Christ, the universal/particular, and Eucharist

One of my Livejournal friends asked this question on her journal:

Can I ever see from a non-western, non-American viewpoint to have only a “Christian” worldview? Oh, to receive truth from revelation and not only through analyzing the world through my lens. I wish I could be objective of my own self. My housemate said yesterday, “we all contextualize Christianity.” And the thought bothered and challenged me. Is it possible to get around that? Is there anyway to know truth despite interpretation… I must believe there is to have faith at all. I guess that is the role of revelation.

I made a short comment on her entry, but felt the question deserves a more thorough treatment than what I was able to give there.

My answer is no, there is no such thing as a “Christian” worldview that does not take any cues from cultural contexts, that is objective and independent of our individual and socially-constructed lenses – and this is a good thing! In the modern, Western world, people have long tried to find a rationally necessary, unassailable foundation on which to build a framework for knowledge that does not depend on cultural lenses or individual perspectives. The thought has been something like “if we can only get back to the one truth that defines all truths” then we will either create utopia (or something close enough) or otherwise gain irrefutable knowledge that reduces the whole world to a matter of propositions, rather like solving a math problem.

The problem is that over and over again those things which were purportedly universal have been demonstrated to be contingent and cultural. All knowledge seems to depend on making a foundational assumption that cannot be proved, regardless of what field one studies. The so-called knowledge of progress at the turn of the century was exposed as Euro-centric imperialism as colonial empires shattered and “scientific” regimes proved more barbaric than any tribal society – making the 20th century the most violent in the entire known history of humankind. The supposed universal turned out to be largely Western white, male-dominant, capitalist, etc., and wholly contingent upon human actions and decision making over the course of recent history, and usually calculated to benefit the few at the expense of the many. This is not to say that all of Western culture is morally bankrupt, but it needs to be seen for what it is without hiding its particular nature and its failures. The quest for universal knowledge needs to be called out by its name, “hubris”, and if not discarded in favor of a celebration of particularity and contingency then at least undertaken with MUCH greater humility.

It is no accident that the Greek word translated “to comprehend” in John 1:5 is more often rendered “to overcome” or more literally “to seize”. That which is known can be manipulated and appropriated, left devoid of mystery and assimilated into the technopolistic order that seeks to make everything “efficient” and “orderly”. If Christianity could be seen objectively, that is as an object, then that object could be grasped at, controlled. The gift of salvation would become something other than what it is, a gift – it would be made into a technique, a process, a “sure thing”. Not surprisingly then, there is a venerable cottage industry related to training apologists and evangelists in the right steps to win an argument or a conversion and pastors to write nice, neat 5-point sermons on how to clean up your life because that’s what Jesus is supposed to do for us. The inscrutable doctrines of Incarnation and Trinity; the unfathomable recapitulation where God becomes human and takes humankind up into the divine embrace, enabling us to join the perichoresis, the joyful, eternal dance of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the mystical communion of saints and the full presence of Christ “where two or three are gathered” in his name – these mysteries and more are at the heart of the faith, and they strenuously resist being analyzed, compartmentalized, and objectified.

Even the mighty God himself did not come to us as a totalizing force to conquer our puny established orders and dominate our particulars in his overarching, glorious reign. Rather, the reign of God celebrates the local and includes a place for contextualized understandings in the kingdom. Revelation 5:9 proclaims that Christ has bought people from every tribe, language, people, and nation. Beginning in 7:9 a great end-time worship service is depicted, more numerous than could be counted, again from every tribe, language, people, and nation. The clear implication is that these redeemed people worship God as they are, as people from different ethnic groups, different language groups. There is no indication that they have been culturally conformed to some universal standard, in the way McWorld globalization threatens to bring the whole world under the rubric of corporate consumer capitalism. Jesus lived as a particular man, with a particular vocation (builder/carpenter), in a particular place (Galilee), at a particular time (the early 1st century AD), living under a particular imperial regime (Rome), and dealing with a particular oppressive religious reality (the Jerusalem Temple system and its vassal high priests). This Jesus embodies a reality that transcends his place in history, but it transcends it from his place.

The Kingdom isn’t some “timeless universal” that imposes itself upon and over our local situations, plowing us into its furrows and stuffing our localities into its rucksack. Instead God breaks into our human reality in all its contingent, contextual nature through the Incarnation of Jesus and in the ongoing indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the church -the body that is universal and yet has myriad expressions in places with wildly different customs, cuisines, and communal expressions.

No knowledge is universal, just like no human political system is universal. Only the Body of Christ is universal among institutions of this world – that’s the basic meaning of the Greek katholikos, which is transliterated as “catholic”. But it is not a universality that trumps the local; rather, it is a universality that only exists in its local expressions. There is a long line of thought in the church, going back to the ancient fathers, proclaiming that when Eucharist is celebrated and the congregation gathers to re-member Christ, there is present the whole body of Christ. It isn’t just a little bit of Jesus that is present in the bread and wine of communion, but the whole Christ in all his cosmic nature. Likewise, the gathering of believers that celebrates Eucharist is not just a local expression of the church. Through partaking in the bread and wine which is the whole Christ, the whole body is present – the local expression of the church can rightfully be called the whole church, as the apostles and early fathers called local churches, because the whole Christ is present and the whole church is joined in the celebration of Christ’s victory over the powers and principalities and over the forces of sin and death in our lives and in the whole world.

God’s image that is restored in Christ and the church is too grand to be limited to only one perspective, even one supposedly “universal” perspective (which is really a particular perspective with delusions of grandeur). Instead we must give up our pretensions to God-like-ness and inhabit the world as God’s image through our Scotch-Irish-English American-ness, our Nigerian-ness, our Pashtun-ness, and so on. The catholic depends on the local and is constantly transformed by it as the particular participates in the universal, all held together by the Spirit.

It is a great mystery – “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”