Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Either/Or?

Western thought is divided, indeed almost chopped into tiny pieces, by dualisms.
The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge. In launching this attack on the underlying assumptions of all other ethics, Christian ethics stands so completely alone that it becomes questionable whether there is any purpose in speaking of Christian ethics at all. But if one does so notwithstanding, that can only mean that Christian ethics claims to discuss the origin of the whole problem of ethics, and thus professes to be a critique of all ethics simply as ethics.

Already in the possibility of the knowledge of good and evil Christian ethics discerns a falling away from the origin. Man at his origin knows only one thing: God. It is only in the unity. of his knowledge of God that he knows of other men, of things, and of himself. He knows all things only in God, and God in all things. The knowledge of good and evil shows that he is no longer at one with this origin. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, tr. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan 1965), p. 17.
The Platonic assumptions behind this analysis are obvious: our very origin begins in duality, in being split off from our origins, and needing to find our way back to them. This is the center of the Christian doctrine of salvation: that what was right is now wrong, that what was once possessed in joy is now lost in sorrow, and that the only way to recovery is by overcoming despair through reconciliation. On the concept of such dualism, in Western Christian traditions, hang all the law and the prophets and the problems and the hope of humankind. From the beginning, our souls move away from God, and seek constantly only to return to God. Asserted Augustine, perhaps the greatest of the Christian Platonists: "Our hearts are restless 'til they rest in thee." But you will find absolutely no support for this dualism, or this restlessness of heart, in Scriptures.

It's a question of "biblical theology," of returning to origins (with still the assumption that "origins" are pure and only in journeying in a circle to we know the place we started from), and ironically, a discipline that arises in part from the insistence on sola scriptura of Christian fundamentalists. If we are indeed to follow sola scriptura, then we must be scrupulously honest about what scripture says. And Scripture never identifies a soul that is restless until it rests in God. Indeed, scripture never identifies an individual qua individual at all.*

What scripture identifies is people, living wholly and completely as people. Abraham hears the voice of God and obeys without questioning, which is awesome and, in the old sense of the word, awful; but still Abraham worries as he travels from kingdom to kingdom, and passes off Sarah as his sister, not his wife, on three occasions. And Jacob cheats his brother Esau of the elder's birthright, but gives Israel both its blessing and its name. Or Paul, whose conversion on the road to Damascus is not prompted by the "restlessness" of his heart; if anything, Paul's encounter with the living God makes him restless for the rest of his days. It is indeed a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

So if we examine it honestly, scripture has very little indeed to say about "soul," or about dualities, or about restlessness. None of the gospels, even the profoundly Hellenistic Gospel according to John, present anything like a thesis that humanity has been separated from God and Jesus the Christ is the only hope of reconciliation. Indeed, according to the Hebrew prophets, the Messiah was supposed to make Israel itself a light to the nations (nation to nation, not individual to world; Christianity never presumed a world stage that would be the apotheosis of any one person) and show the nations to the true "way of life." If that way was exclusionary, it was only the exclusion of radical monotheism, and the exclusion of "false gods" from the life of the children of Abraham, the people of the covenant with God, the covenant renewed in Egypt when the Israelites followed Moses into the wilderness.

Dualism, in fact, doesn't enter into the discussion of a radical monotheism. "If we accept good from God, shall we not accept evil?", asks Job, in one of the toughest questions posed in scripture. But the question Job's wife has asked is equally harsh to modern ears. She, too, understands that there is only one source of all things, and those things include life: "Why do you still hold fast to your integrity?" she asks. "Curse God and die!" One, of course, would lead to the other. God is the source of life; to deny God, is to deny life. To profess any other god but God, is to deny life. There is no dualism, no double source, no essential cleavage to which we must ultimately return. To be cut off from God, is to die. It's as fundamental and absolute as turning off a light switch: no power, no life. And the source of life is singular, not dual, and needs no duality and reconciliation to complete it.

Truth, of course, is a victim of dualism. But in our Hellenistic thinking there must be two sides to every question, even if there can be only one truth. Which renders truth a victim of dualism. Even as truth is only known in the struggles between opposing forces; even as Aquinas recognizes that we cannot know what God is, only what God is not (a negative theology that tries to avoid Hellenistic divisions into more fundamental fundamentals), we are caught trying still to hold onto a unitary truth. And even Plato understood that truth must be singular, must stand apart, pure and unchanging, if it is to be truth at all. As Pope Benedict XVI has said, all that is outside truth, is error, whose modern name is "relativism."
On Monday morning, the cardinals attended the traditional Mass for the election of a pope at St. Peter's, where Ratzinger gave a stinging homily against the West's creeping "dictatorship of relativism." Those who hold firmly to belief in God and moral absolutes, he said, are accused of fundamentalism, while the only socially acceptable attitude seems to be that everything is relative and nothing is clearly right or wrong.

In effect, it laid out the philosophy behind Ratzinger's two decades of work as head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
So the options come back to merely an either/or: one is on the side of truth, or one is a relativist. The irony that this division itself requires an either/or, even as it condemns the false "either/or" in favor of the unity of "truth," should not be overlooked. The irony is that it is the introduction of the either/or that caused the problem in the first place: either stay with God, or be separated from God, is the interpretation of Genesis 2 behind Bonhoeffer's opening ethical analysis. And so only another either/or, the either/or of salvation presumptively stated in John 3:16, can affect the repair. But was the cleavage ever there to begin with?

The first Creation story of Genesis says that all creation is good and blessed by God, and from that story stems the fundamental law to honor the sabbath and keep it holy. The second creation story explains why humankind can imagine paradise, but not live in it. But neither is either an historical event or even a foundational tale. They are instructive; but they are not binding. They are, indeed, not a necessity at all. They are a confession: a confession of humankind's relationship to the Creator. A relationship that is not divided by the story of Genesis 2, but merely explained.

Which means Paul is not offering healing when he says nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ; he is explaining. He is explaining how close to God all humankind is and can know itself to be, and if there is a dualism, it is that the world will not accept that proximity, that the world will not seek its comfort and rest in that powerless challenge to its power. But power is ultimately powerlessness, and powerlessness ultimately the victor over power, not by exertion but by endurance, not by persistance but by permanence. There is no essential division in the world, no fundamental dualism, a fissure, a split, a chasm between God and creation. That fissure alone is the illusion, fostered by the world, which thinks it finds security in power.

Is it any accident that as this is written, the radio is reporting in detail on the life, and untimely death, of Marla Ruzicka? Or is it true that there are no accidents?


*Which is admittedly another matter altogether. The most personal of the scriptures are the Psalms, but these can be read as personal devotions just as readily as they are read as the voice of the nation of Israel. One interpretation cannot privilege another without a solid foundation, and that foundation is built almost entirely on conjectural sand.

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