Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Parables, The Natural Attitude and a Fig Tree that Didn't Do Nothin' to Nobody

My critique of John Caputo's reading of 'sheep and goats' pericope (Matt. 25) centers on his decision to remain in the natural attitude and identify ecclesial power in the economy of exchange of reward and punishment suggested in the parable. Such a reading subverts his theology of the event and the weakness of God, and defies St. Paul's own exploration of the inadequacy of the analogia entis in 1 Corinthians, where Paul derails the univocity of power: "the weakness of God is stronger than human strength" [NAB, 1 Cor. 1:25]. The vacating of power in Paul obviously plays into Caputo's 'weak theology,' yet in the Folly of God and in his Belfast presentation (linked above), Caputo locates the abuse of God and man in the destruction of the gift and of innocence. A paradoxical sovereignty of God serves a weak theology far better than a univocity of power: this thing between God and the creature fares better when the creator of everything is not the master of the world.

 Most, if not all, of the parables, understood as perlocutionary acts, present states of the self rather than states of affairs: they present the event stirring within phenomenological 'selves,' rather than personified binary oppositions, or systematic dualisms, or the strife of good and evil. The parables invite today's readers into the fold of Jesus's interlocutors, even his interloque, the hearer of the parables' call, those engaged and accused by the presentation of the parables. The reader, the one in the position to receive what is given in the parable, remains in freedom, in either the natural or phenomenological attitude; but the parables only 'work' for today's reader in the latter, as the former attitude lets all hell break loose (as Caputo is fond of saying). That sad state of affairs has had its run, and Jesus had vociferously condemned it in accusing those who hold the kingdom of God hostage against man (Matt. 23).

Let the teacher teach. Were Jesus preaching and teaching an economy of retribution, he would have presented no threat to the established order, and the body of his teachings would not have the radical stink about it. But his teachings, especially those within the parables, do indeed cense their aromas in an amorphous version of Jacob's ladder.

A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” [Luke 13:6-9, NRSV]

The man and the gardener each embodies a certain state of the self. The immediate context of this parable is the discussion of those who perish seemingly in willy-nilly occurrences, and Jesus's teaching that the deaths do not result from sin, but from horrific aleatory forces. The context runs in confluence with the natural attitude toward human suffering and sin (Luke 13:1-6 and cf. John 9). The man, citing a waste of the soil, accuses the fig tree of denying fruitfulness, and wishes to execute a version of justice, presumably a justice of the soil. The natural attitude here even pretends to a certain ecology, taking an interest in the well-being of the land (soil). The natural attitude here even allows for the protection of time: that the soil is complicit with the man's time, three years of it, three years of unproductive, waste of soil and time. Time and soil must yield in the natural attitude, and the parasitic fig tree, for its betrayal of time and soil, must become 'nothing:' "Cut it down," as the lives under 'Pilate' and the 'tower of Siloam' were cut down. The natural attitude has its own way of restoring balance to nature.

The 'gardener,' and we always pay attention to gardens and gardeners in the New Testament, certainly sympathizes with the man's natural attitude, but the man, who presumably did not deposit and sow (cf. Luke 19:12-27 for a topsy-turvy play of the attitudes), knows nothing of the way of the soil. The gardener, on the other hand, has his hand in the soil, and experiences the soil and time in a phenomenological attitude. The economy of giving and yielding in the natural attitude collapses in the gardener's experience, and the fig tree appears as it is in itself. Open to the givenness of the young tree, the gardener chooses to nourish the soil, to transform the land, that it might feed the tree, so that the tree will flourish, and bear fruit in the next year. The gardener redeems the soil, the fig tree and time.

The gardener ain't no phenomenological 'phool', pie-in-the-sky cock-eyed optimist. He is a realist, and will deploy the natural attitude if it turns out that the fig tree is no good, and not destined to bear fruit, even if he is privy to the way of fig trees which perhaps give fruit in the fourth leaf, as the vine gives wine in the fourth leaf. This is a fig tree in a vineyard, after all. Today's reader of the parable sits next to Jesus's interlocutors as the parable unfolds. The man and the gardener are at once states of their very selves. The parable offers two ways of being in the world, neither is privileged, though if one were a fig tree, the gardener has the 'better part.' Like Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42), the man and the gardener are the same self in different attitudes whose oscillations bear sweet fruit.

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