Jonah Sermon (Audio Content)

Audio of a sermon I preached at my home congregation January 29th of this year.  The text for the morning I preach is from The Book of Jonah.  (Go to this site and type in the search Jonah).

(To download Mac Users Apple + Mouse Click, Save Link As, PC Right Click on Mouse)

Jonah Sermon

Published in: on March 19, 2009 at 5:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

Caputo’s (Weak) Theology of the Event

John Caputo came at spoke at my school the week before last week.  I was only able to attend one his lectures, on his signature Weak Theology or The Theology of the Event as he calls it.  (In distinction to the famous Theology of the Word school).

Here is a solid Review of The Weakness of God Caputo’s book by Peter Heltzel.  Although one criticism of Heltzel is his invocation of Jurgen Moltmann’s “divine restraint” is exactly what Caputo still thinks of as a sovereign theology (“strong God”).  Caputo hit this point repeatedly in his talk the other day.  He cited Carl Schmitt that sovereignty is the ability to break the rules (and get away with it–see Bush and Torture, for example).  By that definition, even Moltmann’s “self-restraining” God is still a sovereign/strong God.

To really get a grasp on Caputo you need to have some background in Derrida and Deleuze.

Deleuze, unique among post-structuralists, was interested in a cosmology/metaphysics.  [Most post-structuralists, Derrida being the classic example, were interested in linguistics].  For Deleuze, Western philosophy is too buit traditionally around substance (from Plato through Aristotle on down) and should rather be interested in Event or events.  This is somethign akin to Heidegger’s distinction between the Being of beings (Event) and Dasein (being-in-the-world) except that Delueze has a background in physics and mathematics (interestingly) so his view of the Event is much more spatio-temporal than Heidegger’s more cultural-praxis oriented understanding.

The Event Captuo says is that which happens within what is happening but is never captured by what is happening.  God for Captuo is a name we use to point to the Event related to the name of God.  God then is an Event not a be-ing.  It’s a non-essential understanding of God.  Event however for me is a little too static.  I would prefer Rabbi Cooper’s notion that God is a Verb.  God-ing if you will.  Event-ing.

The Event is virtual, it is potential/openness.  This is why God is weak.  God is the name for the possibility fo the Event–in Derrida’s terminology the undeconstructible.  Or rather the pre-deconstructible (before deconstruction).

Here is where the structuralist side comes through.  The Event is a field, an anonymous one at that.  Recall that structuralism proclaimed The End of the Author and The End of Humanism–The End that is of the Subject.  According to post/structuralism subjects are constituted not constitutive.  The transcendental conditions exist not in the mind (a la Kant and modern philosophy) but in linguistic (Derrida) or eventual (Deleuze) networks.  Which are apersonal–hence when applied to theology, so is God.

Religion, then, according to Caputo, is performance (attempted performance/attempted enactment) of the Event.  Theology is poetics (theo-poetics).  For Caputo, here combining Derrida with Deleuze, the Event is the Promise of Justice.  What Derrida in his later writings talked about as the Coming of the Messiah. The Messiah in this case being a messianic consciousness/field/network sprouting up through the universe.  Not a separate being (a la classical theology) who represents a Strong God and wins a victory or so.  [e.g. Book of Revelation]

Also from Derrida, Caputo has picked up on Derrida’s argument for the centrality and primacy of grammar (over spoken word).  What Derrida calls the illness of Western philosophy as logocentricism (as opposed to grammo-centricism).  For Captuo this means that God (The Event) is archae-textuality, God is Archae-Grammer.  God is always Incaranted as in Fleshly or Embodied like a Text.  (Derrida:  “There is nothing outside the text”).

Religion is the performance of the Event.  Ethics is an enacted parable of the Event.  One that (via Levinas) calls for true plurality and peace at the heart of being.  The invitation to the neighbor.  As Jesus said:  Give to those who you know can not give back to you.  Pray for those who persecute you. Love your enemies.

The Event is always potential and always possibly to be (slightly never perfectly) revealed.  For those outside the kingdom (i.e. The Event) everything must be in parables, the Gospel of Mark tells us.

Reflections on all of this:  It’s definitely a different take and opens up all kinds of new avenues for thought, philosophical and theological in nature.  It reveals that Derrida is not a relativist but a pluralist with a focus on the underside.  It’s a deep “positive” postmodernism if you will and sees deconstruction rightly in certain regards in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets.  Derrida’s understanding of apophatic theology however is seriously problematic.

But again ultimately with a structuralist background, there is no subject.  So how do we talk about enacting or performing an Event when there is no subject?  What choice is there in such a view?  How do the structures ever change if we are constituted by them (as opposed to constituted by and also constituting)?

If deconstruction is as Caputo says (correctly imo) a transcendental, that is a condition that makes anything possible, then how did Derrida come to knowledge of deconstruction without itself being deconstructed?  How it is a whole thought?  Isn’t there a subject there?  Isn’t there presence, at least for a second, as opposed to absence, which Derrida sees as primary?

It’s the same question for Kant frankly:  if one comes to the knowledge of the Subjective Transcendental Conditions, one knows there is noumena and phenomena, then isn’t that one that knows not limited by the Conditions?

I would say yes, and I would look there for a God.

Shona Tova

To my Jewish readers, (belated) Happy New Year.

Special shout out and toda (thanks) goes to the Hillel Group at UBC who kindly invited to a Rosh Shanah dinner last night (my first).  In the old days, I would have been called a God-fearer, i.e. a righteous Gentile who worships the God of Israel and follows the Seven Noahide Commandments (and not the full 613 in Rabbinic Judaism).

When I would introduce myself to folks and say my name was Chris there was a moment of confusion and trepidation flash across most faces.  But then I explained what was going on and all was well.  Really lovely people. It was the first time I had worn a yarmukle since I visited a few synagogues in Vancouver two years ago as part of my inter-religious dialogue class.  And before that since I traveled to Europe when I was in college and went into the famed Synagogue in Prague (pic here) which was one of the most tragic-moving-spiritual places on earth I’ve ever been.

The reason I was invited to this meal is that temporarily the Hillel group at UBC is housed in my school, the Vancouver School of (Christian) Theology.  The Hillel folks are busy building their own place, but in the meantime we are fortunate to have them residing on the 2nd floor of our building.  So the dinner was in the school and I was just going past their office and dropped into say Happy New Year and then they invited me to the dinner (there were three of us non-Jews in the room).  Huge turnout.  Fantastic food.  Wonderful occasion.

And also deeply sacred and moving.  The father of the Executive Director, who was a Holocaust Survivor, read the traditional prayer:

Baruch atah Adonai Elohenu Melech ha-olam, ha-motzi l’chem min ha-eretz. Amayn.

“Blessed are you Lord God, King of the Universe [or Eternity], you bring bread from the earth.”

In the Prophet Isaiah, there is a vision of the Nations (later read: Gentiles, in Hebrew go’im) streaming to the Temple in Jerusalem throwing off their idols to worship the one true God.  I had a feeling this was something of that kind of moment last night.

Edit I: During writing this post, I had a flashback.  When I was in the Jesuit order and studied for a year at Fordham (Master’s Level in Continental Philosophy), there was a fellow grad student I knew named Tova.  Beautiful girl who had a little crush on me.  Unfortunately I had vows of celibacy then so that was a non-starter.  She was a secular Jew, and I think part of her fascination was to be the one to make the good Christian boy break his vows.  Not sure on that one.  She was a Wolveirine (in her undegrad days) and I as a Buckeye had good fights/football watching times and discussions over the existence (and justice) of God back in the BX.  I thought of her because her name Tova (meaning good, like in Mazel Tov) is the same as in the L’Shona Tova (Happy/Good New Year) greeting from last night. Also reminds me of my sadness in not living any longer in NYC.

Published in: on October 2, 2008 at 2:12 pm  Comments (1)  

(Con)Texts in Religious Scholarship

Excellent article by Jon Levenson, Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School, on texts in contexts.

Levenson beings by retelling how he was trained in the classical historical-critical method of Biblical studies, particularly the Albright school of archaeology.  [Personal sidenote: one of my Hebrew Bible professors (Jim Lindenberger) was also an Albright student].

Levenson describes this method:

The goal was to place the Hebrew Bible in its historical context, and we could do that only if we could reconstruct the cultural world in which its many documents were written—an arduous task but one that bore, and continues to bear, much good fruit.

But Levenson already recognizes a problem with this method (for all the admitted good it has done):

Almost from the beginning, though, I felt there was a certain problem with this. What the biblical texts meant in the world of their authors is in considerable tension with what they mean today—including what they mean personally to the professors and students who devote themselves to that historical task. But the very method rendered that question of what they mean today one that could not be asked. It belonged somewhere else, to the theologians, for example, or to the preachers. Of course, when the theologians or preachers interpreted the book in light of ongoing tradition and contemporary experience, the historical-critical scholars were none too reluctant to accuse them of taking the Bible out of context.

Levenson discusses (and hints at) the rife possibility of secularization in this process.  That is, everyone is going to have an interpretive tradition (religious or otherwise), but if they can achieve this knowledge through simply the academic “neutral” viewpoint, then why is the religion necessary?  The historical method growing largely out of Protestant exegesis de-emphasized tradition (which was considered too Catholic)–Levenson critiques this vivew from a Rabbnic Jewish perspective and relates it interestingly to Catholic views of tradition.  I would call this sense of getting to the original context (following Habermas) neo-positivism–especially when related to the fields of archaeology, historicism:  i.e. whatever is the case is what is right.  Neo-positivism’s main flaw in Habermas’ mind is that it is a non-liberating praxis.  And I think this is what Levenson is getting at as well.  It can not get us to the question of how do I live?  How do I find truth?  In Luther’s question:  How do I find a Loving God?

When applied more to hermeneutics (and less to archaeology or history), this notion of entering the mind of the original readers derives from the Romantic tradition (also Protestant) of Schleiermacher and later Dilthey. i.e. Text without (our contemporary) context.  The only con-text given priority is the ancient one.  But of course it is our reconstruction of the ancient context.  [For a more detailed discussion of this point, here.]

In other words, this whole system Levenson describes is a product of the modern wave.  In that sense I would say it is in a sense of a kind of faith.  I wouldn’t make a sharp distinction between secularism and faith (i.e. religion) because in the manner just mentioned, I think secularism is a faith (or worldview).

A faith in the scientific method, a faith in reason, human progress in knowledge, combined in these religious scholarship with a notion that the original setting has some quasi-mystical/revelatory power than will simply be unleashed when we return to it.

That faith has been largely critiqued and it’s promise of a final fulfillment/enlightenment has been shown to be false (true but partial/negated but preserved).  What replaces this outmoded vision, is one Levenson describes as brining our own context into the story.  This is essentially a postmodern turn (a healthy one in this case I would say but one that certainly has its own pitfalls and blindspots).

Levenson makes a particularly brilliant point here imo:

Personally, I believe that the danger of projecting the forms of one’s own religious life onto the ancient data, though real, is only half the story. The other half is the impoverished religious imagination that so easily results when those who study the religious literature are themselves a-religious. Secularity does not guarantee objectivity; sometimes it can impede it.

That double standard is a particularly nasty one in the context of academia.

(Dis)Proving the Necessity of God

Matthew pointed me to this article by Dennis Prager on the need for belief in God (and by God he means a conflation of the Biblical Hebraic god with the Deistic god of the US Framers).

Now as a religious person myself I find this line of argument he takes up so counterproductive to the defense of faith. It’s full of so many partial truths overblown, no truths, it’s a mess.

This will be long as he makes numerous point each of which requires rebuttal, but the overall way of stating my general disagreement with Prager’s view is: 1) it unnecessarily drives a wedge between Judeo-Christians and secular individuals in America as well as Judeo-Christians and believers of other religions who are upstanding American citizens 2)it rightly condemns moral relativism but incorrectly asserts without God (and his God in particular) moral relativism is the inevitable end result. (more…)

Jewish Messiahs Pre-Jesus?

Fascinating article this morning in the NyTimes (h/t Andrew Sullivan) describing a new archaeological find that has the scholarly world abuzz.

A three-foot-tall tablet with 87 lines of Hebrew that scholars believe dates from the decades just before the birth of Jesus is causing a quiet stir in biblical and archaeological circles, especially because it may speak of a messiah who will rise from the dead after three days.

So far no one has argued against its authenticity/dating:  somewhere within the 1st century BCE it would appear.  There are however some debates over the meaning of the text.

The text is a visionary/apocalyptic text dictated by the Angel Gabriel similar in style to writings of the Dead Sea Scrolls and intertestamental period more generally (e.g. The Book of Enoch).

The rest of the article details the work of Israel Knohl whose earlier book The Messiah Before Jesus posited that the later themes of Christian messianism–suffering messiah, death and resurrection–were actually prefigured in the writings of the Dead Sea Scroll.  Knohl believes this finding further proves his thesis.

If true, this would argue against a long-held tradition (within both some Christian and Jewish exegesis) that the notions of a resurrection and dying messiah were Christian inventions.  It could interestingly I think be linked up with another scholar I’ve often recommended, Margaret Barker.  She has argued that the tradition of the Incarnation and the notion of the Trinity (or at least Binity of Father and Son of God) was actually an older strain of Judaism that Christianity revived rather than a move away from traditional monotheistic Judaism.

In other words, if the thesis of Knohl’s is even mostly correct, it returns to the notion (one I strongly support) that Christianity is really a variant form of Judaism.  The so-called New Testament was written by Jews and it makes no sense–and never has to me–how these Jews would see Jesus as anything other than Jewish and there movement as anything other than Jesus.  But it is a form of Judaism that is not primarily Rabbinic Reformed Judaism (the tree root of all three modern branches of Judaism).

This idea has much stronger textual weight than pathetic “Gnostic Jesus” mumbo jumbo (although it sells well)–i.e. that Jesus is just a cipher for Greek pagan myths.  This theory similarly assumes the non-Jewish roots of Christianity.

To return to Barker for a second, it is very intriguing that the figure in the newly discovered stone text is none other than Gabriel.   Gabriel recall is the angel who announces the pregnancy of Mary and is the transmitter to Muhammad of the Quran.  Barker repeatedly emphasizes that Enoch (sometimes equatable with Gabriel) could also be seen as God not simply as the Angel of God.  [Her book argues that the Angel of God is synonymous with the Son of God, what she calls The Second God].

In these visionary apocalyptic texts the Angelic figure can merge with human figures (and vice versa), the messiah, the receiver of the text.  They can all bleed into each other.

So I haven’t seen this text, but as a way out there speculative guess, it would be very interesting if the Angel Gabriel in a sense could interchange with the predicted messianic figure creating a parallel symmetry between the Angelic figure coming down and the Messianic Figure Rising Up (after himself going down into death).

Knohl then unfortunately heads into the vaporware of arguing for the Historical Jesus–that is for Knohl Jesus really did believe that he was the Messiah and was going to die and rise.  Long time readers of this blog will know my agnosticism and general lack of appreciation of the entire Historical Jesus Quest (see here) but even more so the dreaded debate on what Jesus Really Thought.

In legal hermeneutics, this is difference between original intent (i.e. what the Framers really were thinking) and original intended public meaning (what is originally meant as best as we can reconstruct in the public sphere).  In this case, it’s even worse as it is not just the original intent of the authors (of the Gospels) but the original consciousness of the person whom the Gospels portray.

It goes back to Frederick Schleiermacher and the 19th c. Romantic Germanic tradition (including Dilthey) who argued that understanding a text was about getting in a sympathetic/in touch mood with the individual personal consciousness of the author.  [Again in the case of Jesus even one more step removed as he wasn’t the author].

In other words, even if Knohl’s thesis is correct, it still doesn’t get us to what Jesus himself did or didn’t think.   It gets us to the original tradition from which the texts were written and Jesus was not an author.  If Knohl is right, all this tell us is that the followers of Jesus saw him in this tradition–it could be that that is because that is how Jesus really taught/was or it could just be that was their tradition.  There is just no way to know in either direction.

Islas del Maiz

We´re headed off to the Corn Islands, on the Atlantic side. Very different culturally (more English influence via the pirates….arrrrhhh matey) and geographically.  We will be on the little island.

The top photo is a postcard, promo shot from a local hotel (the one we are staying at), so that well in mind, a sneak peak.

Nerd that I am I have brought a copy of Emmanuel Levinas´Totality and Infinity to read on the beach.  For the similarly minded, the Stanford Encylopedia entry on Levinas

I´m not sure what if any internet connection we´´ll have there.  So posting may be light.  If not, expect some Levinasian (??) meditations. 



Published in: on June 7, 2008 at 10:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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Malkhut Shamayim (Kingdom of Heaven)

From the Jerusalem Perspective Online (article by Robert Lindsey):

An important key to understanding Jesus’ use of “Kingdom of God” is how the sages used it. With the sages it was a spiritual term meaning the rule of God over a person who keeps or begins to keep the written and oral commandments. This is illustrated by a statement of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korhah: “Why is ‘Hear, O Israel’ [Deut. 6:4-9] recited before ‘If, then, you obey the commandments’ [Deut. 11:13-21] in the daily prayers? To indicate that one should accept first the Kingdom of Heaven, and only afterwards the yoke of the commandments” (Mishnah, Berachot 2:2).

The sages felt that when a person confessed, “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone,” indicating his or her intention to keep the Torah, that person came under God’s rule and authority, and thus came into the kingdom of God. Having accepted God’s authority over him or her, the person was able to begin keeping the commandments.

The key piece here is that the Western Christian theological tradition, since Augustine, broke this subtle dialectic.  There is first surrender to God and then the doing, and there is no argument, from Jesus or the Rabbinic tradition, that the doing can not happen.  It is much simpler than arguments about prevenient and irresistible grace.

The first piece as always is surrender.  This teaches that Rabbinic Judaism (of which Jesus was no doubt strongly connected) was not, is not a religion of Law and Slavery (contra Martin Luther).

Published in: on January 9, 2008 at 10:38 pm  Comments (2)  

Harris and Hirshi

No it’s not a law firm, but a piece getting some traction in last week’s NyTimes Review of Books. Hirshi Ali reviews Lee Harris’ new book “The Suicide of Reason”. [Sidenote: The entire Review is devoted to books Islamic].

A couple of things going on here.

1)Harris’ views and 2)Ali’s interpretation of them. And then my own on both.

Start with Harris.

His basic thesis, says Ali, is is that there are two kinds of fanaticism: Islamic and Western reason. [Back to the question of whether Islamic is correct in this context in a moment].

I’ll begin with the reason. The argument Harris makes (which he outlined in his previous book Civilization and its Enemies) is that those who live in a democratic, Western society with histories of parliamentary procedure, constitutional order, political compromise, civilian rule, secularism, etc. can fall into the trap of assuming that everyone else in the world approaches problems the same way, has the same outlook. As a result, reason can become enervated and weakened in the face of irrational violence. (more…)

Published in: on January 8, 2008 at 12:10 pm  Comments (1)  
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Beauty vs. Accuracy in Biblical Translations

Specifically the King James version (beauty) versus translations like NRSV (accuracy) or Jewish Publication Society (JPS which is a Tanakh not NT obviously). [Though there are serious problems with the NRSV, even more so with the NIV]. (I’m assuming in this post the inability to read Koine Greek and/or Biblical Hebrew, which of course are superior to any English translations).

As Camille Paglia (among others) has correctly pointed out the King James Bible was the fount for two springs of American art: music via the Psalmic hymnals of the Puritan era leading through revivalist call and response, through gospel, to jazz, blues, rock, funk, and now hip-hop/rap; writing, via the King James being the literary guiding light of Cooper, Whitman, Melville, and Dickinson.

Theologically there are serious issues with the King James Version. Particularly in its translations of the Psalms. It reads them as Christian documents, which they are not. The translation is suffused with a Christian-reading of non-Christian texts. Theologically this is called supersessionism and has had horrific historical and moral consequences on the Jewish community.

[Sidenote: The New King James Version is the worst of both worlds incidentally. It’s non-artistic and piss poor theologically.] (more…)

Published in: on November 16, 2007 at 5:09 pm  Comments (1)  
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