Sunday, June 27, 2010

Jesus Loves the Little Children (and I'm trying)

It's VBS week at the church, and VBS is a major production here.

Major. Production.

And I hate it. I hate the cheesy music, and the cheesy dramas, and the costumes. I hate the way everything else gets put on hold so we can have cheesy music and dramas for (mostly) middle-class white kids, many of whom already belong to another church. I hate the disruption of my writing schedule and the expectation that I'm just as excited as everyone else.

Needless to say, I'm nursing a bit of a bad attitude about the whole thing and I'm trying (mostly successfully) not to let that show. It's just one of those major ruptures in my attempt to pass as an evangelical, and I think I hate it, at least partially, because it makes me mindful of that gap. If I'm honest, it exposes my hypocrisy. I think VBS is a waste of time and resources. I think it's hopelessly hokey and I'm kind of embarrassed to be a part of it, yet somehow I justify my involvement with adult version we call church.

I sometimes dream of an exit strategy from evangelicalism, but that might not happen, inasmuch as we're embedded in this milieu. My kids love church -- hell, they even love VBS. My assumption is that it is annoying but harmless. Where I struggle is with the possibility that we're trapped in a cycle of enabling, perpetuating a kind of complacency. Kids are coming to Jesus! And we're even helping out some poor people! And this, of course, is the best we can do until Jesus comes back.

I don't believe that at all. I don't believe it's the best we can do, though I'm not doing any more than that myself, and I don't think Jesus is coming back to fix things. We fail to fully address the tragedy of the human condition because we have an out. This is bogus. I know this to be bogus. And I prop it up with my involvement.

I'm torn between the cynicism of thinking the whole schtick is just a waste of time because in the end we just die and the cynicism of thinking people might as well cling to their illusions -- I just provide the soundtrack. I feel like I'm part of the Titanic band, playing "Nearer My God to Thee" as the ship sank. Throw in a depressive episode that I refused to really recognize until it was over and it's been a pretty bad week. Fortunately, I'm feeling better but that doesn't make the other stuff go away.

I can survive by pretending that theology doesn't matter. That our complicity in a socioeconomic system that seems to be perfectly designed to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few while guaranteeing poverty for many (with a nice, soft, squishy, complacent middle holding things together) doesn't matter. If I spin things to myself the right way (and of course I always know I'm spinning; life was easier, if more dangerous, when all of my projects of self-delusion were subconscious), I'm just participating in other peoples' meaning-making. I can be okay with that. Except I have limits. And I'm at least smart enough to recognize that if all I ever do is help people (including myself) feel okay about where they're already at, I'm perpetuating a status quo I claim to hate.

I confess I'm a bit smitten with the theological musings of Slavoj Žižek. Žižek says some stuff that is batshit crazy, and I think he says it for precisely that reason. He's not really a theologian in any kind of confessional sense (actually he's an atheist) but a philosopher -- and he's very, very odd. Hard to watch on video odd. Not sure I ever want to meet him in person odd. But the overall shape of his theology I find fascinating. John D. Caputo sums it up this way:
Following Hegel, Žižek denies the distinction between the immanent and economic Trinity, between the generation of the Son and the creation of the world. For him, the absolute in itself (Father) negates itself in order to empty itself without remainder into the world (Son), of which the Christ is a singular sign, constituting a kind of first death or kenotic emptying of the Father/God. That negation is in turn negated in the Crucifixion, in which nothing less than the God(-man) himself dies, which allows the emergence of the collective "spirit". The supreme moment of dark lucidity is Jesus's lament "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" At that point, the horizon is wiped out, and the cold black truth is exposed that no one (save ourselves) is coming over the horizon to save us, that we are sustained by no overarching cosmic support. We are on our own. Just as in psychoanalysis, Žižek says elsewhere, the treatment is over when the patient realizes there is no "Big Other" (God or Man, Nation or Party, Father or Big Brother, Lacan's symbolic order or what Derrida called the "transcendental signifier"). [From Caputo's review of The Monstrosity of Christ.]
I was working toward something like this a couple of years ago here. I might temper Žižek with Caputo's own "weakness theology," and maybe scoop up some Philip Clayton along the way. I'd also toss in the Jewish mystical concept of Tzimtzum -- the idea that creation took place through God's contraction of Godself, a primordial divine kenosis at the very heart of creation.

Thus, the trajectory of self-emptying, from Incarnation to the Cross, is revelatory, not of a divine plan in which everything comes out okay, but of the Void itself. The Christ-event reveals to us the true nature of God as Emptiness, all the way down. [The thud you just heard was Mike Morrell falling over as he reads this. Pay it no mind.] Caputo argues that God is not a being who does things, but the name that we give to "a promise, an unkept promise, where every promise is also a risk, a flicker of hope on a suffering planet."

Where does that leave us? Same place we've always been: experimenting with ways to organize ourselves, trying to find something that works for all of us. It's a problem that is not so much awaiting a final solution as it is generative of possibilities, all of them provisional, some better in a given time and place than others. What we're doing now is not working, and it doesn't matter who's in charge. I no longer have the luxury of believing it's magically going to get better someday, and I certainly don't think it's going to get better by singing love songs to Jesus.

But I don't know what to do. I don't know what to do that would be genuine. More to the point, I don't know what to do that doesn't feel like a futile Quixotic attempt to find the Answer. I don't know what to do that isn't in danger of becoming an idol to itself, or just another thing that I used to believe in.