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

Friday, July 21, 2006

Signs and Wonders

I had my own problems with the "Dominionists" growing up Presbyterian in Southern Baptist East Texas. Of course, it was due to them that I turned to Kierkegaard at such a young age, seeking a grounding for my own theological that was not an "evangelical" one. So I don't complain about them as much anymore, and try not to identify myself in opposition to them. But that was a revelation that was a long time in coming; in fact, I didn't fully make it until seminary.

While I was there, "Just-Us Texas" declared its independence from Texas and the U.S., a minor incident that perplexed my fellow students and the seminary faculty ("What kind of people are these Texans?" they wondered). So it was a minor embarassment to me, but it made me slowly realize: "Just-us Texas" had a world-view that almost no one else shared, and one that they, ultimately, couldn't share with us. Trying to reason with them required a common ground which, on this issue of political philosophy, on the legitimacy of government, we simply didn't share. One might as well discuss metaphysics with a cat, I realized (let me say, by the way, that I think cats have a far better grasp of metaphysics than we do, but that's another story).

I turned this insight to the "fundamentalists" and "conservative" Christians I had known, mostly some stripe of American "evanglical" (I keep putting that word in quotes because I come out of the Evangelical & Reformed branch of the UCC, and the E&R was anything but "evangelical" in the way we usually understand that word. Back in the day, it referred to the messenger of the good news, not the obnoxious Christian demanding to know if you have been properly "saved"). Some of my seminary professors were openly dismissive of the people I had grown up with; but even as I felt free to reject them, I also felt they were "my people," and it was a special privilege to speak of them disparagingly. I recognized the hyposcrisy of that stance, of course, but was a long time letting go of it. I finally did when I realized that, like "Just-Us Texas," the "evangelicals" had a completely different world view than I did, and arguing with them was not only pointless, it was disrespectful. And while I didn't have to agree with them, if I expected them to respect me, I certainly had to respect them.

Which, in part, is what Mahanoy means by his series on what he calls the "Dominionsts." But when he presents it as an issue of knowing your enemy so that you can fight effectively, I respectfully dissent.

The fundamental problem, of course, is that when you define yourself by your "enemies," you inevitably become your enemies. Review US history since the end of WWII, and see if this isn't self-evidently true. What was the "Red Scare" and the Hollywood blacklist if not a much milder form of the Stalinist purges (I emphasize "much milder," but it was still a grossly un-American activity; which is ironic in itself, because while I was too young to even be around for Tail Gunner Joe's wild accusations, the House Committe on Unamerican Activities continued to function into my life-time). That problem, of identity, is a subtle one, and when I think about it, I keep remembering an episode of the X-files episode about snake handlers.

The episode, Google helpfully reminds me, was titled "Signs and Wonders." The basic criminal plot is a man killed by a car mysteriously full of snakes ("Snakes in a Car!" No, it's not the same thing, is it?). The prime suspect is the pastor of a snake-handling cult: a fiercely conservative Christian, in other words, who is obviously off the deep end with his profoundly Calvinistic theology and rigid assurance that he is doing God's work and that evil is real and he opposes it. Of course, Mulder (and slightly less so, the Catholic Scully) are suspicious of this snake-handling fundamentalist. After all, he represents everything our enlightened, rationalist, even religiously tolerant age, no longer tolerates. We don't mind if he and his cult practice their "weird" form of worship, but when it crosses the line to murder, well; something must be done.

But the murder is not the central thread of the episode; it's merely the McGuffin. The central thread is the pastor's daughter, whom we (along with Mulder and Scully) are quite sure is being oppressed and at least psychologically abused by the snake-handling father. With the father, then, as a clear antagonist, we need a protagonist: and that turns out to be, not the FBI agents, but another pastor: a middle class man of soothing demeanor whose theology is much more "progressive" and welcoming. By "progressive" I don't mean in the political sense. This pastor is modern, a man of the modern world, a believer whose theology is easily reconciled with modern therapeutic counseling theories, Freudian psychology, and all the other ideas of modern Western culture which the snake-handling pastor seems to be in opposition to. Our sympathies are immediately with this pastor, especially as he seems to share the suspicions of Scully and Mulder that the daughter's pregnancy was caused by her father (which makes him a villain indeed). When she delivers a brood of snakes in her father's tiny church, we are convinced he is indeed the evil one.

The snake-handling pastor, needless to say, is a dark, brooding, contrary, and secretive man, suspicious of strangers as any isolated group of people tends to be, and given to a demon-plagued view of the world we can only shake our heads at, while we admire the young, modern pastor who reflects so much of what we truly want to see in a minister. Well, let me give you a couple of examples; some of this, I find, hits quite close to home:

SCULLY: Rattlesnakes and medieval visions of damnation. Well, I for one, feel a whole lot closer to God.

MULDER: I don't know, Scully. When you... when you get right down to it is snake handling any harder to buy into than communion wafers or transubstantiation...?

SCULLY: Or believing in flying saucers, for that matter.

MULDER: I'm just saying that - that your faith and O'Connor's seem to be based on the same book.

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REVEREND O'CONNOR: Our God is a fearsome God.

MAN: Amen!

REVEREND O'CONNOR: He demands our very lives! Revelations Three, the 16th verse. "'Tis better to be hot or cold than lukewarm." God says, if you're lukewarm He will vomit you out of His mouth.

CONGREGATION: Praise God!

REVEREND O'CONNOR: Yes! Did you hear what I said?!

CONGREGATION: Praise God! Yes!

REVEREND O'CONNOR: God hates the lukewarm!

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SCULLY: Though I don't understand it, O'Connor's church exerts a strong pull on these people.

MULDER: It's not so hard to understand. It's a culture with a very well-defined set of rules.

SCULLY: It's an intolerant culture, Mulder.

MULDER: I don't know, Scully. Sometimes a little intolerance can be a welcome thing. Clear-cut right and wrong, black and white, no shades of gray. You know, in a society where hard and fast rules are harder and harder to come by, I think some people would appreciate that.

SCULLY: You're saying that you, Fox Mulder, would welcome someone telling you what to believe?

MULDER: I'm just saying that somebody offering you all the answers... could be a very powerful thing.

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REVEREND MACKEY: Gracie, I'd like to ask you to reconsider.

GRACIE: No. This is what he'd want.

REVEREND MACKEY: He may die without medical treatment.

GRACIE: I've seen him bit a dozen times. He always said that it was up to God whether he lives or dies. Said it was a worse sin not to trust God.

REVEREND MACKEY: There are many ways to trust God, Gracie. One of them is to trust in the miracles of doctors and medicine.
The twist, of course, is that it is Rev. Mackey who is the source of the snakes in the car, and the father of the brood of snakes the unfortunate daughter has given birth to. When Rev. O'Connor goes to the "modern" pastor's church to confront him, Mulder bursts in and shoots the father, thinking he's stopped a fanatic from committing another murder. When Mulder realizes his mistake and confronts Mackey, Mulder is attacked by snakes (in a church!) and the pastor escapes to start another church where he is welcomed as "a reverend with such an open way of looking at God."

O'Connor, of course, knew all along what was happening, and he acted out of love for his daughter, and out of his deep knowledge of the nature of evil, a nature Mulder and Scully were blind to, because evil in this case seemed so familiar, and the unfamiliar therefore seemed so evil. His love was true, but it wasn't "love" as we commonly recognize it, so it was mistaken for evil. After all, as Scully says, "It's an intolerant culture." Well, maybe; or maybe there is more to it than we realize, and intolerance just appears that way because we don't understand the world as they do.

It's just a story, after all; but it's a revealing one. How can we be so sure we know what evil is, or who is doing evil? How can we be so sure that the ways of looking at things we are most comfortable with, are also right? In Paul's absence, he tells the church at Thessalonika, you must work out your own salvation, in fear and trembling. Not, however, because you are unsure and liable to error that will lead to damnation; but because it is God who is working through you, and while you may be comforted by the presence of an authority figure like Paul, the mysterium tremendum you feel, the deep existential secret that strikes at the very roots of your being and makes you tremble simply because it is so fundamental, so foundational, so important, is the sign that God is indeed, with you. As I have said elsewhere:

The mysterium tremendum comes from outside of us, but it is the state of our being. It is, if we are attentive, part of the condition that prevails. It is also a sure cure for pride...
And pride finds root whenever we begin to define ourselves against our definition of someone else.

But if we are to say God is working through us, who are we to say who God is not working through? Certainly God is not working through evil, but is it then our job to eradicate evil? That's the theology and foreign policy and political philosophy of George W. Bush. Perhaps it is not even our job to be concerned with the nature of those we call "evil," or to whom we sould simply stand in opposition. Perhaps we don't know enough to stand in opposition after all, and should pay more attention to the log in our eye, than the splinter in our brother's.

After all, everything looks smaller when reflected in a tiny convex mirror, and objects are certainly closer than they appear. Maybe that splinter isn't there at all, but is just a reflection of the log we ignore. Maybe that's where our consideration of who we are and what we should be about, should begin.

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