Thursday, January 7, 2016

Pervasive irony...reposted from 2013

"...the pervasive irony that Ricoeur sees emerging through the task of interpretation." Rowan Williams, "The Suspicion of Suspicion:Wittgenstein and Bonhoeffer."
    "Verbal irony" is when words are used to express an opposite, or unexpectedly different, meaning from what they literally mean. An obvious and common use of verbal irony is uttered every time a priest hands out a piece of bread and says, "the Body of Christ". Taken literally, the words are nonsense. Used liturgically for 2000 years, they work to evoke a strangely resilient presence. Does this amount to a massive exercise in self-deception, or a classic example of "dramatic irony," where the audience knows the meaning of what is happening and the actors do not? The "audience" in this case would seem to be the church, which discerns a presence where others see only bread and hear only some very peculiar worlds being spoken. Even more, it is God who is the "audience", and who alone truly perceives the reality of whatever transpires.
     I am not speaking from the perspective of a detached observer, who examines the phenomenon of religion from afar and pronounces it meaningless. That would constitute analysis, or possibly ridicule, but not "irony". Irony requires that one be engaged with the play, whether as actor or audience. Perhaps this is what Paul Ricoeur means by "Second Naivite", that we know we are part of a "play", but we allow ourselves to suspend disbelief enough so as to experience the reality which the play is seeking to express.
     Irony requires humor and empathy, and (ironically) some degree of commitment. If we can't identify with the characters and the plot, the play will collapse, because there will be no incentive to watch it. When the church engages in Eucharist, it had better be prepared to both laugh and cry. I'm pretty sure that God is doing both.
    The irony is "pervasive" because it extends all the way into the funny bone (and tear ducts) of God, which (as we know) are body parts God does not possess. Irony that extends into the non-existent? My, that is pervasive...

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Epiphany Reflections on Psalm 2 and other monarchist texts in the Bible

AT THE BAPTISM of Christ in the first three gospels there is an epiphany regarding the unique relationship between Jesus and the one he called Father. “You” (in Luke and Mark) or “This” (in Matthew) are (is) my Son, the Beloved”, are the authenticating words spoken by God.  The language is at least partially borrowed from Psalm 2:7, where God addresses the Israelite king and says, “You are my Son; this day have I begotten you.” It seems evident that the gospels were eager to establish a connection between the idealized notion of Jewish kingship expressed in the psalm and the life and ministry of Jesus. The same parallel exists in gospel accounts of the Transfiguration.
It is understandable that the exalted claims made for the monarchs who ruled in Jerusalem would get projected onto some kind of messianic hopefulness for the future, because (in my limited knowledge) there is little or no historical evidence to support the extremely monarchist version of reality described in Psalm 2, where the author imagines the “nations” and “kings of the earth” daring to plot against the “Lord and against his Anointed”, that is, the Israelite king. What nations would those have been? I could see “nomadic tribes” or “bands of camel-herders”, but “nations?” According to this psalmist, God “will give [this Jewish king] the nations for your inheritance, and the ends of the earth for your possession.” Such ambitions might seem plausible to an Egyptian or Babylonian ruler, but scarcely to the king of a minor vassal-state such as Judea.
In another royalist psalm, 110:6-7, the psalmist goes to extremes in describing the violence to be perpetrated by the one who sits “at the right hand” of God, i.e. the king, saying “he will heap high the corpses; he will smash heads over the wide earth.” Then, in what may be a particularly difficult-to-translate Hebrew verse 7, the psalmist writes: “he will drink from the brook beside the road.” What, he was thirsty after all that killing of heathens? I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some ancient copyist, distracted by the unlikeliness of what he was recording, wrote down a line from some different liturgical text.
That Jesus could be identified with the arrogant and ruthless protagonists of such psalmody is a stretch, but maybe the original authors were not deaf to the irony in their compositions. Certainly the gospel-writers must have been aware of it, and also the author of Isaiah 42:1, quoted in Matthew 12:18 as saying, “Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased…he will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.” Yet it is this non-violent servant of God who “brings justice to victory. And in his name the Gentiles will hope.”So much for smashing heads and heaping corpses.
In the gospels, it is not political dominance and military success that authenticate the divine “son-ship” of Jesus, but the “beloved-ness” that proceeds from him and the community around him. The one “whose throne is in heaven” (Psalm 2:4) does not laugh at human rebelliousness or have “them in derision,” nor “speak to them in …wrath,” but raises up from death the one who prays, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
In these gospel passages there is a pronounced irony in play, an outrageous assertion that beloved-ness is more significant than power, and a failed Galilean rabbi is “begotten…in the beauty of holiness, like dew from the womb of the morning.” (Psalm 110:3) It is this one who, like any other human being, “drinks from the brook by the side of the road,” and bids us drink also.