Monday, December 21, 2020

Last Post, Merry Christmas, Better 2021?

It is an illusion but a pleasant one that on 1 January 2021 all the trials and tribulations of 2020 will disappear and a better year will begin merely because the number of the year changes.

Fortunately there is some hope - vaccine discovery and distribution - that in the months ahead, life a la the Pandemic will get better. But 1 January itself makes no difference!

21 January 2021 will make a difference for more than a few people on our planet: on that date we will see the back of Trump who even in the past 48 hours continues to inspire people to threaten - yet again - to dismantle democracy in the USA (the ramifications of which, should it happen - ever - would be untold for the democratic nations of the world, to say nothing of the encouragement it would give to undemocratic regimes everywhere.

So the year and the Trumpian era draw to a close. Christmas is but a few days away and this is the last and fiftieth post on ADU for 2020 - don’t look for the next one until 18 January 2021. “I need a break.”

Highlights of this year? The lens here is local, ecclesial rather than (say) global, political, personal:

- looking back, Lockdown was a really neat “rhythm of life” - a Sabbath of sorts, despite the many emails and Zoom meetings;

- our Cathedral Project made considerable progress and we are seeing significant steps in the stabilisation of the building taking place;

- our clergy and congregations have been faithful and fearless in responding to the challenges of the year.

In summary: God has blessed us.


- The fact of a Royal Commission in NZ on Abuse in State and Faith-based institutions: how can (some) Christians be so evil? Which is also a question about how the Spirit of God works within us to transform and change us into (not away from) the likeness of Christ?

In summary: the questions of evil and suffering has been very sharply posed this year for our church and other churches.

Finally, a Christmas thought?

There are so many and social media doesn’t necessarily need to communicate another one from me. But since you have read thus far, how about this?

When Mary sings in the Magnificat about a world of injustice being turned upside down, we are faced, 2000 years later, with the question of how much more needs to be done in God’s project to bring the world under God’s rule - the kingdom of God.

Are we up for the challenge of Christmas when viewed through this Marian lens?


Anonymous said...

"the Trumpian era...this Marian lens?"

The rest of the world quite reasonably follows Trump as closely as it does. However I myself think of this as a continuing populist era in which Sanders, and his imitators in this year's primary, have been the Democratic candidates whilst Trump, along with some precursors and imitators, have been the Republican ones.

We usually assume a left to right spectrum in Western politics, but the United States has been pivoting toward another polarity of upper and lower. That is, institutions normally run by the affluent, educated, and global have been facing an insurgency from those paid hourly, less educated, and local. The new polarity cuts across the two main parties.

This is not a surprise. Polls have shown for years that the richer our citizens are, the more they glare at each other across the two sides of a left-right chasm. In general, the more media, political parties, universities, CHURCHES, etc depend on the highly affluent, the more predictably ideological they are. Conversely, the poorer voters are, the more they agree on basic survival values, the fewer institutions they have, and the less influence those few-- mostly CHURCHES-- have on American life at large. The latter are the great majority.

So in all the noise of the election cycle-- more of it than usual-- the steady signal is the competition of Sanders's Democrats and Trump's Republicans for the loyalty of that ocean of votes. That is what both parties should be doing.

Trump's personality disorder and consequent misrule distracted many voters from both ideology and populism to a more primal sense that the man could not do the job or keep the nation safe. But the tallies show that Trump nevertheless attracted more votes than previous Republicans, not just from evangelicals, but from the very minorities that he is usually thought to have demonised-- Latinx, Blacks, and even LGBTQ.

And the Democratic platform on which centrist Joe Biden ran and won is more responsive to the concerns of rural and blur collar voters who usually pay more attention to right-wing media. In short, the populist candidates have moved their parties somewhat, although the ocean is not ready to be divided. It may never be.

+ Peter's "Marian lens" describes what has been happening in surprising detail. I will leave verifying that to the reader. But notice this-- both in ancient Palestine and in the postmodern present, the justice she praises is not a violent separation of the wicked from the good, but a peaceful but contested reweaving of social fabrics, ancient and postmodern.


Anonymous said...

In 2021, when you find yourself alone with an open Bible, answer this--

Why did God change his mind about cities?

Clearly, he did. The canon opens with irrigation agriculture, but ends with the descent of the New Jerusalem.

In the pages after the first, we see Babel dispersed, Sodom and Gomorrah immolated, and the cities of Canaan are hypothetically razed. The ceremonial ground at Shechem is only displaced by Jerusalem as Israel lurches into monarchy. Most profoundly, the society that thinks of itself as the family of Abraham is based on the blood relations of ancestry and tribe. Even Jesus has a genealogy.

But farmers need markets, and markets need towns. Amid all the watching of sheep, there is also a tendency to define Israel in terms of the urban traditions of cities nearby. We think of the creation narratives in Genesis and Proverbs, and the ways Israel adapted the foreign idea of *covenant* to the ways of YHWH. Indeed, readers today are surprised to find that his prophets have plenty to say to these cities. When the Creator of all sends Jonas to Nineveh in the belly of a whale, the prophet has a proper abhorrence of the great city, but to his surprise, the city-folk repent.

Jesus likewise has a fondness for the towns and countryside of the Land, and his teaching recalls a relation to the Father that is not even mediated by Moses, let alone urban elites in Jerusalem. He is a renovator of Israel's traditions, but the paradox is he did it in a way that opened them to Jews and then Gentiles of the great cities of Rome's empire. Those we meet through St Paul's letters are as decidedly urban as the apostle himself. A few centuries in the future, the last holdouts against the new religion will be called *pagans* (< Latin *paganus*, one who dwells in the country) because they are seldom urban. Imagining the day of the Lord, Isaiah spoke of a new forest on Zion, but St John the Divine saw streets in the new Jerusalem.

Anonymous said...

About a century ago, two French intellectual friends, Bernard Charbonneau and Jacques Ellul, took differing views of this contrast. In the pre-urban family of Abraham of the earliest traditions, Charbonneau saw pure humanity discovering its nature and freedom through the daily struggle to survive in nature. From roughly the founding of the monarchy on, he sees this authenticity being displaced by a mentality adapted to the requirements of states and the cities they build. From his perspective, the advancing urbanism of the Bible sets the stage for a humanity alienated from itself because it has been turned away from nature. Charbonneau is still read today as a philosopher of ecology who makes an unusual anthropocentric case for the priority of nature.

Ellul is read today as, among other things, a Christian prophet of post-modernism. A sociologist by profession, he elaborated an account of *technique* as a social process that sits upstream of most later theories that elaborate how what we do shapes what we think. French Reformed by conviction, Ellul also wrote several books from what he found in rather canonical readings of the scriptures. If the reader has heard of one, it is likely The Presence of the Kingdom.

In those, he answers Charbonneau with a qualified agreement. Yes, there is a sort of authenticity in the Bible's oldest traditions. As French personalists of the third wave, they have substantive agreement here. But Ellul argues that when humanity, in its uniquely authentic life as Israel, chose to be stately and urban, God honored that choice by giving the species the Body as the ideal of that chosen urbanity. Implicitly, the old pantheism was failing Mediterranean cities because it was not civic enough. So Christians reorganized cities from the bottom up and thereby absorbed the Roman Empire because that was what the Father had purposed for them to do.

Ellul, although widely read by theologians in the '70s, was neither an ethicist, nor a biblical scholar nor a systematician. But his reframing of the Bible's tension between town and country poses interesting and maybe helpful suggestions for what Christians do, read, and think.

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks for comments Bowman. Am on short (holiday season) internet rations so only a brief observation, prompted by yr thoughts re cities ... It happens that I am reading a lovely book The Talmud: A Biography, by B S Wimpfheimer. He observes that Hellenism's influence on Rabbinic Judaism includes shifting focus from the city (Athens (as a state to serve), Jerusalem) to education (paideia). For Jewish men this meant acquiring an education in Torah etc which was portable through the Diaspora and could lead to fame and good fortune. It got me thinking about Christianity's own portability as it cut ties with Jerusalem and took the gospel to any who would hear it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Peter.

By all means ration the 'net during the holidays. It's good for the soul. Some have even done less tweeting of late...

Some agitprop around the CoE's new report on sex has emphasised that *God does not change his mind*, although not a few in millennia past have read the Bible as the story of how he more or less did just that.

A confused proposition of theology proper is being posed in some such claims, but St Thomas Aquinas answered that one several centuries ago. I have been more concerned that they rely on a bad heuristic for reading the Old Testament within the canon as a whole. It is easy to poke holes in it, but to frame a better one is more difficult.

Although several agile minds are working in this gap today, I reached back to Ellul. Being Reformed, he had some feel for the continuity of the testaments. As one maker of our contemporary mind, he anticipated and addressed postmodern anxiety about socially mediated perceptions. And his engagement with Charbonneau brings ecology and personalism into the same conversation about divine creation. Not a solution, but salient.

How does Wimpfheimer understand the polarisation of rabbis and bishops in Late Antiquity? That probably did not happen everywhere in the same way. At least some who heard the preaching of SS John Chrysostom and Melito of Sardis saw little or no inconsistency in worshipping with both assemblies. What did they think that they were doing?


Peter Carrell said...

Will let you know, Bowman, when whole book on Talmud digested.

Meantime reading about rabbis, Talmud and Scripture, does open my eyes to how conservative in handling Scripture even the most liberal of Christian's are! :)

Anonymous said...

Eight brief notes on some recent unpleasantness here up yonder.

The basic conflict divides two ways of life. Some have built their lives on the economic prosperity and cultural consensus of the unified America that emerged from the Second World War. Others belong to a mass elite of meritocrats who have instead built their lives on the finance of *creative destruction* and a more competitive and cosmopolitan culture that crystalised here after the 1960s. Bluntly, some of the former believe that they have been robbed of all that matters by the latter. They want it back.

The size and tenor of a movement is not reliably revealed by profiling the most provocative figures waving its banner. Some are just attracted to paranoid conflict and general mayhem. The least indicative figures attract the most eyeballs.

When mutually aggrieved factions talk about each other, but seldom directly to each other, the most desperate break things and hurt people simply to get the other side's attention. Between the Israelis and Palestinians we are used to this. We should not be surprised that it can happen anywhere.

Without what Cicero called the *concord of the orders*, citizens have too little trust in their elites to rever the constitution of their body politic. Indeed, they may see that constitution as a well-camoflaged weapon turned against them. In that case, they are, even as unwilling reactionaries, in what the old left used to call a *revolutionary situation*.

It is naive to be shocked when many revolutionaries follow the basic law selectively, a few insult its monuments and traditions, and scarcely any doubt that only their leader is truly on their side. Against such overwhelming and implacable opposition, they believe that he must fight and cheat for anything to change. To get an omelette, they will forgive egg-breaking that others rightly see as terrifyingly Leninist.

*Democracy* signifies to some an equality that ensures their personal autonomy; one is not obliged to be enmeshed in the fabric of the state. But to others the word means the unfettered self-determination of a body politic in which all have equal voices; to them, the fabric is an inescapable condition of a humane life.

Trump's madness and jousting with the media have obscured an important fact: over the past half century, mainstream journalists in establishment media have published well-received reports that warned about the very *secession of elites* from post-war America that angers people in red MAGA hats today. But these journalists could not imagine any policy or politics that could stop either the secession that they observed or its many effects on rural and small-town America. After Trump's election, there was again a flurry of journalistic curiosity about why inland voters had overwhelmingly preferred him, but much of that was written with a naive bewilderment that say Kansans are not corn-growing New Yorkers and West Virginians are not coal-mining Californians. Younger journalists seem not to know what Billy Joel was singing about in Allentown.

Astonishingly, it still remains to be debated whether the last four years have uncovered a new solution to the old social schism. Politicians and journalists have been endlessly shocked that a narcissist can be an authoritarian sociopath, but have shown little curiosity about the grievances that brought him to power. This distraction is in itself a cause of despair and rage for those rural and inland voters who want change, and of fear and perplexity for the urban and coastal guardians of comfortable meritocracy.


Anonymous said...

Postscript-- + Peter's readers will have noticed that I normally describe societies here up yonder as *postmodern*, and refer to *modernity* in the past tense. The assault on our Capitol last week illustrates what I mean by that usage.

Democratic institutions as we know them are modern. To serve societies well, they require widespread confidence in certain Enlightenment precepts, of which three are especially salient now-- impartiality is possible; tested knowledge is reliable for all; dialogue reduces differences of opinion.

Kindly note that democracies require, not only that these be sound ideas, but also that they be embedded in most citizens' experience of mores and institutions throughout their societies. Synods, for fascinating example, are not so much a way to find Christian solutions to Christian problems as a civic space where citizens experience their religion as at least compatible with modernity and democracy.

The eight notes above more or less explain the American election on November 3. But to understand the bizarre post-election controversy over who won-- and indeed the difficulty of getting that understanding-- one needs to understand as best one can the mindset of a citizen who not only disbelieves in impartiality and tested knowledge, but believes more eccentricity as s/he encounters more consensus. Citizens like those stormed the Capitol here last week, and are not unseen in politics far from America.

That is, there are people in the US who so believe the paranoid conspiracy QAnon that they are willing to join forces with white supremacists to storm the Capitol. What social breakdown or force made the dark fantasy of the eponymous troll so persuasive? Is this happening elsewhere?

For now, try this hypothesis.

Enlightenment moderns certify truth methodically by a consensus of those who know the methods and see the evidence-- experts. So long as these experts represent no collective interest as a class in society, their consensus is readily accepted as impartial, so that their knowledge is deemed reliable, and modern-minded citizens who engage it will usually revise their own views in favour of those based on many sources of disciplined observation.

In contrast, a politics of paranoid conspiracy flourishes among citizens who believe in democracy as a leveling equality-for-autonomy, see experts as a rival social class with an interest in the truth it purports to find, observe opponents as determined to reduce their personal freedom of thought and action, and can find forums (eg social media, rallies) for validating their intuitions in a consensus of the alienated. Absent these social factors, paranoid ruminations murmur on the edges of societies among those who are-- let us say alienated-- by background, temperament, upbringing, or *theory of mind* unable to participate in the gentlemanly conversation of Enlightenment truth-seeking.

Alienated people see a paradox that the men who wrote with quills did not. Equality, both among citizens and among experts, is an Enlightenment precept. But these are two equalities circumscribing two circles of persons, not one. The former is vast; the latter small. If the latter rules the former, the resulting society is unequal.


Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Bowman for insights into the messy, confusing but not beyond explanation situation in the US.

Yes, we have a very tiny cohort of Trumpians (or quasi-Trumpians) here, but nothing like the influence the US has been experiencing.