I’m back

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Post PhD life!

Well, it’s been a while – and in truth a long road – but I’m back to blog at reddresstheology!

My PhD thesis has been submitted (cue: crowd roar) and I have spare headspace for the first time in 18 months or so. I am now awaiting examination (which will take a couple of months) and getting on to spruking my services and superior Phd intelligence (cue: rolling of eyes)!

So, stay tuned for a return to regular posts from me as I get myself sorted into a new post-PhD life, full to overflowing with exciting adventures.

Oh, and just in case you’re curious as to what I ended up writing about, here is my final thesis abstract. If you find the academic writing incomprehensible you’ve just discovered why I needed to take a break from blogging while I got this thing out of the way!!

Saint Augustine, the founder of Western theological hermeneutics, declared the double-love command of God and neighbour-as-self to be the key to Christian theology (On Christian Doctrine). Love is touted as central to theology, but love has a fluid range of meanings and its expressions are enmeshed within contextually specific forms. How can such a slippery concept form a stable guide for Christian theology, particularly in contexts where the sociocultural forms of love are in transition? 

Transparent Glass Sphere

The key image of my theological hermeneutic is a sphere of open-space.

This thesis develops a theological hermeneutic for contexts of change utilising liminality theory from the discipline of anthropology. First, it outlines the challenges for theologians in these contexts, and second, it directs attention to the theological resources required to negotiate these contexts. Central to liminality theory is a movement of ‘open-space’—a chaotic but creative opportunity where stable sociality falls away in order to be transformed into a new sociality, fit to express the complex relationship between the individual and the universal. By negotiating the cultural open-space via a spiritual open-space of contemplative prayer—an embrace of apophatic strategies for knowing without form and for the refinement of human wisdom—the theologian is equipped with the resources required to love in liminality. This can be translated into a theological method such as Rowan Williams has proposed, for theology as a conversation, where dialectical propositions are held as ‘thresh-holds’ to be traversed into a ‘liminal’ way of knowing, instead of limit-situations that are roadblocks to ‘rational’ knowing. Sarah Coakley’s methodological privileging of contemplation for the transformation of desire is shown to match liminality’s capacity for the transformation of sociality. This ‘contemplative communitas’ affects both an objective and a subjective transformation of theological knowledge.

Re-examining Augustine’s theological hermeneutic of love with these resources in place, it is argued that if love is to be a guide

I was getting my first hair cut in 6 months when I received news that the thesis had safely reached the Research Office in Wagga Wagga!

I was getting my first hair cut in 6 months when I received news that the thesis had safely reached the Research Office in Wagga Wagga!

for theology in contexts of cultural change, the conception of love itself must fall into liminality and be re-formed in the crucible of personal spiritual encounter with God-who-is-love. What results is a theological hermeneutic that loves from God, through self, to neighbour in continuous, life-giving connection.

 

 

 

 

Holy Saturday Spirituality

I found out earlier this week that my Masters essay on Liminality has been accepted by Peer Review for publication in Crucible On-line Journal (I’ll post a link when it comes out).  It is a piece of work that continues to inform my daily living with Jesus in liminality and in my present stage which is just beginning to step out of liminality.  Relevant today, is part 3 of the essay: Holy Saturday Spirituality.  There’s a link to the full essay on the reddress writing page.

PART THREE: HOLY SATURDAY SPIRITUALITY

1. A Pregnant Pause

The Christian Faith is essentially the Faith of the Resurrection:  those who knew Jesus as a man walking this earth would not have told and retold the events of his life, had they not been totally transformed by their encounter with the dead-now-risen Lord Jesus (Alison 1993, 5).  All that we know about Jesus is passed on to us by people who have experienced the Resurrection and know that the Life and Death of Jesus Christ of Nazareth is not the end of the story.  We receive what has been passed on to us, just as the Apostle Paul has said, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve…” (1 Corinthians 15:3-5).

In the Apostolic witness, the first Holy Saturday is remembered by its absence.  Some of the first disciples saw the body in the tomb late in the day immediately before the Sabbath, then some of his disciples saw the tomb without his body, early in the day immediately after the Sabbath.  The actual Sabbath day is missing in the narrative and we can only infer that the disciples proceeded with Sabbath observance as was customary.

So also, Holy Saturday is absent in the Paschal Triduum Liturgies.  “Holy Saturday is the truth of our lives, so close to where we are that it serves as the heart of the paschal liturgies but is itself, as the nature of the divine-human encounter, a mystery beyond even the power of liturgy to encode” (Farwell 2005, 69).  The Saturday Evening Vigil technically takes place on the Sunday (because Sabbath starts at sundown) and alludes to the waiting, the expectant hope of the Christian who already knows that Resurrection Day is coming.  It is this absence of word and action on Holy Saturday that distinguish it as day of liminality.If the activity, or lack thereof, on the Sabbath day can be inferred, so to can the affectual experience of the disciples.  All their hope had been placed in the man Jesus, and his execution essentially brought that to an end.  The disciples dispersed, Peter denied even knowing his Beloved Rabbi, Joseph of Arimathea looked after the necessary burial arrangements in secret, and the women seem to have done what needed to be done without comment.  It is impossible to imagine that they were not dejected.

Alan Lewis has noted that the pregnant pause in the middle of the Passion-Easter narrative acts as a boundary “which allows the mind and heart easy movement and a fertile cross-reference between the two.  For the first-time traveller, however, the boundary is a frontier-barrier obstructing forward progress” (Lewis 2001, 43).  For the first disciples, Holy Saturday was the end.  “So we have not really listened to the gospel story of the cross and grave until we have construed this cold, dark Sabbath as the day of atheism” (Lewis 2001, 56).  This distinction between the first disciples and all other believers who encounter Jesus through their testimony is significant for the present discussion of liminality.  Christians know Holy Saturday is not the end of the story because Jesus is encountered only as the Risen Lord.  For believers, liminality on Holy Saturday is not a natural consequence of reading the Jesus narrative, it is a result of getting lost.  We have the simple outline presented to us:  Jesus lived, died and rose again.  But then something in life brings us to our limits and we become disoriented.  We forget part, or all, of the story.  We cannot match the meaning of the story with the testimony of our own lives, the symbols have become detached from their meanings and cease to make sense.  If we lose our way, we regress to the testimony of those traversing of the story for the first time: a day of despair when God had not yet turned things upside down.

In his discussion on Resurrection, Rowan Williams describes how the experience of liminality is integral to encountering God in the dead-now-living Jesus on Easter.  Encountering Jesus who is ‘wholly other’ in the Resurrection draws us into a liminal moment in which we no longer fully understand life, death and where to locate God and ourselves.  “The resurrection can and should operate as a central symbol for the purification of desire and the de-centring of the ego, because the necessary first moment in the resurrection event is one of absence and loss” (Williams 1982, 77).  The pregnant pause in the narrative is a confrontation.  Do we read the dramatic placing of Christ in the grave as the end of the story?  Put the book down and descend ourselves into hopelessness?  Or do we choose to lie ourselves down in the tomb next to Jesus and trust, however blindly, that something mysterious, beyond our current capacity to describe or define, will bring about an ecstatic finale?  Imaginatively placing ourselves into the narrative as the first disciples illuminates the story for us, but it is not the way of discipleship.  We follow the way of Jesus when we choose to become his disciples, and this means we follow him through the grave.  This is Balthasar’s question:  how does the Christian accompany Jesus through the supreme solitude of Holy Saturday?  How do we share in “being dead with the dead God” (Balthasar 1990, 181)

2. Solidarity with Human Solitude

“In that same way that, upon the earth, he was in solidarity with the living, so, in the tomb, he is in solidarity with the dead” (Balthasar 1990, 149).  For von Balthasar, Jesus descent into death is the last leg of the Incarnation – the completion of Jesus’ human form and the key to understanding Holy Saturday.  There is one exegetically difficult text from 1 Peter 3:19 about Jesus being active in death – ‘preaching the gospel to those in prison’ – but by the fourth century there was enough speculation about his underworld experience for it to make it into the creeds with the line ‘He descended into Hell.’  Von Balthasar argues that whatever speculative suggestions we make about hell and Jesus ‘descent,’ we must not deny the completeness of his death.  “It  is a situation which signifies in the first place the abandonment of all spontaneous activity and so a passivity, a state in which, perhaps, the vital activity now brought to its end is mysteriously summed up” (Balthasar 1990, 149).  The result of Jesus’ death was the sure communication of the gospel to all humanity, across all time and space.  Von Balthasar expresses this poetically in this imaginary conversation between Christ and the human person:

“You leap down from a high cliff.  The leap is freely made, and yet, the moment you leap, gravity leaps upon you and you tumble exactly like a dead stone to the bottom of the gorge.  This is how I decided to give myself.  To give myself right out of my hand…. This was the plan; this was the will of the Father.  By fulfilling it through obedience (the fulfilment itself was obedience), I have filled the world from heaven down to hell…. Now I am all in all, and this is why the death which poured me out is victory.  My descent, my vertiginous collapse, my going under (under myself) into everything that was foreign and contrary to God – down into the underworld: this was the ascent of this world into me, into God….You are in God – at the price of my own Godhead.  You have love – I lost it to you….This was my victory.  In the Cross was Easter.” (Cited in Farwell 2005, 71)

Death has been a part of universal human experience since the first Adam, and hence death must be a part of the total solidarity with humanity by the second Adam.  This is why Christians are able to speak of the Cross as an act of love.  It is a radically self-giving commitment to remain in relationship with humanity, even to the extent of losing oneself totally.  Upon death Jesus the Divine-Human is entirely dependent upon God the Father for his Redemption.  Jesus, by virtue of his human nature, has become powerless.   This is the pathway forged for Jesus’ followers through the valley of death.  At the extreme of human limitation, the only way beyond comes not from ourselves, but by the Loving action of God whom is beyond.   “Holy Saturday is the day in which God has died ‘into’ our very own death and sanctified it, in all its stark, immovable threat” (Farwell 2005, 69). What then, does Paul mean when he urges us to be dead with the dead God?

“The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.  So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”  (Romans 5:12-6:11)

In the liminal moment, when we at last grasp our own finiteness, we are forced with this choice:  do we continue to trust only in ourselves, to know only that which is available within our human limitations; or do we open ourselves to the possibility that we are not as superior in the universe as we have previously thought ourselves to be?  The ego must accept that it is powerless to project far enough into the world to make sense of all of life.  We must let go of the expectation that we are in complete control, that we are masters of our destiny, that we are autonomous beings who need no Other.  Jesus models this perfectly for us.  As Incarnated Being he submitted himself entirely to Father not only in obedience, but in existential dependence.  “Because the Descent is the final point reached by the Kenosis, and the Kenosis is the supreme expression of the inner-Trinitarian love, the Christ of Holy Saturday is the consummate icon of what God is like” (Nichols 1990, 8).  We stay in the moment, and wait for God to intervene, just as Jesus did.  All of which sheds a soft dawning light upon Jesus’ words, “For those who want to save their life will lose it.  And those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25-26).

Liminal spaces: Bombed out Church, Liverpool

St Luke’s Church was bombed during world war II and it was decided to leave it deconstructed as a reminder of the devastation of war.  The consequence 70 years on is a remarkable lesson in liminal space.  The old has died but the new has deliberately been left unbidden.  

There is a garden blossoming through-out the interior, some installations for music making and visual art exhibitions but the overall effect is untamed, ramshackled freedom.  The Urban Strawberry Lunch arts collective seems to take most responsible for curating the space, which they do with conscientious egalitarianism and inclusion.  There is a table set up with paints and canvases with an invitation to create your own artwork whilst you sit and soak up the vibe – it feels very much like a prayer station and it indicative of the conflation of art and spirituality in this space.

On the day we visited we happened upon an artist pulling down his installation work at the close of his exhibition.   The work was a mandalay teepee set up on the site of the ancient church high alter, inviting people to find the compassion that lives within themselves and commit to expressing that compassion to the world.  He described himself as a pagan shaman (with a PhD in Jungian psychology!) and his intention was explicitly spiritual but not at all Christian.  Yet the meaning of the work fitted perfectly with a theology of Christ’s compassion made personal to us in the eucharist and in my conversation with the artist we marvelled at how these spiritual connections make themselves felt of their own accord, particularly I would say, in liminal space.

What made this liminal space?  Well, there are the obvious things like the absense of a roof, floor, windows and doors!  But there were several other key ambiguities – was this a church, a gallery, a garden, a performance venue?   Is this a safe space or is it dangerous? (We had to sign an ‘enter at own risk into an unstable building site’ waver upon entry!)  Is the space beautiful or unkept?  Who owns this land, this art work, who tends this garden and pays the bills? All this ambiguity keeps the human inhabitant on their toes – alert to the absence of clarity and the possibilities for questions.  There is no definitive form here and certainly no clear answers – the very definition of liminality.  I loved it.

 

 

Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture by Mike Frost

(Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 2006)

I felt inspired to do a quick post on Exiles because it is a handy book for those interested in missional oriented ministry.  If you haven’t read it yet, it’s worth getting your hands on a copy because it is kind of like a text book for Missional Christianity and can be highly recommended as book to pass on to young leaders, discussion groups or even form the basis of an engaging sermon series.  It’s easy to read, theologically intelligent and covers the important issues of missional church and living in contemporary culture.  Best of all, it’s written by an Aussie!

I’ve used the book this year in my liminality essay, because Mike writes really well about Victor Turner’s concept of communitas (the genuine, spontaneous community possible in transitory moments).  I also put his ‘third places’  discussion into a worksheet format, which I have just put up on the reddress writing page.  A ‘third place’ is not work, not home, but a third place for the community to gather.  Useful concept for thinking through site issues.

Here’s the table of contents:

Part I:  Exiles

1.  Self-Imposed Exile – The Memory: God Will Rescue the Exiled People

2.  Jesus the Exile – The Memory: Jesus was a Radical and a Subversive

3.  Following Jesus into Exile – The Memory: Jesus Is Our Standard and Example

Part II:  Dangerous promises

4.  Exiled from a Hyper-Real World – The Promise: We Will Be Authentic

5.  The Exile’s Espirit de Corps – The Promise:  We Will Serve a Cause Greater Than Ourselves

6.  Fashioning Collectives of Exiles – The Promise:  We Will Create Missional Community

7.  Exiles at the Table – The Promise:  We Will Be Generous and Practice Hospitality

8.  Working for the Host Empire – The Promise:  We Will Work Righteously

Part III:  Dangerous criticism

9.  Restless with Injustice – The Critique:  You Have Been an Unjust Empire

10.  Exiles and the Earth – The Critique:  You Have Not Cared for God’s Creation

11.  Comforting the Oppressed – The Critique:  You Have Not Protected God’s Children

Part IV:  Dangerous songs

12.  Exiles at the Alter – The Song: To God Be the Glory

13.  The Songs of the Revolution – The Song:  Jesus Ain’t My Boyfriend

Epilogue

Resources

 

Living with Jesus in Liminality: an invitation to be ‘dead with the dead God’

Just posted a link to my 10,000 word essay on liminality on the reddress writing page.  It was a long and difficult labour, but I am inordinately proud!

Liminal, adj  \’li-m’-nel\

1.  of or relating to a sensory threshold

2.  barely perceptible

3.  of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition.

This piece of writing is theology born out of my own experience – heart, soul, mind and strength.  It is also where I think the Western Church is at – the old has died, but the new has not yet come.  It is the very definition of the ’emerging’ church – finding our way through a time massive time of transition and ecclesiastical upheaval.  So I’ve written about the spiritual experience of individual believers, the power of ritual for times of transition, and postmodern cultural liminality.  In all of that I suggest that Holy Saturday offers us a spirituality which gently guides us through a really difficult time.  Here’s the intro & conclusion:

There are moments, sometimes long extended, where life seems to drop into a kind of suspended state.  There is a memory of a past with form and intelligence but the simplicity of life has passed away and no shape or meaning has yet replaced it.  This moment of ‘liminality’ is an apophatic state of continuous present.  We have only the vaguest knowledge of ourselves, God and our world by what we used to know in the past and now do not know in the present.   On Holy Saturday there is similarly no human form or constructs, the Incarnated God has passed away.  And whilst faith prompts hope that there might be a further movement to the story, any future is not yet foreseeable.  There is nothing to do here but lie with Jesus in the tomb.  It is ‘betwixt and between’, a moment of liminality.  The Christian hope in this story is that there is nothing to do but wait.  Wait for the Lord’s resurrection.  Wait for God to act.  If one waits for the Lord’s rescue, the tomb can be transcended.  This essay explores the nature of liminality as a descriptor of life in transition in relation to individual psycho-spiritual states, Christian ritual and the present socio-cultural shift in Western society.  It then considers the spiritual lessons of Holy Saturday to ask: how is the Christian to live in such a moment?  What rules still apply?  What is the invitation?  I conclude that moments of liminality invite the Christian to ‘be dead with the dead God’ (Von Balthasar)…

This essay has presented an argument that liminality is a natural part of human experience which presents the follower of Jesus with an opportunity.  Surviving liminality requires faith and understanding – that this is not the end of the story, that there has been One who has been here before.  It is, in fact an opportunity to come into intimate contact with that One who is beyond our reach in the everyday of life.  Saying yes to this opportunity means embracing the moment –  standing still in the dark, or lying with Jesus in the grave.  It is a strange mix however, for at once there is a letting go of the old, a refusal to draw on human resources, the determined act of trusting that there is a future.  Critical thinking and searching for meaning, searching for God is a liminal intelligence that refuses to believe there is nothing but void.  That there is a power beyond the grave to come to our rescue, break through the meaninglessness with purpose and redeem the old ways so that they make sense again in a new light.