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It’s Groundhog Day…Again

The alarm clock beeps incessantly. Morning again. Reaching over, he fumbles with it a little before finding the snooze button. A few more minutes won’t hurt. A few more minutes to rest.

But, he can’t sleep. His mind already swirls with thoughts of the day ahead. So much to do. Little details, big projects, meetings. It’s going to be a busy day.

And, when it’s done, what does he have to look forward to? Doing it all over again. Tomorrow morning, it will be the same: hit the snooze button a few times, get out of bed, and face the same job, the same tasks, the same routine. He feels like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, endlessly living the same day over and over again,trying desperately to hide from the pointlessness of it all.

But hey, at least it’s a paycheck. He’s got bills to pay and groceries to buy. After all, if he didn’t have this job, his family wouldn’t be able to enjoy the good things in life either. Living for the weekends, as they say.

So, he rolls out of bed, stumbles into the bathroom, and starts his own personal Groundhog Day all over again.

And along the way, he messes up the Gospel.

It’s pretty easy to understand what the Gospel has to do with Sunday. But what about the rest of the week? If the Gospel doesn’t have anything to say about this part of your life, then it leaves most of your life untouched.

And, that’s often the impression that we give when we talk about the Gospel. If the good news is primarily that I can have my sins forgiven so I can spend eternity with God, then my job has relatively little to do with the Gospel. For most of us, work is just a necessary evil. It lets us earn money and maybe provide the occasional opportunity to share the Gospel. And even those of us who actually enjoy our jobs have a hard time seeing how it relates to the Gospel. So, work becomes a Gospel-free zone. The Gospel is for Sundays. The rest of the week is about something else entirely.

That’s not how it’s supposed to be.

Remember how the story beings. Imagine Adam standing in the garden listening to God explain what he’s supposed to do. He’s standing in stunned silence trying to process what he’s just heard. Finally, after several slow seconds, he stammers, “You want me to take responsibility for the whole thing? Animals, plants, mountains, streams, oceans, everything? I’m supposed to watch over it all so that you can manifest your glory everywhere? Seriously? Do you see what the monkeys are doing over there? What made them think it would be a good idea to pick that stuff up and throw it at each other? Oh great, now the dogs are eating it. And you want me to be in charge of all this? Do I at least get vacations?”

God created us for work. He set us in creation and gave us work to do as one of the ways in which he would manifest his glory through us. And, if we fast-forward to the end of the story, we’ll see the same thing. The eternity that God has in store for us is not one of unending boredom, sitting on fluffy clouds playing our harps all day. Instead, it will be an eternity of work. Not the endless drudgery that work often is now. But, the joyful realization of our purpose: to serve in creation as God’s image bearers in the world.

So, what does all this have to do with today? How does this help us understand how our work relates to the Gospel? Because God has summoned us back into his kingdom so that we can again be what God always intended us to be, living in the world as citizens of the kingdom, image bearers.

The alarm beeps incessantly. It can’t possibly be morning again, can it? She rolls over and hits snooze. She knows he should get up. Busy day ahead. Of course, every day is busy. Pretty much the same. She looks forward to the weekend and getting some time with her family. It’s not that she hates her job, though she definitely doesn’t love it either. But she does enjoy her weekends.

She lays there for a while struggling with the apparently meaninglessness of it all. She doesn’t like working for just a paycheck. She wishes it could be more.

And then she remembers. Every day is an opportunity to live out her purpose in the world, to image God everywhere, helping people see his glory and through her. That doesn’t make all of the frustration go away. She’s still going to keep her eye out for a different job, one that fits her gifts and interests a little better. But, in the meantime, she’d better get up. She has work to do today.

[You can read the rest of the posts in this series on the Gospel book page.]

Eccentric Existence 7 (our everyday context)

The other context important for understanding human persons is that of our creaturely context – i.e. the world in which we find ourselves. And, since Kelsey prioritizes the wisdom literature, this means that he is going to analyze our creaturely context primarily by considering the everyday world of the wisdom writers.

He’s aware, though, that creaturely contexts vary wildly from one place to another and that it is, therefore, impossible to privilege one finite context as paradigmatic for all the others. So, rather than “absolutizing the quotidian” (193) of the wisdom literature, Kelsey instead seeks lessons from the wisdom literature applicable to all everyday realities. This means that our hermeneutic cannot move directly from the exhortations of the wisdom literature to specific practices in our own context. Instead, we have to understand why and how these constituted wise living in that creaturely context, so that we can be challenged to live similarly wisdom-shaped lives in our own context.

Our creaturely context also serves as the context for our most fundamental vocation. God created humans to live for the well being of one another and all creation. The “wisdom” of the wisdom literature, then, portrays primarily a way of living that seeks the well being of one’s whole environment. That is our vocation.

“This means that the very context into which we are born has the force of a vocation regarding our practices: human creatures are born into a vocation, called to be wise in their practices.” (194)

Once again, the literature provides more of a general shape for understanding that vocation than specific details regarding how vocation should be lived out.

Kelsey argues that emphasizing our creaturely context as viewed through the wisdom literature has three consequences.

1. Intrinsic limitations on anthropology

The fact that we can only understand humans as they exist in actual creaturely contexts means that there can be no absolute model for true humanity.

“the real and authentic human being is the ordinary, everyday human person….It is important because it warrants on theological grounds the abandonment of the notion of a perfect or the perfectly actualized human being.” (204)

Kelsey rejects the idea that even Adam/Eve and Jesus should be seen in this way. As we’ve seen, Kelsey does not believe that we should build our understanding of humanity from the Genesis narratives. And, while Jesus certainly modeled faithful humanity in his context, this is far different from being an almost platonic exemplar of perfect humanity. The other option for creating a more theoretical understanding of true humanity would be through the motif of the imago Dei. As we’ll see when we discuss the appendices to the work, though, Kelsey rejects this approach as well.

So, for Kelsey, we have no absolute model for true humanity. And, he thinks this frees us from an unhealthy attempt to strive toward some unrealizable, perfect standard.

“The idea that one might be a perfect human person who lacks nothing in regard to one’s human personhood presupposes that there is (a) a single scale of possible degrees of completeness which is (b) comprehensive of all the relevant respects in which a human person might be complete….and presupposes (c) that there is a ‘true’ self awaiting actualization, perhaps deep within, which serves as the norm by which to assess how fully self-actualization has occurred.” (205)

The intrinsic limits of a quotidian anthropology, then, constrict us to pursuing faithful humanity in our own everyday world, rather than pursuing an abstract and unachievable ideal.

2. Extrinsic limits on anthropology

I’ll say less about this, but Kelsey also points out that an emphasis on the everyday world means that we need to pay attention to the limitations that are placed upon us by our context. We are finite beings, bounded by the people and circumstances into which we are born. So, wise and faithful living will be shaped by our quotidian realities.

3. The ambiguous nature of our everyday existence

Finally, Kelsey contends that the wisdom literature portrays the quotidian as inherently ambiguous in several ways. At the very least it’s ambiguous because we’re finite beings living in diverse contexts. That means that discerning what “wise living” looks like in any given quotidian will be a challenging task. Further, humanity is ambiguous because we lack that abstract ideal that can show us what true humanity should look like. And, most significantly, the quotidian is ambiguous because of sin and evil.

This last point gets considerable attention from Kelsey. In a manner very similar to his discussion of creation, Kelsey argues that the wisdom literature makes no attempt at offering a theodicy. (He reads Job as dealing with the reality of sin, not explaining its existence.) Instead, it takes the reality of sin and evil for granted, and offers a way of living wisely in broken contexts. This means that the anthropology we have in the wisdom literature shows humans as acting in community, but in ways that often have correspondingly negative consequences for other people. For Kelsey, acting in the quotidian is always ambiguous because all such actions are embedded in broken realities and result in or contribute to sinful world structures.

The upshot of all this is that we are left without any clear picture of what it means to be truly human in any given quotidian. We can look at the life of Christ as model of what it looks like for one particular human to live a wise and faithful life in his everyday world, but that can only provide the shape and not the details of what it means for me to live a fully human life in my quotidian.

Eccentric Existence 2 (introduction and structure)

David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence undoubtedly ranks as one of the most significant works in theological anthropology of the last several decades. Indeed, I recently heard it described as the most significant theological work of the last decade. I’m still assessing whether I think it warrants that kind of praise, but such a comment does highlight one important feature of the book. Although its primary focal point is theological anthropology, Kelsey ranges broadly enough in his discussions that very few areas of theology are left untouched. Thus, it bears close consideration from anyone interested in contemporary theology.

The basic shape of Eccentric Existence runs as follows:

  • Introduction
  • Part One –  Created: Living on Borrowed Breath
  • Part Two – Consummated: Living on Borrowed Time
  • Part Three – Reconciled: Living by Another’s Dream
  • Codas

The first volume comprises the introduction and the first two parts, with the last part and the coda reserved for the second volume.

The created/consummated/reconciled framework is fundamental for how Kelsey understands the nature of a truly Christian theological anthropology, and we’ll look more closely at this in subsequent posts.

Another interesting structural feature of the book is the use of multiple “small print” chapters. Kelsey routinely introduces key ideas in the main part of his argument (e.g. the anthropological centrality of wisdom literature), developing them just enough for the reader to understand what he means and why these ideas are important for his argument. But, he’ll often refrain from offering an extended discussion and defense of these ideas within the course of the argument itself. Instead, he’ll  reserve that work for his small print chapters, which then function like really long footnotes. Of the 25 main chapters in the book, nearly half are accompanied by such small print discussions.

James K. A. Smith recently commented on Eccentric Existence and offered the following as a suggested reading plan for engaging the book.

If I were crafting a multiyear reading program for Eccentric Existence, I would recommend the following strategies to help non-theologians wade into its deep waters: On the first reading, I would suggest skipping (or merely skimming) those chapters set in smaller font. They are generally pursuing more technical questions and, at least on a first reading, can be treated as asides—though returning to them on a second reading will yield fruit for nontheologians, too. For an orientation, Introductions 1A, 2A, and 3A are necessary reading. The crucial chapter for understanding the architectonic of the book is chapter 3A. But I would also recommend that, relatively early (perhaps after reading 3A), readers skip to the final Coda (of three) at the end of the book: “Eccentric Existence as Imaging the Image of God” (pp. 1008-1051). This reads almost as an independent treatise (if one is familiar with chapter 3A) and does two important things: first, it explains how the three narratives of God relation’s to humanity are intertwined in Christ (as the image of God), and second, it explains why Kelsey does not use the imago Dei as the orienting image for his project. The latter is especially important given the prominence of appeals to “the image of God” in Christian scholarship.

This two-volume project runs to over a thousand pages by the time he’s done, so it will be impossible for me to survey everything that he addresses with any kind of adequacy. Instead, I will follow Kelsey reading plan to some extent. First, I’ll trace Kelsey’s argument through the main chapters of the book. Then, I’ll go back and comment on some of the more important/interesting small print chapters. And, finally, I’ll comment on the codas at the end of the book.

Relics and religious experience

Relics are easy to criticize. As Antonio Lambatti points in in a  recent post, some people do really goofy things in the name of venerating relics. (Anyone want a grilled cheese sandwich that looks like Jesus?) Such abuses, and their corresponding critiques, have been around for a very long time. The question is…why. Setting aside the question of whether there are true relics, why is the need/desire for relics so powerful that many people will participate in practices that seem (to many at least) rather absurd.

Lambatti offers the assessment that relics manifest a tendency to objectify the divine. People venerate relics out of a “need to see, to turn their idea of the divine into an object which is here with us on Earth.” And, I’m sure there is some truth to that. And, I wonder if the desire to objectify God doesn’t manifest an even deeper desire to control God’s presence so that he can be more reliably experienced. Rather than a spirit who blows where and when he wills, we have God’s presence infused into a physical object where he can be reliably encountered. I saw this dynamic at work when I was traveling in Israel. Many of the students I was traveling with were frustrated that they did not “experience” God the way that they expected when they visited certain holy sites. It’s as though they believed that these sites had been permanently infused with the divine presence such that they could expect to meet him there. They wanted a more predictable God. Now, certainly God can choose to offer a special manifestation of his presence in particular places (e.g. the temple) or things (e.g. the ark). But, that does not mean that either of these becomes a permanent locus of divine presence (note God’s presence leaving the temple) unless God covenants that it be so (e.g. communion). If I’m right, there may be a sense in which the use (and abuse) of relics has more to do with our desire to possess, and therefore control, God’s presence.

Reflecting on this a bit more, I wonder if the abuse of relics also suggests a failure to appreciate our own bodies, and consequently, the embodied nature of the church itself. People find in relics a tangible, physical expression of the divine, failing to realize that the primary locus of God’s presence in the world has always been in and through his embodied people – his “images” in the world (Adam and Eve, Israel, the Church, the eschatological people of God). That means that if we are looking for a tangible, physical point of connection for worship, we should look first to ourselves and to each other as embodied beings. Indeed, I wonder if the emphasis on relics isn’t a way of distancing ourselves from our own role as God’s images in the world. Rather than facing directly the awesome honor and responsibility that it is to be God’s physical image (i.e. idol) in the world, we can project at least some of that burden onto some other object and make that the tangible point of connection with the divine.

None of this is to say that we should denigrate the role of the physical in worship. I completely affirm that we are physical beings and that we can, indeed must, express ourselves physically in worship. And I greatly appreciate the renewed emphasis on physical worship that you find in some branches of evangelicalism. Done well, that could be a great way to deepen evangelical worship. But, if popular abuses of relics do indicate a strong tendency that humans in gneral have toward trying to control the divine presence and/or distancing ourselves from our own role in imaging God, then we would be wise to be mindful of these concerns as we deveop our own forms of physical worship.

The giant wobbly two-legged naked mole rat

Okay, I’m going to out on a bit of limb here. I mentioned a while back that I was doing some teaching with the high school group at my church on the gospel. Along the way, I’ve been doing some writing and trying to decide if I was going to try and work this into a book. Since my previous writing experience has been entirely academic, this is a very different style of writing for me. So, I may post something every now and then just to see what you think. I realize this is a bit risky since you are not really the audience I”m writing for, but I’ll take my chances.

To give you some context for responding, the basic idea is to tell a “thick Gospel narrative” – that is, to tell enough of the story for the good news to make sense – to a lay audience. You’ll see pretty quickly that I’m trying to have some fun with the material, even while engaging some significant issues.

With that background, let me throw a clip out there and see what you think. Right now I have this positioned as the beginning of a chapter on the imago Dei and how that relates to the Gospel. I’d appreciate any and all feedback you want to toss in my direction.

So, God is busy creating things. And, when God creates stuff, he usually does a pretty good job—mountains, canyons, oceans, rainbows, stars, chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream (okay, that one came later, but it’s still genius). I like to imagine that each time God finishes creating something, it joins all the others in watching what he’s going to do next. So, after God makes Earth and Sea they stand quietly together and look on as he makes the plants grow and bear fruit. I can even see Earth leaning over to Sea and whispering, “Ooh, kumquats!” Then Earth, Sea, and Kumquat watch in amazement as God produces Sun and Moon. And together they witness God’s creativity unfold as he makes Jellyfish, Dodo, Rhinoceros, Orangutan, and all the other animals that fill this new world. I’m sure that through the whole process, the world rang with the ooohs and aaahs of all creation as it bowed in amazement before God’s creative power.

As the sixth day drew to a close, I think they all knew that God’s work was reaching a crescendo. The firework-like display of God’s glory was reaching an end. Surely God must have something pretty impressive in mind for the grand finale. But, what could it be? What could possibly compare with the power and brilliance of Lightning and Thunder, the fragile beauty of Snowflake, or the nearly transparent wonder of Mist in the Morning? I can see all of creation leaning forward, holding its breath, wondering what God will do next.

Look, he’s doing something. I think this is it! What could it be?

Then, all creation watches in amazement as God brings creation to a climax and out steps….Um, what exactly is that?

“I think it’s another naked mole rat,” Dodo whispers.

“No,” Jellyfish responds, “It’s too big.”

“It looks pretty unsteady,” Rhinoceros says. “And, it only has two legs. I bet I can knock it down.”

Orangutan doesn’t say anything. He’s a little embarrassed for the new creature. It looks like God forgot to put the fur on. Maybe it’ll grow some later. Or, it could go roll in some mud.

And, they’re all thinking the same thing. This is the climax of God’s creation? This is his crowning achievement? What was God thinking? What is that?

We’ve already seen that the first part of God’s plan was to create the whole universe as a demonstration of his grace and glory. This would be his “place”, the theater in which he would accomplish his purpose. But, God had even more in mind:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)

Seriously? The giant wobbly two-legged naked mole rat that God just created is supposed to have something to do with his “image” and “likeness”? How can that be? What does that even mean?

Okay, fling away. But, be gentle. It’s Tuesday.

So, God is busy creating things. And, when God creates stuff, he usually does a pretty good job—mountains, canyons, oceans, rainbows, stars, chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream (okay, that one came later, but it’s still genius). I like to imagine that each time God finishes creating something, it joins all the others in watching what he’s going to do next. So, after God makes Earth and Sea they stand quietly together and look on as he makes the plants grow and bear fruit. I can even see Earth leaning over to Sea and whispering, “Ooh, kumquats!” Then Earth, Sea, and Kumquat watch in amazement as God produces Sun and Moon. And together they witness God’s creativity unfold as he makes Jellyfish, Dodo, Rhinoceros, Orangutan, and all the other animals that fill this new world. I’m sure that through the whole process, the world rang with the ooohs and aaahs of all creation as it bowed in amazement before God’s creative power.

As the sixth day drew to a close, I think they all knew that God’s work was reaching a crescendo. The firework-like display of God’s glory was reaching an end. Surely God must have something pretty impressive in mind for the grand finale. But, what could it be? What could possibly compare with the power and brilliance of Lightning and Thunder, the fragile beauty of Snowflake, or the nearly transparent wonder of Mist in the Morning? I can see all of creation leaning forward, holding its breath, wondering what God will do next.

Look, he’s doing something. I think this is it! What could it be?

Then, all creation watches in amazement as God brings creation to a climax and out steps….Um, what exactly is that?

“I think it’s another naked mole rat,” Dodo whispers.

“No,” Jellyfish responds, “It’s too big.”

“It looks pretty unsteady,” Rhinoceros says. “And, it only has two legs. I bet I can knock it down.”

Orangutan doesn’t say anything. He’s a little embarrassed for the new creature. It looks like God forgot to put the fur on. Maybe it’ll grow some later. Or, it could go roll in some mud.

And, they’re all thinking the same thing. This is the climax of God’s creation? This is his crowning achievement? What was God thinking? What is that?

We’ve already seen that the first part of God’s plan was to create the whole universe as a demonstration of his grace and glory. This would be his “place”, the theater in which he would accomplish his purpose. But, God had even more in mind:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)

Seriously? The giant wobbly two-legged naked mole rat that God just created is supposed to have something to do with his “image” and “likeness”? How can that be? What does that even mean?