Monday, April 14, 2014

Sculptors in Smoke: Notes on Contemporary Theology Books

Reflections on Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All by L. William Countryman (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 1999) and The Christian Moral Life: Practices of Piety by Timothy F. Sedgwick (New York: Seabury Books, 2008).

Reading books of theology, I'm uneasy.  I teach seventh graders to support every statement they make with quotations from authoritative sources, or else with real-life examples.  When I read page after page lacking citations or even anecdotes, I grow almost resentful.  Who are these authors to tell me what God is, what we must do, what life is?  

Still, as participant in the program Education for Ministry (EfM) headquartered at the school of theology at The University of the South, Sewanee TN., read these books I must.

To be fair, I know enough to understand that the Bible is not a book but a library of articles by poets, propagandists, administrators, storytellers, and lawyers.  I know that even historically based stories take on significance as metaphor, and some metaphor is presented in Scripture as literal reality.  Interpretations of interpretations, metaphors to explain metaphors:  theologians are sculptors in smoke. 

Countryman's Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All
I'm only halfway through this book, and I like the main thrust of it, expressed clearly in the title.  A chapter on "the priesthood of humanity" develops the title's metaphor:  We're close enough to see the Holy, but we're not there.

"The Priesthood of Religion" takes the metaphor a step further:  If GOD is a land, then religion is our map; sanctuaries and rituals are models.  In this chapter, Countryman answers a question we hear in EfM, "Why do we study the Old Testament anyway?"  The ancient stories and rites live on at least as metaphor, from a time "before they were reduced to writing" (38).  Countryman highlights the Jewish tradition's "two minds" about the sacrificial altar:  it could be anywhere, tended by elders of a "nation of priests", as in early nomadic Jewish culture. Then again, to approach the temple in Jerusalem was to approach God. 

Countryman's writing suggests that ritual is a kind of theatre.  Props such as blood and water took on new meaning against the "backdrop"(44) of the temple;  rites of purification heightened the effect.   He later (and elsewhere) suggests that some of what Mike Huckabee and his ilk would call essential Christian morality is leftover from those old purification ideas.  Countryman condemns the "idolatry" of making the HOLY a mere backdrop to the ritual, when the ritual is to be a sign of the HOLY.  Ditto, scripture.  "The map is not the territory."

By the third chapter, Countryman has warmed us up to the idea that Jesus was a priest not of his "religion."  Outside of the norms of temple priests and of rabbis, Jesus showed the way to be priest outside of "religion" "in the order of Melchizidek" (from Hebrews).  He cut across the "purity boundaries" by touching a bleeding woman, touching a dead girl, eating with Gentiles, touching a leper.  He showed "indifference" to those things that had come to define the holy (49).

In this third chapter, Countryman also examines what we might mean by "sacrifice."  Paul's followers emphasized the death of Jesus, but gospels give us a broader picture.  Christians originally saw the resurrection as a "conquering" of death or a ransom paid to the evil powers, not as later Medieval scholars saw it: payment to God for our sins.  That "reduced" the whole relationship of God to humanity to "the metaphor of debt," and, making the crucifixion the "payment," it reduced resurrection to an afterthought (55).  Countryman refers to Hebrews and Jesus as our equal and mediator. 

The first half of the book ends with a chapter called "The Priesthood of the Christian People."  Here, it's almost funny how Countryman pulls back from all the high-minded ideas to acknowledge that, no matter what "holy" experiences we may have, we still have to live our own lives in this sticky, busy world where we are "overwhelmed" (67).  Even our "engagement" with the holy is defensive -- e.g., a yoga class.  The renewal of interest in spirituality, he writes, is often conceived of as a private matter, something set aside, not to affect the way we live (68).  He attributes this to our loss of the idea of universal priesthood -- and "table fellowship, reconciliation, love, and integrity" (71). 

The old idea of monasticism as an escape from this being "overwhelmed" is a fallacy (67). 

Last week, I completed reading several chapters of Sedgwick's book.  He hits that "table fellowship" theme hard, reiterating our ministry of "hospitality."  He, too, warns that worship itself can become an "idol."   While I accept that idea pretty easily, I got annoyed when Sedgwick piled statement on statement without apparent basis:  "The religious bear witness to the call of God that life is not a matter of wolrd maintenance.  Instead, we know God in our poverty, in the abandoning of our dearest possessions,  [God is present] in the embrace of the other.  In other words, at the foundation of life is the covenant of hospitality" (131).  

I've more to read.  I may get back with more comments, for my own benefit when we discuss the readings at EfM. 

No comments: