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Were you a slave when you were called? Do not let it trouble you – although if you can gain your freedom, do so.                                                                                      1 Cor. 7: 21 (New International Version)

If a slave when called, do not accustom yourself to it; rather if you can indeed become free, make the most of it.                                                                                      1 Cor. 7: 21 (Hart translation)

Notice the difference. David Bentley Hart in the footnotes to his new translation of the New Testament offers a persuasive case that do not accustom yourself to slavery is a more accurate rendering of Paul’s Greek than the grin and bear it translations that we have heard all our lives. The NIV prescription of passivity is far and away the norm and has been so since the Bible was translated into English. 

All translations reflect the cultural, political, and socio-economic context of the translators and those who pay them and adopt their translations for Church use. The King James Version is said by some to be slanted with a decidedly monarchist bias. But my questions are: 

1.     What underlying assumptions would lead us to translate a verse as telling slaves to be content in their slavery when it is at least arguably possible to translate the verse to tell them to resist? The resistance translation makes more sense with the rest of the passage which says that Christ has turned all those power relationships on their head;
and it better accords with  Paul’s usual teachings which constitute him as the original liberation theologian. For freedom Christ has set us free. Galatians 5: 1. Would the author of those words tell a slave to just put up with it?

2.     Does the Bible, our sacred text, shape us into a domination system people – or has the denomination system shaped the Bible? Perhaps it is chicken and egg. 

We no longer use the Bible to defend slavery. 1 Corinthians 7: 1 has been an embarrassment for over a century. But we have continued to translate it do not let (being enslaved) trouble you. I think this prescription for passivity reflects something broader than the slavery issue. I find a ubiquitous assumption that religion – or more aptly spirituality– is about cultivating indifference, a calm acquiescence to life with all itsslings and arrows, especially subservience to the domination system, what Paul called the Principalities and Powers of this present age – though Paul clearly called Christians to place Christ above those Principalities and Powers; and New Testament scholars from the liberal Walter Wink to the conservative N. T. Wright see Jesus as a lived rebellion against such worldly domination. But in popular religion, we shake our heads sadly at famines, epidemics, and atrocious violations of human rights saying such things as, It’s God’s will. Everything happens for a reason. We’ll understand it all by and by. 

I see a consumer demand for an opiate of the people religion.  Against that opioid spirituality, German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann[i]proclaims a hope that sets us at odds with the status quo. Moltmann, says,

. . . (E)xperience and hope stand in contradiction to each other . . . with the result that . . .  man is not brought into . . . agreement with the given situation, but is drawn into the conflict between experience and hope.

In the Apostolic era, Christians were committed to transformation rather than passivity. Do not be conformed to the ways for this world. Rather be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Romans 12:2.  In the Patristic Era, Christianity took a stand against Manichaeism, which saw evil as an active force in the cosmos while goodness was inherently passive and indifferent. Augustine rejected the Manichaeism of his youth in favor of Christianity and upheld a theology that participated in the world in a transformative way for the sake of God’s Kingdom Mission.[ii]

The orthodox tradition of Paul and Augustine insists on a tension between Christian hope and the worldly status quo. Against that orthodox tradition, there is decidedly a history of opioid spirituality and carrot and stick religion used to keep people in line.  It is the Jurgen Moltmanns and the Leonardo Boffs, the so-called radicals, who are in line with the ole timereligion of the Early Church. 

What do we expect from the Church in the face of wildfires, rising sea levels, genocide, and human trafficking? The do not let it trouble you translation, or stand up, raise your heads, the kingdom is near[iii] -- engage the world for Christ, engage the world with the transforming power of a love that shows mercy and demands justice. 

[ii]That is an admittedly simplistic statement of Augustine’s complex political theology. He was no revolutionary, but he did insist that Christianity participate in the mire and the muck of worldly politics for the sake of insinuating God’s Kingdom values into the mix. See, Garry Wills, The Confessions of a Conservative.https://www.amazon.com/Confessions-Conservative-Garry-Wills/dp/0140055630/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1545520587&sr=8-1&keywords=the+confessions+of+a+conservative

[iii]Luke 21: 25-36

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Today’s lessons are about wisdom.
The idea of wisdom in the Bible
grew out of crafts like tent making and carpentry. 
Craftsmen learned that you can do things well or badly. 
There is a right way to go about our work.

As time went by they came to see life itself as a craft.
Life can be lived well or badly. 
Wisdom is simply the art of living well.

Much of the Bible is about how to live well.
Living well helps us sleep at night, get along with our friends,
         and make the world around us a better place. 
Many people have the notion that wisdom must 
         be something very solemn.
It must frown and look very serious.
Wisdom is always wagging its finger at our foolishness.
But Paul paints a different picture of wisdom.
He says, 
         “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise.
         Do not get drunk . . . But be filled with the Spirit as you sing
         Psalms and spiritual hymns among yourselves, 
         singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts,
         giving thanks to God . . . at all times and for everything
         in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The first thing to see here is that wisdom isn’t a solemn lecture.
It’s a song.
Wisdom is pleasurable, like a melody in the heart. 
Wisdom isn’t dour and judging. It’s playful like music.

The second thing to notice about wisdom
         is that it recognizes a basic truth about reality.
It’s a gift. It’s all a gift. 
The sunrise and the moonset are gifts.
The friendship of another person is a gift. 
Our very ability to breathe, to laugh, hear the rain on our roof –
         it’s all a gift.

There is a wise way and a foolish way to handle wood.
It’s starts by recognizing it as wood and not copper.
There is a wise way and a foolish way to handle life.
To handle life wisely,
 we must first see it for what it is -- a gift.

Paul was writing in Greek and the Greek word for gift is charis.
What shall we do with this gift of life, this gift of everything.
Obviously, Paul says, we say “thank you.”
In our lesson where Paul says “giving thanks,” 
he uses the Greek word eucharistein. 
That’s where we get the word Eucharist.
But Eucharist in the Greek isn’t just 
a thank you note on pretty stationery.
Eucharist means a gift back, a return gift, a thank you gift.
So what can we give God?

God has given us our very selves.
In thanksgiving for God’s primal generosity,
         we give something to match God’s gift to us.
We give God ourselves. 

This is the great gift exchange of the spiritual life.
God gives us our lives.
We give our lives back to God.
We place ourselves on this altar 
         to be blessed, broken, and given back to us
         enriched by love and grace and mercy. 

St. Ignatius of Loyola prayed,
         “Accept O Lord my memory, my will, my imagination, my understanding.
         All that I am and all that I have you have given me.
         I give it all back to be disposed of according to your good pleasure.
         Grant me only the comfort of your presence and the joy of your love.
         With these I shall be more than rich and shall ask for nothing more.”

That, my friends, is the core meaning of the Eucharist.
And it is the heart of wisdom.
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There is One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.
Paul said that – a lot – in different way.
His Epistles are all about the same thing:
            how to be the Church, the Body of Christ. 
The first churches were always dividing up into factions
            over this issue here; over that issue there.
In Corinth, some folk spoke in tongues and some didn’t.
Some ate meat, and some didn’t. 

In Syria, next door to Israel,
most of the Christians were ethnically Jewish
            and still practiced Judaism.
For them, Christianity was another party within Judaism,
            like the Pharisees or Sadducees.
But take things up to Western Turkey
and demographics shift.
Things were different around Ephesus.
There were Jews and some of the Jews were Christian.
But the majority of the Christians were gentiles.
So, the church division was still between Jew and gentile.

There had been a real blowout nearby in Galatia,
            over whether you could even be a Christian
            if you didn’t convert to Judaism first,
            and for men that meant getting circumcised.
That’s the kind of division Paul was writing into.

We have all seen Christians divide up over all sorts of things:
            women’s ordination, dancing, drinking, movies on Sundays – 
            whether the born-again experience is essential to salvation,
whether baptism in the spirit with tongue speaking 
                        is essential to salvation; 
            whether the promised millennium of peace and justice
                        is to come before or after the rapture;
            whether there will be a rapture;
            whether the virgin birth is literal or symbolic.

We have divided over incense, prayer book revision,
            abortion, gay marriage, background checks for gun buyers,
and whether it is too Catholic to put candles on the altar.
You name it. 
In Nevada, we divide up urban versus rural, 
            North versus South, and East versus West. 
Whenever we run out of issues to divide up over,
            we get busy inventing some new ones.

What is true in the church is especially true in the wider society.
In his landmark book, The Big Sort, Bill Bishop lays out the facts.
America is more diverse than ever.
But we have divided ourselves up as never before 
to ensure that we only interact people like ourselves
--- people who look, think, and even eat like we do.

We live in neighborhoods of people like us.
We go to churches where we all think alike.
We watch news channels carefully programed to offer only facts
            that support whatever opinions we already hold. 
Social media logarithms insure we see the posts
            that will pour gasoline on whatever fire
            we have already have going. 

The social and political impact is obvious: division and discord.
We have redrawn the congressional districts into conservative
            or liberal
so candidates do not have to campaign across ideological lines.
That’s why there are no longer any moderates to broker deals
and Congress no longer works.

Our divisions also have a personal impact.
Philosopher Martha Nussbaumsays we are losing 
            our very ability to imagine how things look to someone else.
That makes our world smaller. It shrinks our lives. 
We can divide up Black versus white,
            English speaker versus Spanish speaker, liberal versus conservative. 
The categories don’t matter.
What matters is the very act of dividing up 
            that isolates us and narrows our minds.

It was into just such a division that Ephesianswas written.
You can substitute any of our contemporary divisions       
            for the division of Jew versus gentile in this letter
            and we’ll see how the message plays. 
Paul said, Now . . .you who once were far off 
            have been brought near by the blood of Christ.        
For he is our peace. //

In his flesh he has made both groups into one
            and has broken down the dividing wall,
            that is the hostility between us.

My bishop in Georgia used to have a saying.
When people would ask him if he could work 
            with some person or group of people, he’d say,
            I haven’t met anyone yet that Jesus didn’t die for his sins.//
And that, my friends, is where it stands.
There may be somebody we don’t agree with. 
We may not even like him very much.
But you know what: Jesus went to the cross for him too.
Jesus shed his blood for him too.

We drink that blood in Holy Communion to make us one.
We lay down our grudges and animosities
            in order to take Jesus into our hearts at the rail.

There are so many standards 
by which we judge each other as right or wrong,
wise or foolish, good or bad.
Paul had a word for those standards.
He called them the law.
And we’ve got all kinds of law:
            we have liberal laws that judge conservatives
            and conservative laws that judge liberals.
We got a law lurking around every corner. 
The law is the standard of judgment we use to set ourselves apart.
But Paul says,
            (Jesus) has abolished the law with its commandments . . .,
            that he might create in himself onenew humanity;
in place of the two, thus making peace,
            and might reconcile both groups into one body through the cross.

One speaks Spanish; the other, English.
One is black descended from slaves; the other, white,
descended from slave owners.
One is straight; the other, gay. 
And we all got a law to make us right and the other guy wrong.

But the Bible says, (Jesus) has abolished the law . . .
            that he might create in himself onenew humanity.
How did he do that?
He went to the cross for both sides
            of every division we can invent.

Paul says Jesus . . . reconcile(d) both groups into one body 
through the cross.
When Jesus brings us together in the Body of Christ,
            he doesn’t abolish our differences.
He doesn’t make us all alike. 
He leaves us different.
But he gives us something in common
-- something that runs deeper than our differences.
He gives us grace. 
He gives us salvation.
He gives us the love of God. 

We may have religious differences or political differences
            or different spiritual styles. 
And that’s a good thing.
How bland it would be if we were all alike!
How dull life would be if we didn’t know people
            who saw the world through different eyes.
We get to enjoy each other’s differences
            because we have something deep in common.
We act out that something in common at the communion rail.

Here’s the thing with Communion. 
We can get the gluten out of the bread.
We can get the alcohol out of the wine. 
But we can’t strain the grace out.
When you receive the bread and wine and you receive 
            the grace that forgives your sins.
But here’s the catch: that your is plural.
The grace that forgives your sins
            forgives those other people too.
You are in the same boat – the Ark of Salvation.

Remember how Noah loaded the Ark two by two.
You enter the Ark of Salvation two by two,
            and that person beside you may not be
            anyone you would expect.

It’s The gifts of God for the people of God.
Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you (plural)
-- died to make all of us one body –
and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.
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Griffins Without Faces

My 3-year-old grandson, Matthew, attends a pre-school in Bury St. Edmonds, Suffolk in the lovely land of East Anglia. To get there, we walk along a few quiet residential streets till we get to a narrow driveway defined on either side by tall lush greenery. At the entrance to the driveway stand two brick pillars. Atop each pillar is a small stone griffin. The faces of the griffins have been hammered off. From the aging of the stone, I’d say the hammering took place a very long time ago. 

It is possible the griffins were defaced (literally) by random vandals, but is vandalism ever really random or does its very randomness express nihilism? Regardless, it was probably not random vandals but ideologically driven iconoclasts ridding the Emerald Isle of graven images. 

After our recent visit to Matthew’s pre-school, we went to Stratford Upon Avon. The schoolroom where William Shakespeare began his formal study of words – and we shall return to words e’er long as they play a major role in this drama – adjoins a chapel constructed by the Guild of the Holy Cross 1418-1420. Restoration of the chapel in recent years displays lovely medieval iconography on the wall behind the altar. It features Christ crucified, John and Mary at the foot of the cross, and most recently discovered, John the Baptist to the side. The images of Jesus and the saints were covered over by plaster, but before that, there had been a serious effort to eradicate them. This occurred on the orders of Elizabeth I carried out under the direction of a Stratford public official John Shakespeare, William’s Dad. John was probably Catholic in his personal piety, but Elizabeth was paying two shillings for the job and this was part of changing the purpose of the place from visual art to words, those words John’s son mastered so remarkably. 

The present restoration of the chapel is uncovering the visual expressions of Medieval piety. But pause a minute. This restoration is peeling the paint and plaster spread by John Shakespeare’s minions, right? Might we now be defacing the piety of the 16thCentury iconoclastic reformers? 

After our time in Stratford Upon Avon, we visited the Victoria and Albert Museum. The display of Medieval art, on overwhelmingly Christian themes, was breathtaking – a profound expression of an idealized spiritual faith expressed through the genius of art. This is precisely the sort of thing that shocked the conscience of 16thCentury iconoclasts. The Renaissance Art was equally exquisite. Renaissance Art too was rich in Christian themes, albeit an earthier more human faith.  But Renaissance Art included themes from pagan Antiquity that would have been smashed and burned by Early Christians and utterly verboten throughout the Medieval era. Both aesthetic apprehensions of what we observe and what we imagine -- Antique Pagan and Medieval Christian -- would come under attack from the iconoclastic hammer and plaster brush in a short while. 

Whence cometh this seemingly irresistible impulse of our species to make meaning through art? What is it in us that is so threatened by such art that we react against it so violently? What is it that makes words less of a threat than paintings? Now in our time, words – logocentrism – come under attack from deconstructionists. Is the challenge to words and grammar the same as, similar to, or utterly different from the iconoclastic spirit that hammers away the faces of griffins? I suspect a connection but that the connection is more complex than I can sort. 

The First Wave of Iconoclasm. There is a philosophical side to this question. But before the philosophy, let’s consider the story. My story comes down to an exegetical hypothesis on a piece of the Torah. It is somewhat interpretive, somewhat imaginative, but not an invention. It is within the realm of legitimate opinion, but it will be obviously shaped by the pastoral experience of an old cleric who has spent decades directing the sacred traffic of God’s very human people.

The history of the issue long precedes Medieval Art and the Reformation. Art was expressing religion back in the hunter gatherer and even cave dwelling days of our species. When religion grew institutional with the agrarian revolution and the rise of hierarchical states, art abounded. Language was a Johnny Come Lately to religion. We were painting divine, human, and animal stories long before someone in Sumer invented writing circa 3,000 BCE. Thereafter, words and images peacefully coexisted for nearly 2,000 years. 

Then came Moses who took a radical stand against images and words alike. Were his reasons theological or philosophical? Perhaps, but I suspect they were political – and by that, I mean no criticism. I posit Moses was trying to clear the way for collaborative moral relationships among people.

There is no archaeological evidence of a massive exodus of slaves from Egypt. There is no evidence of a massive invasion of Canaan in the era of Joshua. There is no historical evidence of such events apart from the Bible. There is evidence of class conflict in Northern Canaan, which was subjugated by the Egyptians. It would seem that Egypt as an agricultural domination system had extended its empire over the fertile valleys and plains of Northern Canaan and forced the indigenous people into field labor. Their rebellion is documented by letters from the Egyptian military to the royal court describing how the insurrection of the apiru (Hebrews – not an ethnic category but a class category – it means the rabble). 

It appears as if a future uprising may have had some success, that a significant number of the indigenous people in Northern Canaan followed Moses away from the fields, swearing to hoe no more fields for the man, and fled into the hills to take up a different life -- a pastoral life, to be ordered by egalitarian norms of freedom, justice, and equality – in marked contrast to the domination system of agrarian society. They had not previously needed to create ways to order their common life. The Egyptians had been ordering it for them. To create a free and equal society, new forms of unity were necessary. A common religion was the heart of it. 

These people were not all of the same tribe. Tradition tells us there were 12 tribes. The idea that they shared a common ancestor and a common history before Egypt is a strained tale in Genesis, which would be written centuries later. It looks very much as if some tribes claimed ancestry from Abraham and others from Isaac. Genesis makes one the son of the other and both characters had at points similar stories. A narrative of common ancestry is part and parcel of weaving 12 tribes into one people.

It was a polytheistic world, but a tribe cold have a particular tie to one god who would look out for them if they were loyal to him(religion had become patriarchal in the Bronze Age). Naturally, the tribes worshiped different Gods. Some called their deity, El (translated in the Hebrew Scriptures as God). Others worshiped a god named Yah or Yahweh (whose name will be banned early in this story, so he will be referred to more obliquely asAdonai (generally translated as the Lord). The different tribes agreed to worship the same god but in an attempt to preserve their traditions, declared:

Shema ‘srael, Adonai Elohanyu Adonai echad. 

It is vitally important to parse the Great Commandment in its context. Hear O Israel. Listen up Israel. Hear – as summons together. Then God bestows on them a single name – Judah, Benjamin, Ephraim, Manasseh, and the rest are subsumed under one name Israel. In Isaiah, it is said, you who were not a people are now my people. God through Moses forms a people by summoning them to hear and giving them a single name. Then God radically simplifies their theology: Yah (Adonai)and El (Elohanyu) are one (the same guy). Do not jump the gun. This is not monotheism. That is centuries away. The point here is to say that the different gods of these tribes are merged into a single god, Yahweh El, the Lord God, for a single people, Israel. 

But – and surely you are not surprised – disputes over the name of God persisted. Why? I do not know. Is it that the one God manifests so variously in human hearts? I do not know. Differences persisted. Troubles continued – until it was decreed no name of God should not be spoken at all. We just won’t use words. That is from the days of the Hebrew Scriptures and is a silent shibboleth of Judaism, so that many orthodox Jews will not say any word referring to God but will point upward, or when writing omit the letter “o” and print “G_d” so that without a vowel no word can be pronounced. And yet as Judaism lives on, the Kabballah gives us Nine Names of God. Judaism has two traditions, one with emphatically no name for God and another that proliferates names. 

But I am ahead of myself. Let us return to the innocent days when Yah and El were the same, so that one said Yahweh El (the Lord God) or did not say the name of God at all, how shall we represent God in our holy places –. Some tribes had worshiped a bull-god; others, a god who looked like a griffin. Who gets to paint God to look like the God their grandparents worshiped? We can easily imagine the fight over that one. And anyone who can imagine that will all the more easily imagine an exasperated Moses banning all images of God. 

It didn’t work of course. The altar of the Ark of the Covenant had bull horns. Statuettes surmised to be of The Lord God have been found from various times of the Biblical era. But, in principle, the nameless, imageless God of Israel was sufficiently nameless and sufficiently imageless that other peoples called the Jews atheists. 

We have no art from the brief period in which primitive Christianity was a Jewish sect. Quickly, the Christians became neither fish nor fowl – or part fish, part fowl – between Judaism and Hellenism. By the 2ndCentury, paintings of Jesus as a young shepherd appear. At first there was no sacred text beyond the Hebrew Scriptures. But by the 2ndCentury, a canon of Scriptures is forming from letters and the new literary genre of evangelion(gospel) written just decades before. It would be anybody’s guess whether the written words or the paintings came first. We can be sure, they were pretty much hand in hand. 

It may (??) be important that in this formative era of Christian art and literature, Christianity was the faith of small collaborative communities reminiscent of Moses’ pastoral communitarian society. Then Christianity became the religious arm of the Empire, Constantine’s mother Monica discovered “the one true cross” and that which had not been a Christian symbol became the central Christian symbol erected in every place of worship. Cristian literature and Christian art went public together. Did the meaning attached to the art change when it became public art, the face of the Empire and its state religion, instead of the more personal art of small, marginal communities?

In the 6thCentury, the iconoclastic controversy arose – or not so much arose as went international. Syrian Christians had never warmed up to religious art. Iconography was all over Greece but not Syria. When Syrians surged in ecclesiastical influence, they launched a challenge to visual representations. It was a passionate fight. The more European sector of the Church regained control and decreed that icons are ok but attempted to smooth it over using words. Icons would not be worshiped but would be venerated -- meaning they are not gods but God can be encountered through them – which is not so different from how pagans had long understood the function of idols. 

What was actually going on in the iconoclast controversy? What was going on with the iconoclasm of the 16thCentury? While it is often assumed that Henry VIII’s only purpose of a break from Rome was to secure and annulment of his marriage, he expeditiously banned votive images as such images were being destroyed in Protestant lands on the Continent. Edward VI launched an assault on all religious art, replacing it with Scriptural texts on Church walls. Yet there survived ample religious art to be destroyed by Cromwell in the 17thCentury. What stirred their passions against paintings of the Holy Family or the saints? What thoughts motivated whoever took a hammer to the 19thor 20thCentury griffins outside Matthew’s pre-school?

I know of strict Congregationalists who will brook no religious objects in the Church or elsewhere – meaning no cross. Other Protestants are perfectly comfortable with the polyvalent symbol of the cross, but nothing else. Then there are those who will endure a portrait of Jesus (preferably the one modelled on Pope Alexander VI’s dissolute son) but no one else. Others will accept other paintings of all manner of saints, but no statues of anyone. Then there are those who are ok with a sta              e of Jesus only. Then some are ok with Jesus and other men, normally 4 evangelists; the quartet of Peter, Paul, Mosel, & Elijah; or the 12 apostles; and maybe more guys like Stephen or St. George. Interesting for our puzzlement about word and image, some will accept statutes of men referenced in the Bible but not saints from after 210 C.E. The foregoing are, as I say, comfortable with representations of men – but not women! No Blessed Virgin Mary for them – not in painting or statue but in the words of Matthew and Luke, she is acceptable. Then I have met a surprising to me number of people who are comfortable with Mary so long as she is white, but the Virgin of Guadalupe strikes them as idolatrous. 

Flashback to the 6thh Century. Were the icons of that day Eurocentric? Did that Hellenistic hegemony implicitly stir the iconoclasm of the Syrians who had been rather marginalized in the Church up to then? This is pure speculation on my part, but I do wonder. 

How are we to understand the stirring of art in the human spirit, a stirring that virtually compels us to express our faith in word, image, and song, but which also horrifies others? Is their horror a simplistic fidelity to “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” – how does that get to the ban on musical instruments (but not acapella singing) in some denominations? 

I do not know. Truly, I do not know. But I wonder if it has to do with two things: the mystery of God and the continuing struggle to connect with each other. 

Iconoclasm is primarily a concern for the Abrahamic traditions – but not exclusively so. In Buddhism, images of the Buddha were forbidden in practice for several centuries, then became omnipresent objects of devotion. The iconography of Tibetan Buddhism is as rich as that of Rome. But Theravadan Buddhism is simpler and Zen Buddhism is starkly simple. Very simple drawings characterize Zen, but so does the adage, if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. There is in Buddhism a concern that the sacred not be conflated with words, images, or even the person of the Buddha. I mention this because the universal ambivalence about artistic expression cannot be reduced to absolutizing a few Biblical texts. 

Being and Void/Other/Differance 

I preface all I say here with a deep thank you to Emanuel Levinas and Eberhard Jungel (and to David Ford for having struck them against each other like flint and steel). If I seem critical, it is as a gnat critiquing giants. 

Over the centuries, Christianity came to experience God not as a superbeing but as Being itself, the suchness of things, but with the empathic point that Being is not an abstraction, not a mere quality of existing; rather Being is personal and intentionally procreative of beings. God is the intimate suchness of Reality itself. The core of all that is is Love. 

That way of talking about God has been subjected to searing critique in the latter 20thand early 21stCenturies. It has been challenged by atheists of course but more interestingly by deconstructionist philosophy, negative theology (Marion, Cupit), and – in a category all his own – Levinas. 

The Post-Modern challenge is a kind of iconoclasm, or more aptly logoclasm, an attack on words as such and an attack on the concept of meaning that words convey, a challenge to the notion of such a thing as meaning, what Derrida calls logocentrism. Nietzsche famously said in the 19thCentury,the reason we have so much difficulty getting rid of God is that we still believe in grammar. He meant we are beset with a sense of the order and purpose implicit in language. Post-Modernism challenges that sense of meaning and order. Marion notes that the whole scientific process rests on an implicit faith that there is an orderliness to reality. That is the implicit faith Post-Modernist philosophy smashes with the iconoclast’s hammer. 

I do not mean to paint all these philosophers with the same brush. Their concerns are different, but they have a common enemy, the notion of Being as the source, destiny, and purpose of reality. Contrary to popular assumptions, this repudiation of God as Being or the Ground of Being (as Tillich put it) isn’t science. The intellectual champion of Western atheism, Anthony Flew, was converted to theism by the Big Bang Theory because it proved the Universe has a Source beyond itself. John Polkinghorne, Wolfgang Pannenberg, and other leading theologians rely heavily on science while leading scientists debate the philosophical and theological implications of their discoveries. (I am no scientist and so cannot rightly judge but my sense is that the philosophers and theologians have a better grasp of the science than some of the scientists have of the philosophy and theology – Paul Davis being one of the exceptions). Nor does the challenge come from a boldly optimistic humanism. That naivete is under the same critique. It seems to be the horrors of world wars, the moral shock of genocide, the persistence of war often cloaked in ideology, the randomness of violence -- all in all, the moral failure of the world that has turned our minds to a logoclasm to match old fashioned iconoclasm. 

Moral protest certainly lies behind the philosophy of Levinas whose work is quite directly in response to the Shoah that so marked his life. Massive genocide led him to a radical critique of Western thought as such. As a Talmudic scholar employing the skeptical phenomenology of Husserl, he is adept at his critique. He rejects Western notions of Being, the Beautiful, the Good, the True, Aristotle’s virtues practiced in community, the whole tradition in favor of the discovery of morality when we encounter the shocking reality that we are not alone, but there are others. I am not prepared to replace the whole canon of Western intellectual history with Levinas, but his critique deserves to be taken seriously as he speaks in the tradition of Moses. 

I would like to add to the mix the thought of Levinas’s Asian contemporaries, the Kyoto School of Philosophy, most famously Keiji Nishitani, Kitaro Nishida, and Masao Abe. Form their experience of World War II in Japan, it was not only Western philosophy that was the problem. They searched Eastern thought wondering how it could have culminated in the militaristic nationalism that propelled Japan into the World War and led many Japanese to engage in such cruelty.

As Western thought had focused on Being as the core of Reality, Eastern thought had focused on the Void. WW II led the Kyoto philosophers to study Western philosophy for a corrective. They were drawn particularly to Karl Barth, a theologian whose language has some kinship with that of Levinas. They continued to believe a great Void, or Emptiness, or Spaciousness lies behind all our experience. But they discovered that the Void was procreative, freely proliferating the Cosmos. As they looked at the Cosmos spinning out of the Void, it told them something of the nature of the Void. Yes, a Void can have a nature. They discovered that the Void was personal!!! – an idea akin to a nameless, imageless God who is Love. The Kyoto philosophers too deserve our respect and attention. 

So Where Are We?Short answer: I don’t know. The impulse to find or forge meaning through art and language is so essential to human nature, we cannot stop it. But if I say, “I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in. I am worn out by holding it in. Indeed, I cannot. Jeremiah 20: 9. This is as true for the poet, the philosopher, the theologian, the painter, the sculptor, and the dancer as it is for the prophet. Art and language are as essential to our humanity as tools – maybe more so. 

On the other hand, whatever we say, paint, sculpt, or in any way express of God is inadequate. We have such an urge to render God manageable, that we are apt to reduce the God of our imaginations to what we have expressed. We may worship our statues or our doctrines. It comes to the same thing. Stone and words alike are representations of God – essential because we cannot live without making meaning but dangerous because those stammering expressions of meaning are apt to shut down the ongoing process of feeling our way in the dark searching for God. 

Where does that leave us? Might it be that art and iconoclasm exist in a necessary tension? If so, how are we to manage it? I truly do not know. But if those who forge meaning make a discipline of paradox, there is an implicit iconoclasm in the meaning. It is when the image or idea is comprehensible rather than suggestive that it is apt to shut down the search prematurely. It is paradox that holds the mind open. that props open the door of our hearts. What do I mean by paradox? The personal Void. God who is one and three. Jesus who is fully human and fully divine. Our tradition abounds in paradox, though we often flatten it out and explain it way. That is when the hammer comes out. 

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