Memorial Day and the Christian Crisis of Doctrinal Imagination

Tony Sig

It is perhaps predictable for readers of this blog that at least one of us should write about Memorial Day.  We are not often shy in our youthful enthusiasm and naivity about our conflicted loyalties as American citizens and also of the Church; and of the necessity of radical discipleship in the face of what we, or I at least, perceive as a nation state who has hijacked a Christian soteriology.

I am an American.  My life is pretty good.  I am grateful for the gifts and opportunities that I have had throughout my life, some of which I would not have had in some other countries.  It would be dishonest of me not to note this.  I often hear that these benefits are only possible because of the sacrifices of soldiers who have bravely fought and willingly sacrificed for the United States.  That may in part be true, but it also points to a larger picture that I should like to address.

It would be easy to blame Constantinianism, blame the Enlightenment, blame the rise of atomistic politics for war, but the old adage about pointing your finger seems to ring true: “If you point your finger, you’ve three fingers pointing back at you.”  My life is what it is with reference to these things.  I cannot transcend the history in which my identity is tied up.  So a simple blame game can only implicate myself in those things which I blame.  I am not an island unto myself:  who I am is only as it is in relation to other people and to the past which we narrate into our identities.

I’d like to think through this with reference to a few Christian doctrines:

It is common to hear Augustine blamed for the doctrine of “Original Sin.”  This is, as most such “blame the fathers for a doctrine” schemes are, reductionistic and crude.  Whatever the case though, we can thank Foucault for making the doctrine much more plausible in the contemporary scene.  There seem to be structures of power and violence in place before I even come to be in the world.  They are things over which I have little to no control and are fundamental to my existence, so much so that for most of my life they are invisible.  I am born into a world already organized politically, economically, sociologically, religiously.  This is essentially the doctrine of Original Sin: that structures of oppression, violence and rebellion against God are ‘already in place’ and work to form us as people before we are able to understand  or critically resist them.

Because these structures are there from the beginning, they are easily taken for granted; assumed to be a natural given, something inevitable and often even good, as in being American, or at the very least ethically neutral, as in market economics.  Memorial Day fits in well here.  It is easy to assume that, because we have a relatively good life, the given social structures that we have are ‘how things are’ or ‘how the world works.’  The thought follows, that if we as Americans enjoy “freedom” and “prosperity” then the possibility of war as means to defend this freedom and prosperity are a necessity.

But no sooner is that thought out of my mouth than I realize that this implicates my own well being in a cycle and chain of violence and oppression.  We return again to the fact that our world still operates in a cycle of “Original Sin.”  My life is implicated and intertwined in the lives of others and that life is often manifested in and guaranteed by war.

This is why classical theology is so very important.  Christ enters into this world as one not implicated in this cycle.  His sinlessness means for us that by the power of the Spirit we are brought into the life of a God whose very nature from all eternity is one of perfect peace, perfect mutuality.  We are not merely shown a way to live well, as if Christ was a mere moral exemplar – which is good as we are rather bad at such imitation – rather, by virtue of our baptism and infilling of the Holy Spirit, we are incorporated into that life of peace and given the means to live it.

This is why the Church is a politics and why it can and ought to challenge the givenness of Memorial Day.  In the Church, we are commanded to live reconciled lives to each other, submitting to each other, loving each other, giving to each other even as Christ gives perpetually and without reservation to the Father, a giving we are able to do only on account of the Spirit.  There is no other name by which we might be saved.

This then is what I mean by the crisis of doctrinal imagination; that we have become accustomed to imagining the Christian Gospel as one merely effecting ones personal salvation post-mortem.  Original Sin, Christ’s sinlessness, God as Trinity, the exclusivity of the Church; all of these reduced to crude propositional statements needed to fill a gap in narrative logic become worn out quickly and whither and die.  The Gospel makes a difference as to how we conceive our political allegiances.  This isn’t about some stupid “Right vs Left” thing.  This is an Isaiah 2.1-5 kind of thing:

1 The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

2 And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD’S house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.

3 And many people shall go and say , Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

4 And he shall judgeamong the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

5 O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of the LORD

This raises the problem of the Church’s need to relearn how to read the Old Testament Christologically, but that is for another day.  For now I hope I’ve hinted however poorly at the ways in which the Christian proclamation ought to revise other stories which we tell about ourselves.  I also hope I’ve done it in a way that does not reduce to finger pointing at American soldiers as such essays as this even of mine have been prone to do.

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Religious Pluralism & The Social Sciences

Tony Sig

Rublev: Rowan Williams

“One day, God walked in, pale from the grey steppe,
slit-eyed against the wind, and stopped,
said, Colour me, breathe your blood into my mouth.

I said, Here is the blood of all our people,
these are their bruises, blue and purple,
gold, brown, and pale green wash of death.

These (god) are the chromatic pains of flesh,
I said, I trust, I make you blush,
O I shall stain you with the scars of birth

For ever. I shall root you in the wood,
under the sun shall bake you bread
of beechmast, never let you forth

to the white desert, to the starving sand.
But we shall sit and speak around
one table, share one food, one earth.”

My mom recently commented that I do not post as much as I used to.  That is because I’m back in school and have substantially more homework than I did last semester and over Christmas break.  But I wanted to throw in my initial two cents in on Jeremy’s posts so far on religious pluralism.

Unfortunately it will not be quite as thorough as I should like it to be, but I will still attempt to (very) briefly demonstrate why I believe the foundations for his pluralist position is in fact the “out-of-date” or “not-relevant” system.

It is not insignificant that Jeremy has thus far begun and ended his system not at all based on any religion, or even his own personal religious experience; but rather on the backs of social scientists.  He gives us a grand and sweeping account of the “history of religions” and then turns to religious scientists to determine the definition(s?!) of religion.

“The problem of Meta-narrative in the “history of religions”

The large and sweeping problem off the bat is that the account of the history of religions is itself a meta-narrative of history.  It says, in essense that religious history is going somewhere –  “First there was primitive religion, then the axial age, then Islam emphasised compassion, now pluralism, etc…” – and that is not where it is now nor is it where it has been.

Part of deconstructing is attempting, insofar as it is possible and aparently truthful, to deconstruct even ones own presuppositions, and it is this tendency which has led me, though appreciating insights which have come of thinking in terms of the words “pre-, modern, and post-modern (even post-post-modern!)” to ultimately come to reject the notion that history is neatly divideable up into epochs where thought was broadly uniform and the presuppositions the same; whereby we are able to box people and ideas up for critique en masse.  I have learned in reading some of the classic western philosophy lately, is that it is a myth to posit that it was only in the “Enlightenment” where “reason” became the base authority.  A look at Socrates, Plato, and the many skeptics in our “history of thought” reveals that the same motivation for Socrates to reject the many gods of his native Athens is the same reason that led to “Enlightenment” thinkers to reject the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.  Plato was just as convinced as Rousseau that reason as opposed to revelation could be counted on to give an objective, ontologically-true account of the (uni)versal reality apart from intervening spiritualities and deities to explain the unexplainable.

Which is why I think that it is simply inaccurate to speak in terms of what religions were doing or saying during specific “eras.”  The very idea of “eras” is so frustrating since it is nothing but an interpretive tool on the page.  The closest we might get to an accurate account of thought over time might be to speak of “schools” but not “eras.”  Especially when said “eras” become a tool of oppressive violence to another’s belief system.

“The problem of the secular in the “history of religions”

As Shawn Wamsley just asserted commenting on Jeremy’s second post, narratives cannot be universalized to be demonstrably true outside of their own meta-narratives.  The bare fact of the matter is that the assertions of accouts of the history of religions are done amongst the intellectual elite in the houses of learning still living under the mistaken assumption that they can give an objective account both of history and of “religions”; of what it is, of where it is going, what it means, and what we should do about it.  It defines religion, (which it cannot do succinctly enough so it must resort to multiple definitions of religion), it defines the distinguishing marks of religion, it defines the “eternal core” of those religions, and it decides what we as a society must do about it.  If there is one thing I learned in Cultural Anthropology and Environmental Science, it is not a lot about other cultures or about anthropogenic global warming, but about the idealogical core of the social sciences and their own meta-narratives.

(I hope this does not to sound too nasty)

At the end of the day, I believe modern-western religious pluralism is nothing but the bastard child of secularism and its exultation of “reason” over the rest of the world.

(Lest that seem to make me a fundamentalist, consider that Walter Brueggemann himself, no conservative by any estimation, consistently says that it is secularism which is at the heart of the decline in the Mainline.)  What it is is an account of the history and truthfulness of religions as critiqued by its own presumption.  Though some social scientists might recognize the reality of “the trancendent (as defined by them),” ultimately it says to the great faiths “Thanks for getting us this far, we’ll take it from here.  Moreover, we will personally decide what it is which actually counts for something from your religion, and in time, if you attend enough of our Universities, you will come to see it our way.”  It says what “god(s)” (as we define or don’t define the term) really wants.  But, religious pluralism bases this not on a belief in the revealing work of “god” but its own “objective” accounts of the faiths.

“The irrelevency of the social sciences, broadly conceived”

Jeremy posited that given the nature of our knowing about the world and about religions; and given that we are in an unavoidable pluralistic context, “exclusivist” religion is “no longer relevant”  This seems to be an important phrase for Jeremy since he will not assert that “exclusivist” faith is itself “wrong.”  This allows him a greater shield against the critique often leveled against religious monists and pluralists alike that their own system is “exclusive in its own way.”  Yet, the foundations for his pluralism is based on the violent exlusivism of the western social sciences.

Oddly enough, given the post-modern critique, and especially the “radical orthodox” critique continually developing in post-liberal anglo-catholicism (with which I continually find myself agreeing), it is Jeremy’s intellectual foundations which are “irrelevant” as they have been crumbling since at least the time of Derrida, Focoult, Rory and Gadamer among others.

Now all of this is not to say anything negative about Jeremy.  Jeremy is  actually one of the most compassionate and generous people I know (that is not an exageration); but as long as his reasoning for religious pluralism is dependent on the social sciences and not on the revealing love and activity of the Holy Trinity, then I am going to have to remain unconvinced.