I’m Afraid of Falling (So What Am I Doing in This Ivory Tower?)

Ivory tower rook piece from a chess setMy undergraduate degree is in Cultural Anthropology, and during my junior year of college an Anthropologist told us that the education we were receiving would very likely distance us from the people we would eventually work with. (Never mind any cultural or religious or economic differences!) I’ve carried that warning in the back of my mind ever since. Now I have a Masters of Divinity and I’m working on a Doctor of Ministry degree and widening the distance whether I want to or not. The problem is, I’m realizing more and more that the distance is not just between myself and the people I work with; it’s frequently between myself and the people closest to me … and sometimes I feel like crying.

Three days a week I’m surrounded by people who have high expectations for themselves and others, who have respect for people who are not like “us.” Three days a week I’m in the company of people who believe in nonviolence and interfaith dialogue. Outside the ivory tower of academia–and specifically religious academia–I often encounter people who think telling ethnic jokes and making fun of people with disabilities (in private, at least) is funny. I have to contend with people who think it’s okay to denigrate any religious beliefs that aren’t close enough to their own.

So what’s a “nice,” left-of-progressive, lady preacher to do? I know, I know—I should be prophetic and call people to account for their ignorance and insensitivity. I find that very difficult. I don’t want to be seen as the humorless religious fanatic, or jeered for being uber “politically correct.” I don’t want to be the “bitch” that spoils everybody’s fun. I don’t want people I love to avoid me. Yep–it’s all about me. And that’s the problem.

The disease of the self runs through my blood
It’s a cancer fatal to the soul
Every attempt on my behalf has failed
To bring the sickness under control [1]

I want to do the right thing. I want to stand up for justice. Really–I do. I also want to be compassionate, humble, nonjudgmental. So I sympathize with the Apostle Paul, who was moved to write, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” [2] It’s a sin of commission and omission. I stand on the battlement of the ivory tower, knees shaking, trying NOT to look down… and paralyzed by fear. I want to do the right thing; I’m just not sure what the “right thing” is.

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[1] Charlie Peacock. “In the Light.” Copyright 1991, Sparrow Records.
[2] Romans 7:19, RSV

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Holding Fast to God: Lent 4

There is so much richness in the lectionary for this week that it is hard to know where to start. What strikes me in the texts for the third week is that both Psalm 23 and the story of the Man Born Blind (John 9:1-41) have very little to do with one another and yet in the end they both point us towards holding fast on to God even when that seems irrational and all else is seeming lost. In the depths of these texts I sense that there is a calm center—the welcoming of God, Godself—in the midst of the chaos that surrounds the central character of each text.

I doubt I will ever forget a seminary afternoon I spent in Psalms class taught by Dr. Kristin De Troyer, an amazing scholar and teacher! This particular afternoon we were looking at Psalm 23, and going through it line by line examining the poetic stress and how the word pairs worked to enhance the meaning of the text both in translation and in Hebrew. A text that has almost come to seem cliché jumped out at me. As Professor De Troyer took us through this text it became clear that it was not only not a simple text, but also that it was far from the pastoral text the images depict. This is perhaps one of the most familiar texts in the Western world. “The Lord is my shepherd…” The words themselves are so calming to even think. (Although I must admit that after encountering the Vicar of Dibley series I found myself giggling every time I heard the opening of this Psalm because it had become such a lead into comedy for me. But I digress…) However, as I think back to that day in seminary, in the long warm conference room, I think of how sad it is to me that this text is so misunderstood and so misused. As the professor unpacked the word pairings of the text and went through the images of the text with us in view of its ancient origins, it came alive for me in new ways. Professor De Troyer led us on a discovery that this text is one of flight and seeking refuge. The table which God is said to prepare in this text is not just a meal table, not a welcome table but rather the alter in the tremble where one might seek refuge—the one place that a hunted or chased person may find refuge, for no army and no official could lawfully seize a person who had to the ram’s horn on the altar of God. And not only is the text one of safety for the person in peril, but it is also one of vindication.

I thought on that day, how strange it is to use the text of Psalm 23 as a text for the time nearing death. It seems to me that the context of death is the one in which Psalm 23 is often used. I remember thinking to myself on that day in seminary, that I would uphold the integrity of the poetics of the text and not use it in the context of death because in my class I was learning that really the text is more appropriate to the situation of the immigrant running from immigration officials than it is for the death bed! But such can be the arrogance of pure academic scholarship mixed with inexperience. As a chaplain I quickly learned that despite the meanings unearthed by the poetics of this text, the fact that this text brings meaning and comfort to people in various situations but particularly at time of great illness and approaching/at death cannot be ignored. As a poet, it first pained me to use this text in the context of illness/death. However as chaplain—and even as a poet—there is something more important than intent to tend to. There is always at the heart of all matters the meaning and care for others that must be considered. In my experience as a chaplain I have learned that even people who are not religiously affiliated will ask for Psalm 23 to be read at time of death. It has become easy, both for the scholar and the poet within, to allow my poet self to read Psalm 23 in the context of illness/death. This is true not only because it is caring to read something that has meaning to those who request it at these times, but also it is true because of the death/dying process itself. The death/dying process itself is one of letting go of all we love—be it things, people, places, and how we identify ourselves. In this sense the death/dying process is one of seeking refuge in the only place we have left to turn when all else falls away—God, or our understanding of the sacred. In some small way Psalm 23—which is really more about refuge from the world than death—is in a way one of the perfect and most simple texts to turn to for reassurance, whenever we need it, and often that is the time close to dying.

The paradox of this struck me this week as I taught Sunday School to the four and five year olds—and Psalm 23 was the text for the week. Here Psalm 23 was in no way connected to ideas of death and dying, there was no thought given the notion of fleeing for one’s life or seeking refuge, but rather the image of the shepherd became the focal point for discussions of care, compassion, and God’s love for us. It was a bit odd I admit for the hospice chaplain to be teaching Psalm 23 to a group who, God willing, will long outlive me. But it was also a moment in which I found wholeness. For, as we first learn Psalm 23 (particularly if we know what a sheep is only though books and we have to learn what a shepherd is) we learn that God is present with us at all times and that God cares for us through others who feed and tend to us when we are sick. There is omnipresence, we are never alone. God holds fast to us so we may hold fast to God.

By now you may be thinking that at the outset I mentioned this was also the case in the gospel for this week, in the story of the man born blind. Well it is. This is one of the “healing stories” in the gospel, and generally I find these complicated and problematic. This story from the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John, however, is one that important and liberating to a point. It is in this text that Jesus clarifies for all those around that sin is not the cause of disability for Jesus says “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed through him” (John 9:3). This is very liberating to people with disabilities because it separates sin from disability, in the words of Jesus, and long before science would show this to be true. Rev. Dr. Kathy Black points out that this healing story is different than others found in the gospels because whereas other healing stories end with the person with disabilities being integrated back in the community, in the case of the man born blind Jesus’ healing of the man results in his being expelled from the community. (A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability, Abington: Nashville, 1996, 72-73.) The blind man’s encounter with Jesus and his healing lead to controversy within his faith community. The man not only proclaims the work of Jesus to his community but he also calls Jesus a prophet! Like a good shepherd, Jesus seeks out the man when the community expels him and then the newly-sighted man accepts Jesus as the Son of Man. The healed man held fast to his experience of God, even when he faced losing his community because of it, and Jesus came to him there.

Whether we struggle with fault/blame, change, leaving, or how to approach the other this Lenten season let us hold fast to God with the hope that God holds fast to us as well.

A Feminist Eschatology

The following article was prepared for a seminary class in 2007.

Eschatology is the study of human thoughts concerning what is “last”; translated from the Greek, eschatology means study of the last (1). The question this raises for me is: the last what? Theologically speaking, eschatology is commonly thought to refer to culmination of history or the end of time. In Christianity, eschatology is often associated with the coming of God’s Kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven, and the return of Christ. For religions that place emphasis on the historical patterns of time, such as the Abrahamic religions, eschatology can serve as a “hope [that] locates the ultimate achievement of the ideal in a final era of human history” (2). Ultimately, eschatology leads us to reflect upon what it is that we consider to be ideal, and perhaps essential to the human experience in relation to both the world in which we reside, and the divinity in which we live and have our being. The exploration I will seek to engage in this brief essay is how some feminist theologians approach this notion of eschatology. What are the last things that feminist theologians hope for? What, ultimately, do feminist theologies hope for?

Traditionally, eschatology has brought to mind the Battle of Armageddon, and the notion of some who are cosmically crowned by a heavenly king, while others are sentenced to eternal torture. These images themselves smack of patriarchy with all its war, hierarchy, and threats to non-conformers. Feminist theologians, starting from the ground of their own experience and carrying with them a commitment to non-hierarchical structures, have tended to view eschatology in a different light, and use a different vocabulary in reference to it. Justice is one word that seems common in feminist discussions and visions of the eschaton.

Building on a tradition that emphasizes history in its concept of world completion, Rosemary Radford Ruether draws an eschatological vision based on the jubilee notion found in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. She writes that “[i]n the Jubilee tradition this is thought of not as one ‘great cycle’ defining history from a beginning to an end but as a series of revolutionary transformations that continually return to certain starting points” (3). The idea of jubilee is that each family has possession of the land they need to provide for their means, and that individuals are free to benefit from the land. It is an idea that all have what they need to survive; this is the starting point to which justice returns in the world. An eschatological vision based on this would have to assume an ongoing process of justice in which injustices are righted and the necessary means of life restored to all persons on a regular basis. Ruether sees this “concept of social change as a conversion to the center, conversion to the earth and each other, rather than flight into an unrealizable future.” (4). It is ultimately justice among persons in community, and all the responsibility that entails, that Ruether advocates as an eschatological hope. It is a hope in which the ultimate meaning of humanity comes in the form of personal responsibility and a communal justice that encompasses all the earth. This is justice.

Justice—and the struggle for it—is also a primary (if not ultimate) goal for other feminist theologians. Judith Plaskow, as a Jewish feminist theologian, is even bolder in this pursuit writing of “the relationship between spirituality and politics as a theological issue” (5). The politics of which Plaskow speaks is social justice. The connection of politics and spirituality is paramount to Plaskow because drawing upon her Jewish tradition she reminds us “the prophets affirm that the forms of worship are meaningless in the absence of social justice” (6). Thus the Jewish tradition, and the Christian tradition that stands upon it, demands the not just the uplifting of but the reality of social justice as a prerequisite for worship. It is only through social justice that humanity can reach toward “new understandings of divinity” (7). Eschatology for Plaskow seems to be a reaching out for and bringing in those persons society marginalizes and considers to be “last.” This requires a political understanding and interaction with the world, because, “[w]hen spirituality is understood from a feminist perspective—not in otherworld terms, but as the fullness of our relationships with ourselves, others and God—it can not possibly be detached from the conditions of our existence.” (8).

Experience as the basis for the formation of theological and spiritual reflection is at the heart of Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s Mujerista Theology. Isasi-Diaz’s eschatology is one in which, like Plaskow’s, there is an expectation that the establishment of justice will also bring with it the establishment of the kin-dom (sic). She writes that “[t]he main obstacle to the unfolding of the kin-dom is the alienation from each other experienced by all in and through the oppressive societal categories and structures that cause and sustain oppression.” (9). Thus, the kin-dom exists when oppression is banished and liberation established. The eschatology here is, again, a function of human interactions. As a Latina, Iassi-Diaz not only writes her theology from a feminist perspective, but also from a perspective that seeks liberation, culturally from within and racially from without. In this effort to organize for the liberation of the poor, of women, and of Latinas/os, Isasi-Diaz’s theology puts emphasis on the practical steps of how to build a community that will bring about the kin-dom. Such practicality is based on her emphasis that change will only begin when the oppressed achieve “conscientization” (10) of their situation and the oppressors are able to find their way to being in dialogical solidarity (11) and mutuality in which the oppressors come to understand the oppressed (12). From the perspective of Isasi-Diaz’s theology, it is justice between the people, with power and those without, that becomes the determining factor of when the ultimate hopes of humanity are achieved . Yet, this justice is “ever changing” based on the lived realities of people’s real experiences (13).

There are many ways in which eschatology has been and can be viewed. Often when we look to eschatology there seems to be little agreement about what the last things or times are. However, when we look at the question of what eschatology is from the feminist perspective there seems to be agreement, even across interfaith lines. Feminist theologies seem to agree that the eschaton, the ultimate hope for humanity, will be found only in the seeking and establishing of justice (Plaskow and Isasi-Diaz), or in the establishment of new ways of living in which seeks right relationships and justice among all inhabitants of the earth, human or not (Ruether). In terms of feminist theology, the eschaton is the realization of justice for and inclusion of those persons, and beings, whom are thought of last in the traditional hierarchies of power and control. There is also the implicit expectation of feminist theologians that this feminist eschatology includes roles and respect for women in the ecclesiastical / religious power structures.

***Endnotes

  1. Wikipedia contributors, “Eschatology,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Eschatology&oldid=175010037 (accessed December 4, 2007).
  2. Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 243.
  3. Ibid, 254.
  4. Ibid, 255-256.
  5. Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, (San Francsico: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990), 212.
  6. Ibid, 214.
  7. Ibid, 238.
  8. Ibid, 213.
  9. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, Mujerista Theology, (New York: Orbis, 1996) 90.
  10. Ibid, 94.
  11. Ibid, 97.
  12. Ibid, 89.
  13. Ibid, 116

Bibliography

  • Isasi-Diaz, Ada Maria. Mujerista Theology. New York: Orbis, 1996.
  • Plaskow, Judith. Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990.
  • Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.
  • Wikipedia contributors, “Eschatology,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, [on-line] available from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Eschatology&oldid=175010037, accessed December 4, 2007.