Margins, Liminal Spaces, and Liberation

“Even the margins have margins.” – Bishop Yvette Flunders

One of the most wonderful parts of being at the American Baptist Seminary of the West is the diversity of the student body. Interim President Nick Carter recently shared that the student body is (and hopefully I’m remembering these percentages right), 38% African American, 38% Asian, 12% Caucasian, and 8% Hispanic. This is particularly helpful when engaging theologies which are not centered on white experience and ideas.

Perhaps the most exciting moment in my first year at ABSW was in the Intro to Theology course taught by Professor Grandison, when we began talking about Liberation Theology. I was so excited because I recognized this theology – a theology of centering the experience of an oppressed or powerless group, as opposed to the dominant theological narrative which is centered in Western (European Colonial) experience. The First Baptist Church of Berkeley lived out a LGBTQ Liberation Theology. It was not perfect in this endeavor, but it did center narratives that included experiences that were not the dominant narrative – cisgendered (though that term wasn’t in use then), heteronormative, male, and white. By centering narratives of women, of non-binary gendered people, of trans people, of gay and lesbian and queer people, new ways of understanding the Word (both scripture, and the incarnate Word as Jesus Christ) as siding with the oppressed, and liberating not just the oppressed (from second tier status to a status of equitable position) but also the oppressor (from limiting mindsets which prevent identifying the full humanity of others, and also denying their own full inclusion in humanity because of this separation).

Even more exciting than being able to put a name to this theology, however, was the realization that there were many iterations of Liberation theology – narratives that were from the point of view of Hispanic, Black, Feminist, Korean, Indian, African, and more. ABSW became a perfect school in that as we began to engage Black Liberation Theology, I was able to glean a deeper understanding by engaging in discussion with my fellow students who were Black. I learned that Liberation theology was nuanced, and there was a difference between Black Liberation and Womanist Theologies, because the experience of Black Women in the church was different and unique compared over and against the experience of Black people as a whole. When I encountered Minjung (Korean) Liberation theology – I could speak with my fellow students who were from Korea, who had an experience both in their country of origin, and here in America that I never will. I had classmates across the LGBTQ spectrum in the wider GTU, and my encounters with them helped me see that for all that we had made progress, there were still new and painful ways to marginalize people. Every encounter with another facet of Liberation theology helped me grasp more and more of the amazing depths that were the lives, experiences and encounters with the living God, from the perspectives of others. It is a deep pool – you could dive down for your entire life and not reach the bottom.

As my conversations and friendships with my classmates grew more and more intense, I came to see how important the inclusion of people who are very different from myself was. Because when it comes down to it, we have more in common with one another as Children of God than we have differences. And what differences we do have, God gave to us – they are meant to be celebrated and shared. I see it as being a way that God helps us to better understand Godself and the universe. If we are willing to share our understanding, our encounters, our vision not just of God and Christ, but also the Heavenly Realm and how it should be manifested in the here and now, and we are really willing to listen, there is a chance that more of God will be revealed to us.

In order to foster an environment where someone can talk about something as important as what Tillich called the “Ultimate Concern,” we should practice Radical Hospitality, and Radical Inclusion. Inclusion is a difficult concept to practice, because the easiest form of Inclusion means getting others to adapt to the dominant group’s idea of normal or typical. Radical Inclusion turns this on its head by decentering any idea of normal and instead creating a dynamic of acceptance of everyone for who they are, as they are, without conformity being required. It means thinking about how people who have atypical needs are included. It means thinking about how to make someone who is on the margins feel comfortable – not just in words, although definitely in the words that we use (preferred pronouns are a good start in this direction) because they are important, but also in our actions, our spaces, and our patterns of worship, and our conversations. It means focusing on alternative narratives to the dominant, white, male, Christian, cisgendered, heteronormative – not because there is nothing of worth in that perspective, but because that perspective is already so pervasive, that people are silenced when the “normative” opinion is asserted. In so doing, I can help build liminal spaces, spaces “between” the “main stream” and the margins, spaces we can all occupy. These liminal spaces, sacred as all liminal spaces are in their very nature, become critical to the process of Radical Hospitality, and Radical Inclusion.

The challenge for me in Radical Inclusion and Radical Hospitality is that it means often I must be silent if I want to learn. That is difficult, really almost painful for me – I like to talk. I like to talk through ideas until I understand them better. But silence can be how I practice Radical Hospitality in a space where people on the margins are present. Creator God, grant me patience so I may learn.

Docetism, Justin Martyr, and the Logos Afire

As I read Olson and English’s Pocket History of Theology for my Constructive Theology course at ABSW, I find myself drawn to the heresies and theological struggles of the early church. Some I find more palatable than others. Below is my No and then my Yes to the ideas I found expressed in the extremely rapid but serviceable overview that the Pocket History provides of the early church fathers and heretics’ theologies.

NO – “In Gnostic teachings, Christ became an immaterial spiritual messenger sent down from the unknown and unknowable God to rescue and bring home the stray sparks of his own being that had become trapped in material bodies.” (p.10) I can appreciate that the Gnostics were struggling to reconcile their understanding of divinity as expressed by Greek philosophy (divine logic as the True God behind all creation) and Jesus Christ, but their rejection of all things earthly pushes them too far out. There are many people pushing back and forth here, the Gnostics, the Apologists are simply the most obvious.

I find myself objecting to Gnosticism or at least Docetism on a fundamental level. There was no seeming to the incarnation of Christ. The full humanity of Jesus is incredibly important to me. If Jesus merely seemed to be human, than there is nothing worth striving for myself, because at least according to Docetic thought, my fleshly body renders me hopelessly trapped in corruption. But it is in Jesus the human, fully incarnate of Jesus the Logos of God, that I find my way to glimpsing the divine. I cannot wrap my head around the infinite, but by embracing finitude – by being fully human – Jesus allows me to view God, and perhaps comprehend some small part of endless love, unceasing compassion, and unending mercy. If that was a mere seeming – than there is no understanding to be gleaned in the life and works of Christ – they are as incomprehensible as the infinite night sky.

YES – “Justin was one of the first Christians to explain the Logos and Spirit concept in relation to [God] using the analogy of fire. The Son’s (Logos’s) generation from [God] in no way diminishes [God] because, like fire kindled from fire, ‘that from which many may be kindled is by no means made less, but remains the same.’” (pp. 15-16) Justin Martyr writes this in rejection of Gnostic ideals, and as an apology (explanation) to non-Christians of Christian theology – specifically to explain the incarnation of the Logos – a direct reference to the opening of John’s Gospel. While neither the Gospel, nor Martyr’s theology are explicitly Trinitarian, they are a step on the way to Trinitarianism.

For me this strikes quite close to home, as Justin’s focus on this mirrors some revelation I had of my own. The second sermon I had to preach in seminary was to a non-Trinitarian church on the opening to John’s Gospel. I focused on the idea of fire, not just as the Logos (or divine logic) but also drawing in the parallel frequently found in mystical faith traditions of envisioning the divine as Love and that love as fire. Just as the Greek Philosophers viewed the sparks from the divine fire to be that which allows humanity to have the power of reason, mystical traditions across not just Abrahamic, but also Near and Far Eastern religious thought have viewed the sparks of the divine loving God as being that which allows us to love. For the Greek philosopher to exist in a pure state of logic and philosophy was perfection. For the mystic, to exist in a pure state of love for all of creation was (is) perfection. Of course, as humans we will never quite accomplish that – but that renders the striving all the more noble. I hold that the divine fires of logic and love are the twin driving forces which render us capable of creating the Heavenly Realm in the here and now on earth. Together, our heads and our hearts lead us with mercy and forethought to building a better tomorrow for our children.

Perhaps I’m too enamored of my own theological musings, but almost two full years after parsing these ideas to write the sermon then, it still rings true to me now. I wonder what I’ll think 10 years from now, or 20. Hopefully, regardless of my opinion on Logos, fire, and Docetism, I will still be striving for a better understanding of the infinite God, unending love, and unceasing mercy, using the incarnation of Jesus as guide post and inspiration to help me as I strive to help build that Heavenly Realm in the here and now.

Writing For The Soul, Hope, and Metaphor (at best)

I write fiction from time to time. I make no comments on the quality of such fiction – usually of the speculative kind – but I found that I am surprisingly nit-picky about the ideas I use. When I’m deep in the flow of it all, or the inspiration, if you prefer, I can be brought up short by running into a gap in my story. I have friends who just keep plowing on, and are able to write the next part of the story. I cannot. Until I have resolved the jump from one idea to the next, I cannot keep writing. This has lead to days where I have been unable to write because I cannot form a specific sentence to accomplish the transition from one plot point to the next. Often, when I’m able to resolve the transition, it is when I’m able to hunker down and provide undivided attention to my story – making the leap from simply getting out the idea, from casually writing, to a feverish intensity where my story gains all my focus.

Writing for academic purposes actually hits me a bit differently. There I have an outline, and that helps me bridge the gap. But I also structure my environment differently. When I’m writing for my own pleasure and (perhaps one day) profit, I just plunk down and write in the midst of my family, not segregating myself from them except perhaps for my level of distractedness. When I am working on a paper for school – I make sure to clear a space in my schedule and in my home to be able to write with fewer interruptions.

But there is an inexactness that I experience when I’m writing about the divine – when writing theology – that I simply do not experience when I am writing fiction or even non-fiction about the real world. Part of this is the simple understanding that I cannot completely encapsulate God in words. If I could, there would be a disheartening finitude to my ultimate concern. All writing about anything truly divine is at least to some degree, done in metaphor. Even Jesus recorded parables instead are full of assertions: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a woman who has lost a coin…” Let’s be honest, if Jesus used metaphor to describe divine things, the best we can hope to do is the same. Sometimes that is frustrating because it feels like what I’m writing is false – and perhaps deliberately so – as I’m only catching one corner of the divine personage, one angle, that I happen to glimpse in the moment.

So I take well the admonition from Stephanie Paulsell in her “Writing as a Spiritual Discipline,” where she says: “We need the audacity to believe that our writing matters, to stick with a difficult task, to live a life that makes room for the discipline of writing. We also need the humility to know that our writing must always be under revision, to do slow, painstaking work with no immediate external rewards, to be writing to seek and receive the critical response of others. Allowing writing to focus our attention, we may have our capacity for attention honed and increased.”

The thing that I have found most helpful with my academic and theological writing is how it has forced me to more clearly articulate my half notions into full notions. To be able to communicate my understanding of the divine, however limited it may be, I have to get my idea sharp enough in focus to lay it out in a way that someone else can follow my logic. The side effect that Paulsell suggests of having my attention increased comes on the reverse side of the writing – it is not an after effect of the writing but an effect generated by the discipline of reading other ideas, growing my vocabulary and focus and creating the associated synthesis of ideas to express my own perspective. My attention grows as a result of exposure, and leaves me just a bit more perpetually aware, a bit more attentive as I challenge myself to find just the right words to express my thoughts.

This discipline is something that I have to forgive myself for failing in, and rededicate myself to often. It is too easy in a busy life to let my attention be split or fully diverted, to shirk the time needed to be set aside for writing and focusing my ideas. It is easy to let the internet, or a show, or my family demand my time – “spending my time” as if I am not instead choosing what I make priority. There is a way to strike a balance – I say this in hope because I have not managed it for longer than a week or so myself – between the discipline of being fully present for my family and being fully present for my writing.