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..