Easter and April Fools’ Day

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Creation – Day 5 (detail), mid-12th Century, Palermo, Italy,

Today is Easter Sunday and April Fools’ Day. Easter celebrates the victory of life over the power of death, or, as a Medieval hymn put it, “Now the green blade rises from the buried grain. April Fools Day dates back to the 1500s when the Gregorian calendar replaced the Julian calendar. Those who forgot that April 1 was no longer the beginning of a new year were called “April Fools”. They were fools because they were living in the past.

The threat and reign of death in the midst of time plunge us into death’s grip long before we die. Though the canonical Gospels’ descriptions of the resurrection vary in their details, all of them make it clear that a cruel state execution has met its match and more. The evidence is an empty death garment and armed guards who “quaked and became like dead men.” Those who issued the orders and followed them are made to look like fools. A new ordering of things had begun.

However one interprets the resurrection — physical or metaphorical — the Easter story is intrinsically theological and political in the most profound senses of both words. It proclaims of the victory of life over the moral power of death exercised by ill-informed institutional power and authority.

A participant in last week’s Lenten Series “Be Still To See More Clearly” asked the question you may be asking. “What’s theology got to do with politics?” I answered “Everything! Theology is intrinsically political and all politics is theological. What did Jesus preach? He pointed beyond himself to the Kingdom of God which is here in part but yet to come in fulness. A kingdom is a society. Societies are people. Jesus’ good news was the society that is not captive to the up-down world. Jesus was the model of non-exceptional ethics and morality. He was not a prisoner of the politics of death. He insisted that there is only ONE house with many rooms and called his disciples to live and die for the house that unites us all as the benefactors of creaturely interdependence.”

This Easter and April Fools’ Day a case of the shingles keeps me away from the hymns of glad rejoicing and publicly expressed hope for the world. This morning’s news from the Washington Post reminds me that the conflict between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world is as real as it was two days before Easter. On Easter morning tweets went out repeating the folly of Good Friday.

Trump says ‘no more’ to DACA deal, threatens to cancel NAFTA to force Mexico to secure the border.

President Trump said on Twitter that there would be no deal to legalize the status of millions of “dreamers,” undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, stating that the U.S. border with Mexico was “getting more dangerous” and directing congressional Republicans to pass tough new anti-immigration legislation.

Trump also lashed out on Twitter at Mexico and threatened to “stop” the North American Free Trade Agreement in retaliation for Mexican authorities not doing enough in the president’s estimation to secure its border with the United States. – Washington Post, April 1, 2018.

This Easter and April Fools’ Day many husbands will leave their golf clubs home to sing the hymns of love’s triumph over the moral power of death. One can always hope there will be one more. Stranger things have happened before at the 19th Hole.

“Now the green blade rises from the buried grain. Love is come again.”  Christ is risen! Happy Easter. No joke!

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Easter and April Fools’ Day, Chaska, MN, Aril 1, 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

If you see a turtle on a fence post…

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It’s not every day a stranger gives one a lift. When they do, we owe them our gratitude. Last September Peter Wallace, host of Day1, invited me to Atlanta. In December we recorded Day1’s radio program for the the second week of February for first Sunday of Lent.

My thanks to Peter and Day1 for the privilege and my thanks to any of you who choose to  take a look or open an ear. Here’s how to access it.

  1. Click THIS LINK to open the Day1 website.
  2. On the top right hand of the page, click on the link “Launch Day1 Playlist”.
  3. A window will open showing the last three episodes of Day1.
  4. Click on “Gordon Stewart: He was With the Wild Beasts” and you can stream the program on your computer.

The 40 minute podcast is in three parts: 1) an interview with Peter Wallace, 2) the sermon for the First Sunday of Lent (“He as with the wild beasts”), and a follow-up dialogue with Peter.

Readers of Views from the Edge may remember the earlier post about the complete stranger who helped me navigate the Atlanta Metro system on my way to the 10:00 a.m. appointment at the Day1 studio. As the old saying goes, “If you see a turtle up on a fencepost, you can be pretty darn sure it didn’t get up there by itself.”

Grace and Peace,

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, February 15, 2018.

 

 

 

Just when we thought …

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Just when those of us schooled in progressive schools of thought had become confident that the old schools of thought were dead, that old doctrine we love to hate — original sin — begs for reconsideration.

Progressives of every stripe view original sin as toxic waste material best left behind in the guarded cemetery of bad ideas. Whether secular humanist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, animist, atheist, agnostic or whatever progressive school of thought, the idea of progress in one form or another has united us against the nay-saying disparagers of basic human goodness.

Then along comes the American election of 2016 and the year that leaves us in shock. January 20, 2017 the nation’s first African-American President handed the Oval Office and the nuclear codes to the primary funder and spokesperson of the Birther-movement determined to erase all things Obama.

Suddenly the reign of sin and death has made a comeback. The sins are ‘original’ both in the old sense of infecting the entire body and freshly creative beyond imagination.

The idea of “sin” itself —  not just “original” sin — had fallen into disrepute, a relic of unenlightened religious orthodoxy until it started to best describe the behaviors of the Oval Office. The arc of the new American administration and Congress looked anything like a rainbow.

“Sin, guilt, neurosis; they are one and the same, the fruit of the tree of knowledge.” Sound like unenlightened orthodoxy paraphrasing the story of the Garden of Eden?

51F+WLhaYmL._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_It was Henry Miller, whose Tropic of Cancer and other books were blacklisted by American publishers as obscene, who looked deeply into himself and the human condition, sounding like the Genesis writer. Or, God forbid, St. Augustine of Hippo or John Calvin.

Neither Augustine nor Calvin meant by original sin or total depravity that life is without an underlying goodness. Like Miller, they pointed to something that is as without explanation as the sudden appearance of the serpent in the Garden of Eden story: our inexplicable proneness to evil and slothfulness in good.

 J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the bomb, lamented, as though peering ahead to 2017-2018 when two little boys in the White House and North Korea would call each other names while playing with nuclear matches:

  • Despite the vision and farseeing wisdom of our wartime heads of state, the physicists have felt the peculiarly intimate responsibility for suggesting, for supporting, and in the end, in large measure, for achieving the realization of atomic weapons. Nor can we forget that these weapons as they were in fact used dramatized so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war. In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.
    • Physics in the Contemporary World, Arthur D. Little Memorial Lecture at M.I.T. (25 November 1947)

The old biblical serpent is never far away. The vulgarity of sin and death is the story of our time.

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1909 painting The Worship of Mammon, the New Testament representation and personification of material greed, by Evelyn De Morgan.

Eating from the ONE and only tree of all the trees from which we cannot eat without bringing on our own destruction —  the forbidden Promethean kind of knowledge that divides the world into good (us) and evil (them) — we now wonder how the Seven Deadly Sins not only sit upon the throne of the enlightened democratic republic we thought we knew but infect all who, quite originally, only see evil outside ourselves.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall….” – Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 18, 2018

New Year’s Gift from the Lutherans

The First Quarter 2018 Issue of Currents in Theology and Mission published today a review of Be Still!. Currents is the quarterly theological journal of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. Click Book Reviews for the review by Edward F. (Ted) Campbell, McCormick Theological Seminary Professor of Old Testament Emeritus.

ELCA-Logo-VerticalThanks to Currents in Theology and Mission editors Craig Nessan (Wartburg Theological Seminary) and Kathleen Billman (Lutheran Theological Seminary at Chicago), and “Book Reviews” editors Ralph Klein, Troy Troftgruben, and Craig Nessen for featuring Be Still! as the first among Currents‘ “Book Reviews” for the First Quarter 2018.

Prayers for grace, peace, stillness, and for small victories of “prophetic” madness over collective madness in 2018.

  • Gordon C. Stewart,  Chaska, MN, December 29, 2017.

 

Christ the King

Poet Malcolm Guite’s poetry holds the essential paradox of the Christian faith and life. Open the re-blogged piece to read and listen to his poem for the last Sunday of the Christian liturgical year, Christ the King Sunday.

Malcolm Guite

20111119-111210We come now to a feast of Ends and Beginnings! This Sunday is the last Sunday in the cycle of the Christian year, which ends with the feast of Christ the King, and next Sunday we begin our journey through time to eternity once more, with the first Sunday of Advent. We might expect the Feast of Christ the King to end the year with climactic images of Christ enthroned in Glory, seated high above all rule and authority, one before whom every knee shall bow, and of course those are powerful and important images, images of our humanity brought by him to the throne of the Heavens. But alongside such images we must also set the passage in Matthew (25:31-46) in which Christ reveals that even as He is enthroned in Glory, the King who comes to judge at the end of the ages, he is also the hidden King…

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Harvey, Houston, and the Holy

The urgency of a rescue operation is not the time for anything but compassion.

Timing and perception are everything in this startling time of Hurricane Harvey, 500-year floods, and the chemical plant explosions now taking place in Houston. Watching a helicopter rescue the elderly and disabled from the rising waters of a flood that has put people at risk is not the time to say I told you so.

But sooner or later it is time to speak about the unnatural crisis hidden behind the crisis of nature. In times like this, everyone becomes a socialist, and, if we’re seeing straight, no one stays a climate change-denier in the city big oil built.

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Chemical plant explosions are the latest horrific news that graphically illustrate a national crisis that is more than ‘natural’. The crisis is anthropological and theological.

“Man over nature” was always an illusion. A hoax. A faux understanding of the human species’ relationship with the rest of nature — “man (sic.) over nature,” as though the first were separate from the latter — that leads to destruction and self-destruction.

The chemicals are exploding because the plants that make them cannot keep them cool. Keeping them cool requires an operative electrical grid, or, when the grid goes down, an emergency generator that isn’t vulnerable to flooding. When the grid and backup generators fail, the chemicals heat and explode.

Timing and perception are everything.

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Not much more than a year ago Standing Rock was being touted as the emerging symbol of the revised understanding, the shift in consciousness, and the new behavior required of humankind in the age of climate departure. The oil pipeline from Canada to Texas refineries was stopped in the name of nature itself.

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That was before the 2016 election, and the 2017 appointment of a climate change-denier to gut the EPA, presidential executive orders stripping away regulations on the fossil fuel industry, and America’s spiritual retreat from the Paris Accord on Climate Change. Texas, not Standing Rock, was in charge again. Or so it seemed until Harvey came ashore to wash away the illusion of “man over nature.”

It’s time now for a clearer perception. Time to hold next to each other a picture of flooded Texas chemical plant explosions and the peaceful protest of Standing Rock,  and ask ourselves which picture is truer than the other. Or perhaps the truth is better seen when both are held together side-by-side: two anthropologies and two theologies. According to the one, humankind and the human city are the measure of reality itself. According to the other, God (i.e. the Eternal, Being-Itself) is the “natural” context — the mysterium tremendum et fascinans* — in which we live, and move, and have our being.

Today is, and tomorrow will still be, time for compassion and help for the people of Houston. It is also time to perceive something much deeper and wider. The rescued people of Houston, southeast Texas, and Louisiana are but the latest victims of the tragedy of the human mind and spirit: the fanciful illusion and creation of an alt-world of species superiority to nature.

Could the trembling of this horrific moment lead us to a holier fascination with reality itself?

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Rudolf Otto (1869-1937)

The people of Standing Rock and Rudolf Otto are watching.

*Rudolf Otto‘s Latin term for the human experience with the Mystery beyond all taming that both fascinates and causes us mortals to tremble. (Rudolf Otto (1869–1937), The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational.)

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 31, 2017

 

 

 

 

The Scapegoat

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Sometimes a line leaps from the page to arrest me.

“Living among us, Jesus loved us. He broke bread with outcasts and sinners, healed the sick, and proclaimed good news to the poor.”

Sitting in the pew the week following the horrors of Charlottesville, this line from the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving of the sacrament of holy communion begged for deeper reflection.

Who were the outcasts, sinners, and sick people on the streets of Charlottesville? Who were the outcasts, sinners, and sick watching the news, tweeting, texting, yelling, screaming, retreating, turning off, tuning out? Who were the poor waiting good news?

Surely, I’m not poor. Am I? I love the outcasts, the sinners, the sick, don’t I, Jesus? I am among the counter-demonstrators, the despisers of white supremacy, the champions of racial equality, the scorners of the KKK and their white supremacist and white nationalist cousins. My anger boils over watching these sick people turning back the clock.

Preparing for the bread and cup, I am aware of my poverty, my thirst for good news. Failing, or refusing, to see the faces and listen more carefully to the shouting of the white supremacists in Charlottesville, I have cast them out as hopeless sinners: the outrageously sick representatives of white supremacy, America’s original sin.

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“Christ of St. John of the Cross” – 1951, Salvador Dali 

I consider not receiving communion today.

Then I recall René Girard‘s work on the crucified Jesus as the scapegoat whose life, death, and resurrection dismantles the scapegoat mechanism of religion and society.

“Everywhere and always, when human beings either cannot or dare not take their anger out on the thing that has caused it, they unconsciously search for substitutes, and more often than not they find them.”
René Girard, The One by Whom Scandal Comes

I ponder the ways capitalism turns us against each other: privileged and poor, insiders and outcasts, scapegoaters and scapegoats, sheep and goats — the company of sinners in need of the better news that there is, in reality, no division among us.

I remember Salvador Dali’s painting of the cosmic Christ and read again the lines of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving:

“Living among us, Jesus loved us. He broke bread with outcasts and sinners, healed the sick, and proclaimed good news to the poor.

“He [the Scapegoat] yearned to draw all the world to himself, yet were heedless  of his call to walk in love.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 23, 2017

My lifelong Quest

Some things take a lifetime. More or less.

It took until a few days before my 75th birthday to become clear about my lifelong quest. Some would call it my “vocation” in life, my “calling” as we say. Others might call it an obsession. In either case, it’s taken this long to say a word about it.
In a nutshell, my life’s occupation has been, and still is — are you ready? — theological anthropology.
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“Whoah! What’s that?” my 11-week-old grandson Elijah is asking.
Theological anthropology, like all anthropology, is the search for understanding of the human species. The term  ‘anthropology’ is the combination of the Greek words  anthropos (human) and logos (word). Anthropo-logy is ‘the word’ about ‘humankind’.
Theological anthropology is the study of humankind in the context of ‘theos’, i.e. ‘G-d’ — which Paul Tillich translated as Being-Itself, the Ground of Being, that which is ultimately Real.
Anthropos is contingent; Being-Itself is not. Like all species, ours has a very short lifespan in the aeons of eternity. We are a small part of the All or the Whole (Friedrich Schleiermacher), creatures of time with the rest of moral nature who can be understood, if at all, only in light of this larger timeless Whole.
The Psalmist question –“What is man that Thou art mindful of him?” (Ps. 8:4 KJV) — is my life-long question.
Who are we as a species? Who am I as a member of it? Who are the Andrews, the Tituses, the Campbells, the Stewarts among the vast assortment of homo sapiens? Who am I in relation to Barclay, my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel friend, the forests, the flowers, the birds, and the rest of the species of dust and ashes holding our breath before the majesty of life itself?
Why theological anthropology?
You can take the human species out of the universe and the universe will go on as it did aeons before anthropos came along. We can’t say the opposite. Essential to the human experience is the terror of contingency and the wonder of of it all, what Rudolf Otto called “mysterium tremendous et fascinans”.
The idea of “man (the human species) over nature” is a deadly illusion, a flight from reality itself, an escape from the trembling that comes with our vulnerability, our transience, our mortality, the final limit of all human creativity (the “image of God”).
After only one cup of coffee on my 75th birthday, that’s the best I can do.
Mom

Muriel Titus Stewart

This afternoon I’ll be in the Philosophy Lounge at Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN at the invitation of a philosophy professor, a long way away from the delivery room and the loving, laboring mother who pushed me into the world (the philosopher’s lounge) back in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Thanks, Mom!
– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 10, 2017.

Hiroshima: toward a Greater Light

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Thanks to executive producer Peter Wallace of Day1.org for featuring the podcast of “Only One Sin: Exceptionalism” in advance of the August 8 Anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

Click HERE to sign up and listen on Day1.org.

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Kosuke Koyama  (1929-2009)

This meditation, an excerpt from Be Still!, reflects on Hiroshima  in the greater light of the Rev. Dr. Kosuke Koyama, the Japanese peacemaking theologian to whom the collection of essays is dedicated.

Kosuke (pronounced ‘KO-soo-kay’) Koyama was 15 years old when it happened, and was baptized during the firebombing of Tokyo.

The horror of the bombings led him to see something else about us: the sin of exceptionalism that knows no limits.

nuclear-bombHis last published book — Theology and Violence: Towards A Theology of Nonviolent Love awaits translation into English from the original Japanese.  We wait on bended knee.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 5, 2017.

 

 

A Good Kick from a stagnant place

This idea that sometimes we need a good kick in order to advance from a stagnant place is not new and does not always find biblical inspiration. Nietzsche said in 1888 “Aus der Kriegsschule des Lebens – was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich starker”– “From the war school of life – what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.” – Peter Luijendijk, Dec. 21, 2016.

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Friedrich Nietzsche

How I got to Peter Luijendijk, the rabbinical student at Leo Baeck College, and the controversial philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), he quotes would take too long to explain. Suffice to say it was a serendipitous event inspired by a 3:30 A.M. awakening. I didn’t know of Peter Luijendijk, until this morning when I rushed off a “friend” request on FaceBook.

Although a good kick is always good for advancing me from my stagnant place on the couch with my best friend, the MacBook Air, it was a search for the source of the Nietzsche quote that introduced me, so to speak, to Peter.  “Aus der Kriegsschule des Lebens – was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich starker” had caught my attention moments before as one of three quotations featured on a college religion professor’s faculty page.

Not many religion professors quote Nietzsche to introduce themselves on a college website. Nietzsche is one of those philosophers pious religious types love to hate, in no small part because of his parable of the prophetic madman — the eccentric town crier who announces to the town that God is dead and “we have killed him!”– in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Go back now to where this reflection started — the quotation by Peter Luijendijk is part of a Chanukah reflection on the Leo Baeck College (London) online publication. It appeared there as part of a commentary on the Genesis story of Joseph’s survival (Parashat Vayeshev, Genesis 37:1 – 40:23).

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Overbeck, Johann Friedrich, 1789-1869. Joseph sold into slavery, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=47452 [retrieved August 2, 2017]. Original source: http://www.yorckproject.de.

It turns out that Peter, like Joseph’s painter, Johann Friedrich Overbeck, and Willem Zuurdeeg, the pioneering philosopher of  religion whose work so heavily influences me, is Dutch. Nietzsche’s parable of the madman was pivotal for Zuurdeeg as well. Is there something about being Dutch that leads a Jewish or Christian scholar back to Nietzsche for a good kick in order out of a stagnant place?

This morning the world is making us all Dutch, sending us back to Nietzsche and the town crier who announces that the god of our illusions is dead, leading us to post the quote on a faculty page intro in hopes of a being stronger, more courageous, and perhaps . . . therefore even more biblical.

Peter Luijendijk’s online reflections on the Joseph story concludes with a word of hope in a time of deep darkness like our own:

I guess what I am trying to say is “Kol zeh ya’avor” this all will pass – it will become better. When Rabbi Lionel Blue z’’l talked about the festival of Chanukah in 2013 at the Chanukah reception in Parliament he “commented on a modern miracle – the social change that is leading to widespread acceptance for LGBT people in our society – by saying “Chanukah is a festival of wonder, and tonight is truly a wonder”.*  Chanukah celebrates survival, hope and the promise that the world’s natural AND spiritual light WILL come back. That, my friends, is the hope imbedded in Chanukah and that is the hope imbedded in the story of Joseph and his family.

At 3:30 A.M. this morning, I feel stronger and very, very Dutch.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 2, 2017.