On Caputo and Friedman

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“God doesn’t exist; God insists” (John Caputo). What does God Insist and how do we respond?

Philippians 2:12    Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
[Scripture quotation from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.]
[Image: “Creative Commons Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” by justine warrington is licensed under CC BY 2.0]

Ruminating over Philippians 2:12

“Every physician knows that attempting to overcome a disease by trying to eradicate a pathogen head-on is generally a losing battle. Battles of will with viruses, bacteria, and malignant cells are generally wearying and ineffective at best. Even with enormous medicinal and mechanical power at hand, the physician will always have more success if he or she can promote the organism’s own natural capacity to win and natural will to survive.”  [Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve]

For the followers of the Way of Yeshua*, the cross was a crisis of faith, a pathogen that took the life of their beloved leader and infected their hope for the future. Gradually, however, they began organically to experience a growing insistence, a nagging feeling, a calling that kept them connected with Yeshua*. They called that sense of  continuing presence ‘resurrection.’ This very natural occurrence in the lives of the early Christian community had to be told. They resorted to mythology in their narrations. The biblical discussion of resurrection was projected back to the weekend of Yeshua’s* execution. Executed on Friday (cross); raised on Sunday(resurrection). Their projections had nothing to say about that day in between — Holy Saturday.

In the intervening centuries since, the church and its theologians have found themselves in the disquieting state analogous to Holy Saturday. It was like having a disease, a deadly virus, a malignant cancer. Unfortunately the “doctors” of the church tried to eradicate the dis-ease by a head-on assault. It was the classic diversion of “Let’s You [that is, the divine You] and Him [that is, the anxiety of living in the meantimes, the in-between times] Fight.” The result of this theological game was a) a powerful God supposedly able to win the game and, hopefully, placate our anxieties, b) a divine Jesus able to pre- and post-exist, c) resurrection as a strong (that is, historical) fact, and d) an other-worldly, after-life salvation. As Friedman suggests such battles of the will with religious pathogens and spiritual viruses (that is, existential anxiety) “are generally wearying and ineffective at best.” Bishop Spong’s description of the church’s alumni association and the disinterest in religion (but not spirituality) of an entire generation (or two) is evidence of how wearying this head-on approach with a strong God has been.

John Caputo’s radical weak theology is built upon our “natural capacity to win and natural will to survive” — that is, our natural (I am tempted to say “God-given” – perhaps) ability to experience and respond to an inner insistence that calls us to attend to a Way of life that is out of step with the Long Robes of the church’s history. It engages our willingness to embrace the anxiety of the meantimes, the in-between times. It requires, to use Friedman’s terms, non-anxious presence and self-differentiation.

Caputo writes of the audacity of God to give up existence in order to insist. That insistence often bears the name of God. Perhaps. The anxiety comes, not because we have given up the existence of God, but because the insistence places the responsibility squarely on our shoulders. If anything godly is going to happen in the world, it will happen because we make it happen. This is the existential anxiety of Holy Saturday that knife-edge between the cross and resurrection. The suffering of the world is already present (” For you always have the poor with you..”); we can’t escape the cross. Resurrection (new life, liberation, wholeness), on the other hand, is always one step ahead of us. We live between memory and promise, between cross and resurrection. Every day is Holy Saturday, anxious waiting, in the meantimes, in-between times.

Liturgies of remembrance and sacraments of insurgence are the institutional carriers of memory and promise. Our liturgies of remembrance focus on re-telling the stories of the journeys of those whose lives embraced the promises of Israel (caring for widows and orphans and extending generous hospitality to the strangers in their midst) and those who walked in the Way that Yeshua lived and taught. These were the ones who knew themselves to be called in the name of God. Perhaps. They were the ones who faithfully, and often sacrificially, responded to that call. Our sacraments of insurrection are orientation and training experiences that embody the practices of the Commonwealth of Peace and Justice. One of my favorites is the great procession of the children of God (perhaps) going forward in church to receive a sacramental meal of a few crumbs of bread and a sip,of wine or grape juice. That great procession is comprised of young and old, male and female, rich and poor, multi-racial, and (if truth be known) believers and non-believers. Brueggemann suggests that one of the great (sacramental) acts of insurrection is table grace — a simple admission that we have received gracious gifts beyond what we have necessarily earned or deserved. We are admitting that, like our Israelite ancestors, we are being fed manna in the wilderness.

To stand over against centuries of strong theology is not a task easily chosen. On the other hand, to ignore that insistent projectile that has pierced my heart and head is not an option. I have been haunted (am daily haunted) by that nagging persistent unheard calling that will not let me go.

O Call that will not let me go,
I trust my anxious soul in you,
I offer up the life I owe,
That in the ancient Way I’ll go
And richer, fuller do.

O Joy that seeks me out through pain,
I cannot close my heart to you.
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That tears shall cease to flow.

And on this Holy Saturday,
When, in the meantime, I will go
And walk along Yeshua’s* Way;
Finding the lonely, poor today
Off’ring much more than a “No!”

If salvation comes today,
And I hopefully pray it will,
Please share it with me if you may
And then together let us say
Ev’ry broken heart fill!

O Call that that fills my heart with joy,
Sends Me with Justice and with Peace,
Insists that I will soon annoy
The powerful who just destroy
The last, the lost, left out, and least.

O Call that will not let me go,
I trust my anxious soul in you,
I offer up the life I owe,
That in the ancient Way I’ll go
And richer, fuller do.

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