Zoe, Agape, Kairos: A Material Spirituality (Reflection)

dance editThe material world is, and the spiritual world is. As we live in the here and now of the material, temporal realm, we, nevertheless, integrate our spiritual, eternal lives in the here and now as well. Spiritual people do not separate the natural from the supernatural; they never negate the physical to validate the metaphysical.

Yet, the body is barren without the breath of the spirit (pneuma), as the spirit is formless without the body (soma). Beauty cannot exist without both as the body is lifeless without the soul, and the soul cannot be beheld without the body.

The relational perichoretic of the Trinity brings this notion to the really real—the supranatural. The Father is the creator of biological life (bios) and gives second-birth by the spiritual life (zoe). The incarnated Child takes physical love (eros) and elevates it through the self-sacrificial Cross (agape). The Mother Spirit labors to effect the movement of evolution (chronos) and moves to effect needed revolutions at just the right time (kairos).

Thus, matter/intellect and spirit/emotion are always working together, as positive theses and anti-theses, to generate new syntheses that create the possibility of an eschatologically free, equal, just and beautiful world: The City (polis) of God.

© Paul Dordal, 2017

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Knowing God: Truth As Paradox (Reflection)

ParadoxJesus said that eternal life was “to know the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom God sent” (John 17:3). From this verse and many others like it, there seems to be a real comprehensibility of God—a salvific knowing where we join God in intimate relationship.

Yet the moment we believe we have come to “know” or “grasp” God, we suddenly realize that what we have believed cannot be God. For God to be truly God would mean that God is beyond knowing. The finite just cannot fully grasp the infinite. Our thoughts and words will never completely make God comprehensible. St. John would later try when he said quite clearly that God was pure or perfect love (1 John 4:8).  But even this is impossible for us to take hold of. God is simply greater than our capacity to comprehend.

We soldier on, nonetheless, in our pursuit of knowing God or we wither in despair. A.W. Tozer said, “The yearning to know What cannot be known, to comprehend the Incomprehensible, to touch and taste the Unapproachable, arises from the image of God in the nature of humankind.”[i] This yearning to know, though, is so elusive that we are often filled with angst, and rightfully so. Hopefully, we will recognize that within this unease is the necessary prompting to search all the more. We all want, yes, we all need, to “know” God. To truly be alive, we must be in relationship with Divine Mystery.

So, how can we really know God? In the Hebrew language, this knowing (yada) is akin to the passionate feelings and sexual intimacy shared by lovers. Adam knew Eve. We don’t simply know about God. We are to know God personally, even intimately. Of course, we need to tread carefully here. But I do want to emphasize that this “knowing” is not only factual or intellectual. It is yada! We must be able to “feel” God to know God. Our feelings are facts too!

Now, beyond the “feeling” of God, as important as that is (for our feelings, like our thoughts, are elusive as well), we are called to approximate the knowing of God as true Truth with our minds. We must know this Truth in a way which we might even communicate it to others with words and actions.

But how do we know anything? Other than those who believe that all knowing is illusory (which would still be a knowing), most of us know that we know. Still, can we know anything for certain?

Without getting overly academic, our ability to know, especially as expressed in modern terms, is usually placed somewhere along two poles (a continuum) of the purely subjective (absolute idealism) or the completely objective (naïve realism). The acclaimed missiologist Paul Hiebert gave a listing (or a taxonomy) of how we can know, and settled on the, still modernist, view of critical realism. Hiebert said, “In critical realism we speak of the Truth with reference to reality. We also speak of a truth—our partial understandings of the greater Truth. Our understandings are objective (to the extent they are tested against reality) and subjective (because they are ours as humans in our specific cultural and historical contexts).[ii]

This is a great start to understanding how we might know the Truth, but it still does not account for the perplexingly contradictory truths of Scripture. If we are to take Scripture seriously, then the Incarnation, the Trinity, and the reality of Jesus’s glorified resurrected body are neither objective or subjective truths—they are simply preposterous.  They are paradoxes. To grasp these truths one needs to pull the objective and subjective poles of the paradox tightly together. Ron Rolheiser said, “To let go of either pole of a paradox, to reduce the tension, is to fall from wisdom. Hence, as we struggle theologically and spiritually with certain key questions, we must be careful to always hold two, seemingly contradictory, truths together.”[iii]

Now, of course, this all may seem like metaphysical nonsense to some—bourgeois philosophizing. Who has time to care about such things? What does it really matter? Most humans simply want to know how to live a fulfilling and happy life. But that’s it, isn’t it? We all do want to know God!

As my new book In Search of Jesus the Anarchist is coming out in just a few weeks, I am preparing you to deal with the paradox of my outlandish title. How can Jesus be an anarchist? But Jesus was an anarchist because he was completely free and yet in complete submission to God, who is Jesus’s equal. What a paradox!

I deal a lot with paradoxes in my new book, especially the paradox of freedom and equality. Can we be both free and equal? In several recent conversations with Christians I know, even those who are open to explorative theology, the notion of equality seems to them an impossibility. Of course, if equality is an impossibility, then so is freedom.

Freedom and equality are two poles of a paradox called Jesus, who is the Truth! Anarchism rightly defined, for those who are still unaware, is simply freedom and equality lived out in paradoxical tension. Freedom and equality come together as we struggle to hold them together. And as we hold them in tension, we realize our Great Commission: to set the world free in Jesus so that all can live in justice and in peace (Jn 8:32; Lk 4:18-19).

© Paul Dordal, 2017

[i] A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1961, 9. [Updated to gender neutral by the author].

[ii] Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994, 71

[iii] Ron Rolheiser, “Truth is Found in Paradox.” Downloaded from http://ronrolheiser.com/truth-is-found-in-paradox/#.WN-3i_nythE on December 3, 2016.

Jesus Saves? (Reflection)

jesus-savesYears ago there was a woman who called into a Christian music radio station and excitedly told the D.J. that her daughter was listening to the station and “got saved.” The station played the recording of that call-in over and over again. Every time I heard it I asked myself, What did she get saved from? How did she get saved by listening to music? Now that she is saved, does she know why Jesus saved her? With deeper reflection, we must all ask what does it even mean to be saved?

Why did Jesus save you and me? In my experience with the Church’s doctrinal teaching, theologians seem to focus too much on the how of being saved; who’s in out, who’s out; and how it happens. But since we cannot know for sure how one is saved, thus who is and who is not saved, what is really gained from focusing so much on the how? The why question seems eminently answerable; the how question will always be an enigma.

I believe Jesus saved me so I could be in a deep, abiding relationship with God. This relation with our Creator through Christ is the only lasting satiation of the existential angst that we all experience because of our finite separation from an infinite God. By Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection we are all given intimate access to God as we open ourselves up to transcendent mystery.

Additionally, Jesus shows us, through his incarnational relationship to and with humanity, what it is to be in abiding, loving intersubjectivity with all creation. This includes primarily human relationships of love and compassion, but also the ecological connections we have as individuals with the whole world.

So, simply, we are saved to be one with God and with each other through Christ in an ongoing process of sanctification. Nevertheless, this pietistic understanding of faith is only half the story. Though we are ultimately saved on earth for eternal life with Christ in beatific union in heaven, we are also, and maybe more importantly, since we all live in the here and now, saved by Jesus so that we can abide with him as he brings heaven to earth through our Christian witness.

Thus, we are not saved just so we can go to heaven when we die; we are saved by Jesus so that heaven can come to and through us on earth as we live in Christ.

© Paul Dordal, 2016

Trinitarian “Intensionality” (Reflection)

TrinitySundayYesterday was Trinity Sunday on the liturgical calendar. I enjoy preaching on this Sunday because the Trinity is one of the most misunderstood core doctrines of the Church. Unfortunately, some also believe the Trinity to be an irrelevant doctrine. When I personally reflect on the doctrine of the Trinity I am blessed with mysterious insights and comforting assurances of the reality of God. But I also understand that doctrinal preaching is not the most well-received sermon style. So, I endeavor to make preaching doctrine not merely informational but transformational as well.

I attended a conference on Friday that was addressing race relations in the Church. I had a sense while listening to the conference speakers that the issue of divisions between the races is an area where the doctrine of the Trinity could have direct relevance for Christians. So in my sermon yesterday I used race relationships to help the attenders at chapel to understand the Trinity. I won’t rehearse my sermon here, but I do want to share briefly with you some reflections on how I came to my own understanding of how the Trinity intersects with race relations.

One of the eminent speakers at the conference I attended repeatedly used the term “being intentional” in her remarks about how to address racial divides in the Church. As I heard her speak, I believe the Holy Spirit gave me the word “in-tensional” to reflect on.

As I reflected on the word “in-tensional” I was reminded of an article I read a while back on Ego Development by Dr. Susanne Cook-Grueter, an expert in the area of personal development. She believes that individuals who are psychologically mature have developed an ability to discern and live comfortably in the tension between polar opposites (polarities). She notes that mature individuals are able to discern between seemingly value-laden (good/bad; wrong/right) and value-neutral (tall/short; boy/girl) polarities. Cook-Grueter said, “Since ego development theory is about meaning making, how we deal and work with polarities becomes a significant dimension to focus on in the context of enhancing our self-awareness and facilitating development.”

So what does this have to do with the Trinity? Well, first of all our language is not capable of understanding how three can be one or one can be three. Thus, believing in the Trinity has the potential of becoming polarizing. You see, the Trinity is a mathematical conundrum, but a paradoxical truth nevertheless. If we think of paradoxes as polarities (we value them as right/wrong), then there is no way we can live in the tension of those two poles (One God cannot be Three Persons/One God can be Three Persons). Hence for me the Trinity as a Mystery is not a tension to be solved, but a grace to be lived in. This is what I believe was the basis of my neologism of “intensionality.”

St. Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female–for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Ga 3:28, NET). Here the apostle is addressing the issue of tensions and polarities. This is not to say that a person’s Jewishness/Greekness or Blackness/Whiteness is obliterated because of his or her being in Christ. St. Paul is saying that the tension of the polarities is absorbed in the Trinitarian understanding of Christ, who exists in perfect tension with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The two can become one (or three as in the Trinity)! For all those interested in identity politics this may be a way to move towards integration out of the endless polarizations of divisive identity constructs: race, gender, ethnicities, diseases, etc.

Race relations are tense; they are in tension. The way forward is to sit in the tension of our differences—to be intentional and “intensional.” The way forward is to look to the doctrine of Trinity as our example of mystical and practical integration.

© Paul Dordal, 2016