This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Deconstruction has never bothered me because I always understood it to be an extension of what the Book of Order calls “the recognition of the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny” (G-2.0500a.(4)), which is a central element of the Reformed tradition and of the Judeo-Christian tradition generally.  Iconoclasm has been a feature of Protestantism from the beginning, rooted in even earlier movements, like the Cistercians, and extending all the way back to the second of the Ten Commandments.  Indeed, it could be said that deconstruction is what we get when we take the first three commandments with utmost seriousness.      
Contrary to popular belief, deconstruction does not deny that there is any absolute Truth.  (Sometimes it may talk about Truth “not existing,” but this is based on a technical use of “exist” as referring to an entity with extension into space/time.  It is not an ontological category.  In this sense, something can “be,” but not “exist.”)  Indeed, some frame deconstruction as a spiritual path which enables us to draw closer to absolute Truth.  
Deconstruction simply holds that if there is absolute Truth it is not accessible very easily if at all.  What people usually think of as absolute Truths are really a propositions based on the limited and biased perspectives of their own subjectivity.  Deconstruction is the business of identifying, breaking down, and setting aside these biases and prejudices.  It can even be viewed as a spiritual process by which we strive to be free of our prejudices and temporal conditioning, and thereby draw closer to the Truth.  In other words, in order to get to the Truth that is out there, we have to deconstruct the false or partial “truths” that are in here and which distract us and obstruct our path forward.
Any truth that we, in our historically contingent and sensorily limited mortal condition, can know and grasp, is not the Truth but at best a mangled and partial copy.  The Buddhist saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him,” means, to me, that anyone we are likely to meet on the road is not the real, true Buddha.  Only by “killing” the counterfeit Buddhas we meet along the way do we open ourselves to experience the True Buddha who is above, beyond, and beneath all these shadowy projections which might call themselves the Buddha or which we might mistake for the Buddha.  
The reason why many are so terrified of deconstruction and post-modernism is that they have so much invested in the various theologies, philosophies, ideologies, and practices which characterize conventional ecclesial existence.  This investment is really a not-so-subtle form of idolatry, because it props up doctrines and propositions, which are invariably products of limited and biased human minds, as absolute.  See Exodus 32 for how this works.  
The point of deconstruction is to wipe away the false gods that constantly interfere with, obstruct, distract, and divert our attention from the true God.  And just about everything in our experience is, or easily becomes, one of these false gods.  It reminds me of apophatic theology. Apophatic theology grows out of the same spirit as deconstruction.  In apophatic theology we can only know God by negation, that is, by saying what God is not.  Among the things that God is not are our projected and proposed images, words, and ideas, which are all invariably based on our limited, temporally contingent perspectives.  
Walter Brueggemann’s dialogical approach to Bible study has much the same effect.  Instead of lifting up one theology as the only interpretive lens through which the whole Bible is viewed, and due to which contrary voices are marginalized or silenced, Brueggemann would hold these passages in tension and contradiction, almost like Zen koans, waiting for an unknowable Truth to break in.  The interpretation becomes contextual: something the community grapples with and determines based on its own situation.
From a Christian perspective, this unavoidable compulsion to invent and project false gods is sin.  The discipline of critiquing and abandoning these false gods is a spiritual necessity. 
The end of Christendom presents us with a unique and perhaps unprecedented opportunity.  No longer does the church have to feel bound to generate and defend the idols deemed necessary by the Empire.  No longer does the Empire’s requirement hold that we have but one acceptable systematic theology.  No longer need we pour resources into defending, rationalizing, justifying, and blessing the Empire’s policies.     
I wonder if Jesus Christ doesn’t come into the world as the ultimate deconstructor.  His initial announcement of his ministry in Mark 1:15 challenges our own temporality (“the time is fulfilled”), undermines the present social order (“the Kingdom of God has come near”), and demands a different way of thinking and praxis (“repent, and believe the good news”).  Thus he deconstructs the most significant categories of our idolatry.
This deconstructive approach defines and describes his whole ministry.  John D. Caputo has described “deconstruction as the hermeneutics of the Kingdom of God” (What Would Jesus Deconstruct, p. 84).  He goes on: “The deconstruction of Christianity is not an attack on the church but a critique of the idols to which it is vulnerable — the literalism and authoritarianism, the sexism and racism, the militarism and imperialism, and the love of unrestrained capitalism which the church in its various forms has today and for too long been entangled, any one of which is toxic to the kingdom of God” (p. 137).      
In his death on the cross Jesus performs the ultimate act of deconstruction.  He deconstructs his own deconstruction and thus transcends and transfigures it.  To focus on the image of Jesus on the cross is to miss the point that the cross points beyond itself to the resurrection which is the ultimate Truth.  Fittingly, the Bible is frustratingly ambiguous and contradictory concerning the details of resurrection; it is not something that can be known and written about coherently.  The gospel writers are much clearer in indicating what the resurrected Jesus is not — a resuscitated body, a ghost — than what he is.  In the end, resurrection life can only be experienced, and that in different ways, in different contexts. 
The book of Revelation is about deconstruction if we see that it has to do with wiping out our imperially conditioned perceptions of things, and not the destruction of creation.  It is not about destroying creation but “destroying those who destroy the earth” (11:18).  This is in fact the whole point of apocalyptic literature: the liberation of God’s creation from the bondage to imperial power.
When we are able to deconstruct deconstruction, that is, see that deconstruction is itself one of the ideologies/methodologies/philosophies that is itself conditioned and biased by our mortal, temporal existence, I suspect we will begin to see way the Ultimate, the Absolute, the Truth actually and dynamically fills all things.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Bumpersticker idea


Which God Do You Not Believe In?

[This will be in my church's next newsletter.]

Occasionally people share a concern with me about someone — a friend, child, spouse, parent — who has announced that they don’t believe in God.  Marcus Borg, the Biblical scholar,  has something very instructive to say.  When one of his students (he teaches at a college) confesses disbelief in God, Borg asks the question, “Which god do you not believe in?”  Then when the student describes the deity they can no longer swallow, Borg replies, “That’s okay, I don’t believe in that god either.”
The question, “Which god do you not believe in?” is very important.  Some folks think they have become self-affirming atheists, when all they have done is rejected an obsolete, infantile, shallow, and negative understanding of God.  They are mistaking atheism for spiritual maturity.  What we need to do is help such people to move beyond the picture of God they might have received as children, and discover the true God of the Scriptures and of Jesus Christ.
For many, the god they have trouble believing in is the god of magic.  This god reflects an extremely primitive mindset.  He is analogous to Santa Claus, both in the credulity required to accept him and in the attitudes he engenders.  The fairy-tale, Santa Claus god “sees you when you’re sleeping, knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!”  This god of childish superstition rewards good behavior and punishes bad.  
Most of us stop believing in a literal, historical Santa Claus before we are ten years old.  But for many their understanding of God never grows out of this magical stage.  And this understanding of God does appear in the Scriptures, here and there.  But it is far from the only understanding.  And in the Scriptures this version of God is something each generation has to struggle with — and grow beyond.  
But if someone no longer believes God to be an old man with a white beard who lives in the clouds and measures out rewards and punishments... that’s okay, I don’t believe in that God either.  Or, more correctly, my understanding of God is far larger than that rather limited and childish view.
Another understanding of God that can alienate people is the mythic.  The mythic God is a little more sophisticated than the magical one.  The magical understanding has its place, and so does the mythical.  But the mythical God becomes untenable when we assume to take him literally.  Taking this God literally means applying historical categories to God that were completely unknown to the original biblical writers.  And it means rendering this God completely irrelevant by relegating him to the distant past.  Finally, applying the lessons of this mythic God without a mature interpretive strategy often means disaster and atrocity.
When we read of this God suspending the laws of nature in dramatic ways, or raining down horror and terror on people, it can lead to disaster if we take them literally.  The point of a story like Jonah and the whale does not have to do with the likelihood of a person surviving for three days in the belly of a large fish.  Neither is the story of Jesus’ virgin birth about gynecology, or the creation stories in Genesis about geology.  The meaning and power of a story like that of Adam and Eve is not dependent upon whether we believe there was a talking snake.  These stories have higher and deeper meanings beyond the literal.  To focus on the literal is to miss the point rather spectacularly.
When someone reads stories like these and dismisses them as ridiculous, or even harmful, it is because they are mistaking mythic narratives for historical accounts.  When someone refuses to believe in a God who seems to require such a comprehensive suspension of our intelligence, I agree with them.  But the fact is that God is making no such request of us.  God is asking us to listen to these narratives with a mindset rather different from the literal, historical approach we automatically use.  A God who asks us to check our brains at the door?  I don’t believe in that God either.
Once we have moved beyond the magical and the mythic understandings of God — not abandoning and rejecting them but including them in a broader, more inclusive framework — we start to gain some understanding of the God we do believe in and can trust.  Jesus Christ comes into the world to reveal this God to us, and in him we know that this God is first, foremost, and last about love.
God reveals God’s love in the creation, redemption, and sanctification of the world.  Out of this infinite love God gives guidelines for living together in justice and peace.  Out of this infinite love God warns us of the consequences for living in violence, and then out of the same love God suffers with us, and finally delivers us from our own mistakes.  Out of this same love God gives life for us on the cross, and to us in the resurrection.  God sends the Spirit to bind our hearts in the same love for each other, the world, and God.
So, which God do you not believe in?  It is a good thing, a sign of maturity, that we don’t hold onto the same versions of God we might have in the past.  Do you believe in love?  That’s the real question.  Do you believe in peace, justice, goodness, light, and life?  That’s what the God we worship here is about.  Maybe you should join us in getting to know this God, the real God, better. 

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Sin and Atonement From the Eastern Church Perspective

Along the lines of Gregory of Nyssa, this is a spectacular summary of the difference between the understanding of sin and atonement in the Eastern and Western churches.  Check it out.

In the West we have largely been fed only one version of sin/atonement, the one derived from Augustine and Anselm. This article articulates another, older, and more fundamental perspective on the matter. I have always found this profoundly liberating.

Today someone in my church reported that their teenager announced that he didn't believe in God. Though I have had my disagreements with Marcus Borg, he has taught me to ask such people the question, "Which God don't you believe in?" Invariably, when hearing about the God they don't believe in, the describe a God I don't believe in either. The God they describe is, among other things, the heartless God of "original sin" and the "satisfaction" theory of the atonement.

There are far better, more scriptural, and more faithful ways of talking about the atonement.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

So Much for Total Depravity

St. Gregory of Nyssa writes:

"Human beings do not merely have an inclination to evil."

Hearing this out of my Augustinian/Calvinist background, I assumed it meant that what people have towards evil is more than a mere inclination.  But Gregory clearly means something rather different.  He continues:

"Were this so, it would be impossible for people to grow in good, if human nature possessed only an inclination towards the contrary."

Thus Gregory is saying that we have inclinations to good or evil.  Contrary to the "total depravity" ideology, Gregory holds that we may grow in goodness.  

"The finest aspect of our mutability is the possibility of growth in good; and this capacity for improvement transforms the soul, as it changes, more and more into the divine."

Were human beings totally depraved, were the image of God completely obliterated in us by the fall, there would be no inherent possibility in us for growth in good.

Gregory concludes:

"Let us change in such a way that we may constantly evolve towards what is better, being transformed from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3.18), and thus always improving and becoming more perfect by daily growth, and never arriving at any limit of perfection.  For that perfection consists in our never stopping n our growth in good, never circumscribing our perfection by any limitation."
From On Perfection

I mention this small example to show that what normally passes for Orthodoxy among those of us who were raised in the Western church is not necessarily the whole story.  It is not our liberal, permissive bent that has a problem with a doctrine like Total Depravity, but people as central to the Orthodox tradition as Gregory of Nyssa would not have used such a formulation either.

Total Depravity is supposed to be a pillar of Calvinism, and yet it may be argued that it is a doctrine foreign to the Orthodox tradition.  It is at best sectarian and at worst heresy.  Most certainly it is not in any way "essential."  If it were we would have to excise many great Christians from the church.  

Epiphany Prayer

God of grace and glory,
in Jesus Christ you come as the Light of the world.
Shine into our darkness.
Enable us to see
not just the things that can be perceived 
with our mortal eyes
but the deeper and higher Reality
which permeates and fills all things.
Let us see your love at work in the world.
Even in those places of brokenness,
of failure and defeat,
loss and heartbreak,
fear and sorrow.
For it is through the cracks in things
that your Light shines
most fully and surprisingly.

We pray that your church,
your gathering of disciples,
may be less of an imposing and solid ediface
and more like the roots of a tree that crack the sidewalk,
showing that life is invincible.

We pray for the Earth, 
your holy creation
which you declared very good.
May we join with creation in the song of life,
and let that song never be diminished because of us.

We pray for the world
especially for those who suffer as victims of violence.
We pray for the people under attack in Gaza.
We pray for the victims of the latest bombing in Iraq,
and for those suffering in the wars in Somalia, the Congo, 
Afghanistan, and other places in the world.
May your Light break into such places
and bring life and peace to all.

We pray for those whom we know
who suffer pain of body, soul, or spirit.
Especially we pray for ....
Let them know that the dawn always comes 
after the darkness.
Your Light and life always triumph in the end.
Bring healing into these lives
and restore to wholeness those now broken.

We give you thanks for the life of ....
And for all in her/him that was
good and kind and faithful.
Comfort those in the darkness of grief
and always give us the light of your saints,
people who show us some part
of what it means to follow you.

Help, save, comfort, and defend us, gracious Lord,
in the communion 
of all who have gone before us in the faith 
and all who will come after, 
we commend ourselves, one another, 
and our whole life to you, 
O Christ our God, 
and to you we render glory, 
now and forever.