Wednesday, September 22, 2010

On The Unforgivable: Grace & Impossibility in Jesus & Derrida

"Do you think there is such a thing as an unforgivable sin?"

My friends know I love spiritual, biblical, and theological conversations. Sometimes they even appreciate my opinions. A few evenings ago, one of my friends asked me the above question. My answer surprised me a little.

I first admitted my ignorance of Matthew 12:31-32. The Jesus of Matthew's Gospel says "blasphemy against the holy spirit will not be forgiven." I know the passage, but I have never done serious study into what the verse means. I haven't even spent significant time trying to understand the passage without outside study. I've heard other people talk about what the passage means, but I'm too skeptical to take their words for it.

Not surprisingly, I thought of Derrida's nearly incomprehensible words after I thought of Jesus'. In 1997, Derrida wrote On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, an intriguing combination of topics. And perhaps Derrida's thoughts aren't completely applicable. After all, my friend wondered not whether humans cannot forgive a certain sin, but rather if God could or would not forgive a certain sin or sins. Maybe Derrida's thoughts say more about God than I initially realized.

Derrida says, "We are all heir, at least, to persons or events marked, in an essential, interior, ineffaceable fashion, by crimes against humanity." A crime against humanity is "a crime against what is most sacred in the living, and thus already against the divine in man," and perhaps, in a sense, the blasphemy about which Matthew's Jesus speaks.

Derrida believes forgiveness should be "anecomonic," one should not forgive a sin because one wants to be forgiven. No one should give forgiveness in payment for a forgiveness or in expectation of a later forgiveness (cf. Matt. 18:21-35). In fact, for Derrida, anything that can be forgiven is not something needing forgiveness.
"If one is only prepared to forgive what appears forgivable, what the church calls 'venial sin', then the very idea of forgiveness would disappear. If there is something to forgive, it would be what in religious language is called mortal sin, the worst, the unforgivable crime or harm. From which comes the aporia, which can be described in its dry and implacable formality, without mercy: forgiveness forgives only the unforgivable. One cannot, or should not, forgive; there is only forgiveness, if there is any, where there is the unforgivable. That is to say that forgiveness must announce itself as impossibility itself. It can only be possible in doing the impossible."
I can't imagine Jesus would disagree with Derrida. Jesus made forgiveness sound sensational. A man in a parable does not forgive a debt and reaps condemnation. Peter asks how many times he should forgive his brother, who apparently commits a great amount of wrongs. Seven times? How about seventy times seven.

Jesus promotes the social justice of the Torah and Tanak, not the dueteronomic retributive justice upon which too many Christians focus. Retributive justice seems to have a place in society. The ancient Hebrew Torah set up retributive justice for their society to work. Today we continue it at the societal level with institutes for correction, however corrupt and non-corrective they are.

On the social level, Jesus and Derrida realize justice in a different sense, where we are all debtors like the man in Jesus' parable, all heirs to the most heinous of sins, all guilty. If we are all guilty, then forgiveness becomes impossible and necessary. But all of our sins are against ourselves and each other. "Forgiveness is ... mad. It must plunge, but lucidly, into the night of the unintelligible." It must happen in order to enter into relationship with others, with ourselves, and with God--the God in us and the God with us.

So we come again to Peter's famous question about how many times to forgive his brother. Jesus' answer is a ridiculous number intended for exaggeration, a hyperbole. Jesus' answer changes the concept of forgiveness completely. Jesus is not concerned with forgiving sins. "What would be a forgiveness that forgave only the forgivable?" Rather, Jesus is concerned with forgiving people.

Forgiving the forgivable forgives the past, which is doable, although sometimes hard. Forgiving a person means you forgive their future, too. Rationally, you cannot forgive something that hasn't happened. The unforgivable sin is the one that has not happened, but it is "the only thing to forgive[.] The only thing that calls for forgiveness." This is the only forgiveness that can be unconditional, the only forgiveness that is actually forgiveness.

"In principle, there is no limit to forgiveness, no measure, no moderation, no 'to what point?'"

And so it is with God, I believe. I still do not understand the whole bit about blasphemy against the spirit. But I imagine God forgives people, not sins. God is concerned with sins and wrongdoings, but God does not forgive those things. Things don't need forgiving, people do.


Derrida, Jacques. On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. Trans. Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes. Thinking in Action. New York: Routledge, 2001. Originally published in 1997, in French.

Monday, September 20, 2010

How Is Leadership Different From Manipulation?

In class today, we listed qualities a leader should have. After the list was compiled, I asked, "How is this list different from qualities we want in a good person?" I was told the list looks similar because we want a good leader to be a good person.

The answer is novel, but not sufficient.

Thinking of our list, I can only roll my eyes. Of course a group of self-proclaimed church leaders will create a list of the loftiest requirements for a leader. I scoffed a little when I learned Cicero did the same thing as he delineated what a good orator must be. Removed from Cicero in time and space, it was easy for me to scoff at his list, especially since he completely disregarded a woman's ability to be an orator.

Scoffing turned to disgust when I read Samuel Johnson's prose about what separates a poet from the rest of the human world. Like Cicero before him and my class of church leaders today, Johnson compiled a list of qualities making poets seem like the most special people in the world.

I want to know what really makes a person a leader and not an ordained manipulator. Isn't a leader someone by whom a group of people want to be manipulated, told what to do, where to go, how to think, etc? How are church leaders more than people congregations assume are sent by God to manipulate?

I am not trying to be cynical. I really don't know the answer. What do you think? What separates a leader from other person? What separates a good leader from a good person?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Alter Ego Versus an Ego on the Altar

In this post, I am responding to a reading assignment and discussion from some of my classmates.

After Moses' spoke with God, he wore a veil to hide the fading brightness of his face. Moses wore this veil, this mask to create a distance between himself and the homeless, wandering Hebrews. The fading brightness of his face shows how people can change, how their ideals, their zeal, and their passion can fade overtime. Moses opted to be more constant and wore a veil.

In this event, we can see Moses an example of one who creates an alter ego (I am using Moses more as an illustration than I am actually saying what happened in the story). There was the Moses behind the veil and the Moses before the veil, who is the Moses people saw and with whom they interacted. The Moses behind the veil is the person Moses showed to God. But Moses spent more time with the people than with God. His alter ego became the ego. Eventually, Moses removed the veil, because of this change. The brightness left and the real Moses changed. The Moses behind the veil became the fake Moses, which is the person offered to God.

(Note, I am only giving one interpretation of this event and have no intention of calling Moses a bad person, a bad leader, or give him any other negative connotations than to say Moses was a human being like the rest of us. The following does not represent supersessionism or anti-judaism in my mind. Sorry if I unintentionally imply it.)

In Mark and other gospels, a veil in the temple is reportedly rent in two at Jesus' death. The rending of this veil can symbolize a similar rending of separate identities. As in the classic episode of the Twilight Zone, the longer we wear a mask, the more chances we have of becoming the person before the mask, the person people see in the mask.

The splitting of the veil can signify how our attempts at inauthenticity create an unintended authenticity. If I distance myself from my congregation, I am a different person with them, creating an alter ego. I give them a person who is not me. In time, however, I identify myself as a minister and I become the minister, the alter ego. Then person I give to my friends, family and God is less real. I will lead a split life. To me, this veiling and perceived distance can create more hurt and hinder more ministry than it will actually help.

But if I tear the veil recommended by some ministers, I create an intended authenticity. I become real with my congregations. Only when giving myself to my congregation can "I" actually be their minister. Instead of creating an alter ego, I create an ego on the altar, giving myself fully to God by giving myself fully to them.

I understand this stance can have downsides. Even our best decisions have "negative" side effects. After all, Jesus was mocked, excessively hurt, ostracized, and crucified. In not wearing a veil, Jesus even rent the veil that many perceived standing between humanity and God, a space many in power rented for themselves. Similarly, if we do not rend the space between the minister and those to whom we minister by becoming real, by becoming one of them, by deconstructing our role as different, then we rent out a space that is not ours, standing in between people and God.

Perhaps, as James Kay said, we might not always be "able to fulfill that role [of minister] for them, the very role which brought us together in the first place." Perhaps our inability to fulfill that role could be a blessing in itself, bringing the parishioner and the pastor face-to-face with God, instead of face-to-face with us.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The (Im)possibility of Loving God: A Romance

I was talking with a friend of mine recently. She told me she is only at the "liking stage" with God. "I haven't reached love," she said.

I was taught to love God. Loving God was just something I was supposed to do, like peeing in the potty. At the ripe old age of 5, I asked Jesus to come into my heart. It must have been love, because I had to stay late in the Bible lesson and miss snack time so I could say a prayer with the teacher lady.

Loving God was just something I did. As life went on, I stuck with God for various reasons. Sometimes I loved God to stay out of hell, which was a very real place to me. Looking back, I assume I feared hell more than I loved God. I didn't know what gnashing of teeth was, but it never sounded very pleasant.

I began to realize fear was a poor reason to cling to God. The author of 1 John writes, "We love him, because he first loved us." At some points in my life, I felt some need to be a part of that "we" and convinced myself to love God because God loved me first, not because of fear (1 Jn. 4:18-19). I graduated to loving God because God loved me. I didn't necessarily love God for God's character or personality, but because of God's affection--like adding someone to the Christmas card list because they sent you a card, not because you want to send them a card.

Tonight, I listened to Peter Rollins speaking with Rob Bell at Mars Hill Church up in Michigan (listen here). Bell asked Rollins to speak on love. Rollins said, in effect, you can't love someone you need. You can't have this desire, this longing, this emptiness, this need for someone you don't know, find them, and live happily ever after. Not even God.

If you need something, once you get it, you're fulfilled. Once you get it, you no longer need it. If I desire a glass of water, I drink and then I'm good (until I thirst again, of course). I don't need or desire it anymore. Neither do I love my faucet, because it gives me water. I don't love God because God gives me eternal life or gives me a sense of meaning or because I am supposed to. I don't love God because of any previous need I had, not even a need for God.

"Love is like this: [...] with people, you cannot desire or love someone you've never met, because you've never met them. [...] The romantic truth is this: I never needed you until I met you. But when I met you, I now realize I always needed you. The need is retroactively given" (Peter Rollins).

I've "loved" God for many reasons. I've "needed" God for just as many reasons. But it wasn't until I loved God that I needed God. It wasn't until I was able to conceive of meaning without God that I truly realized God makes sense. It wasn't until I could see beauty and truth in eternal life through progeny that I could receive eternal life from God. When I thought I might not need God for meaning or for eternal life, when I thought I couldn't love God, then I could love God and began to need God. When I began to struggle with loving God, when I began to get mad and reconsider my relationship with God--then I began to love God.

It has been touch and go since. I meet God often and a need for this God is retroactively given. Then I meet God again, realizing the God I met earlier is not the God I am now meeting and a new need is given. I continually realize the God is not the God I thought I knew. I guess that's what happens when you love someone: you begin to know them, again and again, and they always seem new to you and you always need that person.

I'm not always happy with the God I meet. God's not always happy with the me God meets. Now we need each other, because we once didn't need each other. If not for the possibility that one day we could meet anew and no longer need and no longer desire--if not for the possibility of divorce--then we wouldn't be bound so tightly together in a dynamic relationship.