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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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

Bleak Theology 101: theology, Theology™, and the theological

When I started this blog, I had no idea how it would be received. I just wanted to express my frustrations about, well, God and God-ish things. And I’ve been surprised that in sharing my frustrations, readers have shared my frustrations with others. So, thank you, readers, you very diverse lot. Misery does love company.

But for all my writing about bleak theology, I don’t think I’ve ever just written down my thoughts and ideas about theology, Theology™, and the theological. [BTW, I like using the trademark symbol (™) when I'm expressing something as an ideology or stereotype. It's a nice way to signify loaded terms.] So, let me describe some basic groundwork – groundwork required for bleak theology’s setup, its non-foundational foundation.

Theology, the dialectical* demarcation of topics pertaining to the divine,  is ultimately relational, not only in how we encounter the subject of the divine, but how we encounter each other in relation to the subject of the divine. The objective understanding of theology is always in light of our subjective encounter. This does not mean that truth is ultimately relative. It means that theologically, truth is ultimately relational. It is relational because theological truth is about the human in relation to what is significantly non-human that we’ll conveniently and traditionally call “God.” And in Christianity, that “God” is understood through the identities, teachings, and actions of one Jesus of Nazareth, sometimes called the messiah or Christ, as most often described in the four canonical gospels of the New Testament. That’s what we’re working with.

When theology is dialectical, everyone has the opportunity to participate and risk encounter. This means that everyone has a seat at the table to be and act theological. One can act and be theological without believing in an “orthodox” theology – and what is orthodox, anyway? Atheology offers an important dialectical identity and role for theology. This dialectic is a/theology, an integral dialectic. Self-described atheists and agnostics are included not in a way to deceptively convert or tolerate them, but for their honest and contributive engagement in this project. Some of the best theologians are atheists. Friedrich Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell are my personal favorites.

Along with the theologies we like, there will be plenty of unappealing theologies. They may be militant or discriminatory or exploitative. But theology must continue to be open. It must simultaneously listen and speak truth to power. When theology stops listening and only speaks, it calcifies into dogma and that’s when the trouble really begins. Dogma squelches dissent, even if that dissent is simply a question, creating ideologies. The encounter of dogma is Theology™, the ideology that oppresses a certain kind of flourishing. And many people who hate anything to do with God, often because they have been excluded or marginalized or oppressed, have encountered Theology™.

Thus, theology is inherently participative. Like any discipline or game, which are inherently participative to flourish, it has its basic rules to be obeyed, broken, and/or bent. Its own rules are constantly under scrutiny in light of both its own and non-theological circumstances. But it always in motion.

Because theology is participative, the theological is the personal, meaning that for all of the attempted mapping and systematizing of who and how God is/n’t or may or will (not) be, it’s all still how each of us individually and corporately encounter the subject of the divine. And even if we are atheists (and we always sometimes are) we’re atheists against the understandings of God we’ve encountered (John Caputo says more on this).

And here we find ourselves at our idiosyncratic starting points for our theologies. I’ve said little about God or Jesus or the Bible or the Church or salvation or grace or sin or forgiveness or love or blah blah blah blah. And this is because before we can talk about any of that, we need to create, indicate, and describe a world within which and about which that all has some kind of meaning – even if that meaning is no meaning at all.

But why theology and not religion? What about religion, Religion™, and the religious? Good question. Religion is the category within which theology is understood. Religion is the category. Theology is a certain kind of encounter – a dialectical one – within the category, the framework of religion.

So, when people say the utmost boring, trite, and cliché self-descriptor, “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” that means nothing, or when so many writers set up “religion” as a straw man against which they reveal their own special and authentic truth, it is ultimately unhelpful, because we cannot escape religion, per se. It’s the category in which we are working. So theology is not in opposition to religion and neither is the nebulously-defined “spirituality.” We’re just so freaked out about the category of religion that out of resistance and self-preservation we toss the baby out with the bathwater. In fact, we desire something more accessible, malleable, and controllable. And that is theology. Our personal, relational, subjective theological discourse is our ownership and power to talk about God, even if we don’t believe in God.

The problem is that there is a demographic that claims exclusive ownership to this access because of various criteria. This group consists of those who appear more fervent and devout, as if their zealotry gives them valid authority, when really, this authority is dogma. And there are plenty of theologies that react against these dogmas. Some are so-called “liberation” theologies. Some are not.

Bleak theology is not a liberation theology, though I’m sure somewhere it incorporates certain aspects. But bleak theology is a theology of resistance, because lamentation is a form of protest, because it dares to ask “Why?” and “How?” And lamentation is a kind of desire for discourse, even when there is nothing to be heard. Lamentation speaks truth to power after power has thoroughly had its way. Bleak theology is dialectical in its desire for discourse. It hopes for hope. But more on that later.

Theology works within the category of religion for meaningful encounter and the intention of describing that encounter. That encounter is about God and/or, described in negative theological terms, not-God. But this is theology: the description of a certain kind of encounter. And if we can tentatively agree that this is the shape we’ve traced with our finger or a stick or our heart or our imagination or a pencil or our words in the sand, dust, snow, river, or air, then we can begin to hope to understand one another in interesting ways – ways that work very differently in other kinds of categories and relations. Such is theology.

Drawing 1961 Drawing on paper 686 x 997 mm Tate

Lee Bontecou
Drawing 1961
Drawing on paper
686 x 997 mm
Tate

*Originally, I had used “dialogue,” but upon further reflection, “dialectic” is the better concept here.

Peter Rollins, the Pentecaustic

Church fire 2.jpgToday is Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. This can often mean cake, but it always means fire. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles describes the events of Pentecost with the rushing wind, the fiery heads, and glossolalia of the Apostles, holed up in the upper room. They went out into the streets to preach the Gospel and Jerusalem said “Go home, Apostles! Ur dr0nk.” But they weren’t drunk. Such is the Spirit.

Since that story, there have been two thousand years’ worth of attempts to define, categorize, institutionalize, explain, and contain the Church. Pentecost describes something “old” becoming “new,” often described as the Christian Church becoming distinct from its Judaic roots. And here’s where the problems begin. Joel’s “fulfilled” prophecy of “Last Days” signs and visions . Peter’s unkosher vision. Acts, written by the Gentile physician Luke, lifts and separates Mother Church from her Jewishness. It is ultimately the story of convert S/Paul going to Gentile Maximus, Rome, to take the story of Jesus, Lord and Savior of the Empire and the World. Not that that’s stopped anyone seizing this idea for themselves and their own orthodoxies. Cue the Pentecostals…

L’enfant terrible theologique Peter Rollins is not Pentecostal. But he does write much about his new vision of the Church in his pyrotheology, the name inspired by Buenaventura Durruti’s quote, “the only church that illuminates is a burning one.” Fair enough. So, instead of Apostles’ heads with tongues of flame, there’s a whole church on fire. When I read Durruti’s quote in Rollins’ Insurrection, I, a fellow traveler, nodded. But I found it insufficient.

For Rollins, the Church is on fire, but it is not consumed. There is an uncontrollable energy, a cognitive dissonance, a devastation of preconceived notions. The Church as understood and used before is finished. I can’t help but wonder if this is his Burning Bush. I might be taking this too far, except that this is pyrotheology. It is all about the burning, the conflagration, the heat, the purification, the illumination.

He sets up pyrotheology against “religion,” which is what every good reformer does: sets up their own argument against poor ol’ Religion™, whose definition has been debated since before Cicero. And he is rethinking the Church, shrewdly pulling from Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity, offering a blueprint for how broken people can come together and mourn and lament at the foot of the Cross. And this is attractive.

Rollins advocates a kind of Pentecost: new identities in the old, new powers of understanding and praxis, the iconoclastic seizure of iconography. This is Ikon. But it bothers me that I’m reminded so readily of Plato’s Cave and Moses’ Burning Bush. There smacks a transcendence that I’m not too comfortable with – especially in light (ha.) of so much work he does to focus on our post-Kantian context.

Against the happy-clappy keeping up of appearances that so much Christianity seems to emit, Rollins works very hard to convey that the decay and sorrow in our world and in our hearts and lives is Good™. And he reworks that decay and sorrow for purposes of a participation in a new kind of community, one that he might call post-ecclesiastic, but would probably be more readily understood as Emergent. And this is why I call Rollins “Pentecaustic,” a terrible portmanteau of a pun, but I believe it suits him. He offers a very caustic critique of religious culture and facile theology. He wants to set something on fire and watch it burn. And he does.

“Pentecaust” is the event of the burning Church, where the structures and ideologies are put to the fire. The paint bubbles and burns, the steeple sags crestfallen, the stained windows shatter and melt, the carpet melts under the flames, smoke rises into the sky, as if some kind of offering to the Heavens. As if. Everyone gathers at a “safe” distance and looks in awe and sadness. Their church is burning. But a miracle takes place! The church continues to burn! And burn and burn. And it burns into the night and illuminates everyone. A pillar of fire by night, a black column of smoke by day. And a new community is formed, one where everyone is all together all too human and the tragedy of the church fire is always there. But that’s just it: the Church fire is always there. Come see the miracle. This is Rollins’ pyrotheology from my vantage point, watching his church burn and burn. This is Rollins’ Pentecaust. It looks different from Pentecost, but it sounds very, very similar.

Early on, when I was first thinking of my bleak theology, I envisioned a burned out cathedral, one that had suffered a terrible and complete fire. The roof had fallen in, the pews were charred, black, and scattered. The walls were scorched. It was like a skeletal hull of a place. Perhaps, the Christ Candle had fallen and set the place on ablaze. Ash and soot floated in a soft, wet breeze. But the cathedral was gone. It could not be rebuilt. The great cross fallen and seared.

And I imagined myself there in the middle of the blackened sanctuary, grey clouds above and thought, “What now?” And I understood that that burned-out cathedral was the locus of where bleak theology gathered. By the rivers of Babylon, we weep and console each other. Our Church is gone, savaged and destroyed. We wipe ash on our faces. Our sanctuary protects us in no way from the Wilderness. Our sanctuary is part of the Wilderness. We look to the sky of the new moon. There is no light from our burnt Church. Maybe there are coals. Maybe.

Rollins has a hope that I do not. I have a hope for hope. He has hope. His Church still burns. Everyone is sad that the church is burning. And here I would say is one of the significant differences between pyrotheology and bleak theology when it comes to the church and the Church: Rollins’ still burns. On the opposite sides of Easter, Rollins and I stand, in the midst of the liturgical year: He at Pentecaust, I at Ash Wednesday. And at our vantage points, we work together for a common cause. “What next?” we ask. “What now?”

I had not read any of Rollins’ books before this recent excursion and I’ve really been interested in his work for some time. I found Insurrection a good start, but I have to read more to understand what he’s doing and saying. I like Rollins. It is easy to see that we are operating in very similar circles, though I have not paid too much attention to what’s going on in other areas of our theological playground.

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