Bad Theodicy and the Summer that Sucks.

Ferguson. ISIS. Robin Williams’ suicide. Gaza Strip. Ebola. Border refugee crisis. Ukraine. Syrian civil war. Boko Haram. Global warming.

It’s been a bleak summer worldwide. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it sucks.

I’ve found that when significantly bad things happen, I don’t write something. Sometimes, it’s because I have an incomplete blog post (Trust me. There are a lot.) that I could not contain or wrap up. Sometimes, it’s just overwhelming. Sometimes, there is the futile sense of thinking that what I write contributes in no way to the signal, but instead just adds to the noise. But, I’m writing now, because I just can’t not. I’ve just reached that personal threshold.

I don’t like theodicy, the theological consideration of suffering. Let me reframe that. I don’t like reading most theodical suppositions, those awful chimeric results of creating causes for perceived effects. Most theologies won’t admit that theodicy is phenomenological, meaning that the attribution of God to action and event comes from our subjective perception and encounter with the world. But it is we, ourselves, either individually or collectively, who assign action and event to God, depending on our understanding of divine encounter. This means that what action and motive we assign to God is what comes from our comprehension and interpretation of God’s ability and identity. So, it’s not what God does, but what we perceive God to do, whether it’s God or not. So, really, in theodicy, God isn’t the bad guy, here. It’s you and your horrible, finite, all-too-human “explanation” of why bad things happen to good people. And that means that we haven’t moved any further in our understanding of why bad things happen to good people, at all. And yet God is still is part of the conversation.

When we read Ecclesiastes along with Qoheleth, we look for God in particular ways, starting with the foundation that everything is meaningless and there is nothing new under the sun (observations that warm my heart, actually). And from there we see Ferguson. ISIS. Robin Williams’ suicide. Gaza Strip. Ebola. Border refugee crisis. Ukraine. Syrian civil war. Boko Haram. Global warming. We want there to be meaning, so we create it to give ourselves reassurance. This meaning is created because it is relational. It is because of our encounter with events and our imaginative ability to create meaning from our relation to them because they resonate with our sense of being human.

Ferguson. ISIS. Robin Williams’ suicide. Gaza Strip. Ebola. Border refugee crisis. Ukraine. Syrian civil war. Boko Haram. Global warming. Is the world worse now than it was exactly one century before when the first shots of World War I have been fired? What about all the horrors humanity has inhumanely inflicted upon itself that have never been recorded or are so terrible they’ve never been uttered? Has the world increased in suffering? Is my question quantitative or qualitative? Trick question: Suffering knows no human limit. Neither in time nor in space.

What is increased is our awareness and devastatingly so. The internet and its rhizomatic social media have made our connections to the plight of the Yazidi in Iraq and Black youth in the United States almost instantaneous. And we immediately become a part of this encounter with injustice. And we can choose to care if we want or care about something else. Or create something to care about. Whatever. There was a time until recently that we learned about great atrocities post facto or in historical narrative. No longer. And once you see this suffering, you are a part of it. And theodicy or not, we are now held to account for it. We’re stuck. Deal with it. And that adds to our misery.

Because suffering knows no qualitative or quantitative limit in time or space, suffering requires acknowledgment and recognition to function. You do not notice you are breathing until you cannot take in air. Suffering is ubiquitous. It’s just a matter of noticing it, because it is always touching you. You are affected by suffering, you just don’t care until you’re made to because it has surpassed whatever threshold you have to prevent the floodgates of how awful things are. It’s really quite miserable when you think about it. And it’s worse for others, right now, when you think about that, too.

So back to theodicy. Theodicies are what we create for ourselves and our communities when our thresholds are overwhelmed. It’s not that we punt our responsibility. It’s that our encounter with tragedy is beyond comprehension that we assign a relation to ourselves that is beyond comprehension to handle the incomprehensible. (This blog post could get super interesting in a way that I’m not going to examine, but my apophatic theology friends just started to salivate a little, all the same.) This is not saying that God is a fabricated crutch. I’m saying that it is quite human to try to handle things on our own until we can’t. Or won’t. And then we hand it off, because explanations of ultimate origins are harrrrrrrrrrrd!

When the apocryphal verses “God never gives you more than you can handle”, “When God closes a door, He (sic) opens a window”, or “Everything happens for a reason” get trotted out, responsibility and action is being reassigned – and pathetically so. ISIS and ebola are killing children daily. These glib verses evaporate in tragedy’s midst. Just war theory will not save the refugees. Positive thinking won’t heal the terminally hemorrhaging. What to do?

Ferguson. ISIS. Robin Williams’ suicide. Gaza Strip. Ebola. Border refugee crisis. Ukraine. Syrian civil war. Boko Haram. Global warming. Just mentioning these words, if you recognize them and their context, evokes tragedy. What to do?

Act justly. Just action restructures theodicy, reframing tragedy’s identity and event such that beneficial change can occur. The challenge is then, what is just? And how does one act justly in one’s immediate context? How can I act justly against Boko Haram? Against the Ferguson police department? Against.. against… against it all? Well, I don’t have a good answer for that. But I know it’s not liking a cause on Facebook. That’s not just futile, it’s pathetic. And a poor excuse for spreading awareness about a cause.

But if we encounter God, then we encounter the commandment and requirement to act justly in reaction to that encounter. It’s that double bind of the duty to love. (It’s fucking annoying, I know.) The problem is, then, how does one subjectively act? Well, good luck with that. Because it’s our responsibility, in light of this framework of divine encounter, of our self to act authentically for the benefit of who has suffered injustice. I told you this summer sucked. So, go love and see what happens in the meaninglessness of it all. That means even if you get the shit beaten out of you.

Gawker: Police Fire Rubber Bullets and Tear Gas on Ferguson, Mo. Protestors

Let the Dead Bury the Dead

Death is exhausting. “Let the dead bury the dead,” recommends Jesus to the man, the man who’s lost his father. I lost my father three years ago. I felt his hand twitch one last time in the earliest hours of August 6. His slow, solitary death, alone with his family in a Fort Worth hospice, is shared with the flashpoint and collective horror of Hiroshima. What does one do with that juxtaposition?

Death is exhausting. I can barely fathom my father’s, let alone the thousands lives that… “Let the dead bury the dead.” How? What does that even mean?

He who has an ear, let him hear…

Grief is like a slow salve rubbed from one’s wet cheeks and eyes into the wrists and arms and heart.

Grief is like a gripped sponge with an unseen core of void and night.

Grief is like your best friend’s loss of hearing.

What is the Kingdom of God like? The Kingdom of God is like… it is like…

“As for you,” then says Jesus, “go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.” My father has died. It feels like yesterday. He has just died. It feels like… it is like…

But the Kingdom of God is a simile.

The Kingdom of God is like the blind spot in every gaze.

The Kingdom of God is like an impossible place and event, like a graveyard where the dead bury the dead.

The Kingdom of God is like…

grief relieved.

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The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade

God haunts me. Let me count the ways. There are days that I wish could escape the whole matter. But it is hard to be a writer or thinker without the skulking raven in the room, except this raven not only says “nevermore,” but “evermore,” as well. And the paradox of God haunts me, too. It all haunts me. I cannot be happy. I cannot find relief. It won’t go away, but I tremble at the thought of the absence of God’s presence and absence. Paradox.

“You’re overthinking it,” you say. “Just have faith,” you say. “Throw God down and walk away clean,” you say. You are all Job’s friends to me. Leave me alone. I’m thankful no one tries to ask me about Jesus, anymore. Let me ask them about Jesus.

There are those who consider themselves or get called “seekers.” Seeker churches and such, which are really just bait-and-switch outfits, deceptive evangelicals that wear the devil’s clothes. Or those spiritual nomads who meander through one religion to another, following the glare of the enlightening moon through her four phases. Or the junkies who jitter after god-horse, itching for a new fix of truth or whatever wherever they can get it. They’re ecstatic about it, too. They know a guy. Or know a guy who knows a guy. I know that jakewalk. I’m not a seeker.

I marvel at those who can confess the existence or non-existence of God. I marvel at the agnostic, too. Such faith. I feel like I am on my way to Mount Moriah, asking myself along the way, “What am I doing? Am I really doing this? Why? Why not?” Am I working out my salvation? In fear and trembling? What am I doing? Am I really doing this? Why? Why not?

You know that the Christian is not Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith,” right? Not like we throw around the word “Christian.” That’s what annoys me about those who read Fear and Trembling and immediately identify with Abraham. The hubris. The chutzpah. “Yes! I am just like Abraham taking that leap of faith in God! I did it when I accepted Christ that dark night of my soul.” No. You’re not like Abraham. No one is like Abraham. That’s the thing. Johannes de Silentio, Søren’s pseudonym here, marvels at Abraham, there is no one like him. You are not like Abraham. You are like you. We may be on our way to Mount Moriah, but a ram has not been provided. All has not been returned to us. Stop kidding yourself. We are knights of infinite resignation – if we are lucky to be knights at all. We read Fear and Trembling and we marvel at Abraham, the shining knight. And in doing so, we forget Kierkegaard begins with taunting Cartesian epistemology and ends in his indictment of hubris against Heraclitus’ student. You probably don’t remember those bookends, do you? You only remember what you want to. You’re not paying attention. Lucky you.

This blog, this project, this bleak theology is not some attempt for a run-around on the System, on organized, popular, or academic Christianity. It’s not a “new” take on God or an attempt at some “better” lens or understanding. It’s not confessional. It’s not atheism. It’s not agnosticism. It’s just a mess, a huge mess.

Nietzsche wrote that God will not be truly dead until we vanquish God’s shadow. His madman in the marketplace, who claims we are God’s murderers, holds a lantern in broad daylight, his Diogenes the Cynic seeking an honest man. But shine the light on God and only the most blind will not see God’s shadow. To quote The Joy Formidable, “the greatest light is the greatest shade.”

Nietzsche is right that we cannot escape God as object or subject. The more we shine the light on the question of God and who God is to us, the more brutal the reality of it all is. Culturally, we are bound. Psychologically, we are bound. The empire of time is Anno Domini, though secularism has whitewashed that into the Common Era. Christ still rules the calendar, helped all the more by Pope Gregory the Great. Our time is not our own, we are subtly reminded.

And even to believe to break out of the Foucaultian chains of history and culture, to still put it to the Kierkegaardian question that the individual is still wholly and utterly and terrifyingly free to make this decision about who Christ is and one’s relation to Christ, it makes the decision all the more anxious because if we think too carefully about it, there is the baggage of belief, the haunting afterward. There is that troubling, niggling, relentless freedom, because now there are the horrors of theodicy, of Christendom, of injustice, of hatred, of so many unspeakable and confounding truths and acts to wrestle with. This is all part of it. It comes with the package. We are not knights of faith. Let’s not kid ourselves with such hubristic and sanctimonious self-deceptions.

These are thoughts that haunt me. Haunt my mind, my heart, my soul. Can perfect love cast out all fear? That makes me anxious, too. Can it?

Like a Derridean spectre, God haunts me. Like a Hegelian Geist, God haunts me. Like the Paraclete, God haunts me. Like a dead parent, God haunts me.  But do I want the haunting to stop? I don’t know. That’s what haunts me, too. What would it be like to be free of all that – except that kind of freedom does not exist. God’s shadow is everywhere. All you have to do is light a candle and see.

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Help Us Fund St. Lydia’s New Home! Share In The Meal.

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St. Lydia’s is a dinner church. It is an exercise in radical hospitality and a place where I find community here in New York City, a city both inhumane and all too human. St. Lydia’s is grounded in the Christian story of life, death, and resurrection. It is a community that welcomes each stranger as guest – a guest who is quickly embraced as fellow friend, as part of the community. We offer a meal, comfort, and community to each other, as it was and has been offered to us. And more are coming to share in the meal and to share their stories, to share in the story. All are welcome.

Religious community is difficult for me, even spending most of my life in it. Like many aspects of Christianity, it is a paradox, and paradoxes are inherently problematic. Church makes me anxious for many reasons that I’ll not mention. But St. Lydia’s is the rare place where my anxiety turns to solace, if only for a little while. Creating St. Lydia’s with others gets me out of myself and creates a new place where I rest a part of myself and find new strength and understanding.

At St. Lydia’s, we gather to create a simple, vegetarian meal. We intentionally gather the ingredients and we participate to create dinner, to set the table in preparation of fellowship. When we first gather, a shruti box is squeezed. There is a song of call and response. Candles are passed out and lit. The room is soft in light and echoes in simple verses. We go to the spread tables and place there the candles and spread into a circle, where our pastor, Emily Scott, palms raised up, sings words repeated since ancient texts and made new for our age. Then she takes fresh, warm, fragrant bread, blesses it, and breaks it. “Holy food for holy people. Share in the meal,” she commands in invitation.

And around the circle, we break bread for each other, sharing it and saying “this is my body.” Then we sit down and enjoy dinner in fellowship. We have done this for five years. And we have had various tables and kitchens. First, in tiny apartments. Then, in a Lutheran church. Now, in a zen center.

But it is time for our a place of our own. And we are moving into a small storefront in Gowanus, Brooklyn. We are creating our own kitchen. We are listening to the community in which we are building. We want to serve it and its people. We work for justice and peace. This begins in the vulnerability of invitation and acceptance of time spent together. Come join us.

St. Lydia’s is working together to prepare our own space to make many meals, to welcome many strangers as friends, to do the work of Jesus. And we need your help to prepare the space. This costs money, because many things in the world cost money. We are raising $30,000 in our Indiegogo campaign, which lasts for three more days. We are almost there. If you would like to support St. Lydia’s monetarily, we would greatly appreciate it. We also would love for you to come eat and work with us in our new space, that we move into next month.

Jesus fed people. Then people talked about him. They said he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” And, we do. Often, going to St. Lydia’s, for me, is like a meal remembering a good friend, a friend you miss. One visitor said to me appreciatively, “it’s like a wake.” Yes, it can be. And that’s why I like it. It’s not always, though. It’s not mournful. But it is reflective. In every meal, there is a pause. You catch yourself here. You realize things aren’t what they could be. Or what they are.

We serve dinner to each other, to create fellowship with each other. We listen and share our lives with those around us at table. Simple acts, but profound ones that reveal the purpose of why we’re here. Creating community in eating, we then hear a sermon, share our experiences in light of it, share a song and a time of silence and prayer. A poem is recited. We fill our cups with a splash or two of grape juice, and Emily sings with the shruti box again, preparing us to go out into the world again. We respond in song and drink our cups. And then we clean up together. We gather for a final song, share words of peace to each other, and go back out into the world. The taste of dinner still on our tongues and the stories we shared still in our ears. And we are changed. We strangers a little less strange, with new bonds formed, the world a little less stranger.

This is all done with each other, created together. The focus is on making something together, not believing a certain way. We believe that a meal can be prepared and eaten and that fellowship can be created. That is our starting point. That fellowship is influenced by the fellowship of Jesus. From that fellowship we work for justice and understanding. Part of that fellowship is a coworking space. Another part is social activism. Another is the theology circle I lead. Another is the contemplative prayer group. There are many kinds of fellowship.

The Greek word is philoxenia, a word meaning “the love of the stranger,” but that’s not as easy as that. Xenia is a dialectical word. There cannot have a stranger without a host. You cannot have the unfamiliar without the familiar. They rely upon each other for their own identity. And in community, at St. Lydia’s the stranger and host become tangled up in one another, in each other’s definitions. I am the stranger. You are the stranger. Let us eat together in fellowship. The world is bleak. Eat with us. Let us hope together for something less bleak. Let us work together for something less bleak. Let us start with this meal. Share in the meal.   st lydia's logo

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