Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Kenosis, from a penitential perspective

In the week before ‘Holy Week’ on the Christian  calendar, it seems appropriate to put the Greek word, kenosis, under a 2021 lens, given how troubled the concept of ‘self-emptying’ is to contemporary western people, including some Christians, among whom this scribe counts himself.

Ad children, when Lent arrived on the calendar, with the ‘cross of Ashes’ imposed on the forehead of worshippers, everyone knew and understood that the period was one of Jesus wandering in the Garden of Gesthemene, troubled by the ‘known’(?) prospect of Calvary and Golgotha. There was a significant element of humility in putting ashes on one’s forehead, as a sign that the person was ‘following’ in the tradition of the church as well as somewhat in the footsteps of the saddened, reflective, meditative and turbulent forty-days of torment. Young people, then, were also coached into surrendering, giving up what for them was a favourite ‘thing’ (think chocolate, ice cream, a favourite tv show, a favourite way to self-indulge, however and whatever that might be. Surrender, emptying, in those terms, had a visceral, empirical and deliberate meaning and intoned overtones of sacrifice, in the ‘spirit’ of Lent prior to Easter.

So far, so good, in the basic ‘christian education’ program of the church school. Adults, too, were fostered and nurtured in similar ‘emptyings’ as a way to incarnate the process of both intellectually and psychologically and emotionally ‘entering’ into the space of the spiritual ‘season’. Giving up a ‘bad’ habit’ like over-eating especially of a favourite ‘sweet’ food, or resisting temptation to indulge a ‘weakness’ like chocolates, or whatever food or activity that one considered ‘needing’ amendment, even slight curtailment, was considered appropriate. Individuals, then, were coached to consider some kind of sacrifice, as a reverent acknowledgement and adoption of the spirit of both humility and a kind of cleansing, a purification if you like, as preparation for a re-birth as culmination of the theological, spiritual, cognitive and even physical discipleship of a ‘good Christian’.

All of these ‘teachings’ were emblematic of the theology of what some have called a kenotic Christology, the meaning of which phrase comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, depicting Christ’s “action or attitude towards his equality with God. In the first stanza of the text we read of Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied (ekenosen in Greek) himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8) Christ did not ‘seize’ his equality with God or see ti as something to be exploited for his own self-interest, but ‘emptied’ himself of this divine equality in order to assume the form of a servant.” (From UK Research and Innovation, Keirkegaard’s Kenotic Christology, University of Manchester, Abstract, gateway@ukri.org))

The question of ‘what’ it was, precisely that Christ gave up has ‘bedevilled’ Christian scholars for some time. The author of the above-noted abstract writes further:

Like many of the classic kenotic theologians of the 19th century (Kierkegaard) argues that Christ undergoes a limitation on becoming a human being. Where he differs from his contemporaries is in emphasizing the radical nature of this limitation. Christ is ‘bound by his servant form’ and even if he had wished to exercise the powers belonging to his divine nature, he could not have done so. Another distinctive feature of Kierkegaard’s thought is his claim that the ascended Christ’s relationship to human beings continues to be that of the humiliated Christ. Kierkegaard criticizes Christians who emphasize the exalted Christ and who forget that Christ came to humankind as the lowly, humiliated servant, because this distracts them from their task of taking up their cross and following Christ in suffering discipleship. Kierkegaard, then, conceives of the kenosis not as finished with Christ’s ascension into heaven but sees it as an ongoing event.

Without his directly referencing this piece, John Kloppenborg, at one time a professor of “Parables” (at St. Michael’s College, U. of Toronto) taught his class that the figure of the Christ in the Parable of the Good Samaritan was not, as was conventionally conceived, the rescuing Samaritan for his rescue of the hated Jew, but the near-death, ignored, passed-over Jew in the ditch. Clearly, Kloppenborg was echoing Kierkegaard in that discernment.

Adding to the above reflections, Andrew B. Torrance, in a essay entitled Kierkegaarde’s Paradoxical Christology, St. Andrews’ Journals, (http://www.tftorrance.org/journal/, we read this: “For Kierkegaard, there is no competitive relationship between humanity and divinity; there is no zero-sum game between Christ’s divine and human nature, which assumes that his humanity in some way takes away from his divinity. Jesus Christ is one person, ‘true God and true man’, ‘the lowly human being, yet God, the only begotten of the Father.’9 He ‘is in lowliness and in loftiness one and the same.’ 10 So, when it comes to following Christ, there is no choice ‘between Christ in lowliness and Christ in loftiness, for Christ is not divided; he is one and the same.’11 Humanity and divinity are in union (Eenhed) in Christ.1

Kierkegaarde, however, acquiesced in the dilemma of divinity/humanity paradox of the figure of Christ, on the basis that no human can or will comprehend, explain, discern, or even come close to a full understanding of this theological and intellectual paradox.

Seems that Kierkegaarde represents some of the conundrum experienced by contemporary men and women of western culture. Entangled in a snare of the zero-sum game, paved by a binary freeway of 0’s and 1’s, we seem to be less willing (or able?) to contemplate, and to adopt to the mysteries of the paradoxical ‘both-and’. And, in our chosen (adopted, unconscious?) reductions, we are even more ensnared in the enigma of surrender, sacrifice, and an adult version of the “Jew in the ditch” as epigram and archetype for a Christian theology, with the possible exception of ‘saints’ like Mother Theresa, or the occasional sacrifice witnessed by contemporary media and culture.

Permit a note of speculation, that attempts to place two notions beside one another: the notion of a spark of the divine in each human being, and the notion that that spark is renewed, ignited, enflamed, and fuelled, not at the moment of our sacrifice for another’s specific rescue, but rather at the moment when we are able to sacrifice those impediments, those grains of sand that clutter the ‘gear-box’ of our life, with attitudes, beliefs, actions, thoughts and especially denials, avoidances and self-deceptions.

In order for such a speculative, and potentially painful process even to being, it is important to note that a casual, superficial and insolent throwing off of a “surrender” (as in, “I really must desist from engaging in gossip!”) without in any way taking the throwing-off seriously, and potentially necessary. While resisting too the proclivity of our incessant, penetrating pursuit of perfection, another of those ‘conscious-coming-awarenesses’, we can begin to acknowledge both our strength to confront what needs excising and how, in that process, we can also free ourselves of our need for ‘total erasure’. We humans, too, are paradoxical, capable of the most angel-like love and care, as well as satan-like life-defying actions, beliefs, attitudes, words and even thoughts. And, just as it is beyond our cognition to explain our own paradox, nevertheless there is a point to the potential of bringing to consciousness those besetting aspects of who we “are” (or think we are) in order to free our lives from our own blindness.

A line of cautionary and penetrating mentorship that echoes in my head every day came from a respected supervisor in a setting dedicated to the effective, ethical and appropriate ‘administration’ and leadership of a community college. A visiting educator was recruiting candidates for doctoral programs in college leadership; only partly as a jest, I asked the president of the college if he would send me to study in that program. His response, with a twinkle of both mischief and insight in his eye was, “I will send you anywhere they will teach you patience!” In four-plus decades, I had not heard those words, nor even a hint of the many overtones in their vibrations.

Impatience, beginning with a stint in stocking shelves at a local supermarket (really then only a small-town store), where the epithet, “time-is-money” was so embedded in the workplace culture that no one even had to mention it. Butchers were “allowed” a specific number of minutes to break down a hind of beef, for example. The rest of us took our cue from that kind of military instruction. Following that, a stint in a provincial bureaucracy, conducting land-tax assessments in unorganized townships, uncovered a far more relaxed and laissez-faire culture, that, when I asked if I could return for a second summer, the response from the hiring supervisor was, “Sure, provided you do not work so fast!” Slowing down, in order to “keep pace” with a cadre of workers steeped in that workplace culture, however, seemed incompatible with a young man’s desire to expand experience, to try new things and to find different workplace and other cultures. Selling, that almost compulsive, perhaps for some addictive and driven culture, dependent on production, customer service, daily accountability, expense accounts with receipts, orders accurately completely, and submitted in a timely manner (this was so orders of fresh meats could and would be filled overnight for shipping by rail and receipt the next day) offered a culture of a very different pace with different variables of “adequacy”.

While studying and rehearsing piano in the early years, with time/metronome markings on every piece, and changes mostly in Italian on the score, there was a strict way to observe those directions, often attributed to the composer him or herself. Time for practice, however, often dragged, and I found myself impatient to leave the piano bench in order to join friends in “play” so, undoubtedly, some additional impatience was birthed in those years. Preparing for tests and examinations, too, became a kind of self-imposed game, in and through which I ‘tested’ my own ability to grasp, to assimilate and then regurgitate whatever the subject was in the shortest possible time, in order to achieve the best scores. As an athletic coach, I always attempted to teach as many skills as possible, in the brief times allotted for practice, given a mind-set that relied upon the athletes with the ‘quickest’ learning curve, (considered the brightest, although that too was a misnomer, based on my own innocence and ignorance). Quickness, too, was unconsciously embedded in any encounters with others, given that, like so many others, I was carrying a lot of family secrets that I desperately wanted to keep hidden, buried, and the act of scurrying past each encounter, unless it was ‘transactional’ in some manner, helped in the achievement of that goal.

Managing others, being with others, modelling for others, however, seems in my life, on reflection, to have been coloured by a high degree of impatience, not with the other, but with a sense of my own inadequacy, another of those secrets desperately needing a locked vault, in order to escape social and political, and potentially even career rejection. Avoidance of my own dependence on my own impatience, as a guiding light that betrayed many potentially fruitful, engaging and rewarding relationships, at all levels, is one of the deepest regrets that I perpetrated both on others as well as on myself.

If there were a single “surrendering” in Lent 2021, that I could, happily and humbly, give up, I would pray that I would become far more conscious if and when those body signals of “anxiety’ go off, (faster talking, louder speaking, thoughts racing and tumbling out in an overwhelming cataract for any other listening) I would/could take a series of deep breaths, (analogous to those breaths counselled for parents indignant with an obstreperous adolescent) and accept myself, as I am, with all the highly visible warts, and help to bring others ‘into’ a common and safe and comfortable space. All relationships depend on such a space, and my innocence, arrogance, insensitive and impatience made too many such relationships/moments impossible.

Mea culpa! 

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