“Tribunus plebis from first to last” — an Ascension Sunday meditation on the democratisation of Heaven

Secession of the People to the Mons Sacer by B. Barloccini, 1849
READINGS: Acts 1:6-11

“Tribuni Plebis”, from the Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2nd ed., 1970 and wikipedia:

Tribunus plebis, rendered in English as tribune of the plebs, tribune of the people, or plebeian tribune, was the first office of the Roman state that was open to the plebeians, and throughout the history of the Republic, the most important check on the power of the Roman senate and magistrates. These tribunes had the power to convene and preside over the Concilium Plebis, or people’s assembly; to summon the senate; to propose legislation; and to intervene on behalf of plebeians in legal matters; but the most significant power of these tribunes was the power to veto the actions of the consuls and other magistrates, thus protecting the interests of the plebeians as a class. The tribunes of the plebs were sacrosanct, meaning that any assault on their person was prohibited by law. In imperial times, the powers of the tribunate were granted to the emperor as a matter of course, and the office itself lost its independence and most of its functions.

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Something that’s becoming more and more important to me as I look for an effective way we as a liberal religious community might help our contemporary culture and society to reinterpret and change itself in ways consonant with present secular understanding and knowledge, is to ensure (a la Gianni Vattimo) that we engage, not in a process of overcoming (überwindung) — that is to say attempting to affect change by the wholesale defeat of certain aspects of our former religion — but by finding ways to incorporate, twist or weakening those same aspects of it (verwindung). To sum it up: “Overcoming is worthy only when we think about incorporation” (M. Heidegger: “Overcoming Metaphysics” in the End of Philosophy, trans J. Stambaugh, New York, Harpur and Row, 1973, p. 91).

Next Sunday is Pentecost (Whitsunday) and I’m going to be speaking more about our radical, liberal vision, both where it comes from and what it seeks to achieve but here, in nutshell and in the words of our own great twentieth-century theologian James Luther Adams, we may say that out of our rediscovery during the sixteenth-century Radical Reformation of  “. . . the doctrine of the Spirit came the principles of Independency: [that is to say] local autonomy, free discussion, the rejection of coercion and of the ideal of uniformity, the protection of minorities, and the separation of church and state” (James Luther Adams: “Our Responsibility in Society” in The Essential JLA ed. George Kimmich Beach, Skinner House Books, 1997).

Knowing this is important because it helps us see how we might usefully incorporate the otherwise frankly very odd and off-putting story of the Ascension into our own contemporary liberal narrative by giving it an interpretation that helps us achieve the aims Adams mentioned.

Walsingham
When understood and depicted in an excessively literal way the Ascension Day account can appear comic in an almost Monty Pythonesque way. I remember well the first time I visited the Anglo-Catholic shrine at Little Walsingham. Unexpectedly I came across a little side-chapel dedicated to the Ascension where, above my head I saw two near life-size feet disappearing into the chapel ceiling.

But understood metaphysically the Ascension is no longer vaguely comic but somewhat disturbing for it speaks of a kind of divine ennoblement from on high which simply removes Jesus from our world. As Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) suggests this is to see Jesus as a “Kyrios/Son of God, a super-Hercules in a super-firmament.” Bloch points out that this picture is “of the dynastic solar variety, with the chariot of the sun-god and the general style assumed by ascending heroes when they quit the earth” (Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press 2009 p. 164).

Another common way of thinking metaphysically about it is to understand it as an example of the profoundly problematic doctrine that became known as Docetism. It is derived from the Greek words “dokein” (to seem) and “dókēsis” (an apparition or phantom) and refers to the idea that Jesus only seemed to be a human being and that, in consequence, his physicality — his humanity — was merely an appearance.

In both these cases the problem — for me anyway — is that the whole story of Jesus actual life’s work of teaching and healing the poor, sick and excluded in society and his subsequent death for challenging the coercive and exclusionist power-structures of his own day, becomes something which occurred at no cost to God. God came all-powerfully from on high and after only appearing to be human merely returns, unharmed to on high. Net gain and change to God? Zero, zilch, nada. And, for us? Well, in these interpretations we are reduced to mere spectators of and pawns in a drama, through-scripted by a distant, infinitely perfect, disengaged divine author.

In consequence the Ascension story looks to many liberals like a dangerous piece of ancient mythology that really can’t be salvaged by a process of verwindung and incorporation and, consequently, is one that must be wholly overcome (überwinden). At first sight it is admittedly very hard to see how one might incorporate it meaningfully into our own, contemporary mythology — i.e. the story through which we might ourselves can come to live more fully.

But Bloch has a reading of the the myth that doesn’t proceed by overcoming (überwinden) but, by incorporating, twisting and weakening aspects of it (verwindung). In so doing he opens up for us a way of using the story that is for us creative and helpful.

To get to this interpretation we need to be aware of two things that are important to Bloch when he reads the Christian story. Firstly, he points out again and again that Jesus’ own prefered title was “ben Adam” — Son of Man and that Jesus, himself, never used the title the Son of God. Secondly, Bloch draws our attention to Jesus’ claim that “the Father and I are one” (John 10:30; cf John 17). This claim might make it look like Jesus is really saying he’s the Son of God but everything here hinges on the overall direction in which Bloch thinks this story is heading. Culturally we are used to seeing the direction as being “downwards” from a God “outside” the world travelling towards the human. Bloch, however, turns this upside down and he makes humanity, in the person of the representative Son of Man, head firmly and courageously in the other direction into realms once reserved for God alone. The Ascension story is for Bloch one place where we see this happen. He says:

“The Son of Man not only broke through the myth of the Son of God, but also through that of the throne “at the right hand of the Father”: now a Tribune of the people sits upon that throne, and so revokes it. For all his celestial dignity after the Ascension, Christ is still, even for Paul, the man Adam — indeed Paul is explicit: ‘The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven’ (1 Corinthians 15:47). And his human character stays with him there: that of a Tribunus plebis from first to last” (Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press 2009 p. 164).

Bloch continues:

“The model of ascension here, even if it is still the ascension of Christ that is in question, is no longer the departure of a mighty lord for high places, but is, instead, one of the most striking images of hope — that archetypal anchor pulling us home” (Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press 2009 p. 164-165).

The image of an anchor drawing us home Bloch borrows from the author of Hebrews who says “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered” (Hebrews 6:19-20a).

Bloch offers us here an interpretation of the Ascension that transforms the story into one where we bear witness to an extraordinary moment of a revolutionary hope and freedom. The celestial palace, the seat of disinterested unchanging power, has finally been incorporated by us by being taken over for the use of the peoples of the earth with Jesus leading the way as our Tribune. A Tribune, you will recall, was an officer who had been elected by the plebeians of Rome to protect their rights from the arbitrary acts of the patrician magistrates.

Now some of you may now be saying well, OK, but really what’s the point of this reinterpretation? Who really cares? And since, in offering this to us in the way he does he's more or less admitted that he doesn't believe the Ascension story in any literal way, so why can’t he, and we, simply move on and ditch the story entirely?

It’s a tough question that requires a clear answer. We begin to get that when we acknowledge that only someone with their head plunged deep into the sand can fail to see, in the words of Peter Thompson:

“. . . that religion as both debate and way of life has not crumbled in the face of an apparently inexorable rationalist, scientific, modernising Enlightenment and globalisation of the market economy, but retains a potency and strength which remains far in excess of its ability to explain” (Peter Thompson’s introduction to Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press 2009 p. ix).

Whether we like or dislike this fact matters not the least because it would be politically naive, foolish and dangerous not to take this fact of our age into account. So the question is not whether or not we are to deal with our religious inheritance it rather is how are we going to deal with it?

The new atheists and hardcore secular humanists want to tackle religion by a fairly straightforward process of overcoming (überwinden). Of course, many newly active religious believers of all stripes also want to tackle atheism and humanism in the same way. It is this "all or nothing" approach that has given rise to the unfortunate culture wars we are beginning to see all around us in the unedifying spectacle of the often angry bitter and recriminatory debates between atheists and theists in all human spheres of endeavour, science, politics, literature, education etc., etc.. This desire for overcoming (überwinden) also lies behind the growing number of violent religious conflicts of our own age all of which are being encouraged by leaders of both small terror groups and nations who are increasingly committed in strong metaphysical ways. Everything in this sphere is about defeating the perceived “enemy” with a more powerful metaphysics or more powerful tactics of violence. But it is clear that this kind of power play cuts clearly against our own liberal desire for the existence of a plurality of voices within our society and, in consequence, I do not believe we should be supporting, in any shape of form, such tactics.

In my mind this requires us to commit to an ongoing attempt to affect change by finding ways to incorporate, twist or weaken aspects of our inherited religious culture (verwindung). (This is the “weak thought” of Gianni Vattimo — il pensiero debole). It seems to me that only by doing this that will we genuinely achieve the kind of liberal society we desire. Verwindung, verwindung, verwindung should be our public proclamation at every step along the way.

We need to be smart about this because religion is not going away, so let’s take the Ascension story, the story of Pentecost and all the other religious stories we inherit and show how we may reinterpret them in ways that pull us towards local autonomy, free discussion, the rejection of coercion and of the ideal of uniformity, the protection of minorities, and the separation of church and state.

But to conclude I want to be absolutely clear about something. I’m not just offering you my comments merely in the spirit of political expediency — though I hope my comments are, indeed, politically expedient. No, in the end I offer them because, when it remains open to kind of reinterpretation, transformation, incorporation, twisting and weakening that Bloch and the other thinkers I bring before you engage in, I think there is something about the Christian tradition that can help us move consistently and determinedly towards the conversationally driven democratic, freedoms I have already mentioned. Such a movement is still the closest thing to truth I know.

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