Barth on Jerusalem and Athens (Sect. I)

I have a certain kind of system for organizing evidence when I want to make claims about God, a kind of “christian epistemology,” if you will. I take the bible seriously but not ultimately seriously. That some proposition is asserted in the bible is only prima facie reason for thinking that it is true. Next up on the evidentiary totem pole is what is reasonable or rational to believe. And finally, the final say on some matter, the epistemological trump card is the burning bush, the experience of the Divine dictating some truth.

(This christian epistemology clearly doesn’t make sense for establishing God’s existence in the first place. But barring that issue, this is how I conduct my epistemic affairs.)

Today, I picked up Barth to try again for the 5th time to understand what the junk is going on in his massive Church Dogmatics. Surprisingly, I found his message clear and thought provoking. And his message essentially challenges my christian epistemology as I’ve outlined it above.

For Barth, talk about God (theology) has its own distinctive method and its own distinctive content. The method and content of God-talk is informed entirely by Jesus Christ. He determines the “basis,” “goal,” and “content” of our theological endeavors. Theology, thus, explains itself to no one:

“It does not justify itself before [any other science or philosophy]…as regard to method, it has nothing to learn from them.”

Barth’s view of theology, then, seems to just repose Tertullian’s question, “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?” Athens and its scientific-philosophical method and conclusions ought to have no bearing on God-talk.

What’s today? Monday? On another day perhaps, I would balk at such a statement. I would be much more on board for my way of doing God-talk, a way that I see as more holistic and more realistic. It is a way that says that “whatever is good, whatever is true, whatever is beautiful” should be claimed by the Christian. And more importantly, it is a way that says that the method of determining what is, in fact, good, true, and beautiful can itself be found wherever, including outside the Christian tradition. It says that God is bigger than Christianity.

But today is Monday and so, Barth’s suggestion has a certain appeal. Its a suggestion that is not unlike Kierkegaard’s. Kierkegaard sets up the same dichotomy between Jerusalem and Athens. More than that, he sets up an irresolvable and fundamental tension. The claims of faith will fly in the face of Jerusalem – and that’s the point. If Athens can make sense of God, then you aren’t talking about the kind of Thing-That-Transcends-Us anymore.

Even though (apparently) I’m having a Kierkegaard-Tertullian-Barth kind of day, there seems to be a problem with this proposal. The problem is that in our Christian texts, there seems to be a mingling of Jerusalem and Athens. Here’s an example:

30  Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31  but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Here we have a substantive epistemological presupposition: that miracles ought to engender belief in Christ. And as soon as your start presupposing things like that, you start doing philosophy, you start appealing to a standard that is not itself informed by Christ. And soon as you appeal to such a silly philosophico-epistmological standard, you, in this case, just invite David Hume to come in and wreck that standard.

Thus, if Barth is advocating that we take our texts as defining the basis of our God-talk, he also advocating that we take the (philosophical) standards that are appealed to in our texts as the basis of our God-talk. These standards, as Hume showed, cannot stand up to scrutiny.

But there’s no reason to interpret Barth this way. His claim is not that the texts be our basis but that Jesus be our basis. And this, perhaps, insightful, for it suggests that there’s a difference between paying attention to John’s gospel and paying attention to Jesus. It suggests, moreover, that the question that Tertullian should of asked is not “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?,” but rather “What does Jesus have to do with Athens?”

(And maybe that’s what he meant anyway. I’ve not actually read any Tertullian. It just seems like when people appropriate Tertullian, they do not make this distinction.)

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A Letter from Issafou

Yesterday, I receive a letter that passionately and poignantly convicted me of a crime that I was unaware that I was committing. It read as follows:

Dearest Sponsor,

I am writing you to express an emotion that I have recently come to feel towards you and towards people who are in your position. I am told that there is no word in your language for the emotion that I feel, and so I hope that by telling you how this emotion came about and by expressing some of the questions that it provokes, I will give you some idea of how I am feeling. It is my hope that if I am successful in conveying this emotion, lives will be saved.

The first inklings of this emotion were felt shortly after you became my sponsor. My family and I were overjoyed to learn that you had decided to support me. “Overjoyed,” is also a poor translation of the emotion we felt. This is a closer description: we finally felt that our lot in life was more than just to suffer. Before you became my sponsor, I lost two siblings to hunger and one to disease. My brother and I were receiving one meal a day, but winter was coming soon. We worried that our meals would not last through that season.

From what I am told about your world, it is unlikely that you will be able to relate to the experience of watching one of your kin slowly – and quite literally – wither away, so I will not bother to describe it. Similarly, from what I understand, it is likely that you have no experience of worrying that you will soon wither away just as your siblings have. Your imagination of these experiences will be sufficient, for these experiences and emotions are not the ones I am interested in conveying here.

Returning to my story, as we learned of your sponsorship and what it meant for our family, we wondered how it was possible that we could be blessed in such a way. The aid worker explained that some people in a far off country had enough to spare and that they had decided to share some of their excess with us. This was the first time I had heard of America, and I thought to myself, “America is a land of saints.”

I was quite curious about you and your America, so I asked the aid worker many questions about you and your people. As best as she could, she explained to me that America was a place where no one experienced poverty – or at least, not the kind of poverty we knew. She explained, moreover, that it was a place filled with tall buildings, that all children went to school there, that these children had the time and the means to play wonderful games.

My brother was fascinated by this description. He looked eagerly into the eyes of the aid worker, holding on every word. At first, I felt similarly. But as I listened more and heard about the ways of Americans, I began to feel that feeling that I’m trying to describe to you now.

Initially, I thought the feeling was jealously. I chastised myself and tried to forget of this emotion. I joined my family in their joy and forgot about the feeling, a feeling that clearly was not shared by anyone in my family.

I forgot about that feeling entirely for about 3 years. In the time that passed, many other families in my village had become sponsored. The village itself was coming a live again. Children were learning, instead of starving. Parents were working, instead of worrying. Seeing my village rise in this way gave me such joy; these moments were the best in my life.

One of the aid workers had arranged to show the children a movie. Solar panels had arrived the previous year, but just recently, we had received a television and a VCR. I can not remember what the film was called. All I remember is that, for the first, time I was presented with a true picture of the affluence lives that Americans enjoy.

All of the children were fascinated and talking amongst themselves.

And while they gawked at the accomplishments of a great people, I felt tears streaming down my face. The tears were only a part of the emotion that I am trying to tell you about now. The other part was the questions that I felt pressed upon me as I viewed images of affluence.

Why do they build such buildings while my people and I starve? Why do they spend money on a third pair of shoes while my people and I starve? How can they do these things and know that we are here and that we are in desperate need? Are we worth that little to them? Is our value not superior to that of a cell phone? Are we not more important than fancy cars? How is it that my sister could not compete with a Coach bag?

As I felt these questions pressed upon me the very VCR and television themselves became abominations, testaments to the choice of superfluity of some over the very lives of others.

How could they make such a choice?

Perhaps there were some, I thought to myself, who did not realize that in choosing superfluity, they were condemning us to death. This did not alleviate me of my feeling, for my emotion was not directed towards those who do not know of our plight or who have some knowledge of it but for some reason think that nothing can be done to aid us. My emotion was directed towards people like you, dear Sponsor, people who know that we are here and know that something can be done on our behalf.

Knowing that the affluent are an intelligent people, that they have many years of education, that they are a people who attempt to follow the dictates of reason, and that they may know something that I do not, I perhaps wondered if there was some smart “ethical” principle of which I was unaware that could excuse them for their behavior. But this did not console me, for the questions that expressed my emotion were not collectively asking, “Where is your reason?” Rather, my questions asked, “Where is your compassion?” And regardless, if some abstruse principle of reason permits the perishing of the impecunious, the perishing of my siblings, then my emotion compels me to ask, “What good is reason?”

Finally, I wondered if perhaps their religion permitted the poor to be treated in this way. I, after all, am a Muslim. We are taught to care for the poor. But I knew that you, dear Sponsor, are a Christian. I thought that perhaps Christians care not for the poor? But then I remembered a verse from your bible that we were taught in our schools, schools that are sponsored by people of your faith. The verse reads, “Whatever you do for the least of these my kin, you do unto me, Christ.” I remembered that Christians are people who love the Christ. But surely they do not think that they can neglect us and love the Christ? For, as the verse states, we are the least of these, and the least of these are the Christ.

And so you see, dear Sponsor, I am at a loss to explain your behavior.

Now you are in a position to see my emotion. I will use your English words to approximate it, but you know my story. You know that those words do no justice to what I feel:

I feel as though I must demand that you explain yourself. I feel a deep sense of grief for the needless deaths of my people. I feel a burning anger for your choices. I feel a frustrating bewilderment as to how you can make these choices.

My kin are too humble, too respectful, too loving to feel the way that I feel. So, I alone, in this letter, have spoken up. And if you understand the emotion that I have attempted to articulate here, if you have felt the questions as I have felt them, then you must know that you cannot continue making the same choices you have made in the past.

I, dear Sponsor, demand that you change your ways, for, as you know, people – and not just my people – will die if you do not.

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Why not a Practical Theology?

Today, I had the opportunity to spend some time reflecting on the future of the Church. It was deep stuff. Too deep, in fact, to be contained by a few minutes of  not-so-rigorous conversation. Hence, the continuation of my thoughts here.

It seems that any reflection on the future of the Church requires that we take a look at where she is now and how she currently relates to the world around her.

Things don’t look good from this perspective. The Church has seen a continual fall in attendance and membership. (Sorry, no citation on this stat. Just hear-say from several pastors and other folk.) This is likely because the Church can’t (or won’t) keep up with the cultural Jones’s, so to speak.

In preaching and in her rituals, she uses symbols that have become – or are becoming – vacuous to many. What does the cross mean to the 21st century man? It certainly does not mean what it meant to the earliest Christians. To be sure, for those who are rooted in the Christian, the cross has a quasi-similar meaning to the one it had to the early Jesus-folk, but our symbols must reach beyond our own traditions if we are to be “fishers of people.”

Remember, in this story, that Jesus enters the symbolic world of Peter, a fisherman. He uses symbols that are familiar to him as a fisherman. He does not ask Peter to step into a new world of symbols. Christianity, if it is to follow this example, must be predominantly without its own distinctive set of symbols. Instead, it must seek to constantly meet people where they are by appropriating the symbols of those whom they wish to “catch.”

To those on the outside, the cross is a symbol that belongs only to a certain people. It makes no (obvious) reference to anything they are familiar with in their current life. We uncritically slipped into doing the exact opposite of what we’ve seen Jesus do.

But the indifference to the Church that results from vacuous symbols is only one of her problems. And this is evident if we consider what the cross means to those who are not just on the outside of the Christian tradition, but to those who are hostile to it. To folk like Richard Dawkins, the cross points to the irrationality and immorality of a group of people who just might pose a danger for the rest of the world’s reasonable folk.

Some folk have responded to this indifference and hostility by (among other things) reworking the way that they talk about God, by reworking their theology. But it seems like the reworkings that I’ve observed always take a similar form: make the same kinds of (metaphysical claims) about the existence of God, heaven, etc. and just a) recast them with a set of symbols that are relevant to the culture or b) qualify them so that they seem less ridiculous to the rational inquiry of the 21st century man or woman.

To be sure, recasting claims with different symbols is, as I’ve already mentioned, a good thing. In fact, I think that new symbols are probably good enough for a lot of people to begin seeing the Church in a positive light.

But I’d like to question whether its really worth our time to qualify our claims so as to make them less crazy. Vast amounts of paper and time has been spent on this project. We’ve fought about evolution. We’ve fought about whether our metaphysical beliefs are rational. We’ve fought about the historical reliability of texts.

The effort we spend on our beliefs is not exhausted by fighting with those on the outside either. We spend much time doing “christian education” where we have to prepare our little Christian teenie-boppers to feel like they have a systematic belief system. Partially because of a festish, I think, for “supremely rational” worldviews and partially for the fights they will get into with folk on the outside. And partially, we must not forget, because its a good idea to critically examine what you think about stuff. (So, I’m not saying reason is unimportant. That would be silly. I’m saying its overemphasized.)

Is this really worth our time though? Children are starving. People are trafficked, raped, and abused. In the first world, we are often lonely and unattached to any life-giving community. We often stumble through our “modern” lives without ever actually getting that thing that we want most: true joy, elation, bliss, the realization that this life is beautiful and its worth living.

(To be clear, I’m not saying that all – or even most – people experience a profound emptiness or lack of joy in their lives. I only know that I’ve seen such lack of joy in my life and I’ve seen it (sometimes) in the lives of others. There may be plenty of folk who have found that sweet nector of life. There’s just not enough of them in my opinion.)

Clearly, if we Christians are interested in bringing heaven here, we’ve got some important stuff to do. So, instead of spending our time “figuring out what we believe” and finding out ways to make our beliefs seem less silly, why not just get rid of most of our metaphysical beliefs? Why not have practical theology?

To be clear, I am not saying that beliefs are unnecessary. Obviously, we need to believe certain things in order to make sense of our  Christian lives. I believe, as we’ve already seen above, that bringing heaven here is the most important task we can be engaged in. What I am suggesting is that the list of beliefs that we need to make sense of our Christian life is probably a lot shorter than we realize.

So, this is what I mean by a practical theology: let’s take our Christian practice as a given and ask, “What do we need to justify this practice?” Let’s articulate the beliefs that we need to justify the practice and just stop talking about metaphysics after that. Obviously, we will still need to talk about practical/ethical stuff.

But if we stop worrying so much about metaphysics, then we focus on the practical. We can focus on starving children, trafficked people, and the listless and blissless dweller of the 1st world.

This is, I think, a really different way of orienting our theology. It seems like the traditional way of doing theology is this: we make metaphysical claims. Then, we make epistemological claims. Our practices are corrolaries of our metaphysics and epistemology.

Here’s an example: God exists. God can kick our ass in hell. We know this “for the bible tells me so.” Ergo, love your neighbor.

I am proposing that we reverse our line of reasoning.

Instead of starting with God’s existence (metaphysics), let’s start with, “I should love my neighbor.” And then ask, “What do I have to believe to make sense of that practice?”

Such an enquiry, I think, would radically reshape our theology.

Do I need the virgin birth to think that loving my neighbor is a good idea? Do I need heaven? Or hell? Do I need angels? Or demons? Do I need a perfect bible? Do I need the trinity, that obscure doctrine that doesn’t make sense to anyone anyway? (Btw, that was actually the point of the trinity in the first place. To express a mystery.) Do I need Jesus to have performed miracles? Do I need a resurrection? Do I need a historical Jesus at all? Do I even need a metaphysically transcendent God?

Maybe. Maybe not. And we can repeat the same series of questions for all of our Christian practices. Do I need beliefs X, Y, and Z to think that going to church is a good idea or praying is a good idea or to think that justice in general is important or to recognize the value of worship?

This approach, I think, will also lead us to examine more closely what our Christian practices fundamentally are. What are we doing when we pray? What are we doing when we worship? When we practice lent? Or celebrate easter? It will lead, moreover, to the realization that some our practices and ethics are or can be, depending on how we understand them, in tension with one another.

In short, I am proposing that the fundamental question what we should ask in our theology is “What are we doing?” rather than “What do we believe?” When we start to ask this question, I think we will spend less time trying to make our beliefs seem less ridiculous and more time trying to understanding what exactly we are doing when we live this Christian life. And just maybe if we embark on a journey of figuring out what we are doing, we can do a better job of understanding and doing what Jesus told us we should be doing anyway: love God. love Neighbor.

But maybe this is a bad idea. Maybe there’s something that I’m confused about. Maybe this won’t actually help the Church in the future. Maybe – and more importantly – this won’t help bring heaven here. I’m not sure. And this is where I turn from my own private musings to you. This obviously looks like a good idea to me right now. But looks can be deceiving. Thus, the title of this post is a question, “Why not a practical theology?” I lay this propsal at your feet, dear reader. What say you? I am open to you calling bs.

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Darwall, Dignity, and Discipleship

Steven Darwall, in his book The Second Person Standpoint, writes,

A second-personal reason is one whose validity depends on presupposed authority and accountability relations between persons and, therefore, on the possibility of the reason’s being addressed person-to-person.

When we demand things of one another, we are providing a second-personal reason in the sense that Darwall talks about above. Now, according to Darwall, when we demand things of one another, we presuppose that the one whom we address our demands to can be reasonably expected to accept the demand. When folk fail to act in accordance with such demands, we can hold them accountable precisely because we have the authority to make certain demands and the folk whom we’re holding accountable should have accepted that authority.

I’m wondering if any of this has anything to do with the Divine.

God get’s mentioned a couple times throughout the book. God is specifically mentioned with regard to what is required for the imposition of genuine obligations. The point is basically this: If God just said, “Love me, or else,” then that would not create a genuine obligation for us to act. Instead, God’s addressing us would simply be coercion. In order for God’s demand to really produce an obligation, we must be able to hold ourselves accountable for seeing God’s demands as good and just.

This is already super interesting. It means that a divine command theory picture of morality just isn’t going to cut it. If, tomorrow, God decided that murdering puppies was the most moral act, this decision could not create moral obligations for us because we could not see ourselves as dousche-bags for failing to comply with the murder-puppies-order.

What’s today? Monday? Alright, today I’m down for a philosophy that puts limits on a divine command theory of the good. But there’s something that’s a bit bothersome about this particular way of constructing those limitations.

Before we get into that though, there’s another reason that this view of obligation is interesting. This view of obligation – and I just now realized this – can solve the problem that I raised here with my heretical soteriology. On this view of obligation, folk who are jamming in, say, the Amazon who are unaware are the Divine in the sense that they are unaware of the the dignity of human beings and who just, for example, beat their wives with machetes as a matter of course will not get a Divine ass kicking. (I learned that there actually is an indigenous group that does this in one of my psych classes.) And this does not imply any sort of relativism or cheap grace as I worried about in that post. Rather, these amazonian folk are excused since they cannot be expected to hold themselves accountable for the wrongs they are committing because of their way of life and system of beliefs.

What’s today? Monday? I’m less interested in the above result than I would be if today were a Tuesday, for the the idea that anyone is going to hell – and maybe even the idea that anyone is going to heaven – isn’t really making sense this Monday. And even as I write these words, that is changing. Yikes. Belief vacillation.

Looks like I’ll have to get the troubling aspect of the aforementioned limitations on Divine obligation another time.

 

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Mark 2: Comments, Questions, and Challenges

There’s a unity to this chapter that I’ve not noticed before. It contains 4 stories, all of which are about a question and an answer. The question, always posed by the “religious people” is this: Who do you think you are? Or, alternatively: What makes you think that you have the authority to do X?

Jesus’ answer: I am the Son of Man, the forgiver of sins and the lord of the sabbath. And I am the bridegroom, the…er…what exactly is that supposed to mean. There’s some cultural-historical piece that I’m missing here about the bridegroom. Here’s what one of the commentators suggests: Bridegroom = wedding. Wedding = celebration. Celebration = eat food (which rules out fasting). So, we should see Jesus as the marker of a time of celebration or something. Meh. Doesn’t exactly clench the exegetical issue, but its good enough for now.

Springing onward, we can see that the the who-do-you-think-you-are-question is one that arises in the context of a subversive someone challenging the conventions of the collective. The question, then, for me, as someone who desires to follow in the footsteps of that Subversive Sage, is this: how should I respond to the response of those whose wisdom is subverted?

(Side note: I’ve not been thinking very much about the subversive nature of the gospel. That’s kind of lame and I should get back on that. It seems like a productive way to find and escape those secret numinously noxious fumes that is the conventional air I breathe.)

Jesus’ response to the question in these instances is based in an appeal to his authority. Authority as a basic category of justification it seems is fast becoming a strange notion in 2012. Authority, these days, seems to be justified in virtue of some other basic reason. The government has authority only insofar as it represents that interests of its citizens well enough. Parents have authority only insofar as their demands respect fundamental moral claims and insofar as they (roughly) act in the interest of their kid. “Because I said so,” in other words, is becoming a less acceptable justification than before…or at least that’s how it seems.

There’s another notion of authority, however, that might be seen as kind of a short-hand for more basic reasons of justification. A person might have authority in virtue of their benevolence, knowledge, and assumed responsibility for some group of people.

Jesus responds to the pissed-off collective by invoking both forms of authority throughout the gospel of Mark. Here, we see brute authority. I am the Son of Man. Therefore, I am justified in doing X. This form of justification for action kind of makes me uncomfortable, and I think I know why its off-putting too.

It is because this form of justification is precisely what was going on with Abraham and Isaac. Abraham’s “authority” to kill his son was not derived from any other except that he was called to act in that way by the Authorizer.

On my more Kierkegaardian days, I’m okish with this view of authority (as ok as I can be given that it leads to the absurd conclusion that Abraham was a good guy for trying to off his son), which means that I should be ok with Jesus’ appeal to brute authority in these texts. Interesting discovery.

However, as I’ve already mentioned, Jesus does not exclusively appeal to this brute authority in his responses to the religious folk. Sometimes he appeals to what we might loosely call “reason” and “tradition-scripture.” Woah…I think there might be an epistemology implicit in the interaction of Jesus with the pharisees, an epistemology that I’ve just outlined.

I’ve been thinking about how epistemology is really important for Christians and for their ability to dialogue with one another. If an epistemology could be derived from looking at Jesus, that would be sweet…although there’s going to have to be some Christological issues that get worked out before that’ll happen.

I bet you Barth probably addresses all of this. I need to read that junk…

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Dancing with Death (part uno)

Most of us think we are going to die some day. I say “most” because some of us think that rather than dying, one day we are going to “wake up.” Some of us think that death is actually just a moment of transition to some higher reality, a reality where a bunch of sweet stuff happens and/or we get to jam with some deities or something. This tongue-in-cheek description of the after-life is not me being dismissive of it. On some days, I believe that this view of death might actually be correct.

But today I don’t think that. Today I’m one of those people who thinks that, one day, I’m going to die. Now, not everyone who thinks that they are going to die one day has actually felt that fact before. There’s a difference, I think, between knowing factually that your going to die one day and feeling the fact that your going to die.

I felt that fact one day back when I was still a teenie-bopper. And of all the places I could have first felt this fact, my first feeling of death occurred in the bathroom. Yep. Death sneaked up on me while I was on the toilet. I was sitting there doing my business and reading my favorite toilet literature and felt the fact that one day, I will cease.

I can’t quite describe how scary that feeling was, but I can say that I am glad I was already on the toilet. (Okay. Pardon the embellishment. I didn’t actually sh*t myself, but you get the point.) Anyway, after I starting feeling death bearing down on me, I thought about the fact that I was currently feeling: “One day, I will cease,” and somewhat redundantly I added, “And I won’t even be around to think about the fact that I am no longer around.” And again, feeling those facts was poop-your-pants scary.

The feeling wasn’t like a bogie-monster type scary. It was more like the scary feeling you get when you drop your [insert name of expensive smart phone here]. In that moment between the dropping and the smashing of your phone on the pavement, there is nothing you can do – unless you’re a ninja – to stop the fact that you are going to have a big ass crack in your screen; angry birds will never be the same again. The scariness of that situation is this: there’s this crappy thing that is going to happen and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. That’s the kind of scariness that feeling the fact of our immanent and ultimate demise can produce.

Maybe you’ve had a moment like the one I’ve just described, a moment where you first feel the fact that you’re going to die. Or maybe you haven’t and this whole rant just sounds weird to you. But if you haven’t had such a moment, you should probably stop reading now. For the rest of my ramblings, I’m just going to be talking about how I lived after that moment when death sneaked up on me while I was “in the John.” (Why is that slang for being in the bathroom?) And if you’ve never had an experience like that, you probably shouldn’t waste your time reading this. After all, you’ll be dead soon, and you’ve probably got more important things to do before that day.

So, after flushing the toilet, I decided that maybe this whole death-feeling-scariness-thing was probably just a side effect of that weird tasting hotdog I had at a kind of sketchy street-cart in kind of a sketchy part of sketchy town. I decided I should try and forget about the feeling (the fact) that I was dying.

Of course, I couldn’t forget about this death-feeling. It became a specter that haunted me in the spaces between the events of my day. In between 3rd period and lunch, I would be walking to the cafeteria and Death would just be chillin’ at the entrance of the cafeteria. He would give me this kind of gangster nod that meant something like, “I’m still coming for ya.” Or he would haunt me just when I was about to fall asleep. I would think to myself, “One day, you will fall asleep and not wake up.”

Now, I’m a Christian (on some non-standard definition of that term ’cause I’ve got some weird beliefs), so in those moments when death was hanging over my bed, I would pray. And sometimes, thank God, I would feel some peace. But other times, I wouldn’t feel that peace.

So, this became a problem. Apparently, God had other things to attend to aside from consoling me in my moments of existential pansiness. Or maybe my experience of existential angst was all a part of “the plan.” Or maybe God is just as dead as I’m about to be and that’s why I wasn’t getting a whole lot of help with this issue. Regardless, I was getting tired of Death continually bustin’ down doors and breaking into my thoughts. I was a teenager, and I had really important stuff to do, like catching ZZZs and updating my facebook status. I thought, “Geez, Death, give me a break here.”

Fortunately, after several years of encountering Death on various occasions, I think I’m finally making some progress in solving this problem, this problem of dealing with the feeling-fact of my death. To my more “post-modern” readers, that sentence marks a turn in these ramblings that will seem super lame. Mildly funny ramblings that aren’t terribly written are fine. But didactic ramblings? Ramblings that speak of progress? This is taboo.

Progress of the kind that I am speaking, in the post-modern world, is naught but an illusion, a social construction. We now know that progress is just a piece of meta-narrative that can not be justified from any “objective” perspective. Thus, I have no business turning these ramblings into preaching.

Maybe you think that that’s true, but I’m not trying to argue with anyone. I guess at this point, you can either a) accept my ramblings as something that might be psychologically useful, even if it is not a manifestation of “objective” progress or truth or b) stop reading here. Life is – as I’ve been noting – short, and like the folk who have never felt their death before, post-modern people probably have better things to do than read the less-than-eloquent-ramblings of some 22-year-old who’s still a bit stuck on silly “modern” notions like progress.

Now, I could explain this progress in terms of abstract philosophical mumbo jumbo and/or in terms of some rather mundane events (like pooping) which produced some not-so-mundane conclusions. But I prefer to explain this progress in terms of a kind of “dialogue” I’ve been having with Death over the past couple years. So, here I go:

Death sneaked up on me again. This time, I was working on some homework. He was sharpening his scythe in my room, and it was making this ridiculous racket. I know what your thinking: “What did Death sharpen his scythe on?” First of all, chill out with the logistical questions. This is a just a metaphorical dialogue. Second of all, he brought his own sharpening wheel. I was pretty surprised that he could fit that thing in his cloak.

Anywho, I was ticked at the noise, so I decided to just fully embrace my insanity and start talking to Death.

Me: Seriously, dude. You can’t do that somewhere else.

Death: (sheepishly, and with a voice that kind of sounds like Leo from That 70s Show) Sorry, man. I’ll move outside if you want.

Me: (kind of surprised that Death sounds like Leo) Yeah you do that. Actually, can you just leave me alone.

Death: Nah, man. I gotta stick with ya.

Me: Yeah I get it. You need to be around when I kick the bucket, but can’t you just come back when that’s about to happen?

Death: Well, I suppose I could, but I’m here to do more than just “collect” when you croak.

Me: What? Really? What are you here for?

Death: Well, I’m here to dance…

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Mark 1: Comments, Questions, and Challenges

John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins…And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

This passage suggests a kind of non-panentheistic theology at work in Mark. The baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sins is “mere water.” It is not divine until Jesus shows up to baptize. A more panentheistic interpretation of John’s baptismal practice would see it as divine rather than “mere water.”

12  The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.

“Spirit” with a capital “S” here. So, its safe to say that this “Spirit” is one of the good guys. The Spirit could be God, but the details of the identity of this spirit doesn’t matter for the question I’d like to ask. Why would a good spirit lead Jesus to be tempted? What was the purpose? Presumably, the original hearers of Mark would have recognized the purpose of Jesus being driven to be tempted, for Mark provides no explanation of why the spirit drives Jesus to into the desert.

Speculations: Perhaps it is a test of Jesus’ will? If this is what’s going on, we might have reason to think that the original hearers don’t accept the classical theistic picture of God as omniscient. Perhaps the temptation is to show us that Jesus is the shit and he can overcome tough situations. Perhaps it is something done to prepare Jesus for his ministry? If this is what’s going on, its difficult to see how not eating for a long time could be preparation for…well…anything.

Meh. Let’s set the exegesis aside for a moment and just use the text as a spring board.

Interesting: the question that I am asking here reveals that I accept the intuitive view that if X is good, and X does something that appears bad, there must be some reason that justifies this action. This question, then, might be useful as a way of explaining the intuition that gives rise to the problem of evil.

Is there a sense in which my life bears any resemblance to this season of temptation or wilderness season? Sure. I am living far from home, far from the communities that sustain me. This distance invites me to rely on the Divine for sustenance justice as Jesus’ distance from food and water invites reliance on God. (Mark doesn’t talk about Jesus fasting, but I think “wilderness” probably invoked images of harshness that would lead easily to seeing a wilderness time as a time that you rely on God.)

But what does this reliance amount to? And what is the point of this reliance? Let’s answer the second question first. In the story, the purpose of the reliance can be read as straight forward: rely on God so you don’t die. The purpose of relying on God in my situation can similarly be straight forward, albeit less dramatic. Now, the first question: relying on the Divine amounts to keeping It at the forefront of my thoughts, to be constantly conversing with It.

Reliance implies expectation of action. What am I expecting will happen through my reliance? I’ve already said it: that I will be preserved.

These are all consequentialist type considerations like the one I mentioned in my last post. That doesn’t mean they are bad I suppose as long as these considerations are not the sole reason for my reliance on and love of the Divine…I think.

Conclusion to be drawn from this non-exegetical excursion: I’ve got extra reasons (more than just the normal reasons) to be concerned with conversing with the Divine during this Bostonian season.

Back to the exegesis.

saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

The coming of the kingdom is accompanied by actual baller stuff going down. The rest of the first chapter (and a little of the second one) is Jesus healing, exorcising, and inviting folk to join him in the ushering of the kingdom.

Ergo, as cooperating members of the Divine-us kingdom ushering duo, we’ve got to actually do stuff! I know that already. I just need to live it.

 

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