is save, usually via the underdog.

On a side note, it is noteworthy how much of this follows Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth” – his term for the standard thread of themes that appear across cultures and eras in stories of heroes, shamans and prophets, as laid out in his classic work The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Campbell’s “normal world” here is Gideon as a nobody in the middle of nowhere, working on the family farm in a quiet, if unsatisfying, situation. Think Luke Skywalker dreaming about adventure and fighting the Empire while being stuck living on his aunt and uncle’s farm on a planet in the middle of nowhere. When the “call to adventure” (as Campbell calls it) comes, whether as “Go with the strength you have and save Israel from the power of Midian” or “You must come with me to Alderaan,” neither young hero is ready to step up, despite all the brave talk; Gideon responds with, “Please, my lord, how can I save Israel?” while Luke’s version is, “I can’t go to Alderaan – I have work to do.” This motif, which Campbell calls the “refusal of the call,” is the same kind of thing we see with Moses (the burning bush and Moses’ objection that he doesn’t speak well) and Jeremiah (the word of the Lord coming to him, and his response that he is too young), among numerous others in and out of the Bible. The hero isn’t let off the hook so easily, though, and is convinced (or, more likely, forced) to fulfill the role chosen for him.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

comps papers

OK, since y'all have put up with me posting all kinds of other random stuff, I figure I'll go ahead and post the papers I wrote last month for my comprehensive exams for the master's degree in theology. It's not my best work, but I thought the profs came up with some good questions. Feel free to read on if you are having trouble falling asleep.

1. Summarize Roger Haight’s Spirit Christology in regard to the way it articulates the relationship of Jesus to the world religions. What do you perceive to be the value of Haight’s distinctive approach, but what also do you perceive to be its challenges and limitations?

Haight’s genetic approach to Christology attempts to understand the foundational experiences that undergirded the development of the New Testament and the later Christological formulations of the early councils. Against trying to harmonize all of the different models of Christology in the New Testament or to favor one as the premier model, as he would say has been done with the Logos model for centuries, he prefers to see all of them as metaphorical and poetic statements which point to the reality that people encounter God and God’s salvation in Jesus. Other theologians prefer to see the claim that Jesus is unique Son of God at the center of the New Testament, but for Haight, this both focuses too much on Jesus, who did not focus on himself but on God, and it neglects the reality that people ask the Christological questions because of the soteriological experience. Haight’s preferred model for this is of God as Spirit, which he sees as poetic language for God as God is present in the world, rather than as strictly hypostatic language. The benefit here is that Haight does not dismiss Logos language, but places it in dialogue with other Christologies. This opens the door for other manifestations of the Spirit to the world, but it is hard to qualify “degrees” of the presence of the Spirit, so it is unclear what makes Jesus different from the prophet Jeremiah or Archbishop Oscar Romero.

Haight has at the center of his method two basic claims: God desires the salvation of all, and there is no unmediated experience of God. This means that Haight has a hard time with the “scandal of particularity” in the sense of seeing God as particularly privileging one group or religion or moment in history. In looking at the world religions, Haight says that it is to be expected that there would be many, and widely different, ways of speaking about the revelation of the divine, precisely because the experience of God comes precisely through the mediation of the cultures of the world, which obviously are extremely diverse. One significant issue here is that numerous religions do not seem to be reaching out for a salvation that is in any serious way like what Christians claim. Haight attempts to deal with this by saying that the true centerpiece of religion is the experience of negativity: meaninglessness in human history, finitude, suffering, death, and massive social evil. The concern for salvation which Haight says drives all religious thought is in fact not necessarily a concern for afterlife or divine deliverance but a concern for the experience of negativity. Just as Jesus is important because people experience in him the presence of God and a response to the problem of negativity, so for the other religions in their own distinct ways.

In keeping with Haight’s desire to respond to such negativity, he warns that any model of salvation must deal with earthly reality, or in his terms, liberation. He particularly addresses the modern Western notion of an individualistic salvation, which to his mind enables refusal to address the reality of the suffering in the world and as such proves correct the analysis of figures like Marx who see religion blinding or numbing people to injustice. For Haight, however, this does not reduce salvation to a matter of ethics – the massive social evil in our world constitutes not merely an ethical problem but a genuinely anthropological and theological one – such unprecedented, systematic social sin demands a response at the level of the mystery of evil. This is why he can say that even for Christians, the salvation which Jesus mediates is a potential one, fulfilled only to the degree that it is taken into action. Simple faith in doctrines about Jesus confuse faith and belief and, insofar as they do not culminate in transformed action on behalf of humanity, are radically insufficient. At the same time, he does not blandly equate salvation with the elimination of social evil – he acknowledges the extreme durability of social evil and the reality that even Jesus did not end social evils in his day. Rather, commitment to responding to the human problem is itself salvific (avoiding concepts of salvation as a “yes/no” reality) – as Martin King could say to civil rights activists in 1963 that they were “masters in their own nonviolent struggle,” while they were obviously still subject to the social evil around them, so is salvation always a process, always with overcoming of social evil on the horizon, but not simply equated with that horizon.

Haight claims that in a postmodern context, it is no longer valid to use models that posit actions taking place in the interior life of God, for which we have no data. In effect, he says that what we can say about Jesus’ action for salvation must be limited to what we can say about Jesus of Nazareth, so that “transaction” theories are no longer intelligible. This also means that, since we have no data about Jesus by which to claim that all grace is the grace of Christ, we need not (cannot?) make such claims. The benefit here is that it acknowledges that God is posited as savior long before Jesus and avoids mythical-sounding arguments that Jesus of Nazareth somehow has an effect on people who have never experienced him or kerygma about him, which would go against the specifically human character of Jesus. Only God saves, and God’s universally salvific will reaches through all of time and space, so Jesus does not cause, in an unqualified sense, salvation; rather, he reveals the presence of God and proclaims a message which is preeminently against that which dehumanizes, that which negates meaning. As for the kingdom of God, which Haight sees as Jesus’ focus, while it is a problem in that it is a particularly Jewish symbol, Haight wants to make it finally about the fulfillment of the human project in a way that enables community with God and humanity, he does not want to make its existence a “yes/no” issue. For Haight, the distance between the kingdom of God and the “anti-kingdom” is always a matter of degree; wherever justice is done, wherever meaning exists in human history, there the kingdom exists, but always in tension with the injustice and meaninglessness that coexist with them. This means that Jesus is not the sine qua non of the kingdom; he proclaims the kingdom but does not inaugurate it from nothing.

Haight has to have some kind of baseline so as to avoid making any ridiculous claim valid simply as a matter of “tolerance.” Here, he affirms that what is to be saved is human freedom, which means, not choice, but self-transcendence, so that Haight seemingly ends up wanting to make self-transcendence the true measure of religious truth. While Haight argues that, a priori, other religions have the potential to reveal God/Ultimate Reality in a way that is on par with how Jesus does for Christians, he at once adds that any decisions about particular norms are to be adjudicated in a situation of dialogue, that is, a posteriori. No religion is to be taken as a whole a priori, since the movement in the direction of self-transcendence is opposed by the realities of human egoism and the finitude of reality, which inevitably are coded into religious expression. While all religions are potentially open to mediating God, and the plurality does so better than any one religion can, none does so perfectly, and in actuality it seems inevitable that all do contain structures of legitimated egoism and anti-humanity.

What of the relationship of Jesus’ mediation of God to the world religions? In Haight’s language, Jesus is normative but not constitutive – while God is genuinely how Jesus reveals God to be, and all people can find authentic revelation of God in Jesus, God is not ONLY like Jesus. In other words, while Jesus qualitatively reveals the fullness of God, he does not do so quantitatively, which Haight sees as an obvious outcome of the fact that Jesus, as an historical person, is finite and culturally limited. Haight wants, not merely to say that other religious media can mediate the God-image of Jesus, but to insist that we relativize our language about God, since any data about God is mediated by culture, therefore analogous. God can be legitimately imaged in other ways, says Haight, including dealing with the classic issue of seeing ultimate reality as impersonal, as in Taoism or Theravada Buddhism. Here, Haight says, the normal restriction of the principle of non-contradiction (one cannot simultaneously affirm something and its opposite about the same reality at the same level) does not apply, since again, any language about ultimate reality is at best analogous. However, this appears as almost an afterthought for Haight – after so much argument that God is loving and desirous of human salvation, to claim that God can also be imagined as impersonal seems to lack seriousness. This problem is not simply Haight’s, of course – theories of some common center of all religious experience has been a snakepit for the theology of religions for decades, from Hick’s Reality-centrism to Knitter’s “Soterio-centrism.” Haight has to have something at the core of his system, but in effect, while he backs off of a historically uncritical christocentrism, he ends up in a theocentrism that is just as difficult for many people to swallow.

2. In what way does Merton’s democratization of contemplation inform Catholic theories of non-violence and peacemaking?

Thomas Merton’s early years as a monk were characterized by a rather negative, dualistic understanding of the relationship of the monk to the world. Entering Gethsemani meant, for the young Merton, leaving behind aspiration, security, self-image, all the things he had sought “in the world.” In this model, the contemplative life was a sort of “spiritual dynamo,” holding the world together by the force of prayer generated, in effect making the monastery more “productive” than the world, and playing the world’s game better than the world itself. Merton used the language of the search for the “true self,” which was defined over against the falsehoods of the world – beauty, approval, autonomy, and whatever could reinforce the ego’s image of itself as independent, as powerful, as godlike. The more mature Merton, however, came to see that notions of the monastery as free of the falsehoods of the world were simply illusory – people brought their egos, their need to succeed and be praised, and their violence with them. As Merton was able to move into greater and greater solitude, first in the woodshed he called St. Ann’s, then spending days and occasional nights in the hermitage, and finally as a full-time hermit, Merton was able to see contemplation as a means of recognizing his unity with humanity, rather than his “over-againstness.” He continued to use his earlier language of true self/false self in his more mature writings, but always with an awareness of how strong were the falsehoods that lived in his own heart.

Merton’s oft-repeated term “le point vierge,” the virginal point that is our truest self, beyond the constructs of personal status and collective identity, became more and more identified with Christ, but with a humble, kenotic Christ. The solitary, for Merton, is supposed to be bored, and lonely, and question his/her usefulness since he or she is not “producing” anything. All of the constructs that usually serve for the ego to hang its hat on are challenged, as one has to face the reality that one is not disciplined, not in control, not missed by the world that is carrying on as if the solitary never existed. As the person comes to acknowledge his or her own limitedness and poverty, one is able to stand before God “naked,” that is, without need to pretend that one is other than the same old small, foolish person, or as Merton referred to himself in his final years, an “old bat.” Extending this imagery from the personal sphere to the social, Merton was aware how the collective myths of peoples and nations could authorize brutality in the name of avoiding that kind of vulnerability, in the name of a “realism” which in fact was an illusory autonomy. If communism (at that time) was purely evil, then it must be opposed, and nothing short of force will stop them, so whatever actions we take in the name of stopping them are justified. This refusal to be self-critical was diametrically opposed to Merton’s evolving understanding of contemplation.

Friends including Rosemary Ruether encouraged him to “get with it,” meaning leave the monastery and engage even more in peace work, especially when the monastic authorities censured Merton and limited his engagement with peace work. However, despite Merton’s increasing involvement in work against the war in Vietnam, he came to see his proper place in the world as at the margin, not out of contempt, but to have something to offer, a vantage point from which to see what others might miss. Merton therefore saw his monastic life as a sort of critical distancing from being so directly engaged. However, contemplation for Merton did not simply open up into criticism, but into compassion. The solitary, for Merton, is able to see that the falsehoods that live in the supporter of violence and the racist live in his/her own heart as well, but is also able to reverse that movement and acknowledge that “le point vierge” in the Other, although boarded up by ego and illusion, is the same naked Christ who is the deepest reality of the solitary him/herself. The point of his contemplative life was to transform one’s consciousness to be in line with this deepest self, crucifying the ego which demands to be the center of our lives, in favor of the “mind of Christ” who emptied himself unto death, in keeping with Paul’s “I live, though not I; Christ lives in me.” Without this kind of identification with the Other, the move to demonizing the Other was almost inevitable, even for those who called themselves “peace-loving” people, as demonstrated by the escalating hostilities on both sides of the Iron Curtain and the growing tension between the white power structure and the smoldering resentment of the Black Power movement.

Even though he supported the politics of peace groups such as the Catholic Peace Fellowship and Pax Christi, he was well aware that the danger of the peace people demonizing the other side as “warmongers” was real, which ended up in a sort of “violent pacifism.” In an era in which, Merton believed, the dominant myth was rooted in violence against communism as the manifestation of evil, to see those caught in such illusions as themselves manifestations of evil simply rearranged the furniture.

However, Merton never claimed to be an absolute pacifist, and he came to see that in order to give oneself away, one must have a self to give. For this reason he was sympathetic with revolutionary groups in Latin America and in the civil rights movement – since centuries of oppression had so crushed any sense of selfhood out of so many people, when they finally moved to claim their freedoms, it could hardly be surprising when they refused to follow a pattern of nonviolent resistance that asked them to continue to suffer indignities at the hands of their oppressors. Still, he saw such uprisings as likely to be exercises in futility, as they would likely confirm the beliefs of the oppressors that the oppressed HAD to be kept down because they were too violent to be treated otherwise.

Merton saw his time as one in which language had been systematically emptied of meaning, as regimes co-opted speech as a smoke screen for oppression. For this reason he wrote scathing expositions on the corruption of language and moved in his later poetry into the genre of “antipoetry,” which functioned for him as a way of expressing the absurd lengths to which language had been corrupted. In his “Chant to be Used in Procession Around a Site With Furnaces,” Merton’s protagonist, a numbed concentration camp commandant, can proudly claim “I made improvements,” without paying attention to the horrific context within which he made them. He ends with a similar acknowledgement of the real danger of psychic numbing on the part of Americans in Vietnam, pointing out that they were at that moment dropping bombs on friends and enemies without ever seeing what they had done.

In a similar vein, Merton was able to hold up examples of those who had stood against what he called the “mass mind”: the refusal to critically examine the popular illusions of one’s own group. Such individuals, such as Franz Jaegerstaetter, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Alfred Delp, although not “contemplatives” in the sense of living in monasteries, were able to set their allegiance in an identity beyond the construct of popular convention. Merton notes that such people are always threatening to the herd and are often destroyed (as were the three listed above), but bore witness to conscience that runs deeper than public moral conventions. As a foil, Merton looks to a character like Adolf Eichmann, whose statement, “My only language is officialese” bespoke a refusal to critique the falsehoods of his ego. Nevertheless, Merton was always careful to avoid turning any one group into a paragon of the demonic. Merton points out that Eichmann was disturbed at seeing what went on in Auschwitz, that he was able to do his job because he permitted himself not to see, not because he was a monster. Speaking of Klehr, a nurse in Auschwitz who killed thousands of people with injections of phenol, Merton stated that Auschwitz becomes a little worse when we recall that Klehr too was human, because it means that the shadow of inhumanity looms large over us all – who among us is truly not capable of doing monstrous things if put into the right circumstances?

Distancing from the ego, Merton was able to see peacemaking in other than simply pragmatic terms. For Merton this is essential if it is to avoid judging itself on the same standards as violence. While he certainly believed that peacemaking was pragmatic, this was a secondary concern to the fact that it bear witness to truth. Even the valuable language of human rights could, in theory, become a millstone around one’s neck if they became absolutes to be defended by any means necessary; if we create monsters out of anyone who has the potential to take away that to which we cling, we end up supporting Merton’s classic statement, “The Root of War is Fear.” Merton’s belief that nonviolence demanded the ability to suffer a certain amount of injustice could come from a belief in the dignity of humanity that is not to be clutched ruthlessly, but as a reference back to the One in whose image we are made, the truest self, which is exemplified not in clinging to ego, but in self-emptying.

5. Write an essay that describes the meanings that Genesis 1 might have had for its original audience and readers. How would you describe the relationship between those meanings and others that have been found in the text in the history of the tradition, for example, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo?

Modern scholarship generally sees the origins of GN 1 to lie most strongly with the Chaoskampf myth of the young fertility god Ba’al’s defeat of the primordial beast Yam (Sea) or Nahar (River) found in the Ugaritic texts at Ras Shamra in the early 20th century. Earlier theories, for example, Gunkel’s, that the Babylonian cosmogony, the Enuma Elish, was the source for GN 1, have been generally discarded, although the similarities are still noted. However, the Ba’al/Yam text is not cosmogonic, and GN 1 does not include a Chaoskampf motif. In addition, the general belief today is that although GN 1 has roots going back to perhaps the 10th century, it did not achieve its final form until the exilic period (6th century BC). I believe that new meanings that were nascent in the early text came to the fore in exile, as the people responded to an existential situation of the collapse of their social fabric and the political dissolution of their nation.

One theory has hints of Chaoskampf lurking in the background of GN 1, despite the fact that God does not struggle with the tehom (the primordial chaos/sea which was already in existence at the beginning of GN 1). In this model the tehom is seen as a menacing reality, not personal in the way that the salt water goddess Tiamat (a word which is etymologically related but not the origin of the Hebrew tehom) is in the Enuma Elish, but still a reality always in need of containment. Beginning with the reality of tehom, God in GN 1 gradually sets boundaries beyond which it may not cross; without these boundaries, without God’s continual vigilance, the tehom will return. Existentially, that is, the world is an inherently unsafe place, and if God ever neglects God’s watchfulness, chaos is always ready to encroach upon us and threaten our reality. This image lies behind numerous lament psalms and in Isaiah of the exile in the imagery of God delivering the people from the waters, which existentially point to chaos and meaninglessness. The two Chaoskampf texts that deal with God’s creating action in Psalms, Pss 74 and 89, both lament precisely as a way of calling God back to the precedent God set in creation; it is no accident that both texts are likely dated to early in the exilic period. Ps 74 refers to God crushing the heads of Leviathan in creation as compared with God’s silence while the Temple was being destroyed and God was being mocked. Ps 89 mentions God crushing Rahab with a mortal blow in the counter-situation of the loss of the Davidic rule.

In addition to the hints of Chaoskampf in these psalms, and its absence in GN 1, however, both texts serve as structure legitimation, respectively of Temple and kingship. Ps 89 goes so far as to say that God inaugurated kingship almost immediately after creation, contra 1 Sam 8, and even makes the king God’s son and viceroy, giving the king command over the waters – a power distinctly belonging to God. This notion of legitimation of the political or religious status quo is central for numerous cosmogonic texts in the Ancient Near East, including the Enuma Elish, which is less about cosmogony and more about the enthronement of the hero-god Marduk and, by extension, Marduk’s regent, the king of Babylon. Similarly, Pss 74 and 89 respectively legitimate the Temple and the king – for people confronted with the reality of exile, the assumption that the God of Israel and Judah has been defeated by the superior gods of Babylon might seem natural, but in the Psalms, as in GN 1, the text refuses to deny either side of reality: exile is certainly real, chaos is real, Temple and kingship have fallen, but God is still capable of acting, still available to order it all. The temptation to assume that God has lost is diverted in another direction that enables people to hold onto their identity and empowers hope that God will return to God’s promises. In addition in GN 1, the lack of explicit Chaoskampf imagery implies not only that God rules, but that nothing can oppose God. Even the great sea monsters (although Leviathan and Rahab, both mentioned in the Ras Shamra text as monsters destroyed by Ba’al, are not mentioned by name in GN 1) are created by God and declared good, not opponents of God. This follows the imagery of Ps 104, which some see as the immediate precursor to GN 1, in which Leviathan is at play in the sea which God so powerfully controls – in the words of a student, Leviathan is God’s “rubber ducky.”

In addition to giving hope that God will return to God’s pattern of bringing order (tranquility, shalom) from chaos (sea/exile), the inclusion of the Sabbath into the structure of creation means that, as much as this text is universal in the cosmology it describes (as much as that is its concern), it is also particular: the Jewish practice of Sabbath is coded into the very fabric of creation. For Jews in exile, this means that it is possible to maintain a distinct Jewish identity through the deliberate practice of customs that stand in distinction with the customs of Babylon. It is a standard belief today that numerous particularly Jewish practices emerged as more central to Jewish life precisely in exile, which would make sense in a community in search of maintaining a distinct identity. For those Jews who chose to remain in Diaspora at the end of the exile (ca. 538 BC), they were able to remain Jewish despite the fact that those things that had been seen as central in the Promised Land itself were gone.

The convention today is to read GN 1 in connection with Isaiah of the exile; the strong imagery in Deutero-Isaiah of God as sole ruler of the universe, with its language of homecoming and restoration, and with its connection to Exodus language of God “opening a way in the sea” (IS 43:16), a new meaning latent in GN 1 comes to bear. Not only is it possible to survive as Jews in exile, but it is authorized to hope for homecoming. Just as God created a habitable space in the midst of the chaos in GN 1 (admittedly the whole world, not merely Israel), so God will again make space for Israel to be Israel, although surrounded by the power of empire.

The language of humanity as made in the image of God also speaks to peoples who are acquainted with the imagery of the creation of humans in other myths. Whereas in the Enuma Elish humanity is created from the blood of the god Kingu, general of Tiamat’s forces, so that the gods can rest and be served by the humans, here humanity is made in the image of a different kind of God – by taking rest, God authorizes rest for humanity, as is evident in the practice of Sabbath and the Exodus version of the Decalogue. As Walter Brueggemann puts it, the exiles are not meant to be cogs in the machinery of empire. Although the (Solomonic) royal establishment under which the text first came into existence would not have liked that interpretation, says Brueggemann, here new possibilities are open.

Finally, GN 1 offers a vision of God’s desire for peace. Against the notion of the Chaoskampf texts, in which God creates through violence (even if it is against monsters), here there is no violence, only submission. This does not mean that chaos is not real and it is not dangerous. Contra another author, who sees the tehom as “only water,” obeying God’s commands (or, according to his reading of the Hebrew jussive tense, God’s suggestions), it seems to me that in exile, the water is not merely water – chaos is real, and it is scary, but when God decides to take action, God’s will reigns without violence. Violence does not come until GN 4, and then through human initiative. Peace stands at the head of the Biblical witness and should be held in tension with later stories of violence commanded or even done by God.

(*As a side note, having lived through Hurricane Katrina, I read this story with a new seriousness. The waters of chaos indeed swirled through our homes and our lives, and it was a powerful experience to be able to discuss with my students (many of whom had lost their homes, all their possessions, and their city) the assertion that God creates order out of chaos, and that hope for going home is authorized by these texts.*)

Against this social-existential reading, to me the tradition of reading GN 1 as history and/or science, as in a creationist approach, flattens the text. To reduce story that deals with the making of meaning in our lives down to data about when physical objects came into existence misses the goal of having something to say to our lives. It ends up putting different spheres of knowing in competition, so that science or history are seen as undercutting the possibility of believing in a God, and therefore presumably believing in meaning or depth in human life. While the modern audience has trouble with some of the parts of the story that do not fit expectations, for example the pre-existent chaos, rarely do people acknowledge that the cosmology described in GN 1, with its solid firmament and flat earth surrounded on all sides by water, is completely untenable today. On the other hand, while the doctrine of creation ex nihilo affirms the dependence of all on God for existence, and delegitimating claims to human finality as does GN 1, it loses the power to respond in situations in need of hope (e.g. exile). It is to be noted that texts like this one, like the Enuma Elish, asserting power and control, often come not at moments of power, but at moments of weakness – one theory today is that the Enuma Elish was formulated at an ebb of Babylonian power – when people need to be authorized to hope beyond the experience “on the ground,” which is too often experience of destruction and loss. Finally, the problem of theodicy looms large in both. No reason is given for the existence of chaos in the first place in GN 1 (it is simply there, simply assumed), and if ever God’s attention slips, chaos is on hand to return and devour. On the other hand, there is a goodness to the whole affair, rest is authorized and creation can even endure without God needing to constantly work at holding it together – watchfulness suffices. Similarly in the notion of creation ex nihilo, when God is the only god on the scene, the problem of negativity beyond human causes still remains. Why create and maintain that which is so firmly negative? Does existence have its own autonomy, can it be genuinely random and open-ended, as so much of the biological and astronomical data today suggest?

retreat notes -- 1

(*I wrote this in longhand while I was on retreat, and am now typing it out, so the dates don't match up.*)

On retreat -- Windridge Solitude - 29 July 2007

I came home yesterday from Notre Dame, and noticed with some chagrin that the serenity that I felt while I was there disappeared as soon as I returned to the world of bad drivers and poorly managed restaurants. All it took was being stuck in a car for a few hours while hungry and tired to make me lose my cool, which is discouraging from the standpoint of making progress in the spiritual life. All the talk about true self and emptiness and whatever falls by the wayside so easily...

(*Case in point: I stopped in Pontiac, IL, a little one-horse town along I-55, looking for a place to eat. I ended up in a turning lane, but I didn't want to turn -- it would have taken me who-knows-where with no easy way to get back -- so I hung around at the green arrow for 5 seconds or so until the green light came on to go straight, and I went straight ahead to get to a restaurant. A guy followed me into the parking lot to fuss at me, implying that he was an off-duty cop and he would have ticketed me had he been on duty. His daughter made faces at me from the passenger seat the whole while, presumably either to make fun of me for getting fussed at, or to make fun of her dad for raising a ruckus. Anyway, I brushed the guy off rather rudely, then, not finding vegetarian fare at the restaurant, I self-righteously shook the dust of Pontiac from my feet in protest and sped off to the next exit in search of lunch. Me and my amazing performing ego...*)

I just got back into St. Louis last night, and I've been living out of a suitcase all summer, so part of me wasn't really excited about turning right back around and leaving for retreat, but a big part of me wanted the down time. I went last night and bought what I hoped would be enough food to last me 5 days, and this morning I got up early and left. I arrived at the retreat center about 9:45 and was met by one of the sisters, a very small woman in her 50s. We loaded my stuff into their Mule, a sort of dune-buggy/golf cart hybrid, and brought it out to the hermitage where I was to stay, then came back to the main house for mass. The five women here, I found out, are all former members of other religious orders -- two former Dominicans and three former Pallotines -- who had desired greater solitude than their communities were able to let them have. Given my own increasing desire for solitude over the past few years, the setup they created piqued my curiosity. More on that in a moment...

Mass consisted of 9 of us: the five sisters, another retreatant (an SSND), myself and the priest, and Toby, their ancient, deaf dog, who padded gamely around the chapel the whole time. The mass had a marvelous, simple spirit that said a lot about the openness that the community members have with each other. Afterwards, we sat around and chatted a bit before the sister who welcomed me took me on a brief tour of the grounds, explained the amenities of my hermitage, and left.

There are three hermitages on site for guests, and each has everything a retreatant could want: cooking utensils, oven, CD player, couch/futon, screened-in porch, deck chair, even a fully stocked mini BBQ grill. There is a lake stocked with fish (and fishing equipment for those who wish to catch their dinner), a hammock, lots of meadows and walking trails, and a modest library of spiritual literature, including an impressive collection of works by or about Thomas Merton (!).

After I stowed all my things, I settled in to the quiet, gearing myself up for 5 days without human communication. It seems like an axion to me that the ego (or at least my ego) is going to try to find something to distract itself from all this silence, and today it was concerns about food. I kept coming back to wondering if I had enough food for the week, if I would have to ration, if I would be able to leave to go to a supermarket if I ran out of food, and all this other stupid stuff that had to be my ego just getting scared by the quiet. In reality, I brought enough food for an army. (*Since I am on the subject, let me just mention the joy of having simple, fresh foods here. While I was at Notre Dame, I saw an article on avocados in some food magazine, and I have been craving avocados ever since, so I stocked up before I came here. Lunch this afternoon was a big piece of fresh whole-grain bread, a little cheese, and an extremely ripe avocado that melted like butter in my mouth. Marvelous.*)

The rest of the day alternated between periods of meditation and reading or walking around. I walked to the pond for a little while, fed the fish with some of the dog food they keep in a bug 5-gallon bucket for that purpose, and drained the water out of the little boat they have by the water's edge. Tomorrow I'll o paddle around if the weather stays nice. Mostly, though, I just sat still. I will do some work on my class, and I would like to read some of the stuff they have here on the eremitic life and on Merton, but I don't want this to become simply a time to be left alone so I can read. Even reading about contemplation is just as much a distraction as anything else if it keeps me from actually being still. Anyway, there is a sense of "rightness" about this place. Before Hurricane Katrina, I used to imagine someday being able to spend more time at the lodge in Bay St. Louis, even with an eye toward a semi-hermit life. That lodge doesn't exist any more, but I still am interested in more solitude down the road. There is certainly plenty of precedent with the monastic orders and even the mendicants, but is that compatible with an apostolic order? These women didn't seem to think so (even among the Dominican women, who are technically mendicants), but their persistence in following the Spirit led to the development of this magnificent place. Of course, given my work schedule, I already have a certain measure of solitude -- time in the afternoons in my office when students are still in class, late nights when I come home and everyone else is asleep -- but I want to keep that kind of space a priority and not merely a happy accident of my work situation. Merton would probably say that solitude is not about liking the quiet, but about the search for God. Well and good, but is it ok to like the quiet too?

Mercy within mercy within mercy...