Locality and Tragedy

Author Barbara Kingsolver says that seeing death on the television in the news – a plane down here, a bomb there, a war over there – bombards our senses, alternatively numbing us or overwhelming us, but almost always with the sense that we can’t do anything about it. Because news is primarily visual outside of print and radio media, the images the news feeds us has to be driven visually. Presented as a random sampling of ‘what’s going on in the world today’, these images add to the sense of powerlessness in the face of enormous amounts of death. But they are not a random sampling of what is happening in the world. They are the worst of the worst – they are the images that get people to watch the news. It becomes, she asserts, a peculiarly unbalanced diet for the human psyche – one that does not reflect the day to day real world that most people live in, if they will actually live in it, rather than stare at the screen.

And so here’s what she does. In the summer, they move into a farm house whose ancient wiring is incapable of sustaining a TV. And the only media she partakes is the local newspaper, County News, comprised largely of farm forecasts and obituaries. And she bakes casseroles. Instead of being pommeled by visual accounts of catastrophic death she can do little about, or a politician’s or celebrity’s tragedies far away from her, she responds to each death in that local community. “On the matter of individual tragic deaths, I believe that those in my own neighborhood are the ones I need to attend to first, by means of casseroles or whatever else I can offer. I believe… it’s possible to be so overtaken and stupefied by the tragedies of the world,” she writes, “that we don’t have any time or energy left for those closer to home, the hurts we should take as our own.” Paying attention to the local deaths, she says, “is a healthy exercise. It helps me remember what death really is, and helps me feel less useless in the face of it.”

Kingsolver is not saying to hide in small communities and ignore the large-scale tragedies or injustices going on in the world. In fact, she writes quite a lot about those things. What she is saying is that a broadcast-news-only diet warps our view of the world, giving bad news and death a larger slice of the pie than they are in the actual realities of the world around us. In reality, when we step away from that screen, there are birds singing, sun shining, wind moving the leaves, birds migrating, gardens growing, birthdays being celebrated for first graders. There are mountains, quilts being sewn, marriages, cats purring, friends at the post office, suppers being cooked and enjoyed, “and a trillion other things outside the notice of CNN.” If we take our view of the world overmuch from the news feed, we get a narrower slice than reality, and it can have negative, dysfunctional, depressive results in our view of things. Saint Paul, no stranger to the darker side of pain and evil in our world, advised, in regards to seeking to live a life of joy, “fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and noble, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.”

Again, not a call to hide away and ignore the pain and suffering in our world, but a call to get a realistic slice of it within the larger picture of the creation all around us, rather than the narrowly disasterous, and psychologically destructive, view that comes from too much time on the newsfeed. Without a larger view of the good in creation and life all around us, we may be so worn down by the newsfeed that we find ourselves drained of energy to help in local situations where we actually can.

(Kingsolver, Small Wonder: Essays; Perenniel, 2002)

Haecceity, the Concrete, and Love

Last week I was reading in Richard Rohr’s Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (2014). Toward the end of the book he is talking about John Duns Scotus and St. Bonaventure. He says this:

‘Scotus is fully an incarnationalist, which is our great Christian trump card. The universal incarnation always shows itself in the specific, the concrete, the particular, and it refuses to be a mere abstraction. No one says this better than Christian Wiman: “If nature abhors a vacuum, Christ abhors a vagueness. If God is love, Christ is love for this one person, this one place, this one time-bound and time ravaged self.”  The doctrine of haecceity is saying that we come to universal meaning deeply and rightly through the concrete, the specific, and the ordinary, and not the other way around, which is the great danger of all the ideologies (overarching and universal explanations) that have plagued our world in the last century….

(In those ideologies) it is then easy to “love humanity, but not any individual people.” We defend principles of justice but would not put ourselves out to live fully just lives ourselves.

….In fact, this is often quoted as the essential difference between Scotus and Thomas Aquinas. For the Franciscan School, before God is the divine Logos (“rational pattern”), God is Eternal Outpouring (“ Love”). The divine pattern is first and itself Love, as opposed to thinking that God can be rationally understood, and that this God then orders us to love. Love is then a mandate instead of the nature of being itself. For Scotus, as for Bonaventure, the Trinity is the absolute beginning point— and ending point too. Outpouring Love is the inherent shape of the universe, and when we love, only then do we fully exist in this universe…. (However, most often in Western theology) truth was equated with knowing instead of loving. Josef Pieper, a Thomist scholar himself, rightly said that “The proper habitat for truth is human relationships.”  Ideas by themselves are never fully “true,” which is Platonism and not incarnate Christianity. At that level, we just keep arguing about words, and this keeps us from love.

….This intense eagerness to love made Francis’ whole life an astonishing victory for the human and divine spirit, and showed how they can work so beautifully together. That eagerness to love is the core and foundation of his spiritual genius. He encountered a love that just kept opening to him, and then passed on the same by “opening and opening and opening” to the increasingly larger world around him.’

Rohr, Richard (2014-07-27). Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (p. 181-183; 191). Franciscan Media. Kindle Edition.

Water Buffalo Theology

One of the singular, greatest pieces of theology I have read in the last 20 years, hands down, is Kosuke Koyama’s Water Buffalo Theology. Koyama (1929-2009), a Japanese Protestant theologian, was a prolific writer of 20th century contextual Asian theology – and gave us some of the best designs for how to do such work – during his years as professor of theology in Singapore, New Zealand and America. Koyama was several decades ahead of the rest of us, thinking about culture-and-gospel in ways it has taken most of us in the U.S. right up to about now to even start thinking about. In the 1960s Koyama was a missionary to rice-paddy villagers in Northern Thailand outside of Chiang Mai.

During those Thailand years, Koyama came up against a reality that flustered and unraveled his Western-learned Princeton theology. Here he was explaining the gospel to Buddhist rice farmers who spent their days with water buffaloes, and there was an utter and total disconnect in understanding. First of all, none of the categories matched! He was talking atonement, wrath of God, sin, and salvation  while they were talking arhat, detachment, nirvana, unsatisfactoriness, and tranquility. Christian categories sounded so strange to their ears. They wanted to know if God was hot or cold!

The lack of severe storms, earthquakes and volcanos, the utter dependability and trustworthiness of the annual monsoon rains bringing the rice harvest made the idea of “wrath of God” totally mystifying to them. They said, “There’s fish in the river and rice in the paddy.” Life is circular, harmonious, tranquil. What in the world would ever give you the idea that God was mad about something?! They couldn’t understand why he thought so.

One of the things Koyama came to conclude was that the Gospel needed to be word-incarnated in Buddhist thought forms. Paul stole and re-defined words from Greek philosophy religions, so now we ought to in Buddhism as well, Koyama argued. His thoughts on where and how we needed to proceed across Asia in a host of contexts and cultural-religious backgrounds, stand as a seminal collection of works in a field critical to the 21st century.  Everyone knows we don’t need to export Americanism with the Gospel. Many people also realize we don’t need to export Western Greco-Roman theology developed in the West when we are inviting people to Jesus in the East.