Tuesday, November 14, 2006

In the beginning

Against all better judgment (better judgment saying I should be either sleeping or working on a conference paper right now), I am going to post a journal meditation I had last spring in response to a thread of debate between Jeremy and Doton on the blog "Is it just me?" The debate has to do with whether evangelical Christianity is just an "opiate of the masses," a sop for anti-intellectual literalists, and a platform for prosperity-gospel con-artists, or whether there might be some actual thinking and interpretation going on among evanglicals. Of course... I believe there is some actual thinking going on, as I would define myself as an evangelical, and I would hope that I "think."I am defining "evangelical" in the broad sense of the term stemming from the teachings of the Anglican founder of "Methodism" John Wesley (who actually remained Anglican his whole life, I think) in the 18th century and the movement toward simplicity and distrust of political movements. In popular usage the term seems to have narrowed to a caricature, using such unfortunate representatives as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson. Some amount of confusion lies between this popular definition for people I would term "right wing fundamentalists" and many Christians who self define as evangelical in their belief that the Bible is the inspired word of God. (And what that means is also up for debate.) There is some amount of overlap between "evangelicals" and "fundamentalists," but they cross back and forth--there is no one unified creed--no one political stance. Isn't terminology such a tricky thing? I've sat through too many tirades about evangelicals by leftist academics using such fuzzy language and who really don't know what they are talking about (I'm sorry, but it's true--evangelicals are the great scapegoat in American academia), to want to remain silent any longer--come on, how can we allow huge swaths of the globe to be stereotyped in this way? Is it acceptable to define Islam by Al Quaeda? No, of course not, so should Christianity be defined by those who have performed evil in its name? No, of course not. Yes, yes, I've acknowledged the damage done by self-proclaimed spokespeople for the "evangelical" movement. I'm not going to get into that now. Yes, they have screwed up America and compromised millions of people who were browbeaten and blackmailed into supporting them. No, they shouldn't be taken as representative of most of us, even if there were an unfortunate majority of votes for Bush in the last presidential election--that's partly because such extremes were drawn--so little middle ground emphasized.

So, here is my meditation. It is not political. It is a statement of faith--that which excites me. That which makes me passionate about life. That which ties together my love of literature for my love of the creator of our reality. This is what I believe.

From my journal around April 3, 2006

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God in the beginning.

Harold Scheub theorizes that at the heart of every story is a poem, a mythic centre from which the rest of the story ripples out like a stone thrown into a pool.

In the Hausa dodo stories, we see the fearful monster/the well/the facing of death/puberty at the centre of the story. If the heroine can face her fears and face the dodo, the feared thing turns out not to be that bad--or at least, it loses much of its power because it is no longer fearful. It is the transformation of the child to the adult, from poor to wealthy, from oppressed to wielder of power, from the path of death to the path of life.

It suddenly came to me as I as reading my Theories of Modernity notes on Benjamin, that the incarnation of Christ is the mythic centre of this story told by God--this series of lives, this history that cycles back on itself. He is the bridge between one age and the next; he plunged (like the Yoruba god Ogun) into the chaos to bring God back into relationship with humanity.

The cross is not only a literal instrument of death but a visual manifestation of the crossroads. In that space where the horizontal limb meets the vertical, that is the pulsating heart of history, of time, of the universe.

Christ is the ultimate liminal figure--both God and human, Lord of the Universe and humble peasant, the omnipotent omnipresent one and a man who was born and who died in thirty-three years. That ever present moment hangs still in time, his limbs flayed on a wheeling cross. Christ as God enfolds that moment and every moment. He embodies paradox. He is the writer and speaker of the universe and by becoming man, he is also the interpreter of that universe, facing the ultimate fear of a humanity: a slip into nothingness. He emerges bringing us the key to transformation. Death isn't that bad now because He has paved a way out of it, ripped a tear in the fabric of it so that it cannot hold us. Death becomes the transforming door between one reality and the next.

C.S. Lewis speaks of the "good dreams" humanity has had throughout time, the archetypal myths of every culture. We could say, as so many have, that Christ is just one of those myths because his life so clearly follows the trajectory of the universal myth (as we see in Joseph Campbell's explication of epic form)


We could say that myth follows that trajectory because it is the nature of the Story that has been written from the beginning and is working itself out in human history. That is, story echoes and foreshadows the One True Story. Those good dreams of humanity are the shadows and reflections that escape the overwhelming power of this Story.

We can read the world as text, a complex web in which each of the ciphers has the free will to choose a variety of pre-imagined paths. History pours down into this abyss marked with an X and then, as if light refracted, flows back out transformed. (I owe "His Dark Materials" fantasy trilogy for this image, although Phillip Pullman would likely not approve of my bricolage!)

Christ, then, becomes our model and the one we must request to come into us and thus join us to the pattern of history. With him in us, we retrace the path into the abyss, death to the old self and rebirth of the new. This is both metaphoric and literal.

Christ is the copula (this formulation borrowed from Henry Louis Gates on the Yoruba god Esu), the "and" connecting the old law with the new, the interpeter of the ancient to transform it into the timeless.

In the grave, he is hidden in the earth and bursts out of it. Rather than say this merely reflects an age old fertility ritual, the coming of spring after the death of winter, the coming of rains after a season of drought, we can say that the very nature of the universe is designed around this story, that the rituals pre- and -post are the waves rippling out from the trauma of the creation encapsulating the creator. That from the Fall, the very body of the earth has been promising a rebirth, and every story line and dance is incorporated into this design.

Winter --> Spring
Harmattan/Dry Season --> Rainy season

In this story, metaphors spring to life--
In our creativity, we mirror God ,
But in the case of God, the word is the WORD--the metaphoric lamb is the LAMB, the light is the LIGHT, the water is the WATER, the well, the site of transformation

And in our encounter, we have no choice but be transformed or else escape pale ghosts, ciphers that refuse to join others to make words (to drink of this life) to become living metaphors.

This is the power of Word and thought--this is why Jesus said that if you murder or commit adultery in your heart, you have actually done it. He knew the power of the word and the imagination to actualize reality, which exists on so many levels, and that if the imagination is twisted away from the good, it disintegrates, it deconstructs our humanity. All of us have mis-used the imagination in this way, we have all murdered and comitted adultery in that other level of reality, we have all missed the mark, our nature pushes us towards the banality of an eternity alone with ourselves. That is why Christ said that only in losing ourselves will we find ourselves. Only in surrendering our petty judgments, those shadowy secrets eating a hole at the centre of us, will we be able to be free to be humans we were meant to be. C.S. Lewis has a beautiful passage in his allegorical novel the Great Divorce, in which a man finally gives up an addiction in the form of a lizard that is tormenting him, but instead of disappearing, the gnawing lizard is transformed into a beautiful steed that he can ride. In giving up those things which master us, we find that our weaknesses have become our strenths. We control them rather than the other way around. And in using our reborn imaginations, we join our creator in creating the universe, we become a part of an intricate patterned multi-dimensional text, a dance, a song, which shimmers and flows. It can not be captured in one word or one phrase or one step or one note. It just IS.


Dotun said...

whao......that was really thoughtful.

Jeremy said...

Beautiful meditation TC. Nagode.

I have one question however - if Jesus is the liminal figure between life and death, and as much metaphor as literality, how does he remain at the centre of the story? Are there not other metaphorical centres available? What if Jesus becomes decentred in the process - by a Hermetic/Eshunetic scrambling or flourishing of codes? Everything could almost be contained within Hindhuism for that matter: 330 million Gods is hard to beat!

In order to find the ground against such polysemic rupture, might we not have to return to a more fundamental ontology?

I'm thinking of the later Heidegger's foufold ontology: the earth, the sky, gods and mortals. That is all there is for us really. The metaphorical-spiritual play (the Jesuses, the Gautama Siddhartha's, the Guru Nanarks, the Rumis, the Rilke's) - all occupy the space between these four elemental figures: the earth, the sky, the gods and mortals.. Therein lies our ground, our reach upwards, and a sense of what human measure will always be: looking up into the mystery, standing on the soil, or on concrete..

Talatu-Carmen said...

Ah, Ah, see doctor of philosophy sef, he dey come, oh!

Seriously, Jeremy, thanks for your comments. These was a somewhat ecstatic journal entry written half a year ago, and I have been wanting to get a good intellectual critique of it.

This is where I have to be humble and admit that I have not read as much Heidegger as I should have and very little Hindu or Buddhist philosophy, so I will not be able to respond to the specifics that you invoke. Perhaps, you could suggest good further reading for me. I'm sure that I would find much in it to further my own faith. C.S. Lewis invokes the idea of Tao in Mere Christianity--and I think there is much in non-Christian philosophy/religious understanding that can help Christians fine-tune their own faith. In fact, as much as Greek philosophy contributed to Christian philosophy, so also do I think that the philosophies of the world contribute to it--and open new doors to understand the incarnation of Christ. This is much of the importance of Christian theology coming out of the Global south today.

My own reading of Jesus comes out of a fascination/obsession with the ambiguities between fiction and reality, and my adoration of that first passage in the book of John: "in the beginning was the WORD." I'm positive that God and the creation is much more complex than any of us can understand, but my metaphoric reading of the creation and our existance as a story that God is telling, only with free will granted to the actors in that story, helps me make sense of it in my own way. Jesus's parables embody metaphor--making complex truths simple to help us understand. I think Jesus is just as literal as he is metaphoric. He is both fully God and fully man. As a Christian, I do situate him at the centre of the story because I find his focus on the earthy and practical as well as the spiritual, his focus on the poor and downtrodden without damning the rich, his description of the equality of all of humanity and how we can actively serve each other rather than lording it over eachother, the emphasis on community created through a focus on individual humility, that perfect combination of all encompassing God-hood as well as individual manhood (not a fragmentary part of the whole, but the whole), his tough sensibility combined with gentle compassion, which together make up love, I find embodied in Jesus the most convincing explanation of reality and hope for the future that I've yet seen. (Keeping in mind that I have NOT read as much in comparitive religon as I should have.)If we truly followed his footsteps rather than getting caught up in the one-up-man-ship and scrabbling for wealth and power that unfortunately marks as many Christians as it does non-Christians, I think we would find heaven on earth. But, of course, there's the irony--because it seems like none of us truly do follow his footsteps. There are a few out there, like Mother Teresa, who seem to have given up enough of self to be held up as truly shining examples. And I think that there are probably many others, poor and humble and uneducated people who have never made the "news" and who would not understand my talk of metaphors, who live like Christ (probably many who belong to other faiths, as a matter of fact, although I am veering off into unorthodox speculation here... ). So, that's why I'm hesitant to make wide sweeping statements about the ignorance of people who aren't as educated as I am, because I believe there are probably a lot of "ignorant" people who will live better and more concretely righteous lives, serving and loveing others, than I will ever be able to manage. My grandmother is theologically strict to the point of intolerance, yet paradoxically she lives a simple life, loving and serving her small town community, that puts many of my high ideals to shame. This is the irony. This awareness of my own fallibility, my realization that I must remove the log from my own eye before I remove the speck from my brother's eye, this is what try to keep ever-present before me. We cannot make others perfect, and we cannot achieve perfection through our own efforts, but through letting Christ live in us (metaphorically and literally--that's the mystery)we might be able to achieve a new level of selflessness in which we find out true selves.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit, Tall, that I didn't (couldn't?) read the whole treatise or "meditation" as you put it. My pea-brain sent the required "glaze over, now!" signals to my eyes and I stopped about halfway.

I did read enough to find out you've read and like (wow!) C. S. Lewis. You sure you're going for a PhD?

Anyone who counts Mere Christianity as a favorite is all right in my book. Yes, I am that shallow.

Like the castaways who, as they washed ashore after months out at sea, spied crucifixions on the beach and screamed in pure delight: "Aha, a Christian land!" I welcome Christian Liberals whatever their shortcomings.

Jeremy said...

For Heidegger, take out Basic Writings from your uni library and start with the short essay Building Dwelling Thinking. Steeped in catholic thought, this meditative incantation is where Heidegger introduces the idea of the fourfold (das Geviert) Also see his beautiful essay The Thing, where he takes up the fourfold and develops it further - don't have the reference off hand.

As an entree to Buddhist thought, I always recommend Thich Nhat Hanh - anything by him. He's easy to read. Start with the Miracle of Mindfulness or The Heart of the Buddha's teaching. You'll find many correspondences with Christianity at all points..

As an inroad into existential phenomenology (which again has many correspondences I think you would like), try David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous - a remarkably poetic text on the nature of being-in-the-world..