existentialist cafe

life is sacred

Tag: kingdom of god

The soul as inheritance

The theme I have been developing the past few weeks is that personhood is both an inborn right and an inheritance. I’ve written about in a few other places. It is an insistent topic, and so it is one that I would like to pay closer attention to.

It started, I think, with the prodigal son. We tend to think that our soul is ours, so we can do with it as we like. Like the prodigal son, however, we find that this is not the case. We see the soul as something that belongs to us, but really it is more that we belong to our soul, that we are our soul. It is our existence in the world, and if we treat it as a commodity, then we will treat our very existence as a commodity.

The idea of the birthright comes up throughout Scripture. Jacob tricked Esau into giving him his birthright for a pot of soup. Adam and Eve rejected their birthright in exchange for the fruit of knowledge.

There is a pattern here. Our desires grab on to things that they want. Why would this be? We are mistaken about where value lies. These things are goods that we want for ourselves-  knowledge, food, travel and good times. But how, and why, does this transform us so? When I think that I can do whatever I want with myself, I become a fungible asset. In some way it removes me from the moral order of the universe.

Coming into our inheritance of personhood is a matter of taking our place in the moral order of the universe. This is not at all to say that our course in life is mapped out already; our inheritance is to labor in freedom. We are not consigned to any fate except for that which exists by the factors of control inherent in existence, but not being so consigned does not exempt us from obligations and commitments freely entered into. Regarding the first part, we are contingent beings who inhabit a contingent world, and therefore we are delimited by the natural physical limitations of the world as well as by the exercise of power by others. We can, as far as we are able, change those things, but only as far as we are able. We might say that we are born into this earthly or natural inheritance. Regarding the second part: it comes to pass, then, that we come to understand our heavenly inheritance, which is our personhood, and to which we are called to live into. This is not, as for the prodigal son, a fungible gift which can be freely exchanged for whatever is desired. Rather, it is an invaluable pearl for which we labor freely, not as a means of our desire, but the very end (telos) of our desire. Thus we enter into commitments and obligations, but only out of desire for that which is eternal. The matter is not whether we will satisfy the desires of some person or persons, or whether we will earn our place in the world, but whether we will live into that which is our true calling.

We have this inheritance as our general calling as human beings, which is to labor for the kingdom of God, to exercise compassion, to work toward union of all things, and to lift up all proximal beings into eternity through praise. Yet our personhood is not simply a general living, but it leads us to a particular kind of living, directing our usage of our earthly inheritance for the greater good. The earthly inheritance may be dispensed with as necessary, but only in view of the heavenly inheritance. Thus it says “let your Yes be Yes and your No be No,” yet our ultimate allegiance is to our heavenly rather than our earthly inheritance.

Now I have written about the world as inheritance and the soul as inheritance. This makes sense, because the soul is as large as the world. Buber says that the really real is relation, and that we meet the world. In this meeting the duality of self and world are overcome; that which desires and that which is desired meet in the self-giving being of God.

The world as inheritance

It is sometimes said of eco-friendly practices that they are necessary if we are to continue living on this planet. The assumption is that resources are limited, and if we want these resources to continue to be available to future generations, we must limit our use of them. Is it necessary to leverage utilitarian arguments in order to advance the cause of social justice? Arguments in favor of prudence and care – redude, reuse, recycle – are cast in terms of rapidly-diminishing resources and the fact that we may have to be wise now so that it will last longer. Do we need to capitulate to this ultiltarian ethic? This may well be a Faustian bargain that proponents of eco-justice are asked to make.

The question, according to Erzium Kohak, is not what kind of world do we want to leave our children and grand-children, but what kind of people do we become when we only see the world around us as a supply – albeit limited – for our own purposes. The answer, in short, is that we do not become much at all. It is not so much the speed with which we grab, but the notion that the world is merely there for us to use as we like. We become much like the prodigal son who saw the inheritance as his, to do with as he liked. Yet in grabbing what, in his ruthless, glib, logic, belonged to him anyway, he gave up his claim to sonship and personhood. The next part of the story is simply the logical outcome of giving up this claim. He was tossed around by circumstances, used by the world that he aimed to use for his own pleasure.

In grabbing what is, in our own ruthless, glib, logic, rightfully ours, we give up our own inheritance as persons and as participators in a world of meaning. How do we want to live in this world? If we take our place as belonging to the world – not possessing the world – we might find that we do indeed have a place in it, and that it is sufficient for our needs. This depends on recognizing value beyond instrumental, and beyond the motive of attainment. It is understandable that we look at the world and see only wealth to be used, as the younger son must have long daydreamed about the money that belonged to him and that he could use for good fun. Understandable, but nonetheless destructive.

We’ve made a mess of things, of that there is no doubt. Not only have we squandered our money on easy living, but we’ve become strangers to this world, aliens and alienated. So much so that “natural” has come to mean “that which is not of us.” The world that looks back at us is dead, because we have turned it to our own use. And as the prodigal son thought of the well-fed servants on his father’s homestead, we see animals that all have bread enough. They all have a place in this order of creation, whereas we are dying of a hunger both physical and spiritual. How did we come to be strangers in the world over which we rule?

And what would it mean for us to come home?

The son did not return home demanding sonship – he rightfully recognized that he gave up his right to sonship. He came home to be a servant. He is given sonship, yet, but as a free gift, which is the only way it can be given and the only way it can be received. So also we, when we do not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, when we resist the opportunity to act as gods in this world, when we take the form of a servant, then we also will be given the glory of sons and daughters. When we humbly acknowledge the worthiness of our great inheritance – this magnificent world – then we will be ready to receive it. Becoming servants is the only way that we can live into our personhood. If we would become great in this world, we must become the world’s servant, not only of our fellow human beings, but of the whole order of creation.

the kingdom of dog

Thoughts toward a theology of creation.

I have a friend who has given her life for dogs. Not literally of course, though if her blood – bottled and sprinkled accordingly – could save the life of even one four-footed animal, I think she would do it in a single last drained heartbeat. Almost literally though. Her life is overrun with dogs. The way she describes it, she lives in a veritable half-mad, halfway house kingdom of god/dog, where not a single abandoned or abused soul is turned away to gnash its teeth in the darkness; where the last are first and the first are last; where dogs get the bed, and the humans survive on whatever scraps can be bought with the leftover money after every dog-belly is filled. Her love is an absurd love, as love must be – abused dog with advanced stage cancer? Nothing is denied its recovery; and if it can not recover, it is given a death worthy of its life. I’ve begrudged her this. In my “philosophy” and “cost-benefit analysis” I have considered how many dogs a human is worth, and whether time and energy should be better spent. In the end, I think such questions will be left unanswered. At least I do not think that my friend has a need to defend her case, even if she had the time.

Today, driving back from stuffing myself at the Shady Maple Smorgasbord, I came across an idiotic collie, idling its way across a busy highway, greeting every car as though it were a friend – running up to nuzzle the front bumper as the car screeched to a stop, then trotting around the rear to smell what could be smelled. Uttering a quick prayer to the patron saint of my dog-loving friend, I pulled over, got out and grabbed it by the collar. It HAD a collar, which was good news, with numbers on them. The dog license registry service was of little help on the 4th of July, but I did eventually get through to a vet who said he would be in the office “later this afternoon,” which meant she was mine for a little while. I stopped to get her some food, and a leash which was freely given by the little clinic there along with advice about who to call, etc. They surmised that she had been missing a long time, and that she had some kind of flea-induced skin condition as evidenced by a large bare patch on her back. The world of the lost dog seems full of dewy-eyed, eager-to-empathize folk, who have assembled themselves in an impressive network of photo-pass-alongs. Surely though, the grittier work of dog rescue and rehabilitation is a bit more sparse. At home, she did general dog things, like befuddle around my room, eat, drink, lay down, and smell bad. I continued to make phone calls, hoping that I would get a hold of the owner before having to drive back to Honey Brook to the vet. Plus, truth be told, I was nursing a bit of a fantasy of an ecstatic family, greeting me as a kind of hero. I am not a dog, after all, and I am quite subject to vanity.

Eventually, and surprisingly, I was called by the owner after the police passed along my information. I was not enthused. Or, rather, he did not seem enthused that his dog has been found, and I was not enthused by his lack of enthusiasm. I got off the phone with a touch of suspicion. He uttered phrases like “gets off her chain,” “whenever she runs away,” and “I don’t think I can send someone to get her today” that made me confused/concerned. Also he seemed more upset by the fact that he would have to try drive all the way to West Chester (*gasp,* half an hour) then upset that she had run away, or excited that she had been found. I did feel better after I met him. He talked about their on-going fight against the flea and skin problem, and what the vet had recommended. Regardless, I was aware that these are creatures with minimal rights. They are, at the end of the day, property, not people and one would need pretty damning evidence to bring a charge of mistreatment.

It was strange to realize that, as little as I did, it COULD have been energy spent reuniting a dog with an abusive owner. It made me think of social workers and others who work for human welfare, who might see, for example, emotional neglect of children but can not do anything to intervene. And I thought of my friend-of-dog friend, who daily interacts with the stunning results of dog abuse. She specializes in boxer and pit bull rescue, dogs which apparently have a special place in hell designed for them by their human owners. She does not save herself from seeing first-hand the devastation wrought by human cruelty. By the time these animals end up in her arms, they are clinging to the last threads of life. It wears her out. I could be wrong, but it seems like the sad endings outweigh the happy endings 10 to 1.

A proper theology must be built from the ground up, beginning with a recognition of this natural world into which we have been born, and which has been around for a lot longer than us. David James Duncan, in his fabulous My Story as Told by Water, writes such a theology, his theology of salmon, in service to his Loraxian work defending the integrity of the natural world against corporate interests. He writes of the love affair between sun and sea that birthed, among other things, the salmon, which alone among all creatures bewitch both salt and fresh water, and which have been lifeblood for animals and people alike in the Pacific Northwest. A lifeblood that is now running to dry, thanks to hydroelectricity and advancements in mining and drilling operations. We are guests on this planet. Speech and rationality are the gifts that were given to us by our hosts. In a cruel twist of fate we are using those gifts to burn the house down, with ourselves still in it. This we have done, rather than claiming our birthright to “speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”

Is there a higher calling? Against the corporate religious opinion of the day, Jesus gave what has been called, in typical theological understatement, “preferential option of the poor.” “Do for the least of these.” That the “these” Jesus spoke of were most certainly people is not important; what is important is that they had been officially granted outsider status by the powers that be. The same powers that be today measure the value of fish and tree by the open market, evaluate dogs only as extensions of the whims and desires of their owners, and yes, continue to mark certain people as ‘not worth saving.’ Only when we have acknowledged our deep-seated connection with all life in this world can we take our place among it. This is not just an ecological connection, as though our care for the world is only about sustaining it for our own sake. It is a  biological connection as well. All flesh is the same flesh; the same star stuff that makes up the neural networks of your brain compose the chemosynthetic bacteria that inhabit deep sea hydrothermal vents and that live off of the highly toxic (to humans) hydrogen sulfide found there. How wonderful that our particular biology comes with self-awareness. How wonderful that, after millenia, the earth has grown a nervous system. How ironic that this nervous system is now in the process of committing slow suicide.

“The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (I Cor 12.21-26)

Every time chipmunk
You venture out of your hole
You think better of it.

This may be obvious already to many people, but I want to take just a moment to remind everyone that you do not need to make an apology for who you are and what you believe.

And by apology I mean two things.
I mean, first, a plea for approval;
I mean, second, a formal justification or defense.

It is one thing to explain yourself because someone misunderstands you; it is another thing altogether to feel as though the thoughts and feelings of others will vindicate you in some way. If you are, like me, a sensitive sort of person, you may have learned an unfortunate vigilance in tracking how other people draw acceptance circles of varying sizes and permeability. This undo focus on others’ circles of acceptance has kept you from drawing your own circle, as big or small as you please. Other people are powerful – they are charismatic, imposing, or ruthlessly logical, and have learned to bully others out by defining the rules of behavior and discourse. We fall into that game when we buy into the notion that we need to justify ourselves to them. Such justification is expected of us.

The kingdom of heaven, however, comes with its own economy and its own logic. If you try to justify the kingdom of heaven with earthly language – issuing a formal defense of its existence and right to be – you may succeed in part but only at the cost of severely deforming it. You will be left with a hollow shell and nothing more, which may deceive others for a while in the same way that a cicada shell might fool someone until the wind comes and blows it away. This does not speak of the inadequacy of the kingdom of heaven, but the inadequacy of human language to bear it. By analogy: an analysis of a piece of music may be right, but only a fool would think that it is a suitable stand-in, or that the beauty of the music has been reliably and adequately conveyed. Understanding the kingdom of heaven is simply a matter of listening to that deep music that flows through the world.