Monday, 25 August 2014

Narrenschiff: Journey to the impossible

Mk 6:45-52; Mt 14:22-33

In an age of rationality and scientific progress, those who believe in God are derided upon as being irrational and foolish, and this, in spite of the rigorous efforts (endless debates and arguments) of so-called Christian Apologists of our times. We still find ourselves in the same position as before, being looked upon as foolish in the eyes of rationality. Maybe, the very fact that we are foolish is, that, we are meant to be so. It was in fact the Christians, who have strongly admitted themselves, of being foolish, and called themselves "fools" (1 Cor 4:10), and made no claim to the rationality for their belief in God. And again, let us not make this claim as some kind of judgment on the rationality, by dialectically claiming we are fools in the eyes of rationality of the world, exactly because the rationality is foolish in calling us foolish, therefore we are wise. But, this might not be case, Paul, goes on to make a distinction of being "fools" in Christ and "wise" in Christ and among which he regards himself to be a "fool" even by the standards of Christ. And it is exactly those who are "wise" in Christ are the problematic in the Corinthian church. Therefore, those who believe in Jesus Christ as God, are the actual and real "fools" to the definition of the word, both by rationality and even by the standards of so-called Christian church (which in these times likes to defend (apologia) itself more wisely through standards of the world, while, still hating the world, which is a paradox of paradoxes).

Then to the question, how does one in the state of madness and insanity, achieve redemption. Madness, is in itself, is irredeemable because, the subject has lost one’s own mind and is in the state of “wandering,” “demented,” and “deranged” in disposition. Mind as the essence of one’s being is lost in the state of madness, and now, the being is left in the sea of sudden storms and endless nights while it waits for its mind to return to it. It is exactly in this position of madness is the belief in Christ is pictured as being “fools”. A dangerous position, wherein, “fools” though questioned will not endure to give a rational answer, and every word uttered remains only a blabber (meaningless), because in the state of madness one remains, hidden to oneself or even lost to oneself. This is the real position of belief in Christ; being “fools”.

In order to understand the story of redemption in and through the state of madness, the Foucaultian analysis of Narrenschiff becomes very helpful. In his book Madness and Civilization Michel Foucault gives his analysis of Narrenschiff (ship of fools) during the Renaissance. He says that it was a practice in those times that, in order to get rid of the madmen from their streets; these madmen were put on the ships and were carried off to some other ports in a distant land and they were “lost” there by the sailors. This practice made sure that the madmen never returned to the shore ever again.  Interpreting this voyage, Foucault observes that, the very voyage of the madman in the Narrenschiff is the “absolute passage” from which the return is impossible; it is an experience of the liminal (threshold) experience.  In this voyage, “the madman is delivered to the river with its thousand arms, the sea with its thousand roads, to that great uncertainty external to everything. He is a prisoner … at the infinite crossroads … [h]e is … prisoner of the passage.”[1] And again the destination or the disembarkation on the other land still remains alien to him as his origins, his real position remains in the sea of uncertainty and confusion; he exists only in the vast expense of the raging sea. This raging sea is the identity of madness, the Narrenschiff that holds them goes up “up to heaven” and are brought “to the depths” and “were at their wit’s end” (Ps 107:26-27). The passengers in the Narrenschiff are people without their minds in the unnavigable sea of darkness on a stormy night. This is what it means to be a “fool”, a passenger in the Narrenschiff.

The experience of salvation in and through the passengers of Narrenschiff is best captured in the gospels (Mk 6:45-52; Mt 14:22:33). In this passage the disciples of Jesus are in a boat which was “battered by the waves … the wind was against them”. This event is more complicated by Jesus walking on the sea towards them. It was early in the morning when they saw Jesus walking towards them, and they immediately cried “ghost”. This is the real “wits end” experience, the ship was full of fools (terrified) and their voyage to the other shore has been completely unsuccessful due to the contrary wind and they were stuck in the raging sea all night long. The climax of the experience is “madness” when they see someone walking on the water. They have no rationality left in them to reason out what they were seeing; they had certainly lost their mind. They imagine the impossible; they now are experiencing the unperceivable by shouting, it is a “ghost”. Now, what cannot be seen becomes visible now, in this experience of madness. Only in madness is this revelation possible. Only in madness can the delusion become real. Only in madness the impossible can be seen. Now the boat has become in Foucaultian sense the Narrenschiff of the Renaissance. The people in the boat are madmen to the very definition. Their voyage is now in the liminal space (between shores) and time (early in the morning (Mk 6:48)). Within this liminal experience comes the mind(lessness)  of the ghost(Jesus), “It is I”. The wandering fool’s mind is with the ghost on the sea. One among the fool frenzies over the boat to hold on to his already lost mind and performs is the impossible and becomes what he already called; the ghost by walking on the sea. This experience does not leave the fools anywhere transformed. The story ends not with a ship full of brightest minds on the planet but still remained the same, “they were sore amazed in themselves beyond measure and wondered” (Mk 6: 51), in other words, they were still clueless and witless than ever before.

It is here we actually see the salvation at action. Salvation as an act of impossibility performed by totally clueless and terrified (wits end) person, which can never be rationally explained or can be experienced by the rationality. The very experience of Christian belief is madness to the word as justified by the world, because, only the madmen can experience this schizophrenic visual of “walking on the water” and be able to realize an action of “walking on the water”. The boat in which authentic fools of Christ travels is a Narrenschiff, totally lost to the rationale of the world, hence pushed between shores where the salvation as such is not total recovery from madness, but on the contrary madness becomes acute, insomuch the impossibility is perceived as normality and unseen (ghost) becomes “It is I”. It can therefore said, madness (foolishness) is the condition of possibility in which the impossible can be perceived as real, that is, belief in God. And it is God that is named by rationality as impossible.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Lie against the Holy Spirit: Case of Ananias and Sapphira

Acts 5:1-11
Anyone who reads the passage is immediately aware of the “sin” of Ananias and Sapphira. That is, in Peter’s words they ‘lied to the Holy Spirit’. And it is no surprise that in the Gospel of Luke that we see that “sin” against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven (Luke 12:10). And we could judge from words of Peter that the very ‘lie’ against the Holy Spirit could be reason enough for their punishment. But, if we relate the lying only to the level of deception for money, I think we are trivializing the judgment that befell them. The judgment goes beyond that, it is; ‘against the Holy Spirit’ that the whole action is centered. Before we come to this event, we read, that the whole community “were of one heart and soul … everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32). Following this we see that Barnabas, who was also part of the community, brings to the apostles the proceedings of the sale of his property in its entirety. This was the context in which the fateful Ananias and Sapphira event takes place. Therefore, the whole event is centered around the community that was of ‘one heart and soul’. This community was witnessing to the “resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 4:33), through the power of the Holy Spirit. Against this community that was functioning in and through the power of the Holy Spirit, is the action of Ananias and Sapphira should be judged.

In this context of Acts-community, Holy Spirit was not yet understood in terms of “Trinity” by the community (“Trinity” or Trinitarian theological construct comes only during the Church councils during the 4th century[1]). For the early community, Holy Spirit is the “promise” (Acts 1: 4-5) and ‘power … to witness,’ (Acts 1: 7-8) about the resurrected Jesus Christ to the world. This community was the very presence of Holy Spirit, as Zizek explains the Holy Spirit as, “community of believers linked by agape.”[2] This community is the living presence of God’s spirit as testimony to the world. This, presence of God, is characterized by the words of Jesus, as saying, “for where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Mt 18:20). This is the assurance of the presence of God in Spirit with the community that gathers in the name of Jesus. But, what kind of community holds this presence of God.

For Jesus, a community that can hold the presence of God is the one that holds no hierarchy, or even to the point, that it even reverses and nullifies it. Jesus said “whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all” (Mk 10:44ff; Lk 13; Mt 19). And moreover, Jesus’ call to the disciples is a radical one where he says “If any man come to Me and hate not his father and mother, and wife and children, and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.” (Lk 14:25-27). This call is not just leave his relatives (father, mother, wife, children, … )  but “hate” them. We could immediately sense that, this is the most scandalous saying of Jesus to his disciples. Jesus enacts this saying by asking “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” (Mt 12:48). But, this scandalous saying of ‘hating’, father, mother, wife and so on, as Zizek understands, is the real call for a community, which is “the core of democracy”[3], which negates power structure or hierarchy within the community of believers. These words are not be naïvely understood, that we should ‘hate’ our family, but we should ‘hate’ any kind of power construct that tries to impose hierarchy within the community. And only this community which is free of hierarchy and power struggles is an ideal community which generates ‘one heart and soul’ which paves way for the presence of the Holy Spirit.

It is against this view of Holy Spirit-filled-community that the event of Ananias and Sapphira needs to be read. It is here the ‘sin’ of Ananias and Sapphira becomes evident, that is; their deception disturbs the circle of community, by introducing the false humility and deception, thereby, gaining honour within the circle, and introducing hierarchy. They are not only trying to gain honour within the circle ‘greater honour than they deserved’[4]. Through their ‘hidden’ wealth they bring in another disruption of “hierarchy”. Ananias and Sapphira are now above the circle of egal by deceiving certain wealth from the community, thus subversively raising their position above others. This subversion of Ananias and Sapphira is, only seem to give to the community, while taking even more both in Honour and in Hierarchy above others, which is detestable and it disrupts the circle of the Holy Spirit community. And it is for that disruption they are removed from the circle.

And coming to the present day, the act of ‘giving’ to the church in various ways has become an exercise in extravaganza. Whoever gives the more, is honoured more and vice versa; and forgotten or those names which gives less in comparison to those who give ‘more’. This exercise of ‘giving’ and ‘donating’ for “God” which every church tries to promote by introducing various projects, right from selling DVD’s to building mega-churches, which or “innocent” ways of disrupting the circle of Holy Spirit community. Appallingly the church even preaches that whoever gives more ‘will be blessed more’. This understanding of giving as means of receiving more than others, by the way of giving ‘more’ is the disruption of the idea of benevolence and giving to the community. The blasphemy of preaching “whoever gives more receives more” is totally against the Holy Spirit community, which is the unforgivable ‘sin’. Even as Jesus witnessed those who give more (not everything) gave from their abundance, while those who gave little gave everything. This false understanding of giving to receive more is “grave” danger to the Holy Spirit community, which brings in total disruption to the community, by introducing hierarchy.  This hierarchy based understanding of benevolence and giving is the ‘sin’ against the Holy Spirit, which was judged so severely, in the life of Ananias and Sapphira.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Beautiful Gate (Acts 3:1-11)

Beautiful Gate

Acts 3:1-11

This passage tells us about two men (Peter and John) who were about to enter the Temple. And there they encounter a man with weakness (disabilities) and was left there to ask for alms from those who visit the Temple. The place where he sat was said to be called as Beautiful Gate. While religious people entered through this beautiful gate, this man, who was left to ask for alms. This as it may sound strange but this incident is often used in preaching and even we personally often question, why this disabled man near a beautiful gate. As noted earlier this is usually and very popularly preached and interpreted by preachers as “The ugly beggar at beautiful gate and how God touched and made him beautiful again”. Which I think is one horror in Biblical interpretation and a terrible cruelty meted out to the person in the passage.

Beautiful gate and the disabled people made to sit there (“People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple”). We note that “people would lay him there”, I think that’s the clue for us to identify the beautifulness of the gate. Temples had beautiful gates and these gates are decorated to have people who are weak and should ask for alms in their inability. Which invariably makes those who are religious and pious, who enter in feel good by dropping a penny. This act of almsgiving itself made the gate Beautiful for them. Sadly, religious institutions cultivate the idea of almsgiving as form of attaining salvation. J. L. Gillin a sociologist writes:

“charity became a means of securing forgiveness of sin to the giver, a means of grace. Almsgiving, no longer the means of primarily of helping a fellow-man in need, became fundamentally a method of washing away one's sins.”[1]

This is true in the case of Beautiful gate. What would the pious religious and guilty ridden patrons of the Temple do without someone to make them feel good and beautiful? That someone is arranged by the society and religious orders by bringing in and filling them with people who are without strength to sit and ask for alms. They are the ones actually bring beauty to the Gate, because through them these pious are made beautiful through their pittance of mercy in giving their alms. What a cruel system of so-called Beautiful gate?

I think Luke was deliberate in giving the name “Beautiful Gate” to the incident. Dennis Hamm notes that there were two gates to the Temple, one was called Nicanor Gate and the other Shushan Gate. The later was sometimes called as Beautiful Gate, but he says that it was a “poor place to beg”[2] because was not much used by the residents. But, in giving that name Hamm writes that, the authors “historical inaccuracy ... may, on another level, embody the deepest meaning of the historical event."[3] I think the deepest meaning of the event is to contradict the very meaning of “Beautiful” by presenting to us the ugly side of religious mechanism of alms giving.

And this event is subverted even further by bringing in two more into the scene (Peter and John), whose very words strike at the heart of the incident. They say “Look at us … I have no silver or gold”, this brings them to the alms receiver (beggar, I would like to avoid this word strongly) level. These are the real religious and pious, who could instantly identify with someone at the gate. Yes, Identify and not objectify them as means for salvation. Peter and John identified with that person who was left there for sake of others salvation in and through alms giving. But Peter and John subverted the whole idea of alms-giving as means of salvation to the point of becoming materially emptied in their self-identification.

What was their idea of salvation? “…What I have I give you…” what do they have? as aforementioned they don’t have silver or gold. But, they gave that man strength to “Stand up and walk”. Let us not romanticize it too much, and get carried away by the miracle story. The strength of the miracle is in strengthening and including the excluded by giving them strength. 

It is easy for the machinery of religion to make victims of weak and strength less by using them to display false piety and false humility. But those are only Beautiful Gates for the so-called religious to make themselves look good by casting away few pennies. How many campaigns have we see in religious institutions which display pictures of the weak in their website and in their so-called outreach programmes. Religious institutions in the name of charity and other horrendous names exploit people by displaying their tear stained and dishevelled faces and bodies just to make a feel-good of them-selves. A false humility and piety which are only Gates so called “Beautiful” Gates, these Gates don’t invite but only exclude the weak and the exploited.

But it is one who identifies with them has the power to include them. Those who have Silver and Gold can enter through any door secular or sacred without any discrimination. But those who have neither Silver nor Gold will have to create a building without Gates and doors but has only people as pillars (porticos v. 11) strengthening each other.

[1] J. L. Gillin, "Vagrancy and Begging", American Journal of Sociology 35, no.3 (Nov. 1929): 424-432.
[2] Dennis Hamm "Acts 3,1-10: The Healing of the Temple Beggar as Lucan Theology", Biblica 67, no. 3 (1986): 305-319.
[3] Ibid., 311.