Even if one has progressed far in divine things, one is never nearer the truth than when one understands that those things still remain to be discovered. He who believes he has attained the goal, far from finding what he seeks, falls by the wayside.
--St. Leo the Great, quoted in Peter Rollins, How (Not) To Speak Of God
Sunday, May 19, 2013
In a phone interview the other week, I was asked how I work with ambiguity. Ever the nerd, I began my response by saying something quite brief about postmodernism and then delving into ambiguity and my professional life, since that was the reason for their question.
After reading the above words, I thought about how this statement is true not just in divine things, but in things in general, if the two are discernibly or meaningful separate. This morning I think especially of love, which is certainly a divine thing if not the divine thing. I don't think love or God is something we can entirely attain and, as St. Leo the Great says, remains in ambiguity as much as, if not more than, it is understood and felt.
Love and God are areas in which we must always seek for more understanding from new experiences, create more meaning in community and solidarity, and give away all that we know and learn. The more we attain, the less we can retain as the newness gives way to complete and utter newness of comprehension and experience as much as it builds on that which came before. Love and God are not impossible in this sense, but always ambiguous and never fully achieved. There is always more understanding, new experiences, meaningful and innovative creations, and leftover bread and fish when all is given away for in order to find ourselves, we must lose ourselves. And what is the pursuit of God and love if not the pursuit of ourselves, of ipseity and community, if there is a discernible or meaningful difference between the two?
Sunday, May 5, 2013
You can't lose hope when it's hopeless. You gotta hope more, then put your fingers in your ears and go, "Blah! Blah! Blah! Blah!... "
- Philip J. Fry
Futurama channeled Kierkegaard's knight of faith in this quote. The knight of faith has faith for the impossible, has faith when there should be no faith. This knight hopes for that which is hopeless--life from something dead, love from the unrequited, and sense and reality from the nonsensical. No matter how progressive and reasonable your faith/religion/spirituality is, at some level you are not only putting your fingers in your ears, but also screaming against contradicting noise. We are the knight of faith and the child incessantly saying, "I'm not listening!"
The difference--OK, a difference--between Kierkegaard and Futurama is that Kierkegaard romanticizes this hope against hope by calling it a knight. Kierkegaard says it is admirable to cover up your ears and refuse to listen to reason or any reasonable, alternative belief. Futurama appears to make fun of it, pointing out the childish ridiculousness of it. But in the episode, Fry's hope wins out. Futurama was very careful to ridicule the faith while also saying that either coincidence or providence could award the knight of faith (in the episode, coincidence and providence work together, perhaps).
Kierkegaard ennobles faith and Futurama remains conspicuously ambiguous. W. K. Clifford calls it unethical, saying that "sincerity of conviction" isn't enough. For Clifford, we need to have "evidence" and some sort of reason to believe. And here comes an essential question: Is reason contrary to faith and vice versa?
On the hand, I must say yes. Faith steps in where reason cannot tread. Yet, many "faith journeys" are guided and influenced by reason, at least, on some level. Once one takes that "leap of faith," reason can guide the rest of belief. It seems, reason and faith are not completely contrary.
I want to say one is more primary than the other. Of course, to say so would be more of desire than reason. And yet, to deny it due to reason would be to assume the primacy of reason. I assume the primacy of reason--I have faith in reason, because I assume it is a valid basis for belief formation.
Enter deconstruction. Of course, Trevar mentioned deconstruction. Deconstruction uses reason against itself. On the one hand we have hope against hope and, on the other, reason against reason. With deconstruction, I don't get rid of reason, but rather realize its limitations. I understand reason has boundaries. I understand faith is, at is base, unreasonable and, possibly--nay, likely--ridiculous.
But faith is inevitable. Reason is, too, even though I think some people have managed to avoid it. We all take faith at different points and reason at different points. Perhaps it is more reasonable to shoo faith to certain places, but only because I have faith that this sort of reason is right, that there are levels of reasonable investigation into faith and reason that are responsible and levels that are irresponsible, like a diet version of Clifford's view, because it is healthier for you.
In the end, it is health that I wish for, not right and wrong--love over impossibly definable veracity.
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
One of my adult students recently lost his grandmother. The first night he returned to class, I overheard him talking to another student about his time in the hospital. He said that in his grandmother's last moments, all he could think about was the carriage ride in Emily Dickinson's "Because I could not stop for Death." Thinking about that poem helped him cope with those last moments.
That is why we read, write, and teach literature. It doesn't always help, and the same literature isn't going to help all of us. Reading, writing, and teaching isn't going to make anything better or lighten something heavy, but it may help us cope as we carry a burden--either helping us make meaning where there is none or live with meaninglessness. As Joan Didion writes, "[For Ramon Novarro,] Writing had helped him, he said, to 'reflect on experience and see what it means.' [...] but writing has not yet helped me to see what it means"(48, The White Album).
For me, in personal tragedy or in larger tragedies such as the explosions in Boston today, I often look for help in the opening lines of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking:
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.
For my student, in the death of his grandmother, it was "Because I could not stop for Death."
Whether movie, television, music, writing, paintings, video game, or other art or "text," what has it been that has helped you?
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
We slowly drove –
He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –
Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –
Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity –
Sunday, March 31, 2013
"Tomorrow is the shadow and reflexibility of our hands."
--Reb Derissa, "Ellipsis," Writing and Difference
But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a human came death, by a human also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those are are Christ's at his coming, then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when he has abolished all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death.
1 Corinthians 15:20-26
According to Paul, today--Easter--is about tomorrow. First fruits are a tithe or tax of sorts, a compulsory giving of produce to feed the priests and their families. Whether or not literally the first crops to be reaped, the crops are given to God first (or a deity, since the first-fruit offering is not distinctively Israelite), then to the farmer (see the Catholic Encyclopedia & Wikipedia for nice overviews).
Paul says Jesus is the tax of the dead, says people created death and resurrection (vv. 20-21). Since humanity "grew" both (to keep the agricultural metaphor) then the first fruits of death and resurrection go to God. Now that the tax is paid and the offering given, the rest of the crop--death and resurrection--belongs to humanity.
At least, we--the body of Christ--are working towards taking ownership of death and resurrection. First, Paul maintains that we cannot have the rest of the fruits of resurrection until we get rid of death (see vv.23-26). Paul foresees the tax paid by the dead--the resurrection of us, the body of Christ--as one that must work to overcome death and "[abolish] all rule and all authority and power" (15:24). To abandon what Paul envisioned, this moment is "the end," when the kingdom is handed over to God and becomes what Philip Pullman describes as the "republic of God" (The Amber Spyglass), that moment where we are all equal, all truly the body of Christ, all God, and all Love, whatever exactly that means.
Easter, according to Paul, is the beginning of that end and we are the means. The tax has been paid and now we have to continue working and reaping the rest of the fruits, i.e., more death while fighting against it. Looking at technology and medicine, we are doing a great job. Looking at oppression, greed, and poverty, we are not doing so well. That's the shadow of our hands that Derrida describes under the pseudonym Reb Derissa. Much of what we see in this world is our fault, but not all. Systemic evil is our fault, hurricanes and tornados is not so much our fault, unless influenced by how we treat the environment. Whatever we do today is shadowed by the good and the bad we do today.
And that shadow affects what we do tomorrow, sometimes inspiring more bad, more good, or, often, the choice to ignore what was done yesterday, what is done today, and what will be done tomorrow. This is where our hands have reflxibility. Our hands not only mirror each other from left to right but from today to tomorrow. Our actions today mirror and have mutually influential relationships with our actions tomorrow. I will do such-and-such tomorrow, so I will do such-and-such today. I will workout tomorrow, so I will have pie today. I will buy this product today, because tomorrow they will give a percentage of the money to fight the slavery they employ to make the product. I do not want to talk to this person, because I am afraid they will eventually hurt me.
This reflexibility is frightening and powerful. The reflexibility itself influences us, sometimes inspiring, sometimes immobilizing us. Easter reminds me to be thoughtful and reflective in my actions today and my plans for tomorrow. I want to foresee the end of authority, power, and rule in a way I doubt Paul did, I want to see it as radical equality.
Much of the theology surrounding Jesus embodies that radical equality: God becomes one of us and dies like one of us (thanks, Joan Osborne). To get a little preachy, now we need to become like God and resurrect in and by our hands the love that Jesus as Christ represents. If we can do so today, then it will influence what I do tomorrow, which will influence what I do today, and the shadow of my hands today will illuminate instead of darken tomorrow.
He is risen, the first fruits. Now we must rise.
Friday, March 29, 2013
Today, I am uncomfortable with the term "Good Friday."
"Good Friday" has varied etymological accounts. Since I'm not a philologist, I can't argue for or against any of these explanations. Besides, what a word or phrase meant doesn't change what it means today.
Not based on any serious study, but rather on my experiences and a brief perusal of the internet, today, the "good" of "Good Friday" mostly connotes how good it is that God sent "his" to pay the wages of sin: death. Let's also note that according to this line of reason, God set these wages and apparently never decided to give a increase or decrease to the wages. However, God accepts substitutes: animals and Jesus.
I won't get into the intricacies of sacrifices in Ancient Near Eastern culture or biblical references to further elucidate sacrificial, substitutionary atonement. Even at the surface level just described, I am uncomfortable with calling this Friday good. God can change the wages for sin as much as God can set them. Accepting a substitution is a change. Accepting a human instead of an animal is a change. So why the death of man? Why death at all? Human history shows that lessons cannot be taught without death, and death seems like a mighty high price for stealing a piece of gum, cheating on your taxes, punching someone, or eating or drinking to excess.
Even if I could accept calling the death good, why the suffering? Before Jesus, sacrificial animals weren't tortured; they were just killed. Jesus could have had his throat slit instead of being beaten, humiliated, and nailed to a cross. For that matter, Jesus could have died of old age, a heart attack, or some other "natural cause." If a spiritual existence and physical resurrection eons after death is the symbol Christians desire, resurrection could have followed any of those deaths, just like Lazarus's. For that matter, Jesus could have skipped death and ascended into heaven like Elijah, telling his followers, "You may die on this earth, but you'll ascend ages later, like my beloved Lazarus."
Many Christians look at Good Friday and Easter as the only solution to our sins. But if God is a creative God not bound by rules, then there certainly were and, possibly--likely--are other options that God could have made good. To call the cross the only option is tantamount to saying the cross makes this Friday good or saying Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" is a poem about taking "the road less traveled by"--it is giving significance and acting as if the meaning were there all along, as if it were there intentionally.
According to the common interpretation of Good Friday, God chose a terrible option, not a good one. I can be thankful for Easter as a historical reality or as a powerful symbol without calling Friday good in this manner. And so I say, "good riddance" to Good Friday or, at least, the term as commonly understood today. (Again when I say "commonly understood," I am making a huge leap in judgment from my experience to most English speakers' experiences.)
Instead, I echo the words of Meister Eckhart today: "I pray God to rid me of God." How apropos of this Friday, also known as Holy Friday, Black Friday, Long Friday, and, appropriately in the German, Karfreitag, which means Sorrowful or Suffering Friday (credit for these finding these other names goes to about.com and Wikipedia). We remember--not celebrate--the death of a man so holy that he was called the son of God, Christ, and even God. In a sense, today is a day we remember not only God dying, but a way of understanding God dying. We remember disciples who could not understand Jesus being crucified so much so that they were embarrassed and denied Jesus when he was dying and dead. Today of all days is an apt day to sacrifice our understandings of God for and to whatever and/or whoever God really is. For me, today, this Friday is for remembering Jesus' death and waiting for the reality behind that word.
I wish you blessings of significance this Friday, a time of soul searching tomorrow on Holy Saturday, and a time of rebirth and newness this Easter Sunday. I can only hope that freedom will accompany that newness, a freedom in light of the oppression the Hebrews suffered and escaped in Egypt and a freedom from oppression that so many need today.
Monday, November 5, 2012
The below was presented at my grandfather's funerary memorial service on November 5, 2012 in Dowling Park, FL.
Some people follow in the footsteps of their elders. It seems I have somewhat followed in the pulpits of my grandfather, studying theology, preaching, and finally standing at the very pulpit where he collapsed before dying just over 24 hours later.
When I went to college, I practically lived with my grandparents for a while. I remember asking him questions about scripture and theology and when I went off to graduate school, I remember him even coming to me with a few points to discuss. Apropos of that relationship, I think it appropriate for me to share at this funeral-memorial, a scripture with which I struggle. The words are printed in the bulletin, 1 Corinthians 15:55:
"O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?"
The victory looks apparent and I know exactly where the sting is. It is in my heart. It is in the first few pews. It is in the hearts and minds of all of us here, all of us who never imagined we had so little time left with him.
In the sermon my grandfather was preaching when he collapsed, he was going to describe this sting-victory problem in an oft-told story about a nonexistent painting. The painting is of a chess match. One of the players has only one piece left, whereas the other, sinister-looking character has the obvious piece-advantage. This fictional painting is entitled, "Checkmate."
But the title of this painting is misleading, because the lone king on the board still has moves left. And I fully believe God's work--love--through my grandfather has not and will not stop at death. The grave has no victory when he lives on in us, in our hearts, our minds, and our memories. The sting is still there, but the grave is robbed of the victory.
Wednesday, October 31, 2012
I got to know my grandfather best when I started college. I knew him before, but as a distant figure. He and his wife moved to Florida when I was young. I have two brief memories of them before they left Maine. In one, I remember being at their house and my great-grandmother was there, sitting in a chair in a corner. She wanted a kiss, but I didn't know her and felt scared.
The second was later, I believe. I think they hadn't moved from Maine yet, but maybe they were just visiting for the summer. We were walking to their apartment one summer day. I was in between them, holding their hands, and we were swinging their arms. When we are at their place, I remember thinking their refrigerator was weird, because it was a side-by-side refrigerator and freezer and I had only ever seen a top-freezer unit.
After that, I remember them coming to visit one summer and I didn't recognize them. Although young, I felt bad for not recognizing them and even worse for not feeling comfortable with them.
As I grew older, I began to remember and I would even expect them in the summers. I appreciated the birthday cards and the money inside. I would write thank you letters and make birthday cards for them.
Then when selecting a college, I looked into Palm Beach Atlantic University, which was about 20-30 minutes from my grandparents home in Jupiter, Florida. I became very well acquainted with my grandparents. I practically lived there for my first semester. Their guest room became "my" bedroom. It was still the guest room, of course, but it was often referred to as "Trevah's room." They lived in Florida for over 20 years, but the Maine accent never went away. It'll fo'evah be paht of his chahm in my mind like it is still paht of Joan's.
Like a college student becoming his own individual, I started making friends my own age. Consequently, I was visiting my grandparents less. I had joined the choir at their church, so I would see them every Sunday. I was struggling with faith at the time and I was uncomfortable with some things in that church. I left the church, so I stopped seeing my grandparents every weekend.
I never stopped thinking about them. I never stopped visiting, but the visits became infrequent. They understood that I was developing, I was becoming my own man. I missed them, but I didn't know how to balance multiple relationships that don't travel in the same circle. I still don't.
I don't keep in touch with my parents or brother enough. I don't keep in touch consistently with many friends who don't live close to me. And if I make new friends who don't travel in the same circles, I don't do well giving my time and attention to both groups.
That imbalance has influenced most of my grief since my grandfather died Monday night. Really, it started Sunday night when I heard he collapsed while preaching.
When I started graduate school, things only became worse. When I made friends in Florida, I brought them to visit my grandparents. They met girlfriends, roommates, and other friends. When my friend and roommate Matt and I graduated, they hosted a cookout in our honor and invited his family. "He made me feel like part of the family," Matt recently wrote me.
And when I moved away for graduate school, that imbalance became worse. I sullied what was a great relationship by barely ever contacting them. They, like my parents, wouldn't initiate contact, because they thought they would bother me. Sure, I'm busy. Sure, I'm terrible at returning calls. But I never think someone's call is burdensome. They would never have been a bother. I loved them. I still do. Both of them.
This past year, I was proud to send my grandfather a card for his 84th birthday on September 20th. Not only did I send the card, but I also sent it before his birthday. Usually I'm late, if I send a card at all. I even included a letter this year. He wrote me back "[w]ithout delay," which he said, "expresses my appreciation."
I'm fortunate to have not recycled the letter just yet. The letter is a good memory.
I had plans to call him or write him another letter, telling him about my recent cruise. When I hadn't done it right away, my parents reminded me that I should call. I put it off. Last weekend I was going to write a letter, but I ended up hiking, going to a haunted house, and grading assignments.
I never imagined I would run out of time.
Sunday night I lay in bed trying to sleep, but only regretting. I lay on my back and the tears slipped from my eyes and began to fill my ears. Why didn't I just call? Why didn't I write and send the letter in a timely fashion? Why didn't I assure that he and Joan know I not only love them, but think of them often? Did he feel again like that distant figure he was when I was a child and didn't recognize him?
Funny how we experience mourning. My grandfather died, left behind a large family, including his wife, and I am worried about how he felt about how I felt.
I am sad that he is gone, but he went in a "good" way. He never wanted to have a prolonged death. He didn't want to be resuscitated. In fact, back in 2004 or 2005, I was the witness who signed a statement saying he didn't want to be kept alive if his quality of life was or would become significantly worse.
He collapsed while preaching Sunday night. He opened his eyes long enough to say that he was doing fine. That sounds just like my grandfather, using his last words to calm people by saying things are OK. He was revived, but not soon enough to prevent brain damage. He passed away in just over 24 hours, dying around 10pm Monday night. His death wasn't a prolonged process. He died while preaching, something I know made him nervous after such a long sabbatical from the pulpit. But he also enjoyed doing it, being involved again. There are certainly worse ways to die.
And what now?
I would like to say that I have learned about the shortness of life and how I will never again waste time in communicating with loved ones. But let's be realistic. For the next few days, weeks, maybe, I'll try to be honest with people about my feelings. Perhaps I'll even make a few more calls, send a few more letters. But it won't last. As my mourning progresses, I'll forget again about how we are not guaranteed more time together. I'll probably remember, occasionally, this lesson, but it cannot stick.
People die all the time. I am aware of my mortality and the mortality of those around me. We are aware, all of us. It doesn't change enough, not for any of us.
How bad, how good, does it need to get?
How many losses? How much regret?
What chain reaction would cause an effect?
Makes you turn around,
Makes you try to explain,
Makes you forgive and forget,
Makes you change?
I don't know the answer to Tracy Chapman's questions. I suppose the answer is different for all of us. Sometimes I wonder if the answer is only temporary for all of us, just as temporary as life. And even if we change--when we change--there is always more to change in life. There is always more to do to make life better for all. Balancing relationships is just one thing I want to do better. Next, how do I balance passions? How do I balance taking care of myself and taking care of others? How do I balance those cares with relationships and my professional life, my professional lives?
Excuse me for getting a little preachy, but I want my grandfather's death to mean more than just the loss of one great man. I will be asking myself questions about change and balance for weeks and months. But I must ask you, what will it take to make you change? Is your balance what you want? Is it what you would have wanted 10 years ago? Is it what you will be pleased with in 10 years? What other changes can you make?
We can always be better. Always. In his letter to me, my grandfather said he was "reaching for the stars." The tattoo on my left arm has a tree growing for the stars. I tell people the tree is reaching skyward. Every time a tree grows, it gets closer to the sky--it reaches its destination every time it grows. Yet, it always have farther to grow, because the sky is always higher to a tree.
We are like that tree, like my grandfather "reaching for the stars." Every change we make is what we want, but it always requires more change. Tracy Chapman's question will never be fully answered, even when it is addressed. Like my grandfather said in his letter, "That's probably a little over stated but it sounds good when you can't really observe the facts."