Monday, June 12, 2006

Black Crow

There's a crow flying
Black and ragged
Tree to tree
He's black as the highway that's leading me
Now he's diving down
To pick up on something shiny
I feel like that black crow
In a blue sky

--Joni Mitchell

This is a wonderful place to start a morning (much better than where I started it); and they even have toast! Paula's House of Toast

Perhaps I am trying to reconicle "matters of transcendence" with ordinary existence, and the two simply will not reconcile:

Mysticism and Christianity agree in understanding man from the standpoint of the eternal. But since mysticism leads to an undifferentiated ultimate reality, it is bound to regard particularity, including individuality, as essentially evil. All mystic religions therefore have the characteristic of accentuating individuality inasfar as individuality is inherent in the capacity for self-consciousness emphasized in mysticism and is something more than bodily particularity; but all mystic philosophies ultimately lose the very individuality which they first emphasize, because they sink finite particularity in a distinctionless ground of existence.
Reinhold Neibuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. 1 (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky 1996, pp. 14-15).

I like Niebuhr, but sometimes he sounds so dated ("ultimate reality"?) and he can be so blinkered in his German Protestantism I wonder if he isn't still trying to slay the Pietism of his religious heritage with broad swipes like this. And even as he attacks Romanticism for its excessive emphasis on the individual (a major theme of Nature and Destiny, as as well Moral Man), he relies on it to deny any real value to mysticism (which he seems to deny by omission any heritage in Christianity). But still, I like Niebuhr. I'm like a jackdaw, diving down to pick up the shiny baubles. I am in far too much danger of being a gyrovague.

But the real problem I have with Niebuhr, one I need to elucidate fully someday in order to do my concern and Niebuhr's work full justice, is the flatness of his view, the complete lack of any appearance of transcendence in his theology. His brother was sharply critical of the conclusions, and even the process, of Moral Man, and asked the impassioned question of Jesus: "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?, a study which reflected a much greater concern for how the individual lives, than how the society functions. Perhaps an ironic turn; perhaps a reflection of which one was the pastor, which always the professor. Problems always look easier from a distance.

Here is a statement on Niebuhr's "Christian Realism," from the introduction to Nature and Destiny that I quoted above:

Niebuhr came to use the name "Christian Realism" for this attentiveness all of the realities at work in social change and conflict. The Christian Realist begins, as Moral Man and Immoral Society suggests, with political realism, identifying the forms of economic and political power at work in history: The majority use the power of numbers to press their claims for a more egalitarian justice against those whose privileged positions rest on the power of wealth. The wealthy respond with their own claims to a just reward for the resources they make available to the whole society. In this, they always claim more reward than strict justice requires, but their adversaries concede them less than they deserve. A realist expects no final resolution to these conflicts, but a stable society must establish a work equilibrium between the claims of libery and equality, freedom and order, or need and merit.
Robin W. Lovin, Introduction, Nature and Destiny of Man, pp. xii-xiii.

There is nothing transcendent in a theology that begins with political realism. Transcendence is relegated to a "sweet bye-and-bye," to a time yet to come, to a date to be announced sometime in the future, and in the meantime, we have livings to procure and societies to defend. Niebuhr would be very comfortable with Foucault, I suspect, and that's another problem entirely.

Niebuhr, in fact, critiques all explanations of human nature that do not accept transcendence on the grounds that humankind can consider matters from a position above materialism, or reason alone, or any other limited basis for human nature. This proves, argues Niebuhr, that the limitation identified does not exist, because we can regard it from beyond those limitations, can see the limits of reason, or nature, etc. But while we can see the limits of politics, apparently we cannot ever hope to transcend those limits. We may not be political creatures, says Christian Realism, but we might as well be nothing more; apparently.

"A gyrovague, if nothing else, is good at translation. At reading between and behind the lines." Which is my problem; as Kierkegaard pointed out, reading too much between and behind the lines is the function of irony; and irony ruthlessly and constantly employed, soon devours everything, even itself. And then what profit have you? But like Niebuhr, I've been a pastor too long to put much stock in pieties and transcendence. Precious few of us live our lives there. I like this summing up best:

Of course, I'm not a monk. But I can't help feeling these minatory words from St. Benedict's Monastic Rule have a wider application and pertain to anyone -- how can I say this ? -- pursuing matters of transcendence. I have been too long flitting from flower to flower; coated with luscious, heavy pollen, I must now return to the hive. What does St. Benedict advise?

Cenobites, monks who live together under a rule and an abbot are, according to Benedict, the best kind of monks.
Reinhold Niebuhr was a pastor; it colored his thinking in ways only other pastors can recognize (and which we largely sympathize with, even those of us who struggle against him). I've likened the process of pastoring a church to planting trees in concrete: a seemingly futile and bootless effort. But all that saves us, in the end, is transcendence. Transcendence that is found, oddly enough, under a rule, and in a like-minded community. Which is why I still read Niebuhr; he keeps me from thinking I've figured it all out.

Besides, there are so very many more shiny things in the world. Which is why I need a community; and a rule.

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