May 31, 2008

Good as Gold (3)

The Morality of Judgment

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

The third section of an article that began with The Nature of the Good

Abba Theodore said, “If you are temperate do not judge the fornicator, for you would then transgress the law just as much. For he who said, ‘Do not commit fornication,’ also said, ‘Do not judge.’”

A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited... He took a leaking jug, filled it with water, and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, “What is this, Father?” The old man said to them, “My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.” When they heard that they said no more to the brother but forgave him. (Benedicta Ward (tr), Sayings of the Desert Fathers, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1975, 80, 138-39.)

The church is caught in a dilemma between the many injunctions against presuming to judge another (Mt 7.1-5, Rom 2, Jm 4.11) and against the multiplication of laws and their imposition on others (Mt 23.4) on the one hand, and on the other the sense of responsibility to manage the oikonomía of the household of God (1 Cor 6.2-3) and to warn the sinner to repent. (Ezek 33.7-9) Can the GR help us to find a way out of this conflict?

Would I want to be judged, assuming I was doing wrong? Clearly, yes. If even pagan Plato’s Socrates recognized the evil of unacknowledged wrong, and the positive value of judgment, I as a Christian should want to be judged. So being judged is a good that I could wish that others might do to me. But who are the others? Who would do the judging? This is where the plural in the GR is important: it appears that judgment is reserved to the Body of the faithful, not to the individual. In this we can see Paul’s affirmation of the church’s right to warn and discipline its members.

But it is also important to remember that the GR applies to all parties in any action and requires reciprocity: the church can judge only as long as it intends to submit to the same judgment. Jesus’ criticism of “the Pharisees” is based upon their hypocrisy, their failure to do what they expect others to do, their lack of self reflection analogized to blindness, and their resentment at being judged — not on the fact that they judge.

This marks out two limits on the church’s freedom to judge: First, the church may judge only when it has fulfilled the commandment to do the work it is called to do, doing unto others (its members, and its “enemies” = those outside the church) as it would itself be done by. Secondly, the church may only judge when it intends to submit to judgment, and risk being found guilty or in error. For this reason, all pretense at infallibility or certain knowledge is unacceptable on the part of the church, for by this claim it seeks to place itself outside of judgment, and co-opt to itself the final judgment that belongs to Christ alone. It is part of the particular genius of Anglicanism to be one of the few churches to acknowledge the church of Christ can err, even in matters of faith. And it is a tragedy at this present time that so many seem to be so sure of the rightness of their position as to endanger the Body. It is no accident that the early church was more wary of schism than of heresy.

All judgments made by the church must, in the light of the rule of Christ and the limits of human knowledge (1 Cor 13.9), remain provisional to a large extent — and we must confess to being ignorant even of the extent of our ignorance. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle affirm the limitation of human knowledge in the fields of mathematics and physics — and similar principles apply in systems in which self-reference self-examination occur: and this is precisely what we’ve been exploring, when we look at how the church governs itself. Therefore, even when relatively secure in its judgments, the proper mode of action, after judgment, is forgiveness. This too is in accord with the GR, since all of us would want to be forgiven, indeed we pray (in those words our Savior taught us) for such forgiveness several times each day! Are these simply empty phrases, or does the church realize the judgment under which it places itself when it refuses to forgive? “With the judgment you judge you shall be judged.” (Mt 7.2)

In closing, I quote at length from a passage that sums up the argument I have made.

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Cor 5.14-20)

There are many issues and concerns facing the church in this day. If we are content to accept the limitations of our knowledge, I believe that we can enjoy the freedom we share as children of God by applying the maxim that Christ left us in the Golden Rule. We can move, however imperfectly, from self-interest into sacrificial and mutual self-giving as members of his Body, participating in the never-ending, reconciling dance of the Triune God who is giving, self-giving, and forgiving.

May 30, 2008

Good as Gold (2)

The Golden Rule: Its Origins, Context and Claim

Part 2 of an article that began with The Nature of the Good

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? — R Hillel, Pirke Avot 1:14

The great Rabbi Hillel eloquently encompasses the tension between self- and other-interest, and the impulse to action that lies at the heart of all ethics. This rabbi is also credited with a version of the Golden Rule, about which more will be said below. But it is helpful to recall, before turning to Jesus’ teaching, that Jesus emerges from and was a part of a Rabbinic tradition, and it formed and informed his thinking.

Two preliminary observations on the Golden Rule (henceforth GR) must be made. First, it should not be thought that the GR is identical to Kant’s categorical imperative. Rather the categorical imperative stands in reference to any particular maxim in the same relationship that “A haiku is a three-line verse with a syllabic pattern 5-7-5” stands to an actual poem. The GR is not the categorical imperative, though it might be a maxim in accord with it. Secondly, it is at all costs necessary to avoid the slanderous, but still too-often-heard, allegations that the Old Testament displays a “love of Law” while the Gospel shows us a “law of Love.” As shown in the citation from Hillel, the GR is as a tree firmly rooted by the streams of Jewish tradition, and only bears fruit because it is fed with their waters.

The GR appears in Matthew 7.12 and Luke 6.31 in the Sermons on the Mount and the Plain respectively. In its general form it represents the “summary ideal maxim” tradition (explicitly in Matthew: “this is the law and the prophets”)(1) of Rabbinic Judaism. The Shema was held by the Rabbis to summarize the Decalogue under the rubric of unity, and love as the means to union. (pBerakhoth 1:5, 3c) Another example of this tradition (Makkot 24a) takes the 613 commands of the Torah and shows how they were summarized by David (to 11 commandments, in Psalm15), Isaiah (reduced to 6, Is 33.15-16), Micah (to 3, Mi 6.8), Isaiah again (to 2, Is 56.1) and — competing for one — Amos (5.4) and Habakkuk (2.4, echoed by the author of Hebrews, 10.38).

The most famous predecessor to the GR is Hillel’s “negative” version, which we will examine more closely below. Less well known is the bar on vengeance in Proverbs 24.29: “Do not say, I will pay back to others what they have done to me.” In short, this concise maxim grows from a tradition that was alive and well in Jewish culture and moral discourse, and Jesus marks the flowering of a stock that was only awaiting the coming of life-giving water to revive. (Job 14.8-9)(2)

Turning to the text

“In all things, whatever you want people to do to you, so you also do to them; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matt 7:12)(3) Four observations about the GR are immediately apparent: it is inclusive, plural, imperative, and positive. It is instructive to compare it with its nearest kin (if we are to accept its Talmudic attribution) — Hillel’s response to the Gentile seeking to learn the whole of the Law while standing on one foot: “That which is hurtful to you do not do to others; the rest is commentary. Now go and study.” (Shabbat 30-31) In this form we are dealing with a commandment that is imperative, but singular and negative. Kant noted that it only governs harmful acts. (Groundwork, 68) Hillel’s maxim, which is subsumed in the GR, summarizes all of the “thou shalt nots” (restraint from wrong action) while the GR moves into the realm of positive action. The ethic of the GR, with its opening “in all things” does place all that one would find hurtful outside of one’s range of action, but it goes further, as we will see below.

The English word do does not have the same resonance as the Greek poien, the Hebrew ‘asa, the Latin factio, or even the French faire. All of these have an additional connotation of making, a robust physicality that only appears in a few English usages: “do up a lunch,” “do verse,” or, “do an essay.” When Jesus commands his followers (remember the plural!) to do we are dealing with a directive to concrete action for others, not inner disposition or sentimental pity for them. The ethic of the Gospel is clear: “being righteous,” particularly “individual” righteousness (with which the Gospel charges the Pharisee) is not what it is about, but doing righteousness in Jesus’ name in, through, and as the community of his Body. The GR is not simply a summary of the law but “of the prophets” — those witnesses to the call for charitable action rather than mere legal propriety: it is a call for the prophetic concerns for justice, equity, and fairness. The ones sent to the place prepared for the devil and his angels at the last judgment are not evil-doers, but those who have failed to do good to the koinonía of believers.(4) (Mt 25.41-43; see also James 2.15-16). Thus, the ethic of the GR does not permit innocent bystanders, nor detached disinterest (which some might consider better than self-interest, and which is the particular demon of “upright, decent, good citizens who mind their own business” when divorced from the works of mercy). The Rabbis define those who say, “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours” as the type of the wicked city of Sodom! (Pirke Aboth 5) Contented bourgeois morality is not only inadequate, but condemned (to which the prophets bear witness). The GR moves beyond such passive disinterest, to other-interest, reflexively expressed in how one wants to be treated by them.

Who are these “others”? Jesus has already given us one answer, “those who believe in him.” But Jesus expands the range of agapé. In order to eliminate the possibility of self-interest through repayment, he calls upon his followers to do good to those who cannot repay the kindness: the poor, the lame and the blind. (Lk 14.12-14) Still the range of others is not exhausted: the only way to mirror the perfect and self-giving Father (Mt 5.48) is to do what the Father did in sending Christ to die for those who were his enemies (Rom 5.8). While Jesus affirms that there is no greater love than to die for ones friends (Jn 15.13), he dies for us “while we are yet sinners” (Rom 5:8), and beyond that for the sins of the whole world (1Jn 2.2), a world that to a large extent has rejected him. The “others” towards whom the Christ-conscious person is to act in the same way-she-would-be-done-by are not simply her friends and brothers and sisters of the household — for doesn’t anyone do that? — but her enemies (Mt 5.44-47). This open-handed generosity to all others is echoed in Jesus’ response to the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) The “other” may be very other indeed. (The application of this principle to the non-human others upon whom we depend for our existence raises very serious questions. Our solidarity with “all that has breath” and even the hand-clapping trees, mountains and hills, should give us pause as we regard our treatment of the non-human world.)

Finally, two other “others” are implicitly present in this commandment: God, and the self-as-other. This broadens the application of the maxim to such acts as blasphemy or self-destructive behavior: there is no act that is not social, however individualistic and isolated it might appear. This also correlates with the “greatest commandment” as requiring us to love God with our whole being. We are not mere modules; all is in relationship, for all stems from Love.

Love in potential

The opening phrase of this maxim describes a nonexistent: it is “what you want people to do for you.” As already made clear in the foregoing concerning doing good to the poor and to one’s enemies, this is not about repayment. The text does not say, “as they have done to you,” but nor does it say, “so that they will do the same to you” or even “in the hopes that they might do the same to you.”

The ultimate freedom — and responsibility — implicit in this text is staggering. The GR liberates from rigidly constructed categories of good and evil, or right and wrong, which are ultimately unknowable, as Bonhoeffer asserts in his Ethics, and as the Rabbis taught.(5) The individual is clearly forbidden from doing harm under this maxim, but is free to understand harm within the context of particular circumstances and in the light of intention and consequence, not as an absolute or a taboo that reduces human agents to mere objects. The GR liberates the Christian from the elemental spirits of such legalisms and false asceticisms. (Col 2.20-22) The individual is free — and challenged — to give of herself to the utmost without any expectation of return, simply on the basis of how she would like to be treated. The focus of the moral act is no longer located in reward or desert, but in the intent to do as one would be done by — whether so done by or not.(6) The “sheep” in the powerful allegory of Matthew 25 are not rewarded because they served Christ (indeed, they were ignorant of the fact that they were serving him) but because they did the common acts of mercy they would have wished done to themselves — for who would not want to be clothed if naked, fed if hungry, visited if sick? The blessed in this allegory simply have the imaginativeness of spirit, the empathy, to see themselves in others, and turn their hearts to serve them, in the process serving Christ.

Sadly, with this freedom presented to us in Christ, many in the church at this time seem to be turning their back on this challenge, retreating into the false security of sitting in Moses’ judgment seat, as Christ charged the Pharisees with doing. This will be examined in the final section of this essay.

Note 1. The Summary of the Law is also given this tag at Matthew 22.40. This shows that the GR and Summary of the Law are cognate summaries, both of them seen, in Matthew, as somehow encapsulating “the law and the prophets.” I prefer to examine the GR here because of its formal simplicity, and because it represents Jesus’ most concise summary of the legal and prophetic witness.[^]

Note 2. Both “Summary of the Law” and “Golden Rule” are editorial titles that do not appear in the text itself. The passages usually called “Summaries” are actually responses to the question, “What is the greatest commandment?” Mark 12:29-31 probably preserves the original answer to the question, keeping things in the context of the commandments themselves.
Luke puts the answer in the mouth of the lawyer, and ends with his practical question to which Jesus provides the tale of the Good Samaritan. But Matt 22:36 brings in the “law and the prophets” and applies this dependency to the “Summary” (much as it is applied to the Golden Rule in Matt 7).
There is more, of course: Jesus adds the “love of neighbor” law from Leviticus to his rehearsal of the decalogue in Matthew 19:17-19. And, in a general sense, Romans 13:8-10 speaks of love as the “fulfillment” of the Law. James 2:8 refers to the commandment to love neighbor as self as the “royal law.” There is perhaps an echo of all of this in 1 John 2:10-11; and Galatians 6:2 embodies a similar principle of reciprocity. In short, this ethic informs the moral world of the early Church, deriving from Jewish roots.[^]

Note 3. For some reason, modern translations, such as the NRSV, tend to invert the sequence: Do to others as you would be done by. This seems to represent a slight shift in emphasis, but I am not sure it is wise to make too much of it. It has the virtue of brevity.[^]

Note 4. Although there is a long and valuable tradition of reading the passage from Matthew 25 as a charge to the church to perform charitable work, the original text and context appear rather to suggest its being addressed to the as yet converted “nations” to alert them to how they ought best receive Christ’s ambassadors (his brothers, the apostles and evangelists).[^]

Note 5. If the Torah had been given in fixed and inimitable formulations, it would not have endured. Thus Moses pleaded with the Lord, “Master of the universe, reveal to me the final truth in each problem of doctrine and law.” To which the Lord replied: “There are no pre-existent final truths in doctrine or law; the truth is the considered judgment of the majority of authoritative interpreters in every generation.” (pSanhedrin 4.2)[^]

Note 6. I am grateful to Br Thomas Bushnell BSG for his essay on Abelard’s moral thought in the regard of intent and desert.[^]

Good as Gold (1)

The Place of the Golden Rule in a Spirituality of Ethics
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
A decade or so ago I took part in a discussion on morality in which I asserted that the Golden Rule was a sufficient standard for determining moral behavior. An interlocutor asked, “Is the Golden Rule really adequate?” I responded glibly that we had the assurance of Jesus to that effect. On further reflection I continue to believe in the sufficiency of the Golden Rule as at least a touchstone for moral discernment and at its best a call to moral action that stretches our capacity. In short, it represents a spiritual response to the call for an ethical life. In this paper I will examine salvation history and explore the Golden Rule in its context, origin and implications. In conclusion, I will examine the morality of judgment in the light of the spiritual system articulated.

The Nature of the Good: God, the Universe, and Everything

I begin this exploration by observing that the account of the Fall in Genesis is not history — certainly not natural history — but sacred story. Much theological thought, even in the post-Darwinian era, and even among non-Fundamentalist thinkers, has been hampered by neglect of this distinction. This does not mean that the story is to be discarded or disregarded; language, which is based on symbols, is essential to communication. The moment we move from things themselves to the names we give them we have stepped into a symbolic world; how much more with larger concepts for which no underlying “thing” can even be said to “exist.” We cannot escape the story, nor should we, as long as we are aware that it is to be used as story and not pressed into use as natural history. The “freedom from myth” agenda of some theologians is both doomed (as language itself partakes of symbolism) and to some extent pointless, rather like translating poetry into prose. Poetry bears truths that prose cannot articulate; but at the same time, to press the symbols into service as facts is to mistake their purpose and their meaning.
Natural science assures us, beyond reasonable doubt, that there was no age of perfection from which humans fell through sin. Rather than seeing the Genesis accounts in that way, it is more helpful to see the story of origin, as other theologians on closer reading have done,(1) as a kind of “upward” fall from innocence through knowledge: the place where the wages of sin and the cost of freedom merge. Seen in this light, there is a deep truth behind the sacred story (or rather stories) portrayed in Genesis, consistent with the truths revealed in natural history, and the two ways of knowing shed light upon each other, as I will demonstrate.
A summary of the argument
God (who is Self-Giving Love), begins that creation by allowing that-which-is-not-God to come-to-be. The culmination of that creativity is in God’s bringing to being creatures made in the image of God. In accomplishing this goal God was constrained by a limiting condition: God would not coerce beings into this likeness. Since God is loving and free, the creatures bearing God’s image would have to become capable of love and freedom. So God created a universe in which selfless love might arise, as it must, only from selfishness: only creatures that are self-interested, that become aware of that self-interest, and — through the life of God in the world, in the Incarnate Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit — become able to set that self-interest aside, have achieved the other-interested, self-giving love characteristic of God. They become children of God fashioned after the express image of God, Jesus Christ (Col 1.15). For God to create free creatures, the world needed to be placed under bondage to self-interest first. (Rom 8.21)
The Trinity as Basis for All Creation
Within God the Trinity-in-Unity, the One-who-is-Good (Mk 10.18, Lk 18.19), the intimate self-giving of the Persons to each other subsists in perfect unity without confusion: the Three are One and yet remain Three.
In the beginning, God created the universe of beings. This is the self-giving of the Father through the Son and in the Spirit. These created beings are good in their being (Gen 1.31) — that is, they need not do anything in order to be good. The creatures are sinless (unconscious of sin, void of will), and praise God simply in their being. (Ps 148.1-10) The moment these beings begin to act, they act with self-interest, although not conscious of self; this initial self-interest is entirely innocent and completely passive. The first creatures (energy and matter: Gen 1.3-10) endure and have identity solely because they possess two interrelated properties: identity, because the universe is not infinitely divisible but has a quantum structure; and endurance, because in accord with physical laws they cease to exist upon physical dissolution.(2) The principle of self-interest or perpetuation-of-self is solely physical at this point, coalescing in stars, planets and waters, and only governs the object itself: the physical self endures so long as it is recognizable as self, that is, as an entity. This principle governs the formation of simple objects, and more complex entities such as crystals. The survival of the physical self is determined solely in the relation of structure and material with the environment. Forms that are better suited to the conditions of their environment will survive longer under this principle.
In the second stage, entities evolve that not only form enduring structures, but are capable of replicating these structures. This is the beginning of what may be called, even in its simplest forms, life. In sacred account, this is represented by vegetation, the simplest form of life known to the Genesis author. (Gen 1.11) The primary law that governs evolutionary self-perpetuation through self-interest takes effect at this point: the living self endures in itself and in its generative and regenerative capacity to sustain and replicate itself. (Of course, replication produces not the self itself, but another self, another entity.) Living things survive because they are suited to and take advantage of the environment in which they live, and those better suited and better equipped to take advantage have a higher statistical opportunity to survive and reproduce. That they reproduce means that they can replace themselves over time with their progeny. With the emergence of life (and reproduction) comes death: a sacrifice in individual endurance more than compensated for by the capability of self-replication in progeny. Survival and evolution at this primitive stage is still driven entirely by external and environmental factors. There is no libido dominandi at this point (or at most a libido far below the level of intent; a drive without a driver, if you will), simply the tendency for living things to continue living and reproducing, those best adapted to the environment tending to dominate only in the statistical sense.
The third stage is the period of sensation, arising in some plants and the simplest animals, in which creatures begin to take active part in their own survival through the sensation of pleasure and (primarily) pain, though they would not be identified as such (there being no consciousness present to so identify them).(3) The sensing self operates on the basis of pleasure and pain to maximize its survival and the survival of itself-as-species. The sensing self reacts to the physical world automatically — no consciousness is posited: the higher plants turn towards the sun; the hydra’s tentacles withdraw at the touch of a needle. In the second half of the third stage animals with more developed nervous systems evolve, and complex behavior and instinct emerge, and with them the first intimations of consciousness. This period also marks the emergence of what physiologists call “the serpentine brain” — the neural structure comprising much of the brain in primitive organisms, but which has endured in the core of the human brain, in such processes as the limbic system. The conscious self operates on the basis of choices still largely determined by biological drives conditioned by pleasure and pain, now identified as such.
The fourth stage marks the dawn of consciousness-of-consciousness, or self-consciousness.(4) This is the point at which the self first becomes aware of itself-as-self, eventually leading to awareness of the other-as-other-self. It is also the point at which the human takes on the image of God, patterned after the Second Person of the Trinity, the logos who represents the capacity to discern self and other, to reason, and to love. The Latin term equivalent to logos, ratio, is helpful here, for a ratio requires at least two terms: in this case the self and the other.
But this is also the moment of open potential to the Fall. With the recognition of the great division between the self and the other, the pang of disunity comes to birth, and with it the awareness of the libido dominandi. To pick up the earlier analogy, a driver finally takes the driver’s seat. This is also the point of the arising of the divided mind, or the sense of duality (the mind driving the body: an image common to psychology and philosophy alike, and returned to again and again in imaginative literature and art.(5))
To return to the language of our sacred story, it is as if all of Genesis 2 and 3 are compacted into one moment, “the fruit with its seed in it” (Gen 1.11). First comes the human recognition of isolation (Gen 2.20), the optimism of union with the other (Gen 2.23), the sorry realization that inner self-interest is still alive in the serpentine brain (Gen 3.1), the tragic impossibility of seeking to become like God (who is Perfect Self-Giving, Perfect Love) at the prompting of self-interested motives (3.5-6), and the shame of exposed imperfection and separation, for which self-conscious nakedness is the powerful symbol (Gen 3.6-10). This is the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The self experiences for the first time the guilt and shame of the choice for self-interest, which is the root of sin falling from likeness to the perfectly self-giving God.(6)
It would be wrong to mark the drive to self-interest as inherently evil (in the popular sense of the word), however. Not only is it to some extent a necessary felix culpa, but, as I have shown, a necessity in the development of complex organisms capable of achieving freedom, and it is an integral part of God’s creation, and hence good. The Rabbis (Genesis Rabbah 9:7) believed that the human being had both a good and an evil inclination (the yetzer-ha-tov and the yetzer-ha-ra‘), both of which were declared “very good” by God (Gen 1.31). To explain how the “evil” inclination could be good, the Rabbis answer, “If it were not for this inclination, a man would neither build his house, marry a wife, father children, nor conduct business.” As we have seen, the inclination to self-interest has been behind the process of evolution prior to and leading to human life. But in spite of the positive outcomes of self-interest, the self (upon self-consciousness) also becomes tragically aware of the urge towards an asymptotic altruism and self-sacrifice, goals towards which it is called but which it can never achieve on its own, an inner awareness of what will eventually be recognized as “the divine likeness” (as humans begin to apprehend God’s self-revelation) combined with a realization of how far short the unredeemed self has fallen. The self-conscious self is no longer governed by purely physical or biological forces, but though incapable of escaping them, becomes responsible for its actions and aware of the discontinuity in itself.
Because of the heritage of evolution, the self-conscious self will always to some extent incline to choose for itself rather than the other, experiencing guilt and shame as a consequence, but incapable of fundamental alteration. At this point the concept of law as custodian or fence against abuse emerges (Gal 3.23). This law is not “natural” in the sense of describing how things happen (as the “law” of gravity); on the contrary, law is inherently unnatural for it points not to what is but to what should be. (Rom 7.9-10) The natural law of gravity governs the fall of objects; the natural law of self-interest — even as it guides the rise of more complex and ordered forms in concert with the pressure of the physical law of entropy leading to chaos — governs how far short falls the humanum from the divine image of perfect self-giving. These natural laws are, strictly speaking, non-moral in themselves. There is no “natural” moral law.
This principle was long ago recognized by Maimonides (The Eight Chapters, VI): there is no natural or “rational” moral law, though there may be generally accepted principles, which are cultural constructs or divine ordinances. All so-called law is given, whether by God or human reason, and hence is positive.(7) Two arguments against this view can be raised. First, Kant states that “self-love” cannot be a universal law, because a person in suffering might choose suicide on its basis, and if this were applied as a categorical imperative universally life would cease. (Groundwork, 53-54) This argument fails as a reductio ad absurdum which assumes a case in which all are suffering and choose escape through suicide. It also ignores that death is an ineluctable part of the functioning of the law of self-interest among living things, and that life evolves and develops through the means of selective death, in accord with the physical law of entropy.(8) Second, it is argued, on the basis of Rom 1.20, that Paul regarded the prohibition on idolatry as an exception, since nature teaches that there is a creator-God behind the visible world. However, knowing God does not necessarily render illicit the worship of lesser gods. That principle was established in the positive law given at Sinai, expanding upon what may be “naturally evident” — that God is one — by limiting worship to this One alone. The Rabbis generally held the prohibition on idols not to be natural, but to have been among those laws given to Noah, an event recorded in the Oral rather than the Written Torah. (Mekilta on Exod 19.2, Sifre Deut 40, Sanhedrin 56a) The Rabbis are firm in stating there can be no sin nor crime unless an explicit warning and prohibition has been given in advance, i.e., a positive law: “The Lord does not punish unless he has previously declared such-and-such an action to be an offense.” (Sanhedrin 56b)
The problem with law, and its failure in bringing about unity among people, and between people and God, has already been exhaustively explored by Paul in Romans and Galatians, and Jesus in his tirades at the “Pharisees,” and need not be discussed at length here. Paul and Jesus were well within their religious tradition. The idea of the heteronomous law as ultimately ineffective without inner and autonomous conversion lies at the core of Ezekiel’s image of hearts of stone and hearts of flesh, (Ezek 11.19-20) and Jeremiah’s “law written on the heart” (Jer 31.33). The Rabbis too looked to a day when even Torah would pass away: when Messiah would come. (Niddah 61.b, Avodah Zarah 9a), the written Word of God would be fulfilled in the Living Word of God. The law could be a custodian and a guide, but more than law would be needed to lead humanity from the serpentine coils of self-interest into the gracious light of self-giving. The law would always be a well to which one would have to return time and again after each fall and repentance; what was needed was a means of grace like a spring of water welling up from within, so that one might never thirst again. (Jn 4.13-14) The law could only supply a sacrificial system that involved daily repetition of the same rites (Heb 10.11), which could never do away with the fundamental discord that sounds through human history like a cipher on an organ. What was needed was an intervention that would alter the system “once and for all.” (Heb 7.27)
So the fifth stage is punctuated by the Incarnation/Crucifixion/Resurrection, the “Christ Event” that marks the central point in salvation history, empowering the Flesh-Restrained-By-Law to be reborn in the Spirit (Rom 7-8). From an eternal standpoint, which is to say, God’s standpoint, God only performs a single mighty act of self-giving which to us (in the world of time) appears as a sequence of acts. The act of kenosis which begins Creation finds its definitive exposition in the Incarnation and its telos in the Cross, the ultimate Self chooses (and chooses to become one with) the ultimate Other — the creaturely order, particularly in the human — and experiences death-to-self, which is the antithesis of all that the evolutionary process has been built upon. In the Incarnation/Crucifixion/Resurrection we behold the self-giving of the Son in obedience to the Father by the power of the Spirit, the hinge point of the universe, the At-One-ment where God’s self-giving in Christ opens the way for transformation of a universe that until this point has known only self-assertion, self-preservation, and self-interest. This is, to return to our sacred vocabulary, the flowering of the Tree of Life, the Cross of Glory, balancing the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In the eschatological sign of celibacy (Mt 19.12) Jesus overcomes the natural law of biology (self-in-progeny) and in the sign of the Cross overturns the natural law of self-preservation by giving himself for the life of the world.
In the Resurrection/Ascension the selfish universe is offered a Way towards redemption, by incorporation of the human (as the universe’s organ of self-perception) into the Body of Christ; as the old patristic tag stated it, “God became human that humans might become divine.” Following quickly, with Pentecost comes the self-giving of the Spirit from the Father through the em-Bodied Son (the Church), and the Christ-conscious self is enabled to self-sacrifice through incorporation in Christ, and the charismatic indwelling of the Spirit. The Christ-conscious person has put on Christ (Rom 13.14) so that it is no longer the old self that lives, but Christ that lives within one. (Gal 2.20) By incorporation into Christ, the human creature enters the life of the Trinity, where each member becomes one as the Father and the Son are one in the Spirit, (Jn 17.20-21) without division and without confusion or duality. (Col 3.10-11; 1 Cor 15.28)
This first section has demonstrated that only self-interest could build the world of the flesh through EVOLution; and that only perfected other-interest could build the world of the Spirit through LOVE. The maxim of other-interest given by Christ is summed up in the Golden Rule, which I will examine in the next section of this essay.

Note 1. Charles Williams’ He Came Down From Heaven is one such eloquent examination of the “wound of knowledge,” the creation of “otherness” and the miracle of love as the source of healing. Note as well Bonhoeffer’s analysis of the cost of coming to the “knowledge of good and evil.”[^]
Note 2. An analogous “creation” at the human level is the Great Pyramid: it endures precisely because its design encourages its endurance — well-designed pyramids don’t fall down, and their shape is ideal for resisting wind erosion. The pyramid builders no doubt based their structures on the sand dunes whose identity and endurance served as a model. I note in passing that the identity of an entity does not (as in the case of a sand dune or an ocean wave — or a human being) reside in the material of which the entity consists at any one moment; but in the enduring interrelation of many changeable parts in an identifiable whole over time. One of the most valuable insights of process theology lies in this distinction.[^]
Note 3. It can be observed that for one period in the history of the world Jeremy Bentham was perfectly correct in his assessments.[^]
Note 4. It is impossible to determine exactly at what point the fourth stage is entered. While it has been traditional to limit this fourth stage to humanity, questions raised by science and as yet unanswered to universal satisfaction concern when “humanity” begins, and whether other advanced creatures are self-conscious as we are. At this point there is, as far as I know, no firm evidence of consciousness-of-consciousness among other animals, however intelligent they may appear. It is important to avoid anthropomorphism, and reading “altruism” where there may only be an instinct to preserve the species, as in the behavior of the lapwing which “sacrifices” itself to protect its nest. It is, however, incumbent upon us in our treatment of all animals that we at least accord the possibility they may feel and be aware of more than we know.[^]
Note 5. The twentieth century was notable for its contributions to the artistic analysis of the divided mind. A recent example is the film “Being John Malkovich.”[^]
Note 6. This notion departs from Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the primary separation recognized as between “man” and God; I view the primary separation leading to the sense of sin to be between the self and the other. I would suggest that self-consciousness emerges in human history before God-consciousness develops. The first humans could not conceive of God before they could conceive of themselves and their fellows-as-others. This is the one point at which the Genesis-myth does disservice to the actuality of human history: there was no Eden in which God and humanity enjoyed easy familiarity, and which the Tree of Knowledge undid. Consciousness of (and hope for and faith in) God as unity only comes out of the pain of disunity.
I am also attempting to steer clear of the “privation of being” language used in Thomistic theology, and adapted in some modern ontological-existential theologies (i.e.,Macquarrie). My focus is on God not as Being but as Love, Giver-of-Perfect-Gift (Jm 1.17), most especially God’s Triune Self poured out in creation, redemption, and sanctification. Moreover, my philosophical roots do not permit me to see “being” as a quality of which an entity can have more or less.[^]
Note 7. See also Rom 1.32, Acts 17:30-31 for the positive nature of so-called natural moral law.[^]
Note 8. The importance of extinction in natural selection, and selective cell death in embryonic development are well-attested examples of this seeming paradox at work.[^]

May 28, 2008

In God’s Image

[This essay appeared in somewhat different form in Fellowship Papers 1989, the occasional journal of the Catholic Fellowship of the Episcopal Church.]

“Some persons view what is happening as a breakdown in fundamental relations between the sexes. Others view what is happening as a breakthrough to a nonsexist understanding of human beings who are all made in God’s image.” Rachel Wahlberg, Jesus and the Freed Woman (NY/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1978), p.2.

The greatest difficulty in the debate on sexuality is the lack of a rigorous, systematic theology. I will not attempt to develop such a theology here, but offer a possible starting point, in response to one particular flaw in current thought on the subject.

That flaw is apparent in the way in which some have been interpreting a biblical text: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1.27) The interpretation, developed by different authors, can be expressed simply as this: that the image of God is only perfectly reflected in the union of male and female. As one bishop (Bennett Sims) once put it, “. . . the divine image in humanity is incomplete without both man and woman.”

At first glance this seems rather harmless and orthodox. Similar views have been expressed in Jewish and Christian circles in the past. “Said R. Eleazar: A man without a wife is not a complete man, as it is written: “Male and female created he them...” (Yebamot 61f) Karl Barth, adopts the notion that the divine image is only fully present in the relationship of man and woman, which he calls, “the true humanum and therefore the true creaturely image of God.” (Church Dogmatics, III/2, p. 587f.)

In Barth’s case and others, such notions stem from an effort to provide the traditional sexual ethic with a theological underpinning. This working backwards from an evolved cultural moralism to a divine mandate simply will not work. A moral theology of sexuality must respect the theology of the divine and human nature—not the other way around. Such efforts go back to Augustine of Hippo, who wrote,

...the woman, together with her own husband, is the image of God, so that the whole substance may be one image, but when she is referred to separately in her quality as a helpmeet, which regards the woman alone, then she is not the image of God, but, as regards the man alone, he is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman too is joined with him in one. (De Trinitate 7.7, 10)

Not only is this view illogical, but it rests upon incorrect reading of Genesis. Moreover, many ideas developed from this starting point are questionable, if not positively harmful. I will try to describe the implications and offer a response.

Looking to the text

The text is frequently misquoted as, “God created man in his image, male and female.” This reading forcibly applies the modifier, “male and female,” to the image of God. It implies an androgynous God, a God both male and female, rather than the God who is beyond and above categories, and Christ “the image of the invisible God,” in whom “there is neither male nor female.” (Colossians 1.15; Galatians 3.28)

A key to understanding the concept of being made “in his image” comes later in Genesis (in a passage that is omitted from the Eucharistic and Daily Office lectionary, and so has probably never been read by most Episcopalians):

When God created man, he made them [singular in Heb.] in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them [both plural] Man [Heb. Adam] when they were created. When Adam had lived a hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth... and he had other sons and daughters. (Genesis 5.1-4)

Adam is used here both as the name for humanity, and the personal name; it is important to note that the creating and naming apply to the whole species. Now as to Adam’s own fatherhood and image, he had fathered Cain and Abel, both male, and had other sons later, yet only Seth is described as being “in his likeness, after his image.” Seth’s sex therefore cannot be the key to his likeness (since he shared it with others before him), but some other quality (which is not explained). Perhaps the phrase means nothing more than “after his own heart”; that human beings are particularly dear to God, as Seth was dear to Adam. In any case, Scripture makes it clear that while all of God’s children, both male and female, are in God’s image and likeness, in Adam’s case only Seth among his children bore that quality—and it wasn’t because of his sex.

After all, just as Adam had sons before Seth came along, so too God created creatures with sexuality before creating human beings. (Genesis 1.22) If God had intended sexuality—maleness and femaleness (what some people call “gender” but which is better called simply “sex”)—to be especially expressive of the nature of God— it would have been better to save it for humanity.

For if sexuality were somehow chiefly or especially expressive of the divine image then we would be forced to adopt the notion that all of the animals and many of the vegetables are also created in the divine image. There may be some comfort in this for those who see God as a great Life Force rather than as the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen—including the “life force.” But sex isn’t what makes us uniquely God’s children. For what we share with the image of God is something which we believe to be unique to us as human beings—something shared by all of us yet complete in each of us. What is it? The Catechism says it best—and I would refer everyone to it before they make any more comments about our relation to the divine image—“What does it mean to be created in the image of God? It means that we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.” Free will and love, not sex, is our share in God’s image.

All and each

Likeness to God is not simply something shared by all of humanity, but is a quality resident in each individual human. Jesus echoes this when he warns, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren you did it to me.” (Matthew 25.40) Every person is in the image of God, and we either honor or reject that image in our day-to-day behavior in relation to individual human beings. The plain meaning of our text is this: God created humanity “in his image”; God created both male and female, men and women. Each person is made in the image of God, and shares in a likeness to God that has nothing to do with the individual’s sex. The image is complete in each: it is, if you will, holographic. It is like the presence of Christ in the eucharist, in which the bread, though divided, remains — in each fragment — the whole Body of Christ. Each individual partakes of that Body in the same way that each individual shares in the divine image: wholly.

Generalizing the divine image and dispersing it to collective humanity opens a door for acts of oppression against individuals. Those who say they love God but hate those who bear God’s image are liars. (1 John 4.20) Equally, those who say they love “humanity” while hating individuals have fallen into a theology of the “mass man”—and the idea that God’s image is somehow best expressed by a married couple partakes of this error. It is easy to practice benevolence to groups and societies; it is often difficult to deal with individuals with tolerance and love.

Perhaps the gravest error arising from this identification of sex, or the union of the sexes, with the divine image is the way in which it effectively denies the Incarnation as defined by the Council of Chalcedon (BCP pg. 864). I’m sure Karl Barth would have been appalled to have this pointed out to him. Jesus Christ, in his divine nature, is the image of God. His human nature, which he shares with us completely and perfectly, derives entirely from Mary his mother. If Christ’s humanity is perfect and complete, he encompasses all that is human. He was a man, yet he partakes of human “substance”—that which he shares with all humanity—from Mary, a woman. His sex cannot be an essential or substantial part of his—or our—human nature, but is an instance of the “scandal of particularity” or what the philosophers would call “accident” as opposed to “substance.”

As Irenaeus said in his great work Against Heresies

If [Jesus] did not receive the substance of flesh from a human being, he neither was made man nor the Son of man; and if he was not made what we were, he did no great thing in what he suffered and endured... The Apostle Paul, moreover, declares plainly, “God sent his Son, made of a woman.” [Gal 4.4]... Superfluous too in that case is his descent into Mary, for why did he come down into her if he were to take nothing out of her?” (III.22.1f)

An Episcopal priest once told me Jesus couldn’t have been fully human if he wasn’t married; so, therefore, he must have been married, secretly. One shudders to think what the Council of Chalcedon would have done with that one.

Jesus, a man, in his human nature is of one substance with Mary, a woman, and with every man, woman and child—with all of humanity. Any theology of the imago dei which neglects Jesus Christ as its perfect exposition will be fatally flawed.

Relations and symbols

What does the Scripture tell us about the relations between male and female, on the symbolic level? Paul develops an analogy in Ephesians 5.21-33 between the relationship of Christ with the church and a man with his wife. The unity in love and obedience which exists in the “one flesh” of a man and woman reflects the mysterious relationship of love and obedience between Christ and his body, the church. There is no suggestion that “male and female” (or man and wife) have anything to do with God’s divine nature, or our human nature. Paul is building upon what for him was a natural hierarchy of love and obedience which could lead to a transcendent unity: a man loves his wife because through the sexual act they “become one flesh”; and no one hates his own flesh. Note that in conclusion Paul refers the whole concept to a higher plane, and even implies that sexuality exists merely to provide such a symbol! “I am saying that it [i.e., the “one flesh” of Genesis 2.24] refers to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”

To conclude, human nature transcends individual sexuality, which is a part of the physical creation we share with animals and plants, and was created as a means to “fill the earth” (Genesis 1.28). Sex is an attribute of the individual person, not of human nature. Every person is either male or female; humanity as a whole is neither.

The divine nature is beyond sexuality; God is neither male nor female. And we too, when we become children of the resurrection, will be even as Christ is, in the place where there is no more “male and female,” no more “marrying or giving in marriage” because we will no longer need the sexuality that was created for “mutual joy..., help and comfort..., and... procreation.” (BCP pg. 423) “Those who are accounted worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die any more.” (Luke 20.35-36) As Aquinas said, “Types and shadows have their ending... “ When Love comes, and when we are in that Love, we will no longer need sexuality. Because “when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.” (1 Corinthians 13.10)

Lest anyone accuse me of dualism, or being anti-body, let me set the point straight right now. Dualism certainly exists in the church: the love-hate relationship theologians have with sexuality and generation (“the realization of the divine image” versus “the root of strife, partaking of the nature of sin”) is an outgrowth of the two creation accounts in Genesis. In the first (1.28) sexuality is part of the blessed order; in the second (3.16-4.1) it becomes tainted with pain and mortality. I do not go along with either of these extreme positions. You want dualism? You want a linkage of sex and original sin? You go to Augustine of Hippo! See, for example, Civ. Dei, XIV.15-26. The unfortunate split between will and emotion, and the linking of sexuality and original sin are both results of the Pelagian-Augustinian debates. Once Augustine decided that sexual reproduction was the means by which original sin was transmitted, it became all too easy to lay the blame for the sin upon the means by which it passed from generation to generation. Augustine goes so far as to say that it is the erect male member which transmits original sin (Sermon 151). For Augustine, sexual activity is still tainted even in a faithful marriage, even when procreation is expressly intended. Besides that, he finds the whole thing extremely distasteful. “I know of nothing which brings the manly mind down from the heights more than a woman’s caresses and the joining of bodies without which one cannot have a wife.” (On the Nature of Good 18)

I feel sorry for Augustine, in a way. He was largely a victim of a neoplatonic view of the world, unable to accept the dynamic tension of life between what St Francis de Sales called the Will of God (what God wills in the depth of God’s being) and the Good Will of God Done (the day to day realities, including the pains and failures necessitated by free will, ultimately redeemed by God). Augustine, poor man, couldn’t help confusing the imperfect with the bad.

God didn’t say creation was perfect. God did not create a perfect world, but a perfecting world. God did not create perfect beings, but created beings that were capable of becoming perfect because they were made in God’s image—having the power to choose. It was in right choosing that the road to perfection lay. Had humanity chosen obedience, they would have achieved perfection. Through the Fall they lost that ability until the time when God too became human. With this redemptive act, human beings once again become capable of reaching perfection in Christ and through Christ. All creation is awaiting the perfection of humanity, for when human beings take up the task for which they were created, the world can then be perfected. (Romans 8.19-23.) The significance of the Incarnation and At-one-ment affirm that the “happy fault” of Adam was not an incidental episode of salvation (or creation) history. Only through “one man’s obedience” could perfection be realized, a perfection realized “once and for all.”

No, God didn’t say creation was perfect; God said it was good, except for one thing: loneliness. (Genesis 2.18)

I think sex and sexuality are great. They are good, a part of God’s creation. But like a lot of other good things they are imperfect, earthly, and transient. That the risen body will be unlike the “body of death” is a promise of hope. Many things that we think are great now, many “creature comforts,” many things valued in the church, like prophecy and knowledge, will pass away. Love will remain.

Tobias Haller BSG

May 27, 2008

Moore in the Bronx

I first met the work of sculptor Henry Moore via the large Knife Edge bronze at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Later I saw an early biography film on his work, and have enjoyed it ever since.

One thing few appreciate about his work, unless they've seen it in person, is its complexity -- for a still photo can make it seem deceptively simple. But the complex curves in the surface of the sculptures, the interlocking of various segments, and the organic forms are surprisingly rich.

The Bronx Botanical Garden is now rejoicing in an "exhibit" of over 20 of Moore's large works, scattered around the many acres of the park, and I managed to see them all yesterday. What a treat. Here are just a few of them.
- Tobias Haller BSG

May 25, 2008

Quatrain for 05.25.08

Dead horses, beaten, do not move, or don’t move very well;
unless, that is, they’re hammered fast upon a carousel;
but that’s a race where no one wins, as far as I can see,
in carnival or fairground — or even TEC.

Tobias Haller BSG

May 22, 2008

In Virgo Fertilization

A recent report on the British vote on a number of reproductive matters has this:
Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, who led a campaign against the new law, told Britain's Channel 4 TV: "It is strange that a government should pass a law denying a child the right to a named father. The cement of society is the family, and the presence of a father and mother."

It continues to amaze me that a church whose solemn teaching insists that Jesus Christ was not born into his "biological family" -- by divine intent -- and who honors Joseph as a foster father, should seem so intent on the myth that the presence of a father and mother -- preferably the biological father and mother -- is substantively better for a child than having one or more loving parents, regardless of their sex. And what about grandparents and the uncles and aunts of extended family? The "nuclear family" is not, and has not been the cement of social life for the bulk of human history. And what about the ancient institution of godparenthood? And dare I mention nurses, nannies, and governesses, and boarding and convent schools? I mean, really! I continue to be bemused by this reaction, which only undercuts any credibility such figures may have on the other (and to my mind more important) aspects of this legislation.

But then again, what the Cardinal is really upset about is the idea of lesbian moms. That, and not any specious theory about parenthood, is the real issue, and anyone with eyes to see knows it.

Tobias Haller BSG

May 21, 2008

Unread Books Meme

From Grandmère Mimi:
What we have below is a list of the top 106 books most often marked as "unread" by LibraryThing users. Bold the ones you've read, underline the ones you read for school, italicize the ones you started but didn't finish.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Anna Karenina
The Brothers Karamazov
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
War and Peace
Vanity Fair
The Time Traveler’s Wife
The Iliad
The Blind Assassin
The Kite Runner
Mrs. Dalloway
Great Expectations
American Gods
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Atlas Shrugged
Reading Lolita in Tehran : a memoir in books
Memoirs of a Geisha
Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
The Canterbury Tales
The Historian : a novel
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Love in the Time of Cholera
Brave New World
The Fountainhead
Foucault’s Pendulum
The Count of Monte Cristo
A Clockwork Orange
Anansi Boys
The Once and Future King
The Grapes of Wrath
The Poisonwood Bible : a novel
Angels & Demons
The Inferno (and Purgatory and Paradise)
The Satanic Verses
Sense and Sensibility
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Mansfield Park
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
To the Lighthouse
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Oliver Twist
Gulliver’s Travels
Les Misérables
The Corrections
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Prince
The Sound and the Fury
Angela’s Ashes : a memoir
The God of Small Things
A People’s History of the United States : 1492-present
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Short History of Nearly Everything
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Scarlet Letter
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
The Mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake : a novel
Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed
Cloud Atlas
The Confusion
Northanger Abbey
The Catcher in the Rye
On the Road
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Freakonomics : a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : an inquiry into values
The Aeneid (excerpts in school)
Watership Down
Gravity’s Rainbow
The Hobbit
In Cold Blood
White Teeth
Treasure Island
David Copperfield
The Three Musketeers

A Maxim for 05.21.08

...based on a comment thread below

Always act as if things were the way you believe things should be. Let your aspirations, hopes and vision guide you, as you pass through the midst of those who would throw you off the cliff, and go on your way.

Tobias Haller BSG

May 18, 2008

Unless the Lord Builds the House...

...their labor is in vain who build it.

Jesus is the only "instrument" of communion, since it is through baptism into his death that we enter the only communion that endures. All other "communions" are merely means to an end -- Jesus Christ is both the instrumental means and the desired end.

To place anything but God in the place of God is idolatry. We are called to be One even as the Son and the Father are One in the Spirit. We are invited into this mystical union as members of Christ's Body — the one Church of which all the baptized are members, in spite of their protests to the contrary. Like it, or, as is sometimes the case, not, we are in this together. The more we act that way, the better it will be for us.

A thought on Trinity Sunday — Tobias Haller BSG

May 17, 2008

Teeth and Consequences

As I’ve continued to review the Saint Andrew’s Draft Anglican Covenant, I’ve come to appreciate the positive changes in the first two sections more and more. The problem, of course, remains in the potentially mischievous disciplinary clauses in section 3.2.5. As I’ve noted on the previous draft, having an out-clause in a covenant is like having a pre-nuptial agreement signed along with the wedding register. No priest should allow such an action, as it is a clear indication of defective intent: how can one swear to unity while providing for division?

So I suggest that if we simply remove section 3.2.5 and its subsections, and the overly complicated appendix of discipline to which it refers, we will be left with something actually worthy of the name, Covenant.

Some will say that this removes the Covenant’s teeth. But why should a covenant have teeth? Didn’t Paul warn the Galatians about the danger of “biting and devouring one another” rather than following the law of love? The rest of the covenant amply lays out the concepts of loving mutual responsibility, service and mission — and if that is not enough to keep us together, no disciplinary threats will make us into what we are called to be.

Teeth are for eating, and in this case, like the serpent Ouroboros — the snake that eats its own tail, the symbol of simultaneous self-destruction and self-possession, alone and insensate in the emptiness of self, as Plato said — these punitive measures will only lead to self-obsession, rather than the self-forgetfulness to which Christ calls us.

Tobias Haller BSG

May 16, 2008

Blind Man’s Testimony

Because I was born blind I didn’t know
I was until they told me I was blind.

I used to sit beside my father in
the synagogue, pressed close against his side,
his arm around my shoulder. Once he let
me touch the velvet-covered Torah as
it passed, guiding my hand in his.
I never made bar mitzvah — couldn’t read,
and didn’t have the heart to memorize.

Still, how I loved the synagogue, especially
the prophets’ words. A few years back I heard
a man read from Isaiah and — I swear —
I thought the words would come true then and there:
“sight to the blind,” he said. Well, one can hope.

When I grew up, I earned my bread by sit-
ting on the corner, holding out my hand.
They knew me in the neighborhood. It wasn’t
a bad living; once a rich young ruler
even put a gold coin in my hand —
a small one, but so heavy next to coppers.

From time to time discussions would take place
about my blindness and its possible cause.
All above my head — in every sense!

Then, of course, one day that man called Jesus
happened by. He said that he was light.
He put mud on my eyes and sent me to
the pool to wash it off. And then I saw.

What was it like to see at first? It looked
like trumpets sound on New Year’s Day, ram’s horn
and brass; it looked like gold feels in the hand —
I think I told you that I felt it once;
like smiles feel on my fingertips. It looked
like velvet felt that time my father, my
small hand in his, pressed it against the Torah,
and the jingling silver sounded round
my ears. A bit like that.
                                       Funny, though,
that when I got back to the street, though I
could see, the neighbors didn’t recognize me.
Scholars grilled me, called my parents, wouldn’t
take my word. And finally they kicked
me out.
              Do I miss the synagogue?
I miss the New Year’s trumpets; miss the Torah
scroll, its velvet cover and the silver bells.
I miss the prophets’ words. I miss
my parents.
                     But I do not miss the end-
less questions on my blindness; I
don’t miss the corner of the street or my
old “friends” and neighbors; I don’t miss the heat
and street-smells and the ache of outstretched arm
and empty hand.
                             Besides, I saw that man —
the one that said that he was light? He was,
you know. He was the one who gave me sight,
just like the prophet said. He is my Torah
now, my New Year’s Day, my gold, my light,
my father and my God.

Tobias Haller BSG
May 16, 2008


The California Supreme Court decision on the issue of same-sex marriage includes this observation:

While retention of the limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples is not needed to preserve the rights and benefits of opposite-sex couples, the exclusion of same-sex couples from the designation of marriage works a real and appreciable harm upon same-sex couples and their children.

One would think this to be a simple and obvious fact. Yet the foul cry has already gone up that such a broadening of recognition will in fact have impact upon either those mixed-sex couples already married, or those who might contemplate it. I'm sorry, but this begins to sound a bit like, “I don't want to be part of a(n) _________ that allows _________ to join.” Fill in the blanks as you will. It also begins to sound an awful lot like some couples want “special rights” reserved, rights and privileges that only apply to them and not to other couples. Stay posted as the effort to write these special rights into the California Constitution presses forward.

Meanwhile, it appears that, yes, Virginia, you are not alone in wanting to maintain your diocesan authority and trusteeship (in the name of The Episcopal Church) over Episcopal churches. According to a report from Episcopal Café, a whole slew of other churches (and the other dioceses in the state) have joined those already in the Diocese of Virginia's Friends List. They make a compelling case that state intrusion into the inner workings of any church constitutes an unconstitutional interference with the religious right to order a church according to its own beliefs and doctrines. Again, stay tuned for what is bound to be an important court decision.

Tobias Haller BSG

May 15, 2008

Thought for 05.15.08

Charitable feelings are of no use
without acts of charity.
Compassionate feelings are of no use
without acts of compassion.
Loving feelings are useless
unless they lead to acts of love.
The Priest and Levite may well have felt sorry
for the wounded man
as they steered a course past him,
and the Samaritan who stopped to help
may have been muttering
under his breath
at the inconvenience
the whole time.
How they felt
was immaterial to the wounded man.

Tobias Haller BSG

May 10, 2008

On the Island of Silence

Once upon a time there was an island far out in the sea on which none of the people ever spoke a single word or made a single sound. No one knows why this was — it could be that those who first colonized the island lacked the ability to speak, or perhaps had nothing to say! But the present inhabitants, though capable of speech, had long since forsaken it, and instead communicated with each other by means of facial expressions and gestures, in which, over time, they had developed considerable eloquence.

One day, a ship was blown off course and the seafarers happened upon this island. As the captain grounded his storm-tossed ship upon the beach, he saw a native of that place in the forest not far off, and called out to him. The man standing among the trees looked this way and that, as if unable to locate the source of the sound. Eventually after repeated calls from the captain and others of the crew, the man on the shore recognized where the sound was coming from. His eyes widened in horror and his eyebrows almost rose off his forehead, and then he averted his gaze with a frown of disgust, and gestured with both hands as if to push the ship back out to sea. He then turned and disappeared into the forest.

The crew were astounded at this reception, but debarked and went in search of fresh water. Before long they stumbled into the village that served as the metropolis of the tiny island. But everyone to whom they tried to speak greeted them with the same look of horrified astonishment and gesture of disgusted dismissal. It soon became apparent to the seafarers that they were the topic of much and lively discussion — though they could understand none of it, as it was all conducted in the silent language of the island. Had they understood they might have saved their lives. For this is what the islanders were saying about them.

How have we offended our gods that they should visit such a tribulation upon us? These people, if we can call them people, have not the least sense of discretion or decorum about them, and however much we tell them to stop their indecent behavior they keep it up — openly and shamelessly using the organ the gods have given us only for the purpose of nourishment — whereon our very lives depend — using this sacred organ of life for, well, one supposes it can only be called a kind of “communication,” as they appear to be able through this perversion of nature to carry on a limited form of conversation among themselves, and even seem to be trying — the gods forbid it! — to draw us into this vile imitation of social intercourse.

Some few of you say that they should be gagged to stop this outrage, or that their tongues should be cut out, since they have so misused them. But the consensus is instead that such halfway measures will not serve. Therefore, let us do away with these monsters before their corruption infects us, lest any of our young people be tempted so to misuse the lips and tongue the gods have given us to eat and drink and taste with, to practice this obscene parody of “language.” Bind them up quickly, and let them be slain and buried under a heap of stones, that our children and our children’s children may know in the days to come of our love for our gods, and our obedience to the sacred traditions handed down to us.

And so it was that the islanders preserved their way of life, and the unfortunate seafarers met their end.

Saturday satire from Tobias Haller BSG

May 8, 2008

For Julian, At Day’s End

Augusta has fond thoughts concerning Julian of Norwich, but even fonder thought concerning Tuna of Sandwich. She is well aware that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well — but is also wondering when the dinner bell will toll.

May 5, 2008

Thought for 05.05.08

I realize that I am at times like the annoying child for whom “Because!” is an insufficient answer to my persistent question “Why?”

Tobias Haller BSG

May 4, 2008

Impossible Things

Andrew Brown writes:

...The ordination of women priests was bought on credit, and the church can’t ever pay down more than the interest on the bill. When women priests were ordained, the Church of England was only held together, to the extent that it was, by both sides making solemn promises that they didn’t believe they would ever be called on and had no real intention of delivering. In particular, the supporters of women priests solemnly promised that there would always be an honoured place for their opponents within the church, even though they thought of the arrangements as entirely transitional; in return the opponents solemnly declared that women priests were legally and validly priests, even though they did not believe this could possibly be true. They still don’t.

Anglicans (and Episcopalians) have long engaged in such wishful thinking, which often turns out to be of the Red Queen variety: believing six impossible things before breakfast. Since the Elizabethan settlement, and the inclusion of two diametrically opposed eucharistic theologies in the same liturgy, this has shown a certain genius, as, in fact, the hot issues of one generation tend to cool with time, to the point that few today would quibble about the exact nature of the presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, and I doubt that anyone is denied ordination on the basis of his or her understanding of the exact mechanism by which (or if) this happens.

Sometimes, however, Anglican Fudge grows not only cold, but stale with time, and crumbles. The ordination of women hasn't rested long enough, it seems -- and perhaps it is only logical with a matter that so touches on human identity, in which the world at large has moved so much more quickly than the church in recognizing the full humanity of women, and hence doesn't limit their activity in that world. Some still insist that "only men can be daddies" -- but then, of course, one presses on to ask what in heaven's name that has to do with being a priest, since any priestly fatherhood is purely spiritual, and not based on a complement of testosterone, nor indeed if one is an actual daddy or not. (Isn't it odd that the church that has most resolutely stuck by an all-male priesthood also generally disallows the one thing for which a male is undeniably needed? All dressed up and no place to go, it seems, is the order of the day. Of course, they also hypostasize "maleness" into all other sorts of things, but then that precisely avoids the question of daddyhood, doesn't it? It seems it isn't only Anglicans who manage their share of Impossible Fudge, most definitely with nuts.)

Can we continue to live in an ecclesiastical ambiguity on this matter -- or must the lots be cast to Justus or Matthias. One notes that in spite of the Apostles' concern to fill Judas' seat, nothing was heard further from his successor once the Spirit actually came to pour out grace "on sons and daughters... menservants and maidservants" alike. Perhaps it is taking us this long to realize the wisdom of the prophet Joel in this regard, in spite of Peter's having cited him. What did Luke record Jesus saying on the road to Emmaus? "Ye foolish men and slow of heart to believe the prophets..." Sounds familiar. More fudge, anyone?

—Tobias Haller BSG

(Hat Tip to Thinking Anglicans)

May 2, 2008

Embodied Fel(in)icity

or,we are not abused.

Augusta Victoria muses on the latest on Human Rights from the Archbishop of Canterbury.

She is chiefly concerned with the question of Feline Rights, and whether she possesses them due to her feline embodiment, or because she is a feline by virtue of descent from other felines. What, she wonders, does embodiment mean since her body changes day by day, as large quantities of Friskies (consisting of things for the most part once part of other entities such as plants, fish, and even other mammals) are incorporated into her present embodiment, while other portions of that body pass out in exchange, as anyone who has tended her Box o' Litter can attest? (The amount of fur gathered from carpets, sofas, and armchairs in the past year is sufficient to constitute another entire cat.) Moreover, since early adolescence she has been missing one particular portion of her body, and does not feel, in spite of this having rendered her incapable of passing along her own bodiliness to subsequent feline generations, any less feline.

She applauds the Archbishop's observation that "liberty is not to be silenced, not to have my body reduced to someone else's instrument." Feline rejection of the notion of "petitude" has long been noted, and disdain for relatively "canine" behavior -- revealed by Scripture as cause for exclusion from the Kingdom of God (Rev 22:15)* -- forms a large part of the long-noted hostility between those species.

Still, the question arises as to whether Feline Rights are innate (based on existence as a Feline Being) merely on account of embodiment as a feline, or the recognition of that fact by another entity, be it Human or Dog. The Archbishop seems to suggest this as a criterion when he states that

Rights belong not to the person who can demonstrate capacity or rationality but to any organism that can be recognised as a human body, at any stage of its organic development.

This seems to shift the embodiment away from the body itself into the subjective perception of it by some other entity, and that entity's ability to "recognise" the individual in question as human; or in this case, feline. As the very earliest embryonic forms of feline and human are barely distinguishable except by the application of sub-microscopic analysis of DNA sequences, it would appear then that rights ought not be governed merely by "embodiment" -- or by an even more abstruse concept of "recognized embodiment" (surely a receptionist suggestion) -- but rather use as a point of reference the principle of descent from other humans -- or felines; if, that is, one wishes to address the reality of the fluid nature of embodiment at all its stages of life.

Meanwhile, her expression appears to indicate that, like another monarch, she is not particularly amused by either my or the Archbishop's speculations, and is wondering when the next tin of poultry byproducts will be offered.

Tobias Haller BSG

*This does not apply to Clumber and other beloved Dogs.