Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Great Asleepening

Many American Christians (I mean this, as a community, well aware that the community often misrepresents many of its individual members' interests) experience what I like to call "Great Asleepenings" that allow them to ignore scripture, religion, and theology once they are either baptized or "born again." Their asleepening permits a focus on gleaning social status and creating potential political power for their self-chosen leaders.

Christianity is corrupt.

Here is a post I sent to a mailing list. I thought it fit into Dagzine's "populations" category.

Ken writes: "One of the progressive ways of handling Christians is education... about
their own tradition."

My response:
Showing Christians, progressively, their own tradition will not work, does not work. As I will conclude, Christians are not interested in being Christian, they are interested in being Right. In Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, the saint adressed this back in the day; and still nobody listens.

Selections from Paul's first letter to the Corintians (my emphases):
1.4-7 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind--just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you--so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift gift as you wait for the revealing of your Lord Jesus Christ.

1.13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (I cut the parts with Paul proclaiming whom he baptized; ie, not all of Corinth.) 1.17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

1.18-21 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,/"I will destroy the wisdom of/ the wise,/ and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart."/ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.

1.25 For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.

1.27-29 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothings things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

I think Paul's letter appropriately portrays the attitude of the American evangelical mind--both a grotesque and deficient understanding of Christianity. I use "evangelical" here to represent those who proclaim and manipulate. Proclaiming exists in many forms: pamphlets, preaching, op-ed pieces, prayer, crusading, etc. Manipulating exists in many forms: the sunday bus, faith-based initiatives, protest, political activity, etc. I could list more for both. My point with the short lists is to show that not every element should be treated in the pejorative: folks should be permitted to speak, to protest, to pray.

When you are a member of an organization that sends its youth to Africa or Russia only after showing them misleading videos about paganism, sexuality, politics, and heritage or a member of a Church that threatens political affiliation change if your congregation's demands are not met by the state, the proclaiming and manipulating cease being Christian attitudes and acts aimed at proclaiming and become purely political acts aimed at empowering. I don't know if I have worked out the true sense of my point very well; so, I'll ask a question: Is Christianity a political party? The idea is not: Christians shouldn't be political. I firmly believe the personal is political. But when does a community cease being an identifiably religious community and become an identifiably political community? In addition, when does a society cease being democratic and become theocratic?

I was raised Catholic; Paul was important. The following notes certainly represent why I "left"--more importantly how the Christian Right purposefully abuses their spiritual text for cultural profit.

The first letter to the Corinthians signifies our humbling not our empowerment. Paul's claims are daily warped. Within this letter, Paul argues that the logos of the cross represents a crossing of foolishness(es)--ours and God's. God's foolishness is represented by our humanity. He permitted it after all. Our foolishness is represented by God's strength.

We lose, through translation, the subtle discourse about knowledge and language. It is irresponsible to interpret this letter as a reassurance, a claim, that Christians should boast, that Christians have knowledge, that Christians are more accurate. Nevertheless, we can see how folks might lead themselves and their congregations into willfully misinterpreting Paul.

1. Misinterpreting "my," "for," "you," and "every" in 1.4-7. --Paul's highly stylized introduction might very well lead a reader unaware of, or unconcerned with, rhetoric to hear Paul patronizing Corinthians. People might read the opening lines in this manner: HE is there, in fact, to let them know THEY are blessed. Implicit: HE is already blessed, always already blessed. HE is obligated to share the blessing.

2. 1.17, being sent to proclaim. --If Christians should use the New Testament as a model for living: in other words, in a common way, if Christians read it, meditate with it, and interpret the meaning of their daily actions through it, one might get the impression that one's duty is to simply proclaim without eloquence. In ordinary American speech: the learning (scholarship; from the intellectual domain, the theology) should be lacking; or, the learned are uppity. The sacrament of baptism, the baptizing, is not the thing; the proclamation is the thing. Ritual performance of sacred rites, consensus as a community before acting in public, practicing religion, or studying theology each become less important than saying what you are. But this is not the point. Paul admits he can only proclaim in a way that cannot empty the cross of its power. In other words, he does not know the way or the answer. He can simply proclaim his faith. He is no better than that utterance, I suppose. It grants him little power, if any. And he does not earn any right.

3. Purposefully misrepresenting the point about "those who are being saved." --It isn't that those who are not saved are foolish. Foolishness has everything to do with being human. We are all foolish. In fact, God is foolish. Our humanity is His foolishness and it crosses Him; His power as represented in the crucifixion is our foolishness and it crosses us. Typical of mainstream "born again" Christian practice, only those lines in scripture that serve a ready-made and convenient preparation for "being saved" are used to justify public behavior. Actually, Paul teaches that our wisdom is thwarted through being saved. What does this leave to proclaim? Maybe my baptism. Maybe my faith. Nothing else. Its simplicity is sublime.

4. "God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe." --Our proclamation is a sign of our foolishness not our righteousness. If it signified being saved, then we would be the source for our potential power, not God; it would then become our power to save ourselves without God. It would be our choice. Our whim. God saves, Paul teaches. Who baptized you means nothing. Apparently, we use it to signify faith in being saved; in spite of our doubts. The evangelical perspective is warped. To reiterate, Paul teaches that our proclamations are signs of our foolishness not signs of God's work for us, with us, or in us. Because fools proclaim, they must be saved.

5. What is it in Christian America that seeks power in politics? If one considers biblical instruction, one confronts the power of God as a social force who turns somethings into nothings. How does a Christian conclude that he or she knows God's purpose other than to cross human foolishness so that "no one might boast in the presence of God"? Any talking-head from Scarborough Country will boast of righteous knowledge and condemn others at will. Paul wants to know, "Why do you argue about who is better baptized? Why is it paramount to know who is more or less foolish?" Though Christianity is a mission--a testimonial to and for itself--it is also a crossing of itself. Paul wants to know who, among all of us, should boast? His answer: Nobody. Because nobody can. That is our state--moving from "are" to "are not." We are always to-be-emptied, never to-be-(ful)filled.

That, Ken, is one way I approach this matter. Not only is mainstream Christianity detrimental to our society as a whole (it disrupts open discourse, restricts learning, poisons the public sphere, and prohibits diversity,) mainstream Christianity actively turns against itself. It seeks self-destruction.

I see this as a return-of-the-repressed. Christian neurosis, if you will, is that active ignorance of the foolishness of human being. We pretend that God has not crossed US. Its symptoms are visible in the discourses of Hate and Right with which so many are engaged. But they are blind, ignorant, self-satisfied, and power-hungry. In the New Testament, God levels social organization to a horizontal projection--a singularity; we are many but one. The social ladder is dismissed, it is turned into wood for the cross, so to speak, and through that crucifixion, all is supposedly changed. We are saved, Paul says. (Passive voice; no agency; not our breath.)

What is left? A line. A projection. The hierarchy is simplified: God knows.

All else is politics. Public Christians, evangelicals, are on a crusade to gather political power, to control economy and education, to run the city hall, to possess the key to the prisons; they want the WMDs. God's foolishness or folly, according to Paul, is our civil society; it is not His business.

Kelley adds:
"Does that work for Christians? No." ["that" refers to "ecucating Christians about their own tradition."]

Absolutely not.


Laura Carter said...

I think you're asking good questions but I might hold off on the hermeneutics.

A Russian (imagine that!) story, an old one, about a pilgrim, begins with the words of the pilgrim: by God's grace, I am a Christian. You never really know! I think you're right here: God knows. [insert Pseudo-Dionysius on 'the divine names'---better, more serviceable, words than 'God' anymore]

That knowledge does not immediately translate to anyone who calls him or herself a Christian. And then what is 'knowledge'?

I, for one, am glad the Russians came here, the Syrians too.

But I also hold some tenets of my pseudo-Amish childhood closely.... gotta love some of those old songs....

Anonymous said...


(Jake, blogger-less, here):

It seems to me that the problem with the evangelical Christian culture you're critiquing is that its identity is primarily political, not theological (and so, your pun on their wanting to be right is taken). That the terms this culture uses to define itself against other political cultures have theological roots, of course, confuses the issue enough to tempt one indict Christianity, en masse. But I think that temptation must be avoided.

I think if we call "Many American Christians" "a community," we run the risk of blinding ourselves to the fact that there are many Christian communities with different aims and methods, some of which would likely not be subject to your objections. To distinguish these communities may be difficult, but if the political analysis is to have any finesse, this would be a fine investment of time. I think, when looking at such communities, we should ask if the community is based in theology or in (national and cultural) politics.

My own experience has lead me to both the theological churches (which aren't very durable) and the (culturally) political churches (which are practically indistructable if the right kind of monolithism can be achieved).

As a student in Alabama, I witnessed more fallacy than you can imagine, almost all of it politically motivated. In my little towns, one church saw their organization (not the base theology: after all, it's all "Christian," right?) as better than that of others, &c. They sampled scriptures to color their self-distinction, seeking arguments with outsiders while, at the same time, resisting vehemently any internal argument. So, theological reasoning rarely occured within these communities. At the same time, the theological communities, often the products of rare intersections of interest and spiritual vigor, were more involved in an interior dialogue and, consequently, lost many public arguments by failing to show up most of the time --- though when they did, they were usually the first to advance the critiques you forward here.

I think we have to view such distinctions as worthy if we're to have a meaningful and ultimately helpful public debate in this country about things like "values," "rights" &c. I think it's probably some form of genius that the Cultural Conservatives (or whatever you want to call them) have managed to polarize our thought about Christianity. We can --- and I think this is what we want --- to enter a debate with more than two terms if we're better thinkers, if we (everyone else, including, I'm sure, some of those who did vote Bush) preserve rather than collapse distinctions, preserve rather than discard names and categories, if we don't give up ownership of the names to that particular community.

This is all to say that I don't accept the truth of your assumption that "showing Christians ... [that] their own tradition will not work, does not work" or even the validity of its formulation. (Nice occultatio, though.) I would suggest that the tradition of political Christianity has been, largely, a disaster (as in Crusades, Papal Schism, Glorious Revolution, Massachusetts Bay Colony) in the very arena it chose for its efforts. All the political systems formed as embodiments of "The Church" failed miserably (and there's as good a reason as any for the separation of church and state). Theological systems, which treat the philosophy so seriously as not to be transformed into other systems, have been more successful, and successful in their chosen arena --- the mind and soul of the believer. Even Anne Hutchison wouldn't argue that one: she had her Massachusetts masters beat, and they couldn't change her internally (they couldn't get to her theologically) so they had to change her externally, throwing her to the roughs of Rhode Island.

So, finally (and I think the way you treat Paul seriously suggests you'll agree), it's not the theology that's wrong --- it's what happens to it when politics decides to stalk the flock in saint's clothing.