Jesus Thoughts (21) : poet is a troublemaker

I think I've been thinking like a poet since Thanksgiving.  Soon I'll go back to vol. 2 of John Meier's great study of the "historical Jesus", A Marginal Jew - and hence maybe I'll hew more closely to the main theme of this thread.  But for the time being, some very wayward and somewhat troubling thoughts & cloudy speculations have been rolling in over my mental landscape.  The poet is above all committed to the exercise of imagination, Lady Imaginativa - & has to follow where it leads, no matter what.

Poets have a special sense of the power of words, since they are held captive by language : but this awareness can at the same time give poets a sense of the limitations of human speech and writing.  There is a solid spine of historical actuality in both the old and new testaments of the Bible : in fact this concrete "chronicle" dimension is a key element of the Bible's fascination.  & yet the whole of it is suffused with poetry : moreover, the whole of it is enveloped in layers of tacit meanings - concepts of the sacred and the profane, earth and heaven, which are rooted in a very ancient cultural world.  Context is everything.  The acts of Jesus as Messiah : the declarations with regard to his mission and the works of God : all this testimony is part of a larger "universe of discourse" or set of cultural perspectives.

So we have to hold two distinct things in mind : first, that there is a real, historical actuality - a "facticity" - which undergirds the testimonies of the Bible; and second, that all the statements and language of Biblical religion call for - require - interpretation.  They are not to be absorbed uncritically : rather they are to be understood.

All this may sound fairly obvious.  But as I say, I've been thinking like a poet : like a prophet, like a natural-born troublemaker.  "The Spirit blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it..."  So we have to follow where it leads, because it is indeed (we desperately hope & believe) the "spirit of Truth."

Jesus was a scandalizer; Elijah was a "troubler of Israel"; now I (though not in their league) am thinking like a troublemaker too.

I think (here in this Advent season) maybe a new age is dawning.  The astrological "age of the Fishes" is passing away; the "age of the Water-Carrier" is coming in.  Jesus walked in Galilee, Palestine, Judea 2000 years ago : and it struck me this week that perhaps somehow we have to re-think the symbolism and vocabulary of the Divine Trinity.  And I don't say this lightly, without trepidation.  In many ways I think I'm close to the mentality of the current Pope!  I sympathize with his warnings to the West, his criticism of the spiritual Flatland of secularism - our vain devotion to merely human things, our idolatry of worldly "celebrities" as opposed to the life of the spirit in Christ.  I am nostalgic for medieval sensibilities; I wonder at the beauty of Byzantine art.  Yet at the same time I wonder if the time is approaching for a massive spiritual sea-change, a re-interpretation (not a rejection) of the ancient doctrines.

I'm pondering the spiritual geometry of Father, Son & Spirit.  I'm wondering if there will come a time when the Church no longer recites by rote the gender roles played out in these terms.  I would like to be able to conceptualize them in a new way, without rejecting them.  I realize many feminist theologians have already explored these issues in great depth (& I should read them!) : but generally I have to reflect & work things out for myself.

I think the fundamental meaning of the Incarnation is that God assumes the actual, fully historical, fully personal humanity of mankind.  God is Man in Jesus.  Jesus describes this actuality in terms of Fatherhood and Sonship for two main reasons : first, because this relationship illustrates the closest bond of love, merging with Oneness; and second, because, since in this oneness Jesus becomes the Father (God) on earth - he is "one with the Father" - this divine act has ramifications for the destiny of spiritual authority on the earth.  In other words, when Jesus says "I and the Father are one", or "no one comes to the Father except by me", he is declaring the will of God to rule (through his spiritual kingdom) in the lives of men and women and kingdoms and societies.

Yet Jesus also declares : "God is Spirit, and those who worship him must do so in spirit and in truth."  When I think of the personhood of God - the triune, distinct personhood(s) of the Trinity - I remember the words of St. Paul, that "in Christ there is no male & female".  I understand the personhood of God as a category of integral, substantial being, for which our own ordinary experience of persons (our own and others) gives only a limited, imperfect foretaste.  The consciousness of personhood, and the personhood of consciousness, is something deep, substantial, integral, and spiritual - involving conscious and unconscious, intellect and dream.  And it is something which transcends gender differences.  We have all learned over & over the various cultural stereotypes of gender roles, but we should remember that these shift and change across time and different cultures.  Strength and courage are not essentially "masculine" : empathy and compassion are not essentially "feminine".   The person subsumes and integrates all intellectual and emotional character traits within a more basic wholeness (the person per se).

So where does this leave us with respect to Biblical testimony, the language of Scripture?  Well, for one thing, I don't find the third Person of the Trinity - the Holy Ghost - identified anywhere in scripture as "male."  The Holy Ghost is Spirit, as the Father is Spirit.  When Jesus declares that he "is going to the Father" (after his resurrection and ascension) I think one could read this as saying "I have fulfilled my role in manifesting God's spiritual authority (the Father) on earth."

So I think we could start to imagine this authority, as defined by the terms "kingship of God" or "kingdom of God", as summarized or encapsulated or defined by a verbal formula.  This formula, or formulation, though on the surface exhibiting a "gendered" character, is actually just that - a formula, a verbal token for a deeper, unspoken actuality.   God is neither solely Father, nor solely Mother, but Spirit.  The union and distinction of the Persons of the Trinity - God the Father, Jesus, and Holy Spirit - is a kind of symbolic play, representing an underlying fusion/distinction of divine and human which is neither male nor female, but incorporates both.  An integral Personhood - and shared Person(s)hood - which we experience as a deepening actuality in our own shared life, as persons of the human race.

I've run on longer than I would have liked - hopefully without too much obscurity and murkiness.  My overriding sense is of some kind of coming change - a metamorphoses of religious life in an age to come.  Not involving a rejection of the past, but an embrace of the past, with new understanding.  We must re-interpret our own sacred testimonies in the light of today : not to corrupt or destroy them, but to enliven them with "new things".

In this regard I was interested to read the recent New Yorker article by Kelefa Sanneh, on the "rock star" megachurch evangelical preacher Ron Bell.  Sanneh narrates Bell's dramatic theological struggle with traditional notions of the reality of Hell and divine judgement (and the effect of his changing views on his popularity, in his wildly-fluctuating world of evangelical preacherdom).  I haven't read Bell's best-selling book of meditations on this issue, Love Wins : but in some ways the whole controversy strikes me as a non-issue.  Why? Because I think if you interpret Scripture carefully on the question of Hell, you will find that we cannot assign any definite characteristics or structure to it (Hell).  Listen carefully to what Jesus says to those who do wrong : you are in danger of being cast into "outer darkness".  And : to those who claim to follow him but don't obey his will, he warns : on the Last Day, the Son of Man will say to them, "I never knew you."  Think of what this means in the context of a spiritual cosmos defined by an integral, spiritual Personhood.  Everything we do affects our relationships with others : in the same way it affects our relationship with God.   What worse hell could there be, than simply to be rejected by this Person at the end of our time on earth?  "I never knew you."

Furthermore : why would God ever define Hell as some fixed structure (ala Dante, or the human legal system) when we live on earth in a state of suspense - a constantly changing interaction with our neighbors and with God?  A time always open to inward change and repentance - with potential for repaired and renewed relationships.

I think possibly this mode of interpretation offers an (imperfect) example of how (one way, at least) to approach the sacred texts : we cannot take them "literally", beyond the historical record itself : we must read them so as to penetrate the veils of symbolic meaning and ancient worldviews, and discover what truth they bring now, today.

p.s. an afterthought.  I don't want to be misunderstood.  I may be a monkish old librarian, but I don't want to appear to diminish or deny the real differences between men and women.  No doubt our biological inheritance (male or female) involves differences in the way we think, feel and behave - some of them obvious, some of them delightful - part of the dance of polarities, the sexual dance, which is so basic to everything beautiful & joyful, painful & sorrowful in life.  Indeed much of the charm and majesty of the Middle Ages, explored famously by Henry Adams in Mont St.-Michel and Chartres, and other books - reflecting the Catholic worship of the Virgin Mary - probably involved in part a feminine cultural counterweight to the masculine brutality of that era.  But as Jesus states in the Gospel - "God is Spirit : & those who worship Him do so in spirit and truth."  This spiritual dimension is, as St. Paul wrote, "neither male nor female, neither slave nor master, neither Gentile nor Jew" (rough quote from memory).  This is the spiritual personhood which we all share alike : it is the actual bond of person to person and person to God, which leads us all together into a "deeper communion".

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