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
Tags: ,

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.”

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Music in Modernity: Gatherings of Sub-Conscious Desire August 19, 2009

Filed under: books,Charles Taylor,Spirituality — Joel @ 5:49 pm

I have spent the summer reading Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, a large work in which he endeavors to explain how, in 1500, it was inconceivable not to believe in God while in 2000 it is quite easy, if not inescapable.  He is determined not to weigh-in with his own opinion while admitting that this is impossible; thus he simply omits the end of every paragraph where you would expect an essayist to declare, “and so I agree/disagree with this.”  It has been a good read (800 some pages) and I have enjoyed beginning to think through some of his points.

On page 360, Taylor speaks about modern gatherings around music as an example of the uncertain response of many westerners to the various tides of agnosticism, atheism, and anti-deism.  He says,

“I am thinking of the way in which publicly performed music, in concert hall and opera house, becomes an especially important and serious activity in nineteenth century bourgeois Europe and America.  People begin to listen to concerts with an almost religious intensity.  The analogy is not out of place.  The performance has taken on something of a rite, and has kept it to this day.  There is a sense that something great is being said in this music.  This too has helped create a kind of middle space, neither explicitly believing, but not atheistic either, a kind of undefined spirituality.”

Most of us have heard the likening of U2 concerts to church services, and Arcade Fire holding its concerts in cathedrals offers another example.  But it is not the lyrics (U2) or the setting (Arcade Fire) which Taylor alludes to, but rather the sense of profundity that one can experience at a concert.  I think the “undefined” and “middle space” are crucial thoughts here.  While most feel vaguely or strongly uncomfortable with the idea of everyone going to church, they are not ready to abandon the “feel” of sacred gatherings either.  Music, with its poetry and sonic unsayables, offers a gracious canvas on which to place the mixed paint of (1) nostalgia for the common point of celebration and depth that was the Mass, (2) assumed discomfort with “doctrine” or “dogma,” and (3) a palpable “not-going-away” desire to gather around some agreed-upon depth.  All this is experienced in a kind of demilitarized zone of the arts.

I’m both glad and uncomfortable with this.  I’m glad that the longing for sacred gathering is still very much alive.  I see it as a sign of hope that our communal memories are not completely shot.  My discomfort comes with our lack of historical and sociological awareness about the reasons for our musical gatherings.

This is a feeling that I’ve been having all through the book.  Its a feeling akin to someone telling you how ridiculous you’ve been acting around your ex-girlfriend, and you having no idea that you were acting so strange.  Christianity is our society’s ex-girlfriend.  We’re still wanting a little something-something (nostalgia), while at the same time recoiling, remembering truthfully (somewhat) her various infidelities.  I say this not to mean that we should just “turn back time,” I recoil at that; but I am disturbed by our lack of aquaintance with the history of our own desires.  Are we following a path that will lead us into greater light or are we are rats in a causal cage, outfitted with Bose speakers?

 

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.

 

How To Imagine? July 23, 2008

         I am wondering what it is to think of something which has no present reality.  All of us are moving, whether by our own movements or somebody else’s upon us.  It seems difficult to know where one is and where one might be going.

 

            I am thinking now of trust; of who to trust and why and for how long?  I exasperate at my obvious connection to trust invoking advertisements: political, religious, and capitalistic; I have not been able to turn my eyes away.  In bars with friends, my eyes are drawn to the harsh but inviting light of flat screens rather than to the light of God moving in the darkness.

 

           To trust that whatever small and paltry thing I might submit as passing for a sacrifice, that God will hold it in appropriate distance from myself, the world, His name.  Where is the strength to endeavor?  Not in success, i have ceased believing in it as a mode of justification.  In money?  I should say no, and I will, but not without admitting that it wouldn’t be bad to go forward in that way, having every idea funded and made physical…  but no.  The best thinkers, the best pray-ers, many of them, i realize, were dead when their thoughts and prayers published and brought into the hallowed halls of fame.  Did they despair at lack of notoreity and money?  Did they ever imagine their near sainthood of the present day?  If they despaired and did not conceive of sainthood, then what was their strength?  How did they continue to imagine, to innovate (that is, to pray), even as the walls and empires of boredom where being built around them and their church?

             How can we stay elastic and inspired?  Humble and contrary enough?  Unknowingly innocent and knowingly guilty?  I can feel the claws of the ordinary, the fearful, against my door, and I am scrambling to remember where the hidden passageway is.