Life Sunk Deeply in Death

The dark sacred time-space of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday is largely lost in sunny American optimism and happy consumerism. While we are broken and pained enough, as a culture, to appreciate tragedy, we work overtime to avoid it. Cue the chocolate bunny and the painted eggs: who needs resurrection if there is no death?

I like American confidence and prosperity, as do many from around the world who seek to live here; a “can-do” attitude is better than desperation. However, there’s a difference between confidence and bravado. Increasingly, we’re full of a bravado that looks confident and hopeful, but which in reality only masks our fear of the dark. Anything that has the faintest whiff of loss or diminishment is hidden off-stage, at great cost to our ability to reckon with the bedevilments of our age, political and otherwise. Religion is often complicit in making the mask.

True religion unmasks our denial, and points us to the dark sacred time-space of Gethsemane and Calvary. These are places of loneliness and agony that we already know deeply, but try to forget. What would be helpful is for us to acknowledge their presence; and most helpful would be to acknowledge their presence in some form of communal observance. (All of ancient Athens gathering to watch Sophocles’ drama of Oedipus comes to mind.)

Life is tragic– not ultimately tragic, but truly so. Any confidence worthy of the name needs grounded in the rich soil, the life-giving soil, that exists only through the mystery of death.

Christ Carrying the Cross: Behold the Beautiful

Christ Carrying the Cross by Giovanni Bellini-- 16th-century Italian

This oil on wood painting by a follower of Bellini was one of Isabella Stewart Gardner’s favorites; you can see it today at the Gardner Museum in Boston. It’s an apt image to start Holy Week. I thank my wife Eleanor for bringing it to my attention.

For some who hold onto Christ primarily to confirm their already-held beliefs about the world– I wish that Jesus would be more of a stumbling block to them; more of a goad to examine their unexamined assumptions about life; more disturbing of their already-held beliefs. For others who reject Christ because, well, who has time for fairy tales?– I wish that Jesus would be less of a stumbling block to them. I wish that he would simply come and make himself known, through the strange heart-warmth, and the peace beyond words, that mark his presence.

I’ve been down both roads, and will be down both roads again, sometime or another. Faith is not a steady-state system. The authentic journey has many seasons, each with its gifts and dangers.

Our culture would do well to turn for a moment from its fevered ways to gaze on Christ– not because he is a pattern of virtue that we ought to assimilate (which makes Jesus just another commodity in the marketplace), but because he is beautiful.

Grace is in the direction of beauty. The proper response to beauty is to behold, rather than to grasp or to own. We would be a healthier culture, in all ways, if we increased our capacity to behold– rather than devour– what is beautiful.

Remembering Who We Are: “Moon Over Manifest” by Clare Vanderpool

"Moon Over Manifest" by Clare Vanderpool

Great theology can come from theologians; great theology can also come from poets and storytellers. “Moon Over Manifest”, a work of historical fiction by Clare Vanderpool, is not explicitly (nor even implicitly) about God. Rising from the story like warmth from glowing coals, however, is Vanderpool’s sensitivity to theological themes, and her feel for the human journey.

A primary theme is the play between what appears to be and what is; between appearance and truth; between concealment and revelation. Manifest, of the title, is a small town in Kansas. As the story goes on, the name of the town becomes emblematic of the truth about the town’s past becoming visible– becoming manifest.

Another theme is suffering– and more specifically, that particular suffering known as grief, which comes with love and loss. Vanderpool’s characters want to distance themselves from their painful past. With help they remember what they already know: that there is no going around grief; there is only going through it. By going through it– by remembering their love and what it costs– they are healed.

Good art, like good theology, reminds us who we are as humans: what it takes to be healthy and whole; what our limits are; what we’re capable of, both for good and for ill. Forgetting who we are as humans leads us to mischief. “Moon Over Manifest” helps us remember who we are. And it’s a great story.

Anti-Blasphemy Laws Get Thumbs Down at UN

We’ve been following some of the violence in Pakistan incited by wrong-headed interpretations of religion and piety. While this recently-adopted resolution by the United Nations Human Rights Council does not change Pakistan’s (or any other country’s) anti-blasphemy laws, it is a statement by the international body that the key principle here is individual conscience and freedom of belief.

While some on the lunatic left might cry “foul” because of the seeming cultural imperialism of such liberal Western ideas as individual conscience and religious freedom, this is a case where the best moral reasoning of our Western philosophical inheritance trumps any well-intentioned cultural sensitivity.

In our own nation, it remains helpful for us to stand for the beauty, richness, and rightness of religious plurality; and also for the right of believers (and non-believers) to live and practice in the light of discernment.

Here is Howard Friedman’s summary:

In a major policy shift, the 47-member United Nations Human Rights Council [on March 24th] unanimously adopted a Resolution on Freedom of Religion or Belief which omits any reference to the concept of “defamation of religion” and instead focuses on the individual’s right to freedom of belief. [The] U.S.-based Human Rights First campaign called the resolution “a huge achievement because…it focuses on the protection of individuals rather than religions.”

For many years, the Organization of the Islamic Conference had pressed to create a concept of “defamation of religion” that has been widely criticized in the United States and by a number of other Western countries. Muslim countries set aside that 12-year campaign and joined in approving [March 24th’s] resolution.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom issued a statement applauding the Human Rights Council’s action. USCIRF said in part that it welcomes the Council’s “significant step away from the pernicious ‘defamation of religions’ concept.” It explained: “The defamation concept undermines individual rights to freedom of religion and expression; exacerbates religious intolerance, discrimination, and violence; and provides international support for domestic blasphemy laws that often have led to gross human rights abuses.”

via Religion Clause: UN Human Rights Council Adopts Resolution on Freedom of Belief That Drops “Defamation of Religion” Concept.

Late in the Game

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry’s been saying it for years, in the context of culture, agriculture, and community: America is on an unsustainable trajectory. The soil– literally the earth, and metaphorically the source of moral and emotional nourishment– is wearing thin. In the midst of material excess and frantic busy-ness is spiritual depletion and physical exhaustion. We have lost our way.

There exists no shortage of people in the political realm who have the answer for what ails us: the Tea Partiers are ascendant for now, having supplanted the Obama-hopers, who in their ascendancy supplanted the Cheney/Rumsfeld neoconservatives. Such political lability in itself suggests that, politically speaking, no one really knows what to do.

Much of what passes for religion in America today offers two kinds of response to this age of anxiety, neither of which is satisfactory.  The first offer is personal salvation (and I mean that broadly to include not just Christian notions of “accepting Christ” and “going to heaven,” but also New Age/Western-inflected Eastern philosophies of “enlightenment”), a spiritual stance that looks inward and emphasizes the individual’s relationship with the Transcendent One (or Transcendence in general). This way is unsatisfactory because it doesn’t address the wider cultural system that generates our anxiety and depletion. It’s a way to cope, but not to transform.

The second response of religion in America today is to be more outward-looking, and to engage society from a religious point of view. While pointed in a more helpful direction (outward), the way religion in America generally engages society today is to join political battles on political battles’ usual acrimonious, highly partisan, highly anxious terms. Politics calls the tune; religion sings its assigned part, “conservative right” and “liberal left.” This is unsatisfactory because it unreflectively engages the wider cultural system as it is. It replicates the patterns that lead to anxiety and depletion, rather than offering an alternative narrative.

There is no easy answer, no tidy prescription. Part of what’s helpful is to sit with the dissonance, the unresolved chord– and listen, and wait: listen and wait in the hopeful expectation that God knows what’s going on, even if we don’t.