Monday, November 21, 2011

When prospects become tragedies

For a baseball fan this is the dark season as it is.  Baseball season is over, and nothing awaits but a giant sucking void between now and the first rumors of spring training in February.  Awards are given out in November, which is nice, but arguing over what in heaven, hell, or earth that guy was thinking voting for Michael Young for AL MVP isn't quite the same as Miracle Day back at the end of the season, or watching the kids break in, or hoping that Matt Kemp might get the Triple Crown after all, or whatever part of the season provided that extra boost for you.

For a real, passionate baseball fan, other sports don't quite cut it.  Football, the brutalizing overblown spectacle that it has become in the NFL at least, is the antithesis of baseball (George Carlin nailed that pretty well).  While I can occasionally engage a little with college football (what was FSU doing Saturday night?) it's not there either, and the B[C]S is a pathetic excuse for a joke, which discredits the whole enterprise beyond repair.  Even if basketball were appealing to you, the NBA is in the process of self-immolation, and the college game isn't quite rolling yet.  Hockey (more antithesis) is rather shadowy these days, the NHL having in fact ceded its #4 position in pro sports attendance to Major League Soccer, believe it or not.  So for a baseball fan, these are bleak, sad days, with little solace on the horizon.

Things are bad enough, in other words, without real life intruding on the escape-world that is fanship.  And yet real life has intruded, violently and roughly, into the baseball fan's offseason in ways to make the mind reel.

First was the kidnapping in Venezuela of Wilson Ramos, a talented young catcher for the Washington Nationals.  A little awareness of international news will remind one that this sort of thing is sadly common in Venezuela these days, and other professional athletes have had family kidnapped there for hefty ransoms, but this is the first case I know of where the athlete himself has been the kidnapping victim.  This story at least had about as happy an ending as possible, as Ramos was rescued a couple of days after being kidnapped.

Today's story cannot have a happy ending.  Greg Halman, a young outfielder for the Seattle Mariners, was stabbed to death while at home in the Netherlands, not long after being part of a tour of major leaguers visiting and giving baseball camps across Europe.  Halman wasn't quite the talent that Ramos is, being too prone to strikeouts, but he had made the majors and still had the chance to make it for good.  The sadness of having to use the past tense to describe that chance stings, all the more for those who follow that team more closely and perhaps saw him play or maybe even encountered Halman, maybe got an autograph.

Let us be clear: following any sport with any kind of intensity is thoroughly escapist.  (Admittedly for some people it seems to be a substitute for real life, particularly among followers of certain teams or college football conferences -- coughSECcough -- but we rightly worry about such people and know something's not right with them, yes?)  What is supposed to be the fun thing about sports (besides its unpredictability) is that real-world fears are banished as long as there's a game going on and your team is still in it.  Murders and kidnappings and wars and bills and all manner of other stresses are left aside for a time, to root in common with people you wouldn't give the time of day to in real life but to whom you are bound by this one common passion.  The only thing you're supposed to be wondering about Greg Halman this offseason is if he can cut down on his strikeouts and be a contributor next year, not oh God, how can this happen? or any of the other questions we always ask when tragedy intervenes rudely in our lives.  That in this case murder seems the clear cause (and according to early reports, his brother is a suspect) only deepens the hurt and confusion and disorientation.  (This column by Rob Neyer of Baseball Nation suggests that Halman is only the third active major leaguer to be murdered in the history of Major League Baseball.)

No, it's not unique to baseball; a young tight end for the University of Arkansas football team died unexpectedly this weekend as well.  So far as anyone can discern foul play is not involved there.  There is something particularly disturbing about foul play being involved.  Part of the issue is, I guess, that celebrities (which certainly includes professional athletes), despite the increasing tabloidization of celebrity these days, still have a certain untouchability about them in our naive little minds.  Yeah, they can screw up their lives with the best of us (and it becomes more entertainment fodder these days), but being murdered still shocks in most cases (the bloodier aspects of hip-hop rivalry a couple of decades ago notwithstanding).

Baseball players are supposed to play until they can't play anymore, then go get old and show up for old-timers games and tell stories and all that romantic stuff.  They aren't supposed to get kidnapped or stabbed to death.  It's not supposed to be real life.  It's supposed to be baseball.

Friday, November 18, 2011

An impure God

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 
he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross.
Philippians 2:5-8

Even as I stagger to a break in our academic schedule around here--blessings on Union Presbyterian Seminary for calling off classes for the entire week of Thanksgiving--and even as I occasionally wonder if I'm somehow "not getting it" at times, I continue to be fascinated by the splintery history of doctrinal squabbling that is the story of the early Christian church.  As any historian will gladly note, even if it sounds a bit cliched anymore, you can learn from the past, or you can repeat it.  

One of the tendencies that seems to underlie much of the theological debate of the era from roughly the 300s to the 500s or so is the question of just how much God could actually be involved in the muck and mire of human nature.  No, this is not the theological question of how much God might be implicated in the sinful nature of the world--my brain is still short-circuiting on how to process that theological debate. Here the question is whether or not, given the sinful state of humanity, just how much can it be said that God--the Divine, the All-Powerful, the Transcendent, all that good stuff--could be said to have any direct involvement in the redemption of that sinful humanity.  This was a difficult thing for the ancients to wrap their early-century minds around, and I suspect it still twists a few minds these days (though perhaps in a different way).  (Bear with me, folks, this gets to be a bit of a thicket.)

Arius, the chap whose name has become affiliated with a particular and long-standing heresy in Christendom (heresy=the side that lost the debate in the long run, essentially), could not-like so many in his time, it should be noted--stomach the idea of a God the Father (this was the language of the time) Who was not a singular, indivisible, transcent, impassible Being above all, and most emphatically could not stomach any notion that the Son was in any way of like form or substance or equality with that over-all God the Father.  A large spectrum of the church of the time bought was Arius was selling, but a broader spectrum could not; such a distant Father and merely-a-creature Son made no sense from the point of view of salvation--what good could a mere creature do in that respect?  They may not have known exactly what they believed at this point, but they knew what they couldn't believe, and Arius's extreme subordination of the Son to the Father was more than they could accept.  Their response, eventually, can be found in no less a place than the very Nicene Creed still used in many churches today, with its assertion of a Son who was "eternally begotten of the Father," "being of one substance with the Father," "begotten, not made," "was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man."  The making of that creed, which took two different councils (not just the Council of Nicaea), a bit of imperial arm-twisting from Constantine, and a whole lot of argument (some of it quite bitter) to hash out, is one of those events which brings to mind the old saw that those who enjoy sausage should not watch it being made.  Nonetheless, it was made, and still hangs around today in confessional churches of many denominations, and is formative language for understanding how the early church got to a notion of a trinitarian view of God.

By no means was the church through haggling over the nature of Christ, however.  Even as the need to refute Arius was provoking the trinitarian refinement above, other early church thinkers were still continuing to struggle with its implications for understanding Christ and what it meant to speak of a Son Who came to be crucified.  How can an immutable, impassible, transcendent God conceivably be said to suffer?  What could it possibly mean for Christ to be both "fully divine" and "fully human"?  How could that even be possible?

Quite a few third- and fourth-century Christian bishops and such took a whack at this contentious question.  Apollinaris of Laodicea argued that the Word (or the Son) took on a human body only; no human mind or soul or will was involved, preserving an absolute unity.  This position was naturally found wanting; Gregory of Nazianzus busted that claim up with his effectively pithy formulation "what He did not assume He did not heal," meaning that if the Son did not in fact take on in some way the full range of humanity--body, soul and all--then the whole range of humanity--body, soul, and all--was not fully redeemed by the Son.  Again, the church was nudged into a particular affirmation it didn't quite know how to handle yet.  [Yes, I have borrowed the old-fashioned practice of capitalizing pronouns referring to God in some way, mostly because I find it helpful to keep track of exactly who or Who I'm talking about.]

The nudge became a full-fledged shove when Nestorius proposed his two-natured, Word-plus-man christology, in which Divine and human natures were present in Christ but were totally distinct from one another; the divine nature was not at all affected by the human nature, nor vice versa.  This did a very nice job of protecting the notion of an immutable, impassible, all-transcendent Deity, but again failed the sniff test where a saving Son was concerned; could such a duality possibly live up to John the Evangelist's eloquently direct phrase "The Word became flesh"?  Didn't that end up sounding more like "The Word got carried around in a flesh suit for a while" instead?  Hashing this one out was even thornier than before, but nonetheless the church could not quite let go of the idea of the suffering Son; after much back-and-forth Nestorius was enlisted in the ranks of heretics as well, and the church more or less settled on a position that established once and for all the necessary joining of Word and humanity, even if it at times had to concede that the nature of such a union was rather difficult to explain (and believe me, I've left loads of fun out of this quick-and-dirty summary, including the whole business of what role Mary played in it all).

What I find fascinating in all this tangle of theological debate is the absolute mania on the part of some to protect the absolute impassibility, immutability, and transcendence of God the Father.  I find it fascinating because these people (Arius, Nestorius, and the like) seem to be putting much more effort into that protection than God did.  The position at which the church finally arrived posits a thoroughly mind-boggling idea; that a God Who (as the church has reckoned) is indeed all-powerful, transcendent, immutable, impassible, and all that stuff, was less interested in preserving that all-powerful, transcendent, immutable, impassible dignity than in doing whatever it took to restore His fallen creation.  God would rather get down in the mud with us to bring us back to God, than preserve God's dignity.  This is mind-blowing, when you think about it.  God would rather go through the whole of human experience, from infant pooping his swaddling clothes to angsty teenager, single adult, itinerant preacher/miracle worker/vaguely insurgent type, to crucified criminal, than to see humanity continue to be cut off from God's embrace.  

This does remind me that Arius and Nestorius still have their comrades today.  How many people are horribly offended by the phrase "infant pooping his swaddling clothes" above in relation to Jesus?  Hmm? And yet, if we're going to talk about the whole range of human experience, how do we avoid the idea that eventually Mary had to re-swaddle the poor child?  Certainly today, whether from prudery or an inability to process the notion of a fully human Son of God, there are plenty of people who don't want to imagine a Jesus who, but for sin, lived a fully human life with all the embarrassments and degradations that implies.  For that matter, what about the Jesus Who engaged in the nasty habit of breaking bread with the scummier elements of society and giving the good church folk a hard time?  The urge is still there to protect God in a way that God does not seem interested in being protected.

This jumbled and ill-formed complex of amazement haunts me as we sneak up on the Advent and Christmas seasons, a time when Christianity marks the beginnings of this earthly intervention.  It's worth putting aside some of the frillier parts of the season on occasion to chew over just what it means to call Jesus Christ "the Word made flesh," who "emptied himself," the "fully divine" who became "fully human" and hung with sinners and tax collectors and eventually died about as gruesome and awful a death as humanity has ever devised.  It is difficult to conceive and more difficult to explain, and frankly we don't always live as Christians as if we truly believe it.  But it's there.  Think about it.  

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Civility? Unity? Um, good luck...

It's kind of a legendary thing.  You hear it pretty soon after you start telling people you're going to seminary.  You get warned about it in your preparation to go to seminary.  You may hear it from (in the case of my denomination) the presbytery's Committee on Preparation for Ministry, from folks at the school you choose to attend, from sources you might not even guess.

The Crisis of Faith.

It almost comes off as this inevitable Dark Night of the Soul, when some statement or study or reading shatters the foundations of a fragile faith, and the nascent seminarian finds the whole facade crumbling, and ends up wondering whether he or she is still even a Christian, much less fit for any kind of pastoral vocation.

Though it is early, I am happy to report that this particular kind of crisis has not yet set in on me.  No matter how much Marcus Borg might get thrown at me, I'm not yet showing any signs of slipping into the theological abyss.  I can get cranky about some things in class, but mostly when some readings don't live up to what I'd consider good scholarly standards (the ol' professor in me reacting as if to a particularly rancid paper submission).

New Testament I hasn't done it.  I've always got N.T. Wright to stand with.  Theology I hasn't done it.  Calvin and Schleiermacher might say some loopy things on occasion, and process theology looks promising for some theological weirdness, but no, no crisis there.  And no, Seminary Choir has not provoked a crisis of faith, just the occasional bad falsetto when a gospel number comes out (which might cause a crisis of faith in others, I suppose).

You know what does shake me a bit?  History of Christianity I, that's what.

Taught by the esteemed Rebecca Weaver, retiring as of the end of this academic year, History of Christianity I has so far covered topics including (these are right out of the syllabus and lecture notes, folks) martyrdom, orthodoxy and heresy, the Gnostic controversy, the Trinitarian Controversy, the Christological Controversy, the Donatist Controversy, the Pelagian Controversy, the Semi-Pelagian Controversy, the Crusades, the Great Schism, and (tomorrow) the Iconoclastic Controversy.  Do you sense a theme here?  And the Reformation is still a few weeks off.

If one came to seminary harboring some fantasy of the early church as some blissful harmonious commune living all sweetness and light, some Golden Age we moderns struggle vainly to recapture, ... well, you've had a sledgehammer taken to that fantasy by now.  Considering that the some of the Gospels leave a rather distinct impression of the disciples as a bunch of seriously dim bulbs constantly not getting what Jesus is telling them, one is hard-pressed to find a period in the history of the church that comes off as harmonious or peaceful to any meaningful degree.

The Church fights.  It fights over big issues, it fights over rather smaller points of doctrine.  It fights over who is to be let in and who is to be kept out.  It fights over music, it fights over imagery, it fights over who owns what.  Whether this should be so is hardly relevant; the church has a long and bitter history of controversy and schism.  Reviling schism hasn't helped; even elevating it up there with blasphemy as Most Major Offenses didn't stop early Christian groups from splitting and reforming, excommunicating one another left and right.  Poor Athanasius was excommunicated, reinstated, excommunicated again...or was that Nestorius?  It seems like such a long list.

Now if your considered destination is some kind of pastoral role in the church of today, such a long trail of division is hardly encouraging.  When the denomination in which you reside is already fraying and unsteady, the history lesson becomes downright ominous.  My denomination has its own encroaching fissure in the works as one group, having at last lost the fight over ordination to Those People, is now trying to figure out how to leave without actually getting blamed for splitting the denomination (or without losing buildings and pensions, for that matter).  One proposal out there calls for non-geographical presbyteries--governing entities which would allow the good, pure Presbyterians to avoid being soiled by actually having to live and work and cooperate with Those People.  (For the record, "Those People" would include me.)  The urge to purify the church has a long and ugly history, as any number of the above controversies might show, and it shows no signs of going away.

These fights get nasty, and lots of ugly invective and vicious denunciation gets tossed around rather freely.  The age of internet anonymity doesn't really help with this, to be sure.  But for all the gloriousness of something like City of God, Augustine could be downright brutal when denouncing Pelagius, not to mention rather tedious.

So for those who expect a civil discussion of those things which divide one church group or another, or those who somehow hold that the only thing that matters in such a fight is to preserve the unity of said group, know that history is against you.  We are not that much advanced from our brothers and sisters of decades or centuries or millenia ago, in too many ways.  You can't enforce civility.  It doesn't work, not even in the church.  And you won't find me in the crowd calling for unity at all costs, because unity is not, in the end, the end-all and be-all of a church.  Being as christlike as possible is the end-all and be-all of a church, and if some members of that body are going to hold others hostage with all sorts of unchristlike threats and behaviors and demands, well, then, the christlike thing to do might well be to wish them well and tell them not to let the door hit them in the butt on their way out. That might be better at least than having them come back with a denominational takeover plan and a mission to purge Those People out of their denomination.  It has happened before.  I know.  I saw it.

All that from church history.  But then, history has always been a thing of mine, I guess.  Even when it's frankly depressing.  But in the end, if you see all that it feels rather like a miracle that the church is still standing.  It also makes it crystal clear that the church does not rise or fall on the wisdom or righteousness of its human leaders.  I find that highly reassuring.  The church of Jesus Christ is just that--not my church or yours or anyone else's, and Christ alone is the One Who will sustain it through whatever challenges may yet come.  God will accomplish God's purposes whether PC(USA) remains intact or splits into seventeen different denominations.

Even I can't screw that up.