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

"...doesn't philosophy amount to the sum of all thinkable and unthinkable errors, ceaselessly repeated?"--Jean-Luc Marion

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

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

It's a wonder tall trees aren't layin' down...

Much of "popular" Christianity has devolved into "all about me" theology. One of the largest churches in Houston, as I've mentioned before, advertises "We Believe in You!" The largest Baptist church in town runs ads which emphasize community and the diversity of people found there (complete with heart-warming images of what my daughter recognizes as actors, not real church members), and urges "Come Home." But never any mention of God. And the central concern in my seminary was, it more and more seemed to me, a very Pietistic one: did I accept Jesus the Christ as my personal Lord and savior? the "personal" bothered me only because I saw nothing in scripture, or in the traditions of Christian humility, to indicate I should consider myself so important that Jesus was concerned for me personally above all others, or that my personal relationship to him should be more important than my relationship to others ("whatever you did for the least of these...").

I recognize a tension between the emphasis on the value of the individual that Romanticism has bequeathed to us. On the one hand, with existentialism as the philosophical result of Romanticism's Byronic impulse, and in a post-Cartesian world, we are each of us a "self" among "others." But the very point of that analysis (at least for Emmanuel Levinas, its chief proponent) is to turn self outward toward others and live in vulnerability, not to turn self inward toward a protective survival. The center of Christian doctrine has always been hospitality and concern for others, modeled by living in community and seeking out people as Jesus did in his wanderings around Palestine. The fundamental lesson of Jesus' life is: go where the people are, and stay there, and work with them, and live among them. It's what Paul did. It's what Patrick did in Ireland.

And yet more and more modern Christianitiy seems to model a teaching of seeking comfort, of seeking same, of finding community in familiarity and the mirror. There are, of course, reasons for this, and they can be examined and analyzed. But sometimes poetry is the faster route to understanding.

The words of Neil Young's new song (clearly meant to be a hymn, when you hear it performed on his new album, "Prairie Wind") present a contrast between the prevailing "Jesus loves me, this I know" Christianity, and the reality of an entire creation of which "I" am a part. Young turns our usual considerations of "When God Made Me" on their head: every line focussing on "me" is countered by a line focusing on someone else, some "other" my "self" must not only encounter, but live with, understand, take into account, consider also as a child of God, a "me" God also made.

And then there's the other consideration, the one the song opens with: was God thinking about my country, when God made me _______________? And you can fill in the blank: American? Canadian? Australian? Egyptian? Vietnamese? Iraqi? Does God make nationalities? Does God make races? Did God intend for us to pay attention to tribes, or the color of the skin?

And what about salvation? Did God make me so I would be saved? Then what about the Tibetans, the Vietnamese, the starving children in Africa or Asia, who are not Christian, and never will be? What is the role and importance of faith? Are we closer to God then, or when we fight wars in God's name? It reminds me that: "Kill them all; God will know his own" was supposedly said by a monk, in response to the question of how to distinguish heretics in the city of Beziers, France (who supposedly deserved to die) from "good Catholics," who did not. The Romans who sacked Jerusalem couldn't have had a better excuse.

And is that really what we mean by "being closer to God"?

The question about the gift of love, and who we might choose, has an obvious reference, and raises the question of homosexuality to the level of the question of ecumenism (are there many religions, or are we commanded to choose only one?).

The song opens with the consideration of "me" in the relation to the whole of creation, subtly turning the question out from "self" toward "other": "Did he create just me in his image/or every living thing?" It ends by looking at "me," and wondering what responsibilties I have as a self, in this world full of "others," and what responsibilities they have to me:

Did he give me the gift of voice
so some could silence me?
Did he give me the gift of vision
not knowing what I might see?
Did he give me the gift of compassion
to help my fellow man?

As I say, sometimes poetry is best for making us think in new ways.

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