Eccentric Christianity: Part 6, The Eccentric Economy of Love

In my books Unclean and The Slavery of Death I describe how, especially in America, our neurotic fear of death often manifests as an embarrassment regarding our neediness and vulnerability.

One of the most shaming things in America is to ask for help, especially material, economic and financial help.

But we are also shamed by physical and psychological needs. Aging. Debility. Handicap. Mental illness.

Success in America is to need nothing. To never need help. Your job in America is to be fine. Autonomous and self-sufficient. To be anything less--to need the help of others--is to be a failure. A drag on society. A loser.

This shaming is killing our churches as it shuts down the economy of love, the ways in which we share and respond to the needs of others and how they respond to our needs. The theologian Arthur McGill calls this economy of love a "community of neediness."

But the flow of this economy shuts down if everyone in the church is neurotically shamed into hiding their needs from others. We all would rather play the hero, we all want to be the helper, the one who serves. But we don't ever want to be the one being rescued, or the one needing help, or the one who is being served. Standing in that location--being the needy one among us--is very, very uncomfortable.

Churches tend to hide their fear of loving each other by serving strangers outside the community of faith. The church gives food at the food pantry. The youth group builds a house for a poor family on a mission trip. We send money overseas to the Third World.

Those people are the needy people. We'll help them. But me? I'm fine. I'm good. No, I don't need anything. Can I help you?

It's not that those people at the food pantry or in the Third World don't need anything. It's that the church is responding to these needs in a state of denial. The church is denying its own need, weakness and vulnerability. Thus, the church comes to see itself as a hero, riding in on a white horse to save others. Since we don't need anything from the people we are helping there is no reciprocity, no economy, no relationship, no giving and sharing back and forth.

We show up, do our good deeds and then pack up and leave. Why? Because we don't need anything from those people. They need us. We don't need them.

But we do need them. And we need each other.

All that to say, the economy of love is an eccentric experience. Need is turning outward to others with the expectation of help. What I currently "have" on the "inside" is not enough. I am not self-sufficient. I need you.

In a community of neediness I must look eccentrically outward toward others. In the eccentric economy of love I am filled by others who pour themselves into my life as I pour myself into theirs.

Eccentric Christianity: Part 5, Doubt, Gratitude and an Eccentric Faith

Up to this point in the series we've been using the metaphor of eccentricity to describe our experience of God--Father (transcendence), Son (God in the Stranger) and the Holy Spirit (enchantment).

In this post I want to shift gears and talk about doubt and the eccentric experience of faith.

For years I've written about doubt on this blog. As I've noted many times, borrowing from the work of Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld in their book In Praise of Doubt, doubt is a chronic condition in modernity.

The reason for this is how modernity has affected the psychological experience of faith, where faith is located in the mind. In a pluralistic and hyper-connected world religious belief is no longer a cultural given, something in the back of our minds, something taken-for-granted, an inherited legacy from past generations. Rather, in modernity faith is at the front of our minds experienced as a choice among a suite of competing options. This can be a choice between the denominations within Christianity. Between the world religions. Between faith and the varieties of unfaith (e.g., atheism, agnosticism, ignosticism). And this is a choice--simply because it is a choice--that has to be routinely revisited. This makes faith feel fragile, tentative and provisional.

Consequently, doubt is a consistent aspect of our religious experience. We doubt because we chose faith and because we chose faith we'll never escape doubt.

And yet, many of us don't cope with this situation very well. Doubt is associated with anxiety at the deepest levels. Doubt makes us question the foundational aspects of our lives, the deep structures that make life coherent and meaningful.

And a couple of different things can happen at this point.

First, the doubt might lead to violence. As I describe in The Authenticity of Faith, surveying the work of Ernest Becker and Terror Management Theory, in the face of existential anxiety we can engage in worldview defense. We replace the doubt with dogmatism which makes us hostile toward out-group members. And yet, this show of conviction is actually being motivated by a deep-seated fear. Rather than dealing with the existential anxiety we externalize the fear by angrily lashing out at those who we perceive to be a threat to our values, culture, beliefs, worldview and way of life. You see this fear-driven dogmatism and attacking behavior all over the place in Christianity--online, in our churches, in our political discourse.

Consequently, as I describe in The Authenticity of Faith, a person might want to not repress their doubt to paper over their doubt with a fear-based show of conviction. Doubt, as I argue it in the The Authenticity of Faith, becomes the psychological price one is willing to pay to be welcoming, curious and open toward out-group members.

And yet, many people struggle in trying to carry this burden. They have opened their minds to others but the associated doubts--the question marks they have placed behind everything--create existential crises and panics that can lead to cognitive rumination, depression or other psychological problems. And if not these psychological problems the doubt produces a host of spiritual problems--cynicism, listlessness and spiritual dryness.

So this is a difficult business. It seems like living with doubt makes you walk this tightrope between dogmatism or depression.

Consequently, I've struggled to find a better way through this thicket. How do you, psychologically speaking, keep from slipping into dogmatism while avoiding the existential funks? 

In The Slavery of Death, though a book not directly about doubt, I think one answer can be found. Specifically, I think doubt can be replaced with an eccentric experience of faith which I believe to be rooted in the experience of gratitude and gift.

Gratitude and gift are eccentric experiences. Something is "given" to us. Consequently, our sense of ownership, territoriality and proprietorship is attenuated. Our posture toward life becomes open-handed and receptive rather than tight-fisted and possessive. This allows us to face the uncertainties and fortunes of life with an experience of gratitude rather than anxiety. Gratitude is a balm for existential anxiety and it softens the heart toward out-group members. If life is a gift there is nothing to protect or defend. All is grace.

In sum, what I'd like to suggest is that while doubt has some advantages in how it lowers your hostility toward others, it is difficult to build a spiritual life around the experience of doubt. A better route, in my estimation, is to use religious belief and practice to cultivate an eccentric experience of faith, where the provisionality of doubt is retained in the experience of gift but where existential anxiety is replaced with gratitude and joy.

Eccentric Christianity: Part 4, Enchantment, the Porous Self and the Spirit

In the last two posts I've described how the metaphor of eccentricity can be used to describe God's transcendence and the missional community's expectation of welcoming God in the stranger. In this post I want to connect eccentricity to the experience of enchantment.

All told, then, these three posts illustrate how eccentricity can be used for Trinitarian reflection. God the Father is the focus when eccentricity and transcendence are being discussed. God the Son is the focus when eccentricity is used to discuss encountering God in the stranger, the Matthew 25 encounter of Jesus in the "least of these." And here in this post we'll use eccentricity to describe the enchantment of the world and the encounter with God the Spirit.

So, how does eccentricity relate to enchantment?

I'd like to borrow the analysis of Charles Taylor and how he relates enchantment to the buffered and the porous self.

Writing at the blog the Immanent Frame about his book A Secular Age, Taylor describes the relationships this way:
Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.
Taylor's argument is that the modern experience of disenchantment has been less a matter of changing beliefs than an intrapsychic change, a change in how we experience the self in relation to the outside world.

Specifically, in an enchanted world the boundary between the self and the world was "porous." The outside would could impinge upon, affect and invade the psyche. The porous self, we might say, was an involved, engaged and relational encounter with the world.

By contrast, in the modern era the self has become introverted, isolated, and closed off from the world. "Buffered" against the world. The ego is now alone with itself, disengaged, withdrawn, and no longer in relationship with the world. And according to Taylor, it is this shift from the porous to the buffered self that drives the experience disenchantment:
Here is the contrast between the modern, bounded, buffered self and the porous self of the earlier enchanted world. As a bounded self I can see the boundary as a buffer, such that the things beyond don’t need to “get to me,” to use the contemporary expression. That’s the sense to my use of the term “buffered” here...

And so the boundary between agents and forces is fuzzy in the enchanted world; and the boundary between mind and world is porous...[A] similar point can be made about the relation to spirits. The porousness of the boundary emerges here in various kinds of “possession”—all the way from a full taking over of the person, as with a medium, to various kinds of domination by or partial fusion with a spirit or God. Here again, the boundary between self and other is fuzzy, porous. And this has to be seen as a fact of experience, not a matter of “theory” or “belief.”
As I hope should be obvious, the experience of the world as enchanted is driven by eccentricity. Enchantment is the experience of the porous self encountering something from "outside" the boundaries of the buffered self.

Consequently, the pneumatological encounter--the experience of the Holy Spirit--is an eccentric encounter.

And as Taylor goes on to say in his essay, the porous self is, thus, an experience of risk, uncertainty and vulnerability. Eccentrically open the porous self can be interrupted by the Spirit. By contrast, the introverted and buffered self is "autonomous," impervious to the interruptions of the Spirit and, thus, unable to be surprised by God.

These observations circle back to my posts a few months ago about the nature of the charismatic experience. Specifically, in reviewing James Smith's book Thinking in Tongues we described the charismatic experience of the Spirit as being rooted in an eccentric openness to God, especially God doing something different or new.

Smith describes this eccentric orientation as "a deep sense of expectation and an openness to surprise." Eccentric openness to the Spirit, Smith continues, "makes room for the unexpected" where "the surprising comes as no surprise."

And a key feature of this eccentric openness is cultivating a posture of receptivity. As Smith says, "pentecostal spirituality is shaped by a fundamental mode of reception." This posture of receptivity moves the self from buffered to porous, shifting us from disenchantment to enchantment and into an experience where there is risk, vulnerability and the potential for surprise in the encounter with the Spirit.

The practical point in all this is that enchantment is less about believing in unbelievable things than it is in cultivating a relational self. Enchantment is overcoming the introverted ruminations of modernity--being locked up alone in your head--in cultivating a relational life that is eccentrically oriented and open to interruption and surprise.

Eccentric Christianity: Part 3, Welcoming God in the Stranger

In the last post we discussed the eccentricity of God as a way to understand the Otherness and transcendence of God and how when God is experienced as being "outside" the boundaries of current social, political, economic and cultural arrangements this creates the imaginative capacity for prophetic utterance.

In this post I want to discuss how the eccentricity of God helps us envision something else: hospitality and welcoming God in the stranger.

Welcoming God in the stranger has been such a huge theme over the last ten years I don't know if I need to review that idea here. I simply want show how the notion of eccentricity nicely informs our theology of hospitality.

The insight should be obvious. If God is always coming to us from outside the boundaries of the faith community then God is always approaching us as the stranger. Strangers, by definition, are eccentric. In all the shades of meaning. Strangers are different from us. Strangers are on the edges. At the margins. Outside the boundaries and borders. Strangers are Them rather than Us.

Thus, the welcoming of the stranger is an eccentric encounter.

Consequently, a hospitable community will be eccentrically oriented, moving out from the center toward the edges and then past the boundaries to the area "outside" the faith community.

We encounter Jesus eccentrically, going to find him "outside the gates."

A missional community is an eccentric community, a community facing outward toward the stranger rather than inward upon themselves.

The eccentric, hospitable and missional community is not incurvatus in se--curved inward upon themselves--but is, rather, excurvatus ex se, curved outward in welcome to others.

The Only Way I Know How To Save the World

So I wrote a blog post about race relations and Ferguson.

Was it a helpful post? I don't know. Will it make a difference? I don't know.

I'm glad I wrote it to express solidarity. That's never a bad thing. But I struggle with writing such posts.

Why?

For one thing, I find my motivations obscure and hard to penetrate.

Why did I write the post?

People were looking for, calling for responses from White Christians. Did I respond out of guilt? Was I shamed into it?

Did I write because I wanted to help, to add my voice, or because I was signaling, managing a social media image? Showing that I was one of the "good Christians" who got a post out there?

I don't think I did it for any of those reasons, but I never fully trust my self-assessments. I can't say for sure that my motives weren't mixed.

I want to do good, but I also want to be perceived, perhaps more than I'd like to admit, as being a good person.

Beyond these neurotic motivational ruminations, I also struggle with writing those sorts of posts because I wonder if they make any difference.

Does a passionate, in-your-face blog post, Tweet, or Facebook note actually improve race relations? Surely it gives the impression that you've done something, but does it make a difference?

I wonder.

We demand that people write things about race relations--Show up on social media!--but do all those posts and Tweets add up to anything tangible and lasting? Are we actually changing the world as we sit at our computers? Or is it all just going down a digital drain?

And if we are not effecting concrete and lasting change, why are we demanding more words on screens?

These are the sorts of things that roll around in my mind when any controversial subject hits social media. I'm always eager to express solidarity. We need more of it. So I want to add my voice. But my lingering skepticism about motivations and efficacy makes my head hurt.

And then I went to church.

Last night was the monthly meal, praise and communion service at Freedom Fellowship, the church plant I've written so much about.

The events in Ferguson were on Paul's heart tonight. So Paul called Henry, Ray, and Christiana up to the front, to stand with him as we prayed for Ferguson, each of them representing all the races in our fellowship.

And so we prayed. All of us together. Praying for Ferguson. And pledging to love each other as members of the body of Christ.

During the meal beforehand, Jana and I sat with Anthony. Anthony is Black.

Passing by the nursery I held the hand of one of our newest members, three month old Richard, bouncing on his mother's lap. Baby Richard is Hispanic.

During services Jana and I sat with Moses. Moses is Black.

And I drove Henry home after church. We listened to Tejano music. Henry is Hispanic.

I am White.

This is the body of Christ.

Each of us in that church, despite our race and everything else that divides us, from gender to education to socioeconomic status, showing up to eat together, worship together and pray together.

I don't know how to fix America's race relations problem. Does writing a blog post help? I really don't know, though I'm glad I wrote it. A blog post is what it is, and that may be much or very little.

Does walking in a march help? Sitting with a candle in a vigil? Signing a petition?

I don't know.

But what I do know is this. And it dawned on me during Paul's prayer. And listening to Ray give us a little spontaneous prophetic exhortation afterwards.

It dawned on me as baby Richard, with his dark chocolate eyes, squeezed my finger. It dawned on me when I asked Henry to translate Spanish lyrics.

Yes, social media and Internet activism are wonderful things. Tweet and blog away my brothers and sisters.

But for my part, the only way I know how to save the world is by going to church.

My Brothers and Sisters at Freedom Praying for Ferguson

The Passion of White America

Many of you I expect have been closely following the stories and images coming out of Ferguson in the wake of Michael Brown's death. I want to draw your attention to this image:


This is a photo, as you can tell, of some young men in Ferguson lighting a Molotov cocktail. I bring your attention to this image as images like this one have been used as moral counterweight to the images of peaceful protesters, hands aloft, facing lines of militarized police officers wielding automatic weapons. 

I've been pondering images like this as I believe our reactions to them are extraordinarily important in efforts at racial reconciliation.

Psychologically, many of us consume media narratives associated with tragedies like the death of Michael Brown by sifting the events until we find evidence of wickedness amongst Them in order to absolve Us of any guilt or moral reckoning. In the case of Ferguson a picture like the one above is used as evidence that Black rage is inappropriate, illegal and immoral and that the police actions in recent days were thus justified and warranted.

The problem with this sort of reasoning is that images and stories such as these are not prompting reflection, confession, repentance, change or conversion. They are, rather, being used as moral ballast to prevent any reflection, confession, repentance, change or conversion from taking place. Evidence of wickedness--looting, Molotov cocktails, etc.--on "their side" appears to restore some sort of moral balance, bringing us back to a status quo where nothing changes.

We selectively pick and choose among the wickedness until we find what need to absolve us of guilt allowing us to emotionally and politically disengage.

In the language of the gospels, instead of looking at the speck in our brother's eye--and that speck might look like a Molotov cocktail--we fail to look at the beam in our own eye.

When we see pictures like the one above before anything we must morally reckon with the backdrop of oppression and injustice that produced the violence. Even Rand Paul, who may be the next GOP Presidential nominee, admits this much. Yesterday Senator Paul wrote this:
...Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them.

This is part of the anguish we are seeing in the tragic events outside of St. Louis, Missouri. It is what the citizens of Ferguson feel when there is an unfortunate and heartbreaking shooting like the incident with Michael Brown.

Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention. Our prisons are full of black and brown men and women who are serving inappropriately long and harsh sentences for non-violent mistakes in their youth.
Given the legacy of oppression and injustice that Senator Paul describes I believe White America is called to the spiritual labor to look upon Black rage with understanding if not compassion.

To be candid, it is unreasonable to expect an entire race or class of people to bear injustice, down to a person, stoically, non-violently and peaceably. In the face of oppression and state-sanctioned violence violent responses are inevitable. Sociologically and psychologically, the pressure cooker of oppression is going to blow from time to time. You just can't oppress people for generations and expect docility and good manners each night on local television. There will be ugly and violent episodes. That there aren't more of these episodes is a testament to Black patience, resiliency and civility.

But people can be pushed too far. Breaking points will be inevitably reached. And when that happens our first impulse should not be to mistake the symptoms (Black rage) for the underlying disease (systemic and generational oppression).

To be very clear, I'm not suggesting that violence is justified and should go unpunished. What I am suggesting is that if we are to make deep and lasting progress with racial reconciliation Black rage and violence must be suffered.

If anyone should understand this, Christians should. We, more than anyone, should understand that reconciliation isn't painless. Sin has it wages. Reconciliation will involve taking up our cross.

And this is the passion of the cross, the non-violent bearing of the sins of the world, especially our own, to bring about reconciliation. This is the only poultice that can draw the poison out.

Black rage is the cross White America must suffer for White sins, the passion we must endure, if our peoples are to be fully and deeply reconciled.

///

Some clarifications to add to the initial post.

I expect, and this is my fault for which I take full responsibility, that some readers will see in this post the suggestion that innocent Whites are Christ-figures bearing the sins of guilty blacks in the same sort of way that an innocent Christ bore the sins of a guilty humanity.

To clarify, that substitutionary innocent-for-guilty logic isn't what I'm trying to invoke. I'm using the metaphor of "taking up your cross" in its common usage, repentance and penance and bearing the consequences of your sins. When we make a mess of our lives the only way forward if reconciliation is the aim is to accept the consequences of our sins, to assume the guilt of our sins--to carry our cross--in putting the pieces of life back together.

My reference to the passion is that sins will have consequences, an associated suffering or reckoning that will be a part of the cross we have to carry. And a part of that burden, among other things, will be the rage of those we have abused. That rage, produced by our sin, will be a burden that we must carry when we take up our crosses in the journey toward reconciliation. As I said above, when Whites face Black rage they must suffer it. Not ignore it or use it as grist to justify the status quo or to turn the channel. Sins have consequences, a burden, a passion, a pain that must be faced and endured.

As Black voices tell us, reconciliation comes with a price, a cost, a burden. A cross if you will. This cross, this burden, is one that Whites habitually refuse to pick up. And my argument in this post is that a part of that cost and burden will be sympathy for Black rage and violence. But that's a price that many Whites simply will not pay. Sympathy for Black rage. And if you cannot suffer that--Black rage over the death of Michael Brown--how are we going to be able to make any progress?

Here's what I know after having spent many years as a part of these conversations. White people are more than happy to talk about racial reconciliation until 1) the rage is directed at them or 2) the burden of reconciliation becomes too costly.

In short, we want atonement and reconciliation without a cross--no passion, no assumption of guilt, no willingness to suffer as we carry the burden of our sin.
 
And maybe here is where, perhaps, the notion of vicarious suffering does play a part. Christ may have been innocent, but for the purposes of atonement and reconciliation he assumed guilt. Christ "became sin." And in a similar way we may have to assume the burden of sins that we have never personally committed.

Consider the case for racial reparations recently made by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It's a simple moral argument: the sins of slavery must be paid for. That is making atonement. But who is going to pay for the sins of the past?

Well, it's going to have to be White America of this or a future generation. But few in White America are willing to carry or assume these sins, to atone for these sins, to suffer in our time for sins of the past. We are not willing to carry the cross that slavery produced in America. And it's that unwillingness to undergo this passion, the refusal to carry the required cross, that I'm trying to describe.

And it's not just with something like reparations. This unwillingness to suffer and assume guilt typifies much within race relations. For example, the inability of us to endure the hot anger of Blacks of our acquaintance because, hey, I'm one of the good guys, I'm on your side. It's this inability to stand there and listen to the anger, to suffer and carry the anger, that creates the impasse.

No one wants to carry or suffer the anger. Thus Black rage bounces off Whites who are either indifferent or who want to deflect the anger onto others. No one wants to suffer.

Search Term Friday: The Threshing Floor of Araunah

Every week I get people coming to the blog searching for "the threshing floor of araunah."

That's a pretty obscure topic, but it links to a post I wrote last year about a bible lesson I taught out at the prison.

Those reflections are of theological interest as it's an example of using unexpected resources from the Old Testament to address issues regarding God's nature, specifically how God's nature is described and used in doctrines like penal substitutionary atonement or hell being eternal conscious torment: 

The book of 2 Samuel ends with what many scholars call "appendices," bits of poetry and narrative that are tacked on to the end of the book. These appendices are found in 2 Samuel 21-24.

The last story from the appendices, found in Chapter 24, recounts the census David undertakes and God's judgment upon him for doing so. Explanations vary as to why God was angered by the census. For whatever reason, the census was an act of hubris by the king, a usurping of God's prerogatives as the True King of Israel.

David realizes his sin and confesses. God, through the prophet of Gad, gives David a choice of punishments: three years of famine, three years of being chased by enemies, or three years of plague. David chooses the plague. A destroying angel bringing the plague then begins to move through Israel.

But then something interesting happens. As the destroying angel approaches Jerusalem God changes his mind and says "Enough!":
2 Samuel 24.16
When the angel stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem, the Lord relented concerning the disaster and said to the angel who was afflicting the people, “Enough! Withdraw your hand.” The angel of the Lord was then at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.
David sees the angel stopped at the threshing floor of Araunah and asks for God to stop the plague. David then buys the threshing floor, builds an altar on the spot, and offers sacrifices to God.

But what I find interesting in the narrative is that God already stopped, before David's request and his sacrifices. Various translations of verse 16 read that God "relented," "repented," "changed his mind," and "felt sorry."

The destruction stopped because something happened in the heart of God prior to any human appeal or sacrifice.

I think this is interesting because of why this story is included as an appendix to 2 Samuel. Specifically, this story was included in the book to explain why the temple was built where it was built. The threshing floor of Araunah was on Mount Moriah--the Temple Mount--where the temple was eventually erected:
2 Chronicles 3.1
Then Solomon began to build the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the Lord had appeared to his father David. It was on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite, the place provided by David. 
I think this is interesting as from this point forward the temple becomes the location of sacrifice in ancient Israel. You would come to the temple to offer sacrifices so that God would forgive your sins.  And because of those rituals you might come to believe that God needs or requires these sacrifices in order to show and extend mercy.

And yet, in the primordial account of the threshing floor of Araunah we note that mercy wasn't triggered or brought about by sacrifice. Mercy was found in the heart of a God who repents and relents. Mercy was found in a God who says "Enough!" to punishment, without sacrifices or blood.

Lessons learned here? A few I think.

The sacrifices associated with the temple might lead us to draw the wrong conclusions about God's mercy and the necessity of sacrifice. As seen in 2 Samuel 24, the story of the origins of the temple, God doesn't need sacrifice to show mercy. And God can stop punishment whenever God wants.

To be sure, sacrifice is important. But the importance of sacrifice is symbolic rather than causal. That's the point too many Christians have missed. Sacrifice is symbolic rather than causal.

Sacrifice has no casual potency in the economy of God. Sacrifices bring about absolutely nothing.

Mercy is not caused or produced by sacrifice.

Mercy is only found in the heart and freedom of God.

Eccentric Christianity: Part 2, The Eccentric God, Transcendence and the Prophetic Imagination

When Karl Barth published the second edition of his famous commentary on Romans in 1922 it is said to have landed "like a bombshell on the theologians' playground." Why? Because Barth proclaimed the radical transcendence of God. God was "wholly Other."

The observation I'd like to make is how eccentricity is a great metaphor to describe the Otherness and transcendence of God. The eccentric God is always experienced as "outside" the system and status quo. God approaches us from "the outside" of our current arrangements and understandings. Consequently, when it comes to God the community of faith has to adopt a receptive posture, waiting upon the initiative of God. And while all this is often described with the language of "transcendence"--using a higher vs. lower metaphor--it can also be described by the eccentric metaphor, an inside vs. outside distinction.

Specifically, God is Other but the eccentric metaphor sees God as less "above" us than "outside" us, less "over" us than unable to be "captured" by us. The eccentric God cannot be "bounded," "encircled" or "delimited" by human experience, social arrangements, systems, or dogmas. Thus, I think eccentricity is a helpful metaphor for those who want to speak of the transcendence of God but who also want to locate that Otherness immanently rather than hierarchically.

Consequently, because of its ability to speak of God's Otherness immanently rather than hierarchically--rather than God existing "high above" us we speak of how God cannot be "captured" or "bounded" by the status quo--I think progressive theology would be attracted to the metaphor of eccentricity in speaking about God's transcendence.

But why is it important to preserve the Otherness of God?

Given my reference to Karl Barth, his story in relation to Nazi Germany is a good place to start in on an answer.

The reason why Barth's commentary on Romans was a "bombshell" was that it attacked an impulse within liberal German theology that was locating and even reducing God to human experience. In many ways that impulse within liberal theology is, in my opinion, an extraordinarily healthy move. Personally, I think it's a very biblical move. "God is love" being the best summary of this theological  inclination. To say nothing of the Incarnation and texts like Mathew 25.

And yet, this is a very fragile business and it rests upon a critical assumption, an assumption that is the great weakness of liberal, humanistic and progressive theology. Specifically, identifying God with human concerns and affairs assumes that human experience and social life will tend toward the virtuous, that people are naturally good and loving. When liberal theologians deconstruct the transcendent God to identify God with love the assumption at work is that human "love" will naturally and inevitably--two huge, huge assumptions!--tend toward the light.

Simplistically, the vision behind liberal theology is a sort of moral optimism and utopianism: Identify God with what humans think is loving and good and trust people to get those things right because people are awesome.

The trouble with this, obviously, is that there is a lot of darkness in humanity. In theological terms, the problem with progressive and liberal theology is that it lacks a robust theology of sin. Consequently, when humans are left to define for themselves what is right, just or loving things can get twisted pretty quickly. When God is defined immanently God just is whatever humans say God is. And if humans are pulled into darkness "God" is also pulled into darkness. God is used, in fact, to justify the darkness.

This was Barth's point about liberal theology and how it enabled the rise of Nazism. Specifically, by so closely aligning the voice of God with the voice of human experience liberal theology lacked the prophetic resources to critique human experience when the human experience in Germany turned toward Nazism. The relationship between human experience and the divine had grown too intimate, chummy and cozy. Thus, the German church was not equipped to speak a prophetic Nein! to Hitler. Some did--Barth, Bonhoeffer, the White Rose, the Confessing Church--but by and large the German church folded in the face of evil. There were not enough prophets in the land. There were not enough people who saw daylight between God and the swastika.

This is a story that has been told before. But to be honest, I think liberal theology gets thrown under the bus a bit too quickly in this telling. Because its not like conservatives have a great track record on this score. For example, in America today it is the religious conservatives who struggle seeing daylight between God and the American flag or God and the free market.

Psychologically speaking, I think everyone--conservative and liberal theologians, creedally orthodox and heterodox theologians--is tempted to align the voice of God with their own voice.

To be quite candid, I don't think Trinitarian theology protects you from wickedness. Trintiarian theology isn't a moral talisman that you can wave to ward off the devil. Nor do I think, to be fair, that process theology or liberation theology is a moral talisman that you can wave to ward off the devil.

The only thing that reliably wards off the devil is the cross, kenosis and loving self-giving for both friends and enemies. The cross is the only protection from wickedness and evil in the world. 

So there is this problem that we all face, liberal and conservative alike. There is a chronic and constant psychological tendency to see God as aligned and identified with our group, our interests, our values, our nation, our way of life, our choices, our worldview, our economy, our church, our theology and our PhD dissertation.

This is why we need the eccentric God, a God that cannot be bounded, encircled or delimited to our group, our interests, our values, our nation, our way of life, our choices, our worldview, our economy, our church, or our theology. God is "outside" all these mental, social, economic and political containers.

Phrased another way, the eccentric God is free.

The wholly Other--the eccentric God--cannot be captured, contained, circumscribed, co-opted, cordoned off, chained up, corralled or cooped up.

Alliteration, baby!

And because of this there is daylight between human experience and God which creates the imaginative capacity to envision God speaking a No! against us. Walter Brueggemann calls this capacity the prophetic imagination. I talk about this in the last chapter in The Slavery of Death.

Let's have Abraham Heschel sum it up:
[T]here must be a counterpoint to the immense power of man to destroy, there must be a Voice that says no to man, a voice not vague, faint and inward, like qualms of conscience, but equal in spiritual might to man's power to destroy.
There must be a Voice that says No to humanity, a Voice equal in spiritual might to our power to destroy.

This is the reason we need the eccentric God.

Incarnational Theology and Mental Illness

As a psychologist I wanted to insert some thoughts, in the wake of Robin Williams' death, into the current conversation about faith and mental illness, depression in particular.

In addition to the issue of extending welcome and compassion to those suffering from mental illness--and there have been some great reflections posted online about that issue, see Sarah's and Ann's--I wanted to make a theological observation.

Within Christianity discussions about mental illness are often afflicted by Gnostic and dualistic assumptions, where there is a hard (even ontological) division made between the soul/spirit/mind and the brain. Specifically, we often assume that the soul is separate from the neurotransmitters in the brain. Thus, even though you might have, say, low serotonin levels in the brain in the case of depression, the soul has the ability to override the brain to "chose differently." Willpower and choice in this vision are radically separate and distinct from those low serotonin levels.

But things like willpower, motivation or mood actually are those serotonin levels. And even if reducing the soul to brain-function makes you nervous at the very least we must admit that the soul is radically affected by and dependent upon those serotonin levels.

In short, when it comes to mental illness we have to reject the Gnostic and dualistic assumptions that have governed the conversation about mental illness in our churches.

What this means is that mental illness requires incarnational theology and reflection. Depression is about our bodies. But the Gnostic impulses within Christianity often obscure that fact. The brain is an organ of the body as much as our stomachs and livers.

Our theological reflection must attend to embodiment, and this includes mental illness. And if we do this my hope is that not only will we become more accepting of the bodies of others but that we'll expand our understanding of "spiritual formation," coming to see how attending to and caring for the body in mental illness is as "spiritual" as bible study and prayer.

Eccentric Christianity: Part 1, A Peculiar People

In my book The Slavery of Death I use the notion of eccentricity to describe Christian identity, the experience of finding and grounding your identity outside of the boundary of the self. I'm borrowing this notion of eccentricity from David Kelsey's two volume work Eccentric Existence. Whenever speak of eccentricity I reference David Kelsey because I'm using the hell out of this idea but I don't want people to think I coined the term or introduced the idea.

And I do owe David Kelsey, because the more and more I think about this notion of eccentricity the more and more connections I see, connections that go beyond my treatment in The Slavery of Death. I've come to think that eccentricity is a hugely potent and explanatory idea.

So what I'd like to do is share some posts about "Eccentric Christianity," showing some connections between eccentricity and other theological and biblical concepts. The ideas themselves won't be novel, what will be novel (and I hope illuminating) will be how all these disparate ideas find themselves under the umbrella of eccentricity.

But before getting to the theologically heavy stuff, let's begin this series with a comment regarding the definitional playfulness of the word "eccentric."

The word eccentric comes from the Greek combination of ek (out of) and kentron (center), with ekkentros meaning "out of center." In the late Middle Ages this term--eccentric--was mainly an astronomical term describing orbital systems where the earth was not placed at the center. Thus, Copernicus' theory was "eccentric," the earth was displaced from the center of the solar system.

So the earliest idea of eccentricity was astronomical in nature. And this is the idea at the heart of David Kelsey's analysis, the one I borrow and combine with ideas of Arthur McGill in The Slavery of Death to describe a vision of Christian identity formation. That is, using the astronomical metaphor, an eccentric identity is an identity where the focal point of the self is shifted away from the center. The ego, in a kind of Copernican Revolution, is displaced from the center and moved to the periphery. The self is displaced being the "center of the universe" so that it may orbit God.

A related notion is how eccentric describes "a location elsewhere than at the geometrical center." The notion here is less orbital and more geometrical. Eccentric is the area outside--eccentric to--the center. This is the main metaphor we'll be working with, the notion that something eccentric is "outside" the boundaries we create.

These, then, are the geometrical metaphors we'll be playing with. But the charm of the word eccentric is how it has normative and behavioral connotations as well. As we all know, people can be eccentric, a bit "off center," with the "center" being some cultural or behavioral norm. Thus the definitions of eccentric as "tending to act in strange or unusual ways," "deviating from an established or usual pattern or style," and "deviating from conventional or accepted usage or conduct."

What a delightful multivalenced way to describe the Christian life. Eccentric Christianity is a new orbit where the self is displaced and God is found at the center of life. And in this displacement the Christian begins to act in "strange and unusual ways" in relation to the norms of the world. 

We become, in the words of the King James Version, "a peculiar people."

Be Converted

This is the mission entrusted to the church,
    a hard mission:
to uproot sins from history,
to uproot sins from the political order,
to uproot sins from the economy,
to uproot sins wherever they are...

No one wants to have a sore spot touched,
and therefore a society with so many sores twitches
when someone has the courage to touch it
and say: "You have to treat that.
    You have to get rid of that.
    Believe in Christ.
    Be converted."

--Oscar Romero

My prayer for America. In memory of Michael Brown. And all the others...

Our Inner Dying Grows To Meet That Death From Without

I wish I had found this Bonhoeffer quote before writing The Slavery of Death as it captures so much of what I try to say in the book:
In life with Jesus Christ, death as a general fate approaching us from without is confronted by death from within, one's own death, the free death of daily dying with Jesus Christ. Those who live with Christ die daily to their own will. Christ in us gives us over to death so that he can live within us. Thus our inner dying grows to meet that death from without. Christians receive their own death in this way, and in this way our physical death very truly becomes not the end but rather the fulfillment of our life with Jesus Christ. Here we enter into community with the One who at his own death was able to say, "It is finished."

--Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Search Term Friday: Judas Suicide

Recently the search terms "judas suicide" brought someone to the blog.

Those search terms linked to a series of posts I did in 2010 about Judas, the most popular of which shared some reflections on how Judas and his suicide have been portrayed in art:

Historically, there are a couple of recurring motifs in depictions of Judas.

First, Judas is often wearing a yellow robe. Yellow represents greed (the color of gold) and cowardice. Judas is also often depicted clutching a money bag. Again, this symbolizes his greed. Finally, Judas is often depicted as having red hair. This is a symbol of the satanic. Below are some examples of these motifs in portrayals of the betrayal in the garden (click on the pictures for a closer look):

Giotto's The Kiss of Judas (1304-06) shows the red hair and yellow robe (on the left you also see Peter cutting off the ear of the servant):

This Kiss of Judas from the 12th Century shows the yellow underneath Judas' robe (showing us his hidden but "true colors"). Judas is also clutching a money bag. Peter is again depicted cutting off the servant's ear on the bottom left. Like the depiction above, note how Peter and Jesus have halos. Judas does not:

These motifs can also be seen in depictions of the Last Supper. All four motifs--yellow robe, money bag, red hair, missing halo--are seen Joan de Joanes' The Last Supper (1565). Judas is on the far right, leaning away from Jesus:

As many Judas scholars have noted, the gospels of Luke and John add diabolical details to the Judas narrative, portraying Judas as in league with the devil. Thus, devilish motifs also show up in portrayals of Judas. Consider the demon who hovers behind Judas (still in yellow and with red hair) in Giotto's The Pact of Judas (1303-05) as Judas arranges with the Jewish leaders to betray Jesus:

Some other satanic motifs are seen Cosimo Rosselli's The Last Supper (1481). Note how Judas is completely separated from Jesus and the Twelve, isolated on the other side of the table. Compare also the color of Judas' halo with the halos of Jesus and the Twelve. Also, Judas has a cat behind him. Cats, as satanic familiars, were often added to depictions of Judas:

Finally, demonic details have also been added to depictions of Judas's suicide. For example, in depictions of Judas's suicide we often see the soul of Judas (depicted as as a small person leaving the body of Judas) taken away by a demon. Consider this glasswork from 1520:

As seen above, from the early years of the church to the Renaissance the depictions of Judas were almost universally harsh, highlighting his cowardice, greed, or diabolical nature. However, since the Renaissance portrayals of Judas have become increasingly ambivalent. Judas shifts from being evil to tragic, evoking sympathy and empathy. My favorite example of this take on Judas comes from Nikolai Ge's Conscience, Judas (1891):

In Ge's painting we see, in the upper right corner, Jesus being taken away in the fading torchlight of the soldiers. Judas stands alone, clutching himself (not a moneybag). He is without Christ in the darkness. Ge's Judas looks like a figure of profound desolation and isolation. And as you see Judas standing there--alone in the dark--your heart breaks for him.

Love Your Way Through

The other day I came across this line by Cornel West. It's a short line, but it captures so much about how I feel about life and living.

In describing how he tries to approach life West says his intention is
"to love my way through the absurdity of life."
To love our way through the absurdity of life.

I think a lot of theological conversation ends up in absurdity. In the face of pain. In the face of suffering. In the face of death. In the face of things we know nothing about.

In the face of all that absurdity I think Christians talk too damn much.

Me included, given the flood of words on this blog.

But the main reason I am a Christian is that it gives me a way to "love my way through." My Christianity isn't a metaphysical system. It's not a theory. It's not a creed or an orthodoxy. It's not a sacred book.

It is a way to love my way through.

The Lord of the Flies

In 2 Kings 1 Ahaziah, king of Israel, is injured by a fall. Rather than turning to YHWH, Ahaziah sends his messengers to secure the favor of a different god:
2 Kings 1.2b
So he sent messengers, saying to them, “Go and consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron, to see if I will recover from this injury.” 
2 Kings (1.2-3, 6, 16) is the only time the Philistine deity of Baal-Zebub is mentioned in the Old Testament and the character of this god is a source of speculation. On the surface, the name Baal-Zebub means "Baal of the flies," which can be translated as "Lord of the flies" or "Master of the flies."

Lord of the flies is a strange name for a god. There are two possible takes on this.

The first take is that if flies are associated with plagues and sickness it seems reasonable for the ailing Ahaziah to call upon the god who "masters" the flies/plagues.  If you want to get rid of the flies--symbols of sickness and plague--then you call upon the Lord of the Flies.

The other take is that the name Baal-Zebub is an insult inserted into the text. Some have argued that the real name of the god in question was Baal-Zebul, "Baal the prince." By switching from Zebul ("prince") to Zebub ("flies")--calling the god by the wrong but similar sounding name--the writer of 2 Kings may have been intentionally denigrating the god of Ekron.

The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament often used by the New Testament writers, renders Baal-Zebub as Baalzebub.

In the New Testament gospels Beelzeboul is mentioned and described as the "prince of demons" (Mark 3.22; Matthew 12.24-28; Matthew 10.25; Luke 11.15-18). Beelzeboul eventually gets translated as Beelzebub in the King James Version.

Many scholars note a connection between Baal-Zebub of 2 Kings and Beelzebub in the synoptic gospels. The nature of the connection is disputed. If there is a connection clearly there was some evolution. We travel some distance from the patron deity of the city of Ekron in 2 Kings to the prince of demons in the gospel accounts.

But if a connection does exist I think the wordplay between Zebul ("prince") and Zebub ("flies") is interesting.

The bible refers to Satan as the "prince" and "ruler" of the world. Satan is Baal-Zebul, "prince." But in the Christian imagination Prince Satan--who appears as an angel of light--is also unmasked as Baal-Zebub. Both designations are true.

Prince of the world and Lord of the flies.

The Icons of God in Marriage: Nature and Election

The Christian debates about same-sex marriage are fraught and contentious. And one of the problems, in my estimation, that contributes to the conflict is a false dichotomy that is often at work.

On the one side of the argument is the traditional appeal which privileges nature. That is, the biological and reproductive complementarity between a man and a woman is taken to be theologically and morally normative for Christian marriage--the icon of God.

On the other side of the argument, as I've argued it borrowing insights from Rowan Williams and Eugene Rogers, is the privileging of election. That is, the icon of Christian marriage, the image of God's love as expressed in YHWH's election and marriage of Israel, is how the marital union expresses the grace of election. In this view, election trumps nature, the same way grace trumped nature when God unnaturally "grafted" the Gentiles into the story of Israel. The same way election trumps the kinship bonds of the biological family. The same way grace is described as adoption along with reproduction. Overall, such a view of marriage includes marital covenants that fall outside the "natural" complementarity between a man and a woman.

Now, the point I want to make is that in the debates about marriage the battle is often fought between these competing visions. Is marriage defined by nature or election? Is the icon of God in marriage best captured by nature or election? Traditionalists argue for nature. Progressives argue for election.

But this is a false dichotomy, leading both camps to disparage, diminish and demean the icon of God as expressed in the alternative vision.

I don't think the grace of God as symbolically and sacramentally expressed and mediated in the covenant of marriage can be reduced to either grace or election. Both are involved. But far too often we diminish the icon of God held up by the other party.

Specifically, worrying as they do about heteronormativity, progressives will often seek to ignore, minimize or marginalize the biological complementarity and reproductive aspects of traditional marriage. Worries duly noted, I think this is a mistake. Clearly, God's command "be fruitful and multiply" mediates God's grace in the world, expresses the icon of God. Each one of us exists because of heterosexuality. Even gay couples wanting to have a family are dependent upon the reproductive grace of sex, their own of that of others. And the Christian response to the grace of reproductive sex, it seems to me, is a deep and lasting gratitude. 

And yet, to swing to the other side, traditional Christians often ignore, minimize or marginalize the elective and adoptive aspects of marriage. In this, traditional Christians also err badly, demeaning the icon of God. There are things that nature can never, ever display about the grace and love of God. And the only marriages and families that can demonstrate this grace are those that do not, for a variety of reason, place biology and reproduction at the center. In fact, when biology and nature come to trump grace and election all sorts pernicious and dark theological dynamics are introduced into the Kingdom of God. These are same nature-based dynamics that Jesus's aggressively rejected throughout his ministry.

In short, both nature and election reflect vital, distinctive and complementary aspects of the image of God. Alone neither vision is complete, failing to incorporate critical theological aspects of God's covenantal love and fidelity as revealed and symbolically expressed in the biblical narrative. 

A point here is that if you argue that the natural biological complementarity involved in heterosexual marriage cannot be rejected because it carries--biblically, theologically and sacramentally--the image of God then I'd like to say that I'm in perfect agreement. And the stronger you make that case the more I will agree with you. You cannot make that case strongly enough.

But where I will differ is if one goes further to say that the icon of God in marriage reduces to or is exclusively manifested in heterosexual marriage. I reject that reduction as a false dichotomy that leaves out critical biblical, theological and sacramental material related to how the grace of election expresses the love of God in a way that nature cannot.

In a similar way, I think Christian advocates of same-sex marriage, rightly worried about the oppressions of heteronormativity, are too quick to ignore or explain away how heterosexuality and procreation function as deep biblical symbols and, thus, as conduits of God's revelation of grace.

In sum, I don't think there is a choice here. It's a both/and rather than an either/or.

And all that to say nothing about how singles are icons of God in a way married couples--gay or straight--can never be.

That single person, sitting with her friends in the pews.

That gay couple, always with their kids in cute matching outfits.

That married couple, always running late to services because they have nine children, and she's pregnant with the tenth.

All these, and more.

All these, the Icons of God.

Remembering James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman

As I mentioned a few weeks ago this summer marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. Freedom Summer was the effort in the summer of 1964 to "crack" Mississippi, the most violently racist state in the US, by starting up Freedom Schools and registering black voters.

At the start of the summer, while volunteers were being trained in Ohio, civil rights workers James Chaney and Michael Schwerner along with volunteer Andrew Goodman drove south to Mississippi to investigate a church burning outside Philadelphia, MS.

The trip was dangerous. The fact that James, who was black, would be traveling with two whites, Michael and Andrew, would be a clear sign that they were civil rights workers. And the Klan in Mississippi was gearing up to send a message to the Freedom Summer workers who were about to descend upon the state. The situation in Mississippi was tense and volatile.  

On June 20th, James, Michael and Andrew safely got to the civil rights office in Meridian, Mississippi. The next morning, on June 21st, they drove north toward Philadelphia to investigate the church burning. That afternoon, just as they were starting to head back toward Meridian, the men were stopped and arrested by deputy sheriff Cecil Price from Neshoba County Mississippi who was also a member of Ku Klux Klan. James, Michael and Andrew were held in jail until nightfall and were released around 10:30 pm.

The reason for the delayed release was so that the Klan could get a plan in place to hijack the civil rights workers. Leaving the jail James, Michael and Andrew drove south on Highway 19 back toward Meridian. Cars packed with men were waiting for them. Finding themselves pursued, James, Michael and Andrew raced through the night down Highway 19.

They were eventually overtaken. Captured, James, Michael and Andrew were driven back up Highway 19 a couple of miles until the caravan of cars reached an unmarked dirt road that led off into the woods. There in the dark woods, just off Highway 19, James, Michael and Andrew were murdered.

Their bodies were discovered many weeks later, on August 4. Today, fifty years ago.

A few weeks ago, at the start of our family vacation, we were traveling through Mississippi and were spending the night in Meridian. Given that we were in Meridian and that this was the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer and of the deaths of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, I wanted to drive north on Highway 19 to visit the murder site and pay my respects.

So I got up early, leaving Jana and the boys sleeping in the hotel, and drove north toward Philadelphia on Highway 19. For the first part the road was four lanes, designated at one point by a sign saying "Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner Memorial Highway." Eventually, the highway narrowed to two lanes and the trees came in close. Very much like the highway would have looked in 1964.

I drove past the point where James, Michael and Andrew were overtaken and captured (Highway 492). From that point, I was retracing the last moments of their lives, driving north toward the turn off where they were taken down a dirt road and into the woods.

The turn off is marked by a historical marker, pictured above, on the edge of Highway 19.

I turned down the road and reached the intersection where the murders occurred. I stopped the car and got out.

There are a few houses along this road now, but at the intersection the area is still wooded. I stood there looking into the trees and tried to comprehend what had happened in this place fifty years ago.

Nothing seemed to mark the spot. Just the historical marker down on the highway. But then my eye caught a small cairn of stones, pine cones and flowers at the edge of the trees.

I walked over and examined the stones and flowers. Bits of paper were mixed in, notes written to James, Michael and Andrew. Remembering them. Thanking them. This is the small unofficial memorial that has been created by those who drove off the highway to visit the place where James, Michael and Andrew had died.

I sat quietly and reflectively, alone by that small pile of stones, flowers, pine cones and paper. Eventually the pressure to get back to the hotel asserted itself. I needed to get back to the family. We had a long drive ahead of us that day.

I rose and scanned the ground, finding what I was looking for. I stood over the cairn and said a prayer. Then I knelt down and added my stone the the pile.

The breeze whispered in the pine trees, and I whispered their names with it.

"James, Michael, Andrew."

"Thank you."

Search Term Friday: Strange Loops and Theology

Recently these search terms
strange loops and theology
brought someone to the blog.

Those search terms go back to a very old series I did in 2007 in the early years of this blog. In that series I shared some theological reflections on Douglas Hofstadter's book I Am a Strange Loop.

I have not thought about that series for years, but after seeing those search terms I was interested in going back to see how those reflections held up. Feel free to give your assessment.

Initially these reflections were broken up over five posts. I've edited and pulled them all together into this single post.

Yes, that makes this post very long. But if you get to the end I hope you'll feel rewarded with some really interesting ideas. Ideas that may change how you think about free will, love, life, death, resurrection, Jesus, narrative theology and the Eucharist.

///

One of my favorite authors is Douglas Hofstadter. I first encountered his work when I picked up his 1979 Pulitzer-Prize winning Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (henceforth, GEB). In GEB, Hofstadter meditates on the idea of self-reference and how it seems central to consciousness and meaning.

In his book I Am a Strange Loop Hofstadter picks up those themes he left off in 1979. In what follows like to offer some theological reflections on I Am a Strange Loop, touching on issues related to identity, resurrection and the ritual of the Lord's Supper.

1. We Are "Little Miracles of Self-Reference"

The book GEB is mainly a reflection on Kurt Gödel's famous incompleteness theorem. Simplifying greatly, Gödel was able to embed self-reference in what was then considered to be a mathematical system of iron-clad logical rigor, Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica. Today, Gödel's theorem is considered to be one of the most important logical, philosophical, and epistemological breakthroughs in the history of world.

The idea of self-reference is common enough. It even has biblical roots. Paul in Titus 1:12 says,
Even one of their own prophets has said, "Cretans are always liars..."
Given ancient sources we know the person Paul is referring to: The Cretan philosopher Epimenides. Consequently, the self-referential paradox surrounding Epimedides' statement is called The Epimedides Paradox or The Liar Paradox.

The paradox is easy to see. If Epimenides is a Cretan and he utters the statement p--"Cretans are always liars"--then what is that truth-status of p?
If p is true then Cretans are not always liars which means p is false: A contradiction.
The contradiction is due to self-reference. The simplest way to see this is in the old-standby:
This sentence is false.
You see the paradox. If the sentence is false then it's true. If it's true then it is false.

Again, the paradox is due to self-reference, the sentence points to itself. The point about Gödel's theorem was that Gödel was able to embed self-reference into the system of Principia Mathematica, making the logical system presented in that book speak about its own truth/proof status.

But Gödel's breakthrough was not just simply about self-reference. Rather, Gödel's proof was able to create a new level of analysis. That is, Gödel's paradox came via a higher-order coding system, a new level of meaning, which could "speak about" a lower level of meaning. The outcome was still paradoxical and self-referential, but it came via a higher-order, nested structure. A structure, Gödel later proved, that would continue on ad infinitum. Kind of like a set of logical Russian dolls.

Okay, all very interesting, but what does any this have to do with being a human being?

Well, Hofstadter contends that this idea of nested self-reference is what gives rise to human consciousness, our symbols, and our sense of self. It is our ability to reflect on reflections that pulls us up, cognitively speaking, from being simply stimulus-response creatures. That is, I can have a thought, then wonder about that thought, then wonder about that wondering.

It's like Gödel's self-referential Russian Dolls, with new meanings produced at each new level of nested self-reference. Hofstadter has some great labels for this process. He calls it the "Gödelian swirl of self." But mainly he calls us Strange Loops: Self-reference looping back on itself to create new meaning. In the words of Hofstadter we Strange Loops are "self-perceiving, self-inventing, locked-in, mirages [which] are little miracles of self-reference."

2. The Self as a Symbol and Attunement with the World

Beyond the idea of self-reference there is another idea in Douglas Hofstadter's book I Am a Strange Loop that we need to get under our belts. This involves the relationship between symbols, the self and the causal aspect of symbols.

Again, Hofstadter calls us "Strange Loops" due to the self-referential nature of human consciousness. If self-reference is the "loop" part, what does "strange" mean?

As we saw in Hofstadter's discussion of Gödel, a strange loop is not simply a feedback loop like audio feedback through a speaker and microphone leading to that ear-piercing screech. Rather, a strange loop produces higher-order structures which create meaning through their reference to lower level structures. These higher-order structures are called symbols. In the words of Hofstadter,
What I mean by 'strange loop' is...not a physical structure but an abstract loop in which, in the series of stages that constitute the cycling-around, there is a shift from one level of abstraction (or structure) to another, which feels like an upwards movement in a hierarchy.
This ability for level-crossing (higher-to-lower and lower-to-higher) and for loops of self-reference is what creates the vast complexity of human symbol acquisition and development. Again from Hofstadter,
Concepts in the brain of humans acquired the property that they could get rolled together with other concepts into larger packets, and any such larger packet could become a new concept in its own right. In other words, concepts could nest inside each other hierarchically, and such nesting could go on to arbitrary degrees.
Now, and this is the big point, what sits at the top of these higher-level structures? What is the big "nest" that "contains" all the levels of reference and all the symbols?

Hofstadter says it is the Self-Symbol, the "I" sitting in your mind. This Self-Symbol begins acting on the world and the world, in turn, sends input back through the levels of the Self-Symbol causing it to adjust, harmonize, and synchronize. The Self-Symbol becomes "attuned" to the world. Hofstadter describes this whole process:
The vast amounts of stuff that we call 'I' collectively give rise, at some particular moment, to some external action, much as a stone tossed into a pond gives rise to expanding rings and ripples. Soon, our action's myriad consequences start bouncing back at us, like the first ripples returning after bouncing off the pond's banks. What we receive back affords us the chance to perceive what the gradually metamorphosing 'I' has wrought. Millions of tiny reflected signals impinge on us from outside, whether visually, sonically, tactilely, or whatever, and when they land, they trigger internal waves of secondary and tertiary signals inside our brain...

And thus the current 'I'--the most up-to-date set of recollections and aspirations and passions and confusions--by tampering with the vast, unpredictable world of objects and other people, has sparked some rapid feedback, which, once absorbed in the form of symbol activations, gives rise to an infinitesimally modified 'I'; thus round and round it goes, moment after moment, day after day, year after year. In this fashion, via the loop of symbols sparking actions and repercussions triggering symbols, the abstract structure serving us as our innermost essence evolves slowly but surely, and in so doing it locks itself ever more rigidly into our mind. Indeed, as the years pass, the 'I' converges and stabilizes itself just as the screech of an audio feedback loop inevitably zeros in and stabilizes itself at the system's natural resonance frequency...

...but there is a key difference...in any strange loop that gives rise to human selfhood, [in] contrast [to the audio feedback loop], the level-shifting acts of perception, abstraction, and categorization are central, indispensable elements. It is the upward leap from raw stimuli to symbols that imbues the strange loop with "strangeness". The overall gestalt 'shape' of one's self--the 'stable whorl', so to speak, of the strange loop constituting one's 'I'--is not picked up by a disinterested, neutral camera, but is perceived in a highly subjective manner through the active processes of categorizing, mental replaying, reflecting, comparing, counterfactualizing, and judging.
The important point here is that in the process of attunement the Self-Symbol isn't passively absorbing the world. The Self-Symbol isn't a blank slate. The Self-Symbol is triggering events in the world. The symbols have causal potency. In turn, events in the world can trigger changes in in the symbols and how they are organized in the Self.

3. "Who Pushes Whom Around in the Population of Causal Forces that Occupy the Cranium" or Can an Idea Push Around an Atom?

The reason for focusing on this give and take between Self and World is that if the Self is primarily a symbol we'll have to wrestle with how symbols are locations of causality, how symbols can trigger other symbols and trigger events in the world.

Such questions bring us to the issue of how the Self might be "free" in a physical universe governed by the laws of physical causality. That is, are symbols controlling their own triggering or are these symbols being pushed around by the lower level particles? Do the symbols have any causal power of their own, able to push around the atoms and molecules? Or are the atoms and molecules pushing around the symbols in a deterministic and reductionistic manner?

Framed crudely, can an idea push around an atom?

In approaching this question Hofstadter takes inspiration from the thoughts of Roger Sperry, the pioneer of split-brained research fame (all our talk of "right-brained" versus "left-brained" traces back to Sperry). Here is the Sperry quote that has inspired Hofstadter:
In my own hypothetical brain model, conscious awareness does get representation as a very real causal agent and rates an important place in the causal sequence and chain of control in brain events, in which it appears as an active, operational force...

To put it very simply, it comes down to the issue of who pushes whom around in the population of causal forces that occupy the cranium. It is a matter, in other words, of straightening out the peck-order hierarchy among intracranial control agents. There exists within the cranium a whole world of diverse causal forces; what is more, there are forces within forces within forces, as in no other cubic half-foot of universe that we know of...

To make a long story short, if one keeps climbing upward in the chain of command within the brain, one finds at the very top those over-all organizational forces and dynamic properties of the large patterns of cerebral excitation that are correlated with mental states of psychic activity... Near the apex of this command system in the brain...we find ideas.

Man over the chimpanzee has ideas and ideals. In the brain model proposed here, the causal potency of an idea, or an ideal, becomes just as real as that of a molecule, a cell, or a nerve impulse. Ideas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas. They interact with each other and with other mental forces in the same brain, in neighboring brains, and, thanks to global communication, in far distant, foreign brains. And they also interact with the external surroundings to produce in toto a burstwise advance in evolution that is far beyond anything to hit the evolutionary scene yet, including the emergence of the living cell.
The big point Sperry is making is that it is perfectly legitimate to see ideas and symbols as causal forces. That is, a causal description of the brain does not have to be a description as a biologist and physicist would give it, at the level of molecules on down. It is legitimate to see ideas pushing around molecules and not the other way around. To quote Hofstadter:
Do dreads and dreams, hopes and griefs, ideas and beliefs, interests and doubts, infatuations and envies, memories and ambitions, bouts of nostalgia and floods of empathy, flashes of guilt and sparks of genius, play any role in the world of physical objects? Do such pure abstractions have causal powers? Can they shove massive things around, or are they just impotent fictions? Can a blurry, intangible 'I' dictate to concrete physical objects such as electrons or muscles (or for that matter, books) what to do?

Have religious beliefs caused any wars, or have all wars just been caused by the interactions of quintillions (to underestimate the truth absurdly) of infinitesimal particles according to the laws of physics? Does fire cause smoke? Do cars cause smog? Do drones cause boredom? Do jokes cause laughter? Do smiles cause swoons? Does love cause marriage? Or, in the end, are there just myriads of particles pushing each other around according the the laws of physics--leaving, in the end, no room for selves or souls, dreads or dreams, love or marriage, smiles or swoons, jokes or laughter, drones or boredom, car or smog, or even smoke or fire?
But beyond these rhetorical questions, Hofstadter tries to explain how there might be a scientifically valid way of viewing the causal power of symbols and mental states. The issue, according to Hofstadter, goes to levels of description. For example, consider the question: Why did World War II begin?

You could try to answer the question at the level of particle physics, trying to explain the swirl of particles that we labeled "World War II." Or you could try to describe WWII with a higher-level description, referring to larger-scale patterns. You might, for example, talk about a causal force labelled "Hitler."

To illustrate how ideas can have causal potency on physical objects Hofstadter offers up this metaphor.

Imagine a huge array of dominoes ready to fall. However, this array of dominoes is special. It is set up to do a calculation. Logically, you figure out an array of dominoes that can take a numerical input (e.g., knocking down X rows of dominoes in various spots to correspond to different numbers) and make a calculation. Specifically, the dominoes are set to fall to create two outputs, a red domino will fall in the end if the input number is prime and a blue domino, in a different area, will fall if the input number is not prime. So, we input our number--641--by knocking down the correlated rows of dominoes. We then watch the cascade of dominoes fall. The cascade goes in all directions dictated by the computational structure we've arrayed. Some cascades split and rejoin. Others stop. In the end, the red domino drops and the blue is left standing. Verdict: 641 is prime. (Computer people will recognize that this domino array is simply a computational algorithm, no different in application then what goes on in a computer or calculator.)

Given this example, Hofstadter asks the question: Why did the red domino fall?

Well, we could try to give the explanation in terms of particle physics. And that would be a valid but unfeasible and incomprehensible explanation. Or, we could scale up a bit and say, "Because the domino next to it fell." Again, that is a legitimate explanation but still too myopic. So, we could back up further and say that the red domino fell due to long complicated chains of dominoes falling, an appeal to the array. Again, this is accurate enough as far as it goes but it still misses a great deal, like the fact that this array isn't arbitrary or random. It has a pattern. So, in the end, it is perfectly legitimate to say that the red domino fell "Because 641 is prime."

Hofstadter's conclusion:
The point of this example is that 641's primality is the best explanation, perhaps even the only explanation, for why certain dominos did fall and certain other ones did not fall. In a word, 641 is the prime mover. So I ask: Who shoves whom around inside the domino chaninium?
To clarify, this isn’t a route around determinism. Rather, it is simply an acknowledgment that appeals to ideas and symbols as causal forces are scientifically legitimate. That is to say, if I love my wife I need not fear that a reductive appeal to biology, chemistry, or physics discounts or trumps the simple fact that I love my wife and it is this love that is the causal agent. Just like prime-hood was the causal agent in the domino example. And it is this love that pushes the molecules around in my mind rather than the other way around. Particle physics didn’t make the red domino fall. Prime-hood did. This is not to say that the particle physics picture and the prime-hood picture disagree. They are describing the same event. It is just that the particle physics picture, being at too low a level, can’t reach up and describe the higher-order pattern that is running the show. In the same way, brain function cannot reach up and explain love. Conversely, neither can love be reducible to brain functioning. Once the higher-order pattern is in place it gains a causal potency that does not exist when particles are random and patternless.

Pattern is everything. And you are a pattern.

4. The Self as a Curious Collage of Human Souls: How We Live Inside Each other

Having unpacked all this we can now start discussing some interesting theological implications which have to do with what Hofstadter calls the "blurring of selves."

Let me get to his thesis directly.

If the Self is a symbol--a pattern--that interacts with the world and other minds via feedback loops, then parts of the pattern of that symbol leave copies of itself, mainly upon other minds.

Let me give an example. When I say about my wife, "Jana would like that dress," I know this because Jana's Self-Pattern--her Strange Loop--has been using my Self-Pattern--my Strange Loop--as a feedback source for years. Thus, parts of Jana's pattern--her Selfhood--have left traces on my mind. Succinctly, my internal pattern/representation/symbol of Jana is due to the original pattern of Jana. Thus, parts of Jana's Self live in me. I say "live" because we've noted that symbols have causal potency. To some degree the patterns of Jana's Selfhood in me have the same causal potency they have in her. Thus, when I act or think in a way that reflects "Jana would do this" or "Jana would like this", I have these responses because, to a very real degree, Jana's pattern in me is causing those responses. I am not the cause. Jana is the cause.

In short, my Self, my Pattern, is not solely located inside me. Rather, my pattern is distributed, shared, and blurred across many minds. And, if symbols have causal potency, then my soul is affecting the world via that distribution.

Let me let Hofstadter make this point:
What is really going on when you dream or think more than fleetingly about someone you love (whether that person died many years ago or is right now on the other end of a phone conversation with you)? In the terminology of this book, there is no ambiguity about what is going on. The symbol for that person has been activated inside your skull, lurched out of dormancy, as surely if it had been an icon [on a computer screen] that someone had double-clicked. And the moment this happens, as much as with the game that opened on your screen, your mind starts acting differently from how it acts in a 'normal' context...The activation of the symbol for the loved person swivels into action whole sets of coordinated tendencies that represent that person's cherished style, their idiosyncratic way of being embedded in the world and looking at it.
Some more...
If you seriously believe, as I do..., that concepts are active symbols in a brain, and if furthermore you seriously believe that people, no less than objects, are represented by symbols in the brain..., and if lastly you seriously believe that a self is also a concept, just an even more complicated one..., then it is a necessary and unavoidable consequence of this set of beliefs that your brain is inhabited to varying extents by other I's, other souls, the extent of each one depending on the degree to which you faithfully represent, and resonate with, the individual in question.
Thus, we are, in Hofstadter's words, "curious collages" of human souls:
Every normal adult human soul is housed in many brains at varying degrees of fidelity, and therefore every human consciousness or 'I' lives at once in a collection of different brains, to different extents.
5. Jesus as Strange Loop: Symbols, Causality and Resurrection

If this is true, if causally potent self-symbols and self-patterns are distributed across persons--that is, you can change the world through me and I through you--then it stands to reason that this can happen across time as well. That is, the patterns of those who have died continue to affect the world through the patterns they originally created, the ripple they set off in the pond.

For example, in Chapter 1 of I Am a Strange Loop Hofstadter begins with a poignant autobiographical story involving the death of his father. A couple months after his father's death Hofstadter's mother was looking at a photograph of her husband and declared, "What meaning does this photograph have? None at all. It's just a flat peice of paper with dark spots on it here and there. It's useless."

In response Hofstadter writes, "The bleakness of my mother's grief-drenched remark set my head spinning because I knew instinctively that I disagreed with her."

Why? Hofstadter goes on to recount his response to his mother:
In the living room we have a book of the Chopin etudes for piano. All of its pages are just pieces of paper with dark marks on them, just as two-dimensional and flat and foldable as the photograph of Dad--and yet, think of the powerful effect that they have had on people all over the world for 150 years now. Thanks to those black marks on those flat sheets of paper, untold thousands of people have collectively spent millions of hours moving their fingers over the keyboards of pianos in complicated patterns, producing sounds that give them indescribable pleasure and a sense of great meaning. Those pianists in turn have conveyed to many millions of listeners, including you and me, the profound emotions that churned in Frederic Chopin's heart, thus affording all of us some partial access to Chopin's interiority--to the experience of living in the head, or rather the soul of Frederic Chopin. The marks on those sheets of paper are no less than soul-shards--scattered remnants of the shattered soul of Frederic Chopin. Each of those strange geometries of notes has a unique power to bring back to life, inside our brains, some tiny fragment of the internal experience of another human being--his sufferings, his joys, his deep passions and tensions--and we thereby know, at least in part, what it was like to be that human being, and many people feel intense love for him. In just as potent a fashion, looking at that photograph of Dad brings him back, to us who knew him intimately, the clearest memory of his smile and his gentleness, activates inside our living brains some of the most central representations of him that survive in us, makes little fragments of his soul dance again, but in the medium of brains other than his own. Like the score to a Chopin etude, that photograph is a soul-shard of someone departed, and it is something we should cherish as long as we live.
When I read this passage I immediately thought of Jesus of Nazareth. To see the connection let me slightly edit Hofstadter's speech to his mother. Read this and ponder its implications for how we might come to see the Imago Christi--The Image of Christ--causally potent in our lives today, still changing us and the world:
In the living room we have a book that contains the stories and words of the life of Jesus. All of its pages are just pieces of paper with dark marks on them, just as two-dimensional and flat and foldable as the photographs of the people we love who have died--and yet, think of the powerful effect that those stories have had on people all over the world for 2,000 years now. Thanks to those black marks on those flat sheets of paper, untold thousands of people have collectively spent millions of hours shaping their lives to imitate his life, producing communities and actions that give indescribable pleasure and a sense of great meaning. These saints have conveyed to many millions of people, including you and me, the profound emotions that churned in Jesus’ heart, thus affording all of us some partial access to Jesus’ interiority--to the experience of living in the head, or rather the soul, of Jesus of Nazareth. The marks on those sheets of paper are no less than soul-shards--remnants of the soul of Jesus. Each of those letters and words has a unique power to bring back to life, inside our brains, some tiny fragment of the internal experience of Jesus--his sufferings, his joys, his deep passions and tensions--and we thereby know, at least in part, what it was like to be like Jesus, and, thus, many people feel intense love for him. In a very potent a fashion, when the saints celebrate the Eucharist, sharing the stories of those who knew Jesus intimately, what is activated inside our living brains are some of the most central representations of Jesus that survive, making little fragments of his soul dance again.
In the shared memory of the Eucharist the Strange Loop known as Jesus of Nazareth is shared, spread, and passed along. Generation after generation. Century after century.
Theologians often emphasize the narrative heart of the Christian faith, The Story sitting at the Center. I think Hofstadter's work provides a whole new way of thinking about this. In light of Hofstadter's analysis the "story" isn't just a story, remembered, retold and reenacted in the Eucharist, it is the soul-pattern of Jesus that continues to causally affect and change the world.

Think of what happens during the Eucharist while you read this quotation from I Am a Strange Loop:
Though the primary brain has been eclipsed, there is, in those who remain and who are gathered to remember and reactivate the spirit of the departed, a collective corona that still glows. This is what human love means...the more deeply rooted the symbol for someone inside you, the greater the love, the brighter the light that remains behind.
6. Causality, Miracles and a Strange Loop Theology of Transubstantiation

If Jesus was God he represents a Causal Dead End. Jesus would be a causal force in history that could not be reduced to or traced back to anything prior. Jesus, then, would be causally unique.

But once "inserted" into human history, once that Strange Loop takes up its place in the causal whirlpool of history, it begins to affect things, causally speaking. Like a rock thrown in a pond which sends out ripples in all directions. And all those effects, all those ripples of the Incarnation, are, in a strict sense, supernatural. Because when they are "reduced" they trace back to the Causal Dead End.

In short, if Jesus is the cause then God doing it. Think of it like a Time Machine. If I, today, give a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus, then, in a very miraculous way (and I mean that literally), Jesus is doing it. Jesus is transported into the present. The Strange Loop of Jesus, like the Chopin songs discussed above, is inhabiting my mind, causing things to happen in the world. He was Dead. But now he is Alive.

To my mind, this seems to be an interesting convergence between causality and the miraculous, the two being, in this vision, the same thing. The view here suggests that causal events in the world, locally explainable via the scientific method, might actually be "supernatural" in their origin. God might not then need to intervene time after time after time, always fiddling with the cosmos. God may have intervened just once, inserting His Pattern into the causal flux. And everything traced back to that pattern is a miracle. Or, phrased another way, Jesus is the Only Miracle. A miracle that is still sending ripples across the pond.

But this miracle, if it plays out in the causal flux, needs a means of self-sustainment. A means to re-energize, propagate its influence, and avoid dissipation. Thus, the Incarnation, prior to death, ritualizes a means to accomplish those ends: a narrative, communal remembrance. In the words of Hofstadter: "in those who remain and who are gathered to remember and reactivate the spirit of the departed, a collective corona that still glows."

Eucharist.

And if this is so, then maybe Catholics and Protestants are both right about the Eucharist.

Maybe Jesus really is present, in a miraculous way, as the Catholics believe. And maybe Eucharist just is a corporate remembrance as the Protestants believed.

But maybe these two things--the presence of Jesus and the remembrance of Jesus--really are, in the end, the exact same thing.