Friday, September 24, 2010

Paradox, Ambiguities and the Mask of Imagination

Christian theology holds many ideas in tension. We often call them paradoxes. Martin Luther called the Christian existence simul iustus - simul peccator (at once righteous and a sinner) and iustus in spe, peccator in re (righteous in hope, sinner in fact). Christian theology claims that Jesus of Nazareth's death on the cross at Golgotha won the decisive victory over sin and death. Yet, try telling this to someone suffering real trauma in the here and now and they'll shrug you off like a bad joke. Christian theology also claims that the resurrection of Jesus was the beginning of God's altogether new creation, the initiation of God's coming Kingdom, a new age over which God reigns and Jesus is Lord and King.

Some paradoxes are beautiful. Others seem to be blatant contradictions to the current state of our 'reality.' More often than not these mind-numbing conceptual conflicts do not become resolved but rather lead to a completely new set of questions and ambiguities. More often than not, these intellectual and existential conundrums steal hours of sleep and cause me to resort to two of the most frequently employed words of my generation: fuck it.

When it comes down to it, I understand Christianity as a religion of hope. The most fundamental claim in Christianity is that Jesus is Lord - now. It's not that having a Lord or God of some sorts is comforting; it's the kind of Lord and God that Jesus is. Jesus is the King whose kingdom is all about compassion, not blame. Jesus is the Lord whose life embodies trusting others, not coercion. Jesus is the God whose meaning is love, not hate. And Jesus is the Incarnated God who suffers alongside us, as exemplified in His horrific death. Yet the final word was not death, it was that love, trust and compassion win the day! Indeed, this is Good News.

This has brought me courage and strength to carry on through many battles (though I cannot claim to have had a difficult life whatsoever). Nevertheless, acknowledging the reality that Jesus of Nazareth is the Lord of all creation gives the believer a hope that the Way of Jesus of Nazareth is the Way of Victory, the Way of Truth, and the Way of true human existence with God and creation.

What supports the claim that Jesus is Lord is the historicity of the Easter event. That God raised the dead Jesus to new life exhibits many things. The resurrection confirms all of the pre-Golgotha claims about Jesus. It also vindicated Jesus as the Messiah for whom Israel had long awaited. What's more is that the witness of the early church as followers of this crucified Messiah provides one of the greatest mysteries of history. But I shall not digress on historical studies here.

What interests me here is the ontological claim that "Jesus is Lord." This, as I have mentioned, is the foundation of all hope for the Christian believer. This claim is at once contemporaneous and eschatological. We claim that because of the resurrection, Jesus, the crucified Messiah, is Lord over all creation now; and Jesus is also the Lord who will come on the Day to complete God's work of redemption. And this is where perhaps the biggest paradox begins to unfold.

Firstly, to claim that Jesus is Lord now is immediately open for question. Many people, Bill Mahr for example, look around at the atrocities of our world and laugh at the believer's claim that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, is Lord over all creation right now. To claim that a Palestinian Jew from 2,000 years ago is the rightful King over the cosmos is somewhat of an absurd claim. This claim becomes even more laughable when those espousing it do not seem to behave like it is true! But then again, this claim did not die out even under the harshest of persecutions throughout history (see the Wiki page on this subject). There is something mysterious to this claim and there is also something comfortably right about it. Perhaps this is where a Christology from before (or "beyond") plays into the equation. That is, that our understanding of Jesus the Christ is not solely dependent on the Jesus of time/space history ("Christ from below"), but the mystical Christ who meets us from somewhere beyond history. This is the Christ whom Kierkegaard called the "Christ of Faith."

Nonetheless, we cannot dismiss the fact that stating the claim "Jesus is Lord" requires an awfully courageous amount of imagination (I sometimes prefer the term imagination over "faith" because imagination implies that one is tapping into something ahistorical, yet a redefinition of faith in our age is certainly needed). To posit that Jesus is Lord is the most radical claim a human being can make. It is radical because: a) as Lord over the cosmos we are subject to a new order, a way of being that is proffered by Jesus now and thereby affects our lives now (Jesus is Lord implies the present tense!); and b) the claim that Jesus is Lord is an authoritative claim that confronts the powers in this world.

This is where most people who endeavor to know Jesus become stuck. Admittedly, this is where I become stuck much of the time. (Paul Ricouer calls this stage the "Second Naivete," a stage where the simple answers of the "First Naivete" are deconstructed). How is it that Christians can claim "Jesus is Lord" in the midst of the completely contradicting realities we face everyday in news headlines, interpersonal relationships, and personal brokenness? It all seems to be a bunch of malarky. Not quite the "opiate of the masses," but still some kind of fairy-tale story that doesn't seem to make much sense in our situation. "Jesus is Lord?" Really? Show me, please.

As an ontological claim, which is what "Jesus is Lord" must be to have any sort of meaning whatsoever, it seems to be no more convincing than the Platonic claim "The realm of forms is real." Yes it might make for a good explanation in theory, but does it match up to what I'm experiencing now? What good is an ontological claim that doesn't ring true ontologically for me here and now?

The answer is that ontological claims do not only "explain" reality, they also create it. An ontological claim such as "Jesus is Lord" is not meant to merely explain reality ex post facto, it creates a new reality by drawing us into its world. An ontological claim that does not necessarily "match up" with our current situation demands that we live into the new world that it creates. The claim, "Jesus is Lord," demands that we live into it. Therefore, it is not only an "explanation," it is also the source of hope.

To the above question regarding the ontological veracity of the claim, "Jesus is Lord," a theologian may respond, "How do you know what reality is? How do you know that the claim, 'Jesus is Lord' is not true?" What if we are, as Paul suggested, "asleep," unaware of the reality of Jesus' lordship? This is a beautiful, intellectual offering: perhaps we are so lost and hidden from God that we do not realize the Truth of Jesus' Lordship. Yet it still just that: a hypothetical offering, a confession, a witness.

At the end of the day, ontological claims - especially the mysterious and seemingly improbable ones - demand the support of more than abstract, intellectual theories. They demand embodiment. They demand earthly manifestation. They demand that "Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven." This suggests that we have more control over creating (or rather living into) reality than perhaps we realize. Furthermore, does this suggest that we may choose the foundation of our reality? I believe so.

But what if that foundation is not, in fact, true? Here we must return to the nature of ontological claims.

Can an ontological claim be false even when we think that it is true? Of course. Is this not exhibited by the child who "believes in" Santa Claus, or in the Elron Hubbards who invent mysterious pagan religions? Therefore, we may see that claims about reality can, in fact, be false no matter how much we think they are true. This argument is posited against Christianity as well. And, I sympathize with it. Yet those who proffer such criticism ought to explore more thoroughly the ontological claim(s) offered by Christian theology (that is, the entire system of claims offered by Christian theology. This includes the major doctrines of creation, anthropology, salvation, ecclesiology, pneumatology and eschatology). But I digress. Here, however, we are focused on the one particular claim, "Jesus is Lord." And now we must consider the flip side to the nature of ontological claims.

Can an ontological truth be true without our recognition? Yes. This is exemplified everyday through scientific discovery (i.e. we discover truths about reality of which we were previously unaware). Therefore, we must entertain the thought that the ontological claim, "Jesus is Lord," could be true - whether we acknowledge it or not. The real test of its veracity comes, as I have suggested in the preceding paragraph, when we live it out. That is, Is it true that Jesus is Lord when we live in a world where compassion and trust win the day? Is it true that Jesus is Lord when we quit categorizing people by race and gender and see everyone as family? Is it true that Jesus is Lord when sharing and communal living become the modus operandi of society?

The ultimate test of any ontological claim is when we attempt to live into it. And this is why I cannot give up on the claim that Jesus of Nazareth is the Lord of the cosmos. I have lived into it, albeit imperfectly. I have shared in it. I have experienced it. And no other ontological claim has offered me anything more true than this.

Yes, Christianity is a theology of tension and paradox. It is extremely frustrating at times because we live in the tension of competing ontological claims. Christianity says, "Jesus is Lord," while much of the current world says, "Greed is lord," and other contradicting claims.

But at its core Christianity is a theology of hope. The claim, "Jesus is Lord," calls us into a new reality, a new creation. The Lordship of Christ whispers in our ears about a different Way of being. It beckons us to embody the reality that the Living, Loving God reigns. The claim invites us partner with God and create a new creation where the lion and lamb lay down together and justice and righteousness permeate the earth.

It is not some kind of fairy-tale or opiate to sedate us during our current troubles. It claims what will ultimately be. It claims, "Jesus is Lord now because Jesus will be Lord at the end of all things." The truth of this claim will become plain to see when those who are both simul iustus - simul peccator embody this paradox within the ultimate paradox, that Jesus is Lord.

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