The Power of the Ascended Lord

Human_headed_winged_bull_facingAscension Day is a feel-good celebration of Jesus seated at God’s “right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” If Christ is reigning like that and we are reigning with Him and sharing in Christ’s power, then we too are over everybody else just as Jesus is over everybody else. Sounds like a good deal. Or is it? Let’s take a closer look at what this power of Christ is all about.

Getting a sense of how power and especially omnipotence applies to God is tricky. After all, we dream of being omnipotent and invulnerable so we assume that the Master of the Universe wishes the same thing. Not a good assumption.

René Girard noted that power is attributed to the primordial victims of collective violence. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God) That is, the victim was powerful enough to be the cause of the social meltdown and also powerful enough to be the solution to the violence. (The reality, of course, is that such victims were normal humans with no supernatural powers.) The Gospels reveal Jesus as a vulnerable human being who clearly did not cause the social crises of first-century Jerusalem and whose death brought about no solution to it. Whatever power Jesus has, it isn’t this power. The illusion of the power of the victim should make us suspicious about how we attribute power to God.

A second and more common image of power is the imperial structure. In the days of Isaiah and other prophets, Assyria was such an image. The statues and friezes of winged bulls are symbols of this kind of power. This is the kind of power the apostles seem to have been thinking of when they asked Jesus: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) Jesus’ ascension right after hearing this question was a firm No.

When Paul says that Jesus is far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come,” he is saying that Jesus is far above and beyond all cultures that rely on sacrificial violence and the Assyrian-Roman impositions of power. That is, the power of Christ is to bring us out from these cultural practices. But are we being brought out of the world to escape these cultural entanglements? Sorry if you were hoping for that.

crosswButterfliesPaul concludes this section of Ephesians with powerful irony: “God has put all things under [Jesus’] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Paul is using the common image of military victim where the victor lays his foot on the head of the vanquished, making the loser his footstool. But under Jesus’ foot is not the head of the vanquished but Jesus’ own Body, the Church. This is the Body of the crucified one who was raised from the dead and returned as the forgiving victim. Jesus’ reigning in Heaven at the right hand of the Father is coterminous with Jesus living with us here on earth, sharing our vulnerability to the imperial structures of power who continue to act like the Assyrians and the Romans.

If we are the Body of the forgiving victim, then forgiveness, not rulership, is what reigning with Christ is all about. This power to forgive was the gift the risen Christ breathed into the disciples (Jn. 20:23)  In John, Jesus says that it is this “Spirit of truth” who abides in us. When we keep Jesus’ words, he and the Father and the Spirit will come and dwell within us to empower us with their love for one another and for us and for all those whose sins (including our own!) need forgiving.

 

Advertisements

Freud’s Illusion and the Paschal Mystery

Cemetary2In December 1927, the New York Times announced that Freud had doomed religion with his book The Future of an Illusion. In The Authenticity of Faith: the Varieties and Illusions of Religious Experience, psychologist and professing Christian Richard Beck evaluates this claim. Beck points out that Freud did not debunk religion by refuting the classical proofs of God’s existence but by arguing that religion was ego-centric wishful thinking that we must outgrow. We could respond by suggesting that atheism is wishful thinking; a wish not to be accountable to God. There is that but there is much value in taking Freud’s critique seriously to see if it holds up to Christianity as it is actually lived which is what Beck does.

Beck turns to Ernest Becker to evaluate Freud’s thesis. Becker (the focus of Beck’s book Slavery to Death) argued that denial of death was a prime motivation in human behavior, leading us to seek “heroic” acts levels to stave off the reality of death, an example of what Freud called sublimation. (See Escape from the Denial of Death)  It happens that there have been many scientific studies of Becker’s thesis by his followers and they tend to show that the more one is reminded of mortality, the more rigidly one defends one’s worldview and denigrates others. This applies to any worldview, not just Christianity.

Beck then brings in the Psalms of lamentation (a large chunk of the Psalter) and the spiritual darkness that Mother Teresa admitted to as counter-indications that wishful thinking is the only dynamic in Christianity. Beck could just as easily have brought in St. John of the Cross who wrote about “the dark night of the soul.” Beck then turns to William James who pre-dated Freud in his scientific study of religious experience that was published in The Varieties of Religious Experience. James distinguished between “healthy-minded” believers and “sick souls.” The terms are misleading in that “healthy-mindedness” is superficial and leads to denial of life’s difficulties and so is not really that healthy. Meanwhile, “sick souls” wrestle with cognitive dissonance and inner darkness in a way that makes them more resilient and authentic in the long run. The Psalmist of lament, Mother Teresa and St. John of the Cross would be “sick souls.” Beck notes that the charges Freud and Becker make about wishful believers applies well to what James called the “healthy-minded” but not at all to the “sick souls.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous distinction between “cheap grace” and “costly grace” seems to fit James’ distinction quite well.

Since there had been no scientific investigations of James’ categories, Beck has filled this gap with his own field work. First, participants were given a questionnaire to give ratings as to how “healthy-minded” or “sick-souled” they were and then they were given a task such as to evaluate an essay by a Christian and one by a Buddhist. Not surprisingly, the “healthy-minded” respondents denigrated the Buddhist while the “sick souls” were much more tolerant in their attitudes. The same result came with tests on comfort with the Incarnation (such as whether one admits Jesus might have had diarrhea) or evaluating two works of art, one imaging healthy-mindedness, the other more focused on life’s pain. In each case, there was strong confirmation of James’ distinction of different believers.

It is worth mentioning René Girard’s theory of the origin of religion in collective violence in this context. Girard does not think that early humans wished for pie in the sky and then made up a religion to get it. Rather, they responded to social crises by killing or expelling a victim. The camaraderie that resulted from this act and the institutionalization of sacrifice was the payoff. (See Two Ways of Gathering) In fact, belief in a heavenly afterlife is quite a latecomer in world religion. The social solidarity of collective violence can easily be achieved these days without a deity. Freud himself made a dogma of his ideas and expelled all dissenters. In Girard’s thinking, it is the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ suffering and death that expose sacred violence for what it is. Girard’s thought adds weight to the correlation between being “healthy-minded” and prone to expelling those who differ. Beck does not say anything about the Paschal Mystery, but the cross at the center of Christianity should be enough to suggest that Christianity has its own built-in critique of wish-fulfillment in Freud’s sense or “healthy-minded” religion in James’ sense. One need only read the Epistles of Paul to see this self-critique at the origins of Christianity. I think Beck would agree since he sees a much deeper love among the “sick souls” than among the “healthy-minded” and he notes that in 1 Corinthians Paul says that love is the greatest virtue of all.

Beck’s exploration of Freud and James is of great importance for coming to grips with a theological anthropology and pointing in the direction of authentic faith and genuine spirituality.

Vainglory – Enslavement to the Admiration of Others

garden1Although pride is usually posited as the opposite of humility, the early eastern monastics distinguished vainglory from pride. (Some translations use “boasting” or conceit.”) It is not always easy to see the distinction between the two but vainglory tends to be seeking glory from humans while pride is more directly related to our relationship with God; thinking, or acting as if we don’t need God. In terms of mimetic theory, vainglory is seeking to stir up the desire of other people for our own actions. Vainglory is acting like the hypocrites who make a public display of almsgiving “that they may be praised by others” (Mt. 6:2) or of their fasting for the same reason. Jesus says they have “received their reward,” which presumably is to be praised by other people. John Cassian says that vainglory “has many styles, forms, and “variations” as it can strike at everything we do since every action or even every inaction can be motivated by vainglory. (John Cassian, Monastic Institutes, p. 163)

This is a tough one because it is difficult not to want to be admired. Moreover, although it is vainglorious to want people to acclaim books we write or our other accomplishments, there is no sense and no edification in writing badly or doing bad work. When Benedict says that readers in church or at table should read well enough to edify the hearers, or that the guest quarters should be well prepared for visitors, he makes it clear that we should try to do every task assigned to us well, whether it is writing a book or vacuuming the hallway.

Some of the desert monastics were ruthless with themselves in their attempts to stifle vainglory. This was difficult because they were admired by many people who heard about their lifestyles. When a group of admirers came to see Abba Moses, they asked a monastic where he could be found. The monk told them to go away because Abba Moses was a fool and not worth seeing. They turned away, only to find out from some other monastics that it was Abba Moses himself who had driven them away. Some people take this reverse strategy to the extreme by assuming that if “men revile us and persecute us and utter all kinds of evil against us falsely on Jesus’ account than we are blessed. Maybe, but in a talk I heard Gil Bailie give, he said that we aren’t blessed if people revile us for being a clod. The problem is that we are still preoccupied with the opinions of others.

Jesus gives us a clue when he follows his admonition not to trumpet our almsgiving and other good deeds by adding: “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret” (Mt. 6:3-4). In his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount in Cost of Discipleship Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes the tension with the admonition: “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your father who is in heaven” (Mt. 5:17) Bonhoeffer suggests that the trick is to hide our good works from ourselves. To do this, we must hide any admiration we get from them as well.

As John Cassian has pointed out, we can be haunted by vainglory when we write a book or vacuum the hallway or do anything else. The best we can do is concentrate not on ourselves or the admiration of others but upon the work itself. As an act of charity, we should try to write a good book that is helpful to others and vacuum the hallway to make the house nicer for those who live there. Benedict has the table reader pray the verse “Lord open my lips” before reading for the week to drive away pride (RB 38:3). Again he wants to reader to concentrate on reading well and not on how well one is reading. Perhaps the best advice Benedict has to offer is: “Do not aspire to be called holy before you really are, but first be holy that you may more truly be called so” (RB 4: 62).

Stumbling over Living Stones

Cemetary2With the help of a Salvation Army-style trombone, Bob Dylan sings with his wry humor that “they” will stone you for “trying to be so good” or when you’re “tryin’ to go home,” for “walkin’ on the floor,” for “walkin’ out the door,” and even when you are “young and able” or sitting “at the breakfast table.” Given the way his fans turned on him time and again for not singing what they wanted, it’s no surprise that “they” will stone you “when you’re playing your guitar.” Seems like “they” will stone you no matter what you do or don’t do. Then, after stoning you, they “will say you are brave” and then “they’ll stone you when you are set down in your grave.” As if “they” haven’t stoned you enough already. In the refrain, Dylan sings that he “wouldn’t feel so all alone/Everybody must get stoned.” Usually, persecution is “they” (i.e. everybody) against a victim, such as what happened in the stoning of Stephen. But if everybody gets stoned, then everybody is a victim and there’s nobody left to be “they” who will stone you. If we all become Stephen, not only do we get stoned; we “see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). This was the moment of epiphany for Stephen that transformed him into a forgiving victim like Jesus. In his speech to the Sanhedrin that outraged his listeners, he was not exactly a model of tactful diplomacy.

In his first epistle, Peter identifies Jesus with the living stone rejected by the builders that has become the cornerstone in Psalm 118. Jesus identified himself as this cornerstone at the end of his parable of the evil workers in the vineyard who ganged up on the owner’s son and killed him. (Mt. 21:33-41) Stephen was killed by stones the builders rejected and left outside of Jerusalem when they were building the temple. Jesus was threatened with stoning several times and escaped until his time had come and he gave himself up to the cross. When Jesus says that he is the way, the truth and the life and that nobody can come to the Father except through him (Jn. 14:6), he is saying that the only way to God is by way of the stone that was rejected. Rejected by whom? If we think it is other people who have rejected this living stone, we are probably right but we fail to understand ourselves in this. Moreover, we are rejecting the people we blame for these rejections and so we stumble over them and they stumble over us. Speaking for myself, I don’t like being rejected and I don’t instinctively feel that being rejected is the way to God. I would rather be the keystone in my own scheme of things. So, actually, I reject this living stone all the time and I stumble constantly over my fantasies of being the cornerstone of my own life. Much as I like Bob Dylan, I’d rather leave him all alone rather than get stoned.

But Jesus the living stone is abundantly forgiving and he waits for us to stop stumbling around and come to him. Peter tells us that it turns out Jesus is building “a spiritual house,” “a holy priesthood” out of each one of us and he is building it out the parts of us that we reject, out of our failures, not our successes, which makes our failures our successes. Well, Dylan said “there is no success like failure and failure is no success at all.” Stones can be hard and dead, useful only for stoning people. Our hearts can be just as hard and we stumble on our stony hearts until we come to the living stone who wants to make us living stones. Living stones don’t pick up stones to throw at other people; they pick up stones to build into the spiritual house. In this spiritual house, there are many dwelling places where there is room for us to grow further into the abundant life of Jesus the living stone, enough room that we do not need to stumble over one another and yet a house where we are all together and we don’t have to be so all alone.

Respect (3)

AndrewWashingFeet - CopyThe situation of the cellarer of the monastery providing for people who depend on his solicitude is quite the opposite of the person who approaches God in prayer “humbly and respectfully.” The cellarer himself would be on the other end of the stick on this one. Here is the danger of projecting worldly power on God when God is approached humbly and respectfully. If we picture God as a whimsical potentate who grants favors or withholds them in plays of power the way we do if and when we get a chance, then we slip into playing these power games with people who depend on us. This is precisely what Benedict forbids the cellarer to do. Benedict forbids such behavior because it goes against the Gospel.

St, Benedict famously insists that “all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” Benedict goes on to quote Matthew 25 to emphasize the point. Likewise, the cellarer, in attended to fellow monastics and guests should do the same. Benedict also says that “care of the sick must rank above and before all else, so that they may truly be served as Christ.” Once again, Benedict quotes Matthew 25. “The Lord of all things” whom we approach in prayer with our needs, who is greater than “a powerful man” from whom we might ask a favor, identifies with the humans who approach us in need.

We all have a hard time respecting people in positions subordinate to us, especially if they are needy. We instinctively look down on them because we think we are the ones with something to give or withhold. In other words, were are in the winning position and we like it that way. However, if Christ assumes the “losing” position, and Christ is the King whom we should obey, then we should be obedient to the needs of others in a respectful way. We might say that Christ makes other people respectable even if they have no respectability within themselves. The implication of this, of course, is that we also lack respectability within ourselves and it is Christ who gives us respectability.

The theological principal for saying that a person is entitled to respect just for being a human being is that we are each made in the image of God. That is true, but Christ’s identification with each person in need, and we all are in need in some ways at some times, is superadded to our creation in God’s image. This super-addition is based on Christ’s redemption of us, Christ’s having died for us. Since Christ died for everybody, Christ identifies with everybody. By identifying with each of us, Christ takes the rivalry out of the relationship. The way we relate to one another has nothing to do with winning, with having the upper hand in some way. Christ has leveled the playing field. Christ is focused on the needs of each one of us. That means Christ is focused on our own needs and also the needs of the people we encounter. It is doing what we can with another’s needs and having a kind word when we can’t. (And we often can’t fill another’s needs.) In all this, we participate in Christ’s respect for us, which makes us more respectable than we were.