Thursday, February 18, 2021

Some Lenten Reflections, 2021

There has been a process, both internal and external, going on in and throughout the several pieces that have been recorded in this space over the decade of its existence. One of the most recent read-out’s came from a close friend, actually an usher at a wedding in 1965, who, upon surfing the site, commented, ‘you have been saying the same thing from the beginning to the end’…My first ‘take’ on his observation, was, ‘gulp’ and then, the reflexive ‘yes’ and then a protracted period of reflection as to how the ‘single sentence’ that seemed to sum these pages might be formed. What have I been trying to say, if there actually is a core utterance, from the beginning.

There have been tips of the hat to several others whose insights have prompted some entries. And there have been repeated ‘bows’ to a few, like James Hillman, Martin Buber, Lionel Tiger, Karen Armstrong, David Brooks, Tom Friedman, Malcolm Gladwell, and others.

Nevertheless, while wandering among the flowers, the birdsong, the morning dew and the grey clouds of the views of others, without actually a conscious focus on his work, the underlying thought, belief, perception, attitude and even basic theology, has originated in the work of Jurgen Moltmann. Now nearly 90, a former conscript to the Nazi regime, a prisoner in Scotland, and a professor of theology at Tubingen, Germany, Moltmann wrote a book that grabbed me in the throat, when I first read it, and continues to express far more eloquently, and definitely more scholarly, and, for me, prophetically, about the nature of the Christian faith.

Impatient, confused, somewhat overwhelmed by events, statements, incidents and memories, and always ‘moving’ as if to stop and to remain calm was antithetical to safety, security, and trust, I somewhat unconsciously rendered myself an automaton, volunteering, exploring, attempting to accomplish what I had absolutely no training, formation or mentoring in the skills necessary. I threw my name into a hat for the student council at the university residence, and then into another hat to represent my graduating year on students’ council, decorated homecoming floats, helped to ‘stage a campus formal, joined a fraternity…all of it in a frenetic race to demonstrate that I had some worth, although the drumbeat of the inverse of that never left pounding in my head and, more importantly in my heart. Having separated from the bigotry of anti-Roman Catholicism, and having wandered in search of a faith community in and through the scholarship and the charisma of various homilists, and seemingly wandered even farther from the discipline of rigor and concentration needed for undergraduate success, I buried myself in action.

Over the years, I continued to search for something/one/place/the indefinable that would become present, perhaps more clear, or not, commonly spoken and written of as God. Something kept saying, there was a lot more to this life than the chores, responsibilities, the duties and the applause that had often ensued from the performances. It was Moltmann’s book, the Future of Creation, that really said what I either wanted or perhaps needed to read, to consider, to reflect upon and now, many decades later, to share.

Perhaps some of the previous guides in this journey included Wordsworth and Keats who looked in the ‘life of things’ as if there really is a deep and indestructible unity between and among all things. All literature, all music, all artistic expression taken together as a gestalt, seemed to say something akin to the vision of those romantic poets. Not only are we not alone, but we are far from comprehending, and even appreciating even some of the seemingly simplest of realities. Not only are there many layers to language; there are also many layers to our individual and our shared perceptions. Awe, and the humility that dances with awe, were always part of my conception of the universe. And that awe shoved against the boundaries of definitions that claimed cognitive and intellectual validity. Time, too, seemed outside the boundaries of the clock, the calendar, and the centuries, and even the rock and plant and animal histories.

And then, Moltmann’s line, based on an integration of the eschaton as an integral component of the imagination: “Creation is then not a factum, but a fieri. (Not simply a frozen fact, but a becoming, an unfolding, as a still open creative process of realtiy. (p.119, The Future of Creation)

Another cogent and penetrating quote from Moltmann:

Having called creation in the beginning a system open for time and potentiality, we can understand sin and slavery as the self-closing of open systems against their own time and their own potentialities. (reference: W. Pannenberg, Theology and the Kingdom of God, in Moltmann, op. cit. p122) (Moltmann continues) If a person closes himself against his potentialities, then he is fixing himself on his present reality and trying to uphold what is present, and to maintain the present against possible changes. By doing this he turns into homo incurvatus in se. (turned inward on oneself). If a human society settles down as a closed system, seeking to be self-sufficient, then something similar happens: a society of this kind will project its own present into the future and will merely repeat the form it has already acquired. For this society the future ceases to offer scope for possible change; and in this way the society also surrenders its freedom. A society of this kind becomes societas incurvatus in se. Natural history demonstrates from other living things as well that closing up against the future, self-immunization against change, and the breaking off of communication with other living things leads to self-destruction and death….We can therefore call salvation in history the divine opening of ‘closed systems’….Closed systems bar themselves against suffering and self-transformation. They grow rigid and condemn themselves to death. The opening of closed systems and the breaking down of their isolation and immunization will have to come about through their acceptance of suffering. But the only living beings that are capable of doing this are the ones which display a high degree of vulnerability and capacity for change. They are not merely alive; they can make other things live as well. Moltmann, op. cit. pp.122-123)…

Moltmann again: When we pas from atomic structures to more complex systems, we discover greater openness to time and a growing wealth of potentiality. With the evolution of more complex systems the indefinability of behaviour grows, because possibilities increase. The human person and man’s social systems are the most complex systems that we know. They show the highest degree of time and the future. Every realization of potentiality through open systems creates new openness for potentiality; it is by no means the case that potentiality is merely realized and that the future is transformed into the past. Consequently it is impossible to imagine the kingdom of glory (which perfects the process of creation through the indwelling of God) as a system that has finally been brough to a close, i.e. a closed system. We must conceive of it as the openness of all finite life systems for infinity. This of course, means among other things that the being of God must no longer be thought of as the highest reality of all realized potentialities, but as the transcendent making-possible of all possible realities.

Quoting the Bucharest Consultation of the World Council of Churches on ‘Science and Technology for Human Development, held in June 1974, Moltmann includes this passage:

Independence, in the sense of liberation from oppression of others is a requirement of justice. But independence in the sense of isolation from the human community is neither possible nor just.  We-human persons- need each other within the community of mankind. We-the creation- need God, our Creator., and Recreator. Mankind faces the urgent task of devising social mechanisms and political structures that encourage genuine interdependence, in order to replace mechanisms and structures that sustain domination and subservience. (Moltmann, op. cit. p. 130)

The intersection of current reality with what is known to theologians as ‘transcendence’ (immanence v transcendence), for Christians is often said to be directly emanating from the humanity/deity of Christ. Man/God in one, succinctly attempts to bring the attention of the reader, listener, reflector, praying one, into a bifocal vision, in order to preserve and to protect one of the cardinal tenets of the faith.

However, the human capacity, and indeed the willingness to stretch one’s consciousness, one’s imagination, and one’s belief system, and thereby the foundational precepts upon which one actually lives one’s daily existence, into the infinite, open, perhaps even beyond belief seems constricted by/in/through a detailed, intense focus on immediate reality. A fully authentic and also fully open system, or situation, in which all humans, with and through God, share not only interdependence and justice, both also ‘new life’ is, in the language (and the cultural perception and convention) beyond hope and beyond achievement, and thereby, in a world addicted to the acquisition of real value in this moment (grades, trophies, sales, profits, votes, houses, cars, yachts, and all symbols of power and status) relegated to the “mystics” and the “poets” and those who chose a life of ‘no consequence’ or perhaps even more sinister, of dangerous and threatening value.

However, challenging the very notion of what is valuable, powerful, at one and the same time hierarchical and authoritarian, existence that embraces the transcendent, is no longer represented by the historic hierarchy and the authoritarian patterns of rule. “It is represented by the sovereign irreplaceability of every individual. That is why in modern times religion is no longer understood as the hallowing of authority in church, state and society, but as the inner self-transcendence of every individual. As a result the democracy of free individuals, directly related to God without any mediation, becomes the new way of representing transcendence.  The divine crown no longer rests on the head of the ruler; it belongs to the constitution of the free. Transcendence can no longer be represented on earth ‘from above’; its 0only possible earthly representation is now the web of free relationships of free individuals. The relationship to God or to transcendence is no longer reflected in the relationship to hallowed authority; we find it in the free recognition of , and respect for, our neighbour, in whom transcendence is present. (p. 13)…and then

It is only if the conflicts which cause us to experience present reality as history are abolished that the future has anything to do with transcendence. It is only where, in history, these conflicts are transcended in the direction of their abolition or reconciliation that something of this qualitatively new future is to be found..(p. 15

And:  For a long time the Christian faith interpreted the transcendence it believed it had found in Christ metaphysically; later it understood transcendence existentially; today the important thing is that faith is present where the ‘boundary’ of transcendence is experienced in suffering and is transcended in active hope. The more faith interprets Christian transcendence eschatologically, the more it will understand the boundary of immanence historically and give itself up to the movement of transcending. But the more it interprets this eschatological* transcendence in Christian terms-that is- with its eyes on the crucified Jesus—the more it will become conscious that the qualitatively new future of God has allied itself with those who are dispossessed, denied and downtrodden at the present day; so that the future does not begin up at the spearheads of progress in a ‘progressive society,’ but down below, among society’s victims. It will have to link hope for the eschatological future with a  loving solidarity with the dispossessed. (p.17)

More than a guiding set of ethical principles, Moltmann has articulated a resounding, challenging, exacting, disciplined and ultimately infinitely hope-filled Christian theology, to which the contemporary church could well dedicate both study, prayer, discussion, and formal education, not only among seminarians, but especially among those laity seeking discipleship inside the sanctuary, the choir loft and the annual meetings of each parish. And such a theology if it were to become incarnate would reject the social conventions of “importance” of the wealthy, and the power of the hierarchy, including the capacity to regulate nature and morality, as if it were inside the mind of God.

Another beacon in Christian thought and practice as systematized by the Enlightenment, William Blake, has a few cogent nuggets to add to Moltmann:

“Blake has rebelled against the vision of the Enlightenment, which had attempted to systematize truth. He also rebelled against the God of Christianity, who had been used to alienate men and women from their humanity. This God had been made to promulgate unnatural laws to repress sexuality. Liberty, and spontaneous joy. Blake railed against the ‘fearful symmetry’ of this inhumane God in ‘The Tyger,’ seeking him as remote from the world in unutterably ‘distant deeps and skies’. Yet the wholly other God, Creator of the World, undergoes mutation in the poems. God himself has to fall into the world and die in the person of Jesus….Blake envisaged a ‘kenosis,’ a self-emptying in the Godhead, who falls from his solitary heaven and becomes incarnate in the world. There is no longer autonomous deity in a world of his own, who demands that men and women submit to an external heteronymous law. There is no human activity which is alien to God; even the sexuality repressed by the Church is manifest in the passion of Jesus himself. God has died voluntarily in Jesus and the transcendent alienating God is no more.” Karen Armstrong, A History of God, p.349-350)

Would the churches (without COVID-19) still be empty, struggling for tactics and strategies to “become more welcoming” need such approaches if it were do dive deeply into the death, resurrection and eschatology of the Moltmann heart and mind and the Blake vision?


*eschatology: the part of theology concerned with death, judgement, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind. 

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