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.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Eating our Words

[Originally preached at Trinity College Chapel, 24th April 2005; published in memory of Homaro Cantu, d. 14th April 2015]

The sushi made by Mr Homaro Cantu, the executive chef at Moto restaurant in Chicago, looks a lot like that served at other upscale restaurants, appearing on the plate as round coloured disks; they also, by all accounts, taste deliciously fishy and seaweedy.

It is prepared on a Canon i560 inkjet printer. Cantu prints images of sushi rolls on pieces of edible paper made of soybeans and cornstarch, using organic, food-based inks of his own concoction. At least two or three food items made of paper are likely to be included in a meal at Moto. Even the menu is edible; diners crunch it up into a bowl of gazpacho, creating Mr Cantu’s version of alphabet soup.

The Revelation to John reminds us that eating words and images is not an altogether new idea:
So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, ‘Take it, and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.’ So I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter. (Rev 10:9–10)
In using this image around the year 100 of our era, the author of the Revelation was actually reviving a traditional recipe going back further centuries to the prophet Ezekiel, who had a similar vision wherein he was instructed to eat a scroll as a prelude to taking its message to Israel (Ezek 3:2). Ezekiel’s scroll however was and remained sweet, and not bitter. This later scroll in Revelation contains a paradox; it is sweet because true, but bitter to the stomach, since the experience of the one who knows the truth will often not be uniformly pleasant.

If Chef Cantu with his Inkjet sushi is one postmodern inheritor of that tradition of eating words, another and more self-conscious one is Umberto Eco, whose novel The Name of the Rose hinges on the quest to uncover another ancient scroll—the lost book II of Aristotle’s Poetics, the section on comedy. Eco clearly has our Revelation passage in mind when, in the climactic scene, the evil Brother Jorge who has hidden this dangerous treatise lest it encourage the dire sin of laughter, eats it and dies in a final act of suicidal defiance, knowing that its humorous content has actually been written with a poisonous ink; the sweet words turn bitter in the stomach.

What Eco and his biblical predecessors are all playing with is the power and paradox of making words into flesh. Each of the eating protagonists seeks to make themselves one with the text: the evil Jorge to destroy both, and the seers Ezekiel and John to give both life.

Thomas Cranmer’s 1549 collect for the Second Sunday of Advent from the first Book of Common Prayer works with the same idea:
Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
But the story does not always seem like comfort food, as the seer John knew. Those of us who are concerned with texts—not so much literally eating them, I say to mollify any anxious librarians lurking among us, as studying them and seeking to internalise them—can hear in the idea of eating the text—prophecy, treatise or menu as it may be—the problem and the promise of how words and stories and images impact on us, or not. It is not enough merely to ‘learn’, if learning means that we compartmentalise what we learn into a purely theoretical knowledge. The metaphor of eating words expresses this well; truly to learn is to make what we learn a part of ourselves, not just the object of the mind’s activity but part of the actual means by which we will go on learning. Put thus, wisdom is not just about words and minds; it is about bodies and actions. Truly to learn, truly to be wise, is to make knowledge human, to make it flesh. What others have known with their hearts and hands, as well as minds, must become real in our own lives if we are to be wise.

Today is Passover; this evening, Jewish households outside of Israel celebrate the second of two Seders, the festive meal of the Passover, to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. The Seder is a sort of eaten story too. One of its principles, expressed in the Haggadah or narrative order of service, is that participants should not simply remember historical events that took place in their ancestors’ times, but understand that they too, as they eat and drink, were brought out of Egypt.

In Christian tradition this motif of making words flesh has its fulfilment in the incarnation. John’s Gospel speaks of Jesus not merely as a divine being who has ‘beamed down’ on an ‘away mission’ to impart propositions to earth-dwellers, but as the ultimate personification, the making human, of God’s Word and wisdom.

In this Easter season for Christians, we affirm that something similar to the logic of the eaten wisdom of Passover can and must take place. Hearing the story again, we are invited not only to examine its propositions but also to consume it, to make it our own. In this last and longest chapter of the resurrection narrative, in the absence of the risen body of the Word once made flesh, we who feed on his story, his wisdom, and make it real in our own flesh, may thereby become that body in the world.