Monday, January 20, 2014

Notes on Michael Battle and "theosis"

Michel Battle, prolific author and articulator of a "theology of reconciliation", at the "Household of God" conference Saturday spoke of a Christian "meta-narrative", which, as "meta", constitutes an underlying, structural, axiomatic story, without which nothing else would make any sense. In other words, a "myth" as Mircea Eliade would define it, or Taylor Stevenson, a story that is accepted as implicitly true, although, as with "meta" anything, it cannot be analysed objectively from the "outside", so to speak, and must be appreciated or discounted according to some other process of discernment.
Dr. Battle says that the Christian meta-narrative sees the unreconciled, conflicted, disastrous state of humanity and it's environment as proceeding from a primal conflict between creature and creator, with the result that we find ourselves alienated and exiled from "The Garden" of reconciliation. The "cure" for this condition is the Incarnation, whereby the Creator provides a human model for us to follow in our pilgrimage back to the Garden. This return is not, Dr. Battle cautions, a process of infantilization, a destruction of individual identity and freedom, but a much more subtle process, described by the early church fathers as "theosis".
   In theosis we do not just "follow" or "imitate" Christ, we become Christ. We do not just "promote" reconciliation, we "are" reconciliation.
    The twin temptations, it seems to me, are 1) that we seek "salvation" by becoming childishly obedient, deny personal responsibility, and seek refuge from what Eliade called the "terror of history" by hiding inside a comforting meta-narrative; 2) that we embrace a meta-narrative of human progress and domination, seize control of the movement of history and design a new "Garden" according to our own specifications, without regard to gods or traditions from the past. In this second scenario, we don't humbly apply for readmission to Eden, we storm and conquer it.
  My thesis:  Theosis follows a third and distinctive path, one that resembles #1 less than what classical theology has prescribed, and has more in common with #2 than has previously been supposed. For me, any movement toward "salvation" requires a dual movement, on the one hand a struggle to develop spiritual maturity/self-differentiation/critical realism, on the other, a recovery of child-like trust and playfulness, the "gift of joy and wonder", and a capacity to suspend disbelief (I suppose what Paul Ricoeur calls a "second naivite"). Can this occur?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Psalmody and silence

January 8 - Weekday in Christmastide -
Flung back and forth across the choir from side to side
In gallant game, ordered and rhythmic as the tide
The verses mount their crest, then die away,
Begin again, to mark the Hours of night and day.
Potent the praise as surging wave succeeds to wave,
Persistent game that echoing from choir to nave
Soars and rebounds as verses mount the crest
To break upon the shore eternal, where the best.p
Of players join the game: answering Angels toss
The verses back to earth across
The net between Time and Eternity
Alert in reciprocity,
While all the Saints in heaven linked to saints below
Echo from world to world the ordered ebb and flow.
THIS SOMEWHAT WHIMSICAL poem got my attention. These verses are right to describe this exercise, in verse 2, as tidal, “ordered and rhythmic”, and even in their somewhat abrupt shift to imagery that sounds more like a game of badminton, with verses passing “back to earth/across the net between Time and Eternity…”.
I am not the only person to sense a powerful affirmation proceeding from the recitation of psalmic verses rendered choir-wise, in monastic fashion, with the lines traded back and forth across an open space, and with significant silences observed at
intervals within the text.  The script of the surprisingly popular British TV series, Call the Midwife, has the chanting of psalmody by the program’s Anglican nuns as the soundtrack for almost every critical scene. This device strikes me as an effective way of referring to the generous and humane tradition that, without intrusive piety or sentimentality, underlies the entire premise of this gentle  television series.
Is it possible to write or say anything meaningful about silence?  It seems like a contradiction in terms to do so, yet the convergence of sound and silence is what creates a large part of what I am trying to convey. “Words spun around silence” is how I described the psalms chanted by the brothers of The Society of Saint John the Evangelist when I first stayed with them in 1995. It is this elusive quality of silence that is hard to translate, whether it is into the imagery of a badminton game or the rising and falling of the tide.  

Last year I wrote these words: at the daily office, even as we plod methodically through the psalms, sometimes the words begin to throb with a strange intensity, and to dance in the air like overcharged particles of light. Around us the  air seems to ring with the anticipation of bells and birds. What can we do in response to this unexpected surge of incipient light? In fact, all we do is proceed  with our psalmody, for we are a battered and weary church, wearing our ancient vocation like a salvation army coat, wearing it in full knowledge that in so doing we have made ourselves a target for God’s alarming emptiness, and that aliens and strangers will teach our own truths to us as if we had never heard of them before. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

2013 Retrospective

2013 in Retrospect...some things to remember

I TAUGHT PHILOSOPHY AT CRANBROOK SCHOOL, which was both a challenge and fun. I enjoyed inventing exam questions like the following...

___________>"I can't seem to remember how this goes... Let's see, "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is... uh, what's the word I like to use? __________? Is He able, but not willing? Then He is ... I can't think of that one either _________. Is He both able and willing? Whence then is ... I can't believe I would forget things like this_______?"

                                                             The blanks above, fill in as able you are.

ALL YEAR I have enjoyed the opportunity to minister part-time at CHRIST CHURCH CRANBROOK, working with RON POGUE, a gifted and thick-skinned priest who, as Interim Rector at Christ Church Cranbrook, has been both insightful mentor and supportive boss. He and his icon-writing spouse, Gay, will continue as our friends wherever our future paths my take us.
                                                    Gay's Icon of Mary Magdalene in
                                                     St. Paul's Chapel at Christ Church

 ONE OF RON'S ACCOMPLISHMENTS at Christ Church was to facilitate the use of a free-standing altar, a somewhat controversial measure that has deepened the experience of worship without sacrificing anything of the solemnity and dignity that are part of the tradition of this historic church.
                                            Shown here with me are the two very gifted full time associates
                                                  with whom I serve at Christ Church Cranbrook

IN JUNE WE HAD ALL OUR CHILDREN TOGETHER at home, and nobody had to get born, get   married, or die in order to accomplish it...

IN LATE JULY WE WENT BACK TO VERMONT, and were joined there by Zak, with whom I shared the unique experience of catching two bass on simultaneous strikes on surface lures only a few feet apart.
                                                       New Lebanon, New York


 An experience it will take the rest of our lives to describe.
               to be the final time, since she has been gone for several months now.
                 Since 2005, when she appeared on our front porch, she has been
                     our healer and companion, as well as occasional tormentor.
                                    IN DECEMBER, OUR YOUNGEST DAUGHTER KATIE
                                    GRADUATED FROM MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY,
                                                        with a B.A. in Psychology.
                                                      That's Katie receiving her degree from the
                                                               President of the University

                                                                HAPPY NEW YEAR




Friday, January 3, 2014

Contemplating Randomness

Nancy took this picture of me amongst the ruins of Lindisfarne Abbey on Holy Island. It was actually a fun and adventurous day, but in this photo I look like a sad old tourist, surrounded by stoney reminders of an abandoned religion on a gray British day.
Today's promise of fun and adventure ended, "not with a bang but a whimper", when, just south of Detroit,  I gave up trying to drive to Alabama and turned back for home. The heat in my car had stopped working, and the prospect of driving 800 miles in temps close to zero was too grim a prospect, especially since the interstate was still snow-covered in places and cars were spinning out every few miles.
   The fan that blows hot (or cold) air into the interior of our 2003 Buick Rendezvous has quit running sporadically since the summer of 2010, but has always resumed operation within a few minutes, especially if one pounds authoritatively on the dashboard a few times, or drives over a bump in the road. Not this time. I stopped to fill the gas tank, hoping it would work after having turned the engine off: no luck. I drove south on I-75, past 8 Mile and into the city, but still no rush of hot hair flowing onto the windshield or onto my frozen feet. As I drove over the River Rouge steel plant, I accepted the fact that the blower might not come on, and that I had to decide whether to turn back, or continue on heatless.      

  And so I drive along the snow-covered highway, my feet frozen into solid lumps, listening to the silence of no air blowing, and feeling the cold of no heat forthcoming. Well, not exactly NO heat, because there was a soft whisper of warm air issuing from the defroster vents. Our Rendezvous also comes equipped with heated seats, without which I would have decided to turn back for home by the time I reached the turn off for Oakland Mall! I pull off the road at Southgate and into a MacDonald's, where I turn off the engine and go inside to drink hot coffee and change into my insulated boots. "If the heat doesn't work when I start the engine, it will be a sign that I need to turn back." Is this an example of "putting God to the test?" Do these various obstacles mean that God wants me to stay home in Michigan? If that is the case, why did God wait to tell me until I had spent $128 on Alabama Non Resident Hunting License?
    There are things that happen that have a major impact on our lives. That's what will happen if I lose control on one of these slick overpasses and go spinning through the traffic like some of my fellow-travelers today. That's what happens when you have to stop your life to get a hip replaced, or somebody in the family gets seriously ill, or lies are told that undermine trust in what we thought was real, or your identity gets stolen. ALL those things have happened to us lately, or to someone in our inner circle. We have already been impacted. That is why I wanted to go sit in the woods.   
     It seems like an exercise in non-ultimacy, this helpless listening for a random mechanical event to occur/ not occur.The flood of randomness seems just that, a meaningless jostling of events, connected  only by their varying degrees of unpleasantness. This abortive hunting trip has had no impact: it just sucks.
      In Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men there is a sequence in which the main character enters into a period of profound depression, where he does almost nothing but sleep for many months. This episode comes after a disappointing love affair and other disillusioning events, all examples of what Robert Penn Warren's character labeled as "The Great Twitch."
     The Great Twitch, as I interpret it, stood for all the randomness, the meaningless suffering, the accidental non-events that dish out reality to distracted human beings while they are looking the other way.The Great Twitch is the loose wire in the blower motor, the emptiness of an inhospitable world, the hunting trip that never happened, the non-event that never occurred. Having no real existence of its own, it hitchhikes on the coattails of random events, exaggerates the effects of any illness, and thrives when weather turns bitter cold.
      About now I would like to renounce the power of the Great Twitch, and exorcise all the petty little twitchlings that serve as its acolytes, but words like "Renounce" and "Exorcize" seem too grandiose. The randomness of the world is not something that can be charmed and tamed like in a circus act. Rather they must be loved, and sung about, and gently teased. In All the King's Men the Great Twitch is never "cured", but rather reassigned, deprived of power to define the world. This demotion is accomplished by another seemingly random event, but one marked and motivated by love.
     Therefore, let us take whatever opportunity we have to love: love the opportunity to contemplate random events, love the warmth that exists despite the cold, love the friends who call to offer you the use of a heated car, love the hunting trips that never occurred. Most of all, let us love those who are close at hand, the ones making noises in the kitchen as they cook, the ones at whom the dog is barking, the ones you will not see or hunt with down the road, the One who, even now, is hunting you, and whom you cannot see.