Learning from the Crowd: A Holy Week Reflection on How We Turn Against Jesus

[This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance blog two days ago as part of their special Holy Week Series.]

I remember learning as a child in Sunday school about how the Palm Sunday crowd welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem with great enthusiasm and anticipation. It never really made much sense to me how they could turn on him so much in just a week’s time, but I was too young to strongly question this. When I got older, I suppose I just stopped thinking about it. All that mattered is that I had been taught “the gospel,” namely, that even though we are fickle sinners just like the people on Palm Sunday, God sent Jesus to die for our sins on the cross. Well, I’ve since discovered that “how they could turn on him” really matters, and so I think it’s worth revisiting what “the crowd” during Holy Week teaches us about this gospel claim.

First, that God sent Jesus:

It is crucial to remember that before sending Jesus, God sent others. There’s a story behind the story. Most importantly for Jewish memory, God sent Moses, through whom God liberated Israel from slavery and gave to them the Law. This was their primal narrative. Life in Egypt was marked by the politics of oppression, much like in Rome. Pharaoh’s gods were at the head of the religious establishment, which was synonymous with economic affluence. Like the ancient Israelites, first-century Jews were subjected to the emperor’s reign of domination and awaited one who would “command peace to the nations” (Zech. 9:10).

The Israelites began to forget where they came from, that they were once slaves in Egypt. They started looking more and more like the Egyptians themselves. After Moses, God also sent the Prophets. They had to issue a warning. Liberation from slavery is a good thing – the most original meaning of the word “salvation” – but it can so easily develop into a new form of tribalism and violence. Their fear and anxiety led them to desire once more the security of Empire. They wanted their own king and kingdom. Before long, this also meant they needed their own slaves. In other words, the formerly oppressed were becoming the oppressors. Israel was being recreated into the image of Egypt:

“[Jerusalem] that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her – but now murderers! Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves as bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them” (Isaiah 1:21b, 23).

Jerusalem was “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34). Making his way to Jerusalem, Jesus knew though that the “chief priests, the elders and the scribes” neither wanted nor understood his sort of peace. This is why “[a]s Jesus drew near and saw Jerusalem, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes’” (Luke 19:41). Unlike Pilate’s triumphal entry on the west side of town, Jesus processes on a donkey, with no army behind him, and no news of conquest. While they’re not sure what to make of this, the people still chant, “Hosanna!” Maybe he really could be their deliverer…

Second, To die for our sin:

During Holy Week, we see in Jerusalem the same social system that was condemned by the prophets, the same one that Jesus confronted, and the same one that killed him. Like the prophets before him, Jesus was engaged in the dangerous business of challenging the Jewish high-priestly collaboration with imperial control. His teachings about the Kingdom of God were perceived as, and in a real sense were, a threat to the political and religious establishment. The day after Jesus’s arrival, he harshly and publically criticizes the temple and its complicity with the system of Roman exploitation in yet another street theater-styled demonstration – by driving out the buyers and sellers. This was an extraordinarily adversarial act.

Palm Sunday signals the beginning of the recurring journey of God’s people from Exodus to Exile – in one week. In first-century Jerusalem, the jobs of the high priest Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate were tricky and difficult. They had to both please Rome and quell the frustration of the Jewish people so as to prevent civil unrest at the same time. Was this the same crowd as before? Some scholars doubt it, but this wouldn’t change the lesson. The crowds did not really understand who Jesus was. They had seen him perform signs and wonders, but his teachings were scandalous. Just like the Israelites wandering in the desert, they were still scared because of their insecure material circumstances and easily swayed by the influence of their society’s scheming leaders.

When we figure out that Jesus is not going to give us what we want, and not in the way that we want it, whether we’re in a position like Pilate or the crowd, we easily turn against him. This “turning against” is the opposite of belief and repentance. It’s that tendency in all of us to let the ego take over, to be driven by fear, shame, and anger, and to close off our hearts. It is because of (“for”) the crowd’s sin of “turning against” him that Jesus dies.

Finally, on the cross:

Caesar, called “a son of the gods,” and “lord,” brings peace through conquest and the cross. Jesus, the Son of God, and Lord, brings peace by bankrupting conquest and the cross. Walter Brueggemann says this about the cross in The Prophetic Imagination:

“The cross is the ultimate metaphor of prophetic criticism because it means the end of the old consciousness that brings death on everyone. The crucifixion articulates God’s odd freedom, his strange justice, and his peculiar power. It is this freedom (read religion of God’s freedom), justice (read economics of sharing), and power (read politics of justice), which break the power of the old age and bring it to death” (p. 99).

Thus, the twofold theme of Holy week is this: radical discipleship in an unjust world means following Jesus 1) to a place of non-violent confrontation with the powers of domination and exploitation, and 2) on a path toward personal transformation through death to self (“deny themselves . . . and follow me.” – Mark 8:34). For “death to self” is basically open-heartedness that extends forgiveness even to enemies, just as Jesus extends it to the rulers and fickle crowd that shouts, “Crucify him!” In truth, we are all like the rulers and the fickle crowd.

In our post-Christian culture especially, but in any culture, the appropriate response to Jesus’s week in Jerusalem is not a proud victory cry that rushes to Easter morning for relief from a guilty-conscience and the fear of punishment. Nor is it for bold propositional assertion about the “truth of our belief.” But this is what we’ve frequently made it. Instead, for Holy Week, the charge to churches is bold embodiment of and deep trust in Jesus’s alternative practice of peace – not Caesar’s – one that is both humble and subversive, that liberates us from anxiety about worldly security and false narratives of certainty and instant gratification.

Only then will we be close to loving our neighbor.

Transcendence or Transimmanence? Theology for Critical Movements of Resistance

This is a recently updated excerpt from a response I wrote (here is the original) to Mark L. Taylor’s powerful and creative paper on the subject of mass-incarceration, “Sing it Hard,” (see a more recent edition of the paper here) for a forthcoming publication with Orbis Books based on the Claremont Graduate University conference, “What are the Most Compelling Theological Issues Today?” held in April of 2012, edited and compiled by Anselm K. Min.  What I’ve included below is only a drafted portion of my response — and not my review of the essay itself, which has also been significantly revised — that considers the differences between and adequacy of a traditional theology of “transcendence” and Taylor’s appropriation of Jean-Luc Nany’s ontology of “trans-immanence,” respectively.  For context then, it may be helpful for those interested to familiarize themselves with the links above.  Basically though, to put it in very crude terms, I think the difference comes down to whether one has faith in a real God that is active in the world and evokes worship — i.e., A God who is transcendent and “personal” — or not (transimmanence).

The notion of transimmanence denies that the “unlocking of the world’s continual unfolding of itself to itself,” or opposition to “those structures that would lock it down [in its] place” need reference a transcendent God. But then transimmanence, as Nancy has it, is necessarily an open immanence, not a closed one.[i] In fact, it is resistance to closure, and as such constructive and surely a viable concept for thinking resistance. Transimmanence for Nancy is conceived as “ex-positional through the arts, works to clear passage ways, moving deftly, creatively, to make place(s) and space(s) of world.”[ii] It “names within Nancy’s project the dynamic, ceaselessly flowing sense of the world, liberating world continually into itself, evolving and revolving into even more textured and artfully ex-posited complexity . . . a ‘revolt of bodies’ toward ‘freedom.’”[iii]  Nancy’s transimmanence is “not simply a matter of having done with both . . . Nancy, instead, strikes a neither/nor to transcendence/immanence, recasting both in the discursive milieu of transimmanence,” with art as its supreme expression.[iv]

Transimmanence further connotes a dialectic with transcendence, though the latter is not a necessary precondition for thinking the former. At this point one may be left wondering what ontological role, exactly, transcendence really has, other than as that which, while referenced, is refused and declared a failure.  Like Laclau, “Nancy’s refusal is a deliberate working amid the ruins of transcendence.”[v] Transimmanence, then, is a crossing, but only to another world “within.”  While the intention in transimmanence is not to accent pure immanence, or to think “world” as opposed to “God,” the account may leave some less than persuaded of this. A synonymous concept to transimmanence might be “non-reductive immanence,” but this hardly equals “neither immanence nor transcendence.” [vi] For transimmanence remains immanent, and transcendence is still repudiated. Thus, a question arises for me here: Once on a totally immanent plane, despite being able to traverse, slide, or pass through it, does one not suffer from having to choose between saying either too little or too much – too little because human efforts to achieve their ideals are futile, and too much because, when means for striving to achieve these ideals are absolutized, the cost to human life is often immense?

In his book, Critica de la Razon Utopica, Franz Hinkelammert makes a distinction between transcendental imagination and transcendental concepts that may be instructive. Transcendental concepts, for Hinkelammert,

“begin with the objective social relations between subjects and take them to the limits of concepts of institutional perfection. Transcendental imagination, in contrast, begins with the effectively experienced mutual recognition between subjects, [and] transcendentalizes them in a situation of perfection. In the face of the rigidity of the perfect institutions there appears the fluidity of great joy.”[vii]

Transcendental concepts are conservative by nature, always working from within the limits of the present political apparatus for the transformation of society. The transcendental imagination, however, is critical of the prevailing structure, because it “places human subjectivity at the core of what is possible, which, in turn, relativizes institutions.”[viii] Consequently, utopian imagination is like a transcendence from below, which believes that the world can be different, and “emerges from alternative concrete experiences, bring[ing] with it what the biblical tradition calls a revelation.”[ix]

The notion of transimmanence may seem near to the idea of transcendence from below at first glance, but whereas transimmanence denies divine transcendence, I find in God’s otherness tremendous recourse to both criticism of oppression and energy for opposing it.  Until now, though, this analysis risks conflating the political and theological. While inseparable, for clarity purposes I propose a distinction between political transcendence on the one hand and God’s transcendence on the other. Concerning political transcendence, the employment of transimmanence may both resonate with and be enhanced by what Rieger, Miguez and Sung argue in their work, Beyond Empire – namely, that transcendence should be humanized, but not immanentized. For Sung in particular, the question is less about whether transcendence, but which, and how much such transcendence says human beings can achieve for themselves – that is, how realizable their utopia is for a given transcendental horizon. Eschatologically and politically, Sung understands transcendence, as utopia, to be an essential dimension to all human belief and life. According to Sung, that

“we cannot think and live without a utopian horizon that provides meaning for our journey and measure and norms for interpreting and judging reality and also the recognition that our utopia, however desirable it may be, is not realizable in its fullness, are fundamental conditions for our reasoning not to be lost in confusion and not to be carried along by the perversions and sacrifices imposed and demanded in the name of a the full realization of utopia.”[x]

For theorists Hardt and Negri, as with Nancy, “Empire” itself is described as thoroughly immanent. Empire is the nature of the “soft” power of capital in contrast to the overt dominance or “transcendence” of the nation-state, according to Hardt and Negri. Sung retorts, however, that Hardt and Negri have misdiagnosed Empire, and it’s possible Taylor has done the same with the carceral state. In other words, maybe the specter of systems of domination and exploitation are too pervasive and ideologically “transcendent” itself – albeit a false transcendence – to be offset with mere transimmanence. Maybe a robust and imaginative eschatology could make the specter less haunting and expose its futility. But this is still to speak of political transcendence the historical or horizontal, as it were. I now turn to theological transcendence.

For Nestor Miguez:

If Jesus the Nazarene is, somehow, the presence of the transcendent in the everyday world, of the universal God who is expressed in peculiarity, of the absolute incarnate in the temporary and limited – that is to say, shown as the material – and, moreover, the creator of the human exhibited on the cross as the dehumanized of the system, this marks one complete break between glory and human wisdom (which reaches its culmination in Empire) and glory and divine knowledge. But this break is not in the distinction between the transcendent and the immanent, between faith and politics, because the transcendent is included in the immanent, but in its most oppressed way – he became a slave… (italics added).[xi]

Appreciating the historical, political and social dimension of Jesus’s ministry and death is essential for stirring a counter-carceral Christian theology.[xii] The danger of ideological abstraction from the concrete significance of Jesus’s death cannot be overstated. It is no exaggeration in my estimation to assert that, without embodying Jesus’s own adversarial resistance to dominative structures, the gospel message itself will be misconstrued. Furthermore, the mere establishment of a liberal community of difference and tolerance would also miss the mark.

Having said this, is it not also true that the greatest power of Jesus’s life as a critique of the political and religious establishment is principally derived from the early Philippians hymn about the incarnation of divine transcendence in the immanence of a human being? To be sure, as Miguez maintains, the transcendent must make itself accessible to the immanent and from the immanent. This is why I have employed the terminology of transcendence from below. But the immanent would cease to be immanent if it could transcend itself, which is what seems to be proposed in the idea of transimmanence.

If, traditionally, transcendence and immanence only have a binary relationship, and if the objective of credentialed theology is primarily directed toward organizing doctrine, the church, and human life in reference to the transcendent Other, then I join others who wish to abandon the enterprise. If transcendence inhibits creative, artistic expression and its coming forth from the liminal realm of agonistic politics – that is, from the subalterns who experience and bear most intensely the weight of the world and the full force of socially imposed suffering[xiii] – then I too want little to do with it. As I see it, though, a notion of transcendence restricted to the immanent plane is not inadequate, but less adequate, by comparison, to infuse and ultimately sustain the energy and vitality of counter-hegemonic movements. This is true for the victimized and their communities, but even more so for those benefiting from privilege who would be hailed (Dussel) to participate in the trials and liberating struggles of those haunted by the specter of the penal state.

As already suggested, rather than making a tired evaluation of eloquent and promising politio-historical readings of the gospel, which I applaud as subversive, incisive, and inspired, I simply hold that a transcendent reference may remain even more potent for kindling critical movements of resistance. Discard the perverse forms of transcendence, yes, but not what is so central and enlivening to the tradition that has incited great resistance throughout history, even if it has also been co-opted and abused. Genuine transcendence is not the cause of Christendom, colonialism, neoliberalism and the like. On the contrary, it may be the best source for challenging these things.

Most appropriate, then, I submit, is neither the rejection of divine transcendence nor an immanentization of it, but a critique of its distorted expressions – those that reinforce or ossify the status quo of power relations and neo-colonialism, most notably in the form of mass incarceration. This includes both conservative neoliberal (anti-)utopias and religious ideologies that cease to be liberative. The fundamental problem with such ontologies, I would urge, is not that they appeal to transcendence, but that they are closed off, totalized and risk-averse. Transcendence doesn’t have to mean “outside.” A critical transcendence, from the “below” of the crucified, does find its hope in the divine “beyond,” but not because this divine is guaranteed to save us from our social apathy or material irresponsibility. Nor is the beyond an invisible hand that reckons necessary sacrifices (capitalism’s “creative destruction”) of other people’s well-being and bodies disposable to serve the interests of the elite few. The “from beyond” of transcendence is precisely what guards against the common human mistake of putting too much stock in what can be accomplished “from here,” and by our own power, within history. At the same time, the paradox of faith and politics is that radical love and liberating justice for “the wretched of the earth”’ (Fanon) must be courageously sought in the midst of tragedy and in the face of an uncertain future.

For Christians, the depth dimension of this mission flows from God through Christ, as a power beyond history, experienced in history, in solidarity with history, making a critique of history, and giving hope for history. Hence, what should be opposed, theologically speaking, is not divine transcendence, but conservative, neoliberal utopias, which is the type of transcendence that has indeed failed and come to ruins. Is God’s attribute of transcendence an inherent and inalienable part of revealed Christian doctrine? I think it probably is.  So yes, even if it were a bad idea, it would be difficult to challenge.  But on the other hand, is the God of the poor and the oppressed a failed transcendental signifier? Maybe so; one can only answer in faith, and admittedly, simple, traditional rejoinders will not do.  At the same time, I am not sure that the right criteria for Christian theology is a straightforward calculus of political feasibility.  I can say this though as one who still trust that Christians can live into their faith in such a God as cause for renewed hope and strength to rise up and “sing it hard.” For this God, Christians profess, whose character was revealed in a poor, self-sacrificing, executed Hebrew Nazarene, judges the proud and gives grace to the humble.

It was a resurrection eschatology that at least partly empowered Paul and other early Jesus followers to live so boldly for their faith, and with such a counter-narrative to the “lockdown” anti-utopian spirit of Rome. The story of the risen Jesus instilled courage for confrontation with death and suffering. Once more, it seems to me that the problem is not with transcendence per se, but what kind. There are hegemonic and counter-hegemonic theologies of transcendence. Whatever else resurrection means, it is the promise of a future in God for victims. In Sung’s concluding words, “where the reduction of immanence is avoided, there appears the potency of the eschatological claim, of the meaning of justice (Phil. 2. 5-11). To renounce the transcendent is to be left with no standpoint for the radical critique of history.”[xiv]

To stress once more, the claim here is not that transimmanence is an inept concept as far as it goes.  Thus, there may well be defensible grounds for a transimmanent ontology, but insofar as these grounds depend on the conspicuous advantage of transimmanence over a critical and christologically-rooted transcendence from below, I would consider it a hasty dismissal of what the Christian theological tradition has to offer.

[i]B. C Hutchens, Jean-Luc Nancy and the Future of Philosophy (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), 167.


[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi]Mark L Taylor, The Theological and the Political: On the Weight of the World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 184.

[vii]Franz J Hinkelammert and Juan Antonio Senent de Frutos, Critica de la razon utopica (Bilbao, Spain: Desclee de Brouwer, 2002), 343.

[viii]Néstor Oscar Míguez, Joerg Rieger, and Jung Mo Sung, Beyond the Spirit of Empire: Theology and Politics in a New Key (London: SCM press, 2009), 122.

[ix]Ibid., 123.

[x]Ibid., 118.

[xi]Ibid., 196-7.

[xii]Mark L Taylor, The Executed God: the Way of the Cross in Lockdown America (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2001).

[xiii]Taylor, The Theological and the Political, 7.

[xiv]Míguez, Rieger, and Sung, Beyond the Spirit of Empire., 200.

I’d Rather Be Christlike Than Biblical

Originally posted on Cataclysmic:

A modest proposal: evangelicals should stop using the word biblical as an adjective and intentionally replace it with the word  Christlike .

Why? Because if we don’t become more careful with our words, we are in serious danger of “winning a culture war, but losing a generation.” Words have power. The specific words people choose to use in a conversation are packed with the potential to shape the outcome of a certain question or discussion. For instance, consider the difference between calling certain actions torture or enhanced interrogation techniques or the implications that come with labeling something war or genocide. In the case of evangelicalism, I think that choosing our words more carefully might be one way out of the mess we currently find ourselves in.

How will an an adjective-replacement project help evangelicals be faithful to the Gospel? Well, simply imagine how this might have changed the rhetoric surrounding the recent World…

View original 434 more words

Striving for the Good in the Face of Uncertainty: The Paradox of Faith and Politics in Kierkegaard and Niebuhr

Below is a description of the paper I will be presenting for the Kierkegaard and Niebuhr groups’ joint-session at the American Academy of Religion Annual Conference in San Diego this November:

In her book Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law and Democracy, Bonnie Honig has contended contra Carl Schmitt, that both sovereignty and the state of exception need to be de-exceptionalized and dispersed back into the hands of “the demos.” For her, exception and emergency are part of even the most ordinary and everyday political processes, and human agency is always involved in interpreting, augmenting or even suspending the law in its administration. In this paper I propose to discuss and show how the thought of Soren Kierkegaard and Reinhold Niebuhr can aid us along toward the aim of reconceiving the power of democracy and social progress in human history for a political theology that is neither despairing nor presumptuous in striving for the good.

The paradox of politics for Rousseau was the question of which comes first, good people or good laws? That is to say, how can a democracy be legitimate when the legitimacy comes from the democracy itself which is to be founded? Moreover, there is always the problem of delimiting the people and deciding who speaks for them. It is never a fixed entity, and certain groups are always excluded.

But democracy cannot be reduced to merely the rule of law or the extension of rights to new constituencies. Instead, by recognizing the power of the role of the people in mundane political procedure, we can celebrate the potential for the disturbance of existing institutions and practices. In order to do this, however, there must first be an acknowledgement of a place in democracy for the suspension of existing laws and norms, only this place is no longer that of the sovereign, as Honig argues, but in the subjectivity of individual political actors and their orientations toward the possibility of a “miracle.”

For Kierkegaard, without risk, there is no faith. And so it is in society with the emergence of opportunity for change or progress. The Danes of Christendom much like citizens in our time would prefer to proceed by merely “knowing” the truth, not resolutely striving toward it with exceeding interestedness. Socrates put faith in the good and even sacrifices his life for it, but Climacus only saw this as “Religiousness A”, as the highest example of the ethical stage of existence – not because Socrates’ subjectivity lacked passionate inwardness, but because the object of his faith itself was not paradoxical. Everything that Socrates needed to learn, he thought, came from within, and from recollection, rather than from outside or beyond. As Niebuhr would say, for Socrates, a Christ was not expected. But as Kierkegaard has it, the place from which our faith comes is precisely infinite and paradoxical, both in its nature and in what it promises.

The point is that a miracle can only occur if the people are prepared for it.  In other words, it is not solely depend on the infinite but also on finite receptivity. Miracle here does not refer to the norm-exception binary that commands and compels attention, but instead is thought to be one that with subtlety solicits a response. Those who want to receive the signal, to witness it, have to first be open to its possibility. This openness requires preparedness and the cultivation of a certain orientation toward divinity, as well a periodic collective gathering. Democracy is much the same way. When democratic forms of life are interrupted by emergency, well prepared subjects may experience the chance to respond democratically, that is, in faith, to gather and to mobilize for the protection and expansion of the values of the collective.

Socrates’ ethic not only lacked room for a miracle (revelation), but he also could not account for Kierkegaard and Niebuhr’s conception of human sin and guilt. What stands in the way of the potential for this gathering and mobilizing on the part of the demos is the paradoxical combination of human freedom and limitation, analyzed so well by Kierkegaard and later appropriated by Niebuhr into the realm of social ethics. As both finite and free, human beings have natural limitations but infinite expectations and pretensions, which leads them to become self-conscious about their insecurity and hence creates anxiety. Anxiety inclines the people to seek their own certainty and security, which is always insufficient, to the detriment of assuming agency for extending new rights to new constituents.

What Niebuhr does is creatively reimagine the place of finite and free human beings in society in accordance with the dialectical relationship between God’s justice and love. In this respect, he is thoroughly Kierkegaardian, but in a socio-historical fashion. Niebuhr has a more optimistic outlook on so-called natural theology than Kierkegaard, but is equally realistic about the limits placed on political progress as a result of humanity’s sinful condition. In this way, they both hold fast to faith in the face of objective uncertainty — Kierkegaard individually, and Niebuhr politically. The paradox politically speaking for Niebuhr, however, is between striving to realize proximate justice within history on the one hand, by resisting the temptation to unreservedly push forward and expect human fulfillment of a justly representative society without remainder on the other hand.

Niebuhr says it like this in Nature and Destiny: “The final majesty of God is contained not so much in [God’s] power within the structures as in the power of [God’s] freedom over the structures, that is, over the logos aspects of reality. This freedom is the power of mercy beyond judgment. By this freedom God involves himself in the guilt and suffering of free [human beings] who have, in their freedom, come in conflict with the structural character of reality” (p. 71). The agape of God, which is the paradox of God and of politics, is thus at once the expression of both the final majesty of God, as Niebuhr calls it, and of God’s relationship to history. So it is from faith in the tenuous and risky relationship between humanity, God and history, constituted by the paradox of agape, I will argue, that Kierkegaard and Niebuhr illuminate the horizon upon which historical-political subjects can strive for the good.

Leveling the Field: Rohr on “Subverting the Honor/Shame System”

I’ve always thought the story of the woman caught in adultery is one of the most powerful in the whole Bible, and perhaps the most illustrative of Jesus’ posture toward sin and forgiveness (and for Christians, therefore God’s “posture” as well).  Here Rohr touches on the key points, which I take to be basically encapsulated by the paradox of “there is no condemnation/go and sin no more”:

Some form of the honor/shame system is seen in almost all history. In such a system, there is immense social pressure to follow “the rules” (almost always man-made). If a person doesn’t follow the rules, they are not honorable and no longer deserve respect. And anyone who shows such a “shameful” person respect is also considered dishonorable. (A certain US president, and one Pope, could not even talk about people with AIDS, much less help them.

Jesus frequently showed respect to “sinners” publicly (John 8:10) and even ate with them (Luke 19:2-10; Mark 2:16-17). In doing so, he was openly dismissing the ego-made honor/shame system. He not only ignored it, he even went publicly in the opposite direction. That preachers and theologians have failed to see this is culpable ignorance.

When Jesus was confronted with the dilemma of the woman caught in adultery, he masterfully leveled the playing field of the “honored” and the “shamed.” To the men accusing her, he said, “Let the one among you who is guiltless be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7), and to her he said, “I do not condemn you; go now, and do not make this same mistake again” (8:11). What a marvelous consolation for people in all of history who have felt shamed or put down or defeated by others! Yet Jesus holds us to personal responsibility for our actions, too. This should please every fair-minded person.

At the same time, it was an opportunity for the self-righteous accusers to face their own darkness, their own denied and disguised faults. Hopefully they would learn from their ego humiliations. Truly holy people are able to embrace their failings and have no illusions about being better than other people.

Adapted from Francis: Subverting the Honor/Shame System and The Path of Descent

Willard on How We Insulate Against Real Change of Life

Paul and his Lord were people of immense power, who saw clearly the wayward ways the world considered natural.  With calm premeditation and clear vision of a deeper order, they took their stand always among those “last who shall be first” mentioned repeatedly in the Gospels.  With their feet planted in the deeper order of God, they lived lives of utter self-sacrifice and abandonment, seeing in such a life the highest possible personal attainment. 

And through that way of living God gave them “the power of indestructable life” (Heb. 7:16) to accomplish the work of their appointed ministry and to raise them above the power of death.  During their lives, they both were men of lowly and plain origin and manner, when compared with the glittering and glamorous ones who dominated the world’s attention.  So most of their powerful contemporaries could not possibly have seen either of them for who they were.  Nor can we, until we have begun in faith actually to live as they lived.

But today we are insulated from such thinking.  Our modern religious context assures us that such drastic action as we see in Jesus and Paul is not necessary for our Christianity — may not even be useful, may even be harmful.  In any case, it certainly will be upsetting to those around us and especially to our religious associate, who often have no intention of changing their lives in such a radical way.  So we pass off Paul’s intensely practical directions and example as being only about attitude.  Or possibly we see in them some fine theological point regarding God’s attitude toward us.  In some cultural contexts Paul’s writings are read as telling us not to enjoy secular entertainments or bodily pleasures — or as commanding us to embrace whatever the current prudishness is.  We take something out of our contemporary grab bag of ideas and assume that that is what he is saying.  However, no sane, practical course of action that results in progress toward pervasive Christlikeness ever seems to emerge from such thinking.

The Spirit of the Disciplines, pp. 106-7

E. Frank Tupper on Reading with Second Naivete and the Priority of the Biblical Story

The story of Jesus is the decisive self-revelation of God; accordingly, the canonical Gospels, each distinctive, has priority.  Gospel primacy does not require an abdication of holistic critical consciousness, for the postmodern interpreter has a reflective commitment to the scriptures, contrary to a naïve precritical literalism or to modern “historical-critical” reductionism…

Second Naiveté

9780881462609In the second naiveté the interpreter “adopts provisionally the motivations and intentions of the believing soul. [She] does not feel them in their first naiveté, but ‘re-feels’ the in a neutralized mode, the mode ‘as if.’”  It is a re-enactment with sympathetic consciousness.  The interpreter suspends critical judgment and “re-reads” the text in naïve innocence, but rereading with a non-critical posture never corresponds exactly to reading in narrative innocence. Subsequently, the postmodern reader reactivates her critical consciousness — from subservience in the background — and attempts to account conceptually for the possibility of living in the symbols o the believer’s world.  Since the symbols indigenous to the world of the narrative cannot be abstracted from it, reading “as if” in the second naiveté enables the interpreter to appropriate the biblical symbol and the new possibility embedded in the narrative.  Only the retrieved symbol and the new possibility embedded for living in the modern world, which is inaccessible apart from reading with the second naiveté.  However, she cannot literally “suspend” critical judgment to reread the story, for only “the double reading” of the narrative with critical analysis intentionally subdued permits a literal reading.  She remains aware of the problems identified earlier but reads with genuine openness to a literal interpretation to enable her to discern its intrinsic symbols.  Thus bracketing out critical consciousness requires a double reading of the text with critical analysis held in the background but still alert to difficulties.

The Priority of the Biblical Story

Narrative theology essentially affirms the priority of the biblical story in its irreducibility and unrepeatability.  Hence, the interpreter does not find her story in a biblical story that can “use” for illumination.  Otherwise, the priority of her story encircles and comprehends the scriptural story, elevating her story above the biblical story. [This is the mistake of Bultmann, sometimes Tillich, and other modern readers in my view.] Rather, narrative theology intrinsically affirms the priority of the Biblical Story over the interpreter’s story: When the reader encounters an illuminating story, she relocates her story inside the biblical story, and it becomes the interpretive context for understanding her “story.”  The creative act of “living in the Biblical Story” enables her to participate in its narrative world…

Participatory narrative interpretation recognizes the similarities and differences in the narrative world of the story of Jesus and the modern world of the interpreter, which involves translating the perspective and conceptualization “from the biblical world” into “the idiom of the postmodern world.”  Beyond the literary, historical, and conceptual dissonance between the biblical world and the contemporary world of lived experience, therefore, the essentials of a biblical worldview must be distinguished from the relative elements in the ancient biblical worldpicture… 

The changing worldpicture not only applies to the new scientific understanding of the human situation, but also to the plausibility of thee interpretation of historical traditions of antiquity.  These historical traditions require a [I would say sometimes] nonliteral interpretation with a discerning critical consciousness in assessing their historical character.  Nevertheless, the relativizing of the ancient worldpicture does not exclude but allows for a particular worldview — a perspective on reality shaped through the self-disclosure of God.  Yet the changes in the modern worldpicture inevitably impact the configuration of a Christian worldview, for it must take into account postmodern scientific explanations to clarify “how” the world operates.  Since the first naiveté fails to distinguish worldpicture and worldview, the breakdown of the first naivete requires adaptation to the radical differences between the archaic biblical worldpicture and the essentials of the biblical worldview accessible through the second naiveté.  Contrary to the premodern and modern scientific interpretation, the biblical worldview can transcend the worldpicture of biblical antiquity.  The relative biblical worldpicture must not be confused with, but distinguished from, an enduring biblical worldview.

Greg Boyd on “The Real Jesus”

Originally posted on Abnormal Anabaptist:

Greg Boyd is doing a series at his church now covering the book of Revelation. I’ve read a number of his articles on ReKnew on the topic and have found them fantastic in framing Revelation through the lens of the gospels. Here’s a little clip from one of his recent messages. Check it out and go to Woodland Hills Church to listen to/watch the whole series to date.

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The Risk and Suffering of Love

This from Alan Hirsch and Mike Frost’s Faith of Leap: Embracing a Theology of Risk, Adventure and Courage, Ch. 3 (Interview here):

Learning to love, and therefore becoming mature, is no mean feat.  It requires putting oneself on the line and embracing the risk, even likelihood, of pain and suffering.  There is no way around this; St. Augustine is right when he notes in his confessions that every new love contains “the seeds of fresh sorrows.”  Our most perceptive thinkers have known this all along, and actually, except for the most sociopathic personality, we ourselves know this only too well.  We feel it every time we put our hearts on the line.  C.S. Lewis perhaps best captures this tragic element in love with these unforgettable words of insight and warning:

Love anything, and hour heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken.  If you want to make sure of keeping in intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal.  Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.  But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change.  It will not be broken; instead it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.  the alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation.  The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations [disturbances] of love is Hell.

To love is to suffer . . . and that’s probably why we generally don’t do it well.  Unwillingness to venture, plus a desire to be safe, holds us back from love.  To be sure, most of us do have a vision of what makes for a good life, and as believers we know that it involves growing in the love of God.  What we seem to lack, however, is the will to attain this good life of love. most of us prefer to skip over the pain and the discipline, to find some easy, off-the-shelf ways to sainthood.  Christian self-help spiritualities are a classic dodge of the real issues and manifestly do no produce maturity.  We do well to be reminded of the cost of shortcuts in Carl Jung’s penetrating statement, “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.”

Richard Rohr on the Importance of Law

I cannot think of a culture in human history (before the present postmodern era) that did not value law, tradition, custom, authority, boundaries, and morality of some clear sort. These containers give us the necessary security, continuity, predictability, impulse control, and ego structure that we need, before the chaos of real life shows up. It is my studied opinion that healthily conservative people tend to grow up more naturally and more happily than those who receive only free-form “build it yourself” worldviews. This is the tragic blind spot of many liberals and free thinkers.

Here is my conviction: without law in some form, and also without butting up against that law, we cannot move forward easily and naturally. The rebellions of two-year-olds and teenagers are in our hardwiring, and we have to have something hard and half-good to rebel against. We need a worthy opponent against which we test our mettle. As Rilke put it, “When we are only victorious over small things, it leaves us feeling small.” Cultures which do not allow any questioning or rebelling might create order, but they pay a huge price for it in terms of inner development. Even the Amish have learned this, and allow their teens the rumspringa freedom and rebellion, so they can make a free choice to be Amish. And most do!

Perhaps no one has said it better than the Dalai Lama: “Learn and obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly.” This also sums up Paul’s teaching about the law in Romans and Galatians!

Adapted from Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,
pp. 25-26


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