Preface: the photography attached to this blog is a bit shocking, and does very much have a context in the discussion, if you can be patient enough to get through the entry.
In the coming to the end of the year, as we advance into the new, it is also nice to recollect, and to return to the origins of [not just] the year, but also those of our calendar, our culture, and our community. For myself, this year was particularly colored by dramatic changes in the economy, the way business and work have functioned in the past, which in turn has partially changed the way people treat one another… and the changes on the whole have been kindly and occasion to be optimistic, if not about material gain, about a growing richness of community. It sometimes takes dirth to realize that kindness is true richness. I would like to back up, however, and look briefly at an earlier time.
I think often about this earlier time; a time before television and rapid communication, a time before mechanization and industrial process, a time in which people arrived at conclusions so powerful, we began to inherit them in our biology. Christmas, so called, is one of these mimetic inheritances. I say “people arrived” here as though they made the discovery of this religious episodic narrative… and I think they did. That’s the way I choose to think about it, which, I’m sure would be staunchly contested by the seminary (though I’m not sure these days). That “they arrived” would be an interpolation in comparison to the commonly received notion that Christ happened, and then changed the world. And here’s where I think they “arrived”: Christ was an answer to a previously nagging question; a question which preceded him by a couple of thousand years. The Israelites dwelt with this question for so long that they began to forget its importance. The question is something like this: If God is all powerful, all seeing, all knowing, etc., then why do good people suffer? Which, as a question (especially for an academic), might turn into this: Since good people suffer (obviously), is God actually all powerful? And then to this: “Who is God?”… which is not a terrible question to ask in this time as the days grow dark, the earth cools again.
Strangely, these are the questions people ask in the face of integrating the chaos of their lives with a deeper faith, and the questions are answered by the church like this: God works in mysterious ways. Or so I gather. I have never been a big fan of churches. What I think is fair to say, however, is this: as people come into closer proximity with this question, “Why do we suffer?”, the church offers answers, rather than pointing to the books from which all the practices originate: The Bible. Meaning, the church does not point to the actual narrative. In the Torah, the reader is presented with all manner of mysteries and blunders on the part of God. (Recall Nietzsche’s question, “Is man one of God’s blunders, or is God one of man’s blunders?”) To speed read through it in an attempt to find a pretext for Christianity, let us think about Noah, and then Job. Noah is more than 400 years old (book of Genesis) when God decides to wipe everything out. Noah is one of the good ones, one of the only good ones apparently, and God warns him before hand that he is going to flood everything and start over again because He doesn’t like what he sees going on amongst the “youth.” This is a particularly human yearning to start over again, almost like a child smashing a sand castle to build a better one, another day with better weather and potentially better tools. In the unfolding narrative, God visits his creation with various forms of pestilence, storms, a huge flood, suggestions of infanticide, and tremendous personal suffering… coming to a climax in the story of Job. Job is put through seemingly every possible form of human suffering, by God–in a strange dialogue between God and the Devil, a bet, to see who’s right about what Job will do in the face of meaningless iniquity. Here is a fantastic reading of the story: http://www.lacan.com/symptom6_articles/zizek.html.
Around Samuel II, it could be argued, the Israeli community becomes weary of the suffering their God has visited upon them. If this were looked upon in more dramatic terms, like an audience member getting to peek behind the curtain, backstage, and then back onstage again… it could be interpreted as the Israelis becoming weary of suffering in general (whether or not their God is responsible for it) and yearning for another story… another play.
We move from a narrative in which God visits untold suffering upon his creation to one in which God Himself suffers to an infinite degree. It could also be viewed this way, in a phenomenology of God: the followers of Yahweh became weary of their vengeful God and invented a new one: a more caring, merciful God; one who understands their condition better. The Hebrew God may realize the errors of vengeance and realize the need to experience the human condition first hand. So He “comes down” to do it… and when he’s in the garden lamenting, “Father, why have You forsaken me?” (Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani?) … he is not so much asking, “Why do I have to die?” as “Are you there?”… I mean, why else would Christ be asking if He’s God after all? The answer to His question may very well be an empty reverberation… because His “Father” is not there… He has taken the place of the Father and must now go through the only unequivocal act a human can choose to do: die.
I find it remarkable and beautiful that these questions can be found in the texts themselves which seem to be so commonly passed over.
Christ did not say, “I die, so that you don’t have to.” He just bucked up and did what He knew He had to. He may have known, that in order to prove something greater than the individual, He must die… and in so doing proved his point right then. Then the church came up with a lot of nonsense, in my opinion.
And now we celebrate this individual…
…except that there has been a painful bait and switch. Christ got swapped for Santa Claus, and a practice of endurance and radical kindness was replaced with one of creature-comfort-consumer-capitilization. I don’t mean that in a negative way necessarily; I am as guilty as anyone of enjoying the more trivial pleasures of this “holiday.” I just want to faithfully and respectfully look backwards, at that which offered the groundwork for our contemporary culture, our calendar, and Christmas.
I know I cannot discuss God and please everyone… but what I find so entirely remarkable about the discussion is the unfathomable depth of the texts themselves… and how they seem to indicate a strange absence of God the character and Presence of God the spirit of compassion.
Consider this statement by Adam Phillips in On Kindness:
People want safety, whatever the cost. Perhaps it is one of the perils of secularization, that if we no longer believe in God–in a Being who is himself invulnerable and so is capable of protecting us–we cannot avoid confronting our own relative helplessness and need for each other. If there is no invulnerability anywhere, suddenly there is too much vulnerability everywhere. How do we deal with this? In his novel Raw Youth (1875), Dostoevsky describes a morning when people wake to find themselves alone in a godless universe. Instead of bewailing their loss, they turn to each other, substituting their own tenderness and concern for divine protection. Acknowledging human vulnerability, they respond to it positively. Kindness, for them, becomes a way of experiencing their vulnerability that tests the strengths and limits of their resources to deal with it. When God is dead, kindness is permitted. When God is dead, kindness is all that people have left.
And if Christ is alone in his questioning of the “Father”–He leaves us alone in his dying, leaving a powerful encouragement to find kindness for one another, and perhaps God there, rather than a faith in something that could not be real.