Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Credo in Deum, Patrem Omnipotentem

Well, you really can't get much more Catholic than putting the words of the ancient creeds in your mind and on your lips. The Tradition of the Church is a great gift, and dogma is a part of that tradition. Though today we really are suspicious of dogma, (its not really a good thing to be 'dogmatic'), understood as a gift of a living body of faith, understanding and belief, a gift bequeathed from the past to the present, we can accept and authenticate the gift. Yet, we might say to ourselves, 'beware of Nicaeans bearing gifts.' And therein rests our suspicion; where's the catch? what must we give back, what return is implied in the giving? Perhaps we should just say, 'thanks but no thanks.' Still, a gift is a gift, and some gifts, the really good and authentic gifts, have no strings attached. A gift is in its purest, holiest form when it is dissociated from reciprocation, even the possibility of reciprocation. I want to keep the tension between pure gifts and less than pure gifts in this discussion of omnipotence, an idea handed down not just from the 4th century, but from the formation of Christian identity in relation to God.

Sadly, the problems with omnipotence subvert any realism, falling prey to the inability to distinguish the univocal from the analogical, collapsing both into some impossible human ideal of what something 'all-powerful' can do, has done, and continues to do. The dogma of divine omnipotence is intended as a gift, but brings trouble in all the confusion. Even the dogma itself is troubled by speculation on the absolute power of God and the ordinated power of God. The distinction between these 2 manifestations of the divine omnipotence is intended to bring peace, but instead often brings discord. Peter Damian denies the potentia ordinata, while Thomas Aquinas holds this ordered power in tension with the potentia absoluta. Neither purveyor of the divine power gives a satisfying synthesis of what humans actually experience, both thinkers being entrenched in big-time onto-theology. Still, an omnipotence ordered to the world declared 'good' in Genesis makes more intuitive sense than holding the divine omnipotence to pleasing the desires and judgments of creatures. The simplicity in a strategy of restricting the absolute power of God to the choice of 'any world order,' and describing the ordinated power as the self-limiting realism attached to divine power in 'this world order' just accounts for the phenomena confronting creatures better than a strategy that draws no distinction at all.

In any event, the Catholic dogma of God's omipotence has always been more nuanced than an unqualified "God can do all things." It is a very Catholic notion that God cannot contradict, betray integrity, suspend the 'good' of himself or creation. So, against the good monk Damian, God is incapable of making occurences 'unhappen.' There is nothing capricious about the divine omnipotence, reports to the contrary in the bible and recent headlines notwithstanding.

I am certainly not arguing that the distinctions between the potentia absoluta and the potentia ordinata have solved the riddle of the aporia of an omnipotent God. These distinctions do, however, show the traces of the way omnipotence haunts both dogmas and sacred texts, and how omnipotence is harbored in the name of God, how it is structured in texts (sacred and profane---and by 'text' I mean any locus [or circus] of signification). Everywhere God's power is in such texts, there will be found the creature wrapping its head and fist about it. Still, if we use Caputo's definition of 'theopoetics' as the discourse of what haunts theology, of what circumfesses within confessional theology, then Catholic dogma is the religion's first whack at a living theopoetics. The next developments in Catholic dogma might be to be less dogmatic about it; developments in doctrine might be to be less doctrinaire. A dogma without dogma seems to fit inside the notion of a religion without religion.

Indeed, each word of the ancient creeds is but an invitation, our four words in this post's title each a call to reflection. What is belief? God? A Father? Omnipotence? Pantokrator? Almighty? All-ruling ruler of rules? The creeds, traditions, and sacred texts of the Church are an invitation to read. But not only to read draped in a hermeneutic from which no one really emerges, but reading to release the events waiting to be born in these texts. What event is really harbored in the dogma of omnipotence if not that of love and freedom, integrity of creation and embrace of the good?

Not every event of human complicity with power in this world has its call in the divine insistence. The events released in the name of God, especially those events pried loose from the divine name with analogical claims of univocal omnipotence, are often just plain trouble. They visit the absolute upon the relative, totalizing in events what cannot be totalized; and trying to contain the uncontainable sends the event back to the harbor, even after the trouble comes, which is usually in the form of violence.

Violence results from gifts that are assumed to be asking for something in return. Only a real openness to the gift can discern the nature of the gift. If the gift is a contract, then thanks but no thanks. We see how those gifts are reciprocated in this world. If the gift is a gift of grace, then we know the tree by its fruit.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Theological Moment: Lex Orandi Lex Credendi

A sage once said that we shall know the tree by its fruits; perhaps, in matters of religion, fruits and trees problematize beliefs and prayers. In my previous blog entry, I suggested an intimate relationship between authority and authenticity, and further, that the Marcan Jesus interrogated these religious attitudes by interrogating the priests, scribes and elders who challenged the foundation for Jesus' actions. Though the Jesus in Mark 11 does not state so explicitly, he seems to locate the discernment of authority within the human conscience. In the context of the New Testament themes of 'hardness of heart'(sklerokardia) and a 'change of heart'(metanoia), a heart open to the call, God's insistence, perhaps, we can think of the former as a poorly formed conscience, and the latter as a properly formed conscience. The elders response of feigned ignorance comes from sklerokardia, a closing off of the event. In the case at hand, the event of authentication is a matter of conscience.

Today the world finds itself in a theological moment. Depending on the degree of its dogmatism, its openness to the event is a smaller or larger aperture. Depending on the intensity of its secularism, its openness to the call, to the insistence of Joycean 'chaosmos,'  is a smaller or larger moment. The world is more or less deaf to the call, depending on its conscience. The world might not even know that a theological moment is upon it, because it might not even know the language of the call.

In the news today we learn that ISIS holds for ransom 2 Japanese journalists. They are already wearing the orange vestments, kneeling in desert sands at the feet of the high priest of the black vestments. Another celebration of the liturgy of murder lurks on the altar of the internet; another sacrament of ISIS is before the world in a moment of very public prayer. The law of prayer is the law of belief. See how yet another pair of journalists are made to kneel, to genuflect to this god of violence. See how the 'word' suffers before the prayers in the desert. See how freedom is bound from behind and paraded before the world.

U.S. president, Barack Obama, has recently adopted a public strategy (foreign policy?) that denies religious status to extremists who murder in the name of God. Is this because U.S. policy has determined that ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram are not religious in nature? Have U.S. policy makers done some theological homework, and concluded that these groups are no longer recognizably Islamic or religious at all? If so, the American people should know how their representatives have interpreted for them the theological moment the world faces today. If not, perhaps these policy makers have recreated these groups in their own militantly secular image, reducing self-proclaimed religious zealots to terms it understands.

Violence is a self-replicating event. It comes from hardness of heart raised to action, action grounded in poorly formed consciences. Its victims are the innocent. See how the high priests, scribes and elders of secularism and religion hurl us into the deep gashes of faith. The more things change, the more they stay the same. More of the same: radical secularism and radical religion do the same thing: they reduce each other to the simplest terms they collectively understand, and divide by blood and death.

The intersections of religion, faith, secularism, politics, realism and theology are dangerous places indeed. I am distinctly uncomfortable commenting on 'the news' and the digests of the 'talking heads.' It is my conviction, though, that great and self-serving misunderstanding is being perpetuated under the names of religion, secularism, God and justice, resulting in the visitation of violence and slaughter upon the innocents. I do not believe, as some would have it, that there are no innocents. There are innocents. To declare them complicit in the rage and assault on the world is an ugly and evil strategem whose only hope is to make violence 'acceptable' tender in the commerce of beliefs.

Violence will not hold. This is my hope, prayer and belief.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Authenticity and Authority

They arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to him.“By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you authority to do this?”

Jesus replied, “I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin? Tell me!”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’ …” (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.)

So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
[Mark 11:11-32, NIV]

Following Mark's fig sandwich (temple-cleansing between 2 slices of ficus), the evangelist reports this discussion of authority. While the pericope calls into question the prevarication of the elders, we ought not slide past Jesus' interrogation of the authentication of authority. The elders' question is twofold: they want to know what authority, and who is doing the authorizing. Jesus restricts any response he might have to the what, as he poses his twofold query: was John's baptism authentic (of heaven), or not (of human origin).

This is a fascinating rhetorical moment. Jesus masterfully turns the tables on the elders, hinging his own response on theirs. The elders do not reproach him for his impudence, but instead cower under political correctness. We are privy to their dilemma: they cannot say authentic, lest they condemn themselves by admitting to disparaging the power of heaven; then cannot say inauthentic, because the people are convinced of the authenticity of John's baptism. They reach the decision to feign ignorance: ignoramus et ignoramibus. Jesus, sensing their insincerity (or their subterfuge), declines to respond to their challenge. We do not know with what mood the elders leave the scene. Some of them will be more assertive at Jesus' trial.

Jesus' transgressive rhetoric not only reduces the elders to weak argument, but queries their authority to ask their questions in the first place. The immediate antecedent to their questions is, of course, the cleansing of the temple (did they hear of the withered ficus?), but all of Jesus' activity to this point is in play. Perhaps some of them witnessed his authority in action as recorded in the previous chapters. Perhaps they are still licking their wounds after Jesus rebukes them for embracing human tradition over the command of God (Mk. 7:8-9 ff.). Jesus still awaits their response to his questions about their authority, about the authenticity of their traditions vis a vis the authenticity of the divine commandments. Do their challenges to his authority and authenticity arise from their human traditions or from heaven?

The questions about John's baptism are surrogates for Jesus' own authority: and here is Jesus' effectiveness in this pericope--he provocatively asks the elders to answer their own questions; they seem to know the answers. The authority of Jesus has the same authority and author as John's baptism: the divine, of heaven, of God.

Violence stirs in their hearts.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Footnotes to Paris: Sacramental Violence

Some of this blog's lurkers have preferred not to leave comments but have expressed some of their thoughts to me in other forms of communication. Generally, these concerns are directed at 'poetic' elements in my previous post, "Paris Reduced to Terror," and how those elements come across as 'arcane' and even 'elitist.' I appreciate this critique, and I suppose my own review of that blog entry also discovers some (perhaps unintended) cleverness and subtlety.

In my discussion of the West and Jihad, my use of the imagery of sand and ocean to house secularism and religiosity seems to obscure as much as illuminate. My thought was simply that the West's response to sectarian Islamic fundamentalism with its sense of Jihad and Sharia, is to attempt to inundate it with more radical secularism, which in turn, fuels rage and violence. I further characterized this technique as self -indulgent and nihilistic on both sides of the antagonism.

It is important to always note the sectarian nature of Islam, and one need look no further than Sunni and Shi'a Islam for a poignant demonstration. To this end, I restrict my remarks to the sect of Islam that has adopted violence as its sacramental expression. In this sacramentalism, blood, murder and destruction comprise the matter, and Jihad and Sharia, the form. In "Paris Reduced to Terror," I suggested that Christianity, in its monstrous compound of Church-State, eventually evolved (in both the Reformation and the rise of the nation-states) its self-understanding: its violence was not of its own substance, but instead adopted from the strong force of governance, of the secular. In the sectarian Islam that visits 'terror' on the West, violence derives from something inherent in Jihad: it is religious in nature, in its reading of Islam. 

The hylomorphism of Jihadist sacramentalism is deconstructed by its violence. The ritualistic murders of jounalists in the sands of the desert, complete with the sacramentals of black and orange vestments, knives, and the backdrop of the desert itself, take place upon the altar of the internet. The murders in Paris were accomplished on the altar of freedom, or the mockery of freedom, its matter the fire of automatic weapons, and its form, the words, victims' names and statements of the vindication of the Prophet.

This extreme expression of religiosity under the aegis of justice, cannot be effectively met with extreme secularism. Like the world of Star Trek: The Voyage Home, the secular world finds itself needing great whales to find its redemption. "Paris Reduced to Terror" was meant to underscore the need for a response to 'terror' and 'justice' that leads to effective engagement. Today's unprecedented march of Western solidarity in Paris is but a first step. The violence of ISIS and its continued threats against the West, promise to be a saturated phenomenon that will precipitate a political state predicated on sectarian violence and destruction from its very substance, its fermenting solution of sectarian hatred and intolerance. The next steps the West takes must seek to alter that saturated solution before something hideous crystallizes out of solution in an event of enormity.

The West needs to recover its great whales. Saturated secularism has the tendency to engender more of the same.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Paris Reduced to Terror

Though politics is one of my interests, it has not been a subject addressed in this weblog, which is dedicated to the implications of Catholicism and theology. Therefore, this comment, something of a 'public theology,' shall be interested in the events harbored in the names of justice and God, and how these events might be unfolding in the recent occurrence of devastation in Paris.

The West receives the news from Paris with horror and terror, and tends to define the killing of journalists as terrorism, and further proof  that Islam wishes to impose Sharia law wherever it pitches its tent. While terror might properly characterize the emotional response to this occurrence, terror might not be the most effective way it is finally interpreted. It seems to me that, at least from some perspective and for a moment, Sharia law was in force in Paris, enforced by 3 agents authorized by jihad to exact, for that moment, justice, a justice served by the deaths of journalists exercising the Western idea of freedom.

The West has not gained much from interpreting the enforcement of Sharia law as acts of international terror. The West's mode of response has been to take its collective head out of the sand in order to use that sand to fill up all the oceans of trouble, an act which it thinks will eradicate that trouble. But the West continues to drown and jihad continues to drink sand. The West asks 'what justice is this?' and jihad asks 'what freedom is this?' Indeed, to ask the questions is to answer them. There is no calculus satisfactory to  both Islam and the West, no equations of 'terror' with 'justice;' for in this collision of cultures, 'terror' sees itself on the one hand as 'freedom' and 'justice'; and on the other hand, 'justice' sees itself as 'freedom' and the absence of 'terror.' All meanings are lost in translation.

The events that are released by highly charged terms such as God, justice and freedom are always already troubled, if not just plain trouble. All too often, people die and the earth is scorched in the violence of the crusade, carried out in the names of God, justice and freedom. The crusade is troubled by the antagonists who both hold to acting in the names of God, justice and freedom, and Islam and the West seem quite satisfied with themselves to embark on a strategy in which the only survivors of their antagonism will be these names for whom there will be no one left to utter. The nihilism and insufferable self-indulgence of these antagonists make the same claim to truth, justice and the [choose your metanarrative] way.

Perhaps the problem is one of a poor memory. The antagonists have forgotten that a God that is not love is not God; that the only justice is the justice to come and that justice is the justice of the  God to come. And that God to come will be a God of love for whom violence is a very peculiar choice, a very odd exercise of free will.

There are short term memory deficits at work as well. All three monotheistic faiths preach that God made humans in his image and likeness. So, when the enforcer's of Sharia law looked into the faces of their own image and likeness and called out their names, they also called out the names of justice, freedom and God and shot them all in the head (witnesses to the massacre agree that the executioners called out the names of each victim before meting out the justice of Sharia). Murder in these names is the murder of the events harbored in these names. The murder of a single human being is the murder of God, which is the distancing of humanity from the event of the God to come.

What has violence to do with God? The Christian crusades ended when Christianity finally looked to the log in its own eye before removing the speck in the other before it. Christianity saw that its violence was not authentic; was not of its own substance, but a contamination from without that had entered its very fabric. It pulled out many fibers, but, apparently, Christianity is not immune to memory problems;  strands of violence wreak scandalous havoc to this day. Is this, I wonder, what we really mean by 'Christian realism?'

The calls from justice, freedom and God, the calls from the justice, freedom and God to come, are difficult to discern when the strands of violence remain in the grand tapestries of religion (and politics, too). And it is clear that the only justice, the only God we will ever get is the God and justice that visited Paris, so long as the names we give God and justice are our own names. So long as the images and likeness we see in each other are fear, hate, terror and horror, then our justice and our God will be the God and justice of fear, hate, terror and horror.

What can be the resolution to such hardness of heart? Metanoia. The tilling of the earth in the heart, its softening, its readying to receive the other, will open hearts to receive the image and likeness of God. When we look into each other's faces and call our names, we must look more deeply through the surface of the deep, into waters from which we all come. It is here that we meet the God to come in the ongoing creation of the world. We really need to begin again, and start a new story. Viens, oui, oui.

Paris reduced to terror gives us nothing new, more of the same; that story is old. The West has not visited atrocities upon Islam and Islam is not exacting justice in the face of the injustices of the past. That's the narrative gasping for air. Paris needs to be raised to the power of the infinity of God, through and despite the finitude of the human. When the crusaders of yesterday wielded swords, the world had the luxury of time to discover its engines of violence. The crusaders of today wield weapons very unlike swords. Jihad knows no borders, knows no sovereignty but Sharia, knows no limits on the force of Sharia. Time is running out: God and justice hang upon the discovery of the engines of violence conspiring to reduce God and justice to the cinders of empty names, and the rest of us to the nothing before creation.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Creation: Nothing or Something?

It is not good that the man should be alone. [Genesis 2:18, NIV]

From the perspective of a weak theology, nothing is feebler than a creation by mere thought. It is an energetic God that creates from 'something.' Only an asthenic God would create from nothing. Act and idea are united in God; there is no occasion for working from a pre-existent chaos.  Of course, God still needed to rest from creation, but there are no present participles in an act of creation; there are no immanent processes for God. So translations of Genesis  1 that run something like, "in the beginning when God was creating..." are problematic from the get-go.

 בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

The sense of the words is about something already accomplished, something that accounts for the beginning itself: "first, God formed heaven and earth." The 'first,' the re-shith, is already reckoned. Is this reckoning eternal---is it God's very nature to be good, and so he eternally brings about the good? If so, then given the unity of idea and act, it is not inconceivable that 'something' was there all along, if 'something' is more other than 'nothing.' If God is love, and love only has meaning in relation to an other, an eternal other would be 'good'.

John Caputo embraces the Joycean 'chaosmos' as the something-nothing God creates from, as Catherine Keller's 'tehomic' theology would predict. There is really nothing to this something until politics gets involved. And so we have a conflict between creatio ex nihilo and creatio ex profundis. Still, we have to get to Genesis 1:2 before we get to tehom in the first place.

And darkness was upon the surface of the deep. [Gen. 1:2, NIV]

The NIV has 'surface' while Keller's impressive work, Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming (Routledge, 2003), has 'face'. Perhaps a look at Keller's own translation will illuminate the matter.

"When in the beginning when Elohim was creating heaven and earth, the earth was tohu vabohu, darkness was on the face of tehom, and the  ruach Elohim vibrating upon the face of the waters..."

Keller argues that "creatio ex nihilo has reigned largely uncontested" (p.4) until recently, when the ground beneath the binary of creatio ex nihilo/ex profundis became fertile soil to till. I am grateful to Caputo for introducing me (via The Weakness of God) to the genius of Face of the Deep and its author. If some thinkers doubt that the feminist critique is alive and well, I would advise them to give Keller a read, or at least view some of her lectures available on the internet. Regardless, her strategy is to deconstruct the power machine seemingly at work in creatio ex nihilo.

I wonder about the necessity of privileging ex profundis over ex nihilo. The earliest thinkers on the subject were not so much fretting over ontology as over theodicy. To protect God from evil, he needed protection from matter itself: that matter is 'evil' is just good old-fashion gnosticism. The usurpation of ex nihilo, if usurping is even required (who thinks about creatio ex nihilo in terms of power anymore?), by the upstart ex profundis, seems to have more of a dissociative effect, than a deconstructive effect. To charge the early Christian thinkers on creation with obscuring the "chaos of scripture" (p.58) might very well befuddle them. A persecuted church would not likely dream dreams of domination and hegemony (certainly the case for the ante-Nicene 'fathers'). The problem was Gnosticism not Arianism.

Whether God creates from nothing or something 'first' does not negate that he continues to create from something when something gets itself created. Keller locates the feminine within chaos, and recovers that feminine at the beginning, and further, wants to bring the restored feminine to bear on the process, once it gets going. If God is a Father, then Fatherhood, like personhood, is determined by relationships. So, God the Father must interdigitate, evaginate the 'something-nothing' with a wind, and plumb the depths of the deep: reach creatively into tehom like a potter up to his shoulders in clay. Keller leads from the top down, from surface to depth, reintroducing what it means to be 'depth' at the beginning. Keller restores the good, the whole good, and nothing but the good to the beginning.

I honestly do not understand why Keller's discovery transgresses the omnipotence ascribed to God by deceptive, power-grubbing ex-nihilo-ists. While I certainly welcome clarifications of just what omnipotence means when applied to God, I would be more circumspect about sending shots accross the bow of analogical omnipotence, which is more to the point. Happily, the power politics critiqued in no way compromises the freshness and clarity of Keller's project; but both Keller's and Caputo's arguments are at their weakest when the necessity of a creatio ex profundis drives the deconstruction. In  the face of analogical language, the critique of divine omipotence is overwrought.

I would suggest that there is fertile ground under man's solitude and the imago Dei, and perhaps the imitatio Dei as well.

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” [Gen.1:26, NIV]

Where is man in the likeness of God? Ex profundis. No one seriously argues that 'image' and 'likeness' refer to physical attributes. Instead, they refer to the immensity of mind, of spirit, of Geist. In the depths beneath the surfaces of analogical language one finds how man is like God: not that mankind is as deep as God but that God and man share a likeness, an image, of deepness, depth, and the unfathomable, unplumbable, unknowable, unquantifiable spirit itself. "It is not good that the man should be alone." I take this to mean that it is not good that God should be alone. God is love; God is good. Here is the likeness to God and the mystery of creation. God so loved the world, he 'worlded' it at the beginning through the unity of idea and act.

God was never alone. He loved the something-nothing. It's what She does. This is omnipotence. Omnia vincit amor.