Thursday, June 08, 2006

Visions of Johanna

I'm interested in the question of salvation: does it come from us, or does it come from outside of us? I've grown less and less comfortable with the topic, because it is usually used alternately as a club ("Have you been saved? Are you going to spend eternity in a lake of hellfire?!") or an excuse ("I've been saved, I can do whatever I want!"). Despite the fact Paul wrote fervently against the latter (but we ignore it), and the former is hardly Biblical, the issue of salvation as central to either religion or human existence, persists. Technology, now, is "salvation," at least within the American secular religion where the market "Is a strong green god—sullen, untamed and intractable,/Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;/ Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce," as Eliot said (almost), and commerce is our public sacrament to which all is sacrificed. "Progress" is now what will save us from ourselves or our "human condition." "Reason" will sweep up all the niggling problems that have beset us since our ancestors first left the trees. "Science" will lead us to a paradisial age which will raise us above ourselves and our limitations, our weaknesses and our venalities, our appetites and desires. O machine! O machine! Something, somewhere, from well beyond even the mass of us together, will raise us up to that new Jerusalem where all will live together in peace and harmony, and no one will study war any more, and enemies will sleep peacefully together, even predator and prey will lie down in calm.

And it's all bosh.

Human history is not moving towards anything; it simply moves away from certain things, towards other things, but nothing further away than it's own vision. God's history is moving in the world, but that's another matter. In this much Sartre was right: there is no valid distinction between interior and exterior, between object and essence. This, in fact, is the lesson I take from Abraham; and from Jesus of Nazareth. As the Last Whole Earth Catalog so memorably put it: "We can't put it together. It is together." It is not our responsibility to mend things. And there is no uber-parent coming back to clean up the nursery we have so messed up. Salvation will not come from outside us, and it will not come in spite of us. Salvation is already here, among us, now. We have only to accept it.

Which means, of course, we have to reconsider the nature of salvation. Is it metaphysical, meant to apply to some kind of existence that is similar to, perhaps even a part of, this physical existence we know, but at the same time different, a different realm with different rules such as: time does not apply, and so change is not possible, so that whatever you do here seals you there, for all eternity (a redundancy, to be sure, if time no longer has meaning)? But the whole thing is a muddle, because if change is not possible, how is punishment possible, since pain reflects a state of change, and change can only be understood in the passage of time, but eternity must exist outside of time since eternity is timelessnesss.... As the narrator of The Good Soldier says: "It is all a darkness."

So how can I be concerned about it, or be so sure that one decision made here can lock down the terms of my existence there, if existence without time can be understood as existence at all, if existence without duration can be existence at all? All the salvation theories eventually come down to this: it comes from outside me, but it ultimately concerns me (pace Tillich), because it depends on my activity: my belief, my decision, my action, my thoughts. But I cannot know what effect those things will have on my existence there; I can only conjecture; I can only imagine.

Only imagine, because I have no valid guide here to reassure me. Jesus died and rose from the dead, is my confession. A sure sign of his worthiness, is Paul's teaching. But Jseus' death does not teach me anything about 'life after death.' In the three-post Resurrection appearances in the Gospels, Jesus doesn't say a word about death; he speaks of life; of what we should do for each other, here and now. And even if this life determines the next one, I cannot be Jesus; I cannot be perfect in all my thoughts and actions, I cannot know which ones will "save" me from damnation. Luther finally freed me from that prison, with his doctrince of justification by faith through grace. But that still requires that I have faith; and what kind of faith? Which faith is good enough to grant me salvation, which action must I take? I am no freer than I was before.

It is still a darkness.

Look, now, at Abraham. A God he cannot have known, a voice he doesn't know, tells him to leave all the knows and go to a new place, and for your reward for accepting this offer you will have land and children and be a blessing to nations for generations to come. This is the covenant, and Abraham accepts. There is no interiority to Abraham, no conflict between object and essence, no indecision. He accepts, and as patriarch takes his family, and sets out. Two of those blessings he can enjoy; one he'll never know, it will be impossible for him to know. And why does he trust this voice? Still, he sets out.

And waits, and waits, and waits for children. Anxious, unsure, he sires Ishmael through his handmaid Hagar. And then he sends them both away, and waits some more. Finally, he has a son, and then is told to take that son to Moriah, and sacrifice him to God. Never was the meaning of "sacrifice" more clear: to give up that which is precious to you, to show the gods how much more precious they are! And again, there is no conflict between object and essence, no division between interior and exterior. And this, as Johannes de Silentio says, is what makes Abraham so terrible: ethically, he simply is a murderer. All that is lacking is the action. He even keeps the secret of the murder from everyone, because he doesn't know the secret himself. He never lies. When Isaac asks about the animal for the sacrifice, Abraham tells him God will provide it. The entire story admits no interior, no exterior: it is simply the condition of revelation.

Isaac's salvation certainly comes from outside. All that is lacking in Abraham the murderer is the action, and that is lacking only because God finally stops the drama, finally halts the upraised blade before it can fall. But his salvation does not mend the interior, the relationship with his father; how can it?

Jesus never heals anyone, or forgives their sins, after asking them "But have you repented? Have you truly repented in your heart?" The prostitute who washes his feet in chapter 7 of Luke's gospel; the Syro-Phoenician woman; the woman at the well; Jairus; the woman who touches his hem; the beggars blind, lame, mute, crippled. None of them earn their salvation; Jesus is never concerned with the inward or the outward, the object or the essence. For him, they are the same, and to heal one is to heal the other. But he also tells them: "Go, and sin no more."

He leaves something to them. He gives them what they cannot give themselves; but he leaves something to them. Just as God gave Abraham what he could not give himself (land, children, blessing on the nations, descendants as numerous as stars in the sky), but God leaves something to Abraham. Abraham's story is about his tumultous and complex life; about the number of times he asks God "When?", and the number of times he passes Sarai off as his sister, not his wife, in order to save himself. And then his silence before Isaac; did he ever explain himself to his son? God leaves that to him.

So this idea that salvation is magic, is the working of our "true will" in the world to effect the aim we secretly want, to breach the barrier between interior and exterior and make the object our is simply bosh. Salvation will not come from waiting for judges or the ABA to save us. The system is simply not self-correcting in that way; it does not act magically to save us from voter indifference and voter apathy. Salvation won't come from political parties; the Democrats are as invested in the status quo as the Republicans. If you doubt that, consider Katrina, and New Orleans, the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Louisiana. Salvation will not come from blogs, or even our anger. Olzvl is right about the political system:

The three branches in balance that protect our liberties, each keeping the others in check. Here's something that always seems to be lost on those brilliant thinkers, branches die without roots. The voters keep the whole thing alive. A tree that gets cut down might send up new growth, if the roots are destroyed the whole tree rots in place. Our roots are shriveled. They require attention and I mean now. The branches are loaded down with leaves. You want to keep that tree, it's time for emergency pruning.


Any democracy in which a Supreme Court Justice can say that there isn't a right to cast a vote and not be impeached is a democray in gravest peril. It's time to assert that the voters aren't a detail, they're the whole thing. It just might make political participation somehow seem worth it.
The political system is all about the voters. Just as any religious practice, is all about the believers. It is not, as Jesus said, what goes into a person that makes them unclean, but what comes out. The division between inner and outer is false. The hope for salvation from beyond us is illusory. The power, the responsibility, the duty, the ability, is in our hands.

Left rev says:

"So you cannot teach a county not to study war anymore. You can only teach it to a people. Or, in modern parlance, to people. Individuals. Families." This, Robert, is why I am a local church pastor.
To which I answer: Amen. It is why I am a local church pastor, too, or will be again, soon. It is the work of accoompaniemento, accompanying the people. There is even a book coming out in September, a study of congregations which purports to show that the real vitality, the real spiritual life, is in small progressive congregations, not "mega-churches" preaching the gospel of wealth and the glory of nations; small churches, doing the day to day and hand to hand work of connecting human hearts in a community of believers. Perhaps believers who want to reflect more of the love of their God to their friends and family, than church-goers who make a church "successful" because it has money for TV cameras and billboards and celebrities as preachers.

It is here, now, the basileia tou theou. This is "what salvation must be like, after awhile." This is the communion of saints, we are the clouds of witness. There is no inner and outer, no waiting for completion, no final act to take place before the magic is unleashed. Salvation is here, now. It is, like the basiliea, in us and among us. We do not have to look for it, send for it, ask for it. We have only to believe it, and live in it. Salvation is not coming to us, it has already been shown to us. Now we have only to come to it. Like Abraham, we have to strike out on a journey to an unknown place, and only trust that we will get there, and that it will be shown to our children as well. Like Jesus, we simply need to live in it. This is the revolution that has come, is coming, and will come. It is what was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. It is the blessing of world without end. And we have only to believe it, to see it.

The visions of Isaiah will come true later. They are our inspiration, not our excuse for waiting.

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