A theology of the event
|On the evening after giving this address I took this|
photo of the church just before our evening service.
Readings: Matthew 9:35-36, Luke 17:20-21 and John Caputo's "A Theology of the Event" (found at the end of this post)
With the theme of harvest still very much in my mind during the week I read the short passage from Matthew we heard earlier (9:35-36) in which Jesus' primary motivations are revealed. We encounter here an expression of his desire to bring a life-giving Gospel (a good news) to the people by healing the sick and, as a shepherd to his flock, to show them how they might practice a form of life that could dispel their confusion and bring about in them a sense of real empowerment and genuine hope. Allied to this was a longer term hope that every person so healed, restored to clear thought and empowered would, in turn, become hope-filled workers able capable both of sowing the seed of the Gospel and of gathering in its abundant harvest.
Jesus' embodied expression of this hope has, of course, crossed generations and geography and I remain someone personally sustained by it but I felt the need for this hope particularly strongly this week. One early morning I sat at the table in the increasingly chilly kitchen getting ready for what I knew was going to be a long and difficult day of pastoral work (it’s worth adding that this is simply a statement of fact and not a complaint). I could have turned on the heating but well, like I'm sure many of you, for both ecological and financial reasons, the heating is only going to go on when it gets properly cold, until then a hot mug of tea was going to do. As my hands were being warmed by the tea the "Today" programme was informing me that British Gas was going to raise its prices by 6% - an announcement followed a day later by Npower raising their prices by 9%. One of the older people I was going to visit that day can already barely pay the current prices and I could already imagine their deep concern about this news. Hmmm. Without pausing for breath the newsreader continued to intone what turned out to be a very chilling litany: there were the ongoing shocking revelations about Jimmy Saville and the culture of silence at the BBC and within a number of hospitals, there was the announcement of an official inquiry following the shameful Police cover up at Hillsborough. Needless to say there were also reports about the ongoing crisis in the Eurozone, the continuing round of public sector cuts - especially in health care and social benefits - and the fear amongst increasing numbers of people who are facing either redundancy, significant wage cuts and the removal of long fought for employment rights. The list didn't end there of course – I’ve said nothing about the political, religious and economic situation in other lands - but here I'll spare you a continuation of the litany. Every government is rightly concerned when so many things like this begin to occur all at once and most of you will know that it was the British Prime Minister (between 1957-1963) Harold McMillan who, when asked to name the greatest challenge that faced any politician, replied “Events, dear boy, events.”
I mention this litany of events because not a day now goes by without someone speaking to me in my role as your minister and pastor who is deeply concerned or struggling significantly with the consequences of one or more of these events. Is it any wonder that when I re-read the passage from Matthew on that cold morning the question of how might I best bring before you the living hope of which Jesus spoke and which might gift us all a rich and satisfying life (John 10:10) arose alarmingly to challenge me.
Well, one thing is absolutely clear to me, any attempt to do this by making simple, even simplistic, abstract theological claims for the reality of God (or the truth and efficacy of a thing called the liberal Christian tradition which is the form of life on offer here) is highly unlikely to prove persuasive. For good reasons most of us here - including myself I might add - are deeply suspicious today of any pastor who, on the basis of absolutely no evidence whatsoever, says "just believe A, B, and C and do E, F, and G and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well". If you are in this church now, or reading this later on my blog, the chances are that you are someone who wants to follow something or someone whose authority you feel can be legitimated by some appeal to both to some kind of evidence and to your sense of reason. It is simply the case that none of you here are going believe anything to be true just because I tell you it is so and long may that remain the case. Which thought brings me to some points that need to be made about sheep and shepherds.
|From an early Christian funerary monument|
This seems to me important because, although as a human being I tend not, in general, to think of myself as being like a sheep, it is fair to say that I, and I would guess most of you do, at times, feel strongly the need for the living presence of a good shepherd in my life – especially when one is walking through difficult times that feel, as the hymn “The Lord’s my Shepherd” calls it, very much like “death’s dark vale”.
This causes me - as a pastor - to ask how, today, do we actually come to have the kind of knowledge and understanding of which Jeremiah spoke and which Jesus showed in his life upon which we are prepared to trust and act?
Well, as I’ve intimated, we are today for the most part willing fully to trust only those things of which we can have some meaningful and direct experience or for which we have access to other kinds of acceptable, empirical proofs. In the context of this present day culture my job as a pastor must include trying to find ways to show you something similar in the realm of the religious life. Which brings me to God because, which ever way I use this word, unless I have a lively sense that “The Lord (God) is my Shepherd”, that God “art with me” and that God’s “rod and staff me comfort still” then the word “God” is pretty much useless and revealed merely to be a disconnected wheel that when it is spun (i.e. whenever I use the word God in a prayer, a hymn or an address) it turns no real machinery.
So it’s vital to ask whether the word “God” – at least in my hands as a pastor – can be shown to be turning any real machinery? Like I said earlier just me saying to you that it does is insufficient. Evidence and direct experience is what you, is what we all, want. Consequently, as a pastor, the best I can hope to do is shepherd you to a variety of places and moments where I feel able and confident to point to something and, “Look there, that is what I mean by God.” All I can then do is hope that your own experience and evidence of those things will, in time, bring you to a point where you can say “Ah! I think I see what he’s getting at.”
Now this brings me back to John Caputo’s words we heard earlier (see end of this post) who, along with a number of other key modern theologians, has stopped trying to talk about God a super-being (an ultimate entity) which could only ever be theorised about and has instead begun to talk about and gesture towards understanding God as event.
So, running very quickly through Caputo’s five points in my own words:
Firstly, I do not understand God as something present but something seeking to make itself felt in what is present. So for me its not quite right to say Jesus is God (I encounter him as my brother, always-already a human being like me) but what makes him special to the liberal Christian tradition to which I belong is that he lived in such a way that we felt we saw that which we are minded to call God making itself felt in Jesus’ presence among us. This is why I point so regularly to the example of Jesus and say “Look there! That is what I mean by God!”
Secondly, it is important to distinguish between the name “God” and the event that is astir in this name. When I use the word God here it I always try to attached it to events in which we see people called, as Micah summed it up (and as we sung in our second hymn) to do true justice, to love mercy, and to walk with God. This is why I point so regularly to any act of justice, mercy, love and the walking with others and say “Look there! That is what I mean by God!”
Thirdly, I do not understand God as an ultimate thing, a super-being whose existence could be proved by either science or philosophy and theology because God is that which is astir in all things. This is why I often point to the interconnectedness of the universe, the natural world and its constant commingling, and say “Look there! That is what I mean by God!”
Fourthly, I have been persuaded that, no matter how beautiful or venerable they are, whether they are Trinitarian or Unitarian, whether they theist or atheist, all human theories about God can and must always be deconstructed. These theories may, and often have had, some temporary ad hoc usefulness, but they must never be thought of as being themselves the event that they harbour. This is why I so often point with particular approval to living and always unfolding devolved, democratic non-institutional, non-denominational and non-doctrinal forms of religious community and say “Look There! That is what I mean by God!”
Fifthly, I understand God as event as something that is always calling me from afar – call it from "heaven" if you like – which is always persuading me into living a form of life committed to seeking more justice, more love, more mercy and a continued walking with each other and God. It is no wonder that to every earthly, coercive human power that wants to control and dominate others and nature God is indeed a dangerous memory and a new call to reform. This is why I constantly point to utopian visions of human organization, such as the kingdom of God or, and in my mind this amounts to the same thing, the republic of heaven, and say “Look there! That is what I mean by God!”
But the limitation of even the best kind pointing of pointing (and this address is far from being that) needs to be acknowledged and so it is vital to deconstruct even what I have said to you today. Remember what Jesus taught: “One day the Pharisees asked Jesus, “When will the Kingdom of God come?” Jesus replied, “The Kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs [or by your speculations]. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the Kingdom of God is already among you [or within you]” (Luke 17:20–21).
This is because beyond all talk and all pointing in the end we are simply seeking to live a form of life in which God as the event of all life is a trembling, living presence within us informing us of what is required of us and which has the power to gift us a meaningful, rich and satisfying existence.
All I can say is that when, on a bleak and cold morning and I feel I am in, or very close to death’s dark vale, I find I have always been graced with the presence of genuine hope and so found the strength to go on. Is this hope and strength to go on a proof of God? No, but even after my deconstruction, I’m still called to point to it and say to you “Look there! That is what I mean by God!”
(After giving this address later that same evening the church and the manse were framed by a glorious rainbow - a traditional sign both of God being felt in what is present and of God's covenant with us. Proof of the truth of my words? Of course not! But, nevertheless, it still it made me want to point to the rainbow and it's position and timing and say - if only to myself - “Look there! That is what I mean by God!”)
A Theology of the Event
From John D. Caputo’s essay Spectral Hermeneutics – On the Weakness of God and the Theology of the Event in After the Death of God by John D. Caputo and Gianni Vattimo (Columbia University Press, 2007, pp, 47–49).
One way to put what postmodernism means is to say that it is a philosophy of the event, and one way to put what a radical or postmodem theology means is to say it is a theology of the event. Obviously, then, on such an accounting, everything depends upon what we mean by an event, which, for the sake of simplicity, I describe as follows.
1. An event is not precisely what happens, which is what the word suggests in English, but something going on in what happens, something that is being expressed or realized or given shape in what happens; it is not something present, but something seeking to make itself felt in what is present.
2. Accordingly, I would distinguish between a name and the event that is astir or that transpires in a name. The name is a kind of provisional formulation of an event, a relatively stable if evolving structure, while the event is ever restless, on the move, seeking new forms to assume, seeking to get expressed in still unexpressed ways. Names are historical, contingent, provisional expressions in natural languages, while events are what names are trying to form or formulate, nominate or denominate.
3. An event is not a thing but something astir in a thing. Events get realized in things, take on actuality and presence there, but always in a way that is provisional and revisable, while the restlessness and flux of things is explained by the events they harbour.
4. What happens, be it a thing or a word, is always deconstructible just in virtue of events which are not deconstructible. That does not mean that events are eternally true like a Platonic eidos; far from being eternally true or present, events are never present, never finished or formed, realized or constructed, whereas only what is constructed is deconstructable. Words and things are deconstructible, but events if there are any such things (s’il y en a), are not deconstructible.
5. In terms of their temporality, events, never being present, solicit us from afar, draw us on, draw us out into the future, calling us hither. Events are provocations and promises, and they have the structure of what Derrida calls the unforeseeable “to come” (à venir). Or else they call us back, recall us to all that has ﬂowed by into the irremissible past, which is why they form the basis of what Johann Baptist Metz calls “dangerous memories” of the injustice suffered by those long dead, or not so long, a revocation that constitutes another provocation. Events call and recall.
Events are what Žižek calls the “fragile absolute” — when Žižek leaves off abusing postmodern theories he often serves up excellent postmodern goods — fragile because they are delicate and absolute because they are precious.
[. . .]
On my accounting, things take a theological turn in postmodernism when what we mean by the event shifts to God. Or, altemately, things take a postmodem tum in theology when the meditation upon theos or theios, God or the divine, is shifted to events, when the location of God or what is divine about God is shifted from what happens, from constituted words and things, to the plane of events.