Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Article Review: “Toward a Liturgical Existenialism” by Joseph Rivera


In the article “Toward a Liturgical Existentialism,” Joseph Rivera from  attempts to “situate Christian spirituality in view of a post-Heideggerian world..”[1] Effectively, the purpose is to improve existentialist phenomenology by infusing Christian liturgical spirituality into it. In his paper, Rivera compares the existentialist philosophy of Heidegger with French theologian and philosopher Jean-Yves Lacoste. To do this, he compares the two philosophers on a number of subjects: the world, existence and eschatology, and existence and the topology of the cross.

Brief Summary

The thesis of Rivera’s argument is that Christians should embrace a liturgical existentialism ordered by St. Augustine’s idea of an “incarnate pilgrimage.”[2] This method is contrasted against Lacoste’s asceticism which seeks to withdraw from the world like a monastic because pilgrimage engages with the world and critiques it so that the incarnation does not remain merely an event but an ongoing reality through the Church. To make his argument, Rivera uses the theological basis of Lacoste to argue for a Christianized understanding of Heideggarian existentialism. After he makes that juxtaposition, he clarifies some of the nuances in Lacoste’s proposals as a permutation between St. John of the Cross and Heidegger. To conclude the article, Rivera argues for is incarnate pilgrimage against Lacoste’s cloistered asceticism.

Critical Interaction

Rivera holds two obvious presuppsotions. The first is a commitment to the basic tenants of Heideggarian existentialism which is seen throughout his paper as it undergirds all of his major points. The second is his commitment to Catholicism. In catholic theology, the incarnation

is not seen just as a singular event but as a continuing reality through both the Church (who live as the Body of Christ) and the Eucharist (where the Church partakes of the Body of Christ). It is out of these two commitments that he derives his goal: to improve the catholic Christian understanding and engagement of Heidegger’s teachings by using and improving the methodology of Lacoste.
Lacoste reappropriated Heidegger’s work to focus mainly on the existential dimension of the Christian’s life in the world by arguing for “liturgical reduction” with an emphasis on the “corporate community of believers” instead of the traditional existentialist angst.[3] The main way this occurs in Lacostian analysis is replacing anxiety associated with one’s death with the death of Christ on the Cross as the “existential mode of being-in-the-world.”[4] Rivera replaces Lacoste’s conclusion of a contemplative and ecclesial existence before God which entails a withdrawal from the world.[5]
Rivera attempts to correct the tendency of Lacoste to bracket the world off from the space of the ascetic. His problem is with the idea that that Lacoste’s liturgical reduction has no application for the Christian who is “in the world but not of it” (i.e. a lay person who has “secular” employment). The negative theology of Lacoste has trouble explaining the Incarnation resulting in a “Christological imbalange.”[6] This is where Rivera’s use of Augustine’s idea of pilgrimage is pertinent. Given its participation in the perpetual reality of the Incarnation, the Church cannot withdraw from the world and engage it. This is an impeccable argument that is consistent with orthodox Christianity. The Church is called to bring God to the world, functioning as a “royal Priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9).
The two main theological and biblical perspectives advocated by Rivera in his paper are Christian pilgrimage and eschatoligcal hope. Augustinian pilgrimage is summarized in St. Augustine’s work City of God when he says, “by grace he was a pilgrim below, and by grace he was a citizen above.”[7] This avoids the “escapism” of the monastery while engaging the world with redemption in mind. Eschatological hope is summarized in 1 Cor. 13:12 (NRSV) when St. Paul says, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” It is the full realization of God in the world that transforms angst into hope that will be consummated and the completion of the pilgrimage.
It is hard to isolate any major weaknesses in Rivera’s argumentation. However, his biggest strength is in the divergence from Lacoste by staying true to Incarnational theology. Lacoste borders on Gnosticism when he argues that the world is an obstacle standing between humanity and God. Rivera stands in contrast to that by arguing for direct engagement with the world. It stands that in light of the Incarnation event (and subsequent ongoing Incarnations mentioned earlier), this is the proper praxis instead of withdrawel which is why the thesis of the article is proven.
Through his analysis, Rivera offers two points of application. The first is a basis for being in the world, also known as Christian living. The Christian should live in a way that brings God’s love to the world through any means they can. Lacoste’s view creates a dilemma for the Christian because they must choose secular or sacred but Rivera stays truer to the message of Christianity by arguing that they should transorm the secular into the sacred. The second is the eschatological hope. Christians should be anticipating the return of Christ as the ultimate resolution of their pilgramge and working to usher in the Kingdom of God.


In the end, it is clear Rivera builds a solid case for Augistinian pilgrimage. By doing so, he is able to engage Heidegger and Lacoste while maintaining a healthy theology based on the Incarnation and eschatology. While he showed te superiority of his methodology, Rivera leaves the reader with a few questions, mainly on the side of practicality. For example, he emphasizes the importance of engaging the world by bringing God’s love to it but he never gives a concrete explanation how that should be done. One is also forced to wonder how Augustinian theo-politics applies to Rivera’s thesis. That said, these issues are somewhat out of the scope of the paper so it makes sense for Rivera to remain silent on them. These topics would make for interesting future articles. 
Selected Bibliography

Rivera, Joseph. “Toward a Liturgical Existenialism.” New Blackfriars 94 (January 2013): 79-96.

[1] Joseph Rivera, “Toward a Liturgical Existentialism,” New Blackfriars 94 (January 2013), 79.

[2] Ibid., 95

[3] Ibid., 81-82

[4] Ibid., 82.

[5] Ibid., 83

[6] Ibid., 95.

[7] Ibid.

Friday, July 24, 2015

A Few New Life Mottos Courtesy of Thomas a Kempis

Today in the Church calendar is the day we reflect and remember Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471). He was best known for his book The Imitation of Christ.

Upon doing some reading of his works, I found a few quotes that would be decent life mottos.

"If, however, you seek Jesus in all things, you will surely find Him."

"If thou wilt receive profit, read with humility, simplicity, and faith, and seek not any time the fame of being learned."

"In angello cum libello (In a little corner with a little book)."

"In omnibus requiem quaesivi, sed non inveni, nisi, in hoexkens ende boexkens (I have sought everywhere for peace but I have found it not save in nooks and in books)."

Saturday, March 14, 2015

"I Will Betroth You to Me in Lovingkindness”: God’s Hesed in the Book of Hosea as an Apologetic Tool


According to Richard Dawkins:

"The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully." [1]

One example he finds grievous is the jealousy of God in the Old Testament, which he attributes to insecurity.[2] The caricature Dawkins’ describes is a deified infant, violently incapable of coping with humanity’s free will.

When taken as a whole, the Old Testament contradicts Dawkins’ hermeneutical train wreck. Over and over again, the stories echo of a God willing to pursue His chosen people out of love for them and the entire world (Genesis 12:3), despite suffering rejection. Anyone with a basic understanding of the covenantal relationship between God and His people understands the natural consequence of Israel’s infidelity was exile and loss of intimate fellowship with God.

Without the bigger picture, the consequences of Israel’s spiritual adultery may seem extreme. Given a more nuanced hermeneutic, the pain Israel suffered as a result of their actions was actually God’s providential method of getting their attention to guide them into renewed relational intimacy. God does not punish out of insecurity or abusiveness but with a corrective posture.

C.S. Lewis honed in on this truth in The Problem of Pain when he observed, “No doubt Pain as God’s megaphone is a terrible instrument; it may lead to final and unrepented rebellion. But it gives the only opportunity the bad man can have for amendment. It removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul.”[3] One of the most cogent Scriptural examples of this concept can be found in the prophet Hosea’s relationship with his unfaithful wife, Gomer.

Hosea and Gomer

The prophet Hosea ministered sometime in the eighth century to the pre-exilic Northern Kingdom of Israel. God instructed him to take a “wife of harlotry” with whom he was had three children (1:2, NASB). At some point, a cataclysmic shift in their relationship occurred and she left him, likely due to a relapse into her old ways. Even though Hosea felt confident in saying their relationship was over (2:12), God instructed him to “Go again, love a woman who is loved by her husband, yet an adulteress” (3:1a). The text never reveals what specific exploits Gomer had gotten into, but she was in slavery when he found her. Nevertheless, this was not a rapturous reunion at first. Gomer had to be broken of her habitually unfaithful behavior by being forced into seclusion (exile) before the relationship could be restored (3:3-4).

Hesed: God and His Adulterous People

            The unfolding drama in the book of Hosea is symbolic of God’s love for His idolatrous people. The purpose is to show God’s hesed. This Hebrew word can be found in 2:19 where God says, “I will betroth you to Me forever; Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice, in lovingkindness [hesed] and in compassion” (emphasis added). The NIV translates it as “love,” while the NLT says “unfailing love,” and the ESV chooses “steadfast love.” Although these are certainly good translations, they miss out on the fullness of the word. The more complete understanding is in the covenantal picture of a “life-long, faithful marital covenant.”[4] In light of this, God is depicted as “jealous” in Hosea (13:4-6; also see Exodus 34:14 and Deuteronomy 4:24). Yet, it is not a petty jealousness derived from psychotic narcissism. Rather, this jealousy is based on the violation of a sacred, covenantal relationship, making it wholly valid. If a husband is not jealous of his wife’s marital unfaithfulness, it is a cause for concern because it proves a lack of real love. So it is with God and His people.  

Hesed as an Apologetic Tool

            When Dawkins and other New Atheists provide their laundry list of objections to the God in the Bible, they attempt to show that God is petty and, as a result, created in our image. While Scripture as a whole contradicts this, the story of Hosea and the concept of hesed offers a tangible Old Testament counter-argument. The narrative shows His unrelenting and unconditional love. Even while His people reject Him, He continues to pursue with what Catholic mystic Brennan Manning describes as the “furious love of God” which “knows no shadow of alteration or change. It is reliable. And always tender.”[5] A jealousy rooted in insecurity is self-serving. However, jealousy based in covenantal depth creates an avenue for reconciliation and redemption. Hesed is the prophet willing to redeem his wife from her way of prostitution to restore their marriage. It is God willing to redeem His people from exile and restore their covenantal blessings. It is Christ crucified on the hard wood of the cross with his arms outstretched, inviting all to be rescued from sin and restored to himself. The rhythm of hesed drives the narrative of the Old Testament and salvation history as a whole. Maybe Richard Dawkins cannot see this but for Christians, it is evident that God is good and God is love (1 John 4:8). The value of this as an apologetics tool should not be overlooked.

[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 51.

[2] Ibid., 278-79.

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: Harper One, 2002), 605.

[4] Elizabeth Achtemeier, Minor Prophets I, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996), 28.

[5] Brennan Manning, The Furious Longing of God (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2009), 35. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Man of Sorrows: The Messianic Secret and The Relationship Between The Gospel of St. Mark and The Odyssey

"I am a man who's had his share of sorrows."-Odysseus (XIX, 130) 

"He was despised and rejected--a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief." Isaiah 53.3a

'Man of Sorrows,' what a name
For the Son of God who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim!
Hallelujah! what a Savior!

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned He stood;
Sealed my pardon with His blood;
Hallelujah! what a Savior! 

Guilty, vile, and helpless, we, 
Spotless Lamb of God was He;
Full redemption--can it be?
Hallelujah! what a Savior!

Lifted up was he to die,
'It is finished!' was His cry;
Now in heaven exalted high;
Hallelujah! what a Savior!

When he comes, our glorious King;
To His kingdom us to bring,
Then anew this song we'll sing
Hallelujah! what a Savior! 

When it comes to studying the Gospels, there are two categories we use to distinguish the purpose of the books:the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and the Gospel of St. John. John deserves its own category because it was written later and includes more theological nuance than the other three.

Out of the three Synoptics, it's widely accepted that the Gospel of St. Mark was written before the other two. We know this because it's shorter, the writing is simpler than the other two (although the writer of Mark is still deserving of accolades...I'll explain in a minute), and a lot of the content of Mark can be found in Matthew and Luke.

Matthew and Luke also share content with each other that's not in Mark meaning whichever was written earlier could have been used as a source for the other. What's more likely however is that there is a document we don't have which served as a common source for them both (scholars call this document Q).

What I'm trying to say is Mark was written first. It was also written to a primarily Greco-Roman, gentile audience. This is evident by the lack of a Jewish family tree at the beginning and the explanation of Jewish terms and customs, as well as some other factors we'll discuss momentarily.

One of the interesting aspects of Mark is its use of a literary device called The Messianic Secret. In each of its uses, a person identifies Christ as the Messiah only to have Christ instruct them to keep it a secret, though they don't always follow his command. Consider the following examples:

  • The healing of the leper (Mark 1.43-45a NLT): "Then Jesus sent him on his way with a stern warning: 'Don't tell anyone about this. Instead, go to the priest and let him examine you. Take along the offering required in the law of Mose for those who have been healed of leprosy. This will be a public testimony that you have been cleansed.' But the man went and spread the word, proclaiming to everyone what had happened..." 
  • His use of parables to explain the mystery (or secret) of the Kingdom of God (Mark 4.11): "You are permitted to understand the secret of the Kingdom of God. But I use parable for everything I say to outsiders."
  • Peter's confession (Mark 8.29-30): "Then [Jesus] asked them, 'But who do you say I am?' Peter replied, 'You are the Messiah.' But Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him." 

"What does all this have to do with The Odyssey?" You're probably asking.

The Odyssey is an old book, probably hundreds of years older than the New Testament. The events of the Trojan War occurred most likely in the 1180's B.C.E. The story itself had to post-date the war and probably took quite some time to compile. Either way, it's old. 

For those unfamiliar with the plot, the story is about a Greek war hero and smooth talker named Odysseus who is striving to get home to his wife and son after the Trojan War against all odds. He is constantly being prevented from reaching his destination by mishaps and direct attacks from the gods (Poseidon in particular). Odysseus is "a man who's had his share of sorrows," (by the way, this is where the song "Man of Constant Sorrow" from O Brother Where Art Thou comes from but also has a strange biblical parallel in Isaiah 53.3) after having to see many of his men die and face the likelihood of never reaching home.

However, due to a twist in fate, Odysseus reaches his home only to find a pack of suitors trying to court his wife, assuming he is dead. Instead of facing them head on, he disguises himself as an old man, revealing himself to only particular people until the day where he cast off his disguise, killed the suitors, and reclaimed his wife and kingdom.

So again, what does this have to do with the account in St. Mark? First of all, it should be noted that early Christians were more than willing to typify the Christ story using the narratives of cultural legends or myths. For example, Christ was commonly depicted as a phoenix rising out of the ashes in early Christian art. Second of all, there is a Scriptural example which uses this kind of apologetic: Paul's address at Mars Hill where he draws from pagan poetry and philosophy to proclaim Christ as God (Acts 17). 

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego joined by Christ (the Phoenix) in the Fiery Furnace

There's a lot of symbolism going on here but notice the birds above the man's shoulders (it's possible one of those is also a Pelican as that was a common symbol for Christ as well). 
What I'm suggesting by all this is a common thread between the Christ story and The Odyssey. It is very possible that there only a finite number of stories and Christ-figures (even the flawed ones) like Odysseus speak to us on some kind of basic human level and the connection is accidental. However, given what we know about the Gospel of St. Mark, it seems very possible the writer incorporated some of the literary devices from The Odyssey as a way to hint at a symbolic relationship in the mind of his audience. This is why I hesitate when people call the writing in Mark primitive. While the language may be more simplistic, there's genius in the structure. 

The story pattern makes sense. A king reaches his home after being gone, secretly revealing himself to a chosen few until the moment of great revelation arrives and he can take back what is his. This is the Gospel story (with a few tweaks). Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ comes to earth "disguised" as a human being, revealing himself to his chosen few until the day of his ascension. As followers of Christ, our role is to participate with him in the redeeming of our world so he can take back what is his. It's really quite beautiful and gives us another literary angle with which to read the Gospel according to St. Mark.