Thursday, May 29, 2008

Sor Juana's Poetry and Prose

When studying Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz—her poems, letters, autobiographical stuff, biographies written about her, the Penguin edition’s introduction to her body of work, etc.—it becomes pretty clear that while spiritual in nature, her real identity is that of a scholar.

Sor Juana’s “Response to the Most Illustrious Poetess Sor Filotea de la Cruz,” which appears in letter form, is apparently written with the intention that Sor Filotea would not be the only person to read the work but instead is written with an awareness that it would circulate throughout the Catholic community, at least in New Spain (present day Mexico) in any case. In this regard SJ seems to be Keats-esque in that when she pens a letter to an acquaintance, here being an acquaintance whom she never meets for interesting reasons (see below), its contents become well known indeed. The entire work is predicated on an important point that cannot be overlooked which she makes clear by mentioning it numerous times throughout the text. The fact is, SJ never really intends for the original letter that prompts Sor Filotea’s letter that “Response” depends on to circulate as widely as it does since she (1) did not herself have it published and (2) not intended for a wide circulation it lacks the necessary arguments and support for those arguments and fact checking that her exposé the “Response” has in plenty.

Throughout these little revelations of fact, she reflects on the question of who would do such a thing as publish a letter without the author’s permission. This is where things get pretty interesting in a behind-the-scenes sort of way. “Response” is a letter that is a response to the Athenagoric Letter which is a response to another letter that she had written earlier. SJ’s original letter had been mysteriously published by one Don Manuel Fernandez de Santa Cruz y Sahagun, the Bishop of Puebla, who, as the introduction suggests, probably penned the AL himself under the Sor Filotea pseudonym.

Arguably, SJ’ s knowledge of the letter’s true author is clear in that she goes way beyond what would normally seem excessive in terms of flattery into a kind of meta-flattery which comes off as ironic if not patronizing. Opening her letter with overemphasis on the “loving letter” and her “appreciation” of that letter in which its author openly tells her that her poet pursuits are frivolous and that her time should be spent studying theology seems a bit over the top. Even in its body the constant humility (at times) descends into a holy-than-thou-turn-the-other-cheekiness yet these instances, which do admittedly develop into an effective form of deceptive mockery, point to self-protection. After awhile, the apologies and the unworthinesses start to look like hidden contempt.

At times in “Response”, SJ basically all but screams she does not want to write anymore like a John Barth Lost in the Funhouse character who would just as soon give up the task of writing down the events that transpire as, well, weave through the obstacles that impede them.[1] However, though she would like to discontinue the writing of letters, specifically this letter, the impulse to go on does not relinquish itself because it has been, she claims, placed there by God.[2]

A student at the age of three, SJ begins to experience the inequalities and inferior status that her sex requires her in New Spain and by the Catholic Church. SJ’ s status as a woman (as opposed to a man) and later as a nun (as opposed to a priest) means that obstacles and societal expectations persist throughout her lifetime. The two inequalities which most affect SJ are her inability to study at the university level which only men are privileged and the authority that the male clergy have over her as a nun. She becomes so despondent due to the former that she attempts (unsuccessfully) to convince her mother to dress her as a man with fake mustache and all and send her to Mexico City to study. Despite the inability to earn some sort of an advanced degree, this unfairness actually (in some ways) ends up being a sort of blessing in disguise depending on how one looks at it.

While denying anyone the right to attend school is pretty high up on the scale of evil and/or manipulative control units that are degrading and corrupt in every sense; surprisingly, SJ finds that the impotent situation actually has some advantages. This becomes apparent when she writes “as I was not directed by preferences, nor, forced by the need to fulfill certain scholarly requirements, constrained by time in the pursuit of any subject, I found myself free to study numerous topics at the same time.”[3] When one thinks about what everybody says about contemporary universities and liberal arts colleges, that they “teach you how to think”, her little statement here in an odd way forces you to really think about what on earth this really means. It is clear that SJ, like most of us, already knew how to think, but the thing is, what they really do is teach you what to think about. They show one what has meaning and what does not and that you can choose to place it where or on what. The fact that she does not follow a set curriculum then means she can study anything she has a passionate interest in and leave the things she does not to others. However, having not attended university, she has to find what is important by trial and error which it appears she does very well. In other words, hers really is an education of a lifetime; hers is one that no amount of diplomas can illustrate and no amount of words can express.

One of the more interesting episodes described by SJ is the time limit with specific consequences she sets for learning rules of Latin grammar which relate to gender and societal expectations. The reason this is gender related is because she cuts off her hair, of which women’s are typically longer than men’s, and if she doesn't learn such and such a rule by the time it grows back, well, it gets cut off again. Thus she writes “there seemed to me no cause for a head to be adorned with hair and naked of learning.”[4] Hair today, gone tomorrow, as it were, but this statement makes an interesting point. While teaching herself Latin, she enters into the male world of scholarship because despite the fact that she makes later on in the text that she had no teacher to guide her nor can she ever become a teacher because of her female status, what she does in fact do is become a teacher: she does, after all, teach herself. In cutting off her hair she symbolically enters into the male dominated academic world while at the same time taking up a scholastic path which marks a literal entry into that world.

Another way SJ basically gives the middle finger to the way the RCC perceives the world comes as she writes about context in literature within the play “Loa for El Divino Narciso.” In said play she raises the question of whether things change when a work of fiction changes when taken from one culture to another. Taken literally, her words say that culture has little or no relevance in interpreting the text as a whole. In the examply she uses, when a piece of fiction is taken from New Mexico to Madrid; the text does not become something else but retains the same value even though the world is vastly different for the two groups. In contemporary understanding, this way of looking at literature is totally insane. Context is everything and I suppose that SJ knew this to be unquestionably true. To say otherwise would be equivalent to one saying that on 9/11/2001, the terrorists who commandeered planes and then crashed them into the World Trade Centers were bombing the same America that my grandmother with her innocent, sixth grade education, whose only method of birth control was the rhythm/pull out method is the same America as my angsty, graduate program, Generation Y with our vaginal ring BC which makes the female’s menstrual cycle optional. In other words, in the age of the meme machine, the only thing that divides our issues is that our medias have gotten more complex.

The fact that everyone in the play “[worships] the all-powerful God of Seeds!”[5] makes the point that everyone within the play has the same God when you come down to it. The Gods, great in number, worshipped by Occident, are not without their theological problems—i.e. with the “cruelest sacrifice:/ two thousand gods are satisfied,/but human blood must be the price”—but the whole practice of Zeal and Religion of forcing their beliefs upon Occident and America is imposition of the rankest sort and reminds the contemporary reading of African colonialism (AC). Like the twentieth century phenomenon of AC, when colonization came to the Americas it started out as a force to be ignored. After all, the people who lived in these lands were many and the colonizers were few. But they came in in greater numbers and their technologies had their advantages.

Because this is an allegory, the fact that Religion actually antagonizes Zeal, asking how he can “tolerate [the]… Idolatry”[6] of the people they happen upon, it is difficult to see the Church here in a positive way. Yet at the end of the drama everyone sings and is happy in way that is pretty creepy since the manipulative practices of both Religion and Zeal destroy the culture that it imposed itself on in the first place. While constantly professing peaceful resolution and mercy, Religion lets Zeal first break these people after reason fails and then after they have been conquered, Religion goes about reasoning again. After being forced to bow down to “boom-sticks” and men on horseback that are referred to as “Centaurs”[7], I suppose Religion’s original offer doesn’t seem too bad considering the alternative: death. So when Religion says to Zeal “allowing her to live/ is witness to my clemency,”[8] she is really taking part in the same kind of systematized control that Christianity has a long enduring reputation for. However, SJ is a nun and is a part of that system, which in part explains the happy ending. The fact that she is both a colonizer and among the colonized makes her both critical of Christianity and a part of it: thus she writes about the way Christianity came to the Americas negatively but stresses that its results of it have been positive.

When reading SJ in 2008, it is almost impossible not to think of the African fiction stuff—that has been so articulate and eye opening and interesting and depressing and cool since Things Fall Apart and so many more that it is probably better to just take my word for it—since many of the same issues facing the African continent since at least British imperialism have come about , are the same things that SJ writes about several hundred years before anyone even heard the phrase “blood diamonds” or anything like that. When you think about it, isn’t it the same? When cultures clash, the results are often conformity at the price of both blood and the loss of identity. SJ knows this, the Church knows this, indigenous people figure this out, and the modern reader knows this. With such a dark history it has become increasingly harder for people to rally around the Roman Catholic Church if not the entire Christian faith which has serious complications for postmodernity.

[1] If this comparison survives the final cut, considering the issue of length here, the less said the better, maybe, except it should be known that the two writers make so many references to the process of writing as a craft and are so eerily similar in the way they say it that it is hard to decipher who specifically writes what. To be frank, while reading both at the same time it’s almost impossible for me to separate the two, which maybe you have to be studying them simultaneously to see. Ok, the heck with it, here is a particularly relevant example from SJ to illustrate the similarity from page 11 when she talks about how she, being called to write in order to defend herself, has not the desire to triumph: “If, then, I err, I suffer neither blame nor discredit: I suffer no blame, as I have no obligation; no discredit, as I have no possibility of triumphing—and no one is obliged to do the impossible.” And just one random example here from Barth on page 39 of LF in his story “Autobiography” when the narrator contemplates giving up the story (thus life) and says “May the end come quietly, then, without my knowing it. In the course of any breath. In the heart of any word. This one. This one.” The point here is that in that same tone/voice, both narrators are pushed to write not by their own hands but those of other people.
[2] “Response to the Most Illustrious Poetess Sor Filotea de la Cruz,” p. 11.
[3] “Response…,” p. 23.
[4] “Response…, p. 15.
[5] Loa for the Auto Sacramental, p. 197.
[6] Loa…, p. 201.
[7] Loa…, p. 213.
[8] Loa…, p. 215.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

One Can Certainly Smell Something: Concha Romero's "A Saintly Scent of Amber"

Concha Romero’s allegorical “A Saintly Scent of Amber” (ASSA) presents a, to some extent, well known archetype and not only chronicles a period of church history rife with political/religious turmoil, she also modernizes the account serving to illustrate issues of relevance in the present day. Romero’s play, which at times borders on laugh-at-loud-hilarity, is arguably genius in the way it achieves the effect of humor by meshing the ridiculous with the seriousness of the subject matter. As a playwright constructing her work in the late days of postmodernism’s reign as the literary school fiction authors subscribe to make cultural sense of what exactly is going on in the world; her work follows some of the period’s conventions. More often times than not, postmodernists (in general) have dealt with the “postmodern condition” with heavy doses of irony.

Irony, by no means a new literary concept, enjoys its most liberal usage (with a few exceptions, Chaucer being the most significant as well as the current model of fiction under the various titles of Image-Fiction, Hyperrealism, and the awkward/clunky post-postmodernism) in this era of fiction which oftentimes presents its self verbally in a setting that is situationally ironic that is part of an overarching irony in a book/story/poem/play with a title that is itself ironic. Thus ASSA is extremely ironic which for the most part explains why the sobriety comes off as funny. For example, when the group of nuns stand arm-linked in the well known environmentalist technique of you-can’t-cut-down-this-jungle-because-we-are-holding-hands-in-your-way at the door of the habit which pretty much never works and desists after those wanting to break the chain start making threats like “I have this piece of paper here that says you need to move” or “we have chainsaws and are going to use them to cut something down” or in Gregorio’s case “EXCOMMUNICATION! EXCOMMUNICATION!” (46). To the contemporary audience, the nuns’ responding with an emphatic “No, excommunication, nooooooo!” is totally absurd making it, well, laughable. This is, of course, because most people have little notion of what exactly excommunication involves, on the one hand, or do not take the threat as seriously as those from the time before religious plurality spread to Spain when being Spanish meant being Catholic thus subject to the pope.

While difficult to see certain parts of the play (for instance scenes depicting the dismemberment of St. Teresa’s corpse) as exactly being a laugh riot, some scenes boarder on being slapstick. Mariana, as one example, scurrying about crying and babbling about death and corpses and excommunication has a sort of Three Stooges quality about her when at her most distressed. It is difficult, for the most part, to view her as anything but a grotesque parody of comic relief due to the fact that she seems to be the only character at all concerned about cutting off rotting chunks of cold, human meat until close to the very end when Gregorio nearly spills the groceries from the look and smell of the festering flesh. One of the creepy things about Mariana’s character and her reactions is that the audience/reader thinks that these things are funny at all. Having the ability to suspend belief, the viewer sees the body not as most of us would (i.e. in the way that makes Mariana physically unable) but as the more hardened hackers of limbs, which is it self ironic but when you think about it, not at all funny.

Regardless of how silly she may appear, Mariana is not stupid or ignorant, what she is, or seems to be, is innocent. Her inability to deal with death becomes an endearing quality and she ends up being one of the more sympathetic characters because of it. The same inability to behave toward a dead body in a rational way, which happens a lot, is also the same reason other characters come off as antipathetic. Take Father Gracian’s saw off of St. Teresa’s hand during the concluding segment of Act One. At this point, Gracian loses not only the respect of the audience; he transcends eccentric becoming a madman with a gruesome fetish. To be fair, the audience realizes a particular strangeness in Gracian’s affection toward the corpse before this incident but it is not until this moment that we behold him with scorn instead of as an oddity.

To see why this is so, one need look no further than the way he speaks about the flesh of his former friend. With sexualized language, Gracian eroticizes the corpse when he repeatedly states that he “would like a few moments alone with her” (21) which pretty much sweats with sexual tension. To make this all the more disturbing, upon examining the body, he touches it and says “her skin gives as if she were alive” (20) making the reader cringe and later question what exactly he intends to do with the hand. While verbally he speaks of the corpse in a way that you can’t help but think of necrophilia as a possible outcome, removing the hand becomes the first obvious instance of dehumanizing that the former St. Teresa undergoes.

Before the body’s desecration by dismemberment, the body is talked about as though it still contains the person of St. Teresa. One witnesses the care the nuns exhibit while removing her veil and when washing and moving the corpse about which resembles the way someone would care for any delicate human being that he or she CARES ABOUT. With his knife, Gracian ultimately begins a dehumanizing process eclipsing in the body separation into sections, fought over like a bone among hungry dogs, and tossed in a sack to be shipped off to God knows where. The major conflict at the end of the play occurs in part because this dehumanizing of St. Teresa’s flesh is not fully recognized, it would seem anyway, by the Prioress.

In the play’s first act, the Prioress does not appear to be one the audience is supposed to sympathize with, this is not so as the play progresses. What makes this dubious are her blurred convictions about what should be done with the body; after all, she does give the townspeople St. Teresa relics and all they have to do is come down to the habit and ask.

Upon first glance, the dynamic between the male clergy and female nuns in the two acts seem quite different; however, interpreting as such would be surface-level thus ignoring one of the major overarching critics of the church the play provides. For example, in Act One, while the Prioress and the nuns affect a more cordial standing with the male clergy than in Act Two, the same problem permeates the entire encounter. What is apparent—though perhaps not obvious—throughout the play is the fact that there is a sense of inequality between the two groups with the men occupying a type of entitlement and the women a kind subservience. In the second act, the lopsided power dynamic touches-the-nerve again and again with phrases like “this convent has more than once offered a partridge or two to an illustrious visitor” (39); “you reason well for a woman, but it doesn’t appear at all respectful to me that a nun, regardless of her position as prioress, dare refer to a monk as incidental” (41); “Careful. Widows are the most dangerous. They come in already corrupted by the world” (42); etc.

The two male/female relationships of Act One and Two bridge most noticeably when Gregorio and Antonio stop by for the old surprise visit to which the Prioress frantically tells the doorkeeper to “distract him for a few moments while we tidy up” while barking orders at anyone within proximity. Her excited expressions impart a very real aura of danger, telling because it is understood that if their habit appears disorderly then there could be serious repercussions. A couple of points to keep in mind here are that (1) this line directly follows the performance of a play by the nuns—an occupation unlawful for woman mind you—in celebration of the Prioress’s birthday and (2) the group has had no contact with the newly appointed Provincial so they know nothing of particular attitudes of this specific man insinuating that in a general (if not universal) way, the clergy does not regard them egalitarianly; instead, view them as subjects.

Overall, the play is worth viewing or reading mainly for a contemporary feminist interpretation of church history and also how the body fits in with both tradition and current Eucharistic practices. I can’t resist pointing out that the play gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “chicks with body issues.” Romero shows how the body is exploited as well as the patriarchal system that defines the female role as one of submission and compliance. “A Saintly Scent of Amber” is a goldmine for bad jokes about necrophilia and masturbation but to make them is either to miss the point entirely or to really get it. In the end, it is hard to tell which.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Yeah We Can Interprt the Bible Our Own Damned Selves

Martin Luther, German monk/theologian, effectively argues for church reform and against the supremacy of the pope which he bases on the Scripture. Constantly using the Scriptures to support his claims, Luther systematically shatters everything he considers unjust and argues with such zeal that his works present themselves in a way that is most impressive. In his Three Treatises Luther writes for laity and clergy alike to reveal the abuses of the church in Rome and calls his audience to force Rome’s hand at major reconstruction. With his very organized style, the breadth of his articles, and the soundness of most of his proposals it is clear that Luther laid the groundwork for true change.

In his work “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation” Luther not only discloses the “three walls” which the papacy hides behind and the abuses of the pope and Rome but also makes some very well informed proposals for making amends. After briefly stating that the church is basically run by oppressive demons, Luther begins by exposing the three ways that Rome has been able to do this while protecting themselves from reform. With the first wall he explains that the church claims precedence over the state and common people but this cannot be true. To Luther all believers are of the same estate and of the priestly order, therefore, in spiritual matters all true Christians are equal. While one person may be a stonemason and the other a minister, their faith makes both of them priests and they are identical in the eyes of God. One is not preferred to the other, one simply conducts the sacraments and the other does not, this being the only difference between them. The second wall Luther refutes is the Romanist belief that the pope alone has the power to interpret Scripture. Ironically, he first does this by interpreting the Scripture and then by questioning the pope’s ability in this matter! He then returns to the idea that all Christians are priests according to which the pope has no extra spiritual authority than anyone else so has no divine ability in regards to discernment. Under the same logic with which the first two walls fell, the third wall (only the pope has the right to call a council) also crumbles. Luther makes it especially clear that this rule oppresses the Christian people and should not be acknowledge when he writes “if the pope were to use his authority to prevent the calling of a free council, thereby preventing the improvement of the church, we should have regard neither for him nor for his authority,” (24). By giving the pope alone this right, not only do the Romanists go against the idea that all Christians are priests but also the pope has abused his power of infallibility. Luther makes clear that none of these walls can be supported by Scripture and are harmful to the Christian faith so should be regarded as invalid.

Luther then addresses the specific abuses committed by the church against the German people that need his immediate attention. These pressing issues include the abuse of papal authority, the number of cardinals in Germany, and the unjust taking of money and property from his country’s people. With regard to the charge made of papal authority, Luther seethes with anger and contempt yet his argument stays clear and remains solid. He explains that the pope’s humility should serve as an example to all Christians instead doing things like wearing a triple crown which he considers to be ultra vain considering even a monarch wears two less. Where as papal supporters assert that this is acceptable because the pope is a lord on earth Luther calls it a lie and uses Scripture to show the inaccuracy of their claim. Here Luther makes an excellent point when he writes “no vicar’s rule can go beyond that of his lord,” (27). By saying that Christ was the Lord of Heaven on earth when made flesh not a lord of the earth totally destroys the Romanist declaration of temporal authority. Since Christ’s kingdom is a kingdom not of this world but the next and since the pope should act only in place of Christ by sheer definition of the word “vicar” it can be logically deduced that the pope should have no administrative authority because Jesus did not have such authority. The next problem Luther attempts to shoot down is the large number of cardinals in their area who collect large sums of money from the Germans greatly depleting their assets. Luther’s reasoning on this topic is not nearly as strong and uses little Scripture or verifiable data in presenting his evidence. Nevertheless, it is dealt with quickly with harsh words that accuse them of being consumed by greed for money and more or less worthless in serving Christians. His solution is to either abolish their posts altogether or greatly reduce their number. Likewise, papal offices should suffer the same fate thus alleviating the third controversy. On this offence his discussion once again becomes more concrete as he claims these offices suck the Germans of all their wealth for what amounts to protection money and control too many benefices which deprive them of property and income. In the third part of the treatise he then segues into another set of specific reforms that comprise nearly half of the treatise. These 27 reforms hold some of his more interesting ideas some of which include no longer kissing the pope’s feet, the ability to confess sins to anyone, abolishing most pilgrimage places, and some temporal matters but will not be discussed at length here.

In Luther’s next treatise titled “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church” he once again wags a finger at the church in Rome this time focusing his work on the sacraments. To start, it should be observed that the title of this work alludes to the Babylonian forces of the Hebrew Bible who forced the Jewish people out of their promised land and forced them into captivity and servitude. In this instance, however, the title refers not to Babylon of the earlier Scripture but equates the church of his day with that nation because he sees Rome as similarly holding the Christian people captive. After opening with a short rant on indulgences, papal infallibility, and the some clergy members that oppose his views Luther illustrates the major theme of this work: the sacraments.

Throughout this treatise Luther goes into great detail on the seven sacraments of the church of which he ultimately rejects all but two as bonafide. The first sacrament discussed at length and one of the two he holds as true is the Lord’s Supper. Early in this discussion, Luther writes “no eating can give life except that which is by faith,” (133) which is vital to understanding his take on the sacrament. The sacrament itself is not as important to Luther because it requires faith and does not save in and of itself. Luther then explains that there are three major ways in which the church withholds the sacrament from the Christian. The first captivity lies in the fact that laity are deprived of the cup during this sacrament and given the bread alone. This is a grave injustice for Luther because he finds fault with the way the Scripture was interpreted/manipulated for which he explains is totally incorrect and determines that both cup and wine should be given. Second on his list of captivities one finds the doctrine of transubstantiation based on the Aristotelian idea which Luther absolutely loathes because the idea is not based on Scripture and it would seem because the theory was based on Aristotle. He attests that transubstantiation, which states that the essence of the sacrament is the flesh and blood while accidents are the bread and wine, is invalid because it is not supported by Scripture. Instead, Luther adopts his own view of how Christ is present at the sacrament commonly known as “real presence” which holds that Christ is everywhere and especially in the consecrated bread and wine. He attempts to validate this view scripturally which he does to some extent, however, his view is of course not considered definitive in most Christian circles. Luther then identifies the third captivity which deals with the mass which he considers “by far the most wicked of all,” (152). According to Luther, the church has turned the mass into a sacrifice for salvation. This, however, cannot be because faith and trust in God’s Word alone has the power to save not the works of man.

The other sacrament Luther does not reject is baptism, however, he finds fault in the church’s treatment of it. According to Luther, for the true believer “baptism is the divine promise” (180) to be “the foundation of all the others” (181) which can never be altered by sin. On the other hand, the church holds that sin can undo this sacrament so they tie it in with the sacrament of penance in order to resolve this problem of post-baptismal sin. In spite of this Luther asserts that there is no problem because one will ultimately sin but through faith he or she will always return to God’s grace. Another disagreement between his view of baptism and that of normative Christianity arises in the sign itself. For him too much emphasis is placed on the sign rather than the word or to faith and this is where the church errs. By highlighting the works and ceremonies of the church they impede faith because in doing this what is important is that it is done not the mindset of the person being baptized. The baptismal vow, the only vow that is needed, must be cherished because one is “saved through faith alone” (201) as Luther explains with Scripture. Of the other sacrament, originally he does not denounce penance as a sacrament because it does have basis in the Scripture, however, he does determine that it should not be considered as one because it has no physical sign. He reproves the status of the remaining four sacraments of confirmation, marriage, ordination, and extreme unction mostly on the grounds that they are not promised as signs of grace in the Scripture.

Upon reading “The Freedom of a Christian”, one immediately notices a major change of tone in Luther’s writing. In both this text and his letter to the pope that accompanied it, he no longer refers to him as the Antichrist or claims that Leo is in league with Satan; on the contrary, Luther goes to great lengths to explain that it is not the pope’s fault that the state of the church is so bad but the flatterers within the Roman See that are truly evil. However, this text seems to be written more for his supporters than an actual letter and treatise for the pope considering there is no record of Leo X receiving it, Luther’s advice and the way in which he addresses the pope can be regarded as patronizing, and he keeps the same systematic style as in his previous treatises. The only real difference in style is that he drops all the references to the pope being Satan.

Early in this treatise Luther quotes seemingly contradictory passages of Scripture that refer to Christians as both free and in bondage. Although it may seem impossible to be both a prison and free, Luther illustrates that this is not so because of the distinction between spiritual and fleshly natures. With respect to the “inner man” (278) the Christian is free from all wants and desires because this happy soul has all that it needs in abundance through faith in the Word of God. The spirit can desire nothing but trust in God’s Word so by trusting the Word one is liberated from this longing. Unworthy as one may be to receive such plentitude it is nonetheless given to the believer by God. No works offer such a gift, only faith justifies this reward. Faith alone which “justifies, frees, and saves” (282) bringing with it the benefits of possibility, righteousness, and unity with God. According to Luther, even though the laws are impossible to completely uphold this feat becomes possible, not by works but by faith.

While one may sin from time to time, faith alone can save, not obedience the rules. Luther does not mean that one is allowed to go out and commit multiple heinous crimes, on the contrary, Luther believes that if one truly has faith that this person would not intentionally offend God by sinning. In so many words, this is what Luther is anticipating when he writes things like “he who fulfills the First Commandment has no difficulty in fulfilling all the rest,” (288). However, the flesh being made weak and subject to desires of the flesh, the Christian is granted grace by a loving and merciful Christ. Through faith the believer also becomes obedient to God’s will where there resides an inherent level of trust in its acceptance. Faith also then leads to unity with Christ which Luther explains to be like the unity of marriage. Here the Christian inherits all the blessed things that Christ offers and Christ inherits and conquers the things that the soul has to offer (namely death, sin, and damnation). In this union one is infinitely well received. At this point, Luther again impresses upon the reader his firm belief in the priesthood of all Christians resulting from faith alone. As explained above, Luther holds that all those who have faith in Christ’s Word are truly priests in the eyes of God. This brother/sisterhood of priests makes all Christians equal even though not all will “publicly minister and teach,” (292).

While the soul may be free, the flesh remains in bondage to move toward the perfection that Luther believes the true Christian attains upon departing this transitory world. As Luther repeats hundreds of times through out these treatises and have been stated numerous times here as well these works do not save which is the ability of faith alone. In other words, these acts cannot be done in anticipation of future rewards which would actually make them wicked deeds; rather, they must be done freely in love.

Certainly one the most enjoyable Christian documents as a text, it is also the clear and illuminating, at least in my opinion. Luther’s intellect and style of discourse also made this a helpful and interesting read. One of the more surprising things about Luther though is his sense of humor. At times he is truly hilarious especially when he repeatedly calls the pope and other religious figures of his day Satan, the Devil, and the Antichrist. It is understood that many times these were not intentional on his part but it is hard not to laugh at this obsession considering he says someone is carrying out the work Satan on almost every page. At other times his humor almost has to be seen as intended specifically when he writes “as infant boys need beyond all else to be cherished in the bosoms and by the hands of maidens to keep them from perishing, yet when they are grown up their salvation is endangered if they associate with maidens,” (324) which is just silly.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Next Christendom

In his book The Next Christendom, Philip Jenkins asserts that Christianity is going through “one of the transforming moments in the history of religion worldwide” (1) which (for the most part) has gone unnoticed in the West. The transition that is taking place Jenkins explains is the shift from a Western dominated Christianity to a Christianity of the Southern hemisphere. Even though this trend has been nearly imperceptible to the Western/Northern witness, it very well may “play a critical role in world affairs,” (4) since many of the nations with the largest numbers of growing Christian numbers are also the nations with the fastest growing and youngest populations in the world. While the West sees Christianity as a movement in its last days in the middle of its death rattle, Christian numbers are soaring in regions that also see the number of Muslims on the rise as well which may cause intense rivalry between the two groups in these areas.

Even though most accounts of missionary work in the South have been romanticized either positively or negatively, their message proved appealing. After Western imperial expansion dissipated in the twentieth century, many believed that Christianity would dissipate in those regions once occupied by quote unquote Christian nations. This was not the case; in fact, Christianity in the South is expanding at such a rate that in fifty years there will be more Christians in Africa and South America than in Europe. According to Jenkins, there are at least four reasons Christianity enjoys the success that it does in the South: (1) the “networking effect”, (2) reconciliation with local traditions, (3) structure (4), and message. To begin, in the networking effect, the word traveled along from one individual to another; that individual, in turn, would spread the idea to his or her family; the family then would spread the word to the rest of the village; the villagers then would spread the good news to other villages in their area and so on and so on and so on. In other words, converts took the message to others which produced more converts.

Secondly, integrating traditions with Christianity which Jenkins calls the “Silk Strategy”—referring to a question raised in China about what material could be used in vestments—has proved to be one of the main causes for both Christianity’s success and the great diversity of worship in the South.

With the fourth reason for Christianity’s success-- providing structure—the religion offers something familiar in the face of a changing world. In this way, as Jenkins explains, it is a response to similar economic circumstances… [that] can be seen as a by-product of modernization and urbanization,” (72-73). While Christianity in the South speaks to all classes, it is with the very poor that the religion has become most popular. Jenkins illustrates this point more thoroughly when he writes “churches provide a social network that would otherwise be lacking, and help teach members the skills they need to survive in a rapidly developing society,” (74).

The final reason Christianity has enjoyed such success proves more complicated but of great importance (in Jenkins’s view) that the Southern churches hold that “God intervenes directly in everyday life” (77). According to this view, evil rises not from societal affairs but from spiritual evil that religion has the power to traverse. Christianity, promising boons in both this life and the next, is not a form of escape but a path toward prosperity. The poor in the Third World suffering from all the diseases present in say the United States as well as those associated with poverty, hunger, and pollution (78)—not mention mental health issues and substance addiction—find themselves desperate to improve their lot; thus, they look to God for divine intervention in the form of healings and miracles. Regardless of the reasons to why Christianity has proved so popular in the South, this growth will have a great impact on world diplomacy especially in areas where the number of Muslims is also on the rise.

In regions of the globe where the population is increasing most rapidly there is often times a serious tension between Christians and Muslims which in many cases has erupted into violence. The Muslim-Christian conflict has become commonplace in postmodernity with crucial implications for world order. To illustrate that this is a reality in the areas that are most divided between the two faiths, Jenkins looks at the civil wars and riots that have plagued nations like Sudan, Egypt, Nigeria, and Indonesia for the last half century. Looking at Sudan, for example, where there are 35 million people (a number that is projected to increase to 84 million by 2050), 25 million of which are Muslim while only one in about seventeen is Christian, the world sees one of the most unstable nations in the world with atrocities that are barely even believable. Listed among these are “indiscriminate bombings, the burning and looting of villages, and the killings, abductions, rapes, and arbitrary arrests and detentions of civilians,” (171) which are often acts of violence from the Muslim majority against the Christian minority. The southern region of Sudan made up of black Africans who make up most of the two million Christians, has experienced great oppression by the Muslim controlled northern part of the country. When the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) came into being in an attempt to overthrow the oppressive regime, the government responded by massacring thousands upon thousands of the southern Sudanese while burning entire villages to the ground and forcing women and children into slavery. It completely blows the mind to think in the Year of Our 2008 there are still nations which tolerate slavery.

While Sudan is one of the most extreme examples of religious intolerance of Christian minorities, it is by no means an isolated occurrence and as Jenkins explains “if Muslims insist that their faith demands the establishment of Islamic states, regardless of the existence of religious minorities, the violence is assuredly going to occur, “ (172-73). This can be seen in the African nation Nigeria (which could have as many as half a billion people by 2050) with possible consequences that are terrifying in that the state could become a radical, violent Islamic-super-state.

Worldwide, the Christian-Muslim tension is all the more problematic when Judaism enters into the dialogue, especially when dealing with the United States’ “blind support” of Israel. This support “infuriates not just the bulk of the world’s Muslims, but also many Third World Christians” since it is in these countries that the Muslim governments are able to oppress the unwanted minority. Since the United States is a Christian nation, as Jenkins sees it anyway, and one of the world’s most powerful at that, all of Christianity is then seen as supporting Israel. That is to say, simply being Christian is seen by much of the Islamic world as supporting the U.S. policy regarding Israel which they see as being “anti-Muslim,” (181).

Jenkins’s analysis on world order and global Christianity proves to be one of the authoritative texts on this subject. While extremely informative on issues that every Christian should become familiar, it basically scared me more than anything else. Considering most people know little about these Christian-Muslim conflicts with potentially devastating effects, I seriously doubt that any real action will be taken to stabilize the region. Nor does Jenkins really offer any solution to the problems facing global security. Much like a group like say the SPLA, Jenkins is great at exposing the corrupt hypocritical governments, but when it comes to establishing a superior alternative, there isn’t one readily available. While the SPLA used the fact that they were good at pointing out the shortcomings of others (ironically) to become better tyrants, Jenkins doesn’t really seem to offer any answers as for what to do either. Pointing out the problem doesn’t really solve anything. Everyone wants change but no one offers anything but a vague notion of what change involves. In postmodernity, the one thing we are lacking more than anything else is the know how to bring about real change.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Community Spirits: Living Buddha, Living Christ Review

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, in his work Living Buddha, Living Christ bridges the teachings of two of the worlds most popular and peaceful religions. With the Buddha and Christ as his spiritual guides, Hanh illustrates how Christians and Buddhists can learn from their founders that will improve and inspiring human lives the world over. In this powerful work, Hahn brings the reader to the realization that not only do these faiths share the same goal, at the core of human existence, we all do.

As Hahn makes clear, at some base level, all of existence shares in the same “body of God,” also referred to as “the body of ultimate reality,” (31). In this way, every life is connected as an extension of the spirit flowing through us all. The hobby of the Dali Llama proves to be a good of metaphor of how the community is one interconnected being that shares the same ultimate fate. Timepieces made up of gears and springs and many other parts perform together to move the hands of the clock. If a gear breaks or spring comes loose, the timepiece no longer works. Similarly, communities of people assign certain tasks to individuals who provide a service for that community. For Hahn, the teachings of the Buddha and Christ serve to enlighten the people of the world to the fact that the things that make up the university are all within the same community.

All Christians, Buddhists, and people the world over as an interconnected entity should recognize that “every act is linked with the whole humankind and the whole cosmos,” (106). However, because we delude ourselves in insisting on our individuality while ignoring the nature of reality, people the world over experience pain and suffering. Seeing ourselves as individuals, we take sides that are often based on self-interest because we “misunderstand the will of God,” (80). Many religious people throughout the world see themselves as having a superior belief system making a true interfaith dialogue impossible. In insisting on words and concepts, people miss what is truly important insight into the nature of reality” and “a way of responding to [that] reality,” (55).

Having the ability to choose where we place true meaning usually leads to a path of least resistance because implementing a practice that requires a change of the heart and the way we think makes us complacent and causes us to suffer. Jesus spoke of this in his warning “where your treasure is, there will be your heart also,” (Luke 12:34) while Buddhism teaches that our attachments to things is the root of all our suffering. This makes what we choose to worship, that which we find of most importance, of the utmost importance. If one is constantly striving for wealth or power, this person will never have enough; beauty or intellect are also no better choices since both fade as time goes by. People grasp onto these things because they fail to truly experience. Always putting off our spiritual happiness for transitory delusions causes a failure to realize that “we are already in paradise,” (19).

Paradise, as Hahn explains, is found in this world that is filled with the Holy Spirit. To understand or experience that spirit is to be truly alive. This spirit is what makes all things equal in the eyes of Mother Nature and what makes all things resemble God. True understanding of this concept cannot be done purely by intellect; “it must be experiential” as well in the form of “prayer, contemplation, and meditation,” (112). Once action is taken to awake to this realization and “we become truly aware of our hearts, we feel comfort and release right away,” (18). This must take place in order to become compassionate souls willing and able to produce real change for a better, happier existence for all transient beings. In order to make the world a peaceful and merciful place to live, our hearts must first become peaceful and merciful. For Hahn, this is an essential ingredient to a formula for progress. Like the gears of a clock, we are parts of a larger whole, and like the gears, if we are not each working to move forward, movement stops.
Mindfulness, the term Hahn gives to this state of inner peace, is living the examples of both Christ and Buddha which is an extraordinarily hard thing to do. Liberating ourselves from a deep self-centeredness is to resist the default way most people live their entire lives. The example Hahn gives to illustrate the concept of this kind of enlightenment is that of a wave. Waves crest and fall as a part of the fluid body of water that cannot separate itself from the sea that enables its existence. It must discover and then remind it self “I am water.” By way of this example, Hahn’s argument is at its most lucid, which forces the reader to spend time intensely reflecting on and search the obvious realities that over intellectualizing has kept us from being truly alive. What concealed truth have we overlooked, what great, infinite reality in plain sight has been lost, in what ways are we imprisoned without even realizing it? To be mindful, on must ask these questions, because the truth is, oftentimes the most significant, visible components of life are the hardest to see and realize. Becoming aware of the universal oneness takes cognitive effort to achieve and discipline to sustain. But this is true experience.

In unconsciously going through the motions of a seemingly meaningless existence, one is a lonely slave to the self and unable to experience the Holy Spirit. Attentiveness to our ability to exercise control over where we place meaning will free us of repulsive, closed-minded certainties that cause our suffering. Being completely conscious through the examples of Christ and Buddha in mindfulness allows us to see all experience meaningful and sacred in focusing our energy on improving life before death. The disregard for the gift of life and domain over the world is perpetuated because the consequences of humankind’s selfish, wasteful neglect of natural resources is probably wrecking the climate to a point where reconstruction will be impossible. Viewing the world through our own set of lenses, policies are determined by immediate, selfish priorities.

In exhibiting tolerance of diverse beliefs, we accept the differences in the ways we construct meaning from our experiences instead of insisting that our one interpretation is the truest thing in the universe while the other is false or unsound. When tolerance does not take place, the unexplainable, deep down light inside all of us is obscured and progress is thwarted. As part of a universal community, everyone is connected “to the causes of our suffering” and implicated to “find ways out,” (114). For this quest to bear fruit, ecumenical dialogue and peaceful, noble intentions are absolutely necessary. I agree full fledged with Hahn’s faith that we have the power to perform such a righteous work since “understanding and love are values that transcend all dogma,” (198).