Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ash Wednesday

One of the formulae that the minister uses in the distribution of ashes is “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That line has roots in Genesis 3:19 and recalls the Hebrew wordplay that the adam, the human being, comes from the adamah, the dust or soil. However, in that story, gaining the knowledge of good and evil brings with it fear and pride and shame, a need to hide our nakedness from God. We can’t stand to let God or other people or even ourselves see how deep our brokenness really goes, so we “clothe” our egos, not only with more “superficial” coverings like being amongst “the beautiful people,” but also with more sophisticated coverings like how many books we have read, how many good deeds we have done, or how often we go to church. We seem condemned to try to buttress our egos in any way possible, which is why any of those things, even the religious ones (perhaps especially the religious ones), can become a means of convincing ourselves that we are real, that we are successful at life, that we are not ashes.
This is why the readings on a day like Ash Wednesday, a day with the external sign of the ashes on the forehead, can be so ambivalent to the use of external signs – Jeremiah tells the people, “Rend your hearts, not your garments,” and Jesus warns people about looking for ego-validations when fasting, praying, and giving alms. The readings today don’t say, “Don’t fast, don’t pray, don’t give alms” but “Don’t think you are something special because you are fasting and praying and giving alms – don’t use these things to prove to yourself or other people or God how holy you are.” Cobbling together that kind of identity sounds more substantial than the nakedness of our truest self, because it lets us feel proud about ourselves, but finally what the ashes are calling us back to is the capacity of the spiritually naked self for immediacy with God – humility rather than ego inflation, vulnerability rather than self-protection. That entails the capacity to stand without defenses before God, to hand ourselves over to the death of the small self, the ego self, confident that in the death that feels like breaking down, we break through. That kind of self-emptying faith says that despite the fact that we haven’t earned anything, can’t earn anything, don’t deserve it, we can stand in confidence before the God who is “mercy within mercy within mercy.”

Monday, February 23, 2009

Theology on Tap

My friend Tobias Winright, who teaches theology here at SLU, is friends with a guy who owns a bar called the Royale, a couple of miles from my house. Tobias has done a few Theology on Tap sessions at the Royale and put them in touch with me about doing one, so this afternoon I talked for a couple of hours about various and sundry issues surrounding the problem of evil. Below are the notes I compiled to keep myself on track.

David Hume – “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both willing and able? Whence then is evil?” (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion)

Jeremiah – “Why does the way of the godless prosper, why live all the treacherous in contentment?” (12:1)

Br. Patrick – “What do you say about God after Auschwitz, or Rwanda, or Darfur, or Hurricane Katrina? Where is your good God?”

Gottfried Leibniz – theodicy – “the justification of God” – arguments that attempt to show that God is righteous or just despite the presence of evil in the world – God can be omnipotent and perfectly good despite evil. “Everything happens for a reason” is the motto of theodicy in this form.

Much theodicy has been rooted in what is referred to as modern theism – a philosophically rather than biblically based God-image that is generated by contrast with the spectrum of human weaknesses – God as immutable, incorporeal, impassible, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and utterly simple. If this sounds like what you have understood God to be, you aren’t alone. The God of modern theism loses the possibility of any newness, anything that rationality can’t contain or hold on to, and creates such a static deity as to make contact with this God virtually impossible while also denying divine freedom (at once compromising divine immanence and transcendence). This brand of theism has seen the task of theodicy as rearranging this set furniture so as to come to an equation that makes them all work together.

Perhaps the most textually common thread in the Old Testament is the idea of suffering as a consequence for sin, and we know often enough that bad things do indeed come from our capacity to be stupid, sinful, or selfish. On the other hand, is anyone here comfortable with saying that suffering is inevitably a consequence of sin? I was living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and it wasn’t long before preachers on the radio came out with statements to the effect that the hurricane was God’s punishment for the immorality of the city – rather like a number of the prophets of the Old Testament. However, if sin was really the reason for the hurricane, how come the French Quarter, which this Mardi Gras weekend is showing the depths of depravity which it is capable of reaching, was virtually untouched?

In the last few centuries before Jesus’ life, Judaism developed categories for thinking about suffering for the sake of others – that by suffering, people could contribute to the good of the world. It’s not hard to see how that got picked up by the early Christians, but it brings its own set of dangers with it. When Martin Luther King says, “Unmerited suffering is redemptive,” what are the potencies and limitations of such a model? Is all such suffering redemptive, or can it simply be destructive, crushing, awful, especially in the degree to which it goes unacknowledged and deprives the sufferer of a voice?

One of the main schools of thought in classical theodicy followed this idea – associated mainly with Irenaeus of Lyons, it is typically referred to as a “soul-building” theodicy: God allows suffering as a means of enabling people to grow by facing struggles. All of us can certainly acknowledge the potency of such a model, while still seeing something deficient in such a claim. What is the growth or “soul-building” that occurs in the child who slowly starves to death in Zimbabwe, the family whose loved ones die horribly in a fire, the inundation by tsunami of hundreds of thousands of people? While unmerited suffering can be redemptive, it seems that it can also simply be crushing and horrible. Dorothee Soelle warns, too, against the danger in Christianity of taking suffering to be a good thing – in imitation of Jesus, she warns, there is a danger of a Christian masochism that seeks out suffering, or a Christian sadism that can revel in inflicting it on others.

An even more common theodicy has traditionally been associated with Augustine, although he did not really hold this model for much of his career. Referred to as “free-will theodicy,” this argues that God’s gift of free will entails the freedom to commit sin, and God’s intervention would subvert that freedom. Still, it isn’t clear what it means to call God “good” in a world in which God stands on the sidelines in the face of atrocity, nor does it say much about the evil in the world which is not rooted in our free choices – addiction, natural evil, social sin.

Both of these models tend to presume the old bumper-sticker theology, “Everything happens for a reason.” However, Jesus’ central symbol, the reign of God, presumes that suffering is not the will of God. As it says in the Lord’s prayer, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That is, may your will be accomplished here, since it is not being perfectly accomplished now. Jesus does not offer explanations of why it is not being accomplished – he simply overcomes it in his preaching and his healing.

The God of the Biblical tradition is presented as having a rich and complicated inner life, not the static or endlessly simple model of modern theism, which makes God less of a person than us, rather than more. So, one thread in the Bible locates the source of evil in the complicated and at times capricious inner life of God. For example, as much as Christian try to read GN 22, the binding of Isaac, either as a repudiation of human sacrifice or as a Christological prefiguration of God handing his Son over to death, we have to reckon with a story in which God demands the death of Isaac and then jerks Abraham around for three straight days. We have to reckon with a God who punishes the sinfulness of David by killing his newborn son; who hardens Pharaoh’s heart so as to further dismantle the entire Egyptian reality, innocents included; who demands the slaughter of the entire Amalekite people; who acts on behalf of some while far more commonly remaining silent. “God rejects, but not forever.” (O’Connor 51) God is abusive, but not all the time. David Blumenthal’s book Facing the Abusing God argues that God’s relationship with the people is at times like that of an abusing parent to his or her child – an abused spouse may be able to leave the abuser, but Israel is stuck with God like a child is stuck with an abusive parent.

On the other hand, the lament psalms almost never confess guilt – God has been absent or indifferent or neglectful, and this neglect is the reason for the sufferer’s pain – lament psalms often call God back to attentiveness – “How long, O Lord?” is a well-worn question in those psalms – how long until you return to attentiveness to us. Jon Levenson's book Creation and the Persistence of Evil speaks about the ongoing presence of a dangerous, chaotic reality in the world that, if not attended carefully by God, will encroach onto the human situation.

The Book of Job, although perhaps the most heavily contested book in the canon, gives an image of a God who simply overwhelms Job with the grandeur of creation as a means of showing him his inability to understand the reason for suffering. Fr. Robert Barron gives a similar model, like looking at Seurat’s pointillist painting La Grande Jatte from right up close – it only looks like a couple of dots or a blur of color: we are too close to get the big picture. The problem with such a model is that it presumes that this artistic God has put every dot there with some intentionality, and that it all fits together. How far away from the Holocaust do you have to back up to make it fit seamlessly into the picture? Does that not run the risk of looking at life “through the wrong end of the telescope,” making human life and suffering insignificant in the scope of the cosmic endlessness?

Terrence Tilley, who teaches at Fordham, has written about how doing theodicy in this manner, rearranging the pieces while never questioning any of them, is itself the source of a good deal of evil. It quite often blames the victim, presuming that he or she or they must have sinned – think about the Book of Job again for an easy example. Also, as any number of commentators have noted, keeping the problem of evil at the level of an intellectual conundrum is a luxury that scholars have but very few other people do – it can easily become a substitute for trying to overcome evil, especially if the model ends up presuming, as classical theodicies often do, that the way the world is working is fundamentally okay. It is even possible to conclude that working to change such a system is to challenge the will of God who laid the pieces out as they are.

After the Holocaust, a number of Jewish theologians have developed the concept of antitheodicy, literally, the refusal to justify God in the face of evil. Retrieving the sense of God’s responsibility for dealing with evil, whether or not God has caused it, these schools of thought refuse to dismiss the genuinely evil character of their sufferings, while refusing to deny the reality of God. There is a classic folk tale that Elie Wiesel tells of a group of rabbis in Auschwitz who put God on trial for failure to live up to God’s part of the covenant, from the exile through the pogroms and the ghettoization of Jews in Europe through the Holocaust. These rabbis hold this trial with a judge, witnesses, lawyers, testimony, the works; they find God guilty, sentence God to death, and then file out and go to evening prayer to offer praise to this guilty, condemned God. What do Christians do with such a paradoxical image? Is it possible to hold together God as guilty and yet praiseworthy?

Theology in the wake of the Holocaust has revisited the question of God’s capacity to suffer. Modern theism, in its desire to keep God sovereign, “impassible,” again created an image of God that is so static as to be nearly impossible to relate to. Does God’s heart not hurt at the Holocaust, at Rwanda or Darfur or 9/11 or the tsunami or the thousand children who will starve to death during the time we are together today? Is God not moved by our hurts? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran theologian who was eventually hanged by the Nazis, concisely said, “Only a suffering God can help.” Elie Wiesel’s classic book Night has people, while watching the slow death by hanging of a child, ask, “Where is God?”, to which Wiesel answers, “This is where – hanging here from this gallows.” (65) On the other hand, theologians have argued, “I don’t want this God to suffer – I want this God to stop the suffering.” I have no idea how to parse that out except to say that it is an argument that was all but unthinkable under the reign of modern theism.

I would argue that much of what we are doing in our study of the problem of evil indicates that we are less concerned about good and evil, and more concerned about order and chaos. We have a hard time when reality doesn’t work the way we expect it to, but we can negotiate a lot of evil in the world as long as it fits into our scheme of how the world works. We know that some thirty thousand children under five will starve to death today around the world, and yet we aren’t running around screaming. If that were to happen in our psychic backyards, we would go bananas, but instead we get more worked up over the light turning red before we get to it, or a printer not working, or other really, really little stuff that is important to us only because it is in the center of our psychic maps. Walter Brueggemann speaks in this vein of “theodic crises”; the amount or nature of evil crosses a mental threshold, and we are forced to develop new models for comprehending the problem of evil. Below that threshold, we can make sense of it all, but above that threshold is more than my model can accommodate. Think of why the things that cultures tend to remember as threshold moments, as “I’ll always remember where I was when” moments are almost always bad things, or at least really chaotic things – Pearl Harbor, JFK’s assassination, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina. They stand out for us as unexplainable events – our map of the world doesn’t work anymore. Wars happen in other countries, natural disasters happen to other people, but we can keep that at a safe psychic distance. Now, the theodic crisis emerges because it is right in my face, in the middle of my map of meaning. We are forced to come up with new models that better map the reality we are facing. The Babylonian Exile stands as the 9/11 of the Old Testament – a hand grenade into the middle of a map of reality that made sense. The utter chaos of the worldview of the survivors prompted the development of a number of new responses to evil, just as happened after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

Like The Joker says in The Dark Knight, “You know what I noticed? Nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan,’ even if the plan is horrifying. If tomorrow I tell the press that a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will get blown up, nobody panics. Because it’s all part of the plan.”

Kathleen O’Connor, in her book Lamentations and the Tears of the World, tries to reclaim lament as a legitimate response to the problem of evil – not a logical solution to an intellectual problem, but a gutsy, visceral response for people who are caught in the midst of suffering. Rather than assume that this is my fault, or that I am on my own, she encourages being able to sit in the middle of suffering and scream for a response. While psychologically there may be something very healthy about that, some people would argue that the theological proposition running lament, that God is at the core of my suffering, is problematic. I prefer to think of lament as a means of keeping the mysterious nature of suffering in mind. I mean by mystery not that we just don’t have a big enough perspective to take it all in, like Robert Barron argued, but that we deliberately keep the edges raw on the very idea of having a model. We know that any model is a sort of Procrustean bed, squeezing or truncating reality to fit the model. From this angle, lament, with its insistent cry of “Why?” admits its ignorance, while also holding out the demand that, finally, beyond any model of why it is, evil is to be overcome, suffering is to be alleviated.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Reflection for 11 February 2009

The Hebrew word adam means human being, and the word adamah means earth or soil – the adam comes from the adamah, the people come from the dirt, get it? That works the same in our language – the word human comes from the same root as humus, or dirt, which of course comes from the same root as humility or humble. Where the first reading tells us, “Remember where you come from, that you are in fact made of the stuff of the earth,” the gospel reinforces that and undercuts our seemingly inevitable tendency to make ourselves out to be more than we are. We don’t like being reminded of our humble origins, that we are made of dust, that we are all going back to dust, so we try to create an identity for ourselves, typically by comparing ourselves to other people, distancing ourselves from what is not as holy, not as pure as we are. Jesus warns that situating uncleanness or impurity outside of ourselves is a dead end, is a cover story for trying to create our own righteousness. You may avoid eating unclean foods, but still be loaded down with hard-heartedness, violence, self-importance, and above all, major blind spots about your own need for the divine mercy. The stuff that comes out of us, rather than the stuff that goes into us, should give us pause. I may want to present myself as a relatively well-educated, more or less competent professional, but the Joker puts it this way in The Dark Knight: “Madness is like gravity – all it takes is a little push.” I know how easily my own capacity for violence or self-aggrandizement can come to the fore, most likely when that image of myself as competent, respectable, in control is under attack. None of us want to be reminded that under all the personas we create (persona means “mask,” by the way), we’re made of dirt and we’re naked. On my own steam, I’m nothing – I cannot create a mask big enough to undo my screwiness, my self-centeredness, and my own finitude. That’s the bad news – we twist ourselves into knots trying to forget our own messiness, trying to forge personas that we can take pride in. The good news is that we don’t have to do any of that stuff. Who we really are is already established before we can do anything about it. Yes, I come from dust and I’m returning to dust, but I’m made a little less than the angels, and my name is written in heaven. There is nothing for me to boast about, because I had nothing to do with it, but that is fundamentally the only identity that can give me any satisfaction – who I am is who I am in God, and nothing more. Even if I could create myself like that, it’s all disappearing – how much stuff I know, how tight my waistline is, how nice my hair looks (ha), how much respect I can get out of other people.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Sparrow

Last weekend NPR's program "Speaking of Faith" interviewed Mary Doria Russell, focusing on her two novels The Sparrow and Children of God. I had heard of those two before, but never read them, so on a whim I picked up The Sparrow from the library last Sunday night and finished it yesterday morning. Without giving too much away, it deals with the reception of radio signals from another planet and the Jesuit mission sent to that planet to find the source of those signals. The potential for things to go wrong, the uncertainties involved with interacting with another culture, let alone another planet and multiple other species, are all rendered in a story that is at once beautiful and terrible. It holds serious resonances for me at the moment, given that I am teaching a class on evil. An article by Terrence Tilley (theology prof at Fordham) that we are reading right now asks of the protagonist of the Book of Job, but could just as easily ask of the protagonist of The Sparrow: "Does he undergo that most terrible experience for a victim: 'to believe himself exposed to the personal hostility of the divinity'?" We have spent a fair amount of time in class examining Biblical texts in which God is presented as a fairly ambivalent character - the Akedah (the binding of Isaac), for example, and now Job. Is it possible for Christians to hold a God-image such that they feel crushed by the whim of an ambivalent (if not malevolent) deity? I see so much denial and self-loathing arising from the conception that whatever happens to me happens for a reason, or is my fault, or that God is somehow justified in letting it be, but is the alternative (a morally questionable deity) any better?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Reflection for 4 February 2009

Anyone else notice that in the gospel for today, the people in Nazareth “took offense” at Jesus when he goes home? It isn’t “how dare he claim to be mighty or wise,” because they don’t deny that the deeds are mighty or that the words are wise, but that they can’t accept something new where all they expect is the ordinary – he’s just a carpenter, he’s just Mary’s kid or Judas’ brother. They have a hard time tolerating the fact that the ordinary can be the place of encounter with the extraordinary. We do the same thing with people that we want to not be challenged by, so we domesticate them (think Martin Luther King, once “the most dangerous man in America,” and now, for one day a year, the darling of business luncheons and 24-hour news coverage across the nation.) We also do the same thing with space and time – it’s hard to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, so we keep looking around for special times and places – the retreat coming up later in the semester, the trip to the Vatican or on a spring break mission, hearing a speech from a famous theologian.

It's ordinary time in the liturgical calendar, of course, and the danger of ordinary time is that it can be reduced to being, well…ordinary. We look ahead to the next big season, say, Lent, or to some big feast day, like last week’s feast of Thomas Aquinas. Today is the feast of people I never heard of, like Saint John de Britto and Saint Rembert of Torhout. I only saw those names because I literally Googled February 4th in hopes of finding some big event that happened on this day in history, some major feast day, something to give me a big topic to bounce my ideas off. Well, there aren’t any. But there are. Any of you ever Google or Wikipedia a date and just see all the stuff that happened on that day? It’s the birthday of Johann Ludwig Bach, second cousin of Johann Sebastian Bach (how’s that for living in someone else’s shadow), and of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Rosa Parks, but mostly of people I never heard of. It’s the 5th anniversary of the founding of Facebook, the 150th anniversary of the discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus, and so on. But far and away the stuff that happened, the deaths and births that Wikipedia lists for February 4, are things I never heard of. Even then, of course, 99½ percent of the stuff that happens in our world won’t show up on Wikipedia or Google or anywhere else, but those places, events, people are precisely our points of encounter with the divine - the grandfather who will never be famous, the wedding anniversary, the family's favorite picnic spot.

Do we just look to go from one big event or feast to the next, one major saint to the next? Is “ordinary time” just a holding pattern between Christmas and Lent? That seems to me like a recipe for not being here now, not paying attention to the normal, quotidian, uninteresting bits of our lives which is where most of us in fact live most of our lives. Simone Weil puts it this way: “Absolutely unmixed attentiveness is prayer.” However, most of us live in various grades of unattentiveness, whether because of the noise of all the pacifiers we have in our lives, the expectation that only big things have anything good to offer us, or whatever. The Incarnation, the sacramental nature of our lives, means that it is exactly in the ordinary that we encounter the extraordinary – history can’t be split into a history of the sacred and the profane. There is no place, no time, where we can’t encounter the divine reality. In the Zen tradition, it goes this way: "After enlightenment, the dishes." True enlightenment puts us in contact with the real world, rather than letting us escape the real world.

We make a big deal about sacred places to remind us that every place is sacred. We highlight sacred times to recall that all time is sacred time. We hold up sacred people as symbols for us that all people are sacred, no life is trivial, no person can be swept under the carpet. Unfortunately we tend to miss most of those chances to see it, often enough because we pay so much attention to the “special” that we miss what it is pointing out to us, like the old Zen adage: “When the wise man points at the moon, all the idiot sees is the finger.”