Feminine Friday – In Three Acts

Act 1

Outside my office window is a small green courtyard. The warm spring air has just begun to draw a few souls out to the four circled benches. A woman in her eighties wearing a kerchief is sitting on a bench warmed in the sun.  There is another woman, also in her eighties wearing a kerchief, carrying a flower who slowly walks up to the seated lady. Upon meeting, the lady who is standing gives the flower to the woman sitting down. After receiving the flower she looks at it for a moment and slowly lifts it to her nose and smells it. She then proceeds to gently pat the bench with her hand. The standing woman sits down and they begin to talk. About twenty minutes later they walk off together.

 

Act 2

I am on bus #71 heading to Seven Oaks Hospital for a visit. With my head down in a book I hear a raised voice,
Stop staring
Another voice calls back
- I can look wherever I want

It is a young indigenous woman probably still a teenager confronting a middle-aged white man wearing sunglasses. The confrontation continues.

No you can’t look wherever you want. Stop starting at me.
- You’re crazy
- Don’t make me sound like I’m wrong. You’re the one staring, you’re creeping out my cousin
(sitting next to her).
- What? I can’t look out a window?
- No, you can’t look out my window
.

This back and forth goes on for a little while. Until the man finally stops responding. The woman begins talking with her friend saying things like how tired she is of being treated this way (of how aboriginals are still treated this way). She is sick of it. I have so many thoughts going through my head. She is resolute. Unyielding. I am proud of her. I respect her. I want to speak words of affirmation but what would that mean come from a white dude? She doesn’t need me, she doesn’t need my affirmation to know what she was doing was right. But still wouldn’t it just be good to affirm someone . . .
As I am performing my ethical dialectics a black woman, probably in her 50s, stands up and goes over to the young woman. You can see the energy pulsate in her body. She puts her hand on the woman’s shoulder and whispers in her ear. I can’t make it out. I think I hear the phrase ‘stand up’. From all that I can tell she is strongly affirming what the young woman did.
I was piecing this all together on the fly. I was following the script and in that time I had already laid it out its ending. Surely there should be a moment of meaningful acknowledgement; a recognition of their solidarity and support. But no. In respond to whatever was said to her the young woman replied in a deadpan, almost sarcastic voice OK.

This disrupted my thoughts. All I could do was speculate. Why was she unable to receive sheer affirmation? Was it too vulnerable? Did she actually not care? She did say she was sick. Sick of being treated like an object for manipulation. How could you receive affirmation from a stranger when the outside world, your environment, made you sick? And then I thought of the middle aged woman. What had this evoked in her? I didn’t want to think of it. I could see it viscerally in how she held herself next to the woman. Whatever was happening there it was powerful but it was not my script.

 

Act 3

I arrive at Seven Oaks Hospital. I have been there often enough now that it does not take me too long to find patients, as the building is cleared modeled after some medieval conception of hell. I need to gently wake up the elderly woman lying in bed. I don’t really know what is wrong with her. I don’t think she has family in church. She can’t really talk because she is a little confused and does not have her dentures in. There is some recognition, some connection. I ask if I can pray for her. She nods. I do.
She looks into my eyes.  We are leaning fairly close together now after the prayer. She keeps looking into my eyes. She raises her hand and lays it against my cheek. Her hand is unexpectedly and overwhelmingly soft, like innocence. She holds it there for a moment and then brings it back down. We say goodbye and I leave.

 

These are the scenes. I would like to weave them into something more but they have already defied my discourse. They strike me as foreign. They do not reflect my form. My postures rarely take time for simple deliberate gestures. My expressions are weak introducing too much nuance and so dance around the enemy, lending him strength. My acts are not unnervingly gentle.

Barber and the Naming of God – Review Excerpt

Excerpt from a forthcoming review in Mennonite Quarterly Review.

Daniel Colucciello Barber. Deleuze and the Naming of God: Post-Secularism and the Future of Immanence. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014.

The question of God is not one that can be answered with a yes or no. What is evoked in these questions “is the task of imaging a world, the task of world-making.” With God – or at least the name of God – “the stakes of world-making are pushed to the highest degree” (3). With this orientation Daniel Barber furthers his project of exploring the implications of Deleuzian immanence in the context of religion and secularism. Barber challenges the notion that the critical question is between religion and secularity by claiming that religion (as Christianity or defined by Christianity) and secularism work under the same supercessionist logic that is able to name and position all non-adherents; as Christianity re-positioned Judaism and eventually non-Christian or heretical others so to secularism re-positioned Christianity and religion in general.

. . .

Chapter 6 takes up the challenge of what it means to give attention to the present without escape to another world (whether religious or secular). One example is the life of Malcom X, born Malcom Little. Little did not change his name but marked the site of a name with an X. This X demanded attention to the present because of its constant reminder of a now inaccessible genealogy of his past, his marking under the Christian colonial naming in the present, and his refusal of effacing the present by taking on some eschatological future name. The X remained and resisted the present, opening new possibilities. Barber concludes the chapter with a section called The Fabulation of Icons. This section returns us to the opening comments regarding imagination, politics, and the naming of God. At some point all these elements converge on particular types of story-telling. We are told a story that the question of God can be answered with a yes or no but this and other stories keep us from asking the question of yes or no with regards to capitalism, nationalism, and other ideologies. In the face of these competing imaginations Barber proposes the act of fabulation which “names the capacity to tell a story that outstrips the criteria that would decide on its truth or falsity.” (200) A fable takes the materials of the present and creates an account that refuses the present criteria of truth or falsity and so opens a space for the new. These accounts come most clearly from a place of suffering because suffering demands attention to the present but is itself already outside the discourses of truth (inasmuch as suffering remains senseless).

 

The practice of Critical Conversation: What are we doing when we study?

For two years now a small group has been gathering monthly for what has been called Critical Conversation (CC). In practice, CC is a reading group. Different individuals suggest articles, they are posted online, people read them (or not), and we gather to discuss them. After two years of this practice it seems like an appropriate time for some reflection.

The initial motivation for this group came from conversations I had with Aiden Enns (editor of Geez magazine). We connected over shared interests and over a lack of context in which to engage those interests. What were those interests? As we talked more and as we thought about some sort of reading group we came up with this statement now posted in the ‘About’ section of our website,

You are invited to join us for Critical Conversation. We hope to read and discuss materials that help us identify, understand and constructively engage the systems and expressions among us and within us that promote destructive forms of privilege for some groups to the detriment of others.

We see a lack of opportunity for this sort of dialogue within our culture and particularly within our churches. We see this form of engagement as part of assembling the message and work of good news from the materials of the present age.

Our readings fall broadly under the category of “critical theory and theology.” This includes influences from political/liberation theology, feminism, queer and race theory, marxist/socialist/anarchist thought, and philosophy of religion.

So what sort of opportunity has CC become? First, it is apparent this is not something many people want to do or have the time to do. We meet during the day over lunch and so this immediately excludes some people (as it would exclude others if we met in the evening) and we pick texts that are often, at best, difficult to understand after one reading. This group is limited in its accessibility and challenging in what it asks of people. This group has not had the problem of having too many voices around the table. That being said, we continue to have a stable and committed core of individuals as well as those who come and go. It is clear that such an opportunity is important to some people.

While we publicized this group to anyone interested, the group continues to reflect the circles we most commonly reside in. Most of the people who attend have some connection to the Mennonite world; a few are pastors, a few work for Mennonite organizations, or have studied at Mennonite schools, and for the others the connection has been more informal or indirect. The Mennonite church or ethos broadly informs our reading and discussion. However, what has proved unique in this context is that there is no explicit ‘over-sight’ in the conversation or thinking as it relates to things Mennonite. There is no shared commitment to the inherent value of Mennonite theology or institutions (or the church in general for that matter). Conversely, there is no shared commitment against these things. What I have come to value in this space and opportunity is being freed from the basic antagonism or false option of defending or discrediting the faith. There is very little policing in what people are allowed to say or propose other than the willingness to have it further examined and perhaps challenged. The commitment is to see what comes from the conversation itself. The event drives and directs where we go.

So again, what is this opportunity, what is this space in which we gather and what do we perform there? We do not gather as the church and it has never been advertised as a program of a local church or of the Mennonite conference. However, we meet inside a building owned by a Mennonite church and many of us are professionally employed or trained through the Mennonite church. This gathering is also not a class, we are not a school, though we rely heavily on the university structure and the type of work and insights it produces. We have also had two graduate students present their own original research for consideration. There are no tuition fees and no credit or diploma will be given.

To borrow a term developed by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney this space is one opportunity to study.[1] They deploy this term not in a strict intellectual sense (though that of course is present). Rather, they view study as a sort of speculative practice. In an interview, Harney says,

A speculative practice is study in movement for me, . . . to speak in the midst of something, to interrupt the other kinds of study that might be going on, or might have just paused, that we pass through, that we may even been invited to join, this is study across bodies, across space, across things, this is study as a speculative practice.

Earlier Moten refers to this practice as a sort of irreducible convergence. Critical Conversation appears to be a group refusing to simply support the church but it has also refused to refuse the church. This double refusal has resulted in a particular gathering, an irreducible convergence that accepts the reality of the church’s institutional force and presence but cannot accept the church with the institutional tendency towards over-determining policy which Harney describes as a way of ‘thinking for others.’ So we gather for the opportunity of intervening in the church’s discourse, intervening in the academy’s discourse, and (as we can) intervening in the various social and economic discourses that affect us. Our practice as a group demonstrates that it is not possible to simply reject these things but that we also cannot be carried away by them.

To be clear I do not think Critical Conversation is a unique or original space. I agree with Moten and Harney who see this type of study happening in the arts, music, theatre, in the workplace, on the steps, at the bar, or out for a walk. However, I also cannot say that it is a common practice. For many people school and church (as well as family, work, and society) function as a finishing process, an accomplishment, and a security. To remain committed to study in contrast is to remain committed to “not finishing oneself, not passing, not completing.” It is an ongoing practice which will not live in the illusion of a world without institutions but will also not accept their presence as finally sovereign.

I have been relying on the work of Harvey and Moten to help me think through what happens as we gather for Critical Conversation. To borrow another phrase, I want to consider whether the opportunity taken at there is to work within and against the church. It is apparent that by and large the people gathered for this time do so somehow fall within the gaze of the church even if particular individuals do not move directly within its parameters. We remain invested in the impact and presence of the church and, as with Christians and non-Christians alike, it can still be difficult in the West to truly consider oneself outside the conditions established by the church. Within the Mennonite church we form a particular expression, a particular and contingent communion of those understanding that our study, our speculative practice, is performed precisely against the church to the extent that it immunizes itself to the presence and voice of those differing or dissenting with the finishing process inherent to institutions.

This opportunity is important because popular imagination still holds that there is only the choice of faith or atheism, religion or secularism. This opportunity is important for the church because the church cannot but remain in the binds of institutional realities. These realities are not all bad but they have to be called into question, challenged, studied or they will move easily into the posture of a sovereign voice that will silence ‘weaker’ voices. This expression of study, this speculative practice within and against the church, invites all those once rejected, avoided or silenced by the church and it calls to those who still cannot help but resonate with the witness of the Gospel, the unavoidable nature of worship, and the commitment to healing.

 

[1] The following references are all taken from Stephano Harvey and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013).

A Note on Thomas and Jesus

In John’s Gospel Thomas missed the worship service where Jesus revealed himself to the disciples. So while the disciples did not believe Mary’s earlier encounter, so too Thomas did not believe the disciples. Like many biblical characters the figure of Thomas has received many interpretations. He has been characterized as a dull and unwilling to believe. Others, particularly in the modern period began to look to him as an image of sound realism with a commitment to be swayed only by the facts. As is so often the case our reading of the Bible becomes a way to project and promote our own values. Most simply what we find in the text is that Thomas was really no different than the disciples who do not believe Mary.

The challenge then is to understand the significance of Thomas not only seeing but feeling, entering into, the wounds of Jesus. What does this mean? I find it hard to speak about this encounter. Some theologians have referred to the intimacy of this scene, pointing to the symbolic eroticism in which the wound and side of Jesus are cast as feminine. When Jesus’s side was pierced on the cross and blood and water flowed from it some theologians read this as the place where the church is birthed. And so some have read Thomas as experiencing an intimate union with Christ in this scene. However, we also cannot forget that these are wounds. These spaces are the result of the violent transgression of Jesus’s body and here is Thomas re-enacting that violence. With his nails and a spear Thomas is getting his proof.

Reflecting on these possible images I feel unable to offer some clear reading of this scene. The best I can do is point to it as a powerful account of how fine the line is between intimate vulnerability and the abuse of power, the demand of vulnerability. And furthermore point to this image as happening within the church and how the church is called to steward that vulnerability and guard against its abuse. The church in this scene is trying to keep its doors closed to protect itself for fear of the world around it but Jesus reminds them that the possibility of intimacy as well as the sources and gestures of evil are pervasive.

A boring chaos

It is a thinly veiled dirty secret that I still follow The Ultimate Fighting Championship (The ‘original’ MMA). In the days before the internet (well at least in my world) the corner store in Altona, isolated on the southern plains of Manitoba, somehow acquired VHS copies of the first UFC bouts. In 1993 alongside copies of White Men Can’t Jump and A Few Good Men there was the striking image of a man with large fists standing above a globe. On the back were images of men . . . in cage . . . fighting. As a straight ahead hetero teenage boy that was enough. I quickly found out that these events answered the primordial fascination of who was the best fighter. Prior to this, in my mind, this usually played out in terms of animal differences (who would win between a bear and a tiger).

The early events were in an experiment in the bizarre. There were very few rules. No biting. No eye gouging. There was of course the boundaries of the cage and the limit of one-on-one combat. There was a boxer with one boxing glove on so he could hold on to his opponent with the other. There was a sumo wrestler who had his tooth kicked out that went flying into the audience.  One of the early tournaments vividly demonstrated the need to employ a no groin striking rule. And in the early years it could not have been scripted better with the 180 lb jujitsu fighter winning most of the tournaments.

What I find interesting about these events is how they have adapted. All these fighting techniques had internal disciplines that had their own logic and history. When these disciples brought into contact with each other, when their authority over particular boundaries and limits was removed, they had to adjust in direct relation to their opponent. While there was a visceral and at times chaotic clash when these disciples first met each other something very interesting happened within the first few years. The events became boring.

There were no rounds and no time limits and so the best fighters were the most strategic and the most patient. The final event often saw the two fighters locked in a grappling position for half an hour. It was like a chess match . . .  but with less action. What happened? The rules changed. It is true that some of the rules changed to protect the fighters but the most significant rules were the ones that created more action. One rule was to create shorter rounds with an overall time limit. This meant that fighters would have to be stood up occasionally (which usually meant more ‘action’). This also introduced a point scoring system if a fighter was not knocked out or submitted within the time limit. The points were based in part on, literally, ‘aggression’ and ‘control’. The most interesting rule was the one where the referee had the fighters stand-up if they were not working. In fact you could often hear the referee say, Come you guys, I need to you to work, or I’ll stand you up. The law was introduced to produce more violence, more action. There was an inscribed notion of what it was to ‘work’ for your employer; expectation for compensation.

There remains the lie which says that without rules chaos will reign. Around the same time that UFC began I was in high school and in my social studies class we were asked to write a brief reflection on what would happen if there were no laws. Apparently I was the only one who said that after a period of chaos and re-adjustment there would be a time when people would negotiate what would be mutually beneficial. This is in fact what happened in the UFC. But for it to profitable there needed to be the creation of more work.

I will readily admit that this imagery has its limitations. I am not an anarchist. However, there remains the illusion that we need the law to stem chaos and violence when, at least in many instances, it is the law that creates or instigates it. This was also the case with sports. I remember people talking about the need for referees in minor sports. Well, sure, when you have an applied structure of victory and defeat stirred by anxious and aggressive parents. But when, in junior high, we played basketball on the weekend by ourselves we somehow had no (or little) problem monitoring our play. The worst case scenario was that we just stopped playing. But we wanted to play. So we returned and figured it out.

Again, I am not trying to abstract this beyond its limits, however, I think even in the case of the church (which in my tradition tries to be voluntarist) we can learn from this gathering and re-gathering. A gathering not proscribed by external claims to ‘holy order’ but developed through ongoing engagement with each other, with our tradition, and beyond our tradition.

Yoder’s Theology of Mission

I just finished writing a review of John Howard Yoder’s Theology of Mission. The book is a transcription of the course he taught Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries for over two decades. The text itself comes from recordings in the mid-70s. As can be expected, Yoder offers insightful readings of scripture and applies his anti-constantianism to the history and theology of mission. I thought I would post an excerpt of the review in case anyone is interested in further conversation.

Working towards a sort of climax Yoder draws closer to the basic questions of Christianity in relation to other religions. Until this point Yoder outlined an image of the church in mission that needed to repent of and reject past complicity with colonial projects. However, it remains an open question as to whether Yoder actually addresses the underlying logic that led to the destructive elements of the church’s mission. Yoder makes two claims in these final chapters that will need to be acknowledged and engaged by future theologians in this field. First, Yoder addresses the designation of ‘religion’ as an interpretive category and asserts that “what Christians must talk about is Jesus Christ not Christianity as religion or culture” (397). This position comes into tension with the second claim Yoder makes regarding other religions and ‘post-Christian’ movements. Yoder does not advocate active proselytizing of Hindus and Buddhists but articulates how they are changed when they come into contact with Jesus. Then with respect to post-Christian movements (anything from Islam to Marxism) Yoder positions them as “derived from a Christianity that lost its way” (385). This language sounds too much like an expression that is able to retain a pure ‘kernel’ of truth that remains unassailable in the face of experiences. In Yoder’s theology of mission Jesus functions as that which cannot be wrong.

This book is an important contribution to what is at present a controversial topic. Yoder calls on the church to live out of its particular history and formation. This means confessing the wrongs that came from it and returning again (and again) to the biblical witness which points the church towards a communal and migratory understanding of mission. These are welcome correctives to many supercessionist theologies of mission. The question that remains untouched is whether Yoder actually steers the church away from a theology that will always encroach, always insulate itself from receiving good news outside of (and perhaps otherwise than) its particularity; a theology of mission that can’t help but determine the question of salvation for others. The Mennonite church is currently not of one mind on this issue but the question continues to inform and challenge any present or future theology of mission.

The Excessive If Love in Hadewijch’s Complete Works

I. Introduction
II.  Univocity in the Medieval Period
III. The Trajectory of Univocity to Immanence
IV. The Conceptual Paradigm of Immanence in Deleuze

V. The Excessive If Love in Hadewijch’s Complete Works

The typical way of conceptually situating Hadewijch is to place her somewhere within the expressions related to neoplatonism.[1] This is understandable given both her intellectual setting as well as a number of her Letters and Visions. Continue reading