Who has the right to theologize?

All theology is sexual, said Marcella Althaus-Reid. Theologian-men are afraid of sexuality, afraid of the body. In the words of Rubem Alves: the body cries out! Then all run in fear, dreading what the body can do to theology.

The body tears the veil between us and the Divine. In the body we are the Divine, we penetrate and we are penetrated by God’s sensuality, we become one flesh, we grab God’s butt-cheeks and we enjoy the mystical pleasure of christhood.

Can the body speak? The subaltern body? The body that is sexuality? The body that comes with pleasure? Does that body have the right to do theology? Or is theology this dry thing, without the lubrication of affect, love, and pleasure?

We go round and round and end up in the same errors! A Christianity called progressive putting bodies and desires in closets. I am really sorry, Marcella, if your work seems to have been in vain. Rubem Alves, I also apologize to you, for they have eyes but do not see, they have ears but do not hear!

The body cries for liberty! Yet they insist that bodies and the plurality of sexuality do not have the right to “influence theology”. The body dies for liberty! Yet they insist in reducing the body to a biological experience, denying the multiplicity of experiences and possibilities of the body, discourses that testify the deaths of trans  -men and -women, — “god made a man and a woman”, that theology is “very clear when stating there are only two genders” — discourses that deny a whole life to anyone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, non-binary, trans, or intersex. The body lives liberty! The body will no longer be shackled by non-libertarian theological categories. Our body transgresses, rebels and theologizes without panties, without underwear or bras. Our bodies do theology naked before the queer Divine, honoring corporeality and sexuality!

The body is sexual, it is sensual, it desires! Bodies that are oppressed by a capitalist system also desire! To exclude sexuality, my dear, is far from having the title of progressive. “Revolutionizing” while denying the body is yet another way to perpetuate a theology of violence. To say who can and who cannot do theology is a colonizing, excluding, conservative attitude. All bodies can and should mess with this dry, un-lubricated theology, which kills, excludes, and abuses marginalized bodies.

Deus não rejeita a obra de suas mãos

God does not reject their handwork

É inutil o batismo para o corpo

It is useless to baptize the body

O esforço da doutrina para ungir-nos,

Doctrine’s effort to anoint us,

Não coma, não beba, mantenha os quadris imóveis,

Do not eat, do not drink, do not move your hips,

Porque estes não são pecados do corpo.

Because these are not sins for the body.

A alma, sim, a ela batizai, crismai.

The soul, indeed, baptize her, chrism her.

Escrevei para ela a imitação de Cristo.

Write her the imitation of Christ.

O corpo não tem desvãos,

The body has no lack,

Só inocência e beleza,

Only innocence and beauty,

Tanta que Deus imita

Such that God will imitate it

E quer casar com sua igreja

wanting to marry his church

E declara que os peitos da sua amada

declaring the breasts of his lover

São como filhotes gêmeos de gazela.

the twin pups of a gazelle.

É inútil o batismo para o corpo.

It is useless to baptize the body.

O que tem suas leis as cumprirá.

The one with laws will fulfill them.

Os olhos verão a Deus

The eyes will see God.

(Adélia Prado)


The Author: Angelica Tostes is a Latin-American Feminist theologian with a master’s degree in Religious Studies (UMESP). She is part of the Ecumenical Youth Network (REJU) and collaborates with the Collective for Libertarian Spirituality, in Brazil. She writes on her blog Angeliquisses (Theology, Art and Poetry), dedicating herself to the themes of feminist theology, body, and interfaith dialogue. //Original Post in Portuguese

 

Peace, War, and Thoughts “On Killing”

I recently read “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society”, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. He is a former American army Ranger and psychology professor, and is currently the director of the Killology Research Group. His work pioneers a realm often left uncharted by academics: the intimate experience of war and killing. His methods fluctuate between reviewing war statistics and drawing psychological evaluations from a series of letters and interviews done with soldiers and veterans, doing his best to build on previous literature on military history. Academic research in history and psychology would be the appropriate means to test many of his claims which, as it is often common in new areas of psychology, escape the limits of rigorous scientific research and thread the blurred line between historical journalism, research, and opinion; researchers are bound to find exciting questions in his book. Given his military experience, I do think his opinion is one worth listening to, and given the pioneering nature of his work, I do not expect it to have the scientific and historical rigor found in already established areas of psychology. Nevertheless, he shows enough scientific rigor to distinguish himself from the early psychoanalytic works that set modern psychology in motion.

Theologians naturally escape rigorous scientific and historical methods: we often begin with personal and communal experiences, myths, and symbols. It is then that we enter in dialogue with the grounded thinking of rigorous sciences and a philosophical critical spirit, to then return to the personal realm and inform people’s experience of life. This is the mindset that led me to read “On Killing”: I know I am an outsider to both the military experience and the overall experience of war. I have lived in peace my whole life and I want to be a pacifist, but I am interested in understanding those who are not, and maybe even change my mind.

Over a century ago, Tolstoy wrote against the military in his book “The Kingdom of God is Within You”, ending the fifth chapter of his book with poignant comments against the state of the European Christian nations of his time. My impression reading his book descriptions is that already in 1894 he saw Europe preparing itself for the Great War, and in many ways wrote in the hopes to avoid it, although he also had just enough cynicism I do not think he would be surprised at the 20th century bloodshed. The argument he proposes is that military service is a contradiction of the Christian doctrine of the brotherhood of all men: first we teach boys to love their enemies and give the other cheek, but later we train them to be ready to kill and butcher their enemies at the command of their authorities. Countless poor men who have no reason to hate poor men in another land, because one powerful ruler decides he has something against another powerful ruler, are made to wear a uniform, forget their individuality,  and become tools of murder, despite believing that all men are a brotherhood under God according to Christ. This contradiction, to Tolstoy, is what explains the abuse of alcohol and opium, among a list of toxic behaviors, among the military and veterans: military life demands that men live against their conscience and reason, and  they need these things in order to avoid thinking about it. Tolstoy believed that realizing this contradiction is what leads so many soldiers to suicide and madness (p. 126-132).

Dave Grossman makes a similar argument to Tolstoy’s, using modern psychology and a record of military history and experiences, without the theology. He argues that humans have a natural resistance to killing other humans, and when exposed to human suffering we have a natural tendency for sympathy. Military progress, therefore, has been a history of learning to undermine the resistance to killing and dehumanizing enemies through aggressive ideology, propaganda, training, conditioning, sharing responsibility, establishing rituals of affirmation, dissociation, avoiding to look at the enemy’s eyes, denying any form of empathy, and maybe above all, developing manners of speech and terminology of war that avoids the use of any words that imply a soldier actually kills other human beings. He understands that bypassing the human resistance to killing is very traumatic, and according to his research, only about 2% of the population, those we consider sociopaths, do not have the natural aversion to killing (p.44, 180). This characteristic is a desired trait in combat, therefore this 2% is naturally successful in the military, if only they manage to submit to authority .

Both Grossman and Tolstoy were soldiers: Grossman had twenty-four years of service by the time he wrote the book (p.xxxii), but never killed anyone. Tolstoy served in a few battles as an artillery soldier, and, from what I can gather, did kill. His direct experience of war and the military in 19th century Russia was surely different than Grossman’s experience and concerns with modern warfare, and maybe this difference can help explain the different conclusions they draw from very similar observations.

Tolstoy’s reading of the gospels reject orthodox Christianity and any sort of “mystical” interpretation, believing Jesus’ teaching was clear, meaning we really need to actually love our actual enemies. Therefore, Tolstoy rejects military service and war, and with it every authority built on violence; to him, acceptance of violence in elaborate theologies that justify war is the evidence of historical Christianity’s deviance from Jesus’ radical but simple teaching.

Grossman does not share the theological concerns of Tolstoy. He speaks of war as a problem to be overcome, yet sometimes a necessary price to pay for freedom. He spends most of his book dissecting the ways armies desensitize and dissociate future soldiers in order to kill other men and women (and children if necessary), highlighting how highly traumatic this process can be, but never really denouncing the authorities’ decision to make war or not. As a well-trained soldier, he trusts his superiors even in the light of the atrocities of war and the numerous PTSD stories he collected; he does not try to convince the reader that war is good, being as neutral as he can while concerning himself only with the soldier’s experience. The rationale behind his efforts is summed in these words: “Success in war and national survival may necessitate killing enemy soldiers in battle. If we accept that we need an army, then we must accept that it has to be as capable of surviving as we can make it. But if society prepares a soldier to overcome his resistance to killing and places him in an environment in which he will kill, then that society has an obligation to deal forthrightly, intelligently, and morally with the result and its repercussions upon the soldier and the society” (p. 287). His driving concern is the effect of killing on soldiers and on the society responsible for these soldiers.

The main focus of his discussion is a comparison between the American Military experience in WWII and their experience in Vietnam: foot soldiers in WWII of every side were largely ineffective, it being evident when observing the amount of ammunition spent and shots fired compared to the number of enemy soldiers killed. Most kills were actually done by artillery, which is far less personal; when they returned, victorious, the allies were celebrated as heroes. Years later under new training using conditioning techniques (like Pavlov’s dog and Skinner’s rats), American soldiers in Vietnam were astoundingly lethal, killing women and child soldiers when necessary; when they returned, defeated, they were condemned by their society. Now Vietnam veterans suffer the highest rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, divorce, homelessness and suicide, while a WWII veteran “may tend to medicate himself pretty regularly down at the bar at the American Legion, but like most veterans he will probably continue to function and lead a perfectly healthy life” (p.287). Grossman acknowledges and makes sure to mention the suffering of victims of war whenever it sounds like it is not emphasized enough: the receiving end of the trigger always has it worse regardless of the killer’s own trauma and suffering. Still, as a soldier, his concern rises largely out of empathy towards his brothers-in-arms and veterans. This seems consistent with his mentions throughout the book of how military life creates bonds among soldiers that are often stronger than their bonds with their very wives; several of the soldiers he interviewed told him war stories they had never told their families since they returned home.

Tolstoy shows little sympathy for soldiers, even having been a soldier himself, largely due to his somewhat existentialist view of personal responsibility: reflecting his own experience, he believes one can – and should – reject military service and all forms of violent authority, remaining unstained from the world, dying if necessary. He believes the gospel of the Jesus who was crucified as a political agitator is clear about this. Grossman on the other hand shows a lot of compassion towards soldiers: he sees them as adolescents who sign up to protect their nation but find themselves turned into killing machines ready for command, but that is not a fundamental problem with war, and he thinks it could just be done better. As for the victims, he does not speak for them, silently showing a strong faith in his superior’s decisions.

Until reading this book, I shared Tolstoy’s lack of compassion towards the military. I remember arguing with friends who said the military are the people who make the greatest sacrifice in the name of freedom, to which I would answer that a good soldier is not the one who dies, but the one who kills. Grossman confirms this without question. However, having read “On Killing“, now I see things less black-and-white. On one hand, Grossman does not deal with the theological problems that Tolstoy does. On the other, Tolstoy does not deal with the intricate human ambiguity of choice and circumstance, such that even if his language is surprisingly clear and simple when he points out our social and theological contradictions, he is not inviting, and can often sound accusing.

Grossman’s exposition of military language as systematically dissociating from the act of killing is not exclusive to the military. I cannot recall any discourse on theories of Just War that uses the verb “to kill”, let alone speak of murder, butchering, rape, burning alive, scalping, impaling, maiming, etc. How often are philosophers, theologians, intellectuals and politicians justifying war with hygienized hands, proclaiming military service is good and virtuous, defending values of authority and obedience to an abstract “nation”, without daring to talk about what the word War really means? How many young persons’ lives are lost due to such discourse? Could it be that our weekly drinking of wine that we call blood made us forget that real people’s blood is still shed for human sins whenever we declare and justify war? Is our glorifying of Christ’s suffering purely romantic, detached, unfamiliar with the agony of an actual naked man bleeding out at the city’s gates? Quoting the title of the first chapter of Grossman’s book, are we virgins talking about sex? Ironically, yes; historically that is precisely what most Christian theologians and clergy have done. Still, the question is metaphorical: how can theologians (and this also applies to philosophers) talk about justifying war without openly speaking about its reality and effects in people’s lives? Would honest words make our theologies much harder to swallow?

Much of Grossman’s research validates Tolstoy’s description of how a young man becomes a soldier and the psychological consequences of that process. Tolstoy understood that this is pertinent not only for war but also for the maintenance of authority, through police and other violent forms of law enforcement. Indeed, he affirms that law can only exist by being enforced, and that force is always violent. However, Grossman’s book reminds me that soldiers and policemen are human, too. In their circumstances, in a lot of ways, they do the best they can with what they have. Our churches and politicians, with hygienized hands, bless them in order to ease their consciences. Still, they suffer through their choices – even through their illusion of no choice.

The moral fight against violence would liberate soldiers and the people who embody authority, too, from a life of moral contradiction and psychological suffering. The gun trigger harms both ways, and the way to resist it is by resisting the urge for desensitization. The path of love towards peace must not be a simple opposition against the people who wear the uniforms and wave the banners of authority and violence. It must be the compassionate love that forgives and extends grace while speaking the truth, embracing all the ambiguity of choice, circumstance, responsibility, and mercy.

“For our fight is not against flesh and blood, but against every authority and power in the high places of this present time.”


Bibliography

Grossman, D. (2009). On killing : the psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society. New York: Little, Brown and Co.

Tolstoy, L. & Garnett, C. (1984). The kingdom of God is within you : Christianity not as a mystic religion but as a new theory of life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Photo: After receiving a fresh supply of ammunition and water flown in by helicopter, men of the US 173rd Airborne Brigade continue on a jungle ‘Search and Destroy’ patrol in Phuc Tuy Province, Vietnam, June 1966. An armored personnel carrier provides security on the landing zone in the background. (by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

About the author: Lucas Coque is a theology student at McGill University in Montreal, QC. He considers himself an agnostic Christian existentialist, and wishes to make progressive theology accessible outside of academia.

On believing and ‘really believing’

This morning I read Zizek’s new article on the Independent, where he affirms: “We no longer ‘really believe’ religion but more of us follow its rituals than ever before because of ‘culture’.” and, “This is how ideology works in our cynical era: we don’t have to believe in it. Nobody takes democracy or justice seriously, we are all aware of their corruption, but we practice them – in other words, we display our belief in them – because we assume they work even if we do not believe in them”. Zizek is a known provocateur, and, as I assume it was intended, his text provoked me to think about a lot of things at the same time, and to write this. My intention here is not to respond to his article or to his point about Marx’ insights, but to take his article as a starting point and dissect what I understand belief to be, and how, as a religious person in this post-Christian society, I navigate the dynamics of belief.

My first question is what it means to believe. Zizek says that we are aware of the corruption of democracy and justice, which is something I question: did we give up on justice and democracy or have we simply realized that our electoral and judicial systems are not democratic and not just? Yet, he says we still practice them, displaying our belief, despite our unbelief. In my understanding, that practice shows we do, indeed, take justice and democracy seriously, regardless of our intellectual assent to their absence in our constitutions, courts, and ballots. We do the best we can with what we have, and maybe we have only given up on having institutions that embody these principles, not on the principles themselves.

Zizek brings this to the realm of religion, as the parallels of the ambiguity of belief are present in Christianity from the beginning, Christianity being the main tradition that informs our notions of religion and culture in the West.

In the famous Sermon of the Mount in the Gospel of St Matthew, where Jesus supposedly taught his largest audience about the coming Kingdom of God, he ends his teaching with these words:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’ Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” (Mt 7:21-27 NRSV)

However, seemingly in contradiction, the Apostle Paul says this in his letter to the Romans:

“…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rm 10:9)

When Paul says “believe in your heart”, the verb used is the same as to have faith, coming from the word pistis  (Πίστις). One could argue this contradiction is only superficial since this verse, in context, is making a point about how God’s salvation extends beyond the people of Israel by means of faith, rather than compliance to the Torah. However, this verse is still used today as a quick answer to what it means to be a Christian, while the Matthew passage is largely disregarded, and this is worth some attention.

Pistis as a concept meant trust, but it was also a rhetorical term for, broadly speaking, convincing someone of something through argumentation and logic. Paul had a Greek education and was versed in rhetoric, so it is very possible that he understood pistis to mean being convinced of something, an intellectual assent. This seems to be the case since the object of faith in this verse is not the person of Jesus, but rather truth claims, such as “Jesus is Lord”, or “God raised him from the dead”, which are debatable facts.

Decades later, the writer of the Gospel of St John says that “God gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16 NRSV), which portrays pistis not as a question of debate over a fact, but rather in the sense of personal trust, since the object of faith/belief is Jesus himself, going far beyond intellectual assent.

The Gospel of Matthew is generally accepted to having been written years after Paul’s letter to the Romans. Matthew has a clear focus on action (doing the will of the Father) instead of intellectual assent regarding factuality. Paul’s letters were written to follow up and correct early Christian communities who faced challenges in their Christian practice and doctrine, but Paul himself had never walked with Jesus in flesh. The Gospels were written to preserve the core of Jesus’ teachings, by mature Christian communities who, supposedly, received their teachings from the Apostles and eyewitnesses of Jesus. I believe it is right to understand that Paul addressed specific questions of faith and belief for specific communities, but when it comes to the broader Christian faith and practice in all places and times, his teachings should be measured by the standards of the Gospels, not the other way around. I do not think it would be wrong to say, even, that the Gospels correct some misunderstandings that may arise by reading Paul. Still, the Gospels themselves have different perspectives, and early Christian tradition accepted to have this multiplicity of voices in the same Canon. It is no wonder that Christianity has so many branches since its beginning, and the only moments it reached something resembling doctrinal uniformity were by the means of imperial force. The Christian Gospel is naturally multivocal.

Another important text on the question of belief, also written after Paul’s letter to the Romans, which many argue is intentionally correcting any misunderstanding of/from Paul, is from the epistle of St James:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. ” (James 2:14-23)

Here, again, the words for faith and belief are all derivations of pistis. James’ letter seems to be addressing directly the sort of misunderstanding someone would have from reading Paul: that believing a factuality (such as “God is one”) can save you. James is categorical that this sort of faith is meaningless, and what matters is the faith you display through action, or works. He exemplifies this by saying that Abraham believed God, meaning, Abraham trusted God, or, the object of Abraham’s trust was God’s own self, not a factuality about God. When God told Abraham to do something (absurd) Abraham did it because of his trust in the person of God. His action demonstrated his trust, which is something far deeper than intellectual assent. One could argue that in the case of Abraham, this trust was even independent of intellectual assent, as he knew very little about God, and God’s request was absurd, and yet, he was saved through his trust. Another indication of personal trust as opposed to intellectual assent is that Abraham’s salvation is phrased as “he was called the friend of God”: this is relational trust, not being convicted through argumentation.

In other words, what James considers saving faith is your relational trust in God being displayed through action, not your intellectual belief in things about God.

Back to the Matthew passage, Jesus equates damnation with having never known him, even though the damned were saying Jesus is Lord and had used his name by doing miracles, exorcisms, and prophecies. Never knowing someone is the opposite of having relational trust. Jesus answers that it is only those who listen and obey to his words who know him and who will survive the tribulation to come, the great storm. Again, the relational aspect: trust saves, and salvation is intimate knowledge, or friendship.

What are these words we need to obey? This passage in Matthew is the conclusion to the Sermon of the Mount, where Jesus says that “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Mt 7:12). He is not referring to some future teaching, but to the words he just spoke to the crowds. In other words, taking the Sermon of the Mount seriously is like building your house on the rock, but dismissing it is like building your house on the sand.

But is this not trying to be saved by works, rather than by faith? No. It is faith, but not the intellectual assent of rhetorical faith: it is the personal faith of trusting someone as a friend. The object of faith is not whether or not Jesus died, whether or not he came back from the dead, or whether God is one or three or something in between. It is the person of God whom we meet through Christ. How do we know we trust him? By following his teachings when we hear them. Does it matter what we think, or believe, intellectually, about Jesus? Only inasmuch as it affects the way we follow him.

Going back to Zizek’s point, after this quick exploration on the views of belief in the bible, what does it mean to ‘really believe’ our religion? For a Christian, does it mean being awake at night praying and afraid of hell because we had a sexual thought for someone who is not our husband or wife? Does it mean having the name “JESUS” on a bumper-sticker? Does it mean church attendance? Does it mean baptizing our children and getting married in the church? Does it mean making prophecies and exorcisms and miracles in the name of Jesus? Does it mean saying “Jesus is my Lord” in public? Does it mean thinking that a Galilean rabbi coming back from the dead 2000 years ago is a historical fact? This sort of belief is going up and down throughout the globe.

Or does it mean doing to others as we would have it done to ourselves? Giving the other cheek? Walking an extra mile? Avoiding judgement? Being generous? Forgiving others’ offenses against us? Blessing those who persecute us? Loving, as Jesus loved his disciples? I am not aware of any research that has been able to measure this in statistics, although maybe people’s priorities in their political choices may be a good indicator: is our society choosing money, war, and power, or our neighbors’ well being?

And lastly, are these mutually exclusive? I do not think so. I believe even in our post-Christian society, even without institutions that we could trust, we can still, like Abraham, hear the words of an absurd God as a friend’s invitation for a trusting relationship into the unknown, to be friends to our neighbors and even our enemies, and be called friends of God.

…Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (1 cor 13:13)

 

About the author: Lucas Coque is a theology student at McGill University in Montreal, QC. He considers himself an agnostic Christian existentialist, and wishes to make progressive theology accessible outside of academia.

Autophagy #5 – On Love, Sex, Marriage

This is a long text. I build on different concepts and I suggest reading one thing at a time. You can jump to each section clicking here: Ritual and Myth, Sex and Marriage, Marriage and Sin, Early Christian Marriage, Love, Imago Dei/Imitatio Christi, and The Law of Love. I hope that after reading you will understand in a deeper level what the bible means by marriage, and how the gospel of Jesus radically changes our relationship to one another: even our sexual relationships.

Ritual and Myth

The work of theology is, always, to assign meaning and symbolism to things that were already there from the beginning – or if you prefer, not to assign it, but to reveal it. Theologians are mythical storytellers, not inventors. In telling stories that communicate who we are, where we are from, and what our purpose is, theologians form, inform, or challenge, the symbols and the imaginary of people’s relationship to God and to their own lives; our image of God, after all, shapes our own image.

The process from a spontaneous thing or event to a systematic ritual and theory is organic: as people ask “why do we do this?”, the leaders explain things the best they can, often with a good amount of imagination and best-guesses, and that process slowly shapes a community’s theology and symbols. That is exactly what the author of Exodus tells us Moses instructed the elders of Israel to do when he established the ritual of Passover (Easter):

…You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children. When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance. And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’… (Exodus 12)

This ritual, Passover, defined the people of Israel and still defines modern Jews, as they celebrate it every year, retelling the story and remembering that day of liberation. Passover was central to Christianity because on the year Jesus died, on Passover, he was having the special supper with his disciples and he asked them to continue doing what they were doing, but in his memory (he was not specific about how often), presenting them with bread – something everyone eats – and wine – something most people drink. He said the bread was his flesh, and the wine was his blood, and they ate and drank. In a few centuries of Christianity developing, between Jesus’ Passover supper with his friends and his friends doing the same thing over and over again, teaching their own disciples to do the same, and then their disciples asking new questions, and they coming up with answers, we found ourselves a thousand years later debating whether the bread in communion is literally Jesus with the accidents of bread or just sort-of-Jesus united to the bread, or just a symbol, getting complicated in philosophical terms Jesus never used. Not only did we get complicated on defining what was once the simplest of rituals, we actually persecuted and killed each other because of it.

There we have it: an event (Exodus), then a story and a ritual that gives meaning to it (Passover). Then again, a new event (Jesus’ last supper) that changes the original meaning of the first, and establishes a new story and a new ritual (Eucharist/Lord’s Supper) that gives new meaning not just to Passover, but to eating bread and drinking wine with your friends.

One of the main questions studying the bible, for theologians, is whether these stories, which are called myths – like reading 1 Corinthians 11:23-34 – tell how something new started, or if they were simply adding new meaning to something old. For example, baptism was a Jewish tradition: Gentiles who wanted to enter the Jewish community were baptized, Jews have several different washing rituals for different reasons, and John the Baptist, a popular Jewish prophet, had started a movement of purification asking all Jews to baptize themselves. Then came Jesus and asked his disciples to baptize both Jews and Gentiles, once and for all, “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”, promising a mysterious new baptism “with fire”. This was a scandalous and new, subversive addition to an old ritual. Now the idea of baptism is associated mainly with Christianity, even though Jews still practice Mikveh.

Thinking back on the Eucharist, it would be ridiculous to read the gospels and think Jesus instituted the eating of bread and the drinking of wine, or that bread and wine are God-given things that humans should not be allowed to enjoy outside Christian guidelines. We very much understand that celebrating communion is one thing, and drinking some wine while enjoying a French baguette with a friend is another, even though the only real difference is what we think we are doing. The difference is not in the bread, or the wine, but in our own thoughts, words, and feelings.

Similar is the question of sex/marriage: how do we distinguish the lines between what has happened in human history, what is told in the bible, and what we tell ourselves through theology and culture?

Continue reading Autophagy #5 – On Love, Sex, Marriage

A Humble Theology

The other day I had an interesting conversation with an anti-religious person and an atheist–both were curious about my studies in theology. I approached the discussion cautiously, not assuming possession of solid theological truth. After all, I am but a man and can only form ideas and theories of what God is.

At one point, the conversation was interrupted by another friend’s stance on predestination. The two gentlemen–the anti-religious person and the atheist–quickly turned from sincerely curious to sternly objectional.

This is not the first time I’ve seen this. Conversations between religious and non-religious people often turn to debates over doctrinal issues, straying from the humbling mystery that is God.

In the past, I debated over doctrine, like my friend–defending my tradition’s theology. I would argue and argue until I turned blue with rage, failing to understand why anyone could disagree with what was clearly absolute truth. But then, humility hit me in the face.  Continue reading A Humble Theology

Easter Reflection: On Mortality, Knowledge, and Strangeness.

“How strange it is to be anything at all!”, exclaims Jeff Mangum in one of my favorite songs.

It is a rather strange thing, indeed, to exist.  Maybe you don’t think so, you might think you have the answers for why we are here and where we are going, walking around with a “road map to life“. That’s ok. Personally, I find it eerie, upsetting, and rather awkward, that without your consent, without a choice, you were brought to existence, born from parents you did not choose, in a country you did not choose, taught and indoctrinated with customs and ideas about everything without ever been given a second to pause and think twice. Time keeps pushing you forward whether you like it or not, with every single choice you make remaining forever a part of your history, impacting you and others around you in infinite collaterality. Everyone who was here before you experienced this constant pressure from time, too. Everything they taught you was the best way they managed to figure out what exactly is going on, but not everyone concluded the same things, and who knows who is right?

Time never gives you a second chance. If you pay attention, you will notice decay and mortality all around you. Flowers blooming and withering, your own body changing, loved ones dying. Opportunities lost. Nothing can ever be undone, only reconciled. Offenses can never be taken aback, only forgiven.

It’s easy to feel insecure. Continue reading Easter Reflection: On Mortality, Knowledge, and Strangeness.

Today it rained

Yesterday, together with some of my dearest friends, we laughed and drank to celebrate the day I was born. We told our stories, and we talked about the things we care for. We became closer, as we knew each other better, as we exposed and uncovered pieces of ourselves, as our lives became part of each other’s. We talked about how we had come to know ourselves better in the past years, by living, and paying close attention to Life, and to what it tells us. All that we had unlearned, all that we had discovered.

This morning I woke up, and spent my day answering a few questions to my professor, so he could grade whether I understood the things he spent the semester trying to teach. Later in the afternoon, I went to class where groups of students discussed their answers, and we all finally gave our papers with notes to the professor. We had discussed the way in which one can study religion. How a religious experience can be understood, and, mostly, how it can’t. Really, we discussed how we cannot understand most things, but that in University we need to pretend we do. In Church we need to pretend we do. The Government needs to pretend it does. We all pretend we do, even though we don’t.

We have to pretend, because it’s really scary to not know. Continue reading Today it rained

Christian Responsibility and The Hope of Another World: On Politics

The world has seen the inauguration of an American president whose online supporting community proudly calls “the absolute madman”. The world has also seen, in the past decades, the same country engaging in vicious forms of capitalism that subjugate and exploit poorer countries’ workers, accompanied with more bombing and killing than any other country, terrorizing and decimating families across the globe. The world has seen this country’s public debate overtaken by questions of police violence, constant shootings and gun control, racial struggles, LGBTQ movements, feminism, privilege, and revolts against the acclaimed 1% richest of the world in times of economical unrest. With all this struggle, being “politically correct” became pejorative, and increasingly labels like “liberal” and “conservative” are tossed back and forth in a constant polarization. All of it with the USA as some sort of symbol for several other countries, with its liberal and conservative, left and right dichotomy being reflected back by them, with a rising tension everywhere between those who push for one side and the other: the stereotypical religious white fascist defending traditional family and good values, versus the colored women and queer socialists who attempt to claim their rights for choice and equality. All of it being led by smart educated people on both sides, who are followed by uneducated, unquestioning parroting masses unable to break the dichotomy, unable to think that maybe, just maybe, it’s possible to agree with one point and disagree with another without defending indefensible party positions.

Amidst this global chaos, of which America is the eye of the storm, I see some Christians affirm each other by saying it is all going to be OK. That their citizenship is in heaven alone, so none of this is their business, they can sit back and mind their lives.

It makes me want to cuss, badly. Continue reading Christian Responsibility and The Hope of Another World: On Politics

The Study of God: on method

Recently a friend of mine who has very little religious education gained interest in theology, and surprised me with maybe the best question I have been asked in a while: what is the theological method?

If you have ever studied something seriously, academically, critically, you understand his question. Ιt is a question of epistemology: “how do I know?”. In traditional sciences, there is a scientific method: controlled, observable and reproducible experiments lead to conclusions and allow predictions. The experiment is then repeated and reviewed by other scientists who confirm or contest the conclusions, and as that happens the whole community arrives at very probable theories about a subject. History also has its method, since history cannot be repeated or reproduced, neither controlled, so it stands outside the realm of science. Math and logic, along with philosophy, all have their systems of proof testing. So when we speak of the Divine, what is our method to differ between truth and non-truth? How do we know? Continue reading The Study of God: on method

Weak Gods, Fragile Truths, and the Unknown

“…Joash replied to the hostile crowd around him, “Are you going to plead Baal’s cause? Are you trying to save him? Whoever fights for him shall be put to death by morning! If Baal really is a god, he can defend himself when someone breaks down his altar.””

I think I read this text for the first time when I was 10 years old. Not every kid goes around reading the Book of Judges when they’re that young but, in the world I grew up in, it made sense. I had already read the coolest book in the bible, Revelation, several times, and Paul is quite boring until you’re old enough to get it, so the Old Testament was the place to go until I was about 13. Short stories, soap-opera family drama, cool battles, angels destroying armies overnight, tales of glory, and clear life advice like don’t kill people unless God tells you to, or, manage well your budget, don’t be lazy, listen to your parents. I highly recommend the OT for 10 year olds. Anyhow, there was I, reading the story of Gideon. Gideon destroyed a statue of Baal, a rival god, and when Baal’s followers came to kill him, Joash, Gideon’s father, defended him with that clear checkmate: If Baal is god, you don’t have to protect him, he’ll protect himself.   Continue reading Weak Gods, Fragile Truths, and the Unknown