Thursday, October 27, 2005

Dies Irae and the Church of Meaning and Belonging

I've wanted to return to this point precisely here:

Part of the horror here, is that people have to call a stranger on an 800 number, simply to get empathy. There is an ecclesiastical problem here: where are the churches? Why aren't they helping? The short answer is: in large part, having bought lock, stock, and barrel into the "consumer culture" that has led to this situation, they can no more critique it than a fish can complain about living in water. Sometimes it seems the institutional church can't even see the problem, much less offer a solution to it.
It's an ecclesiological issue, but it rankles me more as a minister than a theologian. It rankles me precisely because we have a tendency to divide matters theological from matters practical, and to either prefer the practical over the theological, or to to abjure the concrete because it is so specific and, as my Pastoral Care professor loved to say, "messy."

This elevation of the abstract over the concrete is also a driving force of Derrida's deconstructionism, so maybe that's why I like French phenomenology so much; or perhaps its where this impetus comes from. And that's not such a chicken-or-egg question as it seems.

What I'm circling around to is this: our language prefers the abstract, which we tend to associate with the "permanent." Of course there are good philosophical and cultural reasons for us to do so, and they can be traced back to Plato and Pythagoras and such thinkers, or more broadly called "Greek" or "Hellenistic" ideas. Walter Kauffman, in his study of existentialism, Irrational Man, introduced me to the split between "Hebraism" and "Hellenism" a long time ago. This morning, reading the opening chapter of James Barr's The Semantics of Biblical Language, I was reminded of it again. But Barr makes an interesting distinction that, while I knew of it, I hadn't seen it stated quite so clearly before

These are not original with Barr; he merely restates them to move on to his point (which as to do with linquistics, so we'll leave him to it). First he notes that one of the main contrasts drawn between Greek and Hebrew thought in theological circles, is between "static" and "dynamic." As Barr puts it:

Movement could not be ultimate reality for the Greeks, to whom being must be distinguished from becoming, and the ultimate must be changeless. For the Israelites the true reality was action and movement, and the inactive and motionless was no reality at all."

With this may be associated the Greek contrast of appearance and reality. The world was full of changing phenomena, but since reality must be static the change was unreal appearance. Tot he Israelites however the appearance of a thing was the manifestation of its being or reality, and a valid and adequate manifestation at that. What did not appear in action and movement would not be real, and what did appear was not a pale or secondary shadow of this reality but the reality itself. There is therefore no contrast of appearance and reality.

This leads to two more important distinctions: one, the distinction of subject and object, which the Greeks recognize, but not the Hebrews. The other is the conception of the human: In Greek thought man is seen as a duality, with an immortal soul imprisoned or confined in a mortal body; the two are only temporarily or accidentally related. In Hebrew thought the 'soul' is the living person in his flesh; 'soul' and 'flesh' are not separable but one is the outward and visible manifestation of the other. There is no thought of the soul living apart from the body.
Let me interrupt here to mention the ruah that is breathed into the dry bone in the vision of Ezekiel, as Exhibit "A" in the examples of such thought among the Hebrews.

It is simliarly felt however that Hebrew thought saw man as a person within a totality, while Greek thought tended to see him as an individual, i.e., in essence as one separated from others, and then to form collectivities by grouping individuals together. The conflict of individual and collectivity thus arises from the Greek tradition. But Hebrew life was lived in a social totality of religion and justice.
James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language, (Philadelpia: Trinity Press International 1991), pp. 10-13)

First, let us stipulate that these are generalities, and as such subject to all kinds of pointed critique. Barr acknowledges as much, and means only to describe the state of the theological discussion as of 1961, when his book was first published. Little has fundamentally changed since then. Second, I want to tie this in with something I just re-read, by Krister Stendahl. A speech he gave on Martin Luther King Day, 1972, on the topic of judgment and mercy. He has some interesting things to say, that turn this rather esoteric discussion about human nature, back to more mundane (and concrete) questions about ecclesiology (i.e., what is church for?).

Stendahl starts sounding a note that could have come from Kierkegaard:

In the Christian tradition, judgment and mercy have become engrafted into our spiritual wisdom as we have played the "soul game," transforming practically all of the immense and ferocious drama of history that we read about in the Bible into the kind of pastoral counseling and consolation in which God's mercy overcomes the fear of judgment.
He introduces for analysis of his topic Isaiah 40:1-8, although I kept thinking the Magnificat would work as well:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
Because He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid;
for behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed;
Because He who is mighty has done great things for me,
and Holy is His Name;
And His mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear Him.
He has shown might with His arm,
He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has given help to Israel, His servant, mindful of His mercy
Even as He spoke to our fathers -
to Abraham and to his posterity forever.

A text clearly connected to judgment and mercy. But, as Stendahl points out, in words that I think apply to Mary's song:

The content of the message of comfort is the downfall of the "haves," the downfall of the powerful; here there is little or no comfort at all for the comfortable. Comfort consists in the announcement of revolution, of a change of crew, of a leveling process, of the fact that those who hunger and thirst for justice are finally going to be satisfied.
If there is no comfort for the comfortable, what of them? Says Stendahl:

Few are those who are willing to give, but the true believers are those who rejoice when God takes away that which they thought of as theirs, and gives to whomever he wants.

Consider what this means. Judgment and mercy are not balanced over against each other in a scheme in which a last judgment is tempered and adjusted by God's grace, or Christ, or the blood, or the cross, or the intercession of the saints. That is not the way it is. Mercy, salvation, liberation are all part of God's judgment. God's judgment brings mercy to those who need mercy. Judgment is justice for those who hunger and thirst after it, those deprived of it....It is important to revive and revitalize the biblical meaning of judgment (krisis) as that establishment of justice which by necessity means mercy for the wronged and loss for those who have too much.
If there was an "act of God" in Katrina, this was certainly it. If there was any justice in Katrina, this was certainly it. But why do I connect this with Barr?

The English language is a "docetic" language, as we learned theologians say. It has an unusual ability of dividing up words into that which is more spiritual and that which is less spiritual, so that one distinguishes between "justice" and "righteousness".... This phenomenon is worth noting. It is one of the peculiar ways in which language exerts great power over our thought habits and patterns of speech. So also with righteousness and justice: they are the one and only justitia.
Two more long quotes, and then I promise to stop.

Judgment is the day eagerly and impatiently awaited, the day of liberation in which God will finally vindicate his faithful ones and establish justice. In spite of this note, however, in the big national churches, increasingly involved with the affairs of state, and increasingly identified with the power of the establishment, it became natural to think and feel, in the style of Amos and other prophets of doom, that the Day of Judgment, the Day of the Lord, is darkness rather than light. Thus, much of Christianity has seen it necessary to seek mercy so as to balance the fear of judgement.
Stendahl also offers this interesting note on repentance, from Mark 5:23-24: "So, if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. As Stendahl notes: is not that you have something against your brother--the Westerner tends to read it that way. The Westerner, perhaps, does not even feel guilty before God (whome he encounters in a beautiful I-Thou relationship) if the other person has something against him. He would say: that is his business. But if he, as a product of Western culture, has negative feelings toward his brother, he will feel responsible and anxious to clean it up. Jesus has it the other way around, in good extrovert fashion: ...and (you) remember that your brother or sister has something against you. That has to be cleaned up first. Repentance means action in response to the pain of others.
Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1976), pp. 98-104)

Which leads us, finally, to the Church of Meaning and Beloning, and the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging. And the people who call Dr. Dobson's toll-free number, just seeking a little empathy. Having set the stage, we'll start the show shortly.

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