29 June 2012

Status Symbol Land

FEAR—especially the fear of losing control—serves as the impetus for an awful lot of art. It also, of course, serves as the catalyst for an unhealthy dose of insomnia, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and death (either of the silent or walking variety).

Motivated by Alan Noble's "Why Christians Should Read Disturbing, Dark, and Secular Fiction," I thought that since I have read and am now again reading a good bit of it that I'd do well to put some thoughts down on a piece that I've read recently. (This is a bit like pulling the winner out of a hat; I'm working through an anthology of American short stories and there are too many from which to choose. I decided against O'Connor's terrifyingly bizarre "Good Country People" because (1) she's not exactly "secular"; and (2) apparently she's now a Christian-hipster favorite, and I'm like light years ahead of those people.)

So, John Cheever's "The Swimmer" it is (originally published in The New Yorker on 18 July 1964). Summary of the plot:
“The Swimmer” begins with suburbanites gathered around a backyard pool, nursing their respective hangovers from the previous night's cocktail party. The hero of the tale is a youthfully middle-aged, athletic, and affluent denizen of suburbia. His desire to rise above complacently takes the form of an odd, comical quest: He decides to swim home, fifteen pools to the south. The narrative follows his journey from pool to pool, from his initial exhilaration to subsequent exhaustion, from bright and sunny to darker and colder, to unprepared and exposed. After crossing a highway, he descends into a public pool—hell to his social class. But even here he is excluded after failing to provide the proper identification. The journey is further corrupted when he finds his mistress has replaced him with a new lover, and a couple he has previously dismissed socially denies him. Finally, when he is alienated from what he knows to be true, and dispossessed of his comfortable reality, he arrives home to a dark, empty, and locked house.
Truly, I envied the swimmer Neddy Merrill's excursion. It sounded fun. Even in the rain. The absurdity part of it only becomes apparent during the last few dips, and especially when he arrives "home." The fun of swimming across several pools in a couple of neighborhoods looks pathetic indeed when Neddy reaches his now foreclosed destination. And the enthusiasm with which Neddy is greeted at first is subverted by the tale's end: all those drinks and smiles look more like pity than friendship. Status symbols are, we must admit, everything to this crowd (our collective crowd in these United States), and Neddy's loss of them feeds a fear that grips him to the point of extreme denial, acting out the absurd.

How poignant is the climax of the story today? Neddy swims "home" to an abandoned and decrepit structure. How many of those have we seen walking the neighborhood these past few years? Ah, home ownership, a grand American institution. It looks to be only a vestige of its former glory.

Speaking of American social institutions, what about the extramarital affair? Neddy’s inability to cope with his situation caused him to shut down and retreat from reality, ultimately hurting all the people in his life that he ever cared about. The same could be said about any one of the other poor choices he has apparently made (in response to a financial misfortune).

Neddy’s swimming pool journey effectively parallels our false lives, our swimming through life with eyes half closed, choosing not to acknowledge behaviors that are significant and detrimental to those we love the most. Extramarital affairs, alcoholism, gambling, and debt—all these activities gradually eat away at relationships every day. Of course, these are all symptoms of a much deeper problem: "Who can understand the human heart? There is nothing else so deceitful."

The mix of realism and surrealism, concrete rootedness and absurdity, the lack of a single vision holding reality together, the rusty linings of every cloud, are a few of the reasons I so enjoy this era of literature (roughly described as "postwar"). Yet in spite of all the aforementioned disturbing darkness, we still pine after love and understanding, and thus we must face the vertigo of absurdity with practical action—like Candide tending his garden forevermore.

So, then, "have reverence for God, and obey his commands, because this is all that we were created for." Or, put somewhat differently, love thy neighbor as thyself.

Listen to Cheever read "The Swimmer" here.

07 June 2012

Open Wound Now Sacred?

NOT THAT I EVER stop thinking about this particular subject, but perhaps a recent revelation precipitated my hitting "publish" on this post. Perhaps.

A couple of months ago I laid out a way of making sense of the church as it is in actuality (as opposed to its ideal), labeling it “Open Wound Ecclesiology.” Bryan Cross responded to it in his way, which is to say, both unsurprisingly and formidably. I regret not to have responded in kind, though I was going back-and-forth on this matter over at Called to Communion at the time (and much of what appears below appeared in some form over there).

What follows is an attempt to further clarify this “Open Wound Ecclesiology,” while answering some of the challenges Mr. Cross put forth in my combox.

Let me first say that I acknowledge the depressing nature of this ecclesiology (a friend responded to me about it in precisely those words). If you’re looking for something a tad more certain, then this is not for you. Perhaps you prefer redefining unity in response to our fragmented reality along with the high-church confessionalists in Geneva (unity=spiritual unity), or maybe you prefer the safety of the Vatican’s walls (unity=visible unity with the Roman Catholic Church alone). I know the openness I’m suggesting is unnerving.

Regarding the ancient creed's confession that “we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” and its relationship to what I perceive to be a tautology—that the church is disunited—Mr. Cross wrote that “to interpret this line of the Creed as an affirmation of a future hope, and not as referring to a present reality, is to deny this line of the Creed, because it has never meant that, nor does it mean that.” It’s a matter of historical honesty to acknowledge this in the case of the early church, even, of course, in the midst of her struggles with schism. No doubt it’s no different than today, to Mr. Cross’ mind.

My only recourse is to suggest a development in doctrine on this score for Catholics to consider (with Vatican II nudging us along): that the church herself is in process, and thus her Lord along with her engages, and responds to, this process. Only God is sure; all else is subject to change. The body politic is a fragmented mess, and is failing her charge to be one, just as the Father and the Son are one. But this is what God himself chose to get into. We are thus left with the question and its implied challenge: What will the church evolve to be?

I hope not what it looks like—from the vantage point of the weeds. So far as this world and our finite perspectives are concerned, Christianity, with all its divisions, worldly alliances, demagoguery, and heterodoxy, does indeed look false.

I of course don’t think it is, but therein lies my hope, which brings us back around to the creed. There is, after all, a unity among all professing Christians, entailed in the creed’s language, that is yet retained (in the language of Lumen gentium: “though they [non-Catholics] do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter,” are “in some real way…joined with [Catholics] in the Holy Spirit, for to them too He gives His gifts and graces whereby He is operative among them with His sanctifying power”). No need to emphasize any of the words there; and they cannot be undone no matter how hard some of the Good Pope’s bishops and successors try.

Apparently, according to Lumen gentium, we who are not of the Roman Catholic Church are “joined” in some “real way” to that communion. And the locus of that union? The Holy Spirit himself. Nevertheless, it is not God’s ideal for his body, the church, for it’s currently suffering from an open wound.

This decidedly does not suffer from Mr. Cross’ charge that we’re outdoing Christ. There are indeed communions that more robustly embody the faith, and thus represent the visible church with a unified ecclesial structure: these are they who are in succession (through the laying on of hands as well as doctrinally); who rightly administer the sacraments; and who faithfully preach God’s Holy Word; in short, “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” It is these who are burdened with the charge to actively reconcile (re-attach) the fragmented body of Christ, precisely because it is they who retain the most robust embodiment of the faith once delivered. They are not (emphatically!) the faith’s sole proprietors; they are its mothers, called to gracefully repent and heal and nurture the body to full communion.

This means that, yes, I’m suggesting that what God wants from us (ecclesiastically) isn't what he has received from us. But this does not provide an example of “ecclesial deism,” as if I’m saying that while God wants visible unity from us, he then simply stands back to see what he’ll get from us. If striving toward unity is "outdoing Christ" (in that "it seeks to go beyond the unity that Christ Himself saw fit to establish in His Church by imposing on what He founded as a merely invisible entity a visible unity He Himself did not see fit to establish"), then so too is living the Christian life, that is, keeping the faith—or else apostasy is only ever merely hypothetical.

Has anything ever been decreed absolutely by God (when it comes to his contingent creation), without any expectation of meeting certain conditions on our part, without any response on his part to intervening historical contingencies? Taking our cue from the Sacred Scriptures, we see that even those decrees (oracles, prophecies, apostolic utterances, etc.) that appear at first glance to be absolute, are nevertheless laden with conditions (when dealing with humankind in particular).

I submit that the same holds true with respect to the people of God and their calling to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

What I'm describing is quite down toward the opposite end of the spectrum from deism, and, if anything, can be taxed with placing too much emphasis on the immanence of God in relationship to his creation. I'm talking about a God who called out of the massa perditionis a Christ (the eternal Son of God who took upon himself our nature), in whom people are united (through baptism and faith), which people are then called to be what they are. Being thus made posse non pecare they are given the tasks laid out in various places throughout the Scriptures of embodying what it means to be corpus Christi, and, by virtue of the indwelling Spirit of God, are thus able to do so. In doing so, they falter, they err, and all the while their loving and patient God struggles with them, responding to them, and continually goads them on toward the unity (of will and purpose and substantiality) that is shared among the Godhead, the great Three in One.

I've already mentioned how Vatican II and its doctrinal development revolving around ecclesiology pushes us on toward this unity. This is also where I’d like to bring in Henri de Lubac to further help suggest the way forward: the Eucharist, he wrote, makes the church. The idea is not new (Augustine saw it when he wrote that “we become what we have received”). The so-called “communion ecclesiology” ensconced in Vatican II has paved our way (in the West; Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology already gets it, in my opinion, even if it too needs to be goaded here). The sacramental purpose of the Eucharistic body has seemingly been forgotten: it is to create the ecclesia (not merely pontificate about how Christ is present). Put another way, the real presence of Christ in the bread and the wine is inextricably tied to its purpose—the creation of his one body.

Why not, then, break bread together? This open wound will not be healed without shared participation in the meal Jesus gave us. Indeed, what anticipates that future marriage feast more clearly than open communion?

Catch up with your most recent ecumenical council, Catholics, for the love of God (or is "for Pete's sake" more apropos?).

05 June 2012

Check, Please

The empty tumbler
tumbled onto the floor,

Accentuating the
saturninity of the scene.

His lecture lowered,
only now through clenched teeth;

Her eyebrow raised and curled,
unbroken yet abashed.

*Produced as a result of Judith Baumel's poetry exercise "Anglo-Saxon Lines" in The Practice of Poetry.

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