other

on one hand, i love the mystics. on the other, i really enjoy the serious academics. and then in my spare time, i can’t get enough critical theory. this book — the most well researched, theological text not-intended for an academic audience i’ve ever read — brings these things all together. it is brilliant and really well written, and it’s caused me to stay up way past my-bed time. on top of all that, the guy’s a high school teacher. my kinda armchair theologian. below is an excerpt about the otherness of god. enjoy.

The stranger is a character who stands at the boundary of our knowledge. They are known to us because we have dominated them — even by giving them the name ‘stranger’ we have seen them and admitted their existence. But they are also unknown to us, or they would be called friend, or at least given a proper name. Our relationship to this God who is both separate and bound, transcendent and immanent can be seen as a relationship with a stranger.

The sociologist Georg Simmel has reflected a great deal on what these un/known strangers might mean to us, and concluded that they play an important role in the development of societies. When they enter our world it is strangers who have to go through the painful process of adapting to our ways of life. In this way the stranger ‘holds up a mirror to the society in which he or she enters, since [they] cannot take for granted ways of life that seem to natives just natural.’ The incarnation is God coming as stranger and holding up a mirror to our society. But, more than this, reading Zizek and SImmel together, Jesus’ growth as a man who is finally forsaken — called ‘stranger’ — by God shows us Jesus holding up a mirror to Godself too. To God, Jesus became a strange man, but it was through this stranger that God learned about God.

The fact of Jesus’ status as fully human and fully divine has traditionally been interpreted as a bridge between divinity and humanity: Jesus’ divine side holds onto God, and human side holds on to us. But the idea of Jesus as the divine stranger suggests that the empathetic relationship may be equally powerful the other way round. The important thig for God was that Jesus was fully human — and thus gave God a strange mirror in which God could be revealed to Godself; the important thing for us was that Jesus was fully divine – for in this stranger, trying to adapt to the ways of our world, we see a truer picture of what we have become.

The stranger — the person who stands on the boundary of our community — is un/known. Because of the paradox of their nearness and otherness, the stranger is thus the one who teaches, the one from whom we learn best. Jesus was this perfect stranger. His temptations in the desert drew him towards performing stunts that would emphasise his otherness and miracles of abundant provision that would emphasise his binding. But, walking out of the desert to live among ust, this stranger refused to collapse the paradox of separation and binding — to and from both us and God. In his death he experienced the agony of total separation; in his resurrection, the joy of full communion. In his temptations and pain he felt total empathetic binding with our humanity; in prayer and transfiguration, total separation; in his resurrection, the joy of full communion. In his temptations and pain he felt total empathetic binding with our humanity; in prayer and transfiguration, total separation from us. Now we, as CHristians, need to seek to live by this same divine pattern: we are those who are both bound to and separated from God, and bound to and separated from humanity. Christianity then is not a religion of exclusivity, of a predestined group who are chosen for salvation. Instead it is the set of those who know/embrace this paradox of being strangers. We are the boundary, not the centre; we are the other, not the included, and it is out of this realisation that our empathy for the oppressed and marginalised springs.

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nothing ever happens

i know a lot of people who love to pray. they just eat it up. it’s the first thing they think of when they wake up, the first thing they want to do when something great happens, and the first thing they turn to when the poo hits the fan. i admire those people. i wish i was that way.

when the topic of prayer comes up, i’m always reminded of a line from a sufjan stevens song:

tuesday night, at the bible study, we lift our hands and pray over your body, but nothing ever happens

and that pretty much sums up for me how i’ve been feeling about prayer. i want it to work. i want to embrace it as a cornerstone of my life. i kinda want to pray for the best parking space and have it magically appear for me in a major mall parking lot the week before christmas. i would be furious at a god that actually did that kinda thing, but at least i’d know the connection wasn’t faulty. that is the experience of so many people. i want to love prayer, but i just can’t. i wish i wasn’t this way.

because there is this strange thing that happens in my heart when i pray with people now. and this has been happening a bit more often now that i’m in a couple of small groups. we all bow our heads and pray, and then suddenly i feel like i’m reentering an awful space, and it feel surreal, like i’m back inside of a war zone. i look around and i’m back in my parents’ living room, with forty people praying as hard as they can. why did i turn to this forsakenness again?

when i ask someone to pray for me, i’m not really hoping for someone to get god to help me out, in part because i find it difficult to expect anything like that to actually happen. i don’t doubt that it does happen, but kinda like hoping for nice weather on an october day in seattle, i’m not sure i can count on it. what i feel like i can expect, however, is for that person to think of me, to hope the best for me, to desire good things for me, and maybe even act out on the things floating in their head, on my behalf. there’s actual comfort in that.

jesus today

check out more of this, here.

first question that popped into my head when i saw this was: should i be offended by this? then i thought about the image for a little bit more and realized what i was actually looking at.

that my first thought  was regarding the offensive nature of this image is particularly telling, and i realize that much of what i think of jesus has been a bit too domesticated. indeed, jesus would probably make a habit of making me cringe.

wish

i once came across a really disturbing idea that came from freud or lacan — i can’t quite remember.

wish fulfillment. the dreams we have are all attempts by our unconscious to resolve some sort of conflict or yearning we have deep inside. all our dreams are a form of wish fulfillment. they signify our deepest longings.

this idea of wish fulfillment has carried far beyond theories about the nature of dreams, to the point where everything can be interpreted as a sort of wish fulfillment. much like how our dreams (as the theory goes) are codified expressions of longings buried deep in the unconscious mind, our conscious thoughts also can tell us a lot about the things in our head we didn’t really know existed.

and so my attention turns to faith. i’ve always wondered to what extent my religious practice is a form of wish fulfillment. how much of my belief and behavior is rooted in something absolutely true, and how much is rooted in something i merely wish was true?

i confess — for me at least, it is really hard to tell.

brewin

here is kester brewin‘s retelling of the famed “footprints” story. ambiguous, enigmatic, and maybe even a lil upsetting — i’ll be rereading this one for quite some time.

Footprints

There was once a man who had lived a long and difficult life. When he finally lay down, a faint smile bent the lines in his face as his eyes were shut. He had run the race; now he could rest. The curtain was pulled back, and he stumbled through the light to meet God.

‘My Master and my Friend,’ the old man hailed God as he prostrated himself before God’s feet. Hearing no reply, the man looked up and saw God shuffling awkwardly in his chair, not quite managing to fight back a blush across his cheeks.

Not wanting his moment of judgement and welcome to be spoiled, the old man gathered his courage and spoke up. ‘My Lord and my God,’ he began, nervously. ‘Is this not the time when my life and works shall be weighed in your scales and my named checked against those who have made it into the Book of Life?’ After such a tiring day it was difficult for him to remember the exact details of what was meant to be happening, but he felt certain that it should be God who should be taking the lead.

‘My child,’ said God sadly, before petering out and looking around for some way out.

Following God’s gaze, the old man took in a crumpled photo, pinned to a crowded notice board hung askew in a dark corner. His heart leapt. ‘Father,’ he said, getting up carefully like a servant in Medieval court, ‘here is a photo of footprints on a beach…’

God took it and stared at it for a while and as the man perceived his eyes glistening, his own tears came, for he knew the photo, and knew the words of comfort that came with it. ‘Tell me, Lord,’ he said, knowing already the lines that would come, ‘tell me what the footprints mean.’

And so God began.

‘Your life has been like a walk along the beach with me, many scenes from your life flashing across the sky. In each scene there are footprints in the sand, sometimes two sets, at other times only one.’

At this point God paused, and looked down, and so the old man seized the initiative, and played too his part.

‘Lord, this bothers me because I notice that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I can see only one set of footprints.’

He looked up, but saw God unmoved, so continued. ‘You promised me Lord, that if I followed you, you would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has only been one set of footprints in the sand.
Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?’

He bowed his head, holding back the tears, ready for the words of succour that he knew must come.

And slowly God replied, his voice shaking with emotion. ‘The years when you have seen only one set of footprints, my child, is when you carried me.’

The man frowned for a moment, paused, and then looked up. ‘Surely Lord,’ he began rather embarrassed to be correcting the Almighty, ‘you mean when you carried me.’

‘My dear child,’ God said, twisting a loose thread of cloth from his flowing robes, his face suddenly a mirror in which the old man saw the battles he had fought and the doubts he had put asunder, ‘this was the measure of your faith: when difficulties came, you gathered up this tired and arthritic God, and carried your beliefs to safety.’

A small wind blew through the old photographs and worn papers, and the two men sat in silence for a moment.

‘I have prepared a room for you,’ God said after a while, ‘though I quite understand if you don’t want me to stay.’

atonement

problems at work often leave me in a place of theological reflection.

as i think about how to “deal with” troublesome students in my classes, pedro noguera’s essay on the endless similarities between schools and prisons immediately comes to mind. in schools, as in prisons, delinquent behavior is dealt with through sacrificial systems that involve proportional punishment, social exclusion, and shame. even though dishing out punishments for bad behavior is done in the name of reforming the delinquent, true character transformation is rarely the result. what does result is what richard rohr calls scapegoating. we export our evil over there, project it over there, fear it over there, attack it over there, hate it over there, and ultimately destroy it over there.

so when we think about how god deals with evil, we usually think about how god is so perfect that he cannot have any sin or imperfection near him. it must be cast away, supposedly because god is just and righteous. and indeed, imperfection can only be reunited with god after it’s been cleansed by jesus’ blood.

rohr make the argument that jesus defines god’s perfection in a different way. god’s perfection does not require the removal of imperfection, like we might think. instead, god’s perfection “is the ability to recognize, forgive, and include imperfection.” rather than exporting away evil and sin, god overwhelms it with his goodness. he doesn’t expel; he absorbs and transforms — just as he did on the cross.

i’m still trying to unpack all the implications of this. in the back of my mind is the question of “hell” and whether that idea even fits into this schema at all (it doesn’t seem like it would). but more pressing to me right now is what it might mean for how i work with my most challenging students — what might it look like to move from exclusion to embrace for my toughest kids?

re:thinking violence

The tragedy is that much violence comes from a demand for love. When loneliness drives our search for love, kissing easily leads to biting, caressing to hitting, looking tenderly to looking suspiciously, listening to overhearing, and surrender to rape. The human heart yearns for love: love without conditions, limitations, or restrictions. But no human being is capable of offering such love, and each time we demand it we set ourselves on the road to violence.

How then can we live nonviolent lives?

[henri nouwen]