Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Canaanite Woman's Dogged Faith (Sorry, I couldn't help myself...)

Matthew 15:21-28:

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

According to the UN, it would take 30 billion dollars a year to launch the necessary agricultural programs to solve global food insecurity.

$30 billion a year to solve world hunger.

That may seem like a lot, but…

There are approximately 1 billion people suffering from hunger.

So, if we just spent thirty dollars for each person who suffers from hunger, we could feed them all for an entire year. Just thirty bucks a person.

According to CBS News, Americans spend about $35 billion a year on weight-loss products.

That means that if we all stopped spending our money trying to figure out how not to eat, and spent it enabling others to be able to eat, we’d solve world hunger.

See, people aren’t going hungry because there isn’t enough food. People are starving because the food isn’t getting to them.

Their cries aren’t being heard past the dollar menus, and the sub-prime lending, and the credit default swaps. Their voices are being drowned out by corn subsidies and Ipods and the Atkins Diet.

But you and I, we have Slim-Fast and Weight Watchers and Nutrisystem, and the Biggest Loser.

There’s enough food. It’s just not getting where it needs to go.

Grace, like food, suffers from a distribution problem, not a scarcity problem. And the Canaanite Woman understands this. She has a need. She knows that Jesus can fill this need. She knows that there is enough to go around. But how will she convince Jesus, an educated man, a Jew, a prophet, the Son of David, of this? She does this by using his language, his metaphors, and she shows him, and us, that there is plenty of grace to go around.

Jesus and the Disciples have just come from Nazareth, where they have encountered many who were on a kind of Grace-Diet, if you will. They don’t need forgiveness; they have purity laws. They don’t need healing; they have religious rituals. They don’t need what Jesus offers; they are doing just fine paying their taxes, doing what they’re told, and quietly going through the motions of what was once a rich, ancient, life-giving faith. They don’t need a radical and messy faith; they have Orthodoxy. They have rejected Jesus and the spiritual food that Jesus offers. His food is too rich, too powerful, too overwhelming, too real. Sure, they all wanted stuff from him, some fish and bread, maybe a cure for eczema, a change in the weather, some fancy magic tricks, but none of them want what he truly has to offer. He has been walking around longing for his people, his family, to know him, to accept the grace that he offers them, but all they want is what will satisfy them right now, what will make them comfortable, like those of us who want a thinner waist, or to hide our cellulite.

And so Jesus needs a break. He heads out for a mini-vacation, a retreat, some time alone.

And sure enough, here comes another one – a woman, a Canaanite woman, at that, demanding something else. And Jesus basically says, “I’ve got nothin’ else to give.” “I’m done.” “I’m tapped out.” “The kitchen is closed, we’ve run out of food. The shelves are empty; we’ve scraped the bottom of the pot. Pack up your stuff and go home.”

He reminds me of when I’m passing by a beggar on the sidewalk. I look straight ahead, ignoring his or her presence, or if I have to, I might mumble “sorry” when they ask if I’ve got any spare change. After all, I justify to myself, I’ve got my own kid to feed, my own bills to pay. I’ve got $100 in my bank account and I have groceries to buy and loans to pay, and the house to heat. I tell myself, I need to take care of my own first.

But this woman isn’t just sitting on the side of the road waiting for a little grace to bounce into her cup. She is relentlessly pursuing it. Not for herself, but for her daughter, for someone who truly needs it.

And she’s not gonna give up.

When it comes to getting what she needs, she doesn’t care that she’s a woman, addressing a man, surrounded by other men. When it comes to the healing of her daughter, she doesn’t care that she’s a Canaanite, not a Jew, addressing a group of Jews. When it comes down to the greatest desire and need of her heart, she is willing to be ignored, and then insulted. Her faith tells her to hold on a little longer, to accept whatever is thrown at her, for the sake of her daughter. This woman is not surprised by being called a dog – she expects it. She’s ready for it. Like a skilled debater, she is ready with a retort to Jesus’ insult.

And let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that Jesus wasn’t also a man of his time, place and culture. Jesus is insulting this woman. He calls her a dog, a typical derogatory term for Canaanites and other non-Jews. She is not at all shocked at her treatment. I think it’s fair to say that she’s been treated like this before. So she’s ready for it. She says, essentially, “Ok, fine, I’ll play your game, I’ll use your language, but I’m not going to leave until I get what I need.” Like a master apologist, she is ready to respond in order to get Jesus to heal her daughter. She says, “Sure, I’m a dog, but even the dogs get the crumbs. And crumbs are all I’m asking for. Crumbs are enough for me. Crumbs are plenty. Your crumbs will heal my daughter.”

See, her faith is one that understands the true economy of Grace. She understands that Grace is not a limited commodity. She knows that there is plenty to go around. God’s bank account doesn’t empty.

We are all starving for Grace, not because there isn’t enough, but because we aren’t seeing it, accepting it, embracing it, when it is right in front of us. There is plenty of Grace out there. Plenty for all of us. And the Canaanite woman understands this. And Jesus is astonished by her understanding. Can you hear his surprise in the text? Something inside Jesus has changed.

Jesus responds with even more Grace. More Grace by the healing of this woman’s daughter. More Grace by opening up his ministry to all, to Jews and Greeks, slaves and the free, males and females. From this point on throughout the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is clear and bold to say that God’s Grace encompasses all, and there is no end, even as he hangs on the cross, surrounded by criminals, mocked by those in authority, mourned by poor, powerless women. We are all one in Christ Jesus. After his encounter with this woman, Jesus explicitly and completely enters into a radical Grace, culminating after his resurrection when he invites us to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

This is a far cry from his command to his disciples in Chapter 10 to “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” And it is a poor, powerless woman who bids Jesus beyond his cultural boundaries and into this abundant Grace.

This may seem shocking to us, this idea that Jesus was a man who used racial slurs and was tempted to ignore the needs of outsiders, that this Son of God was changed, was affected, was taught by an uneducated woman.

What do we do with a God who not only shows us God’s self through a changing Jesus, but also through the persistent cries, cunning argument, and shameless need of a woman cast to the side of the road?

What do we do with a God who calls us to remember that Grace is not a bank account? It’s not an economy. It’s not a limited resource like oil, or Big Macs, or facelifts or tummy tucks.

What do we do with the terrifying freedom of all this abundant Grace?

Grace, like food, suffers from a distribution problem. It’s a problem of our inability, or maybe our refusal, to see it, to see that it is right there, right in front of us, as easy as crumbs falling from the table.

Thanks be to God.

Monday, May 17, 2010

grace from the System

Acts 16:16-34

16One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, "These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation." 18She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, "I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her." And it came out that very hour.

19But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, "These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe." 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone's chains were unfastened. 27When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, "Do not harm yourself, for we are all here." 29The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" 31They answered, "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." 32They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God."

Twice this week I have come face to face with my own privilege. Last weekend, I spent a Friday evening and Saturday learning about hunger in our world with members of our youth group. I learned of horrifying statistics, like 9 out of 10 pregnant Indian women do not get enough to eat, and a child dies every six seconds due to hunger and hunger related causes.

And after learning about hunger in the world, I went home and made chocolate chip cookies, poured a tall glass of organic antibiotic free milk, planned my meals for the week.

Tuesday night, I went to the Amos 5:24 taskforce meeting on racism and learned that Johnnie, an African-American Male, becomes afraid every time he hears that the police are looking for a tall, medium weight black man. He’s scared that he might be mistaken for the man who committed the crime. I was reminded how racism and other forms of prejudice permeate our society so deeply that it is as if it is the very air we breathe.

And, yet, even as my eyes were opened, and in some cases re-opened, to the prejudice in the world, I found myself locking my doors as I drove home through East Liberty that night.

This week, I have been forced to see how lucky I have been. To have been born in a family that could put food on the table. To have opportunities to go to school, to pursue any job I might want to pursue, to open a savings account, to live in whatever neighborhood I could afford to live in, to vote, to feel protected, not pursued, by the police.

See, most of us here have benefitted, to varying degrees, by the power system that is currently in charge. Don’t get me wrong, many of us have been victimized because of this society; many of us have been hurt and abused by the Power Structures present in our world today. And I do not want to minimize that. But I’d like those of us who have benefitted in some way by how our city, our government, our country, our families have been structured to take a moment and to notice how much we’ve been given.

We’re the lucky ones.

Walter Wink would say that we are the beneficiaries of what he calls the current Domination System. When “an entire network of Powers becomes integrated around idolatrous values, we get what can be called the Domination System.” The Domination System is a form of institutionalized way of life that has become corrupted. It is a way of life that has winners and losers, those who waste and those who starve, those who have freedom and those who are enslaved.

And yet, most commonly in a Domination System, those who are benefitting from it hardly know what is going on. It would be like telling a fish that it lives in water – completely true, but incomprehensible to the fish.

Rome functioned under such a domination system. Our society functions under such a domination system. And we, in our own time, have a responsibility as Christians to identify in what ways we have benefited from and even encouraged the domination system of the present day.

It is with this perspective in mind that I would like us to approach today’s reading.

When I first read the Scripture in preparation for today’s sermon, I immediately wanted to identify with the poor slave girl in this story. She is the ultimate victim. She’s a slave. She is a girl in a patriarchal society. She is healed, seemingly, only because Paul is annoyed by her. And then we never hear from her again. It is right to stop and question what in the world is going on here. And we should take some time to wrestle with what God is trying to tell us through her very brief story, especially if we identify with her to the extent that we, too, feel victimized and enslaved by the social structures in our world.

But it is to the “ordinary” households that I want us to think about now. Let’s think about the slave-owners, and the jailer. These are two households that could probably be considered “the middle class” of the Roman Empire. They had jobs, they probably had homes, they had income coming in. Now, it’s easy to demonize the slave-owners, to quickly write them off because they were guilty of the horror of owning slaves, and it’s an understatement to say that what they were doing was wrong. But it is also important to note that they were entrenched in Roman Society, and in Roman Society, slave-ownership was, unfortunately, no big deal. They were so fully immersed in what were considered the “norms” of their society that they couldn’t see the evil in what they were doing. This is the case with the jailer as well. He’s a government worker on the night shift, making enough money for a home and a family.

Both the slave-owners and the jailer were benefitting from the literal imprisonment of others. But can you imagine how they would justify their actions? Can you hear what they might say?

“I’m upholding justice.”

“If we free the slave-girl, we’ll all starve.”

“If I let these ruffians out, they’ll corrupt the streets.”

“If we treat her equally, she might bring down the test scores at my kid’s school.”

“I’m just trying to save enough for retirement.”

“I just want to make enough to take the wife out to dinner.”

“I’m just doing my job.”

“I can’t save the world.”

Both, the jailer and the slave-owners are so absorbed by the standards, the values, and the norms of their society that they cannot see that they are just as trapped as the slave-girl, as the prisoners.

And then, quick as a wink, their Power Structure, their System, is pulled out from under them. The slave-girl is healed, and the slave-owners lose their source of income. An earthquake hits, and the jailer thinks that all of his prisoners have escaped. Their world has turned upside down. They can no longer rely on the Power Structure that had once benefitted them. Everything they had counted on, the structure that they thought had protected them, has vanished. They have lost their privilege. The Structure of Roman Society failed them.

And what do they do?

Their responses to having the societal rug pulled out from beneath them are illuminating.

The slave-owners go charging back into the system. Even though they have witnessed the miracle of a healing with their own eyes, they run to the Roman Authorities, demanding that they fix this situation, that they make this right by punishing Paul and Silas. But what is interesting is that the slave-owners don’t accuse Paul and Silas of stealing their property, or taking away their source of income. No, instead, they accuse Paul and Silas of not upholding the Roman Power Structure. Paul and Silas are thrown into jail, not because they have healed a slave girl, but because they are a symbol of rejecting the Domination System of Roman Rule. Paul and Silas aren’t “Roman” enough; they aren’t true patriots; they don’t accept the common values of the citizens of the Roman Empire. They are rocking the boat.

And Paul and Silas can’t even do prison “right.” They aren’t the right kind of prisoners to fit in with this society’s values. After being beaten and humiliated, they do not cower in the corner of their cell, they don’t fall asleep, resigning themselves to their fate and punishment; instead, they start singing. These guys don’t fit in no matter where they are – free or imprisoned.

And then it is the jailer’s turn to have the rug swept from beneath him. Literally and figuratively, this guy’s foundation crumbles. The jail is torn apart by an earthquake, the doors are opened, and everyone’s chains are unfastened. This jailer’s societal structure of who is “free” and who is condemned is suddenly switched. Assuming that the prisoners have escaped, it is the jailer who must now submit to Roman Rule. He draws his sword in order to do the “right thing” according to the Roman Domination System. His failure as a jailer now requires his death in exchange.

He could have followed through with it. He could have done what the slave-owners had done, run towards the Roman Domination System for answers.

But then, there comes a moment of grace. Can you hear it? It’s coming from deep within the rubble of what are now the prison walls. Listen carefully. Paul calls out, “We’re still here! We haven’t escaped!” And the jailer stops in his tracks.

He wants to see this with his own eyes.

And what does he see? He sees a group of people who are so unaffected, so freed from the Roman Domination System that it doesn’t matter where they are. Prison doesn’t shackle them.

And then, another moment of grace. Here is where a choice is made. The jailer could have killed himself, thus following the proper code of Roman Society. Or, he could have re-shackled the men, bound them back up and counted his lucky stars that he didn’t get caught. With either choice, he could have responded to this situation by running head first back into the Domination System, back into the way things “should” be because that is the way things always have been. But he doesn’t. He rejects the system altogether. He looks to Paul and Silas, two men who have been rejected by the system for not being Roman enough, and basically says, “What do I do now?”

He says, “What must I do to be saved?”

And what does the jailer want to be saved from? We don’t really know. Maybe he just wants to know how to get out of this little pickle of having to deal with escaped convicts. But maybe he wants to know how he can live a life that is free of fear, free of domination, free of systemic abuses for which he is both a victim and a beneficiary.

The jailer asks what he must do to be saved, and Paul responds, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” It would be so easy for us to just interpret this response as some sort of ethereal, esoteric, solely spiritual action. But I don’t think that getting in to heaven is what is on Paul’s mind. What Paul is trying to tell this man is to make Jesus the Lord of his life, the Power of his life, and to reject any system that puts one person above another, that creates winners and losers, those who have too much and those who have nothing. The whole household will be changed, will be saved, because it will no longer be controlled by Roman values, Roman Systems, Roman law.

And suddenly, Paul and Silas become equals in the eyes of the jailer. He washes their wounds and feeds them supper. A man who was, just an hour ago, in such depths of despair that he was about to commit suicide is now rejoicing because he has a hope that goes beyond the rules and structures of an oppressive system. Unlike the slave owners, he has found hope because he did not dig his heels into the way things “should be” as defined by some system. He did not become even more entrenched in a system that corrupts and is corrupted. Instead, even while still living in the same house, still occupying the profession of a jailer for the Roman government, he has decided that this is not what will define him.

He will be defined by being a child of God, not a slave to the Roman Empire. And that has made all the difference in the world - a literal difference between his willingness to live or die.

This is going to happen to us, or has already happened for many of us. The rug is going to be pulled out from underneath us. The system is going to fail us.

The stock market will crash. Oil will spill by the thousands of gallons per day into the ocean. The breaks will fail. We won’t get that promotion. Someone will tell us that we aren’t good enough to get into that school, and we’ll believe them. The banks will go belly up. There will be e coli in the spinach.

But when this happens, will we go running, head first, back into the system, relying on it to rescue us and make things right? Or will we listen to the ways that we can be saved by rejecting the system altogether?

When tragedy strikes, when the system fails and we suffer, it is common to place blame, to demand that someone be responsible. We want someone to pay. There was plenty of blame to go around when my six year old brother was killed in a car accident. There had been a petition going around for years to fix that stoplight. The tiny car he was riding in was flimsy and unsafe. The man who hit him was mentally unstable. Back then, no one knew of the dangers of having a small child in the front seat.

My parents had the right to sue everybody. And no one would have blamed them if they did. But somehow, even in their deepest grief, they were able to see that that would not have brought them healing. Suing the city, the driver, the car company, the insurance agencies, and the hospital would not bring their son back. It would only entrench them even deeper into a system that might have made them financially secure, but would force them to spend all their time reliving the tragedy instead of remembering the joy that their son brought them. Insisting on placing blame and reacting to this by clawing with all their might onto a system that has failed them would ultimately cause them more pain, not bring them grace. Instead, they asked, “what can we do to be saved?”

And they weren’t saved from grief. They weren’t saved from a kind of sorrow I can now only imagine. But even in their grief, grief that will never go away, even twenty years later, they are freed just the tiniest bit from a system that would tell them what was a socially acceptable way to respond, to grieve, to go on breathing. Instead, they are on a daily journey to discover how they can be saved, even after and in the midst of this horrible tragedy. They are choosing to make Jesus their Lord, their Power, and their Hope.

This is what is being offered to us today. When the system fails us, when we are on the losing end of a corrupt institution or when life is simply just not fair, we are offered the chance to respond. We can force ourselves ever more deeply into the ways and constructs of a Domination System, looking for ways to punish, to get even, or to get ahead. Or we can listen for the grace to be saved and to follow God as our light and source of hope and peace. That is how a system gets changed. That is how a life gets changed. May we choose the grace.

Thanks be to God.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Dear Jonah –

On your 8th month birthday, here are some things I want you to know, or things I want to remember:

· Even though you’re crying and you feel alone up there in your crib, I hear you, and I’m on my way. Or, I hear you, and I’m waiting to see if you can figure it out, but the whole time I’m wishing I could just charge up there and fix it.

· I think introducing you to new foods is fun, but I will never understand why parsnips were delicious last week, but disgusting this week. And bananas, well, they’re amazing every week.

· You love music. You kick your feet to the beat of every song, and you especially love it when Daddy plays the banjo.

· When you go down for the night, or go to Tia Sara’s for the afternoon, I miss you like crazy and it feels like forever until I get to see you again.

· You still wake up for elevensies at night and three-thirtiesies in the morning. And I’m okay with that, but wouldn’t it be AMAZING if you only woke for elevensies? Just something to ponder…

· You think it’s hilarious when Daddy yells at the dogs.

· Even though Robin and Meg shy away from you when you crawl towards them, you keep trying.

· Daddy and I will do anything to get you to smile, including dance a jig, throw you in the air, nibble your belly…

· One of our favorite times of the day is when you just wake up, and we walk into your room and you see us – your face lights up into a huge smile.

· We love to hear you talk to yourself in the morning – dadadadada, mamama, babababa

· Each time you learn something new, my brain almost explodes. Today, you were clapping. Yesterday, you’d gotten your belly up off the ground and were rocking on your hands and knees.

· Your favorite toy is a tie between the “cow stick” and Sophie.

· We’re trying the best we can. I’m sorry if we’re making mistakes now that will hurt you later.

· When I’m putting you down for the night, and your tummy is full full full, and you’re eyes are closed, and you sigh a big sigh, that’s the sweetest moment of the day.

· I don’t really care what your faith looks like, as long as you are looking for God, or Goodness, or Peace, or just faith itself.

· Everyone at church just loves you, and so do your grandparents and aunts and uncles. Whatever you do, wherever you go, you are loved, and supported, and will always have a home.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Annoyance of Jeremiah 29:11

“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope…”

Okay, great, God, YOU know the plans you’ve made for me. I’m SO GLAD. Now, would you mind sharing them a bit with me? I mean, I don’t need to know every single detail. I’d just like to know whether you want me to go RIGHT or LEFT, NORTH or SOUTH, to teach and be a writer, or to keep working my butt off at a conservative seminary where I feel completely isolated, don’t get financial assistance, and have to somehow fit it in with being a mother, a wife, and working full time. I guess you know which direction I’m leaning…

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? I could say that God hasn’t given me the opportunity to teach, and therefore, that somehow God wants me to do something else. Or, I could say that I just haven’t made enough sacrifices to make it possible for me to follow what I would consider to be my “plan A.” I hate the word “discernment,” but that’s what this is, isn’t it. Maybe I hate that word because it seems like an excuse to stay in a bad situation – like well, this is where God wants me to be, even if it sucks. Or maybe it’s a way to justify poor choices, or to say, well, those weren’t really mistakes, or that horrible situation that I experienced needed to happen so that I could be where I am now. I can’t help but think that all that is just crap. Or, maybe I hate that word because I’m so damn bad at it.

I like to be a doer. And I get very insecure about who I am and what I’m doing if I don’t get some sort of outside feedback. But discernment, understanding one’s “calling” (another word I hate), just doesn’t happen with lightning bolts or visits from angels anymore, at least, not for me. That’s the stuff of walking on water, loaves multiplying, the blind seeing, - not of my life. I have to sweat blood just to see God in the red worms I’ve got chewing on my coffee grounds and banana peels in my garage. I have to read process and feminist theology, scrape the bottom of the lectionary with a spatula for some truth, I have to leave presbytery meetings with a churning stomach and a migraine headache. I don’t hear the voice of God, not even the still, small voice. I beg for it, and I get silence.

The thing is, I don’t know, really, if there is a God. But I want there to be one so badly, that really, isn’t that the same thing? Faith as “assurance of things hoped for”? Some people emphasize the assurance, but I’m sitting in the back pew, wringing my hands, hanging on to the hope.

What did the ancient Hebrews have to hold on to when they were in exile? Only Jeremiah’s words. Only the hope that some day they’d get to go home again. And this passage in Jeremiah never tells us whether or not they get to know what the plans are. And let’s face it, they’re still waiting, even today, to get back home again.

So, great. Here I am. Full of doubts. Full of hopes. If I’m “supposed” to be a pastor, that’s all I’ve got to offer. I won’t be able to stand up in a presbytery meeting and say “this is what I know for sure” in any way that will satisfy the Presbyterian gatekeepers. I stay up at night wondering and worrying about what my next step should be, begging God to lead me somewhere that won’t…suck. But during the day, I’m nursing my son, washing diapers, making vegetarian quiches, planning Vacation Bible School, walking my dogs, and trying to stay warm amidst the silence of now.

What else is there to do?

My future's so bright...

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Humility of Metaphor:

Catherine Keller’s Process Theology in Response to James K.A. Smith’s Radical Orthodoxy

Five months after my son was born, I was finally able to fit into my jeans. I’ve officially returned to my “pre-pregnancy weight,” and some would say that I’ve “got my body back.” But things aren’t all the same. Flesh has moved around; things sag. I have curves and bumps were I didn’t before. No amount of sit-ups or running is going to bring back my flat stomach, and a few grey hairs have begun to frame my face. My linea nigra is still the longitudinal line down my stomach. My skin gets drier faster, and I get cravings for protein and chocolate like I never did before. And yet, here I am, back in my old jeans, the ache in my back from carrying all that it takes to mold and form a child is gone, and all the bloating in my hands and feet and face has finally receded. I’m both the same, and different. And obviously, these physical differences mirror the emotional changes that have gone on inside of me. I’ve birthed a child, and now I am both the same, and different. Through grace, I’ve been swept up by the continuous movement of creation, swept up by the Creator, and where I was once just a daughter, I’m a mother now, too. This process of being swept into creation, being both creation and a creator, is a grand metaphor for our next steps into the realm of theology, and can be helpful in our attempts to forge “ahead” in what many have called our “postmodern” times.

Through the uncertainty and fear that Postmodernism can bring, James K.A. Smith has worked to interpret three of the major voices of Postmodernism so that the Church comes through the other side, from his perspective, stronger, more vibrant, and more “true” to its calling. The fear of relativism that Postmodernity often brings about is, according to Smith, a misguided fear. Smith claims that Radical Orthodoxy is not only the answer to the Postmodern “problem” but is actually truly postmodern. He claims, “[T]he postmodern church could do nothing better than be ancient[;…]the most powerful way to reach a postmodern world is by recovering tradition[…].”[1]

Smith, however, runs into some problems. Smith manipulates the thought of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault in order to fit postmodernism into his Christianity box. But because he resists the metaphor in exchange for “The Revelation”, he ends up whittling away essential tenets of the “square peg” of postmodernism in order for it to fit in his “round” Christian hole. A possible solution, however, comes in the form of Process Theology, which enables God to be who God is, all the while admitting that we are in a process, that we don’t have the words or the adequate understanding to fully comprehend God as God is. Both Process Theology and Radical Orthodoxy have an element that claims that God is “Wholly Other,” but it is in their interpretation of where revelation comes from, how we have access to revelation and how we interpret that revelation that these two approaches differ. In Kantian terms, and at the risk of oversimplifying Kant, Smith and Keller, Radical Orthodoxy claims that the Wholly Other is the noumena that reaches into the phenomena in the form of God’s revelation. Radical Orthodoxy has Revelation come to all of us (or to those of us who are part of God’s chosen), untainted, unaffected by our perspectives and skewing worldviews. Revelation hovers above us all, and is somehow exempt from the issues brought about by postmodern thinkers such as Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault. Somehow, says Smith, if we just get back to the pre-modern, we will have a truly post-modern theology; all we need to do is shed the weighted skin of modernism from our philosophical and theological bones.

Process theology, on the other hand, has revelation come to us through the phenomena, through the particularity of our own worldviews, language, and power positions. This makes revelation messy, and it changes the revelation so that we don’t quite get to the “true” heart of who God is, but it brings us into relation with God, so that we are no longer the passive receivers of some untouched, perfect doctrine about God, but rather in a process of understanding that never ends.

A major issue that both of these forms of thought are trying to address is that of relativism. The greatest “threat” from postmodernism is that, if we accept that the “there is nothing outside the text,” that “there are no metanarratives,” and that “power is knowledge,” then our only choice is to fall into a sort of relativism, and ultimately, a nihilism, where nothing matters anymore, and where not only can we not attain the Truth, but that the Truth doesn’t exist at all. Radical Orthodoxy wants to claim that there is A Revelation that somehow escapes postmodernism’s deconstructive grasp, and Process Theology wants to claim that there is a “third way” between (around? beyond?) relativism and absolutes. And I would argue that metaphor is the best way to approach this “third way,” that metaphor grounds us in the phenomena, all the while pointing us towards and away from the noumena, that which we cannot know through reason or empiricism.

Radical Orthodoxy fights relativism with the “certainty” and “groundedness” of Tradition. Smith argues that “the most persistent postmodernism should issue in a thickly confessional church that draws on the very particular (yet catholic) and ancient practices of the church’s worship and discipleship. In other words, ‘radical orthodoxy’ is the only proper outcome of the postmodern critique.”[2] This Radical Orthodoxy relies on Revelation, that there is some sort of “untouched,” “pure” perspective of who God is, what God has said to us, and how God interacts (or maybe has just interacted?) with the world. In this way, Smith claims that we can still have knowledge, still have truth, even if we don’t have certainty: “On this ancient-medieval-properly-postmodern model, we rightly give up pretensions to absolute knowledge or certainty, but we do not thereby give up on knowledge altogether. Rather we can properly confess that we know God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, but such knowledge rest on the gift of (particular, special) revelation, is not universally objective or demonstrable, and remains a matter of interpretation and perspective (with a significant appreciation for the role of the Spirit’s regeneration and illumination as a condition for knowledge). We confess knowledge without certainty, truth without objectivity.”[3] This knowledge is understood and grasped through the creeds, liturgy and ancient tradition of Christianity.

But as is clear by the above, somewhat enigmatic, quote, Smith doesn’t really solve the problems brought about by Postmodernism. According to Susan Kendall, “Smith is saying that Christianity itself is legitimated as an autonomous system that is emancipated from the conditions, that it transcends [the creed at least] all political and ethnic borders, and transplants itself into other cultures.”[4] Smith claims that his approach to Christianity is truly postmodern, but what he is really saying is that his approach hovers above postmodernism, somehow exempt from the philosophical criticisms of Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault.

Smith’s reliance on Revelation does not really address the idea of Derrida’s simplified, but descriptive statement that “there is nothing outside the text.”[5] Smith translates Derrida’s description into a prescription, and applies this prescription in the specific form of Christianity: “to say that there is nothing outside the Text, then, is to emphasize that there is not a single square inch of our experience of the world that should not be governed by the revelation of God in the Scriptures.”[6] He’s turned Derrida’s observation that this is how things are, to “this is how things should be.” Maybe he is right that, for us Christians, our lives should be directed by the God who is revealed in the Scriptures, but this does not make us postmodern; only the realization that this is our language that we use to understand the world, with its own perspectives, biases, strengths and weaknesses will make us “postmodern.” In fact, Smith wants us to be “unapologetically confessional, which requires being unapologetic about the determinate character of our confession… This should translate into a robust appropriation of the church’s language as the paradigm for both thought and practice.”[7] Does Smith really want us to fully embrace the language of the church which has been formed, to some extent, by patriarchy, violence, and a Western perspective, and to do so without apology? In what way is this “postmodern?”

Smith focuses on the “primacy of revelation,” but one must then question, which revelation, whose revelation, where did this revelation come from, and will there be any more? Smith doesn’t really address the full consequences of Lyotard’s statement that there are no more metanarratives.[8] He just replaces one metanarrative (that of modernism) with another: “But isn’t it curious that God’s revelation to humanity is given not as a collection of propositions or facts but rather within a narrative – a grand sweeping story from Genesis to Revelation?”[9] Yet, strangely, he claims that this is truly postmodern: “Theology is most persistently postmodern when it rejects a lingering correlational false humility and instead speaks unapologetically from the primacy of Christian revelation and the church’s confessional language…Indeed [Radical Orthodoxy] is ‘intended to overcome the pathos of modern theology, and to restore in postmodern terms, the possibility of theology as a metadiscourse.”[10] But in Smith’s paradigm, we still have a “primacy” of a particular revelation, language, and metanarrative / “metadiscourse”.

Smith once again puts the Christian (or, the one who accepts his interpretation of the Christian Revelation) into the power position. But this just reinforces Foucault’s observation that knowledge is power, and power is knowledge. Those who “get” the revelation are in power, and those who are in power interpret the revelation in their own language, from their own perspective. But this seems extremely arrogant, let alone dangerous, for if our belief is “fixed,” “locked-in,” then isn’t our concept of God also unchanging? What prevents us from claiming that we comprehend God? And if God can be comprehended, is that truly God? Smith tries to address this issue by making interpretation into a kind of democracy: “the context for understanding a text, thing, or event is established by a community of interpreters who come to an agreement about what constitutes the true interpretation of a text, thing, or event. Given the goals and purpose of a given community, it establishes a consensus regarding the rules that will govern good interpretation.”[11] But who makes up this consensus? Who has a voice in this so-called “community?” This does not address the issue of the other, those outside of a given community, so, as Reiger argues, how can it truly understand how that text, thing or event points to the Wholly Other?

Radical Orthodoxy tries to fight relativism with either/or theology. Smith makes this clear himself: “[W]e see a tension between a modern, scientistic worldview on the one hand, and an ancient-postmodern, mythic worldview on the other.”[12] And Smith makes clear that the “right” answer is to embrace Revelation through ancient tradition, liturgy and creeds, seemingly eschewing any developments or points of criticism brought about by modernism’s focus on reason or science. Smith still functions under a “truth regime.” Keller writes, “Such a ‘truth-regime’ (Foulcault) brooks no uncertain terms, no slant: a simple yes/no, either/or proposition is exacted.”[13] For Smith, there is certainty in postmodernism/pre-modernism, and chaos in modernism.

But interestingly, Smith wants it both ways, even if he can’t admit it. Smith’s problem is summed up in one quote: “Acknowledging the interpreted status of the gospel should translate into a certain humility in our public theology. It should not, however translate into skepticism about the truth of the Christian confession. If the interpretive status of the gospel rattles our confidence in its truth, this indicates that we remain haunted by the modern desire for objective certainty. But our confidence rests not on objectivity but rather on the convictional power of the Holy Spirit (which isn’t exactly objective); the loss of objectivity, then does not entail a loss of kergymatic boldness about the truth of the gospel.”[14] Which does he want, humility or certainty? What is the difference for him, really, between “objective certainty” and the “convictional power of the Holy Spirit”? Even as we try to embrace both/and perspectives, rejecting either/or dichotomies, these concepts do seem to be mutually exclusive.

In response to Radical Orthodoxy, Keller suggests a messy, embodied mystery, a process of discovery, and a metaphoric perspective to theology – tools that both point towards and away from that which we are trying to define. She claims that revelation isn’t exempt from the biases of human power, perspective and language. She writes, “Though its taste for an infinite and trustworthy depth flows close to a [process] theology, radical orthodoxy identifies that depth with the stability of a foundation, and so depends upon shallow dichotomies of order vs. chaos, solidity vs. flux, behind vs. face, One vs. nothing – and of course, Christ vs. atheism. By contrast, we are exploring […] the possibility that this theologically orginary indeterminacy generates order not in opposition to but upon the face of chaos. That face expresses an infinite interrelationality that at once negates and proliferates metaphors of finite personality. Having gone so far as to theologize the indeterminate, why retreat into a tidy neo-classism – as though only one unchanging order can save us from a chaotic nihil of meaning?”[15] We cannot escape relativism by holding on to an imaginary “firm” foundation. This is scary territory. Relationships are messy, and there are often no “right” answers. This doesn’t negate creeds altogether; rather, “Ancient traditions still live, their truths still moist within us – inasmuch as they morph into new transcultural possibilities. The past can either dam or support the new flow of the spirit.”[16] God didn’t just speak once. God still speaks in ancient creeds and traditions, sometimes evolving those creeds and traditions, sometimes supporting traditional interpretations. But God also speaks in new ways, is revealed with new eyes and in new languages.

But Keller’s Process Theology does not lead us into a relativism where “anything goes;” instead it fights relativism with what Keller calls “relativity.” She says, “ Relativity, which we must strictly distinguish from relativism, just describes the reality of a relational universe. The human observer belongs to that universe. Therefore all human truth-claims are relative to context and perspective.” [17] God is continually creating, and through our relationship with God and with what God creates, we are continually learning more about God. This does not minimize or limit God, only our language about God: “[…] even if we understand God to be ‘absolute’ – nonbiblical but conventional language – that understanding does not make, or need not make, any human language (however inspired, however truthful, however revealed) itself absolute.”[18] Keller refers to a kind of “linguistic violence that theology itself can perpetrate,”[19] and Smith’s insistence upon maintaining the Church’s ancient language, no matter what, has the potential for falling into this kind of violence. Keller’s Process Theology leads us away from relativism by giving us a way to discover the truth; the truth is out there, even if we cannot hold it or tame it. This is Truth, not “anything goes,” but it is a relational truth: “This truth of faithful relationality in which we are called to walk and talk has everything to do with con/sciousness (‘knowing with’) and nothing to do with certainty.”[20] It is a “trusty truth” that takes a tentative step forward, in humility, trusting that we will find just a little speck of what we’re looking for. She writes, “If this trusty truth cannot be boiled down to any cognition or confession, it nonetheless offers a way of knowing. […] It requires a holistic thinking that draws deeply on our intuitions, our passions, our bodily experiences, and our relations – even as it tests them, tries them, keeps them in process. A theology that would unfold ‘in truth’ does not confuse itself with ‘the truth.’”[21] And yet, we are still in the realm of truth – a far cry from relativism or nihilism.

Smith still wants to function within a closed system of Christianity, where revelation is fixed and static, but Keller warns us of the dangers of this: “When abstract propositions of belief (like ‘Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior’ or ‘I believe in the triune God’) that are rare in scripture become fixed in a closed system, the fallacious factualism kicks in. The propositions then draw our concern away from the concrete processes of our shared creaturely life, rather than spiritually illumining them. Metaphors (like the Christ, Lord, Savior, Trinity, and so forth) then lose their metaphoric valency, their open-ended interactivity: for metaphors are language in process, not in stasis.”[22] Metaphors, then, can point us to truth without binding us to someone else’s potentially abusive language, power, or metanarrative.

The way forward for theology, then, is not to tighten our grip on our interpretation of revelation, but to use metaphor. Metaphor will point us both away from and towards a God who is dynamic and in relationship with us, “[a]nd it is such a relation that cannot be consummated within the terms of any orthodoxy that refuses divine receptivity, passion, multiplicity. For if God receives our active responses She is also affected. The moved mover breaks free of the extrabiblical straitjacket of impassivity,” what could be interpreted as Smith’s form of “revelation”.[23]

Just as I am both “the same” as I was before my son was born, so am I also changed. We can use metaphors for God and for our theological language that express both “sameness” and “otherness.” I can use the metaphor of my own coming into motherhood to understand a small part of how God can be both the same and different. God, too can be a mother who births creation and is also the same and changed. God can be both. In the same way, God can be both known to us and unknown, and both only partially. God is neither completely known, nor completely unknown. God is wholly other and intimately connected to us. Process theology, though not perfect, directs us toward a path where we can dance with the Spirit, sometimes clumsily and with many missteps, but with humility and Grace, and still in relationship with the One we so long to know. It is the relationship that keeps us from falling into relativism or nihilism, but also keeps us from the absolutism that equally misdirects us from any speck of understanding of God that is possible for us who live fully in the phenomenal world. We can be “mothers” who can fit into our “old jeans.”

Works Consulted

Keller, Catherine. Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming. New York: Routledge, 2003.

---. On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.

---. “Reciprocating Gifts: Truth, Politics and Participation in Process.” The Global Spiral. (Metanexus Institute, 2008). G%5dSkins%2f_default%2fNo+Skin&ContainerSrc=%5bG%5dContainers%2f_defaul %2fNo+Container.

Kendall, Susan. Class Notes, Critical Theory and Postmodern Critique. Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. 18 February 2010.

Smith, James K.A., Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.

[1] James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008). 25.

[2] Ibid, 25.

[3] Ibid, 120-121.

[4] Susan Kendall, Class Notes, 18 February 2010.

[5] James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008). 34.

[6] Ibid, 55.

[7] Ibid, 123.

[8] Ibid, 64.

[9] Ibid, 74.

[10] Ibid, 126.

[11] Ibid, 53.

[12] Ibid, 63.

[13]Catherine Keller. On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008). 30.

[14] James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008). 51.

[15] Catherine Keller, Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming. (New York: Routledge, 2003). 38. (Italics, hers)

[16] Catherine Keller. On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008). 34.

[17] Ibid, 4.

[18] Ibid, 4.

[19] Ibid, 35.

[20] Ibid, 38.

[21] Ibid, 38.

[22] Ibid, 15-16.

[23] Catherine Keller, “Reciprocating Gifts: Truth, Politics and Participation in Process.” The Global Spiral. (Metanexus Institute, 2008).