Thursday, September 10, 2015

What Defiles the Body: Oliver Sacks and Jesus

Dean Andrew McGowan's sermon at the first Berkeley Community Eucharist of the new term at Yale Divinity School, September 2 2015; Deut 4:1-2, 6-9; Ps 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

How difficult a thing it is, brothers and sisters, to have a body!

Bodies are the source of great joy, but also of pain. They seem at times to have wills of their own, and can lead us into strange places; and as some of us discover increasingly with time, they break and fail. They become messy and difficult things to deal with.

Because we are self-aware, we can think about our bodies as objects, and as somehow separate from ourselves. This is especially the case when physical need or desire or failure find us in hard places. The body can then be blamed or spurned. There are times when the apostle Paul seems to speak for us all, saying "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24).

This isn’t the whole of what Paul says about bodies or people, but the sentiment is honest and important. It is tempting to see ourselves as spirits who are merely temporarily and inconsequentially embodied, piloting our fleshy vehicles around until we leave them, our very selves unaffected by the material shells we had to inhabit. This is a sort of “beam me up, Scotty” theology of life and of redemption.

Oliver Sacks (from
Oliver Sacks died recently. There are not many researchers and clinicians who have had multiple bestsellers, let alone one of them made into a movie starring Robert DeNiro. But when I heard Sacks was dead, it was not Awakenings that came to mind first but his collection of essays, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Sacks presented there a series of case studies which, without in any way diminishing the humanity of the subjects, indicated how profoundly disease or injury impacts our very selves. The essay that gives the story its title concerns a man with Agnosia, whose sight was fine but who was unable to recognize or make sense of what he saw. It is reminiscent of another Gospel saying, where Jesus explains the purpose of parables as that people may “look and look, but not see.” Self, it seems, is not independent of the body. Our minds, our selves, are not mere inhabitants of bodies - we, including those remarkable parts of ourselves that are brains and that give rise to minds, are bodies. It is not just how difficult or joyous to have a body, but to be a body.

Sacks' Twitter account a few days before his death had drawn attention to a New York Times article summarizing the work of two other researchers, including Yale SOM colleague Nina Strohminger, on the effects of debilitating conditions like ALS and dementia on the self. Strohminger and Paul Nichols offered, to begin with, the attractive and surely widespread notion that loss of memory was what might most deeply impact the self. I have seen more than one movie in the last couple of years that suggested a self could be uploaded or moved to another body simply by the transfer of data, which seems to reflect that same idea. Strohminger and Nichols however suggested a different conclusion; memory loss could be very significant, but for those around the afflicted person the self was not as dependent on it as we would imagine; rather “the single most powerful predictor of identity change was not disruption to memory — but rather disruption to the moral faculty.” It is what we do that makes us who we are.

Our selves, then, are deeply embodied, and through our bodily choices, our actions on the lives of others and the wider world, we show ourselves to be who we are. In the Gospel, Jesus enters into an inner-Jewish debate about defilement that makes the moral self, our actions and words and their impact on others, the place of opportunity and risk. It may appear that what goes into the body, voluntarily or otherwise, is what defiles. Drugs, bullets, nails, are all apparently sources of defilement. This may be less true than it seems. Hatred and violence, acts of sexual exploitation or of casual injustice, purport to be ways of controlling the other. In truth they, coming from within a person, defile the perpetrator.

What happens to the body of the other, the degraded or disregarded, is nonetheless important; it is important because it is the treatment of a self, not of a shell. This is why black lives matter. It is why the bodies of Coptic martyrs and Syrian refugees matter. It is also why it matters when they nail your God to a cross; because he is not merely pretending to be there, having taken flesh as a convenient marketing and communicating strategy, but as the Gospel also tells us, “the Word became flesh."

The world may yet conclude that it has mastered and defiled the bodies of the innocent and the oppressed by what goes in to them; but the Gospel suggests otherwise, and that the would-be defilers are themselves defiled by such actions. It also suggests that our hope in the body does not end even at crosses and corpses, but affirms the bodily self even to a future that is God’s own. For our hope is not the disembodied persistence of souls, but the renewed embodiment of the resurrection, and a future life where there is neither oppression nor defilement, but the redemption of bodies; "for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Colonialists and Explorers: Commencement 2015

[From Commencement Evensong for Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, Marquand Chapel, May 16 2015; Ezek. 3:4-17; Luke 9:37-50]

In June of the year 1770, the English explorer James Cook and the crew of his ship Endeavour arrived off the north-east coast of what was then known to Europeans as New Holland, or Terra Australis Incognita – the unknown southern land. Needing to forage for food and water, Cook and his men ignored the explicit instructions they had from the British authorities to seek permission of the inhabitants before landing, and went ashore not very far from what is now the tourist mecca of Cairns, on the Great Barrier Reef.

There is an apocryphal story (often the best kind, of course) regarding what happened when crew of the Endeavour did encounter some of the Australian indigenous people who lived in that area. The sailors supposedly tried to ask them the name of the curious upright jumping beasts who provided some distraction, as well as some nutrition, for the Englishmen. “Kangaroo,” they were told, “Kangaroo.” Later, after the British returned and occupied the continent, further enquiries were made in the area, but linguists never found evidence that this familiar word was ever used by the aboriginal people of that place to refer to those marsupials. The closest things to “kangaroo” in the local dialects were the phrases “I don’t understand you" and “Go away.”

Subsequent history bears out rather clearly that these were not the most promising exchanges with which to begin a relationship between peoples, even if this etymology was not authentic. And yet these definitions from a people of, as the Book of Ezekiel puts it, “obscure speech and difficult language” can function as a sort of backhanded blessing to those of you who are leaving this place. Go away. And be prepared to say “I don’t understand."

Since you do have to go away, there is perhaps a temptation for speakers at events like this to see if they can offer last minute advice that will compensate for the inevitable gaps even in a demanding curriculum such as you have undergone. The things you do not understand will sometimes plague or embarrass you as you go, but there is also a gift in them, or in the recognition of them at least. We are not sending you out as repositories of theological knowledge whose effective banking of wisdom over two or three years can allow others to make withdrawals thanks to you, nor as theological colonialists whose knowledge acts as an excuse for your failure to listen to the “obscure speech and difficult language” of others.

Rather we are sending you out as explorers - people whose limits, whose “I don’t understand” has been shaped in particular ways but which exists. It would actually be a very good test, both of the Yale curriculum and of your use of it, if there were areas where you realize that now you have to go away, that you actually understand less than you did (or thought you did) when you started, and hence that you need to consider new learnings and new journeys to undertake in order to learn afresh.

This choice between colonialism and exploration – overpowering the other and learning from it - flows through our daily office readings. The task given Ezekiel (in a sort of divine Commencement speech?) before he is sent away involves both a commission to proclaim the word of God but also some awkward qualification about how hard understanding is likely to be, both for him and for those to whom he must proclaim God's word. He will preach to literal hard-heads, and so is divinely equipped to match them, thick skull for thick skull. Ezekiel takes his Master of Prophecy degree and the spirit drops him off among the exiles, where he sits stunned for seven days. God had already told him that compared to this, speaking to people of "obscure speech and difficult language" would have been easy. This is the hard work of solidarity; of being not merely the prophet dropped in and then airlifted out, but the fellow hard-head who must sweat it out in exile with the rest.

The disciples of the Gospel reading are also would-be colonialists, who have to be taught about exploration and about difference. Just follow the plot thread: they are unable to cast out a demon; they cannot understand the prediction of the passion; and then on the strength of these triumphs, they argue about who is the greatest. Then when they find someone else who is actually managing to do the deed of exorcism even without having attended their colloquium, they are appalled. Jesus’ words are telling: "Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.”

This is of course a different way of understanding difference itself; does difference demand the conformity of the other to our own theology, or does it invite mutual acceptance, partnership, and unanticipated wisdom?

This choice between colonialism and exploration is one that affects us as we face the seemingly intractable challenges of diversity in national and international power relations, and in daily living in community too. We can all use diversity as window-dressing; but the willingness to question our own forms of privilege and really, and to be changed by the difficult truths we hear in the obscure words of others that we could not otherwise understand, is the test of whether we will progress.

Like the disciples, we need to know what we don’t know, and to be ready to accept what they may learn from others who didn’t study as many obscure languages and texts. Like Ezekiel we need to go where the Spirit takes us, and speak difficult truths not out of our own privilege to make the other like us, but out of true solidarity.

You don’t know everything you need to. Yet there is such a thing as holy ignorance. Ignorance is not, of course, holy in itself, for wisdom is an attribute of God. The one who makes their own ignorance into false wisdom is the colonialist; what makes ignorance truly if provisionally holy is knowing, as the explorer does, that wisdom is God’s and not ours, and hence that we may find her in what initially seem unlikely places.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Problem of Worship, Revisited; Thoughts Shared at St Hilda's House

[Last week I met with the interns at St Hilda’s House and we talked about worship, starting with some thoughts from the first chapter of my book, Ancient Christian Worship (Baker Academic, 2014). Here are some of the ideas we shared. This is cross-posted at their blog here.]

“Worship” in English-language Bibles refers to something quite different from the activities or ideas for which contemporary Christians use that word. Most of the time in the New Testament it is used to translate Greek words referring not to prayer, or singing, or community rituals, but to literal acts of physical obedience and submission - like prostrating oneself on the ground. “Worship” is not what goes on in temples or synagogues, or even in homes where Christians meet, but happens wherever social relations of dependence and obedience are expressed. It has more to do with politics and ethics than with what we would call worship, although it has a necessary physical and embodied aspect. It doesn’t mean religious practice, and it doesn’t mean faith either - but both could be part of it.

This isn’t necessarily a problem - words do shift in meaning. The problem is that we may tend to ignore the shift, and just project our experience onto theirs as we read, or vice-versa. We tend to think, I suspect, that “worship” in our sense is an obvious thing, that connects us with the scriptures and the early Church; in fact our concept doesn’t exist in the ancient world.

That sounds rather startling, and someone might quickly object that there are things about “worship” in our modern sense that do connect us with the scriptures and the early followers of Jesus. I agree; and I can see two ways we could trace those continuities.

The first is to leave the word “worship” alone for a moment, but to acknowledge that we have a set of communal practices of prayer and ritual that do stem from the NT roots of the Church: daily prayer, Eucharist and baptism are all characteristic of the Christian movement, and always have been. These are a distinctive set of actions, a habitus, that along with dispositions of love and justice to the community and to the world makes the Church what it is, just as surely as the confession that Jesus is Lord, i.e., that he is the one worthy of obedient service, of worship. But “worship” of Jesus, while it includes these characteristic actions of communal obedience, is not actually more about them than it is about actions in other parts of life.

The other way we could work is to grasp the “worship” language, instead of avoiding it, and to think about Christian life (including its communal and liturgical aspects) as a pattern of obedience and service. This leads us again to baptism, eucharist, and prayer; not because they are Christian versions of some wider phenomenon called “worship” (i.e., not in the modern sense) but because they are our concrete and distinctive forms of obedience to Jesus (think “pray thus” [Matt 6:9]; “do this in memory of me”; “go, make disciples…baptising them…”).

Staying with this second approach, what I have just provided is a fairly protestant version of a rationale for the Christian sacraments, in keeping with the Calvinist tendency to call them “ordinances”. We could however come to these actions with language and concepts slightly less rooted in the giving and receiving of orders, but from notions of dependence and love, which are equally valid or arguably far better ways of characterizing the Christian relationship with the God of Jesus Christ who no longer calls us servants but friends. Thinking in these terms, we can reflect on the sacraments not only as ordinances but as gifts, the embodied enactment of our grafting in to the beloved community.

This still leaves the faintly puzzling language and concept of “worship” today. As I have already implied, we have this language not because it is an inconsequential name for corporate religious ritual, but as a specific product or vestige of Christian notions of obedience and service as the heart of communal sacramental action. This is also why we still have events called “services,” by the way, although we have mostly forgotten the connection, and the now-common phrase “worship service” is surely a feeble attempt to make two meaningless words stronger by combination.

The accidental products of this shift or loss are profound, and often tragic. If we start with the notion that “worship” describes whatever is customary or entertaining or even edifying to do for an hour on Sunday, we certainly miss the point. The idea, for instance, that music (or a particular genre thereof) is the essence of corporate worship is curious at best. Of course music, like buildings and food, can be put in service of God (not least in conjunction with Eucharist and prayer), but not because music is inherently more about worship than are other types of activity.

There are however two good places from which to start and which might lead us to diverse, engaging and challenging liturgy: first and unavoidable is the characteristic Christian sacramental habitus; the onus is on anyone who professes faith to say why this is not the center of communal gatherings. Second, and quite differently but leading to the same goal, there is the recognition that while all life is service, community is the focus of presenting our whole selves to God in love and obedience; the communal gathering then serves to build up, equip, re-inforce, express, etc., the reality of the Church. This however does not make it “worship."

I was recently at a Church which ended its liturgy with the words “Our worship has ended, let our service begin.” It’s a worthy thought, even if a cheesy line, but it actually underlines the problem of the language and the practices more than solving it. The fact that this is supposed to be a sort of pun or play on words reveals the tragic loss of significance of “worship” (and of “service” too). In fact you could better reverse the terms and make the point intended, if as I have been suggesting “worship” is not the Sunday morning part of Christian life more than the rest. Ideally we should understand that worship is not liturgy, it is life; which does not make liturgy less important, but clears the way to ask what it is for, and what then we must do to engage in it well and faithfully.