Our Biblical Blog /'Examined Life'
Our Biblical Blog /'Examined Life'
The two readings, again, like the two complementary wings of an altar. On the left, we can see the hazardous journey of faith, with its failures. We can witness to the disintegration of faith: part of the people become, literally, pagans. Through deportation, or through violence of war, they disappear from the scene of faith-history. On the right, we see Saint Paul’s life shared with the communities he visits. ‘Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us… We then, as workers together with him, beseech you also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain.’
In our churches and communities, whenever we read the apostle’s letter, we have Paul as our guest. The same applies to all the sacred writers of the New Testament. Through the words we read aloud, we have the apostles, the evangelists, and the first Christians as our guests. In this welcome, they bring us life and strengthen our identity.
This exchange of words is also the way for us to live in real time, outside the time of idols. Actually, these encounters through the words of the Gospel help us to define ‘idols’ in the following way. Idols, idolatry stands for something that is attempting to remove us from salvation-history. Idols (try to find out what are those of our own age!) aim at severing us from that sacred history, which has a purpose (its telos) as ‘the Lord Almighty’. It seems that idols can be impersonal forces too, ‘trends’ in the natural flow of time in our culture. Thus, idols can affect us passively - however, with the same outcome. Forgetting of our sacred origin, and sacred destination.
‘And what concord hath Christ with Belial? Or what part hath he that believeth with and an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? For ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.’ In one word: my guests.
Just as Saint Paul - and the Gospel with its focal point, Christ - is now our guest through reading him in faith.
The Second Book of Kings is like flying over the landscape of history. There is a monotonous repetition of kings with faith in the true God, and kings who gave in to idol worship thus bringing destruction to their people and themselves. When there is glittering hope that things can become stable and faithfulness in God steady then a total fall comes. It is a said journey, showing what we, humans are as history, staggering between genuine prayer and destructive idol worship (our achievements).
What happens to Zedekiah is heart-breaking. He is defeated by Nabuchadnezzar king of Babylon. ‘On the ninth day of the fourth month the famine prevailed in the city, and there was no bread for the people of the land. And the city was broken up, and all the men of war fled by night… and the king went the way toward the plain. And the army of the Chaldees pursued after the king and overtook him in the plain of Jericho: and all his army were scattered around him. So they took the king and brought him up to the king of Babylon to Rilah; and they gave judgement upon him. And they slew the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and put out the eyes of Zedekiah, and bound him with fetters of brass, and carried him to Babylon.’
History, when we make a mistake at its crucial turning point is cruel. The birds eye view what the Bible offers on the human condition, does contain our present historical landscapes, too. May be, there is a similar siege to our cities and culture. May be, ‘Babylon’ is analogous to the threat of the ecological crisis which our idol-worship inflicted upon us.
If there is no conversion and change of heart (see the repentance of king Manasseh who was brought back from the exile to rule again in Jerusalem, 2 Chronicles 33), history is cruel. Though there is hope, but if that hope is not toiled for - the same cruel landscape of events will unfold. Without the rediscovery of the life giving power of the Redeemer, there is no change of the course of events. Babylon (the empire of consumption) is cruel, just as our self-created idols are. Spirit of Christ, awaken us!
I was always intrigued by the different forms of charismatic prayers. Particularly ‘the speaking in an unknow tongue’ puzzled me.
It seems, Saint Paul’s emphasis on the ‘rational’ dimension and on ‘understanding’, as the desired outcome of the process is highly enlightening. He insinuates (confirmed by his own practice) that there is a translatability between speaking in tongues and praying (and listening) with understanding. As he puts it, in the first case ‘For he that speaketh in an unknown language speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries… For if I pray in unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.’ In the second case, he ‘that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort. He that speaketh in an unknow tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.’ Then, he confirms that there is a transition from the first into the a speech of ‘understanding’. ‘I will praye with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also.’
If this transition is possible, surely, when the mysterious inner experience is turned into ‘edifying speech’, our newly emerged ‘understanding’ will preserve the experience of the mystery which has given an intelligible expression. I do believe that the presence of the two forms of prayer is thoroughly practical in the history of the church. If we slightly adjust the overtly individual focus on the ‘praying in tongues’, we find striking examples of the above synthesis.
Just as an example, John Henry Newman shows that in-depth prayer in the Spirit produces profound ‘understanding’. What we can see in him is how from ‘the prayer in spirit’, a mystical and rational anticipation of the church’s future surfaces. The mystical element in his prayer life is the prophetic anticipation of the future of his church and culture itself.
Now that he will be canonised by the Roman Catholic church, it would be worth putting his theology into our wider, Biblical context. He prayed and reflected in age of profound transition akin to today’s enormous changes. As his biographer, Meriol Trevor highlights, Newman emerged from a nation ‘profoundly disturpbed by the repercussions of the French Revolution and the birth pangs of industrialism.’ He ‘was born with the nineteenth century and died at the beginning of its last decade. He was to see the whole face of his country change, and he was one of the few who foresaw something of the century to come. Not that he as a prophet of event, but his profound insight into the conflict of ideas behind the transformation enabled him to forecast the trend things were likely to take. His was the century of evolutionary theories which shattered men’s idea of a static world, just as the astronomical theories of the sixteenth century shattered the image of a static earth, set between external poles of good and evil.’ (Meriol Trevor, Newman’s Journey, Collins, Fontana Library of Theology, 1974, p.11)
So what type of mystical and rational prayer emerged in Newman’s oeuvre? In the Pauline sense, in a changing world, his focus was the church itself. His focus was the whole of the life of the church. Seeing in context, his was a contribution to the collective body of prayer for the Church. Newman’s love for Catholicity, and linking his Church of England to the life of the Catholica makes most sense on this horizon. The individual dynamics of conversion to Roman Catholicism, and his refusal in his originating community are only the shell. The core is that mystical-prophetic concern to gain insight to the ‘future’ of the wider Christian community and share his vision of the need ‘to give the Articles (of Protestantism) a Catholic interpretation.’ ‘It is a Catholic duty that we owe both to the Catholic Church and to our own, to take our reformed Confession in the most Catholic sense.’ (Tract 90, Conclusions, p.83.)
Newman’s ‘journey of prayer’ is timing regardless of confessional boundaries. Paul’s programme on mystical prayer, and making the transition into ‘understanding’, is just as timely as it was in his age. Reality being merged with and altered by the emerging cyber realities, is a new Newmanian moment for re-thinking Catholicity and anticipate its future life. As Paul says, ‘Seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church!’ ‘Seek together’ with Newman’s heritage as an active resource for contemporary reflections on what is happening to us and our sense of the Catholick.
Reality has changed enormously with the arrival of our cyber age. It seems that the celebration of the new excitements and stimuli that the virtual spaces of the internet and social media bring is not really compatible with the nature of faith in the One God. The soul in this suddenly changed climate feels confused and exhausted. The permanent state of distraction into which she is forced is against the nature of fixing the heart on the one true essential, the oneness of God/Love.
Yet, are we left defenceless and alone with an unmitigated tiredness of the soul? The Psalms, these cornerstones of our daily prayer come to us with a striking redeeming power. They are the church’s own experience of a multi-layered-polyphony. The 150 Psalms are a graced alternative to the new diversity which bombards the human psyche from all directions. Praying through the graced polyphony of states of the human psyche, with all its wounds and joys, is that contemporary space from which to counteract our reality increasingly becoming groundless. The richness of divine responses to all forms of human need will strengthen us, in order to keep us in unity with ourselves. ‘Turn us again, O God: shew the light of thy countenance, and we shall be whole.’ (Psalm 80,3)
Controversial themes (Monday and Tuesday after Eight Sunday After Trinity; 2 Chronicles 26 and 1 Corinthians 11,2-end)
The Bible (when we receive it with the sacraments) provokes us. Facing its utmost realism, it wants to awaken us from the delusions of the age. I am surprised how ‘politically incorrect’ are its messages. If one reads the Bible continuously, under the discipline of the Lectionary and not by random, the contrast with the naïve and idealistic programs of the present status quo is shocking. One of the most appealing features of Biblical revelation is the distance it offers from our present. Actually, God’s word prompts in us an honest thinking about the powers of the age which govern our lives.
The first inconvenient message of these days’ readings is the relationship between ‘secular power’ and the sacred power governing organised religion. Uzziah, though he was a good king according to Old Testament standards (‘he did that which was right in the sight of the Lord’), his ‘secular power’ led to conflict with organised religion. He was a man of technology and engineering. (Though, it is telling that his interest in technology was mainly ‘developing arms.’) ‘And he made in Jerusalem engines, invented by cunning men, to be on the towers and upon the bulwarks, to shoot arrows and great stones withal. And his name spread abroad.’
The interesting bit in the story is how his engagement with ‘military technology’ altered his character and relationship to power. ‘But when he was strong, his heart was lifted up to his destruction: for he transgressed against the Lord his God, and went into the temple of the Lord to bur incense upon the altar of incense.’ We should not overlook the disquieting historical parable when reading of the king’s ‘particular conflict’ with the priests of the Temple. He wants to do what the they do, namely, performing ritual duties preserved to the ordained priesthood. Uzziah entered the temple, and Azariah, the priest went after him, and warned him: ‘It appertaineth not unto thee, Uzziah, to burn incense unto the Lord, but to the priests the sons of Aaron, that are consecrated to burn incense; go out of the sanctuary; for thou hast trespassed.’
It is an alarming insight into what happens to power itself when it comes under the spell of military power and technology. Sooner or later it wants to interfere with the realm of the sacred and instil its own (transformed) ethos into worship. Why? That its abuse of power, and its changed nature by these external idols, might remain unnoticed… If Uzziah succeeds, he is seen by the religious establishment and the people as a pious king, who is on top of it is also powerful.
Christians should be alert about ‘what is saint’, ‘what is sacred’, and let the volcanic power of divine questioning erupt into their topsy-turvy age. Is it really a pure accident that political power encroaches time and again on traditional religious convictions and rituals? The ‘Uzziahs’ of the present age are burning piously the incense of a new canonisation when they speak and teach on gay relationships, same sex marriage, trans-gender agendas, information- and green technologies, etc. This progress, as all forms of progress, needs to be celebrated. And today’s Uzziahs are also celebrated as ones who ‘do the right thing.’ And soon the general synods of the churches will be burning the same incense of the new canon and will be internalising the same narrative.
Unfortunately, the stubbornly monotonous cataloguing of history in the Bible (1 and 2 Kings) is not user-friendly at all, and deliberately not. Christians must be on their guard and discern the emerging prophetic (sic!) hubris of worldly politics supported by the emerging new technologies and their industries. I honestly wonder how the ever increasing commitment to new arm races, trade wars, 5G technologies, and the new forms of entertainment and consumption can lead to the desire to ‘entering the sanctuary’, and finally, take control. One can envision, in the Biblical fashion, that on behalf of progress what will happen to those voices who resist. To paraphrase Roger Scruton, by the new architects of our age they ‘will be regarded as enemies, reactionaries, nostalgists, who are impending the necessary march of history. They are to be removed from positions of influences and power’ (Roger Scruton, The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope).
The controversy does not end here. Saint Paul’s 1 Corinthians 11,2-end, is another classic stumbling block. Readers of the Bible today are conditioned to have felt ashamed over the ‘sexist’ words of the Apostle. ‘For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman; but the woman for the man. For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels. Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God. Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered? Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame on him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given for covering.’
(The pairing of a new testament reading with an old testament one is a key here. In setting up the church’s lectionary, the function of the first reading is to rescue us from the immediate hermeneutics of this age. From the trans-historical perspective where God is reading the sequence of events of human history, the labels of political correctness are but flee-floating objects in a state of weightlessness.)
What if Paul’s words are not sexist at all but the profoundest insights into the ultimate dynamics of the human psyche? What if, instead, Paul indeed emerges as not simply the defender of the Faith, but that of our ultimate ‘human ontology’? His programme on the perspective of faith (a proper distance from the straight-jackets of the all time ‘political correctness’) is in defence of difference. Paul, actually, has been defending those polarities and distinct qualities of life, which keep life itself moving. There is a power-field of existence which is aimed at diversity and unity based on interrelated differences. Paul is defending a dialectic here, which needs to be safeguarded against homogenising powers. If the created poles of existence (manifest in the man and the woman for example) are melted into sameness, the impetus, the driving force, the desire for life is lost. The dynamic image of God becomes a static picture in us, an idle, orientation-less ‘dot’ of a past existence.
On the practical level, Paul is dealing with down to earth banalities. Women are women, men are men, without being lost to ideological explanations (‘sex is a social construct’, ‘everything is a process’, etc.) It is not about ‘possession’, who is ruling over whom, or what and who is constructed by whom. On these levels, Paul might be judged by the judges of this age to be politically absolutely incorrect. Yet, Saint Paul is a hundred percent correct about life itself, with capital L and capital C. It seems that unlike the new architects of our age, the constructors and licensed merchants of new (and yet un-liberating) utopias, Paul sticks to the desire of life. For, and let us be mildly apocalyptic, the ultimate stake of whether we judge Paul’s words ‘sexist’ or liberating, is this. If we act as beings created in the image of God, we don’t want to lose desire (Freudian, sexual, divine as you like it) for an existence based on life sustaining polarities. And this is despite the fact that that our culture has traded the desire for life for desire for artificial life. We are just in the midst of this process. Sadly, this is what always happens wherever people submit to ‘engines, invented by cunning men, to be on the towers and upon the bulwarks, to shoot arrows and great stones withal’). It seems, no one is interested in the fact that our first world, the cunny people of Europe, inventors of high tech, illusionary and unsustainable ‒ yet worshipable! ‒ futures have lost, as a race, our ability for biological reproduction. And we are very good at unmasking this fact amidst the narcissistic celebration of consumption. Full stop.
That is why, the independence of the church in the ‘age of (homogenising) political correctness’ is the most timing issue surfacing in the continuous reading the Bible. In this age of newly ignited obsession with space-travelling, it can easily turn out that the real space-journey is between our present self, and our genuine, Biblical self, envisioned by God. To be more precise, this is the journey through our present emptiness towards the star of Redemption, when the Psalms reveal and teach us the desire to become our genuine self.
These are verbal Icons, expressions of how the world is seen from Saint Augustine's..