Friday, April 29, 2016

To Live and Conquer Death, or Overcoming Moralism through the Freedom of the Resurrection

*This is based off a transcribed lecture from John Zizoulas*

What is mankind's problem? Many theologians of the American Civil cult reduce it to a kind of moralism. In days past, it was a robust notion that involved proper, demarcated gender roles, the devilish "Protestant Work Ethic", self-will and thrift. Now, it involves an vague and impossible notion of tolerance, an idiotic sensitivity, and authenticity. While people might not call it such, our age is truly an age of moralism, of maintaining the unwritten rules of social conduct.

And yet, our era struggles with this proposition. The movies are filled with anti-heroes. This is more than the funny, cheeky, and ironic hero. Indiana Jones is vain, promiscuous, reckless, and mean-spirited. But he's still good. Deadpool and the up-coming Suicide Squad are the opposite. They are essentially villainous. Perhaps this explains the popularity of Donald Trump's personality. He doesn't care what you think, he's going to tell it as it is. There's a widespread embrace of a new ethic, and the howling cry of rejection, emanating from the passing guard and even the present Millenial generation that craves freedom.

As I've said elsewhere, this is a question of freedom. I think that's because freedom is the real hope. When the question is framed as such, moralisms melt away. Yes, I'm saying that good and evil as conventionally understood are, at the heart of things, irrelevant categories. But allow me to reconstruct an alternative.

If the issue is freedom then we have a major question: what do we make of life? The corruption of Man, the sin in him, turns Man towards rejecting life. While this manifests in all sorts of brutalities, mutilations, and debaucheries, the ultimate climax is suicide. It's rejection any notion of existing as it stands. Now, this is not the only reason why people kill themselves. Suicide can be an act of arrogant assertion of freedom. But it can also be a desperate cry for the very same.

As it stands, in this world, if one embraces life, if one accepts his existence as such, it invites pain. Despite rosy colored pictures of Pollyanna-esque stupidity, life is hard. Life is pain. This is the curse God leveled upon Man. Life became subject to the roaring of Death, creation was now opened to the slide into non-being. Life was now in a struggle with Death. Man, who was lifted up from the dust by His Maker, was now opened to the horror of return. Dust to dust, man lives scratching a living in toil and anxiety, God judged Man by turning Adam and his progeny into the death he invited into his soul.

Life was now marked by a cross, and it is such a cross that the Son of God sought to bear. God did not substitute Himself for Man on that instrument of death, rather Christ assumed what Man's life had become. Human life is bearing a cross. Christ's call to His disciples was not something radically new, rather it was self-consciousness about the curse.

But there was a substitution. As Athanasius said, God became Man, so Man could be come god. This is not a radical statement, but the glorious exchange. Man was now opened to communion with God through the only-begotten Son.

Life's pain was not to be born as the ontological root of life. The freedom to live is not to fall in love with pain for its own sake. This was the conclusion of the Stoic, and why that philosophical group remained so small. Between suicide and a courageous acceptance of life-as-pain, most people would rather muddle by and not come face to face with their own existence, the question of life and death.

Instead, Christ conquered Death. Mankind's role is to transcend over Death, not of his own strength but through the power of Christ, the power of God. It's in accepting life, in accepting the pain woven into This Age, that this pain can be transcended. The life of Adam is to be transformed into the life of Christ. In the twinkling of an eye, the whole creation will be transfigured, the dead will rise, and the remnants of This Age will come to a close.

Christians must embrace this reality. Our goal is not to think of good or evil. Rather, it's a question of freedom. If we choose life, the choice is to accept the conquest of Death, and that only comes through love. It was love that God displayed through joining us in our dust. The meaning of life is to love, and in this era it is a love that bears scars. Sacrifice accompanies love. As the Master said, greater love knows nothing less than this, to lay down your life for your friends.

This is the Gospel, the vanquishing of the social-order of Babylon and a return to a city not made by Human hands. Christ has overcome the question of good and evil, and has stopped the slide to non-being. Death is the enemy and Death is defeated. That's the Good News. Our turn to life is now opened to God's future of life and life abundantly. Meditate on this!

Friday, April 22, 2016

Christological Finitude, or Why We Need Horizons

William Stringfellow is one of the greatest prophetic voices of the 20th century. He had a great theological understanding of what Resurrection meant. That is, he understood it as more than life after death, but rather as life overcoming death. This is a deep truth that leads to understanding what a Christian is supposed to be. Stringfellow called this "vocation", namely being freed from the power of death to be a Human being.

However, I'm not sure Stringfellow truly understood what this meant. He got the form right, but his content was off. Stringfellow followed some of his contemporaries who were what we might called dialetical theologians. He thought pretty highly of Barth, but I think he was mostly enamored with the earlier Barth. There was a radical attack upon the presumptions of liberal Christianity. Liberalism was truly a collapse of God into Creation, an attempt to save Christianity from its "cultured despisers".

However, like other dialeticians, Stringfellow swung the other way. He emphasized the total alienness of God, the over-and-above that eclipses all categorizations. Sometimes this can sound like theological atheism, but the point is to attack all presumptions of Human knowledge and understanding. Stringfellow was truly concerned at the racist and arrogant stupidity that followed underneath certain liberal paradigms of social renewal. Stringfellow emphasized the Fall corrupted all of Creation, social institutions included. He accused Liberalism as being Pelagian, a belief that collective organization will right all wrongs.

He's right to critique, but his alternative seems wanting. Stringfellow emphasized the Humanity of Mankind, but sometimes he seems to disconnect the "Word of God" (his favorite phrase for God) from the Man Jesus Christ. Not entirely, but it's unclear what he means exactly. It's also unclear whether Stringfellow believed resurrection meant some kind of embodied return to life after the trial of death. He didn't like to talk about it because he didn't want to distract from the call to live now.

However, what Strinfellow failed to do is properly understand Humanity as it was through Christ. The dangerous, and beautiful, reality about the Christ event is the significance it has for Humanity, complete and total. As many Christians have understood, the series of events that began with the Incarnation transformed everything. This is the fundamental feature about Second Adam typology, the Old Man is transformed into the New. Christ overcomes the Fall of Adam. God conquers Death.

It is in this schema that talk of theosis enters in. This is a buzz-word in some circles, but I don't want to get into that. Perhaps I'll just say it's becoming what Man was intended to be. But it has to take the form of Christ, who crosses the boundaries both natural and unnatural. Our fallenness is conquered, but Mankind is also brought into perfection. In the Garden, Adam was made good, but not yet perfect, not yet mature. In Christ that maturity has come. Our fallenness is overcome and our destiny is made manifest.

But where Stringfellow errs is not seeing this vision of completion. For him, it seems Humanity is limited to the finitude of life in time. Now, Stringfellow saw time as a part of the curse. I don't think so. Rather time, now bound under sin and death, is also a created reality needing redemption, not escape.

I understand what Stringfellow wanted to do. He wanted Man, liberated by God in Christ, to celebrate his humanity. This is truly good. But we ought not to celebrate mundaneness in itself. This horizon is still too low. Yes, there's a joy in the small and simple things. But it's insufficient. We ought not try to content ourselves with finitude as we understand it. Instead, we need to see God's infinite upward call for finite creation. That we can rest in motion, drawn into the beauty of the light, transformed and always transforming.

The practical import of this should be obvious; Christians need to dream big. Every time we hear pettiness justified, or "it's Human nature" to explain cowardice, or we begin to believe that perhaps Man is bad all the way down, we ought to pause. It's a moment to repent. I've heard the Prophet Jeremiah's "The heart is wicked, who can understand it?" translated into "I'm a piece of shit, and so are you". This is a kind of anti-Christ.

I'm not saying to be optimistic. People do all sorts of horrible things, myself included. Rather, let us not rest in justifying it as the feebleness of Man's nature. We have a greater horizon before us. We are not to be judged this reality as some reified standard vis. Lutheran interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. Instead, it's a moment for joy.

Personally, I'm in a place where I'm simultaneously doing badly, and yet have never felt more alive. I'm caught in a flux of confusion and insanity, and clarity and hope. It has been over the past few weeks that I've really begun to hear the truth, played over like a symphony echoing through the fabric of creation. My own crimes cannot eclipse the depth of beauty, the glory of grace, that is held out before me. I will not remain as I am, and it is not of my own doing that this path is now before me. "When I am lifted up, I will draw all men to myself". This is the gospel.

As much as I love Stringfellow, his own solutions many times lack. The horizon of my own being must be constantly being lifted and glorified. Christ has redeemed the whole of Human nature, for you and for me. It sounds rather absurd, but this is a future, not of our own making, but given by God. No matter how much tragedy, no matter how much the powers of this world scheme and congregate, God will laugh at them. He has set His Chosen One on His Holy Hill.

We are weak and fragile creatures and we are finite. We will always be finite. But Christ has lifted up our finitude in ways that will continue to be transcended. As pupils dilate to receive more light, so may our souls dilate to see more of the Father of All Lights. Like the rest of the Creation, I am groaning for the sons of God. Let's not settle, but keep our eyes above. It's the only way to live in the present moment, knowing we truly have a future, much beyond the realm of death. We can marvel over the small things, because the Light illuminates them.

I do not reflect upon this enough, but I need to.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Light of Tabor: The Good News of being in becoming

The beauty of Light is due to the fact that is defies material classification. It is both a particle and a wave, a thing and a movement. In this way we might say that light has its being located in its becoming. As it moves it exists. It's an interesting thing to contemplate.

This is a stretch of a genealogy, but going through Aristotle, our Western notions of the World have remained relatively fixed. I'm not saying that this is not being overcome, and in some pretty substantial ways. What's occurring is what Thomas Kuhn referred to as a "paradigm shift". In terms of theology, T.F. Torrance argued that theology needs to return to its roots and reject the modern project. In scientific paradigms, he believed the Eisteinian revolution was eclipsing the Newtonian status-quo. Einstein allowed for flux and relativity in a way that crashed the stable, machine-like universe. Many Christians still argue from Modernist paradigms, even if they rejected the mainstream of Modernist conclusions. It's why there are so many blogs, centers, etc. about science in the Bible.

In my recent spate of posts I've made comments critical of "Western" this or that. This is a blog so I'm not being specific, but I'm not trashing all developments in Western Europe's philosophical, theological, and intellectual traditions. It's diverse and complicated. I am not anti-Plato, anti-Aristotle, or anti-Augustine, to name a few major figures. They offer some profound insights. What I do reject is the tradition associate with them. As stated before, I am in the process of rejecting Augustinian schemas for understanding God, the world, and ourselves. I have no interest of operating within the Augustinian orbit or defending it.

What I'm getting at is trying to articulate the true good that makes the gospel good. One issue to consider is the premise of limits. Now, as many good pessimists and cynics will snark, utopias are rather unworldly. Utopia is a place of paradise, an image of what could be. The point of Utopias are not to be believed as reality, but icons of a future to direct oneself to. To reject utopia is to, ultimately, crush the Human spirit. This is, in some sense, the bourgeoisie fantasy. This is a seed located in any discourse that defends the "Middle class". It's a controlled state of things.

This is why I've grown to dislike talk of already-not yet in terms of Christian eschatology. As the theology goes, we live in a penultimate state of overlapping worlds. The hope of paradise is tempered by the realities of this world. Thus notions of justice and peace need to be tempered to reflect a world still marred by sin. Of course, this is an Augustinian notion articulated from City of God and other collected letters from Augustine. It's also found in the Realist school of politics associated with Reinhold Niebuhr.

Despite how things seem, I believe theology still remains "queen of the sciences", even if it is ignored. This is not an ideal state, but a statement of fact. People operated their centers of knowledge from their understanding of "divinity". It may be rejected, or that divinity might be placed in strange and bizarre structures. This doesn't mean everybody's worshiping an idol or whatever. But what it does mean is that people function from some unstated starting point about the nature of things, even if its a pragmatic neo-Kantian rejection of metaphysics. Everyone's doing theology if it is anti-theist theology.

The Augustinian, particularly the Niebuhrian strain, has become secularized. It's present in notions about "Human nature" that operate as kind of tropes. The Millenial generation is exceptionally cynical. We might say they reflect a kind of Manichaean understanding of Human nature. There's some ethereal good present in the individual, but people are bad as their norm. This fits into the kind of cynical understanding of politics. Christians, by and large, continue to reflect this penultimate understanding of things. It's the building block of the mild Christendom of the early Middle Ages.

However, Augustine also described salvation as a kind of pilgrimage, from one city to another. Augustine was right, even if his theo-politics was confused and generally understood as very different. I used to be astounded that Charlemagne's favorite book was City of God. I thought to myself, he must surely never read it! That might be true, but I think Charlemagne was not an idiot and could understand major themes through the work. The Holy Roman Empire was, in many ways, trying to build Augustine's penultimate order between this age and the next.

But I want to reject Augustine's static vision and I want to stop talking about living in-between ages. The Bible definite speaks of two ages, but not in the way of overlapping. This is a paradigm applied to make sense of evil still present and the good Christ accomplished. What I want to talk about is a paradigm focused on eschatology. A new age has begun and creation is being transfigured.

I recall seeing a Roman Catholic priest with a Rabbi, and they believed they could get along based on their shared messianism. The only difference was number (one or two). This is utterly absurd, and should pull at the seems of so much already-not yet amillenial thinking. The Incarnation was the event, this was the promise of God's coming. Salvation has come and His name is Jesus Christ. The death, resurrection, and ascension is the act that makes this salvation a reality. Pentecost has occurred and has ushered in our participation into this new world.

Of course, the creation is a shambling wreck, and it hasn't changed since Adam's plunge into darkness. However, the Messiah's coming has changed it. The creation is being restored. History is not some meaningless flux of time, nor is it a necessitated chain upwards. In this way I reject post-millenial thinking as foolish and destructive, and pre-millenialism as confused. However, I reject most forms of amillenialism as developing a justified pessimism. Rather, the world belongs to Christ, and things are being transfigured. What all three views share is a sense that Christ is yet to be manifest, whether He hasn't come or His presence is cheap.

I would still identify as a kind of amillenial and even a kind of premillenial. There will be a future event where Christ reveals Himself with a trumpet shout and the dead shall rise. But the Kingdom come is a reality already present. We are being drawn into the depths of a glorious future. It's this future, Paradise, Eternity, the Christian Utopia, that ought to direct our thinking and all our actions. We ought to build our communities upon this vision of a world being transformed. And even when the dead are raised, this formation will not end. Creation's being is in becoming. Christ's parousia is not the End, except in the sense that those who continue to live according to an age that is dead will cease to be.

Let me say that this is what Origen understood so rightly, despite his inability to escape certain Platonic paradigms. Origen understood the flux of time as meaningful, even if misunderstood as being a kind of curse. Origen understood freedom as necessary to the Creation. In this way, God is always Creator, always resetting boundaries for the Creation, always being able to create greater flourishing. It is in this way we must understand good and perfect. Christ affixes Human destiny to His destiny and thus cancels the way down. Origen didn't understand this, and for this Origenism is rightly condemned. But Origen is one of the greatest Christian theologians. He truly struck the deathblow against Platonism, even if he still failed to overcome it. Origen was he who opened the way for the Cappadocians and Maximus to more faithfully explore the treasures of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We need to appreciate that the Kingdom of God is like Light, a here and a movement towards the Humanity Christ is. He is the First Fruits and we join Him, being transformed. The light that shone on Mt. Tabor, where Christ flashed white like lightening, is the destiny for all mankind. The light that radiates from His Person transforms us into His image, sparkling in true beauty. This is the utopia for all people, that no matter where they are,  Christians must not give up hope. Not for realism, not for pessimism, but to remain hopeful despite current conditions.

It's the weightiness of glory that ought to anchor the Christian. One's being is in becoming, and Christ has been made that path, moving man beyond the limits. God is Infinite is a proclamation that there is no limit that cannot be crossed, altered, or shattered. May the Light of Tabor, the glory of the Christ, open our eyes and begin to transform us into those who can hope for a better future and live in the present. May it make the depths of our hearts more compassionate, and stir our love for God and our neighbors as ourselves.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Epekstasis: Seeing and the Moving Infinity of Being

One of the most revolutionary concepts within Christian theology comes, indirectly, through St. Gregory of Nyssa. He was the youngest and most "mystic" of the three Cappadoccians, theologians in the 4th century who contributed much to articulating the Trinity. They are, by and large, forgotten in the West as their teachings were ignored for the much wider influence of Augustine. If one wants to understands the roots of Latin theology on the Trinity, one needs only to look at De Trinitate.

Gregory of Nyssa had the concept of 'epekstasis' buried in his work, something some modern readers have done work to dig out and recover. The notion is taken from a Pauline expression "Brethren I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead" (Phil 3:13). Gregory utilizes this term in a way to shatter the Platonic metaphysics of his day. Gregory seeks to find creaturely perfection, understood as a kind of "becoming like God", in an ever upwards movement towards God.

The notion is to free man from the impossible: namely the philosophical crave towards motionlessness. I think Gregory tapped onto both a biblical trend and something apparent in Human psychology. Now one might chalk this up to the nature of being in a fallen world, that we can't sit still because there's something wrong. But I don't see it that way. I think this sort of fidgetiness, this need to move, is something good. Perfection is then not the cession of movement, but it's permanent fixture towards the Lord of Life.

In contrast, Death is that cessation. One might say that latent in Platonic philosophy, and other streams, is a worship of Death, a state of utter tranquility and immovability. Such is obvious if you pay attention to Socrates' last speeches in the Phaedo dialog. When confronted with the option of suicide, his defense is only not to overturn the gods' decision to place the divine-like soul inside the corrupt and weak mortal flesh. It's hardly convincing, and yet casts a shadow over the world of Forms as really a world of Death.

Christianity has done this in many regards. As stated elsewhere (it's becoming a pet project to talk about it!), Heaven and Eternity have become flashy, metaphysically charged, celebrations of Death. I'm not talking about evaluating death as a journey or, more precisely, a battle that every man and woman must make. Rather, it's a kind of fascination and lust for erasure. Perhaps, it's a reason why the Roman church has such severe penalties for suicide. Within the system of Feudal life, purgatory seems like a much safer bet than toiling in the soil. It was a preventative for those who might take the theology too far.

Rather, endless movement has been condemned as Hell, vis. Dante's Inferno. I'm not saying Dante is a part of some conspiracy, rather the widespread currency of his views. Even amongst Western Infernalists, the most activity the Blessed commit is the Gaze. Whether it is looking in ecstatic awe upon God's essence, the definition of the Beatific Vision, or it's looking upon the tortures of the damned vis. Tertullian, Minucius Felix, or Augustine, looking becomes the most significant act. It's the eye's ability to freeze motion, a "snap-shot", that gives it a place of prominence in this theology.

I'm not disparaging the eye or the ability to see, on the contrary, it's a misappropriation of the eye to freeze images. The eye must act in concert with the ear which can only hear the rush of sounds and not freeze them in one's mind's eye (as the expression, fittingly, goes).

Rather, what I'm calling into question the very equation of life everlasting with a Death. That is the great secret of the Western Latin, as opposed to more distinctly Christian, theology. I'm not condemning all theological accomplishments in the West. Don't get me wrong. But the Platonic tradition has sublimated into the Western conscience to give it a priori distinction in defining terms. Yes, Thomas brought a popularized Aristotelian thought, but it was worked within the confines of structures already created. Aristotle, obviously, would be perplexed by what came of Thomism, Manual and Neo, and be baffled by doctrines of transubstantiation and purgatory. Aristotle was a court philosopher to Alexander, perhaps that explains some of the Popes over the years.

What Epekstasis does is free Man to live, a living that is in connection with what we do now, but also in a radical disconnect. The Resurrection is a restoration of the violent break of death, which, in Christ, has become a battle we are guaranteed to win. Resurrection is a promise of Life-Everlasting, a foundation to live life Abundantly, which means a movement always up and beyond. We will always be reaching ever forward. This is good news. I will continue why in my next post.