Thursday, 29 March 2012

Biblical Oddities

In my reading of the Bible cover to cover, have recently come across a strange passage in Joshua 5, which reads:
13 Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”
 14 “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”
 15 The commander of the LORD’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.
Now, what I like about this passage is the way in which it appears to work, in some small way, against the grain of the wider narrative trajectory of the Jews leaving Egypt and entering the promised land.  That is, the man (whoever he is: a man, an angel, a theophany, etc) despite being the commander of the army of the LORD is neither for the Jews nor their enemies.  What does this mean?  It suggests to me that the Biblical narrative is not a purely linear tale of Hebrew triumphalism in the face of immense difficulties, but that there are more things going on than perhaps even the writer knew.  

There are other bits too which strike me as startlingly at odds with the general narrative.  Such as this snippet from Exodus 4, when Moses was preparing to go back to Egypt to tell pharaoh to let God's people go:
   24 At a lodging place on the way, the LORD met Moses and was about to kill him. 25 But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. 26 So the LORD let him alone. (At that time she said “bridegroom of blood,” referring to circumcision.)
What does it mean?  Why, when God had chosen Moses to gather the Jews and take them to the promised land, was the life of Moses threatened in such a way by no less than God himself?  Even granting that Moses ought to have circumcised his son by then, the passage stands out as remarkable in its oddness.  Again it works against the general thrust of the narrative of redemption; and it is precisely for this reason that I don't want to weasel my way into incorporating it into my understanding of it on the cheap, as though the Bible is meant to always only ever tell one story from a one-dimensional way.  I want to understand them, but not in a way that reduces their power to shock as counter-narratives.

On the plus side, I love the phrase 'bridegroom of blood' - sounds like a hammy Hammer Horror film title!     

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

troubling concerns

John Aubrey

In this post I want to discuss something that has been on my mind recently since I read a rather strange extract from the Introduction to John Aubrey's 17th Century Brief Lives, in which the author is quoted as saying:

Till about the yeare 1649, when Experimental Philosophy was first cultivated by a club at Oxford, 'twas held a strange presumption for a Man to attempt an Innovation in Learnings; and not to be good Manners, to be more knowing than his Neighbours and Forefathers; even to attempt an improvement in Husbandry (though it succeeded with profit) was looked upon with an evil eie. Their Neighbours did scorne to follow it, though not to do it was to their own Detriment. 'Twas held a Sin to make a Scrutinie into the Waies of Nature...In thouse times, to have an inventive and enquiring Witt, was accounted Affectation, which censure the famous Dr William Harvey could not escape for his admirable Discovery of the Circulation of Blood.
Not Karl
Around the time that Aubrey was writing, then, the idea had only just come into circulation that actual, demonstrative progress in human affairs (even to the point of improving one's own income) was a good thing, prior to which it was considered almost taboo to break with tradition and the ways of the forefathers.  Modes of production and human relations can be seen in this snippet to be so entangled that changes in the one affected the other, and to be seen to be making an 'Innovation' 'was looked upon with an evil eie.'  From there on in it is only a small step to the situation we have now, which was commented upon by Marx in his 1948 Communist Maifesto.  He wrote:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.[1]
The logic of modern consumer capitalism can be seen here to be a constant revolutionising of all modes of life. Everything must change all the time. Working as a postgraduate in a small British university it is hard to miss the absolute imperative that what universities are for is the production, legitimisation and dissemination of 'new knowledge.'  In this they are wholly in keeping with the revolutionising logic described by Marx.  There is not a whiff of the attitude towards innovation that Aubrey noted amongst his near contemporaries.  Indeed, it is very hard to imagine living in the kind of static mind-world Aubrey describes, and yet, as both he and Marx testify, our current model of production, consumption and human relations has a particular historical origin within a matrix of specific social conditions and practices.  

Bishop Schiori
Part of the point of these thoughts is the troubling idea that theology, too, has been caught up in an unthinking compliance with the same imperative.  As much as I enjoy speculative theology, I am suspicious of the drive towards theological and ecclesiological innovation for precisely the reason suggested above, that it is more in tune with the kind of unconscious modes of being brought about by capitalist revolutionising practices than it is about dogged fidelity to Christ.  Marx's maxim that material practices determine thought seems to me to be right on the money, and so it is unsurprising that so much heterodox theological thought should emerge within a global economic system devoted to all forms of transgression in the pursuit of ever increasing capital.  Obviously there is more than simply modes of production going on here, but the point remains that the cultural imperative towards innovation is strongest in a society like ours that demands constant changes.    

The other point I would make is that of the impossibility of anything resembling a community life under capitalist conditions.  How can human relations withstand the onslaughts of life when everything is in flux all the time, when 'all that is solid melts into air'?  It becomes a case of the individual against the world.  That's another blog post though.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012


In this post I want to explore the idea of transubstantiation and Christian relatedness.  Firstly, I don't presume to follow all the arguments of transubstantiation, but as I understand it, it says that, despite appearances, at officiation the bread and wine transform into the actual body and blood of Christ.  In philosophical/theological language (drawn from Aristotle) this means that the substance of the bread and wine change, while the accidents (the physical manifestation) stays the same.  What I would like to suggest is that the often arcane and violent discussion of transubstantiation is a red-herring. That is, it places undue stress on the actual bread and wine as being either Christ's body and blood or simply symbols, which suggests a watered down version of the same thing.  

Let me digress a little.  My wife and I are planning on adopting a  baby this year.  In legal terms what this means is that in every sense except the physical (the accidents of DNA, so to speak) that child will be ours as it's parents (in substance).  A kind of legal transubstantiation will have taken place by an officiating judge.  Following the previous post, this got me thinking about how our relation to one another exists within a personal, institutional and legal matrix through which we are constituted as persons.  Physical relation through blood is one type of relation among many, as the case of adoption shows.

For the Christian, then, what is the source and ground of our relation to one another?  Is it the mental assent to certain metaphysical ideas about reality, i.e. God, immortality, freedom, etc?  Is it a shared moral horizon?  Is it the trust we all place in Christ as our saviour?  In many ways these do constitute our shared relatedness to one another; but the problem is that none of these involve the highly emotive and binding relatedness of blood-relation.  Without this form of relatedness a Christian community of believers represent merely a club of like-minded people who more or less agree with one another.

So, where I think that the issue of transubstantiation might have been misplaced is in fixating on the bread and wine as the (only) site of transubstantiation.  Believing or not believing that the bread and wine take on the substance of Christ misses the point that as the broken body and spilled blood of Christ it is we who are transubstantiated in our inner being, taking on a material blood-relation to Christ and his family that is more than a watered down and abstract symbolism.  The bread is real bread and the wine is real wine that actually enters our body and in some small way sustains it.  And in this sense, through sharing his body and blood the incarnation spills over into us, his brothers and sisters, giving us an actual, physical relation to both Him and one another that transcends all familial, legal and institutional relations, revealing them to be merely watered down versions of what we share in Christ.  It is in this sharing of the bread and wine that our relation to one another and Christ is grounded, and because it is an event that occurs in real time it means that our unity is not symbolic or theoretical but heartily visceral.                                   

Friday, 9 March 2012

What makes a thing a thing?

One question that has bothered me since I can remember is ‘what makes a thing a thing?’  That is, does merely existing at a certain time, in a certain space, make a thing a thing?  This probably seems an odd place to start a discussion on the Trinity, but hopefully it will become clearer as I go on. 

In my doctoral studies I have spent a great deal of time thinking about what it is that makes a given object an art object.  Obviously, there are almost as many answers as there are people who have ever looked at an object and thought, ‘Ooh, I like that!’  The point is though that there are a recognisable class of objects which we more or less collectively describe as being art.  The history of art has led to various challenges as to who or what is authorised to say whether such and such an object has the status of a work of art, not least Duchamp’s famous upturned urinal, (1917) Fountain.  In this sense, the thing-ness (to mimic Heidegger’s vocabulary) of art, that which is most essential to it as what it is, is not as simple as saying that it just is.  We could say then that what makes an art object the thing that it is are the network of institutional discourses that work to legitimise certain types of objects over and above other objects: art is what certain authoritative people say that it is. 

That cannot be all to be said about the matter though, because along with being institutionally constituted art enacts a play of the conceptual and the material which resists whatever discursive networks may have to say about it.  It is because of this base materiality that the thing-ness of art is more than just what we can say about it.  Where we would like to see a stable category (i.e. ‘art’), we find an elusive fluidity that slips away from even our power to name; we know that it is, but we don’t always know how it is.  And this point about stable categories is pivotal, because if post-Enlightenment modernity is about anything it is about the obsessive categorisation of the world according to what Foucault called the will to knowledge.  The inevitable collapse of this project into a post-modernity that threw a de-centred subject adrift in a world of rickety foundations is more revealing of humanity’s own nihilistic assumptions about reality than existential meaninglessness. 

So what bearing does any of this, as riveting as it no doubt is, have on Trinitarian theology?  So far postmodern and post-structural philosophy seems to head in the direction away from categories of thinking which suggest a grounded ontology, away from thinking that our categories have any basis in reality (whatever that is).  Nietzche’s so-called death of God brought to an end the cultural and scientific delusion that there was a fixed basis for anything, as he knew it would.  In order for something to be real, so the thinking goes, it needs to be grounded in something ultimately real, which in philosophy has always been more or less guaranteed by the Aristotelian first cause (AKA God).  Not to be confused with the God who rescued the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, this ‘God’ functioned essentially as a kind of quilting point in reality, tying up all the loose ends and making sure that everything ultimately always made sense.  Without a stable point of fixed reference it was only a matter of time before someone, Foucault, pointed out the obvious that ‘man’ as a category was also effectively dead: no God = no man.  All that is solid, wrote Marx, melts into air. 

In all this, a ‘light bulb moment’ came for me when I read the first section of Orthodox theologian, John Zizioulas’ influential Being as Communion, 1985.  For Zizioulas, God is not best described as a kind of fixed ontological substance at the basis of reality, but is himself a communion of persons in a relation of love.  He writes: ‘The being of God is a relational being: without the concept of communion it would not be possible to speak of the being of God.’  ‘The substance of God,’ he continues, ‘”God,” has no ontological content, no true being, apart from communion.  In this way, communion becomes an ontological concept in Patristic thought...God exists because of an event of communion.  [...] it is communion which makes things “be”: nothing exists without it, not even God.’  In a sense then, to plunge as far down as possible into reality in the hope of hitting a fixed point of reference, a stable ultimate reality, is as futile an endeavour as modernity has proven it to be.  God, according to Zizioulas, is an event of communion; the being of God is here best described not as a static entity, but as a movement of relation.  Moreover, this movement of relation does not pre-exist those involved in the dance of love it enacts; the Father, Son, and Spirit do not spring from this movement, just as they cannot be said to pre-exist the movement: they are the movement; they are this movement of relating love.  Zizioulas quite strongly posits the Father as the ‘cause’ or origin of this movement, but the Father Himself is only constituted as Father by the simple fact of being a Father.  Thus, while He precedes the Son in terms barely describable, the Father’s fatherliness is constituted precisely by the Son as son.  Just as a human father only exists as a father once he has been relationally constituted through siring a son or daughter, there never was an ultimate being out of whom sprang another identically ultimate being, the Son.  The Father is only insofar as He is father to the Son.  God as ultimate reality has the character of relation.  And I haven’t even mentioned the Holy Spirit in this dance of love.

Getting back then, what is it that makes a thing a thing?  While Trinitarian theology opens up a space for conceptualising being as communion, it must be admitted that there is no direct or easy analogy between human being and God’s being.  As image bearers we are not wholly other to God, but neither are we identical.  For Zizioulas, and I am reducing him enormously throughout this entire piece, it is in our personhood that we carry the image of God, not, that is, in our capacity to exist relationally, but in the fact that it is only in relation that we exist at all.  Like God’s, our being is in communion, in ties that bind, in being sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, employers and employees, citizens and rulers, communicants, etc.  The ‘truth’ about ourselves is not to be found in the intricacies of our individual conscious and unconscious fantasies, as so much popular thought (following Freud) seems to imagine, but in who we are in, to, and with others.  Ultimately, Christianity, it seems to me, is about preparing the way for drawing humanity into the movement of loving relation that is God the Father, Son, and Spirit.  We exist in our physical and institutional relations with one another, we exist in our relations with one another as the church body, and we exist finally (and completely) in the wider church’s partaking of the movement of loving relationality that is Father, Son, and Spirit.