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.”


What Would Jesus Deconstruct? 2

In the last installment of What Would Jesus Deconstruct? I looked at Caputo’s brief account of Charles Sheldon’s book In His Steps and the question of “What would Jesus do?”. He finished the section by saying the question hinges on the one word, “would”, and the “would” draws us into the realm of hermeneutics. It is at this point he calls upon deconstruction, which he has called “radical hermeneutics” in other works.

Caputo points out that the heroes of Sheldon’s book are people who “renounce the profit-making motives that drive capitalism and give up luxury and success for the sake of living among and working on behalf of the poorest of the poor” (p. 25). While the current atmosphere of globalized capitalism recalls the “Gilded Age” in which Sheldon wrote, “the original force of Sheldon’s question has been turned upside-down in the barrage of bracelets and televangelists preaching personal wealth as a sign of God’s approval.”

With this in mind he recalls the opening scene of Sheldon’s book, a fairly pastoral scene (literally) in the church where “the best dressed, most comfortable-looking people” of the town have gathered – when a destitute, dying bum breaks onto the scene, turning the situation upside down – turning harmony into cacophony.

Caputo asks “what would Jesus do – if he ever showed up some Sunday morning? Turn things upside down.” The last first, the meek and poor inheriting the earth, the hungry given good things and the rich sent away empty. Peace? Not peace, but the sword. Family values? No, rather hating father and mother for the sake of the kingdom. Instead of confirming us in our ways and congratulating us for our virtue “we would stand accused” having ignored the plank in our own eye for the speck in that of our neighbor.

Or, to put things in deconstruction terms, “into the sphere of the ‘same’ (the familiar, the customary, the business-as-usual of Sunday services) bursts the ‘advent’ or the ‘event’ of the ‘other,’ of the ‘coming of the other,’ which makes the same tremble and reconfigure” (p. 26). Sheldon opens the novel with a scene of deconstruction.

Caputo says the “event” of Jesus is that of a deep deconstructive force. Whereas deconstruction has been called the hermeneutics of the death of God, he presents it as the hermeneutics of the kingdom, as an interpretive move that helps get at Jesus’ prophetic nature. Jesus breaks into the 1st-century Jewish scene and takes a stand with the “other”. Deconstruction delivers the shock of the “other” to the forces of the “same”, which could also be put in terms of delivering the good, the “ought to be” to the force of being, the “what is”. In this sense, Caputo says deconstruction brings good news to the church – one could say it brings the Gospel to us in the form of that which turns our world upside-down.

The other in deconstruction is not a devil, but rather a figure of truth. “Things get deconstructed by the event of truth that they harbor, an event that sets off unforeseeable and disruptive consequences”, which may be enough to get the event of truth labeled as a devil (or, for that matter, crucified).

What Would Jesus Deconstruct? 1

Before beginning a discussion of the book proper, it’s worth mentioning that What Would Jesus Deconstruct? is the second book in the Church and Postmodern Culture series from Baker Academic. Caputo’s volume comes after James K.A. Smith’s quite helpful and eminently readable (that is, intended for a non-specialist audience) Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. Smith undertook a brief analysis of key aspects of the three philosophers on whose symbolic shoulders stand the philosophical and cultural movement(s) known as postmodernism/ity and how, rather than undermining it, their ideas can actually support the church – particularly in helping to reveal the ways the church has become captive to modernism/ity.

From the Series Preface, by Smith:

“Current discussions in the church – from emergent “postmodern” congregations to mainline “missional” congregations – are increasingly grappling with philosophical and theoretical questions related to postmodernity… Postliberalism – a related “effect” of postmodernism – has engendered a new, confessional ecumenism wherein we find nondenominational evangelical congregations, mainline Protestant churches, and Catholic parishes all wrestling with the challenges of postmodernism and drawing on the culture of postmodernity as an opportunity for rethinking the shape of our churches” (p. 7).

With that in mind, it is worth recounting here that the subtitle of Caputo’s book is “The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church”. For Caputo (and unlike many believers, both “conservative” and “liberal”), the postmodern challenge to modernity is good news, challenging the ways the church has become entrenched in narratives that carry it away from its calling as a people faithful to Jesus.

Caputo opens the book with Charles Sheldon, a turn-of-the-century Kansas pastor. Sheldon is little-known among modern evangelicals, but they’re likely familiar with the subtitle to his 1896 book In His Steps: “What Would Jesus Do?”. It may surprise people today to discover that this book, whose subtitle has become an epitome of Christian cliché, was one of the major inspirations for the Social Gospel movement in the early 20th century. Caputo notes that this flies in the face of the Christian Right’s tendency to use the question as a kind of weapon against those who disagree. It also goes against the question’s having been made a bastion of Christian consumerism, since the question of what Jesus would do repeatedly comes up when people in the book are faced with a situation that requires them to deal directly with the needs of the poor and destitute, those who had been left behind by the spirit of progress and the ideals of capitalism and individualism that were prevalent at the time.

For Caputo, the question is “a very tricky two-edged sword” (p. 19), and one that should just be used against others but, citing Levinas, “put with ourselves in the accusative”, question ourselves and our relationship to the suffering world, instead of using a “beam, as in a two-by-four, to slam others” (p. 24). “Everyone wants Jesus on their side”, he says, instead of the other way around. Caputo argues that the question itself has no bite unless it is also biting us – otherwise it tends to be a way to get others to do what we want them to do, but doing so under the cover of Jesus.

Caputo then takes a brief look at the word “would” within the question. “Would”, he says, carries all the weight in the question, and draws us into the question of hermeneutics. He quotes Nietzsche, who said “there are no facts, only interpretations” (p. 25), and says the question itself poses another question – that of how much work can actually get done once the question’s complexity is considered. It is here that he calls upon deconstruction for help.

What Would Jesus Deconstruct? (introduction)

The latest entry in the Church and Postmodernism series from Baker Academic Press is What Would Jesus Deconstruct? from noted deconstructionist/philosopher/theologian John D. Caputo, professor of Religion and Humanities and professor of philosophy at Syracuse. I got my copy in the mail today, read the first chapter, and was very nearly blown away. I’m only one chapter into it, but I really think this may be one of the best books I’ve read in the past couple of years – so I’m going to do a series summarizing and commenting on it.

Caputo believes deconstruction can both serve the church and call it to be what it is supposed to be as the representative people of God on earth. After some exploratory comments he starts with some comments on Charles M. Sheldon’s social Gospel classic In His Steps (the book from which the love it/hate it question “What would Jesus do?” comes) and from there enters into a conversation between Derrida, the Bible, Dostoyevsky, church tradition, and the rest of the world.

One of Caputo’s first assertions may surprise some folk who are used to the idea of deconstruction as a kind of negative dialectic, but he says that first off deconstruction is a hermeneutic of truth, not of its relativization, but of its realization. While any expression of truth that exists in language or in societal structures is by nature deconstructible, truth itself is not deconstructible. It is particularly when these small-t truths masquerade as Absolute Truths that they are subject to deconstruction. Furthermore, deconstruction is not a kind of power play that is done to a situation; rather, situations deconstruct themselves due to the instability between what is and what is presented.

As the series progresses I will present and engage Caputo’s arguments starting with the beginning of the book and ending with the end (though I suppose this convention of reading may itself be deconstructible). What would Jesus deconstruct? Caputo’s first answer to the question may surprise you – he says Jesus would deconstruct the church.

Next time: we dive into chapter one.

some thoughts on truth and religious epistemology

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