The Yearning of the Spirit

This amazing quote comes from a piece by Jamie Manson at the Religion Dispatches web site, and the italicized bit echoes my experience and understanding utterly:

Like Wallis and Claiborne, my partner and I have a deep passion for working with the poor, the hungry, and the homeless. Our commitment to this work does not come simply from a desire for the common good, but from the yearnings of our spirits [italics mine – CF]. I’m a Catholic with a Master of Divinity degree and my partner grew up evangelical and attended a Midwestern Bible college. For us, the margins are a sacred place where we have some of our deepest experiences of “church,” the way Jesus envisions and incarnates it in the gospels. It is in the face of the broken and desolate that we most clearly see the face of Christ. [Again, italics mine – CF]

I’ve said before, though not articulated it fully, that I don’t really believe in the common good. And I don’t. I follow this call because I have to, in order to be true to myself. To live with myself. To be at peace with myself. If that sounds selfish, in a way it is. No one acts without a lack of self-regard or self-concern, even if that self-concern is the righting of the soul by doing for and with others.

And the margins are sacred. They are amazing places where God shows up all the time. That’s why I love doing ministry in cities. It’s the randomness of unplanned and unprogrammed encounters. I never know exactly when I will meet God. When God will meet me.

On Gods & Cylons

Jennifer and I have been watching Caprica on DVD, the prequel series to Ronald Moore’s reimagined Battlestar Galactica. I’m intrigued by where the show is taking its mythology, having the sentience of machines originate in conscious programs of two disembodied teenage girls who have only a slight idea of what has happened to them.

I appreciate Moore’s treatment of religion as a serious subject, and it was his influence (I think) on the last few seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine in particular where religion was taken seriously. I always found Gene Roddenberry’s combination of materialism and triumphal humanism to be both insufferable and unrealistic. Much better was Moore’s darker vision of the human future — one in which our essential human problems aren’t solved because they aren’t really soluble.

But as much as BSG was interesting, its treatment of religion generally fell flat. For Moore, I think, religion was an attempt to deal with naturalistic phenomena (like Bajor’s prophets as entities residing in the wormhole), a way to introduce the magical and supernatural as part of the story, rather than about meaning and sacred story themselves. I found machines believing in One True God to be an interesting idea, and the implications of sentient, God-worshiping machines with a morality and ethic derived from that belief to be an idea worth exploring. But Moore and his people didn’t do the job real well.

A couple of things were missing from the religious vision.

  • It didn’t seem like sacred story mattered much. I got no sense that the sacred stories of the colonials were anything other than “real” history, as opposed to “serious myth.” In fact, aside from some convenient prophesies (Pythia) and a really neat map of Kobol’s capital city (why?), I got no sense from the show that religion for either the Colonials or the Cylons were stories that told them who they were. Moore and his writers stole from several polytheistic mythologies, and they could have run wild with stories of gods and goddesses and heroes and the leaving of Kobol and the settling of the colonies. (As a founding myth, the last bit would likely have been the most important to the colonials, since it would have told them the most about who they are; why would the twelve tribes of Kobol have even cared that a thirteenth tribe went in another direction?) Most intriguing would have been the stories Cylons told themselves, how they would have mythologized their rather short history as sentient machines and given their existence individual and collective meaning. 
  • There was an utter lack of curiosity among both the Colonials and the Cylons. It always struck me in BSG that the human beings never seemed really interested in the fact that the Cylons were utterly devoted to the worship and service of One True God. It may be that, because of the events in Caprica, and the low regard the Colonials held monotheists, that they already knew of and dismissed Cylon monotheism without a thought. But this was never alluded to during the course of the series. It is strikes me as strange that no human being ever asked the Cylons, “Why do you believe?” or “How do you know what God wants?” Not really. Even given the nature of the disaster, someone would have asked — Baltar never really asked Six and Adama could have asked Boomer but never did. The Cylons never engaged in much contemplation either, never really asked “how do we know what God’s will is?” Maybe it was so obvious to them, but Cavil’s semi-cynicism was not the same as contemplative inquiry. 
  • Where was revelation? The show’s monotheism was also a stunted monotheism, basically a series of ethical injunctions distilled philosophically. It’s more like the monotheism of the Greeks or the henotheism of Sol Invictus, based on human reasoning about who and what God might be. And not God’s revealing God’s-self. There was no revelation, no overwhelming experience of God, no encounter. I don’t think the temple on the algae planet, Kara Thrace’s mandala, the Bob Dylan song, Virtual Six and Virtual Baltar (of Virtual Kara) really count. There was no “evidence” that God loves, and I’m not sure the notion that God loves God’s creation can be distilled logically or rationally. There was a lot about God’s will but little encounter with God to determine what that will actually was. Revelation wasn’t even really alluded to, and that’s all that would have been necessary. I don’t really get a sense as to why the monotheists believe — their faith, aside from a place to ground their objection to the hedonism of the Colonial order, makes little or no sense. Overall, in the context of the BSG universe, God was a machine, and a barely conscious machine at that, acting only to make sure Colonial and Cylon could get to Earth so that Hera could become the mother of humanity. 
We’re about halfway through season 1.0 of Caprica, and the treatment of religion might change, though I doubt it. I don’t know if the BSG mythology has legs for another redoing (I have an idea bouncing around in my mind). Partly Moore’s treatment of religion is so disappointing because he made the mystical experience so central to the show. And yet the human beings didn’t do much time considering what it was they had just experienced, or showed from previous examples that they could contemplate mystical experiences. I like the way Moore ended BSG. But it also left me unsatisfied. Without stories of meaning, it makes perfect sense that Cylons and Colonials could plop themselves down on Earth 100,000 years ago and leave no trace (save language and genes) because they would have done nothing to preserve any of the stories that told them who they were. Especially the story of how they came to be there, together, in the first place. This is what troubles me. Even over 100,000 years, something of this story would have survived in myth or the deep recesses of memory.

What Does it Mean to Be Faithful?

What does it mean to be church? In the latest issue of the American Conservative, Richard Gamble reviews a book I might have been tempted to read, James Davidson Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Thankfully, because of Gamble’s review, I don’t have to read the book and be disappointed (whew!). Gamble concludes:

Christians who have a higher allegiance to the church than to American society will not take encouragement from Hunter’s recommendations for “faithful presence.” Social benefits from such a reconfigured orientation to the world may be real, but Christians ought to have their eyes open to the costs involved. A church that trades less effective techniques for more might lose its integrity, the very essence of what defines it as an institution unlike any other, and the unique message it brings to the world. Anyone who spends much time with young Christians these days knows that a generation has been raised by spiritually nomadic church-hopping parents—or even by radically de-institutionalized “home church” families—who have not bothered to initiate their sons and daughters into the life of the church. They have sent their children to the right schools and to worldview boot camp, but they have left them unbaptized, uncatechized, unaccountable, and unhabituated to regular public worship. This trend is becoming increasingly noticeable even among the offspring of conservative homes. A higher and more urgent calling than engaging the world might just be engaging the church.

Hunter agrees that the church in America is unhealthy. Indeed, it is the premise of his book. But for him the evidence of good health is a church that “exercises itself in all realms of life, not just a few.” Hunter’s call to that comprehensive outworking of the gospel offers both diagnosis and prescription for the “post-political,” “post-Constantinian” church as it faces an increasingly alien “post-Christian” culture. His book will perhaps redirect the strategy, funding, and vocabulary of transformationalists aspiring to be among the cultural elite, but it will not challenge their most cherished presupposition, that the church’s faithfulness ought to be measured by the degree to which it changes the world.

The liberal church — and by that, I mean the church of just about any political and social stripe in the social democratic or liberal democratic nation-state — since the 19th century has decided that faithfulness is a matter of, to borrow from Marx, changing the world. But in doing so, the church becomes just another actor in the liberal democratic state, another bit of “civil society” debating terms set solely by modernity and playing solely by the liberal state’s rules. The end result of all this is influencing the actions of the state. That’s what it means to be effective, and its how the various flavors of the liberal church measure themselves.

A lot of this is the engagement with modernity, an engagement the church somehow has to pull-off (Rome tried not to engage modernity for many decades and looked silly doing so) and yet also emphatically state that the question the church deals with — the salvation of humanity and humanity’s encounter with God — pre-dates modernity and will long outlive modernity. Liberal Christianity has surrendered to modernity. Neither refutation nor surrender works well.

But the church needs to be much more emphatic about what the sanctified community really is. Liberal Christians confuse that community with the nation-state (I think this is what Gamble means when he writes of a “mythic civil religion that commonly fails to distinguish between Israel and America,” Israel in this instance being the called people of God, and not the nation-state of Israel) and thus act as if the promises made to the church and to the world through the church are made to the nation-state and through the nation-state. (This is an especially American problem, one Jim Wallis is just as guilty of as Pat Robertson.)

This is why I espouse a theology of exile. The church is not really at home in the world. We are in that moment before the eschaton where the promise, while real and manifest in times and places in the world (there are fleeting moments when I know I am living in that promise), is not the ruling reality of human existence. We are — and should always remember that we are — a wandering people who, outside of our communion of Christ, do not yet have earthly homes.

Things We Don’t Do In Church Anymore

Courtesy of Benjamin Kaplan, from Divided by Faith, who writes:

Churches were also practical structures. Not just places of worship, they were communal property with myriad uses.

Which, citing a study of churches in post-Reformation England, included:

In 1612 at Woburn, the curate baited a bear in church; 25 years later, also in Bedfordshire, there were cockfightings on three successive Shrove Tuesdays in Knottingly church, round the communion table. The minister and churchwardens were also present.

And for the poor pastor who needed some extra to make ends meet:

Gendulphus van Schagen, the impoverished pastor of Laar, a Flemish village, grew vegetables and raised hens, pigs, and doves in his churchyard. Parishioners complained to the archbishop only after his doves hit them with droppings during services and his hens laid eggs on the church’s altars.

Bear baiting and cockfighting! Around the altar! Now there’s a project for an enterprising pastoral intern!

Oink Oink

Okay, so I’m reading (as part of an independent study project this summer, on account of I wasn’t able to get into a Clinical Pastoral Education program — if you don’t know, don’t ask) the Library of Christian Classics, starting with the first volume, the Early Christian Fathers. Most of the writings are from the very early second century A.D. through the middle, and cover some writings that were, for a time, part of the Christian canon in some places (the First Letter of Clement, the Didache, for example).

There’s not great doctrine here yet, since Christians are still working on the words to articulate the concept of Trinity and how Jesus really gets to be both fully God and fully human at the same time (though that is fervently believed, just as Father, Son and Holy Spirit are as well), and most of the writings are fairly simple (to simplistic, such as the Martyrdom of Polycarp). I’ve run across a few good quotes, but none as good as what I just read in the Apology of Justin.

It’s the longest piece in this collection, but it isn’t a very sophisticated piece. He spends a lot of time blaming pagan religion on demons who, overhearing what God said to Moses or what Moses said and did for Israel, repeated those tales as lies to gentiles in order to foster unbelief. There’s a really good description of a Eucharist service, but mostly he spends his time trying to “prove” the merits of Christianity, which was as much a waste of time than as it is now.

This is one way he tries to do that. In paragraph 64 (p. 285 in my edition), Justin writes:

“In imitation of the Spirit of God, spoken of as borne over the water, they spoke of Kore, daughter of Zeus. With similar malice they spoke of Athena as a daughter of Zeus, but not as a result of intercourse — since they knew that God designed the creation of the world by the Word, the spoke of Athena as the first Concept. This we consider very ridiculous, to offer the female form as the image of an intellectual concept.“[italics mine — CHF].

I dunno, I rather think female forms are very intellectual and very conceptual. Certainly they are worth conceiving of.

And I’ll shut up about the subject now.