good and evil

“Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous,
barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new,
marvelous, intoxicating.”
– Simone Weil

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salvation through kinship

I have been watching a lot of this show – Big Love – lately, and have been thinking a lot about the ideas around salvation that its characters and their context(s) have. In case you are not familiar with it, it is a show about a suburban polygamist family, with three wives living in houses side-by-side, each with their own children, and the husband going back and forth between the houses. The wives share the responsibilities for cooking, caring for one another’s children, and home-keeping. It is about their struggles with their pasts, their struggle to fit-in and appear “normal”, their struggles with the complexities of their relationship, and their attempts to be faithful to “The Principle” of plural marriage that they feel is their spiritual and religious calling, by way of their own interpretation of the tradition of Joseph Smith. (sideline: this show fits surprisingly well into the current milieu in the US and Canada of self-created new-age type religious or spiritual pursuits, where the only authority is God/higher power/divine energy and then the self to interpret, with no accountability to traditions or other persons.)

In many ways, more than anything else I think I would sum it up as being a show about desire. There’s the sexual side of desire that’s depicted – both for the adults and the teenagers in the show. There’s the consumerist-culture aspect of desire that’s depicted in one character’s compulsive online shopping and subsequent gambling compulsion. There’s the desire for success in business and enterprise that the husband in the show is constantly pursuing. There’s a desire for family and meaningful community that I think hooks the desire of the viewer as the idealized shared suburban home-stead is depicted. There’s a desire for acceptance and love that every character seems to be pursuing. There is also a desire for salvation, for eternal life, that characters often remind themselves and each other of as being the primary reason that they are engaged in this often difficult and complex family grouping. I think these various desires, their honest depiction and the forthright way they’re addressed, are what really make the show compelling – who among us can’t identify with desire, misplaced or otherwise, and the problematic pursuit of its fulfillment?

In many of the churches that trace their history to Joseph Smith (“Restoration” traditions, if you will, named for their pursuit of restoring Christ’s church to a perceived earlier and more accurate form), one’s salvation rests heavily on or in one’s family. If one isn’t at least married, and hopefully with children, one is risking one’s mortal soul. In Big Love we view an extreme playing-out of this situation, where the reward of ruling a planet comes to men who have multiple wives. But even in the more socially-acceptable, non-polygamist “regular” Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, family in the here and nowis essential to one’s everlasting life later on.

I would say that in my denomination, which comes from the same Restoration tradition, there are still lingering idea(l)s of the necessity of family for salvation. I know many single people (including myself) in the church who have experienced pressure to find a (heteronormative) relationship and get married – even when that pressure is presented as seemingly “well-meaning” assumptions. I also know several married couples who have experienced pressure to have children, regardless of their own desires or abilities to include children in their family circle. Of course, people would never tell one another that their lack of spouse and family is a threat to their salvation, but nonetheless I think these pressures are the residue of the family-as-salvation formula that is found in the early Restoration churches.

While it’s problematics are clear to me, the salvation-through-kinship formula has a certain amount of pull on my own desires. For me, the two primary problematics are: the focus on salvation as something for the afterlife, rather than a work God is carrying out here and now; and the heteronormative assumptions about family that the formula prescribes. Both of these, I think, can actually be unbound from the tradition by using the tradition itself in creative and redemptive ways!

The idea of salvation as only being something for the afterlife is one that can even be taken apart by the Gospels, where Jesus talks about the “Kin(g)dom” that is already among us as well as being as-yet-unfulfilled. Joseph Smith had a focus on the importance of place and attempting to live here and now as if we are in God’s promised future – “Zion”. The heteronormative family-form prescription can, I would dangerously venture to suggest, be taken apart with the tradition’s most problematic and often embarrassing practice of polygamy. Now, let’s be clear, polygamy is not an ideal! Its assumptions about male patriarchal power, female submissiveness, and hierarchical placement of wives all make it very troublesome. However, what I am saying is that it is a way of having a non-normative family whose formation is grounded (ideally!) in the pursuit of a spiritual calling, a call to live in communion with others, rather than the pursuit of relationships and family for personal gain.

These thoughts of mine are still in their infancy, and I recognize their dry, tinderbox character that could easily be ignited by carelessness. However, I think it is high time we started talking more openly about how our sex lives, family lives, and desires influence and relate to our salvation, or our perception of our salvation. Perhaps by reclaiming the idea of kinship, of communion as location for salvation, and being more conscious of our desires and their both positive and negative pulls on our lives, we can move forward in paths of Christian discipleship that stand more strongly in the face of a far too individualistic and materialistic culture.

what is a metaphysic and why does it matter?

If I were to say that there is evil power at work in our world at a level that threatens to overcome the power of goodness you might wonder “who is this writing, and what has she done with our dear Ms. erosophy, Shannon?” But if I said that there is a great deal of injustice in the world and work toward peace and justice often seems futile since the problems are overwhelming, you probably wouldn’t blink an eye.

So what difference does it make if I frame the discussion in terms of good and evil power? Why might that rhetoric make people uncomfortable? Why does using that rhetoric make any difference at all? Well a good deal of this depends on how we define words like “good” and “evil” and, more importantly, the word “power”. And how we define those words depends upon what we believe about how the world works. What we believe about how the world works is called a “metaphysic”, the study of it “metaphysics”.

For the most part, metaphysics function invisibly on a day-to-day basis, we are rarely aware of the way we look at the world, we just assume that the world just is the way we see it. Metaphysics tap us on the shoulder when we discover a difference between how we and another experience the world, or when someone describes their experience of the world in a surprising way that we’ve never thought of before.

Our metaphysics are formed by a myriad of different forces, and for those of us in contemporary western cultures, those different forces even conflict with one another. Once force (Newtonian science) tells us that the world functions according to certain natural laws, another force (religion) tells us that supernatural miracles that disobey those laws can take place. One force (what you perceive as your senses) tells you that you are sitting on a solid chair, another (quantum physics) tells you that the chair you sit on is made up of more empty space than filled space and that there is a small but distinct mathematical probability that your chair might not actually hold its form beyond this moment.

Consciousness of this play of metaphysics allows us to make intentional choices about how we will see the world. I can say that powers of good and evil are at work in the world because I have chosen to make sense of the world using the metaphysic provided by Process Philosophy. There is a great deeal of power at work in the world, and each of us have a great deal of power at our disposal. That power can be used in good or evil ways, thus perpetuating the proliferation of good or evil in the world. Choosing a metaphysic can help us make constructive sense of the world, making space for different perceptions of events. Lack of consciousness about the way we see the world and how that affects the way we function perpetuates misunderstanding and miscommunication.

We assume that when we communicate the other person has the same worldview as we do, but this is rarely true. How do you see the world, how does it work? How does God work within your worldview? What power do humans, the environment, God have within your worldview? Until we can talk about these questions, talk about what we believe and why will be at a mere surface level, with deep metaphysical assumptions functioning invisibly underneath.

salvation is here

Salvation is a subject that doesn’t get a lot of airtime in many liberal Christian circles. You might even be troubled to see me use that word – salvation. But I’m a big fan of rethinking what we mean when we use certain words, so today I would like to redeem this word “salvation” for a bit. I’d like to propose that we are saved when we accept peace and live from a space of calm, not allowing ourselves to be caught up in the demands of our go-go-go world.

Several years ago while I was working on my Master of Divinity I struggled with a book that refused to leave room for salvation, though it used the word “redemption” instead. I liked a lot of what the book said but could not go as far as it could in saying that there is no room for redemption, why, I wondered, did I have this deep discomfort with leaving that out? I decided to go talk to my teacher about this and as she listened and asked questions we discovered that I was just dealing with a different notion of redemption or salvation than the book conceived of. I and the book agreed that it is not possible to find ultimate and final redemption or salvation because the world is constantly in process and never does and never can come to some final static, resting point of redemption or salvation. I, however, don’t think of salvation or redemption in those sort of ultimate or final terms. To me, salvation is fleeting, it is the glimpses of grace that we see on a daily basis. There is salvation and redemption in a chord sung so perfectly by a group that we all feel deep down in our beings a sense of unity and satisfaction. There is salvation in resting in a moment of silence that holds my centre. There is salvation in the arms of one that I love.

I’m purposely trying to reframe how we look at salvation here because I think it is a powerful concept for understanding the profound difference that is made when we choose to walk a path of love, devoting ourselves to nursing the flourishing of the world, rather than getting caught up in the demands of our culture.

Salvation and redemption connote transformation, a change in life that is profound. In order to facilitate the building of a more peaceful world we need to transform our lives, we need to step out of our comfort zones, we need to risk living more simply, giving more generously, loving more lavishly, and living more peacefully.

We can all be witnesses to resurrection, to the joy of letting go, to living by dying, to new life through a peace that passes all understanding, to grace abundantly and freely given.

the tragedy of the cross

taizecrucifixThis week I was asked to share a sixty-second soundbite of my thoughts on the resurrection for the next YAK podcast. Could there be a more difficult task, or a more important task than that for a Christian theologian? With four-and-a-half-plus years of theological education and almost 27 Easters under my belt it is a task I ought to be able to carry out. The resurrection is really the defining event of the Christian religion, and any good theologian should have some kind of soundbite, suitable for public theologizing, that’s ready to drop at a moment’s notice.

And so after thinking about it for several days I decided that my own theology forces me to not just make a comment about the life-affirming message of the resurrection, or the belief in living out our collective Christian lives together as the resurrected body of Christ, but to start with the tragedy of the cross and the agony of Holy Week.

The beauty and wonder of the joy of new life and birth is lost if we don’t first live through the pain of life. It is cruel and tragic that a relatively young prisoner of conscience would be put to death for his beliefs. This reality though is that of many whose lives are lost for unjust reasons. I also don’t want to move too quickly through the pain of Holy Week because the holy times of our own lives often are not over in a week, the tragedies of abuse and violence seem unending at times. And Christianity has often been guilty of pointing only to the resurrection in the face of violence, or pointing to the theme of joyful sacrifice – theology that I’m a big fan of until it tells a woman and her children to keep returning to an abusive husband because it is “their cross to bear.”

If we do not take the time to live in the pain of Holy Friday and the hopelessness of Holy Saturday the joy of resurrection will be lost on us and the pain that is the reality of our lives, all our lives, which gives birth to joy, is numbed and left for nought. My resurrection soundbite will have to wait for tomorrow, for today I am still living in the despair of loss.

theologian as communicator

I’m thinking more about the task of the theologian, what role the theologian plays within a faith community. I’m also thinking about communication, for various reasons, with participation in a church committee on communication being one reason. The more that I think about it, the more I am drawn to thinking about the theologian as communicator. The theologian is engaged both as one receiving communication through reading various texts (and not just written words but also the texts of culture that surround us, things like advertisements, songs, the layout of city streets, and the faces on the bus during rush hour) and as one initiating in communication, through creating various texts.

And although the reading of various texts is a fascinating topic itself, right now it is the aspect of text creation that is most interesting to me. I’m thinking about Marshal McLuhan’s famous quote “the medium is the message” and I’m wondering what the media that a theologian typically employs says about what the theologian tries to say. There is a big difference between writing a set of dogmatics and writing a sermon, between writing a screenplay and writing a thesis, between writing a book and writing a blog entry. And yet theology is done in and through all of those media.

So which form, which medium, would provide the best, clearest communication of that which the theologian is attempting to communicate? I am inclined to say that it depends on what the theologian is trying to say. Barth’s 14-volume Church Dogmatics, for instance, are a clear example of one version of what a theologian ought to and can do, namely write an exhaustive account of God in the world. However, it is awfully hard to enter into dialogue with 14 volumes of work from a deceased theologian. It is a bit easier to dialogue with a theologian that one is sitting across the table from, or one that keeps a blog where readers can leave comments and receive responses from the theologian.

I see the value in creating large systems of understanding, but I also see the value in saying a few little things that create doors and windows for entering into a larger understanding or for creating a new understanding.

things that scare me

Lately one of the feelings that comes up for me over and over is fear: fear of failure, fear of success, fear of commitment, fear of rejection, fear of uncertainty, fear of certainty. You’ll notice that all of those fears are antonymous word pairs, and that is quite deliberate. The funny thing about fear is that it’s not entirely rational, it rarely functions along the lines of logic, and when it does, it’s often a hyper-logic of sorts that it seems to stem from.

Fear is a powerful force upon the psyche, and many people know this and in fact use it to their own advantage. Playing off people’s fears is a powerful way to exert dominating and controlling power over another person or group of people. Our mass media are full of stories inciting fear about everything from our drinking water to the safety of public transit, stories that amass to create a culture of fear.

Much of this fear seems to stem from a deep mistrust of the world as it is. People of my generation especially have been taught to not trust the world, and the reality that surrounds us seems to reinforce this teaching. AIDS, environmental crises, overpopulation, economic instability – all of these have been active in the world for my entire life, I have known no other world than one that is seemingly inhospitable and even hostile.

little plantBut is this the reality of how the world is, or is this mistrust merely a matter of perception? “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow;” says Jesus, according to Matthew 6:28, “they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” The lilies do not fear to grow, neither do the blades of grass that push through concrete or the salmon that fearlessly swim home every year. There may be things to fear in our world, but faith teaches us to trust, even in uncertainty. The earth itself teaches us to trust. “It is true that sin is the cause of all this pain,” says Julian of Norwich in her Showings, “but all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”

Underneath and inside and beyond the pain, all shall be well, and that is why we need to entrust ourselves into living lives beyond our fears. “In our culture of fear,” says Vancouver Sun columnist Douglas Todd in a recent article, “staying calm amounts to a political act.”Being calm, centred, non-anxious presences in the world is perhaps the most profound calling that people of faith can live out in this time.

rollercoasterI deal with fears by reminding myself that often what scares me most also excites, exhilarates, thrills me –  “roller-coaster-fear” is what I call it. I love roller coasters because of the adrenaline rush from fear and excitement.When I remind mysef of just how enjoyable it can be to take a risk and entrust myself to life, in spite of how scary it also is, I find it easier to step forward into uncertainty.