Tuesday, April 24, 2018

the candor that assaults the system and makes newness possible

I recently got a complaint at how many of my posts over the last couple of years have dealt with things that the eminent Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has written or said.   Why have I concentrated so heavily on what he's said? 

One is because I have been reading him after not having read him before and I find his view of the real alternative to the dominant, oppressive, destructive, deadly culture that can be written in shorthand as market capitalism but which encompasses pretty much the dominant culture of all secular and even many religious establishments and institutions   And he does it while being radically honest about the problems and ambiguities of even the scriptures he has found his own prophetic imagination fed by.  There is a story that when someone made a remark about Bach to Beethoven, Beethoven made a pun that said he wasn't a "Bach " - which means a stream or brook in German, but that he was an ocean.   That old saw of music history classes has come back to me any number of times while reading Brueggemann's work and listening to his lectures and sermons.  I could say it about others working in religious studies but I can't really think of any current figures in philosophy or science that have elicited the same response with me.

If you don't get it, I'm kicking myself for having wasted the 1970s-about 2002 with all manner of secular lefty crap when I could have been reading Brueggemann and Marilynne Robinson and Elizabeth Johnson, etc.  That is why I'm far more of a leftist than I ever was as an agnostic.

One of the things that makes him so credible is his sharp critical and often not complementary eye that he casts on the meaning of the Scriptures but it goes even beyond that because he doesn't hold out for a perfection and absolute view of reality as an alternative, he rejects those myths of enlightenment rationality which cannot  be held even  within the limited range of science when it deals with real things in real life, which cannot help but fail to achieve what mathematics can tell us about the imaginary constructs of objects and relationships that math deals with.

At the end of his current book that I'm studying right now,  An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible he starts out by saying what might shock even many religious people in a statement that would confound the commonly held stereotype of monotheistic believers and continues to a conclusion that is as relevant to our current politics and economics and the harsh reality of life for the large majority of people as anything the Biblical Prophets said.

Before I start on the text, though, I will have to point out that Brueggemann and virtually no honest, deep scholar of The Bible will pretend that all of the texts represent the same prophetic tradition, that large parts of it document the point of view of the very establishments and the moral crimes of the People of God, you have to read it with an eye out for when it is that and when it is prophesy because it's all more complex than either a pious or an impious characterization of the Scriptures will dishonestly present them as being.   The Protestant tradition may have begun with sola scriptura but its deep readings of the scriptures has surpassed the cartoon of fundamentalism that most secular people believe represents the real right way to be a Christian.  They did it by what was written in the collection and really addressing it in all of its problematic content.  It's no royal road to knowledge or salvation.

The passage I'm going to comment on starts:

We have seen, moreover, that Israel's struggle to bear true witness about this reality is complicated and unresolved.  Much of the ullity besetting the partners of YHWH comes as a consequence of sin and defiance, as punishment of the sovereign, but there is more  The partner who suffers is often perpetrator, but also sometimes victim.  Sometimes the partner is victim of YHWH's negligence, whereby the hosts of the Nihil run rampant in the earth;  sometimes the partner is victim of YHWH's mean -spirited irascibility . . . sometimes. 

In everything Brueggemann addresses in his study of the Scriptures he never loses sight that what we are reading, even if inspired by God is at no times not a human response to human experience, it is a human articulation of all human experience and emotional response to it, including anger and frustration with why bad things happen to good people, why God doesn't just fix it all for good people, that they and their lives don't prevail against evil.   One of his recurring criticisms of religious practice is with the common practice of keeping the Psalms of complaint and frustration out of the lectionary - what people will hear when they go to church.

In any case, as perpetrator or as victim or as both, the partner of YHWH must make claim against YHWH.  It is in this context that Israel voices its countertestimony.  Israel seizes the initiative against YHWYH protests YHWH's hiddenness, unreliability, and negativity.  Sometimes - not always - these protests lead to restoration and rehabilitation by the resolve of YHWH.

That is one of the really unusual things about the Hebrew religious tradition that seems to me to be generally absent in others, that their conceptions of the one God is far more than a mere king of the Earth doling out favors and beneficence to those who flatter and kow tow, that the reality of life in its total complexity apart from human preferences or aspirations or hopes or wants is part of the relationship people have with God.  And, by God's choice, it is a two-way relationship based in covenants made between God and those who choose to be included in those covenants and that what is agreed to is not entirely known by us or a universal guarantee we're always going to be happy with the results.   For someone who invested a lot of study and practice in Buddhism and its assumptions of automatic returns for doing it the right way and for a naive conception of Catholicism before that - you say so many decades of Hail Mary's and your sins will be washed away, etc.* this kind of adult conception of reality was shattering in a way I have to say I hadn't experienced before.   It's been a going on three years ride, very fast and careening through so many hair pin turns  And it was all there right in front of me the whole time.

This instance on the reality of brokenness flies in the face of  the Enlightenment practice of denial.  Enlightenment rationality, in its popular, uncriticized form teaches that with enough reason and resources, brokenness can be avoided.  And so Enlightenment rationality, in its frenzied commercial advertising, hucksters the goods of denial and avoidance;  denial of headaches and perspiration and loneliness, impotence and poverty and shame, embarrassment and, finally death.   In such ideology there are no genuinely broken people.  When brokenness intrudes into such an assembly of denial, as surely it must, it comes as failure, stupidity, incompetence, and guilty.  The church, so wrapped in the narrative of denial, tends to collude in this.   When denial is transposed into guilt - into personal failure - the system of denial remains intact and uncriticized, in the way Job's friends defended the system.  

The outcome for the isolated failure is that there can be no healing, for there has not been enough candor to permit it.  In the end, such denial is not only a denial of certain specifics - it is the rejection of the entire drama of brokenness and healing, the denial that there is an incommensurate Power and Agent who comes in pathos into the brokenness, and who by coming there makes the brokenness a place of possibility. 

There is so much that can be related to, so much in not only modern life but in life throughout human history, he cites Job, perhaps among the earliest book of the Scriptures, some believe the actual earliest one.   Far from being a product of human beings strongest desires and wishes, the Hebrew tradition contains the sobering news that all of that bad stuff is there but that it also is a part of a new possibility, whereas the Enlightenment view is that those who are broken should just be thrown on the scrap heap of history, are a cost of doing business, are the biologically inferior who those of greater fitness are destined to destroy. 

The denial precludes the participation in the candor that assaults the system and makes newness possible.   Israel, of course, knew about the practice of denial.  Israel knew how to imagine its own immunity from threat and risk;  "As for me, I said in my prosperity,  "I shall never be moved'" (Psalm 30:6).   In an honest embrace of YHWH, however, Israel did not freeze in its denial, but moved on in a way that made newness a possibility:

You have turned my mourning into dancing; 
you have taken off my sackcloth
and clothed me in joy, 
so that my soul may praise you 
and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give
thanks to you forever.  (Psalm 30:11-12)

Which strikes me as entirely more adult, more honest, more likely to be productive of the possibility of egalitarian democracy, economic justice and the goal of those, the wide distribution of a  more decent though not perfect life based in a belief in the status of all people as deserving of those things.  More likely than the cynicism that comes from the kind of thwarted, disappointed, exhausting, unfed idealism that is the stuff of enlightenment-style secular, anti-religious, materialistic leftism.   Which, in its worst form has lead the disappointed or disillusioned or merely opportunistic fervent Marxist into fascism in only one of its more repugnant forms or the kind of leisurely, mildly dismissive semi-ex-socialism that the beloved, delightful John Mortimer sometimes wrote about but which didn't seem to concern him much in his last decades.** 

I will continue with this tomorrow.

*  A lot of what Walter Brueggemann says is also found in Catholic authors and authors in other traditions of Judaism and Christianity, it's just that I've found my way into it though his writing.

**  I don't have time to look up the actual examples from the book but the review of John Mortimer's memoir in the NYT noted it.

Every now and then, Mr. Mortimer allows himself to show his disappointment over the failure of the socialist experiment in Britain or his concern over the way children are treated in the courts, but he never allows such worries to get in the way of a story -- explaining how, for example, he discovered opera fairly late in life and went on to do a translation of "Die Fledermaus" or how he dashed off to South Africa in search of a forgotten branch of his family.

Religious faith is a mystery Mr. Mortimer refers to repeatedly and almost wistfully. Although he shrugs it off by calling himself "an atheist for Christ," he says he envies Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene and Muriel Spark their belief in a religion that "adds shape and weight to their stories." But such moments of introspection are rare and guarded.

I think they were "rare and guarded" largely because John Mortimer, as well as his great creation, Horace Rumpole, exist within the limits under which you can safely be held to be acceptable to the general milieu of secular culture in the West.  Even those who in their youth follow on the more idealistic pathway of socialism.   You could contrast those who didn't believe in a scientifically arrived at day of glory as socialism because theirs was based in religion.   And John Mortimer was among the best of the old secular socialist lefties I can think of, off hand.


  1. Our so thoughtful President this morning in a tweet.

    There is a Revolution going on in California. Soooo many Sanctuary areas want OUT of this ridiculous, crime infested & breeding concept. Jerry Brown is trying to back out of the National Guard at the Border, but the people of the State are not happy. Want Security & Safety NOW!

    5:59 AM - Apr 18, 2018

    Eugenics is alive and well in the White House! (Given past statements I don't think this is an over reading)

    1. It sounds exactly like American eugenicists in the 1920s, the same period his father was active in the New York KKK.