Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Recovering the Commons, Part III: Occupying Advent

“And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.”

In my previous posts published at The Episcopal CafĂ© here and here I began teasing out a concern for economy that does not have many takers in our American two-party increasingly unregulated market system. This concern veers both left and right, being concerned for both the personal-local and the social-global. It cannot easily be classified as either Republican or Democrat—indeed, radically criticizes the sycophantic, greedy corporatism of both parties. It cannot readily be classified as capitalist or socialist, noting that each expression has tended to turn over an ever-increasing authority to the state or the state in collusion with transnational corporations to the detriment of freedom that is not merely individual and individualistic, but rather personal-communal-ecological/cosmic and that touches not just on political rights but on economic rights, and indeed, on the rights of our fellow creatures and creation.

Benedictine, Roman, and Anglican Catholics of other times, giants really, such as T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, J.R.R. Tolkein, Dorothy L. Sayers, C.S. Lewis, Hilaire Belloc, F.D. Maurice, Samuel Taylor Coleridge were involved in similar searches, often quite Biblical in their vision, drawing on the positive aspects of Medieval and monastic existence, as well as insights of capitalism and communism to propose third ways that honor the legitimate value in our past scrubbed of romantic notions because lest we forget serfdom actually carried the day for most in other times, that takes care to note what is positive in both markets and the social, and in our time, I dare add ecological.

Their search was deeply rooted in the Incarnation, Holy Communion, the Body of Christ (the Church), and Creation. Almost without fail, a radical and Biblical Christocentric-Trinitarianism pervades their thoughts. And rightly so. A Christian concern for the economies of earth will orient itself to and within the Economy of God as the centering Relationship.

As a poet and theologian who views the world through the lens of radical and Biblical Christocentric-Trinitarianism, I cannot help but follow the lead of my High Church ancestors in faith as I look at the current economic situation, a situation I will dare say is in this moment at odds with the Economy, the Household, of God revealed in Christ Jesus.

Knowingly and unknowingly, the Occupy movement brings this into the open. As Christians, we ignore this to the detriment of our vocation as witnesses to God's Word.

I have read a lot of criticisms of the Occupy movement. Some are more valid than others. Reading between the lines, most of these criticisms tell me that many of us have not yet experienced the full horror of what our current economy can mete out upon us if we fall behind, fall between the cracks, or fall out of the net all together. Indeed, I sit writing this from a heated office, drinking a cup of hot coffee with milk.

Whatever else the Occupy Movement may be, this movement brings into the open and into sharp relief, the brokenness of our economy, an economy that is the expression of how we relate to one another personally-communally-ecologically/cosmically, an economy that commodifies everything and everyone and everybeing:

Resource. Mine. Self. Me. Hoard. Produce. Consume. Job.

This brokenness is not new. Riding CalTrain past US 101 many years ago on my way to my field placement at Stanford, I remember observing the tent cities hidden away beneath the overpasses. But things were good then. For many of us. It was the last years of the Clinton Era. So many didn’t have to pay attention.

Many did not notice where Jesus was at work, where Jesus dwelled, where Jesus was crying out, pitching himself still among those our own worldliness would rather enough forget and doom to the underside and death.

Most of us will not remember or perhaps even know about Hoovervilles. But the Reaganvillages, Clintoncamps, Bushburgs I and II, and Obamavilles have been with and are all about us.

Now that the middle classes and the educated classes themselves are under threat,

Occupy forces us to reevaluate our own dance with worldliness;

Occupy pushes brokenness into the social center, the common ground of the various public plazas, circles, squares, and parks;

We can no longer avoid our mess and complicitness and vulnerability and fragility;

We have to confess that we interdepend on one another and the whole of creation.

Meandmine stepped too near the ledge and fell off on Wall Street. Most of us went along for the ride, participating in ways great and small, failing to notice who was getting bilked and who we’d left behind. The bandages of the past, labor movements and government safety nets and the like, may not be able to put Meandmine back together again.

Even amidst what may be problematic about Occupy, including hints of utopianism, the tents sitting in the midst of us bring a word to us of what has gone ignored for a very long time. And, indeed, as Christians we are called upon to interpret in that word what the Word is saying to us by these bodies pitching their tents among us.

For, as one of us, a creature of earth, God choses to home with us in the Incarnation. God does so because God loves and desires to be with us and all the creatures throughout the far flung cosmos.

God comes to us not as an alien invader, but as One coming to and being with God’s own creation, a creation radically off-kilter, alientated, because we human beings have a tendency to turn everything to our self-interest alone, eschewing the call to be tillers and caregivers and wild-respecters and most of all, reverenters, venerators.

Precisely as one of us, Jesus Christ, God cannot in loving us, help but also enter the depths of this tendency. God liberates us for the good, “by means of Himself,” to quote St. Irenaeus.

And God brings into being a Body who is called to witness to wherever the Word is at work in general society, though hidden, unknown, forgotten, despised, even amidst all of the worldliness—especially our own.

We call this God’s Economy.

So, let’s turn things to God’s Economy, God’s Relating to us, for a moment, a relating that is very much concerned with the beings and being of earth. Indeed, this is unavoidable because we Christians proclaim the Incarnation, Emmanuel, Jesus. In him, precisely because he was conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to play on William Porcher DuBose, every being and all of the cosmos is encompassed potentially, that is, with the promise and hope of the Consummation when God shall be All In All. A promise we receive really in Holy Baptism, not for ourselves, but that as in the Gospel according to St. Mark, we would go forth and proclaim and witness to the Gospel to every kind, to every creature.

God makes home with us, as one of us, a creature of clay, and freely gives to us, sharing with us God’s goodness and bounty and health, just as it was in the beginning when God began to create:

Gift. Share. Us. Work. Create. Forgiveness. Together. Joy.

These are the language of God’s Economy precisely emerging through and with and by the Incarnate One, Jesus Christ, who is the fullness of God’s vision for us as human beings with one another—not just the Church, but all of general societies.

While the media portray the dangers of disease and unruliness of Occupy encampments, what goes uncommented upon is a relational criticism of the status quo, of the unruliness of those who crashed the system and left the rest of us to carry the burden for generations to come, of a growing disparity between the extremely wealthy and the growing poor, of the degradation of earth, of the disease of greed, exploitation, and domination that touches us all.

What I have not heard about in our media is that precisely in Occupy encampments, those who have been without easy access to services, sometimes for years, can find a meal, a bed, a clinic without stigma.

What of the free library at OWS providing reading for those who can no longer accessed our many closing libraries?

I won’t romanticize Occupy, for that is the danger of flitting with utopianism, and I will nevertheless suggest this movement is a strong criticism of the wealthiest nation on earth in our exploits here and abroad. And it is a criticism framed not largely as a series of demands, though they do exist contrary to media claims, but as a collection of tents, a community of bodies.

I do not have easy solutions to the problems of our broken economy, an economy steeped in the vices of self-interest alone.

Perhaps sitting with the brokenness and being with one another is the one thing most needful, learning to:

Gift. Share. Us. Work. Create. Forgiveness. Together. Joy.

This sociality on the level of human beings correlates to God's Economy in refraining from more than need as each requires in her or his body and for sharing of her or his gifts, skills, and talents; being a self-for-with-by-others to accomplish life together, being-in-doing; spacious time; and most of all, being present to one another in our brokenness rather than escaping.

I do,suggest that as we move into Advent, that a season of examination, confession, preparation, refraining, and witness to God’s Economy is appropriate for we who profess Jesus Christ as the One Who Causes To Be, as the One Who Saves—that is, as Lord.

How will you, how will we be occupying Advent?

How will you, how will we Gift, Share, Us, Work, Create, Forgiveness, Together, Joy?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Continuing the Conversation: Grace

Lee, bls, and myself continue the conversation on sin and grace. I note,

bls makes a good point. Perfection-seeking often reinforces addictive behaviors. It is also crippling to the overly scrupulous like myself. The two can go hand in hand. To be able to admit our limitations is healthy and mature Christian spirituality. The saint is one who accepts without self-loathing that she or he is sinner, and paradoxically grace flows from and through that acceptance. And that for some of us, that involves a felt and experienced break with the past. For some of us, it involves a revision of inhabiting a loved universe not as we might wish it but as it is. I think that much of the sharper divisions on matters of sin and grace exist for at least two reasons: 1) particular theologians of great weight experienced sin and grace for and in themselves in particular ways–spiritualities, and write these into their theological musings–it’s unavoidable, 2) others are shaped by these spiritualities as they are enacted in prayer and imbibed in study. This leaves us always in conversation with others’ spiritualities that do or don’t give us full sense of our own experiences of sin and grace. For those who have experienced the surprise of grace in the midst of addiction or perfectionism, those who seek a way or rule of life may come across as reinforcing the very trouble grace is freeing them from. For those who experience the slow steadiness of grace, such folks may seem to be asking for dispensation from a shared way of putting on Christ. As someone who navigates both of these, I want to avoid legalism because it will crush grace, and at the same time not lose a sense of shared discipleship. At the heart of the genius of Anglicanism is a common rule that is meant to lean us encounter the surprise of grace–Common Prayer (see Countryman’s work on Anglicanism and poetry).

I would posit that accepting our dependence on or trust in God (sound familiar) is the cornerstone that leads us into a vision of our shared coinherence as human beings and interdependence on one another and the entire creation. Dependence on our part paradoxically if slowly renews freedom because as Kathryn Tanner reminds us God is not in opposition to our createdness, but releases our createdness to be more itself, including admission of limitations and shortcomings. I would use Luther’s positive insight re: we don’t want to be creatures as the heart of Sin to reframe the famed theosis phrase, “God became human being so that human beings could become divine” to mean precisely not an upwards movement, as in ladder spirituality, but a groundward movement, where admission of and acceptance of dependence on God is the foundation. Divinity or our partaking of divine nature or participation as well as ways of life together are reframed not primarily as moral requirements, but shared ways that support our being more human–more honest with ourselves and others, more able to admit failure and sin, more responsible for ourselves, more generous to others, more caring of creation, etc. In this way, God became human being, so that human beings might be free, more ourselves, human. That is to say, that “divinity” on our “side” of the experience does not look more ethereal, but more earthy.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

A Call for an Ascetical Advent Movement

Lee offered us a post on Pelagius that reminded me that that age-old debate is as complicated as that of Theodore of Mopsuestia—and both may have been unfairly condemned. History gives us space to reassess. We would do well to remember to separate out Pelagius' teachings from what Augustine said Pelagius taught from Pelagianism, just as we would do well to separate out Theodore from Nestorianism. We would also do well to note that what we do know of Pelagius’ teaching in his own words is not very different from that of Orthodox, that is, Eastern Patristic writings on these matters. Now, setting aside that debate for a minute.

Lee’s post reminded me that what is missing from many modern appropriations and reappropriations of Celtic Christianities is a way of life together rooted in a participatory Christocentric Trinitarianism. And of course, that at least something of these Christianities lives on in the Christian expressions of the Isles we have today, and I would argue, especially Anglicanism at our best. And definitely so in the music and poetry and art of the Celtic peoples.

Like the Hebrews, these Christianities value a way of life together lived in response to the creating-liberating God—think Torah. And like the Hebrews, these Christianities do not shy from a world enchanted—yes, animals do speak if we pause to listen; yes, angels grace us if we prepare our hearts with hospitality; yes, Mother Mary and all the Saints and all who have gone before us in faith are not far away but present if we pray; and yes, evil beings walk about looking to destroy flesh beings.

Last year I was a guest lecturer on Indigenous theologies for a course taught by Dr Moses Penumaka, “Theology from the Margins.” My lecture covered a lot, and emphasized those things we call a way of life as intended to keep the people living out of grace and in harmony, what Christians have called asceticism, even as we live in hope when All Shall Be In All and lions shall lie down with lambs—by the way, I take that hope literally. At the close of the conversational lecture, I asked for feedback. A young woman who is a Coptic Christian raised her hand and said, “For the first time in any course at the GTU I feel that someone has understood my tradition, that our ascetical ways exist precisely that we might live out of grace and in harmony with one another and all of creation.”

A Rule of Life in Community and ascetical theology are not primarily about earning or gaining heaven. Rather they are about living out of and in response to Heaven, for Heaven is among us though often unnamed, unknown, forgotten, and even despised. Christian ascetical theologies worth their salt assume Emmanuel, God-With-Us, Jesus Christ at work in the life of not just the Church or general society (i.e., what we often call “the world” which is distinct from worldly), but all of the cosmos creating, redeeming, healing, sustaining, sanctifying. That is, grace is assumed present and active and abounding and ground for our existence at all and for our living good. Human beings living out of this grace, however, is not assumed as evident. We call this the Fall or stepping outside the dance, and it is not merely a back there occurrence, but existential, something in which we personally participate. The Fall touches on us all. Yet grace abounds all the more. By Baptism we receive and participate in Christ, and in Christ by the Spirit, in the Life of the Triune God.

A graced world—a God-With-Us world, nevertheless upended by Sin (and if you don’t think so, read a newspaper) requires shared patterned gospel response on the part of a people called to live in and out of the Harmony of this One, Jesus Christ. This approach assumes the Body as a Community of and within the Head in a way that much Protestant theology rejects, claiming a once-for-all salvation in Christ that often suggests this means that grace need not meet Sin still in our own living out of this once-for-allness. In contrasts, AM Allchin notes that High Church and Anglo-Catholic Anglicans have a participatory soteriology. I might add, that perhaps despite himself the Cranmer of the Prayer Book also does so. Just read Cranmer’s 1549 Eucharistic Prayer. In my writings past, not aware of Allchin’s work on this matter at the time, I called it a gift soteriology. What this means is not that we save ourselves, or that salvation has not been given once-for-all, but rather in Christ we receive this Life as pure gift and participate in and live out of the Life of this One who is our salvation, our healing, our reharmonization as a leavening society and as a people of and friends of the earth, that is, the whole of creation and every creature.

What shall be our shared patterned gospel response together is the question?

Sin is like a hydra. Cut off a head and new ones appear. Which is to say that our response and life is contextual to how it is Sin is operative in me, among us, destroying all creatures.

And so our responses will draw on the wisdom of the Elders of every age, for it is in wisdom that is, a sort of means testing over the long haul, that we learn ways that live Christ.

And “our” is paramount. And where Protestantism runs into trouble. There can be no shared rule of life, for “how dare you tell me what to do,” and where then, a participatory soteriological ascetical theology breaks down. For such a theology is necessarily communal in the One Lord Jesus Christ. What then is lost is means testing over the long haul, for after all we learn new things AND we encounter Sin in changed form, requiring adjustments to our way of life together. Hooker does this similarly be means testing natural law with a common law approach. And what is lost is a shared way of living together that is not about earning salvation but living out of salvation not just pro me or pro nobis but pro mundis.

And in our time poverty and ecological devastation cannot be ignored as how Sin is at work among us. So too, then, must be our shared patterned gospel response.

Which gets us to criticisms lobbed at those who appropriate portions of Celtic Christian spiritualities in a middle class comfortable way. Now, parts of the Celtic traditions run in the familial traditions in my veins. An abiding sense of the aliveness of creation, for example, in which rocks and hills and mountains are not inert but mineral creations of Love meant too to have a name. Rocks sing. I believe this. Or that a raven may speak a word. Yes, I believe this, too. In fact, it is because of God’s Other Book as proclamation of God’s goodness that I as a gay man did not lose my faith when treated harshly by the Church. And so, my own faith cannot divorce the Incarnation from the Creation.

What goes lacking in middle class appropriations is a participatory Christocentric Trinitarianism (read Celtic prayers and you will be struck by their Christ-Trinity focus) and a shared ascetical outlook that is meant to call us to and hold us in harmony, and has extremists, who mind us to our own living and remind us of our utter dependence on God and interdependence on one another and all of creation. Extremists, or elders, however, while always reminding the community to itself should not be confused with the bulk of participants, who nevertheless, lived an outlook based in a prayerful way of life. And hence, we have been bequeathed numerous prayers and prayer-poems and runes of precisely this sort that are common praying.

Which gets me to Advent. Martinmas is coming Nov. 11, marking a time when the season we now know as Advent began not merely as a time of expectant joy for the Nativity, but as a time of expectant preparation for Lord of History to bring all to completion in the Consummation. Advent, like Lent, is a time to reassess our ways, ask about our ways, and wonder if we have any in response to the Incarnation, Jesus Christ. Penitential has become a dirty word not to be applied to Advent. It has also been associated with being anti-body. But penitential is really another way of saying, being off the way, reassessing, turning away from, repenting, and turning to the way again when it is removed from any sense of self-hatred and flesh-hatred. On the contrary, lack of penitence, a failure of ascesis may itself show a hatred of the self, the body, all flesh, and society if our aim is to live out of grace and in harmony, that is, peace, Shalom, holiness with all of life. For example, food is good. But overindulging... Eating animals treated like product... Being comfortable with others not eating... These dishonor and mar bodiliness, both ours, others', and the whole of creation.

So, how are we living out of Christ’s ways as our community has determined this shared pattern of gospel response?

Am I praying daily? Or not? Are we?

What are my buying habits? My habits of heart-mind related to a society based on production and consumption? Ours?

How am I eating in such a way to reverence creatures and creation? Or not? And We?

How am I restraining my own wants so that others’ needs might be filled? And we?