If we do not pray with Israel . . .

Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) continues to challenge and engage me.  So, too, his mentor, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (1888-1973), the steel to Rosenzweig’s flint.  They escort me roughly out of the easy seats onto the stone seats of a contentious forum; there they bid me listen until I squirm, my butt on the hard limestone, my brain on their hard arguments.

Yet this I want to do, it’s worth the effort and discomfort.  Rosenzweig was the skeptical Jew converted to his own people’s religion; Rosenstock the acculturated Jew who was baptized a Christian in his teens, and who eviscerated Rosenzweig’s sloppy thinking about reality, forcing him to dare to face God.

Right now I am working through Judaism Despite Christianity and find in Rosenstock’s letter to Cynthia Harris in 1943 many stunning comments making a unified argument that prayer is an absolute necessity–and his definition of prayer encompasses the entire life of a people.  Nineteenth-century biblical scholars did not represent Jewish history accurately or fairly.  The missed the “No” of the Jews to idols–Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and God’s three “No’s”:  the Fall, the Great Flood, and the Exodus.  “‘Revelation’ is a knowledge of God’s will, after his ‘No’ to our will has become known.” (181)  But the “No” was necessary if Israel was to recognize “herself as God’s servant, merely a man in the face of God’s majesty.”  (181)  This is not just strong stuff, it is the basic stuff.  It undergirds everything else Rosenstock wrote in the letter to Cynthia Harris in 1943.

One example will be enough:

The Germans all knew in 1918 that the World War had been lost deservedly.  Faith accepted the defeat.  But it takes faith in God to accept defeat fully.  If there be no divine will, then our will must reign supreme.  Naturally the whisperers came–those all-knowing ones who cannot be named but who are always being quoted–those who said, “It was a stab in the back,” “It was this or that,” “It was unnecessary,” etc.  The reaction was inevitable:  “We shall undo the defeat.”  Whispering is unauthorized speech.  The devil is any person who does not wish to be quoted; and so he never attains the rank of a person.  For a person accepts God’s judgement over what he has said or done.  Thus can he come to know the truth.  The devil never receives his verdict because he whispers only and never speaks truly and confidently.

. . . The people who had believed only in science, and who could not distinguish between spell-binding magic and prayer, now fell for the stump speakers.

Rosenstock summarizes the German history of persecution and repression against Lutherans (after 1825) and Catholics (certainly after 1871) and identifies Hitler as “the third attempt to free the German nation from any check on its nationalistic conscience.  This time, the triangle Luther-Rome-Israel is attacked foremost at the Jewish corner.  Also, the attack is far more violent than the two former.”  The furor Teutonicus runs a system of hatred, and there are other arguments to illustrate, but I will finish this statement with a few more of Rosenstock’s sentences:

Hitler hates everything started by the Jews, including democracy and the Freemasons.  Why?  They all know of the insertion of God’s “No” into history as a vital element.  But a spellbinder must be sure that his spell will work under all circumstances.  This prevents him from admitting God’s “No” to the fabric of history.

Hitler’s will and his god’s will are nauseatingly one.  The great art of speech has made Hitler crazy.  Since he has the privilege of speaking, of inflaming the masses, he spellbinds.  And so he hovers as a ghost from the abyss of paganism, a ghost of the days before God touched Israel’s lips with his fiery coal:  “My will, O mortal, not thine, be done.”

The specific character of biblical prayer explains the uniqueness of the Bible.  We can’t forget the Bible because the divine “No” was created, in our speech, during those thousand years of Jewish prayer.  And all the other departments of our linguistic faculty rest on this clear distinction between prayer, on the one side, and science, poetry, fiction, and law, on the other.  If we do not pray with Israel, we cannot retain our Greek mathematics or our Roman law.  This will sound arbitrary or exaggerated at first reading.  But it is simple truth. (183)

Rosenstock goes on to illustrate examples that bind ancient and modern paganisms together while they show biblical prayer (faith, religion, core of revelation) to be absolutely distinct from them.  It is the distinction and emphasis that energized the philosophical, faithful thinking and dialogue that Rosenstock and Rosenzweig conducted over many years — theirs was an astonishing interchange between Christian and Jew; it started a century ago and lasted until Rosenzweig died.  Rosenstock lived to write voluminously on themes that grew out of scholarship as — I would like to say this —  a form of prayer.

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, letter to Cynthia Harris (in 1943 a freshman at Radcliffe College): “Hitler and Israel, or On Prayer,” first published in The Journal of Religion (University of Chicago Press, April 1945).  Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, ed., Judaism Despite Christianity:  The 1916 Wartime Correspondence between Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and Franz Rosenzweig (with a new  foreword by Paul Mendes-Flohr, a new preface by Harold Stahmer, and a new chronology by Michael Gormann-Thelen (Chicago and London:  University of Chicago Press, 2011).

In Search of Liberty

Yes, Barton is forceful.  He saws heavily on the “Judeo-Christian principles of our Founding Fathers,” and in that he is right, but less so because he ignores the equally, perhaps more important founding principles based in Enlightenment rationality and the then truly liberal economic and political principles (having no king is radical as is equality of all before the law) that undergird our Constitution.  And no, I do not discount but do recognize the strong influence of Christianity that helped to shape those principles, as for example in Puritanism–yes, Puritanism (John Locke was a Puritan, for one)!  And yes, Jefferson and Madison and other leading Fathers saw reality both through the Enlightenment rationalist lens that recognized either a Deistic God (Jefferson, Franklin) or the God of orthodox theism and trinitarianism (Washington may be there, for example, but he is truly hard to gauge as to his churchmanship). That is different from the contemporary lens through which many leaders, even some Christian leaders and scholars see reality, that is, through a modern, naturalistic lens, dismissive of the orthodox Judeo-Christian tradition. Thankfully, many do not. Most do not see sharply enough the implications of their own fuzzy thinking about the relationship between public life and policy and biblical faith.  Beyond that, to say that America is a Christian nation is a statement that always requires explanation:  does that mean cultural Christianity, or does it refer to a vibrant biblical, orthodox (that is “right teaching”) Christianity that dominates the thought life, moral and ethical way of life, and our relationships domestic and international?  How do most Americans live?  There’s quite a range, there!  I wonder whether Barton is to the point of admitting that despite the Judeo-Christian influences on our Constitution and civic life in the Revolutionary Period, the Founding Fathers decided it was best that our founding documents and government constitute a secular establishment and that the government would have no sway over religion in the nation.  That would be the citizens’ responsibility, individually and corporately, and initially that was left to the states.  The First Amendment religious liberty and free exercise clauses were the product of the citizens holding out for protection from the interference of government in religious matters.  I think knowing the distinction would help to solve confusion about whether America is a “Christian nation.”  If nation refers to the society, even there we have plenty of evidence to the contrary, and that kind of evidence has always been present to varying degrees (major instance–institutionalized slavery); if it refers to majority opinion or identification, then even there I have some questions–it seems that so many professing Christians do not understand their responsibilities and obligations actually to live as Christians; many actually live contrary to Christian principles and convictions.  Christianity is divorced from actual lifestyle and commitments. Perhaps our president is in that camp; uncomfortable as it is, there are many who profess Christianity whose values and political identification are indeed “liberal” in that sense–that is, modernist, naturalistic, pragmatic, anti-faith and unevenly tolerant in practice.

Yes, before we tout America as a Christian nation, I think we need to take a deep look at what it is to be Christian and begin the comparisons.  I’ll end with this challenge:  we criticize Mr. Obama, yet it is likely more fruitful to look at the pressures, the interest groups, the political forces that support a liberal-democratic presidency, see how powerful they actually are in America, see how many Americans support that influence either directly and indirectly, see how deeply entwined in our economy and common life these forces are, see how interest groups, PACs, lobbying organizations, corporations hogtie any president, and then ask how it could be otherwise.  It’s important to recognize because those forces do not change just because the president and the Congress are Democrat or Republican.  I choose to say that there are so many forces influencing our government that in order to make things different, Christians must be part of a foundational social and cultural reorientation in our society, the kind that involves a true change of commitments and priorities.  Once that happens, then we can claim honest identification as a Christian nation.  But it needs to happen first in our communities.  With us.  We and our neighbors.  Churches and their neighborhoods.  Workers and employers. Communities to capitals.  You get the idea.  Let us, then, love justice, do mercy, and walk humbly with our God.  Let divine goals lead us.  That’s not liberalism, that’s liberty as intended.

Close to, but not always on, Tornado Alley

There is a Dear One who lives in Washington D.C. and who would move back to Texas but for a few things, two of them being “Texas has tornadoes” and “D.C. has lots to offer.”  True, very true.

Surely there are many delights for folk who live inside the Beltway.  But one of them, certainly, is simply that there are many delights Beyond the Beltway, in many most sociable and historic locales, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, just to start a list, one rather long as you know.

Far from the Beltway, perhaps far enough to gain treasured perspective about matters within and without the fabled, enchanted, fantastical Beltway, lies the Great State of Texas.  As Mr. Tubb used to sing, “There’s a Little Bit of Everything in Texas.”  Yes, more and more, I say, a little bit of everything for most everyone. Again, as Ernest Tubb put it, ” . . . and a little bit of Texas in me!”

And, yes, even tornadoes, twisters, cyclones, what have you.  But is there one for everyone?  I think not; no, not enough tornadoes for everyone.  Why, a fella or a gal might live to be ninety-nine in Texas and never see, or hear, a tornado, at least not “up close and personal” as some like to say.  It’s true most folk want to avoid that type of encounter.

The topic brings to memory a story about a Kansas girl swooshed up in a tornado to the land of Oz.  Oz was L. Frank Baum’s fantasiacal, allegorical double for the Good ‘Ol U.S.A., and the Emerald City for Washington, D.C., the enchanted capital where the Yellow Brick Road ended.  I refrain from recapitulating the adventures of Dorothy and her companions in Oz, and her disenchantment upon learning that the Wizard of Oz was just a man like any other.  Baum’s Wizard stood in for the Gilded Age American presidents, according to one interpretation.  I agree with it.

We have a love-hate relationship with our capital and the doings in the Capitol chambers, the presidential and congressional politics, and the profound weight of bureaucracy in service to our Republic.  Asked how much of the bureaucracy we would like to keep, we would have to admit that much of it seems to meet more than a few of our needs. And asked whether we would do away with our government, we might pause long enough to ask how we could replace it. We will settle for improvements.  And we will accept that our government is as humanly limited as any other institution, it’s just bigger.

From the founding of our republic, indeed before that, presidents, congressmen, civil servants, students, interns and others have come to the point in life’s journey when they know it is time to “go home,” to “come home.”  Their work is done, able to do no more, they leave what is yet to be done to others.

Dorothy, once delivered to OZ by tornado, finds her way home (after having helped others out in her sweet, Kansasy-American way) by clicking her silver shoes together (in Baum’s reference to the Silver Crusade of the late 180os).  In the cinematic version, her heart’s deepest desire does the real work while she clicks the heels of her ruby red slippers together; no balloon ride for her!  She wakens as from a dream and finds herself at home, among her loved ones.

Such is the allure of the Emerald City, but no match for the allure of home.  It cannot replace the thousands of other places that Americans call “home.” Yes, Dear One, Jen, there’s no place like home.  Home is where one’s “people” are.  That being so, the real question becomes who one’s people are, and the where can become secondary.  That’s more the truth among us Americans wherever we land in the world.  Or, as is the case, wherever  the peoples of the world land among us!  At the end of it all, we are all sojourners in far countries.  We may not actually be far from home, for even our home can be for someone else a foreign land, a far country.

In reflection on Jim and Cathy’s experiences lately, I have been reminded that our own communities hold and keep great distances between individuals.  Economic status, religious groupings, social identity, ethnicity, in-group traditions and settled attitudes make it seem as though our neighbors live great distances apart from us, and we from them.  There are all kinds of distances. Some of them we should be impatient to do away with; it should not be that way among all us locals.  These kinds of things make it hard to feel right at home.  What could be more important than that?

God Hungers

Traditional Chinese philosophy/religion assumes a continuity between the world and the above-world, between nature and the supernatural, between earth and heaven.  This appears in Confucianism and Daoism, especially in their blending.  That Chinese tradition is “secular” as we would say yet there is a difference:  the object is to achieve or accept harmony between heaven and earth, “nature” as the fundamental order of things and the conduct of life, governance and relationships in collective society.  The Chinese tradition carries insights into basic ethical and moral rules familiar in various ways in all the major historical complex societies and their traditions.  Throughout the human past we also find exceptions or violations of those general standards agreed on during an axial period about 2,500 years ago.

Before that period a sizable group of Hebrews had become Israel in a sustained revelatory experience.  God gave the Covenant amid a growing and distinctive relationship.  The Covenant was the mode and the result of the continuing revelation, yet undergirding the Covenant was, and is, the God who revealed himself in it.  Even at that point, if I hear Hans Boersma correctly in his writing on “heavenly participation,” the Christ of God himself took full part in that Covenant (yes, and came to fulfill it) just as he always has been in relationship to the Creation.  Trinitarian teaching demands that conclusion; the Scriptures are shot through with references to the presence of God, with emphasis on his presence and availability or his presence even when he is hidden.

The Chinese cosmology entertained the presence of ancestors and exalted leading ancestors to a type of godhood–the Yellow Emperor is an example.  From the Zhou period forward, kings and then emperors carried the title tianzi or Son of Heaven.  They were expected to be sage–knowledgeable and wise; virtuous; beyond reproach; and committed to the proper ordering of things, to the Ordinances of Heaven, by which authority they sat on heaven’s throne.  Starting with the first emperor Qinshihuangdi, it was earth’s throne, the throne of the “Middle Kingdom,” Zhongguo.  My understanding of the system stops not far beyond this point.

Chinese tradition leaves no room in itself for Christology; the Old Testament does, and the New Testament tells us so.  The hunger of God for relationship (not out of any deficiency of fellowship in the Trinity) shows through and in all of the Creation, even if the general revelation stops at a certain point as in the Chinese tradition.  Yet I find that the human hunger for both transcendent and immediate relationships (and security, relief, protection) is expressed in that tradition.  And that tradition allows that people are predisposed to respond appropriately to authority, even more so the authority that can come right down among the people, to share in their hunger for purpose and relationship, and to fulfill it.  Not through the ancestors, not through the emperor, but in a renewed family that we sometimes thoughtlessly call the “family of God.”  We are right to say it, but we must also take its importance more to heart.

It is no wonder that so many Chinese are following Christ.  They, too recognize in Christ the satisfactions intended for them in the hunger of God.  Again, it is not that God needs more fellowship than the Trinitarian perfection in Himself, it is that he yearns to expand that fellowship among his family, those he created in his own image and ordained to enjoy the fellowship as He does–as well, as deeply, as joyfully, and as long as time beyond time–on earth as in Heaven.

Enter into My Joy – John Stott

The news today of John Stott’s death at 90 saddened me for a moment, but only that long, for I knew he had entered the full joy of the Lord having done all the Lord’s bidding.  The Christianity Today obituary is moving and evokes good memory.  His life example is a good instance of what I was saying in my last posting about paganism compared to genuine faith.

Though as a Baptist I and my wife have enjoyed our wonderful visits to Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church in London and the New Road Baptist Church in Oxford during a sabbatical stay, All Souls Langham Place also attracted us.  But too late in his ministry, or off schedule, to hear John Stott, we nonetheless heard inspiring evangelical preaching by other staff pastors and enjoyed worshiping with a truly international congregation.  More recently the ministry of the Langham Partners International made a strong impression on me; I thought how positive, resolute and effective their mission sounded!

On at least two occasions my ETBU travel study students accompanied me to worship there at All Souls, once in March 2003, another in May 2006; that last time, on a Sunday morning, we walked the half mile or so from our hotel on Gower Street and entered that church just next to the BBC buildings. There the worshipers clearly recognized their congregation’s place in its own domestic society but displayed numerous, lively, and colorful connections with Christians around the world–and there were many visitors–the Africans dressed brightly, impressively for worship!  We enjoyed the tea and biscuits afterwards in the fellowship center, too, the opportunity to make new acquaintances, and to look at the books and tapes they offered.  It was a privilege to share just briefly in the vibrant experience of that missions and ministry-oriented urban church.  I am grateful to the Lord for all that, and for John Stott.

Heartless Paganism

I follow up here on a previous posting with a challenging quotation that caught my eye — or should I say it caught me between the eyes?  Yes, it’s the Rosenzweig connection again, but it has to do with the struggle of the believer, certainly of Christian and Jew, and perhaps others.  The quotation is from the Koren Sacks Siddur 4th edition (citation below):

The prophets were critical of the sacrificial system. They reserved for it some of their most lacerating prose. Yet none proposed its abolition, because what they opposed was not the sacrificial act, but the ma’aseh without the kiyum, the outer act without the inner acknowledgement that gives the act its meaning and significance. The idea that God can be worshiped through externalities alone is pagan, and there is nothing worse than the intrusion of paganism into the domain of holiness itself. Then as now, the sign of paganism is the coexistence of religious worship with injustice and a lack of compassion in the dealings between the worshiper and the world.

O Dear Reader, check THAT out against the teaching of Jesus, and you will know why I have that pain between my eyes! “. . . the sign of paganism is the coexistence of religious worship with injustice and a lack of compassion . . . .” What did Jesus say? (Let us remember that the Christ was of the Jews and emphatically of the Father.) Let me make a blanket statement here in saying the “Sermon on the Mount” is a full-blown commentary on the believer’s tendency to paganism (but then, so is the Bible entire). For example, after providing examples of exterior religion and profession versus interior purity of response to God, Jesus exclaims that not all who claim him as Lord will enter his Kingdom, but only those who do the will of the heavenly Father. (Matthew 7:21) His simile of the wise man’s house built on the solid rock and comparison to the fool’s house built on sand sums up the difference between true belief and paganism. (Matt. 7:24-27) And then, to conclude the sermon section, Matthew’s Gospel reads, “When Jesus finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed by his teaching, because he taught them like one who had authority, not like the experts in the law.” (Matt. 7:28-29, NET Bible)

The Gospel accounts of Jesus illustrate and validate his identity as Son of God and Son of Man, and in him no hint of the divided mind, the selfish heart, the deceptive intention, the hidden agenda, the need to manipulate. He stands apart from all other human persons for he is holy, uniquely God’s Son, yet fully and honestly human, and so, human in the best way.

The old Christian hater, Saul of Tarsus cum Paul the Apostle, having met the glorified Christ en route to Damascus, certainly speaks from experience when he challenges the Jews, “. . . you who teach someone else, do you not teach yourself?” He questions whether, though they “rely on the law and boast of your relationship to God and know his will and approve the superior things because you receive instruction from the law, . . . ” and despite teaching these things to others, they actually put them into practice.  Paul quotes from Isaiah 52:5, for immediate effect, I think, but also with a much deeper allusion or implication in mind.  “The name of God is being blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” or, “my name is being constantly slandered.”  (See Romans 2:17-24) In Romans he moves immediately to discuss circumcision as a primary evidence of adherence to the Law.  In Isaiah 52, captive Zion (Judah, Jerusalem) is in exile at the hands of Cyrus of Persia, but the special servant of the Lord (call him Israel who can be understood as fully representing the Lord God) will complete the Lord’s will as redeemer and deliverer.  His activities fully match the presence, power, and glory of the LORD who is king, who consoles, who displays his power to all the earth, who goes before the people, just as he did when he led Israel from Egypt and through the wilderness. (Isaiah 52:7-12; compare Isaiah 42:1-7; and see 43:14-21)

These are only parts, but important parts, of the vision of Isaiah. But they proceed to the astonishing vision of Isaiah 53 (actually beginning with 52:13). We can hardly read that one without immediately projecting forward to the suffering servant, Messiah, Jesus Christ, so that we leave the immediate historical context behind. Yet that context is important because it suggests hope that the “ideal servant” sacrifices every desire, every prerogative and honor in order to be a healer and redeemer for the people and to serve the will of the Lord God completely.

Paul writes in the context of his example of circumcision, “For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision something that is outward in the flesh, but someone is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart by the Spirit and not by the written code. This person’s praise is not from people but from God.” (Romans 2:28-29, NET Bible. Compare Leviticus 26:41, Deuteronomy 10:16, Jeremiah 4:4, Ezekiel 44:9.)  The Romans letter takes us beyond the teachings of Jesus, yet only by illustrations suitable to the demands of the day and situation Paul addressed, not only to the Roman church, but to all of the churches of Christ. Jesus’ instruction holds firm as revealed truth. Elsewhere, in James and the Petrine letters for example, that instruction holds firm in its application in the earliest church. Paul writes out of a background that includes the prophets, Isaiah included here, who looked not to the sacrificial system or the outward trappings of religion, but to the heart of his people in Zion in response to the redemptive work of the sovereign king, through his servant Israel, but only that servant whose heart and intention was completely obedient to his will and intention; with that his name could be praised.

There is no praise in paganism, whether in superficial Jewish life and practice, or in skin-deep Christian life and practice, for there is in that superficial religion and worship no turning of the human heart, the core of God-given personhood, to the creator who alone is to be worshiped–as Jesus said, “in spirit and in truth.”

I think this connects with the Koren Sacks quotation in this way. If someone hurts, or needs, or suffers to the point of hopelessness, he or she does not want to hear from anyone who does not have a firm hold on a true source of hope. The hungry do not want to hear “bless you” while they are left with an empty bowl. The impoverished do not want to hear “Oh, you’ll work this out eventually,” because if they could have done so, then they would have already. Victims of injustice here and elsewhere cannot get the liberation and hope they need from others’ apathy and claims “there is nothing to be done.” Rarely is a person’s problem simply “a problem” but a complex of problems.  That is why the connection of life and worship is so important. It is why discussions about changing communities has been so important. It is also a good reason not to lose faith in our churches–that is, to lose our resolve to make, or keep, our churches significant in the right ways.

Citation: Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks (UK), “Understanding Jewish Prayer,” The Koren Siddur, 1st Hebrew/English ed., Jerusalem: Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd., 2009), xxxviii.

Education, revelation and wisdom

A “must-quote” here in connection with current investigations.  Leo Strauss has been discussing the challenge of the literary expression of truth in “a society which is not liberal,” such as we find in many countries today and in the past.  He writes about “exoteric” writing–attractive and accessible to the reading public on the outside, but containing truths that have to be dug out through hard thinking or reading between the lines:

The works of the great writers of the past are very beautiful even from without.  And yet their visible beauty is sheer ugliness, compared with the beauty of those hidden treasures which disclose themselves only after very long, never easy, but always pleasant work.  This always difficult but always pleasant work is, I believe, what the philosophers had in mind when they recommended education.  Education, they felt, is the only answer to the always pressing question, to the political question par excellence, of how to reconcile order which is not oppression with freedom that is not license.  [Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Free Press, 1952, 1980; University of Chicago Press, 1988), 37.]

By philosophers he means Plato and Aristotle, primarily.  The education he mentioned produces discernment, prudence, and wisdom, and presumes a level of intellectual and moral maturity as evidence of its effectiveness.  That reminds me that Jesus did say, “Be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) Perfect: “fully made or formed”, “mature”, “grown-up”, but like God.  Jesus was teaching–this is the Sermon on the Mount, not just some offhand comments.  But be like God?  Who were his hearers?  Beyond his disciples and a nameless crowd at the time, or intervening generations of people, most certainly you and I are his hearers today.  We are to be like God in some specific ways.  But he pronounced two key things, one at the start, one at the end:  do what you know to do and profess to believe in order to show that God’s truth really lives in you (Matt. 7:26), and be sure you know you get nothing unless you see yourself honestly as spiritually impoverished, and needing clean intention, and so forth in the “Beatitudes” (Matt. 5:3, 8).  Jesus customarily spoke in ways that required long, hard thinking and personal honesty in order to know personal liberation.  Socrates probably would approve.

What about that “order which is not oppression”?  I hasten to wrap up the present thought by quoting James Schall on the Trinity:

The trinitarian life of God is reflected in what is not God on the vastest of scales, the scales both of cosmos and of history.  But the paradigm of the order that we encounter in the world is already found in the Trinity of Persons and their inner relation to one another.  We are to imitate the divine order in all ways that it can be imitated–in making, in living, in thinking, in loving.  But ultimately the point of contact is where Gift meets gift, where what proceeds out of the inner life of the Godhead meets the inner life of the finite persons who have, in the end, nothing higher to do than to accept a gift, the gift of revelation with its description of the inner life of the Godhead, that which we call the Trinity of Persons:  Father, Son, and Spirit.  [James V. Schall, S.J., The Order of Things, Ignatius Press, 2007].

I understand the Trinity much better from having read Schall’s chapter “The Order within the Godhead” and his book.  Cannot recommend it highly enough.  Blessings on you.


Preoccupation with the One Nearest

Dr. Watkins preached on Deuteronomy 6:4-9 this morning–the Shema (Hear O Israel!) and on Jesus’ midrash-in-the-flesh-and-word about it in Mark 12:28-31.  Don’t let anyone try to convince you that the Scriptures don’t hang together, for they do so beyond normal vision and comprehension.  This was a reminder–actually a dawning recognition for me–that whatever the overall Christian analysis and response to the challenges of modernity, the Jewish philosophers of the early twentieth century have more to say to us than most of us have imagined.  They offer at least as trenchant and provocative a challenge to all of us to look at the terrifying realities of our modernity-postmodernity.  They ask us to be honest in our thinking and living.  (No, Wallace didn’t bring that up; but the theme of his sermon made me think about these things.)

Paul Mendes-Flohr gives some insights in an article where he quoted Jacques Derrida in a eulogy for Emmanuel Levinas:

The Torah is transcendent and from heaven by its demands that clash, in final analysis, with the pure ontology of the world. The Torah demands, in opposition to the natural perseverance of each being in his or her own being (a fundamental ontological law), – and Derrida emphasizes [Mendes-Flohr]  – concern for the stranger, the widow and the orphan, and preoccupation with the other person.

(These guys are/were philosophers, so forgive the lofted language, but Derrida is simply talking about the “way of being” in the world and the “natural” self-interest of all people.)  Anyhow, I thought immediately of I John 4, particularly verses 7-8.  Beloved, let us love one another, . . . . I have thought of the type of love in I John as a “dynamic other-interestedness” that describes the Spirit-motivated and empowered interest of the believer in the welfare of others.  Derrida’s “preoccupation” rings true in the same way, and against self-preoccupation.  And isn’t that the illness we all share?

Mendes-Flohr actually was discussing a little book that Martin Buber got by the Nazi censors in 1935.  The book was titled “The Neighbor” or “The One Nearest” (Can’t get the umlaut “a” in, so no German title here), but not just in the sense of being close by, but in the sense of persons living in the same space, what you might call an “existential” space.  Buber presented the teaching as it came from Jewish sources.  His book was subtitled “Four Essays on the Conduct of Man to Man (Person to Person–Mensch, “human being”).”  By 1935 Hitler had seized power, and the repression of German Jews suggested greater oppression and persecution to come. So Buber’s appeal was an appeal for humanity in a context where the government seemed to threaten it.

Mendes-Flohr restated Buber’s assertion that “the neighbor is one whom destiny places next to oneself, face to face, as Levinas would later put it; at a particular hour, one is confronted by another human being in need – and the need may not only be defined by material want and political oppression; and to whom one is beholden by biblical decree to love, to love as oneself.”  Mendes-Flohr sums it up, saying that by extension the neighbor represents all of humanity, that the Nazis desperately worked to destroy Enlightenment concepts of humanitarianism, and that Buber, among others, wanted to affirm a “post-modern humanism”.  Its foundations were biblical, Jewish.  That is of interest for Christians, too.

Buber, Mendes-Flohr and many others could tell us that the point has everything to do with the character of our private and public lives.  It is a point that appears in all the “axial” civilizations (those whose great religious and philosophical foundations were set by about 2,500 years ago, and none more so than in the Hebraic/Jewish tradition, and so also in the Christian tradition.  In Mark 12, Jesus prompted the expert in the law to repeat the Shema; the expert affirmed that it was the ultimate commandment.  When the expert did this, he was calling the entire Law back over himself and everyone who was listening.  And so the expert showed everyone that what they thought was contention with Jesus was actually beyond contention.  It was the “one thing,” the central concern of Yahweh and Moses at Sinai, and the core of the Deuteronomic revival.  I believe that goes for the “rest of us” who read and discuss this matter a long time after the encounter in Mark 12.  What do you think?

In my city many people in civic, educational and governmental organizations are serving for the public good, including service to the poor, the orphan, the widow.  Many are church members.  Big-hearted people in many organizations–the Boys and Girls Club, the Lions, Optimists, Kiwanis, Rotarians, and others; and special programs such as Habitat for Humanity, Backpacks for Kids, My Friend’s House, the Twelve-Step Foundation.  They give money, hours, and hard work to help out.  There can be a certain weariness to it all.  But these people don’t quit.  There exists the sense there’s never enough, but servants continue to serve.  These people vary in their “preoccupation” with the welfare of their neighbors, but they are worthy, consistent models.

The model could use some more implementation in our churches–all around–and more broadly in the community.  Isn’t that true across the country?  I am hearing about programs and proposed programs to help kids and families most at risk.  Not with government programs alone — they’re not enough, but with intentional, planned and sustained community “preoccupation” with doing what government can do only in part, besides, that is not the primary purpose of government anyway.

This is one of the things we can do to build our own “human capital,” to build real character and strength into lives where hopelessness and weakness seem to have a stranglehold.  This is what can be done to develop leaders out of the most unlikely candidates in our communities–kids from families that don’t work out well, hungry kids, kids who have no healthy models except by accident, kids who need help beyond what the public schools alone can provide.  Some people discount these kids and their families, failing to see that these people are assets to whole, healthy communities.

I live in one of four Texas cities judged by a recent MIT national study to be “forgotten cities.”  (Galveston, Waco, Marshall, Sherman).  Here’s the link to their report:

http://web.mit.edu/dusp/dusp_extension_unsec/people/faculty/lhoyt/Hoyt_Leroux_FC.pdf They couldn’t study or list them all; surely there are many more.  Industrial and economic development have passed them by for decades.  This kind of study has its uses beyond the original intentions.  It helps us to know the general conditions more clearly and to identify not just specific personal and organizational needs, but how all these fit together in a community.

Paul Mendes-Flohr related the story told by the Hasidic master Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov:

How to love [others] is something I learned from a peasant. He was sitting in an inn along with other peasants, drinking. For a long time he was as silent as all the rest, but when he was moved by wine, he asked one of the men seated beside him: ‘Tell me do you love me or don’t you love me?’ The other replied: ‘I love you very much.’ But the first peasant replied: ‘You say that you love me, but you do not know what I need. If you really loved me, you would know.’ The other had not a word to say to this, and the peasant who put the question to him fell silent again. [And Rabbi Moshe Leib adds]: But I understood. To know the needs of [our fellow human beings] and to bear the burden of their sorrow – that is the true love [of others].

I really do not know my neighbors well enough, either literally next door or in other parts of town, preoccupied as I am with other matters, even rightly those of my family.  Somehow I must broaden my preoccupations!

Citations:  Mendes-Flohr was quoting from Martin Buber, The Tales of the Hasidim, 1948.  His article:  Paul Mendes-Flohr, “A Post-Modern Humanism from the Sources of Judaism,” in Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia 62:2/4 (Apr. – Dec. 2006): 59-67.  Accessed at stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40419468 .

Birding I.D. Today

For such a little bird, it hit the plate glass with a surprisingly loud thud. I am thankful this one was only stunned and upright on the patio. I took her up, checked the wings, and neck, lofted her on finger and thumb, and after several minutes she flew–just fine.  An immature, female Hairy Woodpecker. She must have been in the yard for the sunflower seeds.