Liberation Theology, theology

how wide is your theological imagination?

One of the most theological imaginative ideas in the last 50 years: Capitalism isn’t working. Another World is Possible!

Another World is Possible

A week before Christmas, Pastor Tim Keller tweeted:

Tim Keller 2

This comes as no surprise. For Keller, evangelicals, and other Christian conservatives, Jesus’ main objective was to forgive sins. For this reason, accordingly, Jesus was put on a cross to suffer and die. Jesus’ teachings, which concerned bringing God’s Realm to Earth, are often ignored, so that these evangelicals may put words into Jesus’ last dying breaths. 

Honestly, this tweet was easy for me to ignore. It neither brings a new perspective to evangelical theology, nor does it deny their anti-world, spiritualized theology. It confirms, once again, that for evangelicals, God is not on the side of the poor and oppressed. 

What I can’t ignore though is what Keller tweeted this week: 

Tim Keller

This is an “It’s okay to be white” tweet. A tweet that commends historical and current oppression, heteropatriarchy, and white supremacy. Keller, in this tweet, believes that God has chosen those to be blessed by surveying the genocide of Native peoples, the lynchings and slavery of black people, and second class citizenship of Latinx people, etc. For him, everything happens for a reason whether good or bad. In short, everything is ordained by God.

And yet,

a “gift of God” for one is

the stolen land of another

enslavement of another

the death of thousands for another 

and extreme poverty and despair of another

This same kind of unholy logic Keller purports could be used in the case of Erica and Eric Garner. Eric Garner, in the summer of 2014, was unjustly put in a chokehold and killed by a police officer on Staten Island for selling untaxed cigarettes. His daughter, Erica Garner, spoke out for her father’s life, against police brutality, and for a freer world. Unfortunately, her body could no longer handle the weight of systematic racism, the sorrow of her father’s death, and the despair that things will only get worse in the US under this administration. Neither of these Garners should be dead. Neither should the other countless individuals killed by police officers or the military, for that matter. These deaths are not happening because God desires them to happen, but because humanity continues to perpetuate unjust systems. 

One of the problems I find with Christian theology is a lack of imagination. For Keller and ilk, things are the way they are because God wouldn’t want them any other way. Really? This is the best God could do? If this is true, I think we should expect an apology from God. The idea that everything happens for a reason is dangerous and unimaginative,

With a lack of theological imagination:

  • systems of oppression go unchecked
  • pastors can continue with spiritual abuse (women should be subservient to men; God blesses the USA; abusers strengthen your faith; the end is coming soon, so donate your monies to the church, etc.)
  • the Earth is only temporary, God can make a new one
  • God is a caring Father, who cares about *His* children 

Maybe the question is not “How wide is your theological imagination?” but “What does your theological imagination smell like?” Mine somedays smells like the stinky compost I put on the rooftop garden at the church, or the smell my hand absorbs after shaking the hand of the volunteer who enjoys taking out the trash from the soup kitchen, or the smell of sajjige that my friend gives me after it being in her purse all day. These smells represent growth, kindness, and friendship. Things that seem to be lacking in some of our theological imaginations. 

The world is not as it should be. With the help of bolder theological imaginations, we might create, with God, a more just-filled world. 

Christainity, Justice, Liberation Theology

imagination, community, and following jesus

In sex, as in other things, we have liberated fantasy but killed imagination, and so have sealed ourselves in selfishness and loneliness. Fantasy is of the solitary self, and it cannot lead us away from ourselves. It is by imagination that we cross over the difference between ourselves and other beings and thus learn compassion, forbearance, mercy forgiveness, sympathy, and love—the virtues without which nether we nor the world can live. Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community by Wendell Berry

Recently, I went out with a few friends who have preschool and elementary aged children. Our conversation overflowed with stories of their children’s engagement with the world. They shared stories of how their kids embraced the May Day pole ceremony and how they react to beat-bop jazz and heavy metal. As a Youth Worker I too have plenty of stories up my sleeves. My favorite stories are ones where the child’s imagination shocks my own sense of the world. For instance, I handed out bags to the elementary kids to fill with presents. The first boy took the bag and looked at it and said, “My archenemies, we meet again.” I wish I still had these kinds of interactions with inanimate objects! In the opening quote, farmer, poet, and activist, Wendell Berry makes the distinction between fantasy and imagination. Imagination is that which is in the communal conscience. Fantasy, on the other hand, is a solitary moment of one’s desires without recognition of the community. In the US, fantasy is commonly related to going to space or sexual acts.

Further researching imagination I came across Jesuit theologian Roger Haight. In Haight’s texts Jesus: Symbol of God and The Future of Christology (a smaller and less dense Symbol), he tips his hat to Thomas Aquinas’ thoughts on the imagination. Aquinas breaks down imagination in three parts:

First, everything that we learn about the world comes through sense data and the imagination. Like Aristotle and the British Empiricists, our minds are blank slates that are filled with our interaction with the world. This is in contrast to Platonism that says that we already have all knowledge we are merely wiping off the charcoal stains off our minds.

Second, this is similar to the first, that we can know nothing unless it has been received from the senses. All of our knowledge comes from what we perceive from the material world. Haight says that everything that we think has an “imaginative residue.” When one thinks of dreams, which are often imaginative new events, they are not so far out of this world that one can explain them to others.

Lastly, Aquinas wrote that one has an active and a passive imagination. Our passive imagination is what we store in our memory. Active imagination happens when we create new images out of the material world. Aquinas gave the example of making a golden mountain. Both things separated exist and are part of the world, but a golden mountain takes an active imagination to create.

Understanding this through Berry’s definition, communities experience the world in similar ways, which is their passive imagination. For their active imagination, communities construct  lexicons, habits, and relationships in particular ways. In the Christian tradition, this can be seen in the Gospels. The Johannine community culturally were Greco-Roman who used popular Greek Philosophy, aka Platonism, to speak of Jesus. Does this degrade John’s Gospel to lesser than God’s Word? Of course not! What it does show us is the deep importance of Jesus to their community. Around the world, Jesus and God  are known by different names. According to the liturgy in the Jesus Sutras of Eastern Asia, Jesus is prayed to as the Jaded-Face One. To be jaded in Eastern Asia means that to have experienced life to the fullest and thus be divine.

Jesus, Mary, and Martha

The problem today is we emphasize fantasy too much. We have an active fantasy life and force those desires on others. The work of imagination is found in the midst of community. Of course, this is not perfect, but if we are aware and intentional in our imagination-creations then possibly we can create a better and more just society.

Practically speaking:
What songs, stories, art work, dramas, etc. does your community gather around?

How does your community engage with the other?

How do others perceive your community?

Christian communities around the world and throughout the ages gave the Divine a personal name. Has your community done this or have they used their experience with the Divine to add to God’s qualities?

Anarchism, Christainity, Homelessness

moving mountains in the kin-dom

The summer staff eats dinner together every night. We talk about the evening program and our days with the groups. There comes a breaking point where laughter erupts and the conversation devolves into mindless rumble. Last week, this laughter evolved into playful criticism towards me. I lead the music for the evening program and I am not ashamed to say I pick songs that are indie. You know, songs from bands that no one has ever heard of or songs originally sung in different languages? The staff complained of hearing the same songs each week, although the youth love the songs that I play and every week sing with a different group. They called me a pseudo-hipster, which infuriated me and I proceeded in pretending to throw things and destroy the office.
One song that I adore is a Spanish worship song titled Montaña by Salvador. The lyrics are thus:
If you have faith like a seed of a mustard
That’s what the Lord has said
If you have faith like a seed of a mustard
That’s what the Lord has said
You can say to the mountain move away move away
You can say to the mountain move away move away
And the mountain will move away move away move away
And the mountain will move away move away move away

It takes the group at least two go arounds to really get into this song. Once this happens, the energy in the sanctuary is incomparable to other songs throughout the week. Youth, as well as adults, love it. I have come up with a few theories about this passionate energy. The youth are first filled with vigor, as they sing a song different from in their own churches. Second, the melody is catchy and resonates; they cannot help but jump around during the chorus. There are other responses, but I am going to focus on the fact that the youth are expecting/experiencing the kin-dom of God, where the world will be turned upside down. This is why they  jump in joyous presumption that God is participating with them in creating something new.

Post-modern philosopher and theologian, John Caputo, crafted the book “The Weakness of God,” which I have been devouring this week. Caputo
summarizes the dichotomy between the world’s kingdoms and God’s kin-dom, writing,
“The kingdom that Jesus called for was a kingdom ironically, one that was itself mocking the business-as-usual of the powers that be, one in which a divine madness reigned, even as it was, from the point of view of the Roman Empire, of the Brutality of the world, simple foolishness, outright stupidity” (15).
The kin-dom that we are expecting is one of reversals. The youth groups observe reversals of cultural normalcy through urban gardens, Narcotics Anonymous Meetings, in small neighborhood churches reaching out into their communities through play. Explosions of reality occur at every location, most of it concrete and tangible with the senses. For example, when the youth uproot weeds that choke vegetables and herbs, they smell soil, manure, and hay; soil slips in their fingernails, and sweat drips from their forehead. This contradicts the common pattern they are used to, such as going to fast food restaurants, standing on hard tile, receiving food wrapped in paper, and drinking sodas with unknown ingredients.Eruptions of the kin-dom gives hope to the hopeless. They force one to reconsider the way they have been living. One can see the mountains move before their very eyes, if not now, soon with the coming kin-dom. The role of imagination appears in the middle of kin-dom and reality. Imagination lends one to think of a different reality where the impossible is possible, where the food deserts in north Philadelphia become places of lush gardens of vegetables and orchards of fruit, where people are treated with respect rather than contempt.

Yet, it is much too simple to be cynical about reality, to allow the kingdom of the world to dictate our actions. For this reason, communities of believers must be the imaginative voices in their towns. A group of people where their imagination is intricate in their prayer life is those who practice the Ignatian Spirituality. One is asked to imagine scenes in their minds when praying, e.g. biblical scene of Mary and Elizabeth meeting while both are pregnant and John the Baptizer kicking in the womb while being near Jesus. These kind of imaginative practices must bleed into the very life in how we perform everyday. The imagination and the kin-dom to come should be intertwined and seek this new world, while trying our best to create something in the present.

Gustave Dore, known for paintings of biblical stories, painted this beautiful picture titled “Voyage to the Moon.” It speaks to imagination and going to a realm of impossibilities.