Saturday, March 22, 2014

Library In A Tree

I recently picked up a copy of The Book Thief. It topped some bestseller lists and looks like a fascinating read: a look at the rise of the Third Reich, narrated by Death himself.  The kind of thing a fantasy-reader can't wait to get his hands on.

I got it from a "community library," which is to say, a wooden box sitting in a tree in a public area.  Some enterprising idealist set a box with a door and a latch on it (unlocked) for all passers-by to access, and hopefully to contribute new books to- to grow it until it needs a bigger box, and perhaps someday, a building.

This characteristic of the area in which I live. A town of righteous idealists, forever coming up with new DIY projects and ways of fostering community togetherness...it's really quite festive and beautiful at times. The community library is located right next to the co-op market, yet another enterprise of ideals built on the notion of the goodwill of its patrons. "Sure, this eggplant costs 4 times as much as it would at the supermarket down the street, but I just LOVE the ethics of what they're trying to do here and karma is watching, don't you know..." and so it is with a thousand businesses, backyard projects, and alternative schools in the neighborhood.

This idea of building a society that is fundamentally based on people's goodwill, and takes action that assumes that goodwill will remain stable, is a noble idea. It might even be a good endpoint to hope for as an eventual conclusion- the conclusion to the story written by, and upon, suffering.  The eschatology of the humanist, the political progressive, the Enlightenment rationalist and champion of Man's responsibility and capability casts Man's future as Good, and so it should...

Were it not for the 20th century, I might have become a part of such a movement. The problem is that, with such an eschatology, it is easy to assume its potency as long as things are going relatively swimmingly.  Take for instance, the protagonists of The Book Thief (which I have not begun to read yet).  I will assume they are the victims and opposers of the Third Reich. These people will see the rise of Terror Incarnate- the mechanistic forward progress of Man The Destroyer of Man.  They will watch their cities burn. They will smell the flesh of their comrades, and family members. They will witness huge populations of people moved to collude with unthinkable violence, in the name of making the world a better place, all with the best and most progressive moral and political ideology available, and at a time that preened before the mirror as the zenith of Enlightenment Man.

I'm afraid the starry-eyed ideal of the Community Library will not survive such events. If we know our history, we know that post-modernism's anti-hero and 'suspicion of system' was wrought by the modern era's empowerment of destroyers and mass murderers.  The human spirit, rooting itself in the unshakable goodness of Human Spirit, will never survive such things. No, the Library will only exist as long as conditions allow people to THINK themselves good, but that notion can't survive the trauma of real suffering. No such ideology could ever come forth among a people who have lived through a concentration camp.

For that, a similarly clothed, yet altogether different Power is needed- the power of Resurrection. The power of Human Spirit flags quickly, but we are told that Christ "breathed out the Holy Spirit" upon his disciples, the deliverers of Good News to a sorry, messy world.  In doing so, he riveted their eyes upon himself- irreversibly Raised from the dead.  And thus said, "Go into all the nations, preaching this Good News of the Kingdom of God..."

And the world was never the same. The human spirit must find its home- in Christ and the Holy Spirit, in order to see, and work for, its future. No one can watch their city burn, and then go about rebuilding it. Unless of course, they've been given a Vision of the city already rebuilt.

I will patronize the Community Library, at least when it's more expedient than the established Public Library, which is less than half a mile down the street.  I hope that it survives, for the time being anyway. But I will also hope that people like this- our rational humanistic idealist friend- will find a firmer ground to plant his seed in. Because anything can withstand a happy-go-lucky community of child-rearing peace-lovers who always say 'hi' to each other in public places.  If only the other kind of people didn't exist...even within us all.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Inside, Outside

A common theme you will hear is that Christians are all about "heart change." "Stop trying to change yourself, you can't do it, you need God to change your heart." The idea is that an internal transformation needs to happen before the external, visible fruit does.

In a spectacular missing-of-the-point, however, this principle generally just serves to draw our attention inwards, toward the thing we cannot change- our hearts.  The idea is to get us to "stop being so legalistic" or some permutation of that criticism, but really what it's doing is to make us moreso- it's demanding we dwell on invisible, ineffable internality of the self which, for all its need to be changed, cannot possibly be seen, defined, or manipulated by the human will at all.

This is just another way we have of DIS-incarnating the faith. The Christian faith is not all about what happens inside me, to the ineffable selfhood of my being, or something like that.  It's all about what happened, historically, outside of me. Both outside of my body, my heart, and my intentions, but also completely outside of my lifetime- Christ crucified and risen from the grave.

When tempted to dwell on personal "faith adjustment" via some new internalism we think we've discovered, we ought to bring to mind that our attentions and machinations can't be directed at faith, or our intentions, or our motives, or anything else inside of us, because they're out of reach of the senses. Rather, it should be on the external thing that has been set before us humans; then WE will be able to set ourselves personally before IT, and like the adage goes, we will become like what we spend our time looking at.

Interested in entomology? Stare at a praying mantis for awhile.  After long enough, your mind will begin to think like the  one who designed it. Praying mantis-shaped pathways will form in your brain.  You're now a step closer to "mastering" insects.

So yes, we ought to do certain things at certain times, in order to allow the five senses to take it all in.  This type of external focus is the opposite of salvation via "self-effort" (as I've heard it called).  To doubt this is to doubt that God is at work in Creation, and assume that he has only to do with some extra-creational, super-spiritual mode of being, to which we are supposed to escape, if we are to be sanctified.

Enough super-spiritualism. Behold what is outside of you, with your five senses.  Behold Christ. Behold his work. Behold the good things in Creation, and the glory that it is all headed for.


Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Collectivism of Scripture, and De-emphasizing the "Personal" In "Personal Salvation"

There's a somewhat spirited conversation going on over at Cerulean Sanctum. Dan's been posting about the "God of the Group," and I've thrown quite a few cents in over there, so I thought I'd just distill some more thoughts, and say my piece over here now.  It being a topic about which I'm rather passionately convinced: that the Bible's content (and God's purpose) is primarily about "a people" and not a bunch of persons.

The word of the day is "collectivism." As opposed to "individualism."

Now, I actually don't know if "collectivism" is the best word for the paradigm governing the lives of the biblical writers.  To at least a few, this will immediately evoke images of Soviet era communism and totalitarian oppression. This is not an uncommon objection, I've discovered when talking about this matter. So I'm not really stuck on the word "collectivism." Maybe "corporatism" would work better.  Or maybe just "union."  Anyway, the point is, people in the Bible generally aren't running around concerned with their "personal relationship with God" as we're often led to believe. Rather they see themselves as folks who belong to a wider "people" which has a corporate relationship with God, which has been effected by the singular salvation of God. And they're very thankful for the God of Israel's redeeming work in history, and that they get to be a part of this people which he saved and preserved for himself. So let's not make the mistake of thinking this produces a less personal response in the individual. 

But one thing that strikes me as telling, is that one of the most common go-to qualifications, if you will, to the notion that the sweep of Scripture is telling us about a "people of God" dwelling with God (rather than about "my personal salvation") is that we must be careful not to say that one can "be saved" by joining a church.

Now, aside from the fact that what's usually meant by "personal salvation" is the believer's eternal, post-mortem destiny, which is not a good place to start with the word "salvation..."

...aside from that, this objection brings us right back around to the very reason we need to hear the correction in the first place- that we're far too individualistic in our concept of salvation and relationship with God! So if we hear that the overwhelming number of references in the Bible to God's people is in the singular, and our primary objection is that "one must be saved individually," We've slipped right back out of alignment before even hearing the content correctly.  This just betrays how badly this correction is needed. 

Doesn't it? Because "individual salvation" is an imported emphasis.  To my knowledge, nothing in Scripture tells us that the saved individuals of, say the book of Acts, conceive of their salvation as a personal, individual thing.  They conceive of it as God's, and as something that has been effected for his people as a whole (that's how Jews thought, after all).  And they have personally walked into this grand unified sweep of God's salvation. 

Salvation ought to be thought of not in terms of its "individual personalness" but in terms of what God is doing for the world, in the world, and for the people of God.  It's calculated in terms of the the goal of the oneness of the communityin Christ. This doesn't mean people come to salvation by becoming part of some de-humanizing hive-mind.  It means that no one obtains a salvation that is not for the entire group. Imagine that- there is no such thing as "personal salvation!" And here I spent so many years trying to feel grateful, or emotionally responsive, about my personal whatzits that God had given to me individually. But it's simply not enough to conceive of it this way.  The Christian church has not experienced a bazillion personal salvations, which just happen to form a community afterwards. The Christian church has experienced one salvation!

If we're simply trying to ward off some notion that salvation happens by joining a church, let's deal with that when we get there. But if you were planning on leaving membership in the Church out of your definition of salvation, I think you'll find that it's a problematic as well.  You don't "get saved" and then as a result of that, "go to church." You "get saved," and the very definition of that salvation includes membership of a body, the Body of Christ. Church isn't something you do once you're saved, it's something salvation creates.  And conversely salvation doesn't merely concern where an individual is going when they die, it concerns how they relate with God and the people of God now.  So if you're talking about a salvation that doesn't by its nature create a unified body in the present, you're not really talking about Judeo-Christian salvation.

Thus when Paul tells the church in Ephesus:
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ. Eph 5:18-21


...we do not hear (no matter how true it is!) "I ought to be filled with the Spirit," but "The church in Ephesus (singular) ought to be filled with the Spirit." And this filling will be marked by the 'one another-ing' of its members that flavors Paul's commands.  That's what a verb followed by "one another" does- it de-emphasizes the individual's standing and self-concept, and looks toward a grand, holy unity under Christ towards which the Spirit is bringing the Church. The individual's unique qualities and personal character traits are perfectly respected and preserved- it's just that they now exist for the church! 

That's probably why Western Christians are generally a total mess when any sort of holistic scrutiny is put on their obedience.  Their self-concept is that of someone who thinks they ought to obey every command.  Instead, they should think of themselves as members of a body which ought to obey every command.

So what does this do to personal responsibility? Does it simply dry up and disappear? Of course not- it means that the personal responsibility, like salvation, is calculated in terms of the goal of oneness of the community, in Christ.  Not personal progress. Not personal destiny.  That's why there are so many "one another" commands in the New Testament.  That's why Jesus prayed in his final hours for unity, and in almost every discourse he gave, the imperatives concerned how his disciples were to treat one another, and the other humans they would encounter.  That's why the vast majority of commands addressed to Christians are addressed to a church, singular (not Christians, plural).  And that's why so many of the illustrations of God's love involve a reuniting of things that were separated before (lost coin, lost sheep, lost son). John 14-18 might be a good place to start. The heart of Jesus' commands therein is "love one another." 

Yet this is lost on most of us unless we have the paradigm shift actively placed before us; sometimes it takes many repetitions. Why? The power of socialized understanding- the power of paradigm.  The fish doesn't see the water it's swimming in. How could it?  Westerners don't hear commands to a community, they hear them as if to individuals.

This is all a problem of perspective, methinks. It's perfectly understandable if you've been socialized in a radically individualistic society (like ours) to default to an individualistic understanding of Scripture. It's just that we're not designed to stay in one place with our knowledge of God- let's edify one another. If you've got something, you give it to me; if I've got something, I'll give it to you! (how collectivist of me)