Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Jüngel on Beauty and the Beautiful

"According to the self-understanding of Christian faith, there is only one single appearance of truth which - despite all parallels to the beautiful pre-appearance of the truth - follows another law. That is the revelation of God. It is distinguished from the epiphanies of the beautiful in that the origin of all light appears in this event, and indeed appears in such a way that it does not radiate in the light of the world as does the beautiful, but rather appears hidden sub contrario [under the opposite]. The event of revelation cannot therefore be subordinated to the category of the beautiful. Sin - that which God made him, who knew no sin, for the sake of sinners, and for their benefit - was too ugly for that.... The revelation of Jesus Christ shatters all beautiful appearance. It must shatter the beautiful appearance, because it is not a pre-appearance of the truth, but is the truth itself. Yet according to the understanding of the New Testament, this truth occurs fundamentally as a crisis. It does this by confronting the world not only with its finiteness and transience, but also with its merited end and well-earned disgrace. Revelation does this, as Paul expresses it, by 'painting' the crucified 'before your eyes' (Gal. 3.1). From this death as such, it is not apparent that the life of the risen one has been released from it, and with that that eternal life is promised in the form of a visio beatifica [beatific vision], thus a totally unfettered vision of God face to face. For according to the New Testament, God's love is a work in this death. This love is not a love which (like amor hominis [human love]) is kindled by the beautiful, but rather a love which beautifies that which is ugly, namely the self-defacing homo peccator [human sinner], by loving it. As the event of the love of God, the death of Jesus Christ is the opposite of what it appears to be. The cross of Jesus Christ does not disclose that in this death there occurs the unity of life and death in favour of life, which deserves to be called love.

For that disclosure to take place, a renewed coming of the one who has previously appeared sub contraria specie [under the opposite species] is necessary. For this, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is necessary, that is, the Easter coming of the Lord in glory and thus in the unmitigated light of his own being.... For now the beautiful appears both in the alien light of the world as well as in the light of its own being; but then this twilight hanging over the beautiful will come to an end. Then nothing more will appear. For then being in glory will replace appearance.... Then truth and beauty will be and now the beautiful remains only a glimmer of truth, lighting up and fading away again. With Schopenhauer one can say that the beautiful 'does not deliver' humanity 'from life for ever, but only for a few moments'. In a world context characterized by sham existence and lack of freedom, the experience of the beautiful (as the glimmer of truth) that makes the torn world whole can only be an experience which interrupts this world context. The most that an aesthetic relation can promise is being whole (being eternal) for a moment - in order then to return to the interrupted life context, at best changed and changing. But if one wants it to be more, or if it should become more, if one denies the bitter insight that 'even the beautiful must die', then the beautiful will inevitably become and enemy of the truth.

.... only what makes a claim to truth deserves to be called beautiful, and that only where truth establishes itself in a work can one speak of a work of art. But beauty and art are both welcome and dangerous competitors with the Christian kerygma, for in the beautiful appearance they anticipate that which faith has to declare, without any beautiful appearance and indeed in contrast to it: namely, the hour of truth."

~ Eberhard Jüngel, "'Even the Beautiful Must Die' - Beauty in the Light of Truth", in Theological Essays II (T&T Clark, 1995), 79-81.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Learning to Live in Exile

Sermon for the 20th Sunday After Pentecost
Anglican Parishes of Almaguin/Emsdale
Oct. 14th, 2007

God of all hope, you have called us to be your people. Teach us how to do that so that we can witness to your ways in our world and so to participate in your transformation of it. Amen.

During one of my classes in seminary in Toronto, my theology professor was trying to make a valid point and he used a passage of Scripture from the book of Jeremiah in support of it. After making his point, a student in the back of the class raised her hand and after my professor acknowledged her, she said, “you know sir, Jeremiah just doesn’t speak to me.” Without skipping a beat, my quick witted professor responded with, “Well, frankly dear, I don’t blame him.”

The point is that Jeremiah still speaks to us whether we listen or not, whether we are open to what he has to say to us or whether we think he’s irrelevant—a by-product of another time with nothing of relevance to us.

Last week we considered what it might mean to exist as a people who live thankful lives, even in full view of the complexities and struggles of life. We learned that Israel, even amongst the ruins of Jerusalem, learned how to give thanks to God. This morning, we consider, thanks to this letter from Jeremiah to his fellow Hebrews, what it might mean for Israel and for us to live in exile.

Our first reading is the beginning of a letter which Jeremiah wrote to his fellow Jews who had recently been trucked off to Babylon after Jerusalem fell. There were some prophets who were counseling the people that they would be leaving Babylon shortly and that their stay there would soon end. But, if we were to read further into the letter, Jeremiah calls these prophets liars. Jeremiah’s words to Israel?: Israel better hunker down and spread some roots because this stay in Babylon was looking more permanent than transitory. In fact, Israel remained in Babylon captivity for generations but ultimately they did survive their exilic existence and were restored as a people though many continued to live as Diaspora Jews, as ‘scattered’ Jews within Babylon. This is one of the most astonishing historical phenomena we have in the Hebrew Scriptures that the Jewish people survived the Babylonian exile. If this doesn’t impress you at face value, the Northern kingdom went into captivity as well at the hands of the Assyrians and, well, that’s where we get the name the ‘lost-tribes’ of Israel from…they just disappeared from history.

The story of Israel’s exilic life is ultimately a story of hope in the darkest of days, a story of surviving as a people, when all the odds are stacked high against you. Jeremiah’s counsel is for Israel to continue to exist as Israel, to keep on doing it’s Israel thing—to multiply and not to decrease, and as Israel to seek the welfare of the city, to pray for Babylon, and in its welfare to find its own welfare for Yahweh works—surprise, surprise—even through Babylon. Jeremiah doesn’t counsel revolt against Babylon but an active living in it—and through this, through living as Israel fully immersed in Babylon and its culture, Israel would witnesses to the fidelity of God in a society that is hostile to its existence. Jeremiah doesn’t counsel Israel to passively acquiesce in Babylon, but to be who she is in Babylon—to be active witnesses to God even in Babylon. The vision of Israel’s life in exile is a missionary vision. In Psalm 137 the Psalmist asks : “How can we sing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land?” And yet that is what Israel learned to do, and do well.

We often hear about the death of the church at the hands of secular culture, a culture that has little or merely decorative use for the church. And our culture, if we’re honest with ourselves, is, if not outright hostile to the church’s existence, at the very best, merely puts up with it. But this is nothing new and it shouldn’t come as a surprise, the church was born into such hostility in the Roman empire. So it’s not a new situation, the church has always existed as a witness to the ways and world of God in Christ within a world that would rather not hear about it. And this culture, this situation, this post-Christian world we live in is looking more permanent than transitory. We better learn how to hunker down and learn how to live as the church in our times.

So, just like Israel, the church lives in exile—as the church we live as a peculiar and strange people—as people whose lives are shaped and governed by the gospel and by the virtues and habits of being of Christian discipleship and we exist as this people in a world that is shaped by all sorts of other isms—by materialism, by capitalism, or by secularism to name but a few. Many have sounded the death knell on the church. But just like the rumors of Ina’s Trollove’s death were so greatly exaggerated, so too is our culture’s pronouncement of death upon the church.

Our word this morning from this ancient prophet is a word of hope—what does Jeremiah speak to us this morning?—keep on living as the church in the culture we find ourselves in, keep on being the church: multiply and do not decrease, keep on existing as a people whose lives find their rhythm, not in the time and pace of society and culture, but as the church, as a people whose lives are shaped by God’s time, by God’s time for us in Jesus Christ. Our lives are shaped and given contour and definition by what we do here in our liturgy this morning and by the subtle gestures of our common life because it is in the enactment of this common life, that the transformation of the world has begun.

It is in the subtle gestures of our common life
gestures of kindness, peace, and concordand in the rhythm of the liturgy, in the formation of Christian discipleship; it is in all of this, in the living of life as Christ’s body to the world, that the church lives its life in exile. The church lives, not in revolt against our culture, but as fully alive within it! This is the call of mission for the church: it is not a call to passive acquiescence, to roll over in Babylon, but a call to an active witness in a culture that so badly needs to hear about the One who has redeemed our world.


Sunday, October 07, 2007

Living Amongst the Ruins of the City: On Learning to Give Thanks

A Thanksgiving Day Sermon
The Anglican Parish of Almaguin-Emsdale
Oct. 7, 2007
Lam. 1:1-6; Lam. 3:19-26; 2 Tim. 1:1-14; Lk. 17:5-10

Lord of Creation, you who spoke light out of darkness, speak life into us this morning so that we may live lives of thanksgiving so that the world may know You. Amen.

We like Thanksgiving, don’t we? It’s a time of celebration and joyfulness for all that we have in abundance. Giving thanks is almost as natural as breathing, or at least it should be. Someone opens a door for you, you respond automatically with ‘thank you’. But we had to be taught to be thankful. When someone gave you a gift as a child, your parents hopefully taught you to offer them a heartfelt ‘thank you’. Well, our Scripture readings today, specifically the readings from the book of Lamentations, teach us that being thankful is not an easy or trivial thing to do, they challenge us to re-think what it means to be thankful in a world like ours—and in fact, I want to suggest that living a life of thanksgiving requires a lot of effort, and like all things worth working for, is itself an art form, a learned skill, it's something we all keep on learning—and this morning, the Hebrew poets of lament are our teachers.

In our reading from the book of Lamentations, we have what seems to be the exact opposite of giving thanks—we are here witnesses to the ancient Hebrew practice of poetic lament, that literary performance which gave public testimony to the deep grief of the Hebrew people over the destruction of the city of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians. Israel, as a people, had experienced something they never expected, they lived through the ruin and devastation of Jerusalem and more pointedly, they experienced the annihilation of the Temple—the very thing that gave their lives, as Jews, meaning.

But nevertheless, in the middle of the poet’s darkest reflections—and even T.S. Eliot, at his most somber, doesn’t approach the sense of melancholy and sorrow expressed here by this Hebrew poet—even in the middle of all of this, the poet is able to articulate: ‘But this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness’. Even in the midst of the tumultuousness of its life, Israel is grateful to her God for his goodness and his provision; even amongst the ruins of the city, Israel learns to give thanks, to acknowledge its hope in God’s mercy, his faithfulness and his steadfast love. The poet, in our canticle, comes to a resolution only as they reflect on God’s provision and his care for his people; the poet is able to wrestle life out of death because of God’s steadfast love.

Following the literary movement of this poet, from the depths of lament to hopefulness of God’s provision, I’m reminded of one of the most moving scenes in modern cinema, from Roberto Benigni’s 1998 movie Life is Beautiful—a movie which takes place during the rise of fascism in Italy during WWII. I’m reminded of the scene where the father and his young son are in the concentration camp, in the most horrible circumstances one can imagine. The father wants to protect his son from the reality of what they are facing and so tells him that the whole thing is just a big game and that the manual labour that he performs every day is just really a competition. In this way the father, a man who can find humor in the most bleak of situations, shields his son from the horrors of the camp which, in the end, saves the son. Here is a man, who in the heart of darkness, is so thankful and grateful for the life of his son, that he struggles to find the beauty of life in order to protect him. He is able to wrestle life out of death so that his son might have hope and not despair.

This is the reality of our lives as Christians, this is what the gospel of thanksgiving is all about! Thanksgiving, giving thanks to God in the middle of the hard things of our existence is an art learned in the living of it; true, deep biblical thanksgiving is a chastened gratitude for what God has given us, for what he had taken us through and for what he will take us through. The celebration of Thanksgiving is more than a one day affair, much more than a long-weekend spent with the family, but something, as Christians, that we live out with our lives, one day at a time.

It’s easy to thank God before meals and for our families (well, most of the time), or for prosperity and health or for the beauty of creation—but after this it gets a little difficult. It’s not an easy thing to live lives of thanksgiving when we have obstacles to be overcome, lessons to be learned, when we need to endure hardship, or to live with those people in our lives who are more thorns than they are roses. Sometimes it’s much easier to become disillusioned with our lives and so become bitter. But this morning, it is not a glib or superficial ‘thank you’ that we offer to God, but we offer our very lives in gratitude to God, as damaged, as broken and as bruised as our lives may be—we live them in thanksgiving to a God who struggled to find life in the heart of darkness, who wrestled life out of death in the life of his resurrected Son so that we might have hope and not despair. True thanksgiving is gratitude born in the full view of all the realities of life, in view of joy & sorrow, of love & brokenness, of pleasure & pain, of gratitude & lament, of life & of death.

So, as we prepare to come to this altar this morning, as we come to perform the church’s most central act of thanksgiving in celebrating the Eucharist—and eucharist itself literally means ‘gratitude’ or ‘thanksgiving’—let’s offer our thanks for God’s wonderful provision and for his beautiful creation we see all around us—for the marvelous colours of this fall season and for a bountiful harvest, but most of all, let us offer our thanks to God for wrestling life out of death.