The Herb Of Grace

Theology and Poetry, Politics and Prose

Sex and Philosophy May 12, 2010

Filed under: philosophy,public theology,sex,Spirituality — Joel @ 10:58 pm
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When the life of the mind is given up, as we see that it is in daily discourse, the life of the body attempts to take up the slack, and fails.  Our culture esteems sex as bearing on its passionate waters a singularly spiritual aura of things like “love,” “freedom,” “passion,” and “pleasure.”  The Christian community, with its obsession with the marital power of sex, is as guilty of this as any secular community.  But sex cannot bear the weight of this compliment (though it thanks you very much and blushes, curling its hair in bashful fingers).

Sex is a physical activity that does have a spirituality, but it is not a certain and unchangeable spirituality.  Sexual spirituality, like all other kinds of spirituality, is contingent on the kind of philosophy one holds.  If philosophical conversations are no more in style, then I think that no good kind of sexual spirituality can ensue.  I think our culture has wanted sex to hold within itself all the philosophy, all the good thoughts about the world, that we will ever need.  But sex doesn’t think.  The human mind thinks.

It is the worst and most ironic of philosophies to hold that philosophy is abnormal, too complicated, and therefore unnecessary.  We give up wisdom in hopes that our biology, our bodily urges, will tell us correctly what it is that we should do.  This is indeed incorrect if only for the reason that we have been given such amazing capacities of intellectual and emotional rationality.

Perhaps my point can be made by imagining the cultural swing going the other way (as it has in times past).  Let us imagine that in our society sex is seen as much too complicated, messy, and therefore not worth engaging in (much less being engaged for).  Not being completely dumb, we realize that these biological longings must be assuaged somehow.  Not being completely smart, we decide that a passionate dedication to philosophy and the cultivation of wisdom will serve this purpose.  We no longer need sex as we have figured out how to orgasm in our brains.  This does seem silly.  It is the same ideology in reverse to the one we live in today.

The most important sexual reason to engage in amateur philosophy is that sex happens between two humans, two people made in the image of God, stamped with love, intelligence, longing, and relational matrices.  If we want our lives to be good, and I assume we do, these attributes should be made the subject of common sense reflection.  Only as we recommit ourselves to the life of the mind, that is, to our natural tendency and ability to philosophical investigation, will we find sex knocking at our doors with a thank you card, signed “I never wanted the CEO job, thanks for demoting me.  sincerely, sex.”


Political Discussions in the Public Sphere: Designed to be Powerless August 27, 2009

Filed under: books,Charles Taylor,public theology — Joel @ 5:59 am

Continuing from my previous post on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, I want to reflect on a point that Taylor makes regarding the public sphere.  He makes an interesting distinction between the public sphere of our modern age and the public sphere of the ancient republic or polis.  Both historical scenarios include discussion outside the decision making body.  The difference, he says, is that, in the ancient polis, “the discussions outside….prepare for the action ultimately taken by the same people within it.  The ‘unofficial’ discussions are not separated off, given a status of their own” (189).  The experienced reality of “discussions” in our modern era, on the other hand, operate very differently.  “It is a space of discussion which is self-consciously seen as being outside power.  It is supposed to be listened to by power, but it is not itself an exercise of power.” (190)

I find this very interesting.  We, as citizens of North American style democracy, are taught to view our views, opinons, and discussions as important.  At the same time, I think most people are left wondering how these things actually contribute to the decisions made in the end.  If Taylor is right, our voices don’t figure in unless those in power decide that they should.  Our much touted public sphere of free voices is actually “extra-political,.. a discourse of reason on and to power, rather than by power.” (190)

Now there are good reasons that Taylor cites for the implementation of such spaces as extra-political.  If our discussions on the street are apolitical, then they are less likely to be as charged with violent partisanship.  This unfortunately doubles back on us, creating a modern arena of “political discourse” which seems completely centred around entertainment.  Watching Fox news, imagining it to be a stand-up routine, is an example of how important we view our discussions to be.

How can our discussions become poweful?  How do we side step (or can we?) such a circus of “political discussions” devoid of actual power?  I’m not sure how invested Taylor is in an answer to these questions, but he has done a good job of laying an interesting stage that I had not noticed before.

I don’t think that we have the “right” to be heard.  If we lean on ideas of rights in order to be heard, we only play into the system which has labled our discussions apolitical in the first place.  Instead, if we want to be heard, if we want our discussions to have power, then perhaps a more communally centred approach is the ticket.  In our society, a good measure of whether or not we are truly discussing with political power would be if those “in power” consider our discussions dangerous.  We wouldn’t have to be discussing radical issues, I don’t think; it would instead depend on the strategic place and persistence of our speech.


Things That Sustain: The Eucharist part 2 September 5, 2008

In the previous reflections, forgiveness 1 & 2 and the Eucharist part 1,  I tried to delve into the ways in which these things are essential ‘Christian Practices.’  That is, i have been trying to investigate the sustaining quality of these actions and postures for Christians in hopes that both myself and those who read this might consider more deeply the drama that is our times of gathering.

I want to share how I have experienced the Eucharist as a Christian practice in the last year and how that has facilitated both my further incorporation into the Christian community and a deepening of my spiritual life.  My story in this regard is that of a beginner and so is only good for giving a small embodiment of what the eucharist is; there are deeper and more faithful life stories that should be told here but I am best at talking about myself.

I and some others started a small ‘celtic liturgy’ service at our vineyard church last year.  As we began to envision it, we knew we wanted it to be a few things.  We wanted a time that was simple, liturgical, filled with silence, fed by the lectionary readings (which we don’t currently hear in the main service), seasoned by communal reflection on the scriptures, and crowned by the eucharist.  This wasn’t hard to do; Kate, my wife, ‘duct taped’ together some of our favorite liturgies from the Iona community and the Northumbria community in a seamless and beautiful way.

Every week we printed out the Lectionary readings and the reading we had chosen so that people could more easily ingest and reflect on the material.  It was wonderfully simple; one of us would prepare the readings while another would bake some muffins and make coffee and orange juice.  All in all, we only had to be there fifteen minutes early every sunday in order to cover the basics.  There were and continue to be many amazing things that God brings out of our times together, just as He has always done through the many years.  But I want to focus on one thing: receiving the eucharist.

Receiving the eucharist has been something that I have increasingly loved and treasured the more I have been in the midst of it; but I had never before had a consistent time of celebrating the body and the blood, the life and the death, of Jesus as I have at our celtic liturgy service.  Often acting as the facilitator in the celebration of our liturgy, I found myself becoming increasingly excited as the moment of the eucharist drew nearer and nearer.  I was surprised at this as I realized that I had never had a focal point like this in my communal worship experiences.  Now it felt more like I had stepped into a drama in which the plot, characters, antagonists and protagonists, were all coming to a climax in the breaking of the bread and the taking of the cup.

The only thing I could liken to it was an experience I had one night in Malaysia.  A group of us were at a worship service in which the pastor, an Indian man, said that he felt like God was telling him that some of those present were going to receive a visitation from Jesus that night.  My heart leapt!  There was nothing I could think of that I desired more than to meet Jesus face to face.  Well, it didn’t happen to me.  I heard the next day that it did happen to a few people, I was very disappointed.  But the strange thing was that the disappointment wasn’t bitter, it was sweet.  More than that, I have come to treasure the deep sense of expectation I had that night, waiting up for Jesus.  I really believed on that humid Penang midnight that He could come physically close to me and the fact that he didn’t has not quenched that desire but only inflamed it.

The same expectation is there for me as I await the eucharist but a couple things are different about the context of our celtic liturgy service that amaze me.  One is that we do it every week; we do the same thing, say the same words, eat the same bread and drink the same tawny port, and yet the expectation that Jesus will come to us is the same.  The second is that we do it together.  Unlike that night in Malaysia, where I was alone, we celebrate the eucharist as a group.  This has incredible implications.  The memory that the eucharist embodies is held in communal memory.  That is, simply, we know we are not crazy.  Or at least if we are, we are crazy together.  But there is a real gift there in the sense that seeing that we have the same expectation gives hope and strength.

Taking the eucharist together gives hope because we see the transformation that Jesus effects in one another and so we come to the conclusion that God loves us and is with us today and everyday.  It also gives hope as the bread and the wine tell the story of God never leaving his people either to death or to boredom.

Taking the eucharist together gives strength because if one person is weak that day, they are carried by the ‘practice’ of the others; that person will most likely go through with the celebration even though they feel far from God, themselves, and other people.  So there is strength in the ‘together’ part but there is also strength in the gift of Jesus IN the eucharist.  From the time that Jesus commanded his disciples to regularly take together his body and blood, the whole Trinity has been there, honoring that command, and longing to fill his people with his memory and presence, which are better than life.

One other point about the eucharist as Christian practice.  There are so many stories in the world and they are all clamoring for our attention and devotion.  From Nike to Vishnu, from Mac computers to Buddha, they are all saying that their way of seeing the world is the way we should see the world.  Whether that compliance is expressed by buying a shoe or bending a knee makes no difference: they are asking the same thing.  The story of Jesus is the story that gives our lives meaning above other stories and there is no better place to access this story then in the memory and Presence that Jesus gives to us in his body and blood.


Things That Sustain: The Eucharist, Part 1 September 1, 2008

Things That Sustain: Christian Practices that must not be forgotten (or must be restored) if we hope to “Be Church.”

Here I am continuing my posts on Christian Practices, having so far written on forgiveness. If you’d like, read Forgiveness, Part 1 and Part 2

The Eucharist as Memory and Presence

It is interesting to want to write about the Eucharist, and to try to. It is interesting because of the vantage point that it presupposes; it presupposes a perspective on the Eucharist which could elucidate things about it, a perspective that stands above it. It presupposes that the Eucharist is basically a human institution that can be picked apart as an etymologist dissects a cockroach. It presupposes that we will be able, after this short discussions, to say, “there now, that’s settled; let’s move on to the next Christian practice,” and feel utterly confident that we have plumbed the depth of the thing. I am glad to say that this set of presuppositions is nothing but pride mixed with a healthy dose of stupidity. I am less than glad to tell you that I am not sure just how much of this set of presuppositions I have dwelling within me at the moment. But we try nonetheless and hope, by the power and leading of the Holy Spirit, that we will find more than our presuppositions deserve.

What excites me is the reverse of these presuppositions. That is, if the Eucharist is not what we have said above, then it must be something else, something better. Let us begin by seeing the Eucharist as essentially Christian mystery, as mysterious revelation and presence, as something that Christians do or ‘practice’, not in order to understand it, but in order that we might worship God. When we do this, we are brought closer to the place that millions of hopeful Jesus-followers have lived in their communal gathering, their gatherings of memory and presence.

See the bread and wine lifted up, just as Jesus did, and hear the words, Jesus’ words, “this my body, this is my blood.” Feel the memory rush into your bones, memory of all that God has done; you remember in that moment the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and, layered behind that, God bringing the Israelites out of Egypt and feeding them with bread from heaven and water from rock. Now see all the sinners and saints, which are the same people, go forward and take that presence into their bodies, God’s memory into their memory. In that moment both Presence and memory collide with all our false gods and memories; in that moment Christ is victorious in his people, not by coercion or by violence, but by his community’s humble acceptance of the story and Lordship of Jesus.
Does this sound different from your experience of the eucharist or communion? I know it sounds different from mine. Unlike what I have just been describing, the mystery that surrounded the eucharist for me was simply and sadly that we so received it so infrequently.


Things That Sustain: Forgiveness Part 2 August 29, 2008

Things That Sustain: Christian Practices that must not be forgotten (or must be restored) if we hope to “Be Church.”

The following is a continuation of the previous post, A New Posting Series: Things That Sustain, in which I began discussing the impact of ‘soft’ forms of forgiveness and promised a defense of what I saw as ‘real’ forms of forgiveness; I continue to pursue this end in the scratchings and scramblings below:

But where did these lies come from? Is it really that serious a thing that we sometimes forgive too quickly? I think the point here is that the dismissal of guilt is actually not forgiveness at all, it is a secular way to deal with conflict. We see in this example the impact of “Christian culture” but the impact went only to forms and it has replicated those badly as well. In a Democratic society, conflict, unless sanctioned by the nation, is the enemy. There is no cross to bear, no sacrifice to make; conflict only serves to come between me and my right to the pursuit of happiness. So it makes sense that the world’s way of dealing with conflict (here meaning the children of a North American Democratic society) would be one of avoidance. It’s actually not a bad plan, much pain can be saved by knowing when to sweep an offense under the rug. It is simply not the Christian way.

Our way, as exhibited by the words, but more aptly, by the death of Jesus, teaches us that our conflicts are tied to that one conflict between God-for-man and man-for-man. We are taught not to flee conflict but to trust that God will make our pain into something beautiful. So we don’t have to fear the consequences of confronting someone who has sinned against us; we can trust that God is in the mix, so to speak, and that our endurance, patience, and honesty will be used well by the Holy Spirit.

In this way, by not fleeing from the conflict that may ensue from maintaining honesty, we open the door to forgiveness. What I mean is that by remaining in a state of relative truth (you are not sure that you have perceived the situation correctly), you remain open to relationship, to your responsibility to your brother or sister, and to the ability to see the sin for what it really is; it is from this posture that we give the offense to the cross of Jesus. It is only the forgiveness that is associated deeply with the crucifixion of Jesus that can be called real forgiveness. This does not mean that Jesus even needs to be mentioned to the other person but it means that you are responsible to God to carry out a good forgiveness, not one of the ridiculous imitations that nations devise to keep ‘order.’

This does bring into play another reason why our conceptions of forgiveness should be so closely tied to the life and death of Jesus; that reason is conversion and repentance. The words conversion and repentance seem to have a bad rap with many people and I think there are probably very good reasons for this. One of the reasons, no doubt, is that they have suffered the same abuse as forgiveness, the abuse of making it boring and nondescript, but that is another talk.

When we forgive someone in the way that Jesus forgives, and we will outline what this is later, we open the door to conversion (if they have never known Christ and His community) or we open the door to repentance (if they have known Christ and His community). I want to be clear that I do not mean repentance as the offender admitting that he or she is wrong; I mean their returning to God and His community by way of awe at the actions of those who attempt to imitate Christ in word and deed.


Ethics August 21, 2008

“The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection.

The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, pg. 17

With these two sentences, Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins his famous Ethics. Of course, he did not necessarily mean to begin this way. Ethics is a compilation of papers found hidden after Bonhoeffer’s execution by the Nazis. The collected papers were meant for a large book about ethics so the question of the form that he intended can only be surmised from the clues of the writing we have. It is thus amazing that the scrapings of this young german pastor have made such a beautiful piece of work. I will say with honesty that I have never read such wonderful lines as the above in all my interactions with theology.

That of course brings us to the question of the above passage and to the reason why I am focusing on it in this wee paper. I think most of us, were we to read only the first sentence, would agree heartily with it. “The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection.” It makes sense of our experience; anytime one is engaged in any kind of ethical debate, the support one person or another will usually call to their aid is that the ethical issue in question is right or wrong, good or evil. they may couch it in language that seeks to give the impression of openness and universality but that too is a value which they accepted based on their perception of it as right and good. I don’t think we think about this much, it’s fair to say we assume that our ‘conscience’ is a universal we all share. This is further assumed to be a good thing. After all, how many of us were brought up by our parents in hopes that we would acquire the knowledge of what was right and what wrong? If we could grasp it, this knowledge was thought to be an adequate tool to paddle us through life.

Because of this I deeply understand why one would react negatively to the second sentence with which Bonhoeffer follows up the first, “The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge.” (the knowledge of good and evil) How could this be true? Aren’t Christians supposed to be in support of good and right things? indeed, I understand why someone would be slightly afraid to see what Bonhoeffer considered ‘ethics’ at all if it’s first task was to make ideas of right and wrong unimportant or invalid.

But to understand Bonhoeffer’s amazing point, we must see that even our parent’s best intentions at teaching ‘morals’ and ‘values’ may have been misguidedly handed down to them from their parents. Perhaps that conscience which ‘everyone’ supposedly has is not as universal as we have been taught. The core of this thought is that ideas of right and wrong are rooted ultimately in the story of the original fall of humanity. Our governments and schools have attempted this sin again in our time, suggesting that we really all know good and evil regardless of whether we know God. The separation of ‘good’ and ‘right’ from God is not a problem for those outside the Christian community, at least they have something to help them navigate life’s sometimes murky waters. (because of this, we should not fight for prayer in schools but fight first for our Christians to learn how to pray)

But if we cannot, from one side of the debate, know clearly what is right and what is heinous (and thereby win our point, whatever it is) and if we cannot, from the other side, see clearly that all ideas of right and wrong are relative (and thereby win our point, whatever it is), then why fight for anything at all? But we do have a fight, a fight for Christians to realize their own heritage, golden and blooming. We have an ethic for our lives so strong and so resilient, so flexible and unchanging, that we will never be the same once we have begun to realize it. This ethic is a person and a life, it is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We are not to be concerned so much with what is right and what is wrong but rather that we would live and die like Jesus did. Yes in fact, the life and death of Jesus, and God’s raising him from dead, and the Holy Spirit’s presence on earth, all make available the resources of God we need to live as His community in the world.


Church History & The Protestant Loss Of Time July 28, 2008

        I have become haunted by Christian history.  Now I don’t mean that in the way I assume you think.  I am not haunted by the ghosts of past Christian sin.  I am stalked by a realization, new to my protestant mind (or more precisely: my communitarian-baptist-evangelical-vineyard mind), that as the Church we have a history, that we are essentially a historical family. 

        This was new to me; I think growing up in evangelical youth groups and summer camps firmly cemented the implied notion that there was nothing of substance or value in any events after the gospels and before the 20th century.  When Christian history was spoken of in my above mentioned childhood contexts, it was mentioned in derision and lament at the mistakes of the Catholics, the Puritans, the medieval Christians, the post Luther Lutherans (for of course the only history I did know was that someone wonderful named Luther ‘liberated’ the Church so that we could today enjoy such religious ‘freedom’ and ‘spontaneity). 

           One got the sense, and I know I am unfortunately far from alone in this, that we were part of the Church that had finally got it right and prayed like the Pharisee, “Thank You Lord that I am not like your ignorant children of old!”  Acting and speaking as if there was nothing good to find in that time between Jesus and Billy Graham was, I am thinking now, a sub-conscious proclamation that there is no time, that now is the only moment, that even the gospel and Jesus and all the apostles are merely spiritual truths that have always been the same and are only now being grasped.