The Last Time God Died: Anxiety, Consolation, and the Limitations of Spiritual Language

This is the final of a three-part post by Jay Aquinas Thompson: a poet, activist, parent, and an adult convert to Catholicism. He lives in Seattle with his family, where he attends St. Mary’s Church and teaches creative writing to women incarcerated at King County Jail. He keeps a blog at downdeepdowndeep.wordpress.com.

  1. Spiritual individualism and abiding grace

the_nones_are_alrightReally, the key question the Death of God theologians grapple with—“how will God be able to respond to this present crisis?”—is one plenty of Christians ask. But it’s a question that can be asked with too much urgency. The “present crisis” I often hear people of faith fretting about now is that of the “spiritual but not religious.” In my own community and time, the spiritual language among progressive folks is often framed entirely in terms of individual wellness. Many of us come to spirituality (from meditation to church to yoga) asking what belief and practice can console or enlighten us. The desire is to improve our well-being, rather than to engage personally and radically with our community or minister to the suffering Christ in our oppressed fellow-humans. For my own part, the longer my spirituality is confined to my own head, my own thoughts and feelings, the more it starts to spoil. I’m close with plenty of spiritually sensitive folks whom I want to call to vigorous and liberatory work in the world, but I believe it’s a misuse of energy to greet this (somewhat-gnostic?) spiritual individualism either as the herald of a new era or as a menace. The hype about our time is that this form of spirituality is our future; I don’t see it that way.

But I wouldn’t have come to this perspective without having watched Alitzer and Hamilton buy into their own era’s discourses, preoccupations, and intellectual frameworks so completely. This is not to deny the seriousness of Hamilton’s commitment to worldly service, and Alitzer’s pain at God’s perceived self-negation. In their book, Alitzer and Hamilton accept bourgeois liberalism’s claims about itself, and define their understanding of God’s “transcendence” so narrowly that it’s snuffed out of any possibility of being.

“Before God and with God, we live without God,” Bonhoeffer said. This is the unbearable paradox that Christians have to sit with after a century of organized horror, in the pervasive alienation of secular modernity, and in the countless small experiences of contingency, corruption, and death we encounter in a life. But it’s a paradox, not a death-knell: a call to make God manifest in the world through radical love, ardent faith, and spiritual self-renewal. “Abundance and destitution are two facets of the one face of God,” as Christian Wiman says, “and to be spiritually alive in the fullest sense is to recall one when we are standing squarely in the midst of the other.” This equanimity isn’t always easy to summon—in rapture or in desolation—but it’s a precious gift, in that it’s a call to the faulty communities of worship, the all-too-inadequate symbols of religion, and ordinary human love, whether God feels intimate or impossibly remote. We encounter Spirit only in corporeal things, and experience God only in history; and this idea can bring us overflowing peace, not just the anxiety that grips Alitzer and Hamilton. Or, to quote R.H. Blyth, writing from a radically different tradition: “Culture is our making the will of God prevail, but the will of God always prevails anyway, and when we know both, there is Zen.” The longer I sat with Alitzer and Hamilton’s book, the more limited it felt: the authors shedding tears at the graveside of old pieties, believing they were crying for God.
Image sources:

http://www.godisdead.info/

http://blog.oregonlive.com/lifestories/2012/02/william_hamilton_the_god-is-de.html

http://www.orbisbooks.com/the-nones-are-alright.html

http://www.reversespins.com/dionysius.html

http://www.amazon.com/My-Bright-Abyss-Meditation-Believer/dp/0374534373

The Last Time God Died: Anxiety, Consolation, and the Limitations of Spiritual Language

This is part two of a three-part post by Jay Aquinas Thompson: a poet, activist, parent, and an adult convert to Catholicism. He lives in Seattle with his family, where he attends St. Mary’s Church and teaches creative writing to women incarcerated at King County Jail. He keeps a blog at downdeepdowndeep.wordpress.com.

  1. Profane prosperity

As many New Things in intellectual life wind up, Radical Theology and the Death of God feels, in its anomie and consolation both, utterly of its very specific time. Their analytic philosophical language (either God is or is not, either the language of worship is factual or false) hadn’t yet been buffeted by Continental anti-foundationalism, nor anything like Derrida’s formulation of God in the language of desire rather than fact. Hamilton’s distinction between “God” and “world” bespeaks the cerebral, slightly anxious tone of Karl Barth and a discomfort with paradox. The book mentions Vatican II zero times, nor the experience of Third World Christians.

pseudo-dionysiusFor his part, Alitzer seems ready to enter a dark night of hopeless (or, literally, objectless) hope, but he doesn’t speak of the Desert Fathers, Pseudo-Dionysius, or any other apophatic Christians, who a thousand years earlier had found rich spiritual meaning (and consolation) in negation and the non-objectification of God. Likewise, though he began his career writing on eastern mysticism and Biblical eschatology, Alitzer’s repeated insistence in the “radically profane” nature of modern life shows no awareness of Buddhist ideas of the identity of the noumenal and the phenomenal. This is extra-surprising because he refers to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s idea that “a religious life which would respond to the death of God cannot direct its prayer and mediation to a transcendent or numinous realm, but instead must open itself to a divine ‘center’ that fills the whole body of the cosmos, and a ‘center’ that has no existence apart from the movement of the cosmos itself.” This inward-not-upward motion completely eludes him in his insistence on dialectics: to fully enter the world, he believes, spirit had to cease to be. His heartbroken insistence leads him to muddle very separate ideas of the forgetting of, the ignorance of, the non-existence of, and the phenomenal presence of the transcendent.

Crucially—and this was the lesson for me the reader—Alitzer and Hamilton also share a very early-60s assurance that capitalist liberalism would keep its promises, and was in the process of creating a “grownup” society of generalized human thriving. This consoles Hamilton—at last, outgrowing our primitive need for a God who’ll fix things!—and depresses Alitzer, but they both accept it. They believe the hype about their own time, and frame their spiritual questions solely in the language of their own time. They even share the same bland assurance that the “Negro movement” will renew the church’s tradition of engagement with the world. Radical Theology is thus an odd mixture of liberal optimism and classic paranoia—in the sense of externalizing one’s anxiety onto outside objects. Instead, as history as shown, liberalism failed to keep its promises, and the social contract that once suggested universal well-being (or even American well-being) has been frayed to virtually nothing. Perhaps we “need” transcendence—and a radical vision of the present—after all.

Final reflections—on “the death of God” and our present era—in Part 3.

The Last Time God Died: Anxiety, Consolation, and the Limitations of Spiritual Language

This is a three-part post by Jay Aquinas Thompson: a poet, activist, parent, and an adult convert to Catholicism. He lives in Seattle with his family, where he attends St. Mary’s Church and teaches creative writing to women incarcerated at King County Jail. He keeps a blog at downdeepdowndeep.wordpress.com.

  1. Theology and “the assumption that man needs God”

 

christian_wiman_abyssThe risk, of course, is that we might believe the hype about our own intellectual era. Attached as I am to Simone Weil, Christian Wiman, and other intensely atheistic Christian writers, I imagined I’d have fun reading the Death of God theologians—the school of ecumenical 60’s Protestant theology that claimed that God was no longer accessible in human life, was absent. But I found that what this absence means, and how it is to be understood, is very different for different Death-of-Godders. I spent this last winter reading Thomas J.J. Alitzer and William Hamilton’s 1966 essay collection, Radical Theology and the Death of God, expecting to be braced, spooked, and shaken up; instead I learned to relate to my own time differently in how watching how Alitzer and Hamilton related to theirs.

As different as hot and cold, prophet and community man, Alitzer and Hamilton nonetheless share touchstones: Bonhoeffer’s prison letters; Kierkegaard’s assault on the placid, reasonable, bourgeois social construction of Western European Christendom.

william_hamiltonFor Hamilton, the “death of God” means the exhaustion of old ideas of transcendence—the eclipse of their explanatory necessity or intellectual plausibility—and the subsequent withering of the old forms of church. Hamilton defines religion not as its rites, nor as a site and source of symbolic vocabulary for spiritual experience; religion, instead, is “any system of thought or action in which God or the gods serve as fulfiller of needs or solver of problems” or “the assumption that man needs God.” But, Hamilton writes, in a dawning world of scientific knowledge, political comity, and material plenty, we Christians no longer need God-the-transcendent-problem-solver. Therefore, we no longer need religion as he has defined it. Instead, he celebrates that our society has (citing his interpretation of Bonhoeffer’s letters) “come of age.” In our era, “it is to the world and not God,” he writes, “that we repair for our needs and problems.” With the transcendent being no longer housed in the forms of Christian worship, we Christians are called instead to find Christ in the world: to build a pluralist and religionless Christianity, centered in Jesus’s love ethic. And now that we no longer need God, he adds, we can perhaps now “delight in him.”

thomas_altizerFor Alitzer, the death of God is more immediate and painfully felt. He agrees with Hamilton that God is no longer necessary in our culture of human thriving and technological progress. He draws on Hegel’s theory of dialectics to suggest that Spirit had to empty some of itself to make any appearance in the Flesh, in tangible forms such as revelation. The final, ultimate negation of Spirit was Christ’s Incarnation and the Cross. In becoming Flesh, Spirit is no longer accessible to us. And—though this idea anguishes him—he writes that a Christian God who can’t be found in every moment is dead, since Christians enjoy no eternal covenant but the presence of the Spirit, which it’s no longer possible to feel. Further, the explanatory power of science, which cheers Hamilton, breaks Alitzer’s heart. The discovery of the autonomy of nature and the infinity of space have destroyed the intellectual confines of Christendom, because “the world is [now] no longer meaningful by means of anything which might lie beyond it.” Alitzer yearns for a new inbreaking of the Spirit into the world, a future Hegelian “synthesis.” But, until then, we must enter a spiritual “dark night” and accept the “radically profane” nature of our current world. Until then, Alitzer believes that “the Word that is silent in our time is a Word that has been negated by the Word itself.”

More in the next post on how believers often see their own era, for better and for worse.

On Bearing Witness at the Minnesota Governor’s Mansion

This is a post by Emilie Bouvier: a community organizer and artist living in St. Paul, MN. Emilie serves the Minneapolis area ELCA synod as Congregational Organizer for Environmental Justice. Her art website is www.emiliebouvier.com. These are a few words that Emilie shared with us in a spirit of ecumenism about her experiences last week/weekend holding vigil for Philando Castile at the Minnesota Governor’s residence.

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For the first few days I felt kind of numb. Gathering for prayer, for worship, for lament was what I needed, but I could hardly even start speaking about things. It all felt like a jumbled pit in my stomach… disgust at the state of racial injustice in our nation, heartbroken that yet another black body was broken in the street, 1.8 miles from my apartment, overwhelmed by the horror of the particular glimpse we got into the last few moments of Philando’s life, bitterly angry at the constant resistance on behalf of white folks to the radical re-orienting of our selves and the structures of a society built on oppression.

Spending some long hours at the Governor’s Mansion yesterday afternoon and evening didn’t change those things, but it was such a powerful place of community, story, compassion, and truth-telling that I suddenly could feel my feet on the ground again — re-grounded and recommitted by the love and voices of those who showed up in that space to process the events, tell their own stories, give hugs, and even just dance.

I watched a beautiful healing dance performed by two Native American teenagers who made powerful statements about standing in solidarity with the black community – dancing as a way to show support, offer healing, and inviting all of us who were gathered around to join in.

I heard a young African American man start a story with “you know, when it’s hot out and you just really want an icy?” and end with describing how an officer demanded he confess what he was hiding, sure that the empty icy cup was a drug stash. It was nothing other than a soggy paper cup. (Can I just say, never in my life has anyone interrogated me about and then actually gone into the trash can to examine something that I’ve thrown away.)

I listened and teared up as an eleven year old African American girl stand up and speak through tears about how adults say that if you’re in trouble you should call the police, but now she’s sacred to. Even in her nervousness and occasional pauses to wipe tears, she had the most courageous strength and composure of anyone I heard come to the mic. And she kept talking. She talked about how things need to change. She talked about how she wasn’t going to stop speaking. Someone in the crowd asked for her name again, then shouted “Ellen for President!” We all started cheering her name and she smiled and cried as the leaders at the mic came around her and held her in a group hug. I hope she now knows that her community sees her as a leader and that she will in fact run for office. I vow to work on her campaign.

I heard a mom talk about how her daughter is 18, got straight As in school, was involved in her community, and went on to serve in the military. She’s proud her daughter is serving. But then her daughter calls her up and says “Mom, I feel “conflicted,” I feel like I’m serving a country that hates me.”

I also listened to people processing the events of Saturday night’s protest. Some talked about their own experiences being held in handcuffs that weren’t cuffs but ties that were drawn so tight they still had wounds on their wrists. Others talked about how moved they were by the white allies who helped act as a buffer in the midst of the 94 shutdown. Another talked about how someone in the neighborhood offered her a warm shower and lent her clothes. She said “I’m still angry, but I understand love now. I understand humanity now.” And many talked about how they saw and participated in peaceful demonstration – how violence was not present and not what we’re about here. How those white anarchists who were throwing bricks were not with us, and how infuriating it is that the media and those we’ve elected as officials don’t see the difference. There is a huge difference. The movement of people standing up for racial justice, taking the streets, disrupting business as usual, is not violent. We need our cities’ leaders to be held accountable, not let a few unaffiliated protesters be political grounds to write off the movement.

If you’re like me, you might be feeling overwhelmed and frustrated and like you’re just floating, or in a slog, or paralyzed, especially when reading about this stuff online or trying to process by yourself or even just trying to process with people who look like you. Go out to the Governor’s mansion (or join the Black Lives Matter folks near you). This community space to gather and hear stories is not going away. Is a place of love and story and openness. Go and sit for awhile. For a few hours, actually. Just listen. Just do it.

 

10 Reasons I believe in the Sacrament of Marriage

Radical Discipleship

weddingBy Lydia Wylie-Kellermann,
(first published on Converge’s website a couple years ago)

Lately, I have found myself in conversations with friends about relationships and commitment. I’ve been hearing them say, “We will be together as long as it works and if it stops working, then it will end.” There seems to be a distrust and even suspicion of the act of marriage. These are friends who have relationships I admire and who are clearly in it for the long haul. I trust their decision making and discernment, but it has made me pause to reflect on why we choose marriage.

1. Community

A marriage is rooted within a community. We prayed that our relationship would be a gift to the larger community and asking for the help of accountability and support when things are difficult.

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We are Pride!!!

also posted at:  https://laluchamipulpito.wordpress.com/2016/06/11/we-are-pride/

Towards the end of the Spring Semester I was asked to share a reflection at a vigil in celebration of Pride. In honor of Pride Month I wanted to share my ramblings—you, me, us, we are pride!

— 

We are Pride

A queerfelt muchas gracias to you all for your presence tonight.

Tonight we are pride! Tonight we celebrate all of who we are! Tonight we lift up our queerness, our rainbows, our LGBTQliciousness…we lift up our pride in who we are, who we have been, and who we will become.

I often get asked, is being a LGBT choice? Many have responded to this question with, why would anyone choose this life? Choose the hardship? Choose the discrimination? However, most recently I’ve decided to rant to the world…Why NOT choose being queer? I am not ashamed and there is nothing wrong or less than for being me, or being you, or being us.

We need to take pride in our isness and should not, cannot, will not feel shame or have folks through misguided shade. I honestly don’t think LGBT identities are choices, however, if I could choose I would choose queer everyday.   This is not to undermine the experiences of hardship that we have experienced…discrimination, rejection, isolation, violence, confusion. But I also have done some incredible things like getting arrested for civil disobedience, getting to hang out with folks who teach me everyday about beingness, getting to join my voice to the countless others advocating for all are welcome to truly mean all are welcome at OHIO and beyond its fun being a colorful thorn in the side of some of our student, faculty, staff, and administrative leaders on campus.

I don’t want us to feel bad about ourselves or for others to take pity…hell the fuck no to pity, I want people to be proud of us and for us to pridefully chant…we are here, we are queer, and we aren’t going anywhere!

Tonight, this week, and other moments of Pride are not at the expense of the challenges and tragedies we have endured as a community…

  • The murders of trans women in the United States and around the world
  • The microaggressions that students experience everyday in the classroom and other spaces on our campus and all OHIO campuses
  • The reality that yes we can get married but we can be fired in 30 states and executed in 7 countries.
  • Folks who are being targeted for being LGBT, with little or no recourse from our community
  • The white washing and heterowashing of the radicalness of LGBTQ folks and our contributions
  • The kids who are kicked out of their homes for living and loving beyond the norm
  • The countless and often unknown victims of sexualized violence who identify as trans or gender variant or queer
  • The misrepresentation and otherization of our vibrant and diverse community in the media and other social networks

Claiming and reclaiming that we are pride is a re-energizer to continue to counter violence. We are pride and honor with pride

  • Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P Johnson, and all those who refused to be bullied and silenced at Stone Wall
  • The repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in 2010 and June 26, 2015 when marriage equality became the law of the land.
  • Though we may have our critiques of her, Caitlyn Jenner has opened the door for conversations around trans identities throughout the United States.
  • Laverne Cox was on the cover of Time Magazine
  • Abby Wambach has a freakin’ Barbie made in her image
  • A Mya Taylor, a trans woman of color, was the center of a campaign for an Oscar Nomination for Tangerine.
  • Nike created a sneaker in honor of Pride Month
  • The Legend of Korra celebrated bisexuality
  • OHIO has and is and will be taking steps to fully live into diversity and inclusion…we have an LGBT Center, Gender Neutral Housing, LGBTQ Studies Certificate, Name and Pronoun Policy, trans healthcare for students, and we are moving forward with a new LGBT Living Experience and Gender Inclusive Restrooms.

We reflect and we remember our heroes and sheroes and “insert-gender-neutral-pronoun-roes”…

  • Gloria Anzaldua
  • Albus Dumbledore
  • Bayard Rustin
  • Ellen Paige
  • Frank Ocean
  • Carmen Carrera
  • Langston Hughes
  • Harvey Milk
  • Alice Walker
  • Neil Patrick Harris
  • Zachary Quinto
  • RuPaul
  • Tom Daly
  • Laverne Cox
  • Margaret Cho

Trail blazers past and present, who spark and kindle our commitment to embodying #bobcatrainbowwarriorfierceness. We take pride in our journeys of living and expressing who we are…we honor all of who we are, our bloopers and our triumphs as individuals and as familia…we take pride in our efforts to embody being a rainbow in the clouds of others…we take pride in our goods, our bads, and our freaking awesomeness!

We are pride! All of us without exception IS fabulous, fierce, glitterful, amazing, unicornlicious…

We are pride…we are here…we are queer…we have always been here and we will always be here.

Cheers and queers!  Muchas gracias!

 

delfin bautista is a native of Miami, FL, delfin is of both Cuban and Salvadoran heritage.   delfin is a social worker and activist theologian who is passionate about engaging the intersections of religion, gender, sexuality, race, and justice.   delfin is a former member of CTA’s Vision Council, Board of Directors, Anti-Racism Team, and 20/30 Leadership Team.  delfin is coauthor of religion and spirituality chapter in Trans Bodies, Trans Selves and also serves on their Board of Directors.  delfin currently serves as the Director of the LGBT Center at Ohio University as well as serving as adjunct faculty in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.  delfin is also a contributor to Believe Out Loud’s blog and “preaches” on their blog “La Lucha, Mi Pulpito.”

Staying Active in the Holy Spirit

493px-peace_dove-svgWe learn in high school English class the significance of the birth metaphor: something important has taken place, our hero has crossed the threshold to a new level, and they will never again be the person that they used to be. The feast of Pentecost is full of birth imagery. It’s no accident that it’s referred to as the birthday of the church, for it represents the moment when Jesus’s disciples were transformed from scared followers asking “now what” to bold preachers willing to spread the good news at all costs. The description of Pentecost in John (“After saying this, Jesus breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy spirit.’” 20:22, The Inclusive Bible) echoes the second creation story, the birth of humanity, where “YHWH fashioned an earth creature out of the clay of the earth, and blew into its nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7, The Inclusive Bible). Recall, too, the presence of the Holy Spirit at Jesus’s baptism, his spiritual rebirth: “the Holy Spirit descended on the Anointed One in visible form, like a dove” (Luke 3:22, The Inclusive Bible).

The birth metaphor, with its images of life and breath, reveals another fact about the Holy Spirit: she is associated with action and movement. The appearance of the Holy Spirit in the Acts reading for Pentecost is accompanied by “what sounded like a violent, rushing wind” (Acts 2:2, The Inclusive Bible). The disciples present act on the spirit’s urgings by preaching in a multitude of different languages. The breath mentioned in the John passage above is an image of movement, too – we can feel the rush of air! In modern English, I only have to use the phrase “spirited debate” for your brain to be filled with images of animated people gesturing wildly and perhaps moving about the room in order to make their point. The word spirit carries energy.

Unfortunately, the feast of Pentecost shares a fatal flaw with the other major appearance of the Holy Spirit: the Sacrament of Confirmation. With both celebrations, the story too often ends right then and there. For some, the Sacrament of Confirmation marks the end of regular visits to Church for the foreseeable future.  In the case of Pentecost, it can feel like the last stop before our brains kick into summer mode. (This is culturally reinforced: school lets out, vacations begin, and the church choir is on hiatus.) We may still be there physically for the summer months, but our spiritual development stagnates.

How do we face spiritual stagnation head on? At the MCC church, one way we do this is to declare the season after Pentecost to be Pridetide: in this time of gay pride parades and festivals, we take time to reflect on our place in the celebration and show up, claiming our own place among the groups. In this active spirit of Pentecost and Pridetide, my summer goal is to continue my spiritual growth. During Lent, I developed the habit of asking, “What do you want me to hear?” Now I’m asking, “What do you want me to do?” If I am successful, Advent will not only mean beginning again; it will be a new beginning.

About the author: Francis Beaumier is on the leadership team for the Dignity Young Adult Caucus and an active member of the Our Lady of Lourdes Parish Family as well as Angels of Hope Metropolitan Community Church. He currently works for Brown County Library as an IT Specialist and is pursuing a Master’s in Liberal Studies at St. Norbert College.