American Demons: The Horror Show in Charlottesville

Hate on the march in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 11, 2017. (Adapted from photo by Samuel Corum)

And though this world with devils filled
should threaten to undo us;
we will not fear, for God hath willed
his truth to triumph through us;
the prince of darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo! his doom is sure:
one little word shall fell him.

–– Martin Luther

 

Nazis on the march in America. We recoil at this news with a sense of shock, like getting a bad diagnosis. Our first instinct is denial. Could the social body really be this sick?

Naomi Klein, writing about Trump in The Nation last month, said that we can’t really be shocked by where we find ourselves. “A state of shock,” she writes, “is produced when a story is ruptured, when we have no idea what is going on. But in so many ways, Trump is not a rupture at all, but rather the culmination––the logical end point––of a great many dangerous stories our culture has been telling for a long time. That greed is good, That the market rules. That money is what matters in life. That white men are better than the rest. That the natural world is there for us to pillage. That the vulnerable deserve their fate, and the 1 percent deserve their golden towers. . . . That we are surrounded by danger and should only look after our own. That there is no alternative to any of this.”[1]

We breathe those toxic narratives daily, she says, so a Trump presidency is no real surprise. But it is a horror story. Night has fallen, and America’s demons have come out to play.

The grotesque images of mindless anger in Charlottesville raise disturbing questions––about American society, certainly, but about human nature as well. How did those young men come to be so possessed by hatred and rage? Has the image of God been entirely erased from their twisted faces?

Richard J. Evans, examining the rise of Nazism in the 1920s, saw desperate and resentful young men being attracted to extremism and violence “irrespective of ideology.” They weren’t looking for ideas, but meaning. They desired a cure for melancholy and malaise, a pick-me-up to restore a sense of personal significance. “Violence was like a drug for such men… Often, they had only the haziest notion of what they were fighting for.” Many found a sense of heightened self in “a life of almost incessantly violent activism, suffering beatings, stabbings and arrests.” Hostility to the enemy de jour––Communists, Jews, whomever––was the core of their commitment. As one young Stormtrooper later reflected on the bonding effect of collective violence, it was all “too wonderful and perhaps too hard to write about.”[2]

Evans’ description provides clues to the pathology of white resentment and the resurgence of right-wing extremism, but explanations bring little comfort. None of us remain neutral observers, standing a safe distance from the fray. The demons are Legion, and we are all being swept along, however unwillingly, in the Gadarene rush to the cliffs of madness and destruction (cf. Mark 5:1-13).

Why is there evil? Where does it come from? The Creator spoke the world into existence, and saw that it was good. But as the old stories tell it, the world’s goodness was soon complicated by a persistent power of negation, whose source remains something of a puzzle, though some say it is the diabolic urge to reject or destroy the gifts of life as a show of independence from the Giver.

Before he became Satan, Lucifer was one of heaven’s brightest stars. But his pique over being outshone by Christ precipitated his all-out war against God. His narcissistic self-assertion refused to bow to a greater reality, and he became the archetypal image of creaturely resentment: “the gloomy angel of darkness, on whose brow shines with dim lustre the star of bitter thought, full of inner discords which can never be harmonized.”[3]

Bitter thought, inner discords. None of us is uncontaminated by this negation. At the end of his 2000-page trilogy on the rise and fall of German Nazism, Evans concludes,

The Third Reich raises in the most acute form the possibilities and consequences of the human hatred and destructiveness that exist, even if only in a small way, within all of us. It demonstrates with terrible clarity the ultimate potential consequences of racism, militarism and authoritarianism. It shows what can happen if some people are treated as less human than others. It poses in the most extreme possible form the moral dilemmas we all face at one time or another in our lives, of conformity or resistance, action or inaction in the particular situations with which we are confronted. That is why the Third Reich will not go away, but continues to command the attention of thinking people throughout the world long after it has passed into history.[4]

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky shows us this diabolical rage for destruction in Liza Khokhlakov, a sickly young woman once engaged to the saintly Alyosha Karamazov. Feeling herself in a world without God or grace, she dwells in the hell of lovelessness. “I don’t love anyone,” she insists to Alyosha. “Do you hear? Not a-ny-one.”

Dostoevsky gives this scene the title, “A Little Demon,” because Liza seems possessed––and shamed––by an annihilating spirit. “I just don’t want to do good,” she says, “I want to do evil…” Alyosha asks her, “Why do evil?” And she answers:

“So that there will be nothing left anywhere. Ah, how good it would be if there were nothing left! You know, Alyosha, I sometimes think about doing an awful lot of evil, all sorts of nasty things, and I’d be doing them on the sly for a long time, and suddenly everyone would find out. They would all surround me and point their fingers at me, and I would look at them all. That would be very pleasant. Why would it be so pleasant, Alyosha?”

Liza enjoys the fantasy of her self-loathing being confirmed by many accusers, but Alyosha refuses to take the bait. He simply responds without judgment, “Who knows? The need to smash something good, or, as you said, to set fire to something.”[5]

Nazi salute in Charlottesville, VA (August 2017). Flames added as theological commentary.

Rowan Williams finds in Liza’s words the hellish despair of a morally indifferent universe, where there is just as much self-hatred as hatred of the “other.” If there is no God, then there is no redemption or release either, “and the sense of nausea and revulsion at the self’s passion for pain and destruction is beyond healing. . . . [T]his is what Liza endures: to know the self’s fantasies of destruction or perversity and to feel there is no escape or absolution from them, to know that you are a part of a world that is irredeemable.”[6]

Is there any exit from this ludicrous horror show? What word can we speak to fell the demons? Jesus? God? Love? Although such words have been misused at times for demonic purposes, at their purest they signify the beauty for which we were made, the true Form toward which all beings tend. They drive away the powers of negation, and make our faces shine with the light of heaven. They set us free from the toxic narratives of hate, fear, domination and greed, and give us a better story, in which everything is gift and everyone is neighbor. They bring us home at last to the abundant feast of divine communion, where everything is a You and nothing is an It.[7]

Paul Evdokimov, an orthodox theologian, once suggested that the saintly characters in Dostoevsky were like “the icon in the room, a ‘face on the wall,’ a presence that does not actively engage with other protagonists but is primarily a site of manifestation and illumination. Others define themselves around and in relation to this presence.”[8]

I don’t know exactly what is being asked of God’s friends in Charlottesville, but I suspect it has something to do with embodying such a transformative and defining presence, “a site of manifestation and illumination” where others––maybe even some of those young haters––may rediscover their true Christlike faces, and begin the exodus from the perversities of this dark time into a better country and a brighter day.

 

Related posts

How far can we sink? Donald Trump and the Vortex of Rage

Can this be happening? Donald Trump and the Rise of Authoritarianism

 

 

[1] Naomi Klein, “Daring to Dream in the Age of Trump,” The Nation, July 3/10, 2017, p. 15.

[2] Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 220-21.

[3] Alexander Herzen, 19th century Russian thinker, commenting on Lucifer in Byron’s Cain, q. in Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 649.

[4] Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich at War: 1939-1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 764.

[5] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. By Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsk (New York: Vintage Classics, 1991), 585, 582.

[6] Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (London: Continuum, 2008), 70-71.

[7] Adapted from W. H. Auden, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976), 306. The original line: Everything became a You and nothing was an It.”

[8] Paraphrased in Williams, 29.

“Every common bush afire with God”

Weatherbeaten pines near the summit of Mt. Tallac.

Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries
And daub their natural faces unaware…

–  Elizabeth Barrett Browning

 

August 6th marks the Feast of the Transfiguration, that strange moment in the gospel narrative when the divine glory in Jesus is glimpsed by three disciples on the summit of a mountain. Scholars have puzzled over the strange mysticism of the story, an anomalous intrusion into the more historical tone of the gospel texts. Was it a misplaced post-resurrection story, or did the glory of heaven really blaze for a moment in an ordinary place on an ordinary afternoon?

Although some scholars locate the event on the higher, wilder summit of Mt. Hermon (9232’), tradition commemorates the story on the gently rounded crown of Mt. Tabor, a solitary knob rising 1500 feet above the Galilean plain. To the romantics among us, in love with the sublime majesty of high mountains, Tabor’s humbler setting seems an uninspired choice for a manifestation of the divine. Doesn’t the experience of divine presence require the less accessible, more transcendent heights of a Mt. Sinai, reached only with bleeding feet and gasping breath?

The lectionary readings for the Transfiguration don’t seem worried about the comparison. Sinai and Tabor are both remembered as summits where the divine presence was revealed to mortal sight. The gospel description of a cloud overshadowing the mount of Transfiguration is clearly meant to echo the theophany at Sinai. But the two mountains are in fact very different places.

Sinai is austere, barren, and forbidding, rising out of a desolate landscape that Deuteronomy aptly describes as “a terrible and waste-howling wilderness.” The mountain consists of 580 million year old red granite, overlaid by dark volcanic rock of more recent origin (ten million years ago).Travelers over the centuries have spoken of Mt. Sinai as “dark and frowning”, with its “stern, naked, splintered peaks.” One 19th century pilgrim said, “I felt as though I had come to the end of the world.”

For Moses and his people, its summit was wrapped in the Cloud of Unknowing, where human sight must become blind before it can see the divine light. It is a place apart, inhospitable to ordinary life and everyday knowledge. Its mystery remains hidden from the casual quest. “The knowledge of God,” said Gregory of Nyssa, “is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb.”

The Israelites were smart enough to know this. They stayed down in the valley where it was safe. Even there, the thunder and lightning around the peak made them shudder. The Exodus text says that just touching the edge of the mountain could kill you. So they were happy to let Moses go up alone. As one ancient writer put it, he “left behind every divine light, every voice, every word from heaven, to plunge into the darkness where the One dwells who is beyond all things.”

Medieval mystics said that on the summit, inside the cloud, Moses fell asleep in a supreme self-forgetfulness. Whatever he saw up there was beyond words, but the description of Moses descending is unforgettable: the skin of his face shone because he had been talking to God. The Israelites were afraid to come near him until he had veiled his face.

This is a story about the otherness of God, the one whose incomprehensible mystery is utterly beyond our world, beyond our knowing, beyond our grasp.

In choosing Tabor as the site to commemorate the Transfiguration, tradition has invoked God’s less forbidding aspect. Tabor is what geologists call a monadnock, a native American word for “mountain that stands alone.” Resistant to the erosion that reduced its surroundings to a low plain, its solitary rounded shape draws the eye from miles around. Set in a fertile portion of the Galilee, it is adorned with grasses, shrubs, and groves of pine, oak, and cypress. Where Sinai is fierce and forbidding, Tabor is gentle and welcoming, pleasant and hospitable. Its modest scale and cheerful greenness made me feel at home when I climbed it nearly thirty years ago.

The attributed setting of the Transfiguration is very different, then, from Sinai; but so are the details in the gospel text. Instead of a dark cloud, there is a clear, bright light. Instead of an unspeakable mystical experience by a solitary Moses, there is a describable vision to which several disciples are witnesses. And instead of requiring a long and arduous pilgrimage to a distant place, the Transfiguration takes place in the familiar geography of the disciples’ home turf.

In other words, this gospel story is about the immanence of God, the presence of the divine in the very midst of our stories, not just at their remotest edges. We don’t have to leave where we are in order to find God. God can be found right here, where we are living our lives. Epiphanies come in unexpected places. God may be found in the humblest dwelling.

Recently I climbed one of my own favorite summits––Mt. Tallac, which at nearly ten thousand feet towers above Fallen Leaf Lake in California’s Sierra Nevada. When I was a child, we took family vacations at the lake, spending a week every summer in a rented cabin. While we rarely ventured far from the water, Tallac always loomed above us like a beckoning power, and even as a small boy I felt its summons. I was about ten when I finally made it to the top, and I have returned a number of times since. As a young man, I went up by moonlight to watch the sun rise over Lake Tahoe. In middle age, I ascended at sunset to view a lunar eclipse.

This time, there was no celestial display, and certainly no mountaintop theophany. The only words I was given at the top came from a conversation between two young women who were starting back down. As they passed me, I only heard one sentence: “Was she drunk at the time?” What could I make of such an oracle? On this hike, all my mountain revelations would turn out to be nonverbal.

“Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days,” exclaimed Sierran saint John Muir, “inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God.” And on my 12-mile Tallac pilgrimage,  there were many windows indeed.

The journey up the mountain begins gently, along the banks of Glen Aulin.

Checker-mallow halfway up Mt. Tallac.

Jeffrey pine west of Tallac.

Wooly mule ears, looking west from Mt. Tallac.

A marmot at the summit.

Lake Tahoe from the top of Mt. Tallac.

More than halfway down the steep side, a view of Fallen Leaf Lake and journey’s end.

Anglican poet-priest R. S. Thomas described a natural epiphany of his own in “The Bright Field.” At first it seemed a common enough sight: the sun breaking through clouds to illuminate a small meadow. The image quickly slipped from his mind as he went on his way. But in retrospect he realized that the gift of that moment had been “the pearl / of great price, the one field that had / the treasure in it.” If only he had been prepared to give it his full attention.

Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

If only we too would turn aside from our headlong forward rush to notice the illuminations strewn along our way. As I made my descent from Tallac’s summit, taking a steeper, shorter return route to Fallen Leaf, I was less prone to dally. There were snowfields and rockslides to cross, and I needed to reach Fallen Leaf Lake before sunset. Halfway down I spied a magnificent corn lily nested in a thicket about twenty feet from the trail. In my haste I almost passed it by. But then my soul stepped on the brakes, and I turned aside to behold the miracle of its beauty. I waded through the brush for a closer look. Was it “only” a corn lily, veratrum californicum, or was it, as the poets and mystics say, an epiphany “afire with God?”

Corn lily on the southern slope of Mt. Tallac.

 

Related posts:

The Light We May Not See: Thoughts on Dust and Transfiguration

The Woven Light: Reflections on the Transfiguration

Something’s Happening Here: Summer of Love (Part 2)

Still from Cancel My Subscription, a film by Jim Friedrich (1967)

I am the Messiah. I’ve come down to preach love to the world. We’re going to walk through the streets and teach people to stop hating.

– Allen Ginsberg, after dropping acid at Timothy Leary’s house[i]

Can you picture what will be
So limitless and free
Desperately in need of some stranger’s hand
In a desperate land –
Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain
And all the children are insane
All the children are insane
Waiting for the summer rain

– Jim Morrison, “The End”

I spent the Summer of Love in a mental hospital ten miles from Disneyland. On my first day, I walked into the glass-walled staff booth overlooking the ward room to introduce myself. A stern-faced nurse moved quickly to block my way. “This is for staff only,” she said. “Please go back out to the ward.”

I gave her my best smile. “Um, actually, I’m going to be your chaplain intern for the summer.” Her expression froze while she took this in. Only her eyes moved, slowly scanning me from head to toe. My appearance clearly said “mental patient”––long hair, suede cowboy jacket, Beatles boots, no tie. A chaplain? The cognitive dissonance was frying her circuits. “I’ll get the doctor,” she said curtly.

The ward psychiatrist seemed amused. He told me I didn’t have to cut my hair. “Just put on a tie, and people will know you’re not a patient.” Was the boundary between sane and insane really so slight––just ­­a narrow strip of colored silk?

In the Sixties, boundaries were no longer what they used to be. It was a time to tear down the walls, break on through to the other side, explore the wildness beyond the prison house of the social imaginary. It’s a mythic quest as old as the biblical exodus from slavery to the Promised Land, and its American lineage goes back to the Puritans, Utopians and Transcendentalists.

“Let us….work and wedge our feet downward,” urged Thoreau, “through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance….till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place which we can call reality.”[ii] The Sixties at their best fostered this kind of aspirational, transformative work.

And I opened my heart to the whole universe
And I found it was loving
And I saw the great blunder my teachers had made:
Scientific delirium madness

– The Byrds, “Fifth Dimension”

In reading Charles Perry’s fascinating history of the Haight-Ashbury phenomenon (published 17 years after the Summer of Love), I was struck by the degree to which even the chaotic extremes of play and pleasure were grounded in serious intent. The sobermindedness of New Left activists was easy to see: Let’s get to work, fight the oppressors, and change the world, no matter how long it takes. But the seriousness of the “psychedelic community” of Haight-Ashbury, cloaked in levity and joy, was harder for outsiders to fathom: Let’s be a new kind of world here and now, they declared––tolerant, communal, liberated from money and convention, celebratory, blissful, loving, peaceful, whimsical, turned on and tuned in to the infinite harmony of Being.

As Perry writes, many of the ideas and practices of the Haight “held out the promise that this world is an illusion as conceived––the real world is here and now, but it is as different from what appears to be the real world as being stoned is from being straight, and it’s just around some mysterious corner. Creating a grand synthesis often revolved around finding a verbal formula that would unite everything, if only verbally; the word ‘together,’ which could suggest being organized and effective in one’s personal life as well as united with other people spiritually or politically, or even united with God, came in for heavy use.”[iii]

One resident of the Haight described “a super-curiosity on the street in ‘66. We thought there was going to be a breakthrough, and that it was imminent. I thought, There might be some room in this neighborhood where they’ve found a tunnel out. So I got into as many scenes as I could.”[iv]

Those scenes really started in 1965, when I was a junior at Stanford, 45 minutes down the Peninsula from San Francisco. I’d go up to the City to hear Jefferson Airplane at the Matrix, or the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore. I didn’t do drugs––I was wary of their downside, and didn’t really believe in their necessity––but my capacity for attentive wonder and ecstatic play caused some to think I must be on something. I did attend one of Ken Kesey’s “Acid Tests,” where I joined people beating a resonant metal sculpture with sticks for an hour or so. I didn’t know they were all on LSD. I thought they were performing an experiment in noise music.

The author in 1966.

By the time the San Francisco scene really heated up in late ’66, I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, studying theology and working as a youth minister in a local parish. When a friend at Harvard organized a West-Coast style be-in the next spring, I took my youth group to share the experience. In the theatrical spirit of the times, it seemed just the thing to wear costumes from the church Christmas pageant. So it was that Mary and Joseph, shepherds and Wise Men danced hand in hand with hippies and flower children on the banks of the Charles River. Afterward, I took the teenagers, still in costume, to hear a lecture at Harvard by the controversial Episcopal bishop, James Pike. Our biblical couture made quite an impression when we entered the packed hall.

By June of ‘67 I was back home in southern California, doing the mental hospital gig and, in my free time, experiencing L.A.’s own Summer of Love. I danced to the Byrds, the Doors, and Love, wore flowers in my hair at be-ins, saw young girls coming to the canyons, and made a trippy experimental film. Meanwhile, a seminary friend was helping to feed and house 150 young people per night at a West Hollywood church. Like the 75,000 pilgrims to San Francisco, they had come in search of the Land of Peace and Love. My 80-year-old grandmother organized the ladies of her retirement home to make them sandwiches.

I managed to get up to the Haight once that summer. A friend gave me his brother’s imaginative depiction of the Jefferson Airplane as characters in Alice in Wonderland. “If you run into [their manager] Bill Graham,” I was instructed, “show it to him and ask if he’d consider it for their next album cover.” And when I arrived at the corner of Haight and Ashbury, there was Graham, and with him the Airplane’s lead singer Marty Balin. They politely declined the drawing. A year after the Sixties ended, the artist would die of a heroin overdose.

In 1967, the ubiquitous music, crowded dance floors, playful be-ins, alternative newspapers and distinctive dress were the most public evidence that “something’s happening here,” but in the Haight you could pick up the communal vibe by just walking the streets, sharing a free meal with the Diggers, hanging out in the art-shaped environments of the local stores and eateries, or grooving on “Hippie Hill.” As Perry summarizes, “it seemed that all this energy had to lead to something amazing.”[v]

And did it? Or was it a doomed vision with no lasting effect? We’ll wonder about that in my next post. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with an inspirational word from Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s an experience I wish I could have given my charges at the hospital, an emergence into clarity to which we all might aspire:

And when the fog was finally swept from my head, it seemed like I’d just come up after a long, deep dive, breaking the surface after being under water a hundred years.[vi]

 

 

 

Related post:“I Wanted Heaven Now”- Remembering the Summer of Love in America’s Time of Trial

 

[i] David R. Williams, Searching for God in the Sixties (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2010), 109.

[ii] Henry David Thoreau, Walden: One Hundred Fiftieth Anniversary Edition (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2004), 82-3

[iii] Charles Perry, The Haight-Ashbury: A History (New York: Wenner Books, 2005), 257.

[iv] Greg Riesner, quoted in Perry, 257.

[v] Perry, 264.

[vi] Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in Williams, 40.

I Must Decrease (And Why That’s Good News)

Seattle Midsummer twilight (10:05 p.m., June 22, 2017)

The 24th of June is, in the Christian calendar, the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist. In Europe, it’s also known as Midsummer Day, marking the critical moment when the longest days begin the six-month journey toward the longest nights. Even though we still have months before us of warm weather and brilliant sunshine, the light is now (imperceptibly at first) beginning to slip away minute by minute. Thus in the old days, on the night before Midsummer––called Midsummer Eve or Midsummer Night––bonfires were lit to encourage the waning sun, and people were on their guard against any supernatural mischief. As we know from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s a good night just to stay home. Whatever you do, don’t go into that magic forest!

The ancient traditions may seem obsolete, but are we free of the anxiety they represent? This turning point in the sun’s journey is a metaphor for our own mortality. We are temporal beings––creatures of time. For us, nothing lasts forever. The very moment that we reach the peak of the Summer Solstice, savoring what the poet Wallace Stevens called “arrested peace, / Joy of such permanence, right ignorance / Of change…”, the sense of having all the time in the world starts to seep away––imperceptibly at first, as we enjoy our fun in the sun and the long unhurried twilights. As Stevens goes on to say in his great Solstice poem, “Credences of Summer”: “This is the barrenness / Of the fertile thing that can attain no more.” After the perfect moment, then what?

In a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, Calvin is running around in a frenzy, shouting, “It’s July already! Oh no! Oh no! What happened to June? Summer vacation is slipping through our fingers like grains of sand! It’s going too fast! We’ve got to hoard our freedom and have more fun! Time rushes on! Help! Help!”

Meanwhile, his friend Hobbes the tiger is watching Calvin’s panic with studious detachment. Then he says to himself, “I don’t think I want to be here at the end of August.”

My Minnesota relatives still have the summer house my grandfather built on a bluff above Lake Pepin, a scenic stretch of the Mississippi River that becomes a lake two miles wide and thirty miles long. About fifteen years ago, in late June, I walked down to the beach from the house, passing through a grove of maple trees and birdsong. When I emerged from the woods onto the sandy lakeshore, I saw one of the great spectacles of Midwest summer: a storm of mayflies.

Thick black clouds of insects with transparent wings whirled in the air above me. Millions more covered the willows and cottonwoods, darkening the summer greenery with their densely packed masses. It was an explosion of pure fecundity: “The feast and fairy dance of life,” as one naturalist has described it.

But this dance is oh so brief. After incubating for two long years in the mud of the lake bottom, the mayflies grow wings, float up to the surface and rise into the air to mate. Within 24 hours of this eruption into ecstasy, they fall lifeless back to earth. Roads and bridges covered with their greasy remains are too slick for driving, and must be closed until a cleanup crew arrives.

Is this not a sped-up version of the human condition––here today, gone tomorrow? As they sang in medieval England, “Merry it is while summer lasts; but now draws near the wind’s cold blast.” The Bible was equally frank about our radically transient status: “All flesh is grass . . . The grass withers, the flower fades.”

Contemporary poet Mary Oliver delivers the same message, lightened by a dose of whimsey:

For years and years I struggled
just to love my life. And then

the butterfly
rose, weightless, in the wind.
“Don’t love your life
too much,” it said,

and vanished
into the world.[i]

For me, this mortal life is like the fireworks on the Fourth of July. So glorious and wondrous––and so quickly over. Every year my wife and I walk a mile down to the local harbor to watch the display, and when it’s done, as we make our way home in the darkness, I always feel the melancholy of endings. The pyrotechnics of July 4––the American version of Midsummer Night––have come and gone. Only two weeks old, summer is already beginning to slip through our fingers! This is the barrenness of the fertile thing that can attain no more.

John the Baptist knew how the story goes. He knew that his given moment on the stage was coming to an end. Remember what he said about Jesus? He must increase, I must decrease. My time is passing, but Jesus’ time is coming. Thus at the Nativity of John the Baptist the days start to decrease, while at the Nativity of Jesus the days start to increase.

John the Baptist is rightly remembered as the voice in the wilderness, announcing that the Lord is come (let every heart prepare him room!) As his father Zechariah foretold when John was only eight days old, the Baptist was born to be “the prophet of the Most High…. to give knowledge of salvation to [God’s] people by the forgiveness of their sins.” In paintings, John is often seen pointing away from himself, toward Jesus, the “dawn from on high” who gives “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

Leonardo da Vinci, John the Baptist (1513-16)

John gave us expectant hearts. But he offered us another great gift as well. He taught us the art of letting go. Jesus must increase, I must decrease. That’s what he said, and what he did. It’s what we all do. As the old shape note hymn says with such brutal honesy, “Passing away, we are passing away.”

All flesh is grass––a melancholy thought at the dawn of summer. But wait; there’s more, and it’s good news. Though the grass withers and the flower fades, Isaiah tells us, the word of God will stand forever (Isaiah 40:8). And what is this “word?” Jesus is the word, the speaking of divine reality in human be-ing. And that divine reality, which we are made to mirror, is all about self-diffusive, self-forgetting love. God is a Trinity of persons, giving themselves over to one another in an eternal circulation of gifts offered and gifts received.

So the great secret at the heart of existence, the word that stands forever, is that it’s all about letting go instead of holding on. Jesus made that perfectly clear in his death and resurrection. And John the Baptist, who was martyred before he could see that first Easter Day, intuited this truth even before it was fully revealed.

He must increase, I must decrease. Less of me, more of Christ. More of God. And the Christian life is all about making that truth our daily practice, as individuals and as communities of faith. We learn to let go of things which are passing away––and of the stories which are no longer true for us––and to remain open and grateful for the new gifts we are about to receive. Welcome every gift, but hold on to nothing but God, who is not only the Giver of every gift, but is also the only gift worth having.

God is not a thing, an object, a commodity to be possessed. God is a dance we do. We become most truly ourselves only to the degree by which we participate in, and surrender to, the choreography of that dance: the eternal giving and receiving of self-diffusive love. Letting go, not holding on, is what completes us.

As Mary Oliver reminds us,

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.[ii]

 

 

Related post:

Sacraments of Summer

 

[i] Mary Oliver, “One or Two Things,” New and Collected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 122.

[ii] ibid., 178

A Land of Crippling Nonsense

Thomas Cole, The Voyage of Life: Manhood, 1842 (National Gallery)

A mob cannot be a permanency:
everybody’s interest requires that it should not exist,
and only justice satisfies all.

––– Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Politics”

 

In my last post I suggested that the Christian understanding of God as Trinity––the self-diffusive love of interdependent communion––is incompatible with the manifestly unloving actions of America’s ruling party: “Pretty much everything the White House and the Congressional majorities are trying to do now is a grievous offense against the Divine Trinity whose very being is communion. Attacking immigrants, inflaming racism and violence, abusing women, starving the elderly, sentencing tens of thousands to early death by taking away their health care so the rich can get richer, poisoning the wells of public life, telling the planet to go to hell––the list of injuries to God’s desire grows daily.”

Some readers––not, I suspect, regular visitors to my site––did not find this a self-evident statement, and posted their bitter complaints on The Religious Imagineer Facebook page:

This sounds so anti-American. You people need to stop that crap. Get this in your head, climate change is a hoax, global warming was a hoax. Affordable Care Act was a hoax. Your site is a hoax.

You guys sound like communist [sic]. No thanks.

You people are sick. President Trump and the First Lady and families are Christians. Love the USA and want to protect it. How can you spew filth and lies and look at yourself in the mirror? God is watching you and you will have to answer to him. It will not go well for you! The Democrats lie and cheat and do not care because they do not believe in God.

President Trump and his voters are Christians who just want to save America from Islam so their children and grandchildren will be able to practice their religion freely.

Romans 13. All authority is appointed by God at the appointed time. Unfortunately, because of our Falling Away, God appointed Obama to weaken and divide America because God knew Obama would play his part. The truth is the US’s role is defined in Rev 12: to prepare and secure Israel’s place in Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount. Trump moving our embassy to Jerusalem will be a good start. I’ve often wondered how Europe, the Holy Roman Empire, the iron mixed with clay, would turn against Israel. Now we know. The Marxist Pope has fallen away and is preaching ecumenism aka interfaithism. He has fallen for the world’s message of Coexist. But if he truly understood Prophecy he would know that the lies of political correctness, tolerance, and diversity are Satan’s agenda to amalgamate the world to destroy Israel. We must resist Satan’s agenda, not Trump’s agenda of Nationalism and Capitalism so we can fulfill our God Given Destiny. Go Trump!!

Your site is a tool of Satan. God is not “a dance we do.” He is THE WAY, THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFE.

You’re a liar.

Your [sic] nuts.

Although I did write in that same post, “we should be dismayed but not surprised by those who want to make America hate again,” I have to admit I was pretty surprised. In my accustomed insularity from the dark side of the American id, living as I do on a blue island in a blue state, and belonging to a church which both favors the biblical justice tradition and encourages critical thought­­, I rarely venture into the dark swamps of inchoate political rage. Reading these comments, I felt like Dante crossing the Styx in Delacroix’s painting, where tormented souls gnaw on the poet’s frail craft. It’s a pretty unnerving ride.

Eugène Delacroix, Dante and Virgil in Hell, 1822 (Louvre)

A recent poll gave Trump a disapproval rating of 60%––a record for a new president––but it also showed that 36% continue to approve his presidency. That’s still a lot of Americans giving a thumbs up to what I term “injuries to God’s desire.” So I have to wonder: How many of this 36% are cynics and hypocrites who tolerate Trump’s dark side in order to achieve a conservative agenda? How many are using a man whose defects they may detest as a club to bash a system which has left them behind? How many are simply unaware of the degree to which they have voted against their own self-interest, like the Trump voters who may soon lose their health care? And how many do, in fact––without any shame––embrace authoritarianism, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and planetary suicide as justifiable within their eccentrically constructed worldview?

Some of my angry correspondents merely lashed out like the childish bully they adore. Some asserted ‘alternative facts,’ because it is always easier to dismiss accurate information than surrender an entire worldview. But a couple of people did offer a kind of argument. One took the clash-of-civilizations approach favored by ISIS, making Trump the chief Crusader against an invading Islam. The other glorified “Nationalism and Capitalism” with a strange brew of Romans 13 (a favorite authoritarian text), Revelation apocalyptic, anti-papist tropes, and a little anti-modern nostalgia for the good old days when tolerance and diversity were not the norm. The Holy Roman Empire even made a cameo appearance! This kind of thing, once all the rage in mid-twentieth century Europe, belongs in the trash heap of history.

I deleted most of the angry comments from this blog’s Facebook page. Their ill-mannered tone didn’t seem to merit any permanence on my site. But they did make me wonder about the degree to which Christian teaching and formation have failed to counter the entrenched biases and practices of human sinfulness. Donald Trump is certainly not the first moral degenerate to be proclaimed a defender of the faith. And Christian history provides sadly numerous examples of WWJD (What would Jesus do?) receiving wildly incorrect answers.

We like to think that the baptized have made some progress in the historical quest to live a godly life. However, while Christians may no longer burn witches or practice slavery, there are still a lot of pious people whose politics are just as monstrous and cruel, even if well disguised as tax and health “reform,” rollbacks of environmental protection in the name of “freedom,” a system heavily rigged against the most vulnerable, and a profit-driven militarism making perpetual fear and violence good for business.

When someone votes or makes a policy decision, he or she may be acting in good faith, based on serious reflection and high principles. But the cumulative result of multiple decisions, however well reasoned, may turn out to be something unintended and undesirable. Sometimes we need to step back and say: Look where our choices have landed us. Is this where we actually want to be? Is this what God has in mind for human flourishing?

Civil War historian Bruce Catton once described this potentially ruinous process in his vivid account of the battle for Charleston’s Morris Island, which in 1863 became “the deadliest sandpit on earth. It was dug up by spades and high explosive, almost sunk by sheer weight of metal and human misery, fought for with a maximum of courage and technical capacity and a minimum of strategic understanding; a place of no real consequence, lying at the end of one of those insane chains of war-time logic in which men step from one undeniable truth to another and come at last to a land of crippling nonsense.”[i]

Sound familiar? We too are shocked to find ourselves in a land of crippling nonsense. A narcissistic, unstable ignoramus holds the most powerful office on earth. Economic inequality has reached insane proportions. Political norms and standards of truth are undermined with impunity. Discourse has devolved into rancorous discord. Racist and fascist tribalisms are on the rise. Even nuclear war is back on the table. And prominent in the insane chain of choices leading us to this moment are the votes of countless Christians who thought Donald Trump to be God’s chosen instrument for a divine agenda.

Can we argue those folks back into a more biblically faithful worldview with some serious Bible study or powerful preaching? The evidence so far is not promising. One Facebook respondent to my last post thought preaching on the difference between the ruling agenda and the Trinitarian imperatives of love would only be “alienating to a lot of people,” since his parish was “about 50/50 Trump Clinton.” He’s probably right, at least about his local situation. So then what? Should we say and do nothing, in order keep the peace? In a family, that’s called dysfunctional.

“Your nuts” is certainly a fatal opening for dialogue. But within faithful Christian communities, is it not possible to appeal to biblical norms of love and justice in a spirit of humility, mutual listening and prayer? However, merely pointing out the contradiction, say, in receiving the Bread of Heaven on Sunday and voting against Meals on Wheels on Monday, will only get us so far. Being called to account often produces more resistance than penitence.

It is insufficient––and often alienating––to teach or argue generalities and cherished ideas in the abstract. We need to tell the stories which enable us to grasp each other’s realities with compassion and respect. I don’t mean an open forum for crazy worldviews or hateful attitudes, but rather an attentive hearing for the authentic narratives of the “other.” If we truly desire a viable future for our common life, we must make space for the concrete specifics of storytelling and storylistening, in order to walk in each others’ shoes and see through each others’ eyes before we presume to advance our own perspectives. A mob cannot be a permanency. Only communion has a future.

Listen to the stories of those who are afraid or angry or deprived. Listen to the stories of the poor, the immigrants, the marginalized and stigmatized. Listen to the stories of believers from other faiths, and listen to those for whom belief is hard. Listen to the witness of the saints among us who labor in the hot zones as peacemakers and justicemakers. Listen to your neighbor. Listen to the stranger. Listen without interruption or judgment. And within all these stories––and in the prayers and silences that surround them––listen for the Holy Spirit. Churches are uniquely positioned to nurture such transformative story spaces, and I pray that more and more of them will take the initiative to do so.

And a little child shall lead them. My favorite American vision of a redeemed common life comes from Natalie, an 8-year-old Hopi girl, who described her recurring daydream to Robert Coles for his remarkable book, The Spiritual Life of Children:

All the people are sitting in a circle, and they are brothers and sisters, everyone! That’s when all the spirits will dance and dance, and the stars will dance, and the sun and moon will dance and the birds will swoop down and they’ll dance, and all the people, everywhere, will stand up and dance, and then they’ll sit down again in a big circle, so huge you can’t see where it goes, or how far, if you’re standing on the mesa and looking into the horizon, and everyone is happy. No more fights. Fights are a sign that we have gotten lost, and forgotten our ancestors, and are in the worst trouble. When the day comes that we’re all holding hands in the big circle – no, not just us Hopis, everyone – then that’s what the word ‘good’ means…and the whole world will be good when we’re all in our big, big circle. We’re going around and around until we all get to be there![ii]

 

 

Related post: Donald Trump and the Rise of Authoritarianism

 

[i] Bruce Catton, Never Call Retreat (New York: Doubleday, 1965)

[ii] Robert Coles, The Spiritual Life of Children (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990)

The Holy Trinity and American Politics

Masaccio, The Holy Trinity, Santa Maria Novella, Florence (1425-27)

When you are praying, do not fancy the Divinity like some image formed within yourself. Avoid also allowing your spirit to be impressed with the seal of some particular shape.

– Evagrius[i]

The Trinity reminded Christians not to think about God as a simple personality and that what we call “God” was inaccessible to rational analysis.

– Karen Armstrong[ii]

 

Trinity Sunday (June 11 this year) originated in the 10th century as a kind of epilogue to the Christian year’s Incarnation narrative from Advent to Pentecost. The coming of Christ, his life among us, his death and resurrection, and the sending of the Holy Spirit all spring from a single Source: the God whose triune nature became manifest in the interwoven processes of creation, redemption and sanctification. Trinity Sunday is a doxology to the Trinitarian template shaping salvation history since time began.

Some preachers dread the Trinity sermon as a doomed exercise in higher mathematics or abstract philosophy or a futile attempt to cram some theology into the minds of the congregation before they take off for summer vacation. But recent decades have seen a tremendous revival of Trinitarian thought as foundational for Christian faith and practice. Two years ago I wrote three posts about the Trinitarian mystery. Here are the links if you want to have a look:

Three Things You Should Know about the Trinity

Part 1: God is relational

Part 2: You can’t make this stuff up

Part 3: God is a dance we do

This year I have been thinking about the Trinity in relation to American politics. In a commencement speech at a Christian college last month, popular-vote-loser Trump said, “In American we do not worship government; we worship God.” Since “God” is a generic term which may apply to any object of worship, Trump is certainly free to apply it to whatever conjured projection of his own monstrous attributes he pleases. But no one should mistake it for the God whose essence is not the narcissistic solitude of monarchical power but the self-diffusive relationality of loving communion.

Trump’s dis-ease in relation to the underlying reality of divine communion is but an extremely grotesque example of modernity’s critical error about the nature of human be-ing. As I said in my “God is relational” post:

“We tend to think of a person as defined by his or her separateness. I’m me and you’re you! We may interact and even form deep connections, but my identity does not depend upon you. I am a self-contained unit. You can’t live in my skin and I can’t live in yours. That’s the cultural assumption, which goes back at least as far as Descartes in the seventeenth century, and continues today in such debased forms as rampant consumerism, where my needs and my desires take precedence over any wider sense of interdependence, community, or ecology.”

Pretty much everything the White House and the Congressional majorities are trying to do now is a grievous offense against the Divine Trinity whose very being is communion. Attacking immigrants, inflaming racism and violence, abusing women, starving the elderly, sentencing tens of thousands to early death by taking away their health care so the rich can get richer, poisoning the wells of public life, telling the planet to go to hell––the list of injuries to God’s desire grows daily.

I get it. Evil has been prowling around like a ravenous lion ever since the Fall. America is no exception in this regard, and we should be dismayed but not surprised by those who want to make America hate again. But I wish they would at least purge “God” from their rhetoric. I know it’s a generic, non-descriptive term when severed from liturgical or theological context. They’re not talking about any God I know. Still, their implicit claim of reference to the biblical God is blasphemous and tiresome.

How does God’s love abide in anyone rich in worldly goods who sees the needs of his brothers and sisters and acts heartlessly toward them? (I John 3:17)

Whoever fails to love does not know God, because God is love. (I John 4:8)

I couldn’t help noting that on the Thursday closest to Trinity Sunday, 2017, James Comey and Sen. Angus King, in a Congressional hearing watched by millions, both cited the medieval martyrdom of Thomas Becket at the altar in Canterbury Cathedral. Becket, who spoke truth to power in the name of the Trinitarian God, was consecrated on the Feast of the Holy Trinity, 1162.

KING: “[W]hen a president of the United States in the Oval Office says something like, ‘I hope’ or ‘I suggest’ or ‘would you’, do you take that as a directive?”

 COMEY: “Yes. It rings in my ears as, well, ‘will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’”

 KING: “I was just going to quote that, in 1179, December 27th, Henry II said, ‘Who will rid me of the meddlesome priest?’ and the next day, [Becket] was killed. Exactly the same situation.”[iii]

At that moment, church history nerds across America sprang from their couches to applaud the survival of learned discourse. And I suspect that God, who holds evil tyrants “in derision” (Psalm 2:4), found the Trinity coincidence amusing.

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer, trans. John Eudes Bamberger OCSO (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1981), 66

[ii] Karen Armstrong, The Case for God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 115

[iii] Transcript of James Comey testimony before United States Senate Intelligence Committee (June 8, 2017):  http://www.politico.com/story/2017/06/08/full-text-james-comey-trump-russia-testimony-239295

Ascension Day “Charade”? – The Puzzling Exit of Jesus

Ascension Day at the Episcopal Theological School, May 4, 1967 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

I first fell in love with Ascension Day in the seventh grade, when my Episcopal school in Los Angeles kept the day holy by giving us the afternoon off. When solemn high mass ended at noon, 350 boys raced out of chapel to make the most of a sunny spring day. I may not have had a keen grasp of the Ascension’s theological significance, but if it meant a half-day vacation, I was all for it. So how did I spend that free time? I went to see the Crucifixion.

My father, James K. Friedrich, priest and film producer, was shooting the last episode of a 6-hour miniseries on the life of Christ. I met my friend Ricky McGarry, whose Catholic school also observed a half-day, and we took a bus to Hollywood’s Goldwyn Studio to visit the set. The irony of going to “Golgotha” on Ascension Day escaped me at the time. Although it could be said that the Fourth Gospel sees as much glorification on Mt. Calvary as Luke sees on the Mount of Olives, this was not an argument a seventh-grader was prepared to make.

The Rev. James K. Friedrich on the set of “Crucifixion and Resurrection” (1956)

My most memorable––and notorious––Ascension Day came a decade later, reported under the title “Ascension Day Charade “ in The Christian Century magazine.

On Ascension Day, May 4, approximately 40 men and a few women and children gathered at a conspicuous place at noon and conducted a premeditated, burlesque celebration of the day of Christ’s “Glorification.” To one end of a long cord they had fastened several gas-filled balloons; to the other, a crude effigy of the Christ made of tissue paper and cardboard. As high noon approached, the crowd began a hilarious countdown beginning at 100. The volume of the shouting and the air of boisterous jollity heightened until with a mighty shout of “Zero” and “Blast-off” from the crowd the cord holding the balloons and the effigy was released. A naïve bystander did not realize what the raucous crowd was mocking until, as the balloons ascended dragging behind them the paper Christ, he heard one of the men quote Scripture: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

 

Who were these people? Were they Russian atheists or members of the Chinese Red Guard taunting Christians with their gibes? Were they “hippies” taking a trip on LSD or Black Muslims reviling Christianity? Where did this parody of the Ascension occur? It occurred on the campus of a highly respected seminary, and the men who contrived and conducted it were seminarians, studying for the office of pastor, prophet and priest in the high calling of Jesus Christ.

The unsigned editorial went on to shake its finger at such “profanations,” expressing “revulsion and pity,” and “a heavy sense of abiding sadness” over the “absurd and despicable” actions of those naughty seminarians.

On the day designated by the church and by generations of Christian people as a reminder of the exaltation of Christ, these people debased the Christ… What will they try next for thrills? The Black Mass?[i]

But another mainline publication, the Methodist Christian Advocate, jumped into the fray on the students’ behalf. It couldn’t resist needling the low church Century for fussing over a liturgical calendar item to which their liberal mainline constituency in fact paid scant attention. And it worried that the establishment’s “disturbing defensiveness about surface material” may signal that its symbols are already on the decline. In contrast, said the Advocate,

the seminarians who are able to deal so lightly with symbols of a previous day… are indicating a certain freedom toward their faith. Be reminded that they are seminary students, who presumably have some desire to serve their world through their church. Their lightness toward tradition may well reflect a desire to shake loose from dead forms in order to better serve the God who has called them.[ii]

Dear reader, it may not surprise you to learn that this controversial liturgical observance was cooked up in my seminary dorm room. A youthful Religious Imagineer, joined by two other first-year students at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was seeking a dramatic finish to a series of spontaneous “art actions” during a four-day gathering of major church leaders. The conference agenda was certainly serious and daunting––the reunification of ten American denominations. But the addition of news media and right-wing Christian protestors to the mix was too tempting to resist. It seemed a good time for some religious guerilla theater.

Our helium-powered ascension was not mockery but play, with precedents going back to the medieval practice of tying a rope to an effigy of Christ and pulling it up through a hole in the church ceiling on the Feast of the Ascension. But in the late twentieth century, the explicitness of a material ‘figure’ rising into an empty sky prompted some discomfort among the Christian modernists in the crowd. How much were they being asked to believe about the Ascension? What was really at stake in our ‘Ascension Day Charade?’

The four gospels describe the earthly life of Jesus, his death, and various appearances to his followers after the resurrection. But only Luke describes the moment the appearances ended. Matthew provides a farewell scene on a mountain, but we never see Jesus actually leave. Instead, he promises to be with us always, to the end of time. Mark concludes his account with three women being told by a mysterious figure that the risen Christ is “not here.” But if they go back to Galilee, they will see him there. It’s like the teaser in a season finale: To be continued. John, who devotes several chapters to a long and moving farewell speech at the Last Supper, ends his gospel with a another conversation over food––a picnic breakfast at the beach––but now the talk seems less urgent, as though Jesus and his friends have all the time in the world together.

Only Luke delivers the emotional image of seeing the Incarnate One go for good, like Shane riding off into the sunset. As I wrote in my 2014 post on the Ascension, “Where Did Jesus Go?”:

Luke might have had Jesus disappear around a corner, or over a hill.
Or the disciples might have looked away for a moment, or blinked,
missing the exact moment of vanishing.
But the cloud is a nice touch. Artists have always loved it.
In any event, Jesus is suddenly gone.

Christians ever since have been left with a number of questions? Where did he go? Is he still locatable in space and time, or is he only in a transcendent, placeless realm? What form did he take in order to be in a ‘place’ beyond embodied existence? What does it mean to say Christ is still present and in relationship with us? Does the Ascension tell us anything about our own future?

If Jesus exchanged the spatially locatable body of a first century Jew for the omnipresence we attribute to the divine, can we still say he is fully human, or did the Word “unbecome” flesh in the Ascension? Did it somehow reverse or cancel the Incarnation?

Martin Luther, insisting that the ascended Christ was not “a stork in a nest in a treetop,”[iii] argued for his ubiquitious presence in the here and now, but that still leaves the particularity of Jesus in question. As one contemporaray theologian has framed the dilemma, “Christ everywhere really means Jesus of Nazareth nowhere.”[iv]

One ancient solution was to understand the Church as the continuation in space-time of Christ’s incarnate presence. Jesus’ individual body was succeeded by the community of the faithful, the visible ‘Body of Christ’ in the world. As Ephesians says, “The Church is Christ’s body, the completion of him who himself completes all things everywhere” (Eph.1:23). But where is the church which has truly fulfilled this high calling, except in momentary flashes of grace? We may be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, but we are still not all that good at it, despite centuries of practice. The perfection of Christ is not contained within the ecclesia, though we may hope to meet it there.

It was easier to take Luke’s ascension imagery seriously when the cosmos was vertically arranged into earth below, heaven above. The heavenly realm might be invisible, yet it could seem nonetheless near enough to shed its influence on the world below. Indeed, many paintings of the Ascension show heaven to be, as the Celts say, only about a foot and a half above our heads.

Pietro Perugino, The Ascension of Christ (1495-98)

Recent centuries have abandoned such a dualistic cosmos. Heaven as a separate place in the old sense has receded into infinity––and beyond!––distant and remote, unengaged with the mechanisms, causalities and presences of this world. But a God who has nowhere to ‘be’ in space-time is a God without ‘existence.’ In modernity’s cosmology, it isn’t just Jesus who has ascended out of sight, but the entire Godhead. The question became not just ‘where is Jesus?’ but ‘where is God?’

Theologians have puzzled over the seeming ‘unthinkability’ or absence of God within the social imaginary of modernity. I won’t go too far into the weeds to catalog the rich variety of their responses here, but they include thinking of God not as a noun (an object among others) but as a verb (known through actions, situations or relations), or expanding the notion of transcendence to mean not only ‘beyond’ but ‘within’––the hidden inner source of every possibility which Gerard Manley Hopkins called ‘the dearest freshness deep down things.’ But whatever the approach to the mystery of divine presence and absence, language fumbles when it reaches beyond the senses. In the matter of the divine who, what, where, when and how, words fail.

The true God is the unknown mystery of the world whose holiness is violated as soon as God acquires a name. God is beyond being and nonbeing, belief and unbelief, theism and atheism. God is hidden, holy, mysterious, the ineffable source of revelation and grace.[v]

The Ascension epitomizes the dilemma of locating and describing ‘the unknown mystery of the world.’ We may catch a glimpse the disappearing feet, but if Jesus has indeed returned to God, where exactly is that? And how do we ourselves get there?

The Ascension of Christ, Limoges (Late 16th century)

A nineteenth-century Danish theologian proposed a temporal approach to the question of ‘where.’ Instead of looking for the ascended Christ in space, might we discern him within the unfolding of time, replenishing and perfecting the world ‘with the energies of the future’?

The presence of Christ in the universe must be looked upon, not so much as actual being, but rather as an essential becoming; it must be treated as a progressive advent, a continual coming, in virtue of which, by the growing development of his fullness, he makes himself the center of the whole creation; and the creation itself is thus being prepared and created anew as a living, organic, and growing temple of Christ.[vi]

To contemplate the mystery of the ascended Christ as a process, shaping the interrelated destiny of everything that is, may prove a way to collapse the infinite distance between earth and heaven into a nearness, a presence, which can be known and experienced even if not understood. Wherever Christ went, it was to prepare a ‘place’––or situation––where we all may become our truest selves, completed at last in Christ’s glorified and expanded body. Like Dante at the end of Purgatorio, through the mystery of ascent we become ‘rifatto … puro e disposto a salire a le stelle’ (‘remade . . . pure and ready for the stars’).[vii]

So the ultimate question for Ascension Day may not be ‘where is Jesus?’, but ‘where are we?’ And where do we need to go from here to be with Christ and in Christ? An old shape note hymn says it perfectly:

Then he arose, ascended high
To show our feet the way…

 

 

 

 

Related post: Where Did Jesus Go?

 

[i] “Ascension Day Charade” (unsigned editorial), The Christian Century, vol. LXXXIV, No. 21 (May 24, 1967), 675-76.

[ii] “Jesus in the Clouds,” Christian Advocate, vol. XI, No. 12 (June 15, 1967)

[iii] Douglas Farrow, Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology (Edinburgh, Grand Rapids: T & T Clark, 1999), 269.

[iv] Ibid., 12.

[v] Gary Dorrien, The Word as True Myth: Interpreting Modern Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 238

[vi] Hans Martensen, in Farrow, 192.

[vii] Purgatorio xxxiii.141-143.

End photo by Marilyn Robertson.