2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 11,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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mimetic scarcity (2)

outsideSupper1The loosening of family and tribal bonds was a second and much longer term strategy for diffusing violence resulting from mimetic rivalry. (See mimetic scarcity 1 for context.) Up to the present day it has been effective enough to be considered a good thing. But it has its disadvantages. It has led to what Norman Geres, a writer cited by Paul Dumouchel, calls “a contract of indifference.” This contract has released from obligations for violence, such as the vendettas that have scarred many social groups. That is good. But this contract as also released us from obligations to care for the misfortunes of other people. That is, we are no longer our brother’s keeper. As an instinctive reaction to violence, the various effects were never planned out and they are still not easily visible. Most seriously, the contract of indifference is deleterious to social conscience. We don’t easily see a connection between our individual actions and their social consequences. To take one example: polluting the environment just doesn’t seem to get on the radar of those who use technology at a level that does just that. It supports an individualist spirituality where saving one’s own soul is the main thing and broader social issues are off the radar.

It is the scarcity created by this “solution” that forms the founding dynamic of capitalism. The basic argument, as I understand it, is that the scarcity gives humans an incentive to try and overcome the scarcity by increasing production so that there will be more material goods than there were. This works in the sense that more material goods are produced that can be consumed by people. But scarcity is not overcome because the increase of production increases desires for goods and when this leads to more increased production, desires increase still more. Material goods never catch up with desire. Mimetic desire, where we desire things because other people desire them, further intensifies this frenzy because whole inventories of perfectly wearable shoes disappear if only a few designs are in fashion. This is how this “peaceful” solution to violence leads directly to the quiet, hidden, sacrifice of many people on the hidden altars of indifference. Indifference is just as contagious as mimetic violence. The ennui of modern humanity analyzed by legions of philosophers and social commentators witnesses to the extent of this contagion.

If Paul Dumouchel is right in suggesting that creating scarcity has roots in early humanity, created scarcity has become much more prominent in modern times. I will make only a brief historical detour to consider the Jewish tradition. The prophets exposed the truth of collective violence much more deeply and clearly than other cultures, thus attenuating the efficacy of sacrificial religion. (“I desire steadfast love, not sacrifice” Hos. 6:6) Did this prophetic exposure increase use of the solution of scarcity to limit violence? The countless oracles against oppression of the poor suggest that scarcity was alive and well in early Jewish society. Perhaps the surrounding cultures, still grounded in sacrificial religion, still had stronger social bonds for caring for each other’s’ needs. Maybe. An historical study of this matter would be welcome.

In pleading for the poor and oppressed, the Jewish prophets were clearly aware of the problems created by scarcity and loosening social bonds and so were trying to increase the scope of “family.” That is, far from loosening ties, we are to strengthen them and extend them. By inviting all of us into being siblings of him, Jesus also encouraged us to be brothers and sisters of one another: the whole church, all of humanity is family. Jesus is most explicit in this teaching in Matthew 25 where “the least of these” are all part of Jesus’ family and therefore ours as well. It is this sense of family that motivated St. Paul to take up a collection in his various churches so as to give famine relief to the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem.

This is a hard saying. First the Jewish prophets and then Jesus, by his death as a result of collective violence, throws a monkey wrench into the first “solution” to violence. But before he died, Jesus, along with the prophets who preceded him, threw another monkey wrench into this second solution. We are given an ascetical double whammy. We have to renounce the solidarity that leads to mimetic strife and then to collective violence, but not only must we retain these same ties, we must strengthen and extend them when it comes to providing for others. That is, the borders that made providing for family tenable have been exploded. Not only that, but if these are “solutions” to violence resulting from intensified mimetic rivalry, and both have been exploded, then we have to discipline ourselves to renounce that rivalry. In analyzing the land enclosures in England, Dumouchel noted the mimetic rivalry of the lairds that caused them to desire better productivity of their lands that brought on scarcity without reducing any material goods in their environments. Make no mistake. I am not suggesting we have to renounce capitalism. We have to exchange goods and services somehow. But renouncing mimetic strife will change the social complexion of capitalism as it changes everything else.

One of the reasons this social demand for social solidarity seems so onerous is because we tend to hear it through the filter of “the contract of indifference.” That is, we think the entire burden falls on each of us individually. We forget even before we hear it that we are invited into a family, a family that is the Body of Christ. We do not have to take responsibility for others, each on our own little lonesome. That would be rugged individualism all over again. Instead, we are encouraged to take responsibility as members of a Body. Jesus reaches out to everyone through each and every one of us. Our personal responsibilities are collective responsibilities.

Church as Family

HolyFamilybyGutierrezAnother set of images of the Church is drawn from family. As with other images, only more so here, there are strengths and weaknesses. Most important, they bring to remembrance our families of origin. If our family experiences are, on balance, good, then the images reinforce that, but if the experiences are seriously bad, then the images become stumbling blocks. These can be at least as hard to overcome as the stumbling blocks parents and/or siblings have put before us, especially in our earliest years. If the latter is the case, we need to remember that healing was a major ministry on the part of Jesus and healing familial brokenness continues to be part of that.

The Fatherhood of God is an important familial image in Christian spirituality as the Lord’s Prayer reminds us every time we say it. But it is important to remember that God is addressed as “Father” (better yet: Papa) by Jesus before God is addressed that way by us. Jesus is alerting us to the paternal care given all of us by God, but God’s paternity comes to us through Jesus. At the Annunciation, the Heavenly Father, who already has begotten the Son from all Eternity, begets the human child in Mary’s womb. As a conscious human, Jesus experienced the love of his Heavenly Father most strongly when he was baptized in the Jordan by John. The voice from Heaven said: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This pre-emptive love of the child is fatherhood at its best. It is like the happy parent who is overjoyed with the birth of a child simply because the child is. It is this pre-emptive Love that is the Foundation of the Church, the rock on which the Church is built.

The image of Mother, Jesus’ earthly mother, has often been used as an image for the Church. As a particular flesh-and-blood mother she is Mother Church without being an abstraction. That she would nourish the baby Jesus from her own body makes her a perfect image of nurturing. When confronted with the mysteries surrounding Jesus’ birth, she pondered them in her heart. Little else is told us about her from Scripture but she stood by Jesus at the cross, making her the archetype of many more grieving mothers whose sons have been treated the way her son was. The nurturing we receive from our mothers has a lot to do with having a basic sense of security that helps us resist rivalrous mimetic desire as we grow up. Failures in early nurturing create basic insecurities that are difficult to overcome. The Church as a whole is called to delight in every child and to nurture every child during maturation.

Important as these paternal and maternal relationships are, they belong to Jesus first and to the rest of us secondarily. That is to say, Jesus relates to us as our brother and we are all Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Considering the history of sibling rivalry in scripture, this is of immense significance. Jesus is the keeper of his brother that Abel never had and he is Cain’s keeper as well. In her book Intimate Domain, Martha Reineke discusses the tension and fundamental choice a child is faced with when a sibling is born: whether to compete or to welcome the sibling as “more of me” rather than less. There is no competing with Jesus over mama or papa so we might as well be civil brothers and sisters with him and with each other in the bargain.

There is a curious story in the Gospels that hint of possible tensions even in the Holy Family. Jesus is told that his mother and brothers and sisters are outside wanting to speak to him. Jesus points to the people who are listening to him and says that they are his mother and brothers and sisters. This indicates that even during his lifetime, Jesus is building a kinship network based not on bloodlines but on obedience to God’s Desire. There are people from broken families who find family through the Church. (Here I mean Church in the broadest sense! Where this nurturing takes place, there is Church, when it doesn’t, there is no church.) Building deep kinship ties through Jesus happens when we allow Jesus to bring us into the arms of his Mother and the Presence of the Heavenly Father who is so well-pleased with us that our hearts melt and we really want to be pleasing to our brothers and sisters.

A Highway to Seeing the Glory of the Lord

treespath1After her humiliating defeat by Babylon, Israel was broken. The movers and shakers who had kept the society going were taken to Babylon where they couldn’t move or shake any more. Then, fifty years later, the prophet known as Second Isaiah proclaimed comfort to Jerusalem: the exiles will return, travelling through the desert on “a highway for our God.” Jerusalem will be made whole once again! This return of the exiles is a new thing, at least as great a new thing as God’s delivery of the Jews out of Egypt. Not only that, but, like the earlier new thing, this deliverance is a re-creation of the world by the God who is now proclaimed to be the sole creator of the world out of nothing.

René Girard suggested that the levelling of mountains and valleys stood for the levelling of society that precipitates a sacrificial crisis. I have a counter Girardian suggestion: the levelling of the desert landscape is God’s removing of the obstacles that prevent us from seeing God. The obstacles here are the social tensions created through mimetic rivalry that tear a society apart. For Isaiah, this levelling is God’s work and removing obstacles is what God does. God does not create social crises; humans do that. Isaiah said that, with the highway smoothed out, “all flesh” will see the glory of the Lord.” Not only that, but if a Gentile king had made this return possible, how much greater would the outreach be from Jerusalem to all Gentiles once the Jewish nation was reunited?

But such was not to be. The Jewish nation broke again and this time it was the Jews who broke it, not the Babylonians. Denunciations of social injustice protested by the Isaianic prophets before the Exile were repeated by Isaiah’s successors after the exile. The movers and shakers who had returned from exile also returned to moving and shaking at the expense of their weaker Jews. An anonymous victim, known as the “Suffering Servant” paid the price for the nation’s brokenness. The mountains and valleys had been recreated and the glory of the Lord was hidden once again.

“The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ” is the opening of Mark’s Gospel. The Greek word “arche” also refers to the ultimate beginning of creation and the two attempted re-creations in Jewish history. Mark quotes the words of Isaiah to announce that once again (or still) God is creating a highway for God. So it is that the subsequent appearance of Jesus and his baptism by John is yet a new beginning for humanity. Once again God is removing the obstacles and just as quickly, humans are putting the obstacles back in place, with the result that Jesus was left hanging on a cross.

By coming round every year, the Season of Advent proclaims God’s removing of obstacles so that all of us, together, can see the Glory of the Lord. Will we join God, at least a little, in the work of removing obstacles so that we can glimpse the glory the obstacles hide?

Liturgical Animals (2)

eucharist1In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul brings us to the heart of Christian worship that Jesus inspired at what we call his Last Supper. His followers were doing what he told them to do: Do this in memory of me. While both the myths and rituals obscured the sacrificial stories on which they were based, the Eucharist clearly tells the story on which it is based:  the betrayal of Jesus, his subsequent crucifixion, and his rising from the dead.  This earliest account of the Eucharist, predating all of the Gospels, enshrines the Words of Institution that are repeated in celebrations of the Eucharist two thousand years later. The Eucharist teaches us through its story but it also teaches us at a deeper, more substantial level through actually feeding us with the Word of God so tangibly that we chew on it and swallow it. Celebrating the Eucharist places our desires into Jesus’ Desire for us to gather with him and the other Persons of the Trinity.

The meal is probably the oldest of rituals performed by liturgical animals. Eating is the first activity that immerses us into mimetic desire as we imitate the desires of our caregivers to desire food and, by the time we are old enough to be conscious of what we are eating, to desire certain foods because those around us desire them. However, as much as meals have to do with providing necessary bodily nourishment, they are always more than that. An intrinsic part of learning to eat is learning how to eat in the company of others. It may be culturally arbitrary whether we use eating utensils and plates or large leaves and fingers, but in every culture I have ever heard of, there is always a way of eating that is learned. The shared desire for food extends to a shared desire for the way of eating it. By rooting liturgy in a meal, the Eucharist roots worship in the sensuous act of eating; of tasting food and drink on our tongues.

In this same letter, Paul brings up the manner of table manners in regards to the Eucharist. He berates the richer members of the congregation for their insensitive treatment of those who are more economically challenged. To flaunt their superior food in front of those who cannot afford it without offering them anything was a serious violation of everything the Eucharist stands for. This desire shared by one group in the congregation to demonstrate their superiority over others, to put them in their places, breaks the unity the feast is supposed to create and strengthen. Paul makes it clear that there is much more to worship than saying or singing words together while celebrating a sacrifice. If people are not treated well, worship is diminished if not rendered nonexistent.

John’s version of the feeding in the wilderness brings all of these themes together. The event is explicitly brought into the context of Yahweh’s feeding the Jews in the wilderness after their escape from Egypt. Raymond Brown pointed out that rabbinic teaching interpreted the manna as symbolizing the Torah, thus uniting food and teaching, something the Eucharist also does. While Matthew and Mark recount two feedings in the wilderness, one for the Jews and one for the Gentiles, John has one story of feeding for all people. Jesus’ blessing of the bread and fishes has ritual overtones although the feeding is taking place in the open air, away from temples, synagogues and churches. The social unity that Paul enjoins is embodied in John’s vision where it gains a deep universality. Unfortunately, the people then unite in trying to make Jesus king, which destroys the social vision as surely as the Corinthians did.

The Eucharist teaches us that we don’t outgrow our earliest lessons: table manners. Without them, we don’t grow up.