Marias and Mysteries

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of genealogical research into my ancestry. Just over a hundred years ago, eight foreigners (six of them miserable for weeks in steerage) on different ships sailed past the Statue of Liberty and started the American branch of their family trees. Six of them were from southern Italy and two were from northern England. They were all my great-grandparents. Some of them brought over some of their siblings and cousins; many more family members forever remained in the Old Countries. In the course of my research, I’ve also managed to reach back a couple of generations into those Old Countries, and have been delighted to uncover the names of many of my ancestors. As I uncovered those names, I was astonished to see just how many of the Italian women – on both sides of the Atlantic – were named Maria. In one branch of the family, all the females carried Maria as their first name, but each was called by her middle name, to distinguish among them: Maria Francesca (the mother), Maria Giuseppa, Maria Concetta, Maria Letizia, and Maria Rosa (all her female children).

Of course, Maria is for Mary the mother of Jesus (Miriam in Hebrew), who is revered and emulated – but not worshiped – in Roman Catholicism, as well as in Eastern Orthodoxy. My survey of all the Marias in my family caused me to wonder about the source of widespread devotion to Mary, when we know so little about her. One aspect of it is surely that Mary offers a genuinely needed feminine presence in a religion that, from its origins, inherited male terminology for its triune God. The three manifestations or forms – or perhaps avatars is an effective word to use in this wired age – of the one Christian God are termed the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The first, even though Catholicism and many other branches of Christianity happily acknowledge that God has no real gender, is termed Father instead of Mother because he is Yahweh, who was male in the Hebrew Bible. The second became incarnate in the form of a male human being, Jesus, so there’s not much option for terminology there. The third, even though the term “Holy Spirit” conjures neither male nor female associations, assumed male pronouns out of convention, and probably also because Yahweh (as I mentioned already) was always thought of as male.

The need for a female presence in the religion is not a need felt by women alone, as evidenced by the large number of men who revere Mary. Pope John Paul II was famous for his Marian devotions. It stems, rather, from a sense of the balance in life that is experienced by men and women alike. A triune God with all male terms – even if that God’s intrinsic lack of gender is acknowledged in the theology – is not in balance. This, I believe, is one reason that Christians find themselves drawn to Mary, not as a type of goddess, but as the female balance that she is by nature as Jesus’ mother. It is this maternal aspect that draws mothers and women hoping to be mothers, men young and old alike, to the mother of Jesus in their religious lives. There is a sense that by virtue of being Jesus’ mother, Mary is in some way a symbolic mother to us all.

But it also seems to me that another source for the attraction to Mary is the very lack of information about her that I mentioned earlier – the reason I wondered about the reverence in the first place. She is a mystery. Beyond the birth narratives, especially the one in Luke, we hear almost nothing from her. Mystics, saints, clergy, and ordinary people across the ages have spoken of revelations of her or from her, but such things only increase the mystery surrounding Mary, rather than diminish it. This could be part of the reason that Mary finds herself with billions of people down through the ages thinking about her, sending prayers to her, turning to her for maternal help, and giving their children her name. Mysteries allow us to imagine, to dream, to search for what we need and find it. Beyond being Jesus’ mother, Mary is a page waiting to be filled in. Thus, those who have Mary as part of their religious lives invest in her their hopes, their sorrows – and perhaps, everything they need in a mother.

Copyright © 2011 Elizabeth Keck

Apophis

Recently, I learned that an asteroid named Apophis, about 1,000 feet long (2.5 football fields), is scheduled to pass disconcertingly close to Earth on April 13, 2029. That’s a Friday, in case you were wondering. If the name “Apophis” sounds like it conjures images of doom, that’s because it is the Greek name for the ancient Egyptian god Apep. In Egyptian mythology, Apep was the god of darkness, evil, and disorder, and was known as the enemy of Ra (the sun god). Apep was thought to assume the form of a formidable serpent, who attempts to swallow Ra each night as the sun makes his nightly passage through the Earth’s middle. Each night, the god Set was the primary defender of Ra, consistently keeping Apep at bay. This is what NASA’s Near Earth Orbit program has to say, on a page entitled “Predicting Apophis’ Earth Encounters in 2029 and 2036”:

“The future for Apophis on Friday, April 13 of 2029 includes an approach to Earth no closer than 29,470 km (18,300 miles, or 5.6 Earth radii from the center, or 4.6 Earth-radii from the surface) over the mid-Atlantic, appearing to the naked eye as a moderately bright point of light moving rapidly across the sky. Depending on its mechanical nature, it could experience shape or spin-state alteration due to tidal forces caused by Earth’s gravity field. This is within the distance of Earth’s geosynchronous satellites. However, because Apophis will pass interior to the positions of these satellites at closest approach, in a plane inclined at 40 degrees to the Earth’s equator and passing outside the equatorial geosynchronous zone when crossing the equatorial plane, it does not threaten the satellites in that heavily populated region. Using criteria developed in this research, new measurements possible in 2013 (if not 2011) will likely confirm that in 2036 Apophis will quietly pass more than 49 million km (30.5 million miles; 0.32 AU) from Earth on Easter Sunday of that year (April 13).” http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/apophis/

Bottom line: Apophis is coming close enough in 2029 to pass inside some of our satellites, but highly-refined projections based on a myriad of factors indicate that the possibility of impact with Earth does not exist at that time. It will return on April 13, 2036, with a chance of impact that NASA says is 1 in 250,000. Those odds are calculated based on the chances of Apophis flying through a gravitational “keyhole” during the 2029 pass. The keyhole refers to a narrow, specific area in space in which Earth’s gravitational field would alter the path of Apophis’ future orbit — if it passes through that specific area in 2029. NASA estimates the keyhole odds to be 1 in 250,000; but if it does go through the keyhole, it will slam into us in 2036 unless space agencies can implement one of the theoretical ways to deflect it. The good news is that Apophis is coming into range to be extensively analyzed by both optical telescopes and radar from Arecibo in late 2012-early 2013. At that time, much uncertainty about its future chances will likely be eliminated.

If Apophis were to strike, it would cause major devastation around the general area of impact, but NASA assures us that it is not large enough to wreak global catastrophe (of course, one wonders if NASA is taking into account the global effects of crop destruction). But in Earth’s history, there have been at least a few asteroids that did cause catastrophe on a global scale. The best known is the “K-T asteroid,” its name indicating the boundary of the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods — the Cretaceous was the end of the dinosaurs, and we are living in the Tertiary. Its 12-mile crater was discovered beneath the sea off the Yucatan Peninsula. The K-T asteroid was 6 miles long and eradicated 70% of Earth’s life — due to the initial impact and everything it incinerated, the shock wave, the tsunami, the global fires, the effects of debris in the atmosphere (including complete darkness for roughly 6 months), the acid rain, and the subsequent global temperature drop.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how every natural global catastrophe that we know about in the history of the Earth, while leading to widespread destruction for many contemporaneous species, ended up creating the conditions for other species to emerge, changing the face of global life over and over again. This was certainly the case with the K-T asteroid; before it hit and spelled the eventual end for most dinosaurs (the remaining ones becoming the ancestors of birds), mammals could not have gained a foothold. At the time before the asteroid, mammals were a meek group of small creatures no bigger than rodents; they were dinosaur snacks, and snacks for other large predators. When the effects of the asteroid made life so difficult for large land species that they went extinct, the small mammals had the free rein to thrive, evolve, and eventually lead to the life we see today, including us. Hard as it may be to believe, we are distant descendants of those tiny, industrious mammals that were only able to thrive when the dinosaurs were gone.

As humans, we tend to think of ourselves as the pinnacle of life; we take it for granted that we should keep multiplying ourselves upon the Earth unchecked. If our explosive population growth and the consequent tendency to destroy large swaths of other species’ habitats cause harm, then that harm is ultimately acceptable — because, after all, we’re humans.  Often, religious people tend to think that God instituted us to assume this position, and therefore we have license to do whatever we think is necessary to continue our explosion over the face of the planet; if that means a mind-boggling consumption rate of finite planetary resources, as well as the eradication of species that have been here for millennia, then so be it. We belong here, says this mentality, and the Earth belongs to us. God wants it that way.

But Genesis doesn’t just say “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). It also says that humans will rule (radah) over the Earth. This concept does not simply signify “dominion” in the English connotation, which so often is linked only with subjugation. It carries more of a sense of “sovereignty,” which, in biblical thought, included an ideal of wise stewardship. Have we managed our effect on the planet with wise stewardship? I think the answer to that is obvious. Our main concern is ourselves; everything else is several hundred miles down on the priority list.

For a species that is so intelligent, it isn’t particularly intelligent to think that ignoring our effect on the planet and its ecosystems will have no negative consequences for humans  (and I’m not just talking about climate change — don’t forget resource depletion). The planet itself has endured for billions of years and is oblivious to us; it is the life forms upon it that come and go for one reason or another. If any sequence of events leads to the eventual extinction of humans, the planet will still keep orbiting the Sun, and whatever life forms survive will adapt and give rise to new life forms. Just as life has always done on this planet. The sad part of that is having to admit that as of now, the planet’s ecosystems would be far better off without us. We are an incredibly destructive species. We abuse our adaptability and intelligence to act with little regard for species other than our own — this despite a professed belief on the part of most of us that God had a hand in the creation of those other species. Other species occupy only their own niches, without our ability to drive others to extinction, deplete resources, and literally change the surface of the planet. Since we do have those abilities, it becomes our responsibility to control them.

Copyright © 2011 Elizabeth Keck

Ascension Day

For Christians, yesterday was Ascension Day — the day in which the bodily ascension of Jesus Christ to Heaven is commemorated. Some churches offer special services on this day because of its solemnity, and certainly Catholic churches, for whom the Ascension is a holy day of obligation (although some dioceses transfer it to the nearest Sunday so that more people can celebrate it). I had already planned to attend one of these services with my daughter, but felt even more so after the area in Massachusetts where I live was hit with multiple destructive tornadoes and severe lightening storms for a stretch of hours the day before. Parts of my state were devastated – even parts of surrounding towns relatively close by – and my town had been listed as one of those that could very well be in a certain tornado’s path. As it turned out, my town escaped, but so many others did not. For our family, it was a terrifying near-miss. In Massachusetts, tornadoes touching down is a surreal experience.

I woke up the morning of the Ascension with profound sadness for those who had lost their homes, but also with profound relief and gratitude that my home and my family had been spared. This happy relief felt as if someone had infused a shot of extra, fresh oxygen directly into my lungs, and I wanted to give expression to it. My daughter and I arrived for a noon Mass.

As I mentioned before, it was a holy day of obligation; so naturally I assumed no one would be there. I was surprised, though, to find quite a few people there – perhaps others had woken up that morning sharing my thoughts. The readings for the day centered on Jesus’ ascension skyward in the sight of his disciples, including Acts 1:1-11, in which the disciples cannot stop themselves from continuing to gaze upward where he had gone. The text then says that two men in white (these would be angels) appeared beside them and asked why they continued to stand there and look upward, since “this Jesus will return in the same way” that they had seen him go. The Gospel reading concluded with what Matthew presented as Jesus’ last words before the ascension, telling his disciples, “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).

It was this last reading that factored most heavily into the priest’s homily, which, as I had hoped, centered on the upheaval of the preceding day and its psychological aftermath. His message concerned the presence of God with us through such disasters, pointing out that while we all felt for those whose lives had been upended by storms in the Midwest, having a natural disaster hit geographically so close to home gives it a different meaning entirely. So, quite rightly I think, he connected Jesus’ words in Matthew to current events, noting that they apply to us just as much as the early disciples.

I did go to church because it was Ascension Day, but I also went to give expression of my thankfulness that my family and my house were preserved from the worst of the storms. I am aware that expressing my thanks to God also raises questions theologically. I know that weather is random and its own beast (I explored this in an early post,”The Fall-Guy for the Weather?”), and it is not God choosing to smite certain innocent homes with tornadoes and spare others. So I knew that expressing my gratitude to God might be inherently illogical. After all, I knew there was nothing special about me or my house that God would actively spare it while ignoring other homes that ended up destroyed. That is also why I hesitate to say that I feel blessed, because does that imply that God has blessed me but not others? That he has intentionally withheld blessing from others? I’m not comfortable believing that, and it seems arrogant to do so. In fact, I believe that God does not cause destruction but is very present with those who suffer from it, because I believe my faith when it tells me that God, in Christ, suffered both with and on behalf of humanity.

So if I believe that God did not choose some houses to be destroyed by the tornadoes and others to be spared, what is the logical basis for my thanks? To me, the answer is that there is none. But perhaps strangely, I am mostly comfortable with that. That knowledge will not prevent me from thanking God that I and mine were spared from a deadly natural disaster. It will not prevent me from praying that my house will still be there (as I did on Wednesday evening), nor prevent me from feeling profound gratitude to God afterward. I cannot identify any rhyme or reason to the destruction of June 1 in Massachusetts (or, for that matter, natural disasters elsewhere). But I will still be thankful. And I still believe that God is very much present with the suffering of those who have lost homes and even loved ones. If there is one thing about which Christianity is unshakably clear, it is that ours is a God who is acquainted with suffering, and who does not shy away from it.

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

Unraveling the Complications of Things

Lately I have been reading Pope Benedict’s book, “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week.” I find it to be a humble and well-reasoned work of fine theology. Just the other day, I thought about a certain passage, in light of the non-ending of the world that was just witnessed on May 21. For those who might have spent the better part of a month either out in a boat in the North Atlantic or frolicking on a beach with pina coladas in Bora Bora, and who thereby might somehow have missed the much-fanfared non-Rapture, here is what happened. One Harold Camping predicted the “Rapture” (an event anticipated mostly by evangelical Protestants; believers will be bodily caught up to Heaven and non-believers will face terrible tribulations before the Last Judgment), for May 21. He did this based on his own calculations that the Rapture should happen exactly 7,000 years after Noah’s Flood. Setting aside for a moment the fact that not even the Bible purports to be exact about when the Flood occurred, and setting aside for a moment the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any prediction of 7,000 years involved, many of Camping’s followers quit their jobs and spent most of their savings traveling to proclaim this Rapture, so that more might be saved. The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus stating that of the end of the world, “no one will know the day or hour,” and it will come “like a thief in the night”; but never mind. The reason I’m writing about it relates to the central premise that Camping’s followers (and others) espoused: Christian believers will be “saved,” non-Christian believers (or non-believers in general) will not be saved.

Presumably, some of the folks advocating this model include Jews among the unsaved non-believers. In any case, the deplorable ways in which so many Christians have treated Jews — even coining the degrading epithet “Christ-killers” — are not secret. Nor is it secret that even today, some Christians look unfavorably upon Jews, or at least consider them part of the unsaved group. So, the passage that I came across in “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week” talks a bit about the origin of this tragic animosity: the misperception that “the Jews” demanded Jesus’ death. Even on the face of it, it is a ridiculous statement: all of Christ’s original disciples were Jews, and Christ in his human nature was himself a Jew. Benedict notes that the Gospels do not indict “the Jews” as a whole, but imply that persons in power desired Jesus’ death. That said, he then notes the verse that probably takes the lion’s share of blame for historical Christian animosity to Jews: Matt 27:25, which states that the crowd shouted, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.”

Of this “blood be upon us” statement, Benedict offers a theological reinterpretation. He reminds us, “the Christian will remember that Jesus’ blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel (Heb 12:24): it does not cry out for vengeance and punishment; it brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone; it is poured out for many, for all….These words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation. Only when understood in terms of the theology of the Last Supper and the Cross, drawn from the whole of the New Testament, does this verse from Matthew’s Gospel take on its correct meaning.”

While this interpretation comes from Benedict, its spirit is inspired by a Vatican II document called Nostra Aetate, which describes the Church’s relationship with non-Christians. Of religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc., Nostra Aetate says, “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men…Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, also their social life and culture…The Church also has a high regard for the Muslims….Over the centuries many quarrels and dissensions have arisen between Christians and Muslims. The sacred Council now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding.”

After a section discussing that it is from the Jewish faith that the Christian faith sprang, Nostra Aetate states, “Remembering, then, her common heritage with the Jews and moved not by any political consideration, but solely by religious motivation of Christian charity, she deplores all hatreds, persecutions, displays of antisemitism leveled at any time or from any source against the Jews.”

Regardless of what one thinks of Nostra Aetate (personally, I like it very much), one must be struck by Benedict’s interpretation of what Christ’s blood signifies, and how incompatible that is with any poorly-reasoned theology that damns all unbelievers with black-and-white simplicity. At the very least, one must acknowledge a proper humility that we are bound to leave these things in the hands of God, who is the only Judge of anyone. In the words of Lao Tzu, “We should blunt our sharp points, and unravel the complications of things.”

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

He Who Lives By The Sword

Of the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Dalai Lama, always the voice of ultimate compassion, said that while bin Laden might have deserved forgiveness as a human being, “forgiveness doesn’t mean forget what happened…. If something is serious and it is necessary to take counter-measures, you have to take counter-measures.” The Vatican, expressing what was likely a similar sentiment, noted that bin Laden was responsible for the destruction of countless lives, spreading division and hatred, and manipulating religions to that end. The statement concluded: “In the face of a person’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before humanity, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.” Explicit in this statement is the lack of condemnation of the manner of bin Laden’s death. These statements from these respective religious leaders are striking, because both the Dalai Lama and the Vatican can usually be expected to make statements affirming life in all forms and disapproving of actions that lead to another’s death.

In the last several days, religious people of different traditions have struggled with conflicting responses within themselves to the news, and have sought whether their responses are in accordance with their faith. Thousands of people Sunday night rushed the streets, cheered, waved flags, sang, and chanted “USA!” Reactions against this jubilation have come from some quarters since, declaring it uncivilized or ignorant. Others refrain from judging that jubilation, but express concern that we should not celebrate or feel satisfaction at the killing of even someone as heinous as bin Laden, even though we are all better off with him out of commission, and even though he received every bit the justice he deserved.

But I think the tempered responses of the Dalai Lama and the Vatican speak to the reality that even if we know our noblest selves might refrain from taking satisfaction from this event, this was a man who, together with his associates, murdered innocent people. And not just our people, but many others across the globe, including Muslims. This was a man who spread hate like a bacterium. He needed to be dispatched from this world for a functional reason – that is, so that he could no longer plot murders and motivate new followers with his charismatic presence. But on a more emotional level, we do feel gladness that he was taken down, and taken down by one of our own warriors. Surely his followers do not see this as our victory, but that is irrelevant to the emotional release of a nation whose citizens were murdered merely because they went to work one day 10 years ago, or boarded a plane that one day — a nation whose psyche and daily reality were suddenly and permanently changed by the act of savagery that was 9/11.

From a Christian perspective, the New Testament teaches that we do best when we emulate Christ, who exhorts us to be peaceful, longsuffering, compassionate, forgiving, non-violent, and non-vengeful. The central message of Christ’s journey to the Cross, after all, was his willing endurance of a grave injustice and grave suffering when he was innocent of any wrongdoing, thus revealing God’s solidarity with suffering, and the glorification that ensued. But even the New Testament – even some of the words attributed to Jesus – recognize that we are still living in a broken world that harbors both chaos and evil, and people who choose evil. We strive toward the divine world, but it is still “not yet.” Sometimes, in this world, we are left with no realistic choice besides what happened Sunday night. Bin Laden chose his fate years ago, and went into it with eyes wide open. As the Vatican spokesman noted, we all bear a responsibility before God, and bin Laden reaped what he sowed.

Jesus did teach and demonstrate love, compassion, and forgiveness. But the New Testament also observes that  “he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.” As humans, we should reflect soberly and sadly on the chain of events that led here, and that stretches back more than a decade. There is an Old Testament scripture that states, “Vengeance is mine – so says the Lord.” So it is. And we will leave such matters in his hands.

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

The Cosmic Breach

Most religions and philosophies over the course of human history have understood that human actions often fall short of — and sometimes run directly counter to — what is good, generous, loving, humble, and in line with the desires of an infinitely good God. Different systems place differing levels of emphasis on the problem of this disparity between human behavior and divine example; in Christianity, it is certainly one of the most central concerns of the faith. Those of us familiar with Christianity have often heard the phrase, “Jesus Christ died for our sins.” But what does that mean? It can almost become one of those phrases that loses its meaning; it is heard often but is hardly self-explanatory. It invites the questions, “Why? What for? And in what way?”

Christian faith holds that Jesus’ voluntary death on the cross and subsequent Resurrection was necessary to mend the divide between humanity and God, to step into the cosmic breach that sin tore open between them, to bring humankind back into right relationship with its — and the world’s — Creator. Christianity holds that this was necessary because of the gaping distance that sin creates between humans, who are so often willful, selfish, vindictive, cruel, unthinking, and hypocritical, and God, who is none of those things. Hence, according to Christian faith, God united with human flesh, becoming one of us in what Christians call the Second Person of the Trinity: Jesus Christ. In so doing, God and humanity became united in that person in the Incarnation, in a profound act when Christ-God “emptied himself” (Greek, heauton ekenosen) to take on servant form, says Paul in his letter to the Phillippians. Self-emptying, indeed, for a God to come to the level of a human, submit Godself to human needs, limitations, and struggles, and then to humiliation in a grisly and eminently unjust death. Why, in the Christian worldview, was this necessary to permanently heal the breach between humanity and God and bestow grace for sin?

Just how Christ’s death functioned to forever absolve human beings from sin and heal the cosmic breach between God and humanity has been a subject for theologians from the earliest Christians onward. In ancient Israel, the sacrificial system provided a way to make reparation for sin. The Hebrew Bible describes two types of sacrifice that were made for sin: the hatta’t and the asham. It seems that the first type was made on behalf of “unintentional” sin, while the second type was performed to make reparation for intentional sin that incurred guilt. Just how the Israelites understood the efficacy and symbolism of the sacrificial system is a massive question in biblical scholarship, since the Bible itself says several things on the matter — not mutually exclusive things, but things that emphasize different aspects of the meaning of sacrifice. Further, there is no systematic explanation of how sacrifice was understood to “work,” probably because the ancient Israelites had no need to explain it systematically, and were not writing for our benefit. Complicating matters even further is the fact that there were several different types of sacrifice that served clearly different purposes, having nothing to do with sin. There were thanksgiving offerings, for example, and whole burnt-offerings, and offerings of peace and well-being. In any case, some of the Church Fathers in the first centuries after Christ concluded that Christ’s atonement on the cross was sacrificial in nature in the way that the hatta’t or the asham was — Christ effected the ultimate sacrifice to dispense forever with the pernicious effects of sin upon the soul and separation from God, and he could only do this because he came from God.

There are a couple of verses in the New Testament that hint at this interpretation, but in many of the earliest New Testament writings (the first three, or “Synoptic” Gospels, and some of the letters of Paul), there is not a clear indication that this was a predominant early interpretation for how Christ’s death and Resurrection worked. More often, we find either ambiguity, or the idea that Christ’s death and Resurrection served as a reconciling event. That is, it was a demonstration of God’s solidarity with and love for humankind, and victory over death, that proclaimed God’s healing of the breach that sin causes between humans and God. In other words, not a required blood atonement under a sacrificial system, but a demonstrative act that effected reconciliation through its power. We see this interpretation in Paul, in one of the earliest-dated writings in the New Testament (Paul wrote his letters and died before the Gospels as we know them were circulating):

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation….All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-20)

In her book Joy to the World! Mission in the Age of Global Christianity, Dr. Dana Robert, expert in world Christianity and mission history, describes it this way: “For his followers, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ultimate sign that God loves the world. In becoming human, God identified with our sufferings, failures, and weaknesses. In dying on the cross, he chose to take on the pain of human vulnerability rather than commit violence by fighting or by seizing earthly power. In the resurrection, he promised us life over death. Just as God became one with us through becoming human in Jesus Christ, so is humanity united with God. The resurrection of Jesus carries in it the assurance of humanity’s permanent reconciliation with its Creator.”

There is probably more than one way for a Christian to interpret the significance and purpose of the Christ event. But for Paul, one early and influential Christian who wrote roughly between 50-60 CE, the theology of reconciliation of humanity with God — and thus, crucially, the divine invitation for the reconciliation of human beings with one another — was at the very heart of it.

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

My God, Your God, or the Unmoved Mover?

In ancient times, people didn’t have the religious wars that we have today and have had over the centuries in the Common Era. There was no such thing as one religion warring against another. The closest anybody got to that were the frequent wars that petty kingdoms waged against one another, usually over territory, and the wars that a stronger nation waged against weaker nations in the endless pursuit of empire-building. In both types of conflict, the nations’ gods were perceived as essential to the outcome. (We see this in the Hebrew Bible numerous times.) The winning nation would usually proclaim its high god’s superiority over the losing nation’s high god; sometimes, as in the case of Cyrus of Persia in his victory over Babylon, the winner claimed that the loser’s god voluntarily handed over his own nation in anger against them. The losing nation would usually conclude something similar — typically not thinking that its god was simply weaker, but more that the people had angered the god in some way and were now facing consequences.

This idea appears a number of times in the Bible. One major example is 2 Kings 17, which offers that explanation for why Samaria (Northern Israel) suffered bitter defeat at the hands of Assyria in the eighth century BCE. Another is 2 Kings 24-25, which describes why Jerusalem and Judah fell to the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE. The prophets, such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel (to name only two!), also teem with the idea that Yahweh will hand over — or has already handed over — his people to foreign nations if they do not clean up their act. The Bible does not countenance any idea that Yahweh was ever defeated by some other nation’s god — for the Israelites, Yahweh was the only one who made the real decisions. Eventually, Yahweh was conceived as the only real god at all; this formation of thoroughgoing monotheism seems to have developed in the sixth century BCE, judging by its strong formulations in Second Isaiah (Is 40-55) and Ezekiel.

In any case, all that was as close as you got to a religiously-based conflict. Not very close at all. This is because people in ancient times typically did not have a problem with the idea that different people had different gods — even to the proliferation of thousands of gods. Even within one nation, where the people typically all shared a number of high-level national gods, it was quite common for individuals to cultivate special personal relationships with one god or two, often even with lower-ranking gods. We see this in ancient Egypt, Sumeria, Assyria, Babylonia, Ugarit, Greece, and Rome; we know it from the texts these peoples left behind. A person’s devotion to one god on a personal level did not lead to that person’s dismissal of other people’s personal gods; it was more an acceptance of the actions of multiple deities among different spheres. (The brief and infamous reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten was a notable exception to this, but let’s not go there.) You even find it in ancient Israel. Archeologists have uncovered countless female “pillar figurines” from individual homes; these were likely representations of a fertility goddess to whom women would pray about reproductive and maternal concerns. Yet it’s improbable that such practitioners would have denied that Yahweh was the shared national high god.

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, however, waved aside traditional ideas that cast gods in the behavior of people. But they also went further and abandoned the idea of a personal god with whom one had a real relationship, with whom one could communicate. For them, particularly Plato and Aristotle, there was only one real God (although Plato referred not to “God” but to an inscrutable entity he called the Good), and that Being was so high that it was by definition beyond human knowledge or reach. They reasoned that a God so vast would likely exist beyond human capacity to influence through prayer, since such a God would operate on the scale of the entire universe. Aristotle famously dubbed this Being the “Unmoved Mover.” Nothing could act upon or influence the Unmoved Mover; but the Unmoved Mover had set the universe in motion. This is similar to the approach of Thomas Jefferson and others of the Founding Fathers, who practiced Deism — not, contrary to what the Tea Party convinces itself, an especially pious form of evangelical Christianity.

The great monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — did something remarkable and combined the above understandings. Similar to Plato and Aristotle, they conceive of one pristine ultimate Being, to the exclusion of others, who operates on a universal scale. But similar to older notions, they also conceive of this Being as a personal God with whom one can communicate, have a relationship, and to whom one can actually pray. Christianity went a step further along these lines and conceived this singular, ultimate God of the universe to incarnate as a human within history. All three of these religions understand the one God to act in the lives of created beings in an ongoing way, and to take an active individual interest in them.

Personally, I prefer that model, though at times I think that Aristotle’s seems the more logical one. Then again, even in Aristotle’s model, if the ultimate God is so far beyond our understanding, who is to say what is logical? I once knew someone in graduate school who, as we walked back to the halls of the ivory tower from Taco Bell one lunchtime, informed me that he was perfectly unperturbed by the idea of a vast God-beyond-reach, an Unmoved Mover. I, by contrast, flailed against the possibility of a removed God who was unlikely to talk to me, hear me, or relate to me; for me, this was unacceptable. For him, it failed to shake his unflappable calm that God was God, God knew all, and why be flustered over the details? I think he found me vaguely amusing.

Ultimately, on this matter we have no course but to embrace humility and lack of knowledge, accept uncertainty, and follow where our inner self urges us. On that score, I am reminded of that romp of a movie, “The 13th Warrior,” set in the middle ages. There is a point when an Arab Muslim protagonist calls out to his close friend, a Viking warrior, that he will pray to the one God for him. His Viking friend responds, “In your country, you may have need of only one God. But in my country, we have need of many! I will pray to all of them for you.”

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

Something New Under the Sun

In my last post, I talked about the differences in how “older things” are viewed in our culture as opposed to ancient cultures. I noted that our culture tends in large part to esteem what is new, while relegating older customs (or, sadly, older persons) to a past that need have no bearing on current preferences. I noted that ancient cultures, including much of what we find in the Bible, did the opposite: they largely valued the worth of inherited traditions, and tended to work within those structures even when innovating.

Yet sometimes we do witness things that represent the reverse. In the Bible, the famous lament of Ecclesiastes (Hebrew, Qoheleth) that “there is nothing new under the sun” echoes across the ages from a man who lived in a time when things rarely changed, and even more rarely changed for the better. But we also witness elements within our own culture doing the reverse of the above pattern. The most prominent example I can think of these days is the negative reaction among some to the stratospheric rise of new social networking — communication in the form of email, Facebook, Twitter, and texting. Over the last couple of years, we saw various talking heads appearing on TV to talk about what we are “losing” to these new forms of communication. Then we were treated (and continue to be) to written commentaries, or even whole books, on the virtues of the older forms of communication over against the deficits of the newer ones. Invariably, the argument is something along the lines of how people form better relationships and are more satisfied when their primary forms of communication are in-person visits and phone calls rather than written forms such as email, Facebook, or texting.

Let me say that in-person interaction is, indeed, usually the most preferable and satisfying. I don’t think that even the most ardent email, Facebook, or texting aficionado would dispute that in principle. But, as we all know, in-person interaction is not always possible, especially in a modern world where most people — certainly most people who have not yet reached middle age — have a number of friends and family who do not live in physical proximity. Sometimes, the physical proximity is there, but the open time is not. This may especially be the case with thirty-somethings and younger, who often lead frenetic lives filled with all kinds of disparate occupations and obligations as they try to establish their places in the world. Such people may indeed get together for coffee or a visit with friends, but during the times when they do not see each other face to face, they more and more rely on written-form, instant communication to keep in frequent touch. More and more, it is becoming clear that such forms of communication are surpassing the traditional phone call for the day-to-day comments one might make to someone else outside one’s nuclear family.

Someone I know terms this phenomenon “asynchronous” (or non-synchronous) communication. It is not intrinsically worse than the “synchronous” communication that comes with a phone call. Surely, there are certain interactions that are better over the phone: in-depth conversations, for example, that cover a broad range of topics too large to put in writing efficiently. Or when the parties involved are a couple who delight in nothing more than the sound of the other’s voice. But a phone call does require that both parties cease what they are doing and carve out the time necessary for synchronized communication, during which they can usually do nothing else. This is sometimes not practical for many, in a world with full and conflicting schedules. So people have turned to “asynchronous” communication, which allows them to keep up interaction and conversation with others more frequently — and in a freer fashion — than if they relied on the phone.

There is also the comment of my (then middle-aged!) high school history teacher, who, before anyone had heard of email, insisted that he disliked talking on the phone so much that he would not do it unless absolutely necessary. His problem was the odd and sometimes awkward quality of phone conversation: not seeing the other person’s face and getting that unspoken feedback while talking to them can feel strange, especially if there is a pause (and we all know there is nothing worse than phone pauses). Remembering his comment led me to think of something else: what if people talked on the phone all the time for decades not because they intrinsically would have preferred it, but because they had no choice — other than postal mail, in which case they would have to wait a minimum two weeks for a reply? Indeed, how could email, Facebook, Twitter, and texting have enjoyed such an unbounded explosion of popularity if they did not fulfill something that many people felt they needed or wanted? Clearly, these technologies do provide something that many people like, and it makes one wonder if it’s just because now there is a choice, and before, there wasn’t.

It is also amusing to remind ourselves that when phones were first invented, many people most assuredly raised the very same perspective that something would be “lost” with the new-fangled invention. Others, assuredly, were delighted. We see the same thing happening today. For that matter, one could amuse oneself further by considering that written communications such as email, when personal and not business in nature, bear more similarity to old-style communication by letter. I read an opinion piece by a teenager in my regional newspaper recently, in which the writer observed that when people around his parents’ age rail against texting as a legitimate form of communication, it’s usually just “adults not understanding what they’re looking at.” Another opinion piece (written by a thirty-something) noted that being on Facebook is like being “at a cocktail party, where there are all these different conversations going on.” That’s not a bad thing, even if an in-person cocktail party is ideal.

Perhaps we should take it as a good thing that electronic communication has blossomed so thoroughly — it could not have done so, after all, if people did not want to talk to each other. We do not live in the time of Ecclesiastes. There is, indeed, something new under the sun — even many things. And they’re not all bad.

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

Out with the Old?

First, I’d like to acknowledge that it’s been a long time since I have posted — back in December, to be precise. This is because the last couple of months have been consumed with completing my doctoral degree, which culminated in the defense of my dissertation on Feb 28. Still riding the crest of that tide, I’m looking forward to posting here more regularly.

That said, I was reading my regional newspaper the other day, and came across an article that included advice from a few career counselors in response to disillusioned job seekers. One of these wanted to know why she had had interviews for seven months, but no job offers. One of the dispensed nuggets of advice was the following: “When writing your thank-you notes, make sure to send them by email. Handwritten ones can make you appear old-fashioned.”

Inherent in this nugget of advice, of course, was the bald and unquestioned implication that being old-fashioned  is automatically bad. I am not a career counselor, so I cannot claim that this advice is wrong. I do, however, remember the days when email was only a few years old and had not yet caught on as a ubiquitous form of communication. In those days, one was warned always to send handwritten thank-yous to an interviewer, and never emailed ones, because a handwritten note would show that you were professional enough to make an effort with a time-honored tradition. Nonetheless, the rapid pace of modern changes of convention is not my main point. I am more piqued by the counselor’s unquestioned acceptance that “old-fashioned” equals negative; this is proclaimed as a truism, taken for granted.

What strikes me particularly (and this won’t be surprising, given my newly-minted occupation as a biblical scholar) is how different our culture is from the ancient world in how it considers the worth of old ways and old things. In the culture of the Bible — to use just one example of an ancient culture here — old ways, old things, and old people carried a cargo of deep respect, and were emulated by younger newcomers seeking to make their own meaningful contribution. A prophet or psalmist, for example, could innovate with a creative idea, but expressed such innovation through deference to older convention, and often with reference to older things. There are too many examples of this in the Bible to do more than scratch the surface here, but one of my favorites involves the use of ascending numbers. This was an ancient literary convention. Here are a few examples:

“There are 3 things that will not be satisfied, 4 that will not say ‘Enough’: Sheol, a barren womb, earth that is never satisfied with water, and fire that never says ‘Enough’ ” (Proverbs 30:15-16).

“There are 3 things that are too wonderful for me, 4 that I do not understand: the way of the eagle in the sky, the way of the snake upon a rock, the way of a ship in the heart of the sea, and the way of a man with a young woman” (Proverbs 30:18-19).

“Under 3 things the earth quakes, and under 4 it cannot bear up: under a servant when he becomes king, a fool when he is satisfied with food, an unloved woman when she gets a husband, and a maidservant when she supplants her mistress” (Proverbs 30:21-23).

“Yet gleanings will remain in it like the shaking of an olive tree, 2 or 3 olives on the topmost bough, 4 or 5 on the branches of a fruitful tree, declares Yahweh the God of Israel” (Isaiah 17:6).

“Thus says Yahweh, For 3 transgressions of Damascus, and for 4, I will not revoke it [punishment], because they threshed Gilead with sharp iron” (Amos 1:3).

It’s worth noting that in Amos, the “for 3 transgressions and for 4” continues in a litany of divine charges against various oppressors. To use a different example, the books of Samuel make several references to God’s deliverance of Israel in the Exodus, but these references are made in the new context of the people at war with the Philistines and other groups; reference to “the olden days” is valuable. We see such references to the Exodus again in the context of the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BCE, in which Second Isaiah (for example), an exilic-era prophet who wrote Isaiah 40-55, reminds the people of how God parted the Red Sea, led them through, and extinguished the pursuing oppressors.

I could go on, but I’m beginning to get tired. The point is clear. There’s a real difference between how our culture perceives “old-fashioned” things, and how the Bible (and other ancient cultures) perceived them. Now this is not to say that “the olden days” represent some golden era where everything was easier and good and everybody was kind and thoughtful, and so on. My recent reading of Mark Twain’s Autobiography was enough to cure me of any such notion, as the great humorist himself goes on at length about what is deficient and distasteful about hypocrisy, politicians, political parties, and the electorate in his day. Excerpt that passage and you could have in front of you an editorial in any newspaper during our modern election cycles. So this is not to say that everything old equals good. But it is to say that by the same token, not everything old equals bad, and not everything new equals good.

And then there are the words of that immortal realist/cynic (depending on your point of view), Ecclesiastes: “A generation goes and a generation comes, but the Earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and hastening to its place it rises there again. Going to the South, then turning to the North, the wind goes swirling, swirling, and on its swirling courses the wind returns. All the streams go to the sea, yet the sea is not full; to the place where the streams go, there they keep on going” (Ecclesiastes 1:4-7).

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

Advent, Thor’s Hammer, and Cosmic Mystery

So instead of walking into our church to participate in Advent Lessons and Carols this past Sunday, I found myself standing at that very time in a Scandinavian gift shop buying the Hammer of Thor. All right, not an actual hammer, but a necklace and earrings shaped like the Hammer of Thor. Thor is the pre-Christian Norse storm god, the blow from whose mighty hammer was said to create thunder. Thor was also respected for his strength and for his ability to endure pain without complaint. I purchased the representations of Thor’s Hammer primarily because of my interest in ancient religions, and particularly ones that involve such fantastic mythology. But I also gravitate toward a broad personal theology that I indulge from time to time, although I identify as Christian.

We didn’t skip Lessons and Carols on purpose; it was just one of those things that sneak up on you. But the incongruity of the situation — getting waylaid on one’s way to Advent service by a Scandinavian shop selling the Hammer of Thor — prompted me to think, as I often do, about the confluence of certain religious tenets and how my own “personal theology” fits into both Christianity and the broader world of spirituality. I’m not the sort who will say that all religions are essentially the same — because, really, they are not. It is not even the case that all religions believe in a Creator (Buddhism, for example, does not, but instead holds that the universe has been eternally existing). Different religions emphasize different things, and they cannot be easily mashed together without overlooking and even disrespecting these things. However, it does seem clear that each religion is pointing toward something “else,” something more, something greater than what we can see with our immediate eyes in our immediate physical surroundings. It is for that reason that I tend to augment my Christian practice with contributions from other philosophies, which often are not contradictory in any case.

Each Advent, I am compelled to think about the mystery, and the apparent lunacy, of the idea that the Creator God decided at some point in history to enter human flesh and become one of us, in a profound and world-altering act to demonstrate God’s love for his creation and his identification with us. It must be a ridiculous idea that a being whose breadth and depth are so far beyond our own that we are hopeless ever to comprehend it decided to become one of us for a time. It must be ludicrous that in that “becoming,” this cosmic being intended to free his creatures from the shackles of their ongoing misdeeds, to offer redemption from those misdeeds, and in so doing to effect a cosmic demonstration both of love and the inherent sanctity of our created bodies. Inherently sanctified because, so Christians believe, God saw fit to “become” into one of those bodies, and our flesh can receive no higher recognition, no higher gift.

All these things sound preposterous. But they also possess (to borrow the now famous phrase) the “audacity of hope.” The truly bold, outrageous, no-holds-barred kind of hope that might just have a chance at success, by sheer virtue of its audacity. Such is the mystery that Christianity proclaims, and to which it joyously holds on with both hands. This, despite the fact that the biggest mistake Christian churches often make is to forget that what lies at their heart is not a carefully sorted-out array of systematic rules and provisions, but is essentially cosmic mystery.

One can believe in the truth of Christianity as itself; but of course, that is necessarily different from the system that developed around it, since finite humans need finite and inadequate ways to assimilate the infinite divine. Thus, “Christianity” as it is practiced, systematized, and understood by finite creatures is necessarily different from the cosmic truth upon which Christians believe their religion is based, and which it tries to express, and which only God can fully understand.

So that brings me back to Thor’s Hammer. I wear it as a symbol of strength, confidence, and endurance, which are traits that I value and try to emulate (not always successfully, but that is the nature of our imperfect being). Mystery is that wearing it can help me foster those traits within myself and express them outside myself. Mystery is that, according to our best astrophysicists, our entire universe — all the energy and matter that it now contains — existed as a superdense spot much smaller than an ordinary pearl about 14 billion years ago, and in response to some action that we do not understand, instantaneously exploded in an event we call the Big Bang, and has been expanding ever since. Mystery is that all the elements on the Periodic Table are, without exception, forged within stars like our Sun, and that our bodies are therefore quite literally made from stars. Mystery is that for its first billion years, Earth was a nightmarish, volatile place, home only to constantly erupting volcanoes, lava oceans, a constant barrage of meteors, and an atmosphere toxic to life as we know it. Mystery is that, by means we still do not understand, the amino acids and proteins of life found their quickening, and a bunch of cyanobacteria over millions of years became responsible for an atmospheric oxygen content that would allow larger life forms to come to exist. Mystery is that we know of over 100 billion galaxies, and each galaxy has about 100 billion stars.

Mystery is that we as a species feel an ongoing pull toward and connection with some greater world not entirely visible to our physical eyes, but known so ineffably to our hearts. Mystery is that we could be loved by a cosmic being who could have set all of the above into motion; that we can love other people as wholly, as beautifully, and as inexplicably as we often do; and even that we have come to know what love is.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010