Walking in the City: A Reflection on Michel de Certeau

Michel de Certeau – French Jesuit philosopher and social theorist (1925-1986)

Unlike Rome, New York has never learned the art of growing old by playing on all its pasts. Its present invents itself, from hour to hour, in the act of throwing away its previous accomplishments and challenging the future


Michel de Certeau – The Practice of Everyday Life

Whenever I walk in a city I inevitably think of the French philosopher Michel de Certeau and his remarkable essay, “Walking in the City.” Published in 1980 in The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau offers a fascinating dichotomy between two very different views of New York City. The first being a view of New York from the first World Trade Center. The second being a more intimate street view of the city. Two views, one city, and for de Certeau, a remarkable contrast between seeing the city with the celestial eye of a god and the more humble view of those who live “down below.” Describing his view from the World Trade,

Seeing Manhattan from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center. Beneath the haze stirred up by the winds, the urban island, a sea in the middle of the sea, lifts up the skyscrapers over Wall Street, sinks down at Greenwich, then rises again to the crests of Midtown, quietly passes over Central Park and finally undulates off into the distance beyond Harlem. A wave of verticals. Its agitation is momentarily arrested by vision. The gigantic mass is immobilized before the eyes. It is transformed into a texturology in which extremes coincide—extremes of ambition and degradation, brutal oppositions of races and styles, contrasts between yesterday’s building, already transformed into trash cans, and today’s urban irruptions that block out its space.

Standing in the new World Trade Center, my mind couldn’t help but wonder at what de Certeau would see. What would he think about this view? How would he see this new “wave of verticals” spanning the horizon?  Today, the views of the new World Trade Center still reveal that same celestial godlike kingdom he saw nearly 40 years ago. From the observation deck, the entire world lies before your eyes. The city bursts forth across Manhattan, and consumes Midtown and Harlem in a “gigantic mass” with seemingly no barriers to impede its progress. Indeed, even nature is subdued by the city as it spills across the natural barriers of the Hudson and East rivers into Jersey City, Queens, and Brooklyn.

Today’s view obscures nothing and everything. Moreover, you can still see all within this celestial kingdom. Like a god, you observe the brutal endurance of the old as the city fights against its past. New construction in Hudson yards challenges the city. Glass and steel hover over Midtown’s brick and mortar past. The financial district rules the city with temples of commerce and banking as older buildings slip further and further from view. From on high, even the Empire State Building seems quaint when reduced to one building among thousands.

And yet, today’s view also obscures everything. The view from on top reduces the city to a view. Enclosed within the glass of the observation deck, the city becomes an object. It’s the concept city that only an architect could appreciate. There’s no sound, no city noise to remind you that you’re still in the city. A city without people, this celestial kingdom is void of life. Are you still in New York? It’s hard to say looking down from 1,250 feet. Truly you can see everything, but what you see isn’t the city. It’s just a sea of buildings, construction, and architecture. In de Certeau’s words,

To be lifted to the summit of the World Trade Center is to be lifted out of the city’s grasp. One’s body is no longer clasped by the streets that turn and return it according to an anonymous law; nor is it possessed, whether as player or played, by the rumble of so many differences and by the nervousness of New York traffic. When one goes up there, he leaves behind the mass that carries off and mixes up in itself any identity of authors or spectators.

Thus, to return to the city is akin to what de Certeau calls an “Icarian fall.” You leave this fiction, this place of the gods, to take your place among mortals once more. Here, “down below,” you discover the true New York. A city not of building and skyscrapers, but comprised of walkers—the true practitioners of the city. New York, perhaps more than any other city, is defined by the everyday experience of those below. Its masses, commuters, and passers-by shape the city in their image. The buildings merely comprise  the backdrop for the millions of stories acted out each day. New York doesn’t belong to the architects. It belongs to those who walk below.

There is nothing quite like walking in New York City. To walk in Manhattan is to be grasped by its presence — its sights, sounds, smells, and streets. Both wonderful and overwhelming, New York is an assault on the senses. The city is a living force, a meeting place of spatial stories of people going to-and-fro. Fixed yet transitory, New York’s rigidity (its skyscrapers, bridges, and tunnels) exists in stark contrast with its transitory people— its living story. I can think of nothing more provoking and exposing than walking in Manhattan. New York is a true city, a living city, that will call you to both consider its mysteries and give yourself to it. Even weeks after visiting, there is something about New York that calls to you. It’s a presence that you can’t easily shake off. The city imprints itself on you just by walking to-and-fro across its streets and avenues. Its movement and energy is comprised of continual narratives of millions of walkers. An endless supply of new and old stories fill its sidewalks, subways, and buses. The walkers move here and there. Walking where, I wonder? There is always somewhere to go, which offers these practitioners infinite choices of where to go. On the street everyone is transitory.

The act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language or to the statements uttered.

For de Certeau, these walkers form spatial stories. Walkers transform empty places into lived spaces through improvisations, shortcuts, and wandering. From above, it’s impossible to discern all the ways that people move here and there. We miss the ways that walkers “weave places together” through new and unique movements. Thus, New York city walkers create stories as they move from place to place. The city is “a space of enunciation,” whereby walkers act out new possibilities and mold space in their image.

 

Walking it Times Square is an immersive experience

You can see these stories throughout the city. The character and movement of each location changes, depending on these walking stories. Walkers in Times Square move with a walk of consumerism and awe. It’s a start and stop movement of the gaze and selfie. There is a chaos of uniformity. No one walks in Times Square to get anywhere. Instead, one walks with the intention to immerse oneself in time and space. There is no way to walk efficiently here (nor are you expected to). Walking is a process of halting, dodging, and crossing to avoid an unending mass of bodies. And yet, there is a order to this chaos. The walkers just know what to do. The story of Times Square is the story of the remarkable way people navigate this maze of humanity. Its awe and wonder isn’t in its flashing lights and enormous advertisements. Times Square is remarkable because of the intersecting mass of living stories walking up and down the street. It is the intersection of the world.

The walking of passers-by offers a series of turns and detours that can be compared to ‘turns of phrase’ or ‘stylistic figures.’ There is a rhetoric of walking.

You can discern the differing rhetoric of walking between the tourist and the New Yorker. The pace of walking is different. Determined and goal oriented, a local walks with a clear purpose. The sights and sounds of the city no longer hold any sway or influence. The local simply needs to be somewhere else. The tourist walks with an uneasy carefulness, as if he or she needs permission or assurance to go either here or there. Halt, stop, look characterize the tourist. However, the walk of locals is a wonder to behold. Bold and undeterred, the local knows the city. The streets, subways, and buses belong to the local. He or she commands the city’s pathways, fashioning it with a narrative of power and control. Watching how New Yorkers navigate the subway and its stations, it’s clear that they walk with the authority to write their own stories. They walk as authors. New York inscribes itself on the tourist, but the local inscribes his or her story on the city. Thus, to ask directions is the clearest sign that you’re not part of this story. Your walk indicates that you’re not a contributor to this story.

To walk is to lack a place. It is the indefinite process of being absent and in search of a proper.

Walking is, of course, transitory. The city streets embody the liminal experience of being in-between. One walks to get toward where he or she needs to be—work, school, home, etc. For many it’s temporary, it’s easy to step in and out of this liminality. You’re free to wander, stop for coffee and smell the roses before reaching your intended destination. As a temporary space, the city streets of New York are inviting. They make for an interesting page on which you can write your story. “Will I walk down 5th avenue or take a detour through Central Park?” “I’ve never been to this coffee shop before, I wonder if it’s any good?” New York is the ultimate liminal space. Its possibilities appear to be endless.

Nevertheless, the temporal liminality reflects the privilege of those who can seamlessly hop in and out of it. New York reflects the uncomfortable truth that walking is only available to some. For many, liminality is a permanent state of lacking a place. New York’s homeless and disenfranchised live, in de Certeau’s words, a “universe of rented spaces haunted by a nowhere or by dreamed-of places.” Thus, it isn’t unusual find those with no where to walk to. Consequently, they’re forced to make the transitory their home—Subway cars, transit stations, and city streets. Even in a transitory place, New York’s homeless are unable to actualize their stories. Their narrative is overlooked and forgotten, as they must sleep in places where others walk. This reflects an uncomfortable reality. A reality which New York seeks to hide with its glitz and glamour. Beneath the shiny lights and steel cathedrals, the city is,

Transformed for many people into a ‘desert’ in which the meaningless, indeed the terrifying, no longer takes the form of shadows but becomes . . . an implacable light that produces this urban text without obscurities, which is created by a technocratic power everywhere and which puts the city-dweller under control (under the control of what? No one knows).

In New York, this “implacable light” is everywhere through advertising and wealth. Capitalism is neither subtle or subdued here, rather it assaults your senses with light, video, and sound. Billboards and signs call for your attention—“walk here!” And “look at me!” Walking is not all that it appears to be. To walk is to be bombarded by a series of narratives competing for your money. Indeed, even culture and history isn’t immune to the monetary effect. A price must be paid to enjoy all that New York City has to offer. Walking may be free, but the entrance fee will cost you.

What can be seen designates what is no longer there: ‘you see, here there used to be . . . . ,’ but it can no longer be seen.

Returning back to the World Trade Center, I wonder what de Certeau would think of this new World Trade Center. Its views are unquestionable magnificent. It’s hard to not feel like a god in its celestial temple. Despite its grandeur, I have a feeling that de Certeau would walk past it without giving so much as a passing glance. I believe he would be more transfixed by what is not there—symbolized only by two large apertures. An absence that suggests the fragmentary and finite nature of our lives, our achievements, and even our greatest monuments. The absence of presence is often more striking—more haunting than our grandest celestial kingdoms.

You can read Michel de Certeau’s “Walking in the City” here.

Digital Social Space? Interpreting Digital Action and Behavior for Today’s Churches

Another blast from the past. A paper I presented at the Association of Practical Theology in 2014. I explore the internet as a digital social space. I think my thoughts on the internet and social media have drastically changed (not for the better). However, I still hope that our digital tools can be a force for social good.

Abstract: The internet has changed the ways human beings connect and understand one another. Through the use of social media, people find themselves immersed in a digital environment consisting of various practices and behaviors. As Christianity continues to negotiate the often tricky relationship it has with digital experience, what philosophical and methodological stance should practical theology take towards the internet? This paper argues that Henri Lefebvre’s concept of social space provides a helpful avenue to engage contemporary digital interactivity and experience. Social space is the lived expression of exchanged between subjects who both live in and comprise it. As such, churches should recognize the internet’s social spatiality. The internet is no longer something one uses as a tool; instead it has become woven into the very fabric of contemporary life. A total reorientation towards the internet, by churches and theologians, is necessary in order to connect to contemporary culture and religion.

http://dx.doi.org/10.17613/M6ZG3S

 

Photo by Tim Bennett on Unsplash

Who Cares?

The struggle begins with men’s recognition that they have been destroyed. Propaganda, management, manipulation – all arms of domination – cannot be the instruments of their rehumanization. The only effective instrument is a humanizing pedagogy in which the revolutionary leadership establishes a permanent relationship of dialogue with the oppressed.


Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Last week, all eyes were on Mark Zuckerberg as congressional lawmakers grilled the Facebook CEO over how his company secures the private data of millions of Facebook users. Spurred on by reports that the data of millions of users was improperly shared with Cambridge Analytical, Congress supposedly sought to understand how this could have happened and it’s implications for data privacy. At least that’s what we were told. A week later, the point or objective of these congressional hearings with Zuckerberg remains unclear. What is clear, is that the cameras, media, and a love-to-hate-him CEO, provided Congress with a prime opportunity to display a collective ego and narcissism rivaling even the vainest Instagram selfie. And remarkably, Congress even achieved the seemingly impossible feat of making Zuckerberg a sympathetic character.

Undoubtedly, Republicans and Democrats came away from this hearing feeling good. They were able to provide us with the illusion of being proactive, engaged, and working on our behave. Sadly, a plethora of embarrassing questions demonstrated that both parties don’t know (or don’t care to know) how Facebook actually works. Consequently, congressional ignorance made it easy for us to see this hearing as the sham it actually was. Will we ever see any results from this hearings? Probably not, though the European Union (which actually cares about privacy) probably will challenge Facebook in a meaningful way. It seems very unlikely that our current Congress will do anything to harm one of America’s cherished corporations. Much of the congressional criticism will be a long-forgotten memory by the 2018 mid-terms.

And yet, who cares? For all the questioning and congressional grandstanding only further demonstrates how out of touch our government is with issues affecting a majority of Americans. Now don’t get me wrong, data privacy is most certainly an important concern. Facebook requires some oversight and regulation. But here again, the European Union is quite frankly doing much a better job than the United States when it comes to data privacy.

Take for example the Patriot Act, undoubtedly the largest invasion of American data and privacy in history. On October 24, 2001, 98 senators voted yes on installing the American surveillance state. This included Dick Durbin (D-IL), who asked Zuckerberg, “Would you be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?” I also wonder if he would be comfortable sharing his phone data with NSA. Somehow, I doubt it.

All this is to say that Congress isn’t all that concerned about privacy. Worse still, it doesn’t seem that our government worries about issues that actually affect American citizens and the world community. If Congress did care, we would see no end to the hearings and meetings as our representatives and senators work around the clock to solve these issues. We would see a concerted effort at tackling some our most critical social, economic, racial, and environmental issues.

Who cares about Facebook when we are plagued by mass shooting and inner-city gun violence? Where are the hearings and questioning of AR-15 gunmaker Smith and Wesson and its parent company American Outdoor Brand Corporation concerning the use of their weapon in mass shootings? A weapon also used in the San Bernardino, California and the Aurora, Colorado shootings. Furthermore, where are the tough congressional questions as to why a military style weapon is marketed to civilians? The Violence Policy Center stated that, “The Smith & Wesson M&P15 [AR 15 variant] assault rifle demonstrates the clear and present danger of a gun designed for war and ruthlessly marketed for profit to civilians.” And yet, despite all we know about the dangers of assault style weapons, Congress did nothing. There were no hearings and no snippy questions. Apparently, Zuckerberg’s Facebook is a greater threat to American health and security.

Who cares about Facebook when the people of Flint, Michigan still don’t have clean drinking water? Where are the hearings and tough questions asking why the people of Flint still don’t have the basic right of clean water? Where are the oversight committees to ensure that American citizens can drink their water without fear of being poisoned?

Who cares about Facebook when economic disparity continues to reach new and worrying heights? Granted the Senate did have a hearing on this topic in 2014. Though little to nothing has been done about it. Current policies, such as the Tax Law of 2017, are poised to further exasperate the situation. You don’t need be an economist to see that there’s a problem when the wealthiest 1% own 40% of the country’s wealth. And what is the congressional response? The only response is silence. Again, our Facebook data seems to more important than making a living wage.

Who cares about Facebook when unarmed American citizens are killed by police? Where were the congressional hearing over the shootings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, and Jordan Davis (to name a few). Stephon Clark, the most recent high profile killing, provoked no congressional response. Why are deaths by police higher in the United States than any other developed nation? Why are African Americans subjected to higher rates of police brutality and unlawful searches? This should be a question to provoke our government at the highest levels. And despite the seriousness of this issue, it’s not a major policy issue. But I’m sure the victim’s families are comforted knowing that Congress will ensure that their Facebook data is protected.

Who cares about Facebook when there still isn’t a viable solution for DACA and probably never will be? Who cares about Facebook when there are Puerto Ricans (American citizens) still without power in Puerto Rico (nearly 7 months after Hurricane Maria).  Who cares about Facebook there are still Americans who can’t afford the internet? Where are the congressional hearings for those Americans? The list of issues goes on and on.

What is the response of the church in the face of inaction by the state? As an empire crumbles, the church must choose its response to a worsening economic and social crisis.

For I believe that the church must make an active choice for the marginalized and disenfranchised. It’s response, in whatever capacity it is able, should be one that embraces and gives voice to the weak. Gustavo Gutierrez states,

Although the Kingdom must not be confused with the establishment of a just society, this does not mean that it is indifferent to this society. Nor does it mean that this just society constitutes a ‘necessary condition’ for the arrival of the Kingdom nor that they are closely linked, nor that they converge. More profoundly, the announcement of the Kingdom reveals to society itself the aspiration for a just society and leads it to discover unsuspected dimensions and unexplored path. The Kingdom is realized in a society of brotherhood and justice; and in turn, this realization opens up the promise and hope of complete communion of all men with God. The political is grated into the eternal.


Gustavo Gutierrez – A Theology of Liberation

This reflects what I’m calling liminal theology. It is a choice for the marginalized, the in-between people struggling against an oppressor more interested in continuing old divisions rather than solving them. It is a theology that resists the continual economic, social, and environmental subjection of the weak by the powerful. The liminal, as transitional, suggests that we still have choices for real change in social/economic justice, racial justice, and equality. We have the choice to enact true democratic freedom. That there is a choice for a better present, a better now for today and tomorrow. Liminal, progressive justice is a fight for those who do not get congressional hearings on their behalf. It is a struggle for those whose voices are ignored by the powerful and political elite. It’s a recognition of the continued and sustained work needed for a more just society.

In liminality, the Kingdom of God does not have a finish line. For there is no utopia without the tension of transition and change. And yet, it isn’t utopia that we seek. What we seek is movement and progress toward what Guiterrez describes as “a society of brotherhood and justice.” Such a society begins with the willingness to act in the present, particularly when facing of those who fail to hear, acknowledge, and respond to the problems we face. A just society isn’t the perfect society. It’s the society that is willing to listen and act.

Let Congress have its hearings. It’s time for the church to hold its own hearing. A hearing that gives the broken, the poor, and the marginalized an opportunity to speak. It’s time to give hearings for the immigrants and the dreamers. It’s time to give hearings for African Americans who live in fear of the police. It’s time to give hearings for those without clean water and power. It’s time to give hearings for those affected by gun violence.

Congress can keep Zuckerberg.

 

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

 

What Follows Saturday?

Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning. Luke 23:53-54 (ESV)

In this world suffering and disease are indeed ‘normal,’ but their very ‘normalcy’ is abnormal. They reveal the ultimate and permanent defeat of man and of life, a defeat which no partial victories of medicine, however wonderful and truly miraculous, can ultimately overcome. But in Christ suffering is not ‘removed’ ; it is transformed into victory. The defeat itself becomes victory, a way, an entrance into the Kingdom, and this is the only true healing. – Alexander SchmemannFor the Life of the World

The Saturday of Holy Week has always held a certain fascination for me. Settled between death(Good Friday) and life (Easter), Saturday feels forgotten and overlooked. In the Easter story it is a day of silence and uneasiness. For at this point in the story, Jesus’ death signified only failure and disaster. Shouts of violence and death had overwhelmed the singular call of love, justice, and equality that Jesus had so passionately pursued. Humanity’s collective “No!” to Christ wasn’t meant with dramatic intervention or retaliation. In response to unspeakable violence, God was silent. Between Friday and Sunday there was only silence and waiting.

Uncomfortable with the silence, the church filled this day with stories and traditions to alleviate it. Yet, scripture remains agonizingly silent. Saturday, for the most part, remains a time of silence and waiting. Silence in the face of the violence. Waiting for that which is not known. I believe that a true liminality exists within the Easter story. A liminality that exhibits the forgotten narrative of Easter. It is the narrative mystery that lies between death and life, which poses the question: What follows Saturday?

This question seems to haunt the characters of the story. Though scripture provides few details, there must have existed an underlying doubt as to what would happen after Saturday. What will happen on Sunday? What will happen next week or the one after that? Saturday, the first day after the crucifixion, must have felt like a day separate from time. The apparent victory of violence undoubtedly signaled a very different future from the one Jesus’ had promised. For in one day, everything had been thrown into doubt and chaos. The future was now unknown and beyond their grasp. Saturday, the day after, was now a day of coping with this new liminal experience. It was anyone’s guess as to what the new week would bring. Death already had its say. Would it remain the final word going into Sunday? Would there be hope after Saturday? There was no way to know.

Of course, we the readers already know the conclusion to this story. Saturday is now a blip between crucifixion and resurrection. Barely worth mentioning. A day after and before, yet nothing more. But let’s consider how miraculous Saturday was, and what Saturday truly represents for us today. Because Saturday is both our burden and our hope.

So many of us are living in Saturday. It can be the feeling of dealing with a Friday of failure or disappointment. Perhaps it’s a personal failure or a poor decision. Each day then becomes a struggle of living with that failure. Friday has passed, leaving us with only Saturday. A day defined and bound to whatever failure has happened before. Is there hope after failure? Thus, we wait and wonder, and ask: What follows Saturday? 

For others, Saturday is coping with the dreaded Friday of disease. When Friday takes away our physical health, it leaves us with the day-to-day struggle of Saturday. Caught between sickness and health, Saturday becomes a physical battle ground of unpleasantness and discomfort. In-between, Saturday leaves us wondering if there will ever be a Sunday. Is there healing after disease? What follows Saturday?

Still, others live in the Saturday of inequality and injustice. Friday represents the social and political ills that plague our country and world. It’s the scourge of economics and the denial of a living wage. It’s the plague of prejudice that inflicts Fridays of racism and sexism that strips away ones’ humanity. It’s the political inaction by the legislatures who no longer care about representing, much less respecting, its citizenry. As such, it leaves us only with Saturday. Again, we are eager for the next day. Will Friday ever be rectified? What follows Saturday?

As people of Saturday, we’re caught between the real life struggle of death and life. We deal with the burden of the unknown, of not knowing what the future will bring. Thus, not-knowing invokes a dreaded feeling that is both powerful and unsettling. And yet, I have hope. I have hope that reconciliation and restoration await us the day after Saturday. For if the Easter story has shown me one thing, it’s that death can be transformed into new life. Defeat can be transformed into victory.

Through His own suffering, not only has all suffering acquired a meaning but it has been given the power to become itself the sign, the sacrament, the proclamation, the ‘coming’ of that victory; the defeat of man, his very dying has become a way of Life. – Alexander Schmemann

I have hope because God has already transformed death into victory. The Easter story is also a story about Saturdays. It’s a story about living in-between failure and disappointment, sickness and health, injustice and justice, and death and life. Thus, the story teaches us that victory is rarely immediate. There will be periods of living in-between. We will undergo doubt, questioning, frustration, and hardship. Saturday will test us physically, mentally, and spiritually. And yet, Saturday will pass. Easter points to the hope we can still have in the future.

What follows Saturday? I have hope in what follows Saturday.

 

 

Photo by T. Chick McClure on Unsplash

The Violent Now

“I am the beginning and the end.” This is said to us who live in the bondage of time, who have to face the end, who cannot escape the past, who need a present to stand upon. Each of the modes of time has its peculiar mystery, each of them carries its peculiar anxiety. Each of them drives us to an ultimate question. There is one answer to these questions — the eternal. There is one power that surpasses the all-consuming power of time — the eternal: He Who was and is and is to come, the beginning and the end. He gives us forgiveness for what has passed. He gives us courage for what is to come. He gives us rest in His eternal Presence.” – Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now

 

I stand before the violent-now. A violence without end, unceasing and unabated, extending into the far voids of the past and future. Such violence, cruel and savage, stretches across space and time. I see it before me winding across the multiple preludes of time. And yet, it seems unbelievable. I feel its pressure pushing against me. An abominable force that seems so farcical and absurd as to be beyond rational belief.  Nevertheless there it is. A violence perpetuated by the powerful and elite on society’s most vulnerable. A violence seemingly without end and without boundaries. Unrestrained, the instigators of this violence are not content with temporality. They want it to be more. The violent-now wants to be the eternal-now.

Paul Tillich described the present as a place of peace and rest. Situated between the past and future, the present exists as a presence that carriers us between the “no more” and the “not yet.” As a moving boundary, the present has no claim or place of its own. It exists only as “flux.” The present gives us nothing to hold. It has no foundation or place to call its on. Unlike the future and the past, the present is undefinable. For as soon as we name it, give it substance, the present slips into past. And yet, our thoughts rarely dwell on the present. Instead our gaze lies on either the future or the past. We long for better days in an unwritten future, and dwell upon (for better or worse) the inscribed past.

The riddle of the present is the deepest of all the riddles of time.

 

But between both is something of immense importance. The present comprises the ever moving boundary between our past and future. This boundary, renewed without ceasing, is our certainty of the eternal. For within the present is the eternal-now, which Tillich explains, is our hope. The in-between contains our hope that we can break the bonds of our past. Furthermore, the present offers an escape from a seemingly inescapable future. It is our present that the proprietors of power, wish to take away. A violent removal of our present subsequently harms our perspective of both the future and the past.

In the present our future and our past are ours.

There seems to be no end to the violence inflicted upon us by society’s powerful and elite. Seemingly without hesitation, the present is wrest away from us and put in its place is the violent-now. What constitutes the violent-now? It is the wholesale subjugation and rejection of our present, thus shackling our past and dictating our future. Where the eternal-now offers rest and peace, the violent-now institutes fear and anxiety. Where the eternal-now unites the violent-now divides.

This violence is real, and we see the effects of it day by day. It’s not that this violence suddenly appeared. Violence has and will continue to remain a part of human existence. Sadly, that shadow has haunted humanity from the very beginning of time. The violent-now doesn’t represent the generalized violence of humanity. The violent-now is a reaction against the present. It is a counter movement to the eternal-now and the rest, peace, and security it represents. Where the eternal-now offers hope, the violent-now grinds that hope into the ground. Where the eternal-now promotes justice, the violent-now removes justice whenever possible. Where the eternal-now lives in truth, the violent-now despises truth.

The violent-now isn’t a condition or state. Unfortunately, it’s nothing so abstract. The violent-now is the continual perpetuation of injustice against the marginalized. It is the wholesale destruction of the present with the objective of removing the future (hope) and the past (tradition) from those who live in-between. The violent-now is an attempt at stopping and rolling back what social progress has been made over the last fifty years. The violent-now is thus a war against the present. The objective of this war is to remove the present and institute a past of the elite’s choosing, thus dictating what future can come from it. Consider the violence inflicted upon society by those in power. The powerful employ the violent-now in a multitude of forms.

There is the economic violence waged against the poor. Today, economics is a full scale offensive against those who cannot participate in the system. Wage and income inequality are at unprecedented levels. Furthermore, economic and neoliberal policies continue to push more and more people out of the system, effectively destroying our democracy. Such policies concentrate power into the hands of the few. Consequently, the present becomes one of dependency. The violent-now removes the present economic welfare of the people. The present becomes a burden when the powerful remove economic freedom, security, and liberty from large portions of society.

There is social violence waged against immigrants, minorities, and women. Cleverly, the powerful blame today’s social ills and problems on those without power. By removing the rights, human dignity, and justice from those who need it most, the powerful have created a scapegoat for every occasion and purpose. When you remove the freedom of others, you’re free to impose whatever will or whim you desire. People lose the present when they lose those basic freedoms and liberties entitled to all people. The present vanishes for those who suffer from a powerful assault on their basic human dignity. The violent-now is a desire for division and strife that increases the power of those in power. Therefore, the present is stolen from vast amounts of people whose only desire is to be heard. This social violence ignores the real social policies that can protect and improve the quality of life for vast amounts of people.

There is the environmental violence waged against the planet. Through indifference, apathy, and wholesale disregard, the powerful ignore the Earth’s groans as it suffers the burden of climate change. Again, the marginalized and developing world suffer as they will likely suffer the most from climate change. The violent-now is an assault on the present that will devastate the future for generations.

The violent-now dashes the hopes, dreams, and expectations of those who can only live in the present. It threatens those trapped in the day to day grind of barely making it through each present moment. It instills our fear of survival as gun violence steals the lives of the innocent. The present is now terrifying, and for many the future is a dream and the past is long forgotten. Today, all we have is the present. But that present is continually wrest away from our fingers. In its place is the widespread institution of hatred and division. The present is twisted for the violent gains of the elite, rich, and corporations. Furthermore, politicians do nothing as their constitutes are pillaged of the basic necessities to live in the present.

The violent-now is a present built on division and strife. It destroys what is good, fears progress, ignores the call of justice, and removes hope. It institutes a status quo of control and manipulation. It tells us that we must wait in the face of evil, that “now isn’t the time.” How much longer must we allow this violence to dictate our present?

But there is hope. For our God is the God of a present without end. The violent-now, though terrible and devastating, cannot withstand the presence of the eternal. When we think about it, the reason of the violent-now’s failure isn’t a mystery. The violent-now is wielded by men and women who are themselves temporary. It can’t compete with the one who stated: “I am the beginning and the end.” What hope do those who employ violence have when faced with the eternal? For despite all that has occurred, the present still belongs to eternal.

Therefore, we cannot give up our hope, our love, and our charity. The present remains the eternal-now, it remains in the hands of our eternal God.

He saves the needy from the sword of their mouth and from the hand of the mighty. So the poor have hope, and injustice shuts her mouth – Job 5:15-16

I have hope that the present is changing. Today we’re witnessing an awakening of a new generation of social activism that will no longer tolerate the violent-now. Each day there is reason to hope that political, social, and environmental change still remains a possibility. The eternal-now is still with us despite what violence others may attempt to implement. Our present and our future is within our grasp. We continue on, spurred by the hope that eternal represents.

I have hope in the eternal-now and in the one who offers peace in the midst of violence. Therefore, let us pray and work for the day when justice is served, inequality is eliminated, stewardship of the earth reigns, and all of humanity live in the fullness that is a present without end. Without a doubt, the journey will be difficult. However, my hope is in the one who is and is to come. I place my hope in the one who has already won the battle. The present is already won. It was won not by violence and retribution, but on a cross. Today is the day we say “no” to the “masters of mankind” who would tell us otherwise. Their days are numbered, but our God’s is without end.

As Paul Tillich stated:

There is one power that surpasses the all-consuming power of time – the eternal: He Who was and is and is to come, the beginning and end. He gives us forgiveness for what has passed. He gives us courage for what is to come. He gives us rest in His eternal Presence.

Today, may we finally find rest, hope, and justice in His eternal Presence.

Paul Tillich’s Eternal Now sermon can be read here.

 

Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

 

Listening to the Rhythms: Preparing for Theological Conversation.

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I’m sitting on a few conference papers that aren’t doing any good sitting on my hard drive (or in the cloud). Periodically I’ll be uploading papers and lectures I’ve done across the years using Humanities Commons. I gave this particular paper at the 3rd Iannone Conference in 2015.

This paper is an exploration of the rhythms and relationships that come from theological conversation. This paper explores the necessity of relationship and connection when doing theology. I argue that theology must be relational beginning with a theological encounter with the other. This paper incorporates the thoughts of Henri Lefebvre, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Paul Tillich.

You can open the paper using the link below:

http://dx.doi.org/10.17613/M6GW1T

 

The Ghost of the Past

 

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Behold, I am making all things new…Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.

Revelation 21:5 (ESV)

The past weighs heavy on the present. Its pressure and influence exert an intolerable presence on the present. Unbearable and unforgivable, the past is a relentless master. Its will, hidden and elusive, nevertheless exists as an undeniable phantom. A master without form, the ghost of the past rarely cedes control of the present. Year after year, moment after moment, the past’s haunting presence grows as it bursts forth across the present and into the future. Both weak and strong, the past is an amorphous ghostly invader of the present. It bears force without form and is thus insidious in its desire. What is this desire? The past desires the present.

A past, uncontrolled and unrestrained, refuses the freedom of the present. The past haunts the present with failure, humiliation, and missed opportunity. As such, the past is willfully deceptive. It deceives the present, imparting past failures on an unsuspecting present. A haunting reminder of what the present cannot be when the past is master. The past endures as an oppressive spirit of control. Why cannot the present be free?

I don’t believe the past is inherently evil. This specter, masquerading as master, is nevertheless mastered by others. The past is the oppressor’s tool. It’s a tool of the powerful and elite, through which they dominate the fortunes of those seemingly lesser. Those that control the past subsequently control the present and future. Therefore, the past is a desirable prize. Such a tool makes a hauntingly powerful costume through which others repress, abuse, and haunt. Dressed as ghosts, the powerful fool the weak as boogeymen of persecution.

The oppressor knows the danger of the past. The past is what Johann Baptist Metz called, “dangerous memory,” a frightening prospect to our elite and powerful oppressors. This dangerous memory is identity, and the subsequent freedom that emerges from that identity. Consequently, the ghost of the past originates in the removal and denial of our identity. Wherefore the past impedes and denies our history.  Therefore, the ghost of the past is a sham, a flim flam being that vanishes once named. The oppressor’s ghostly costume is exposed as the charlatan it is.

In a sense, the past suffers as the present suffers. There is a tragedy to the past when it’s used to subject the present. I seek liminality. I desire the freedom of the present and the redemption of the past. I search the promise of an unfettered present, without boundaries or limitations. I entreat for a past that serves the promise and hope of the present.

My desire for liminality is a desire for liberation. For a past that unfolds and is remade into the newness of the present. Where the past no longer haunts but acts as our guide toward a constant transition into an unknown and hopefully more just society. Liminality draws from the past to move forward and continue its orientation toward the future.

Liminality is opportunity.  I await the remaking of all things new.

 

 

Photo by Søren Astrup Jørgensen on Unsplash

The Purgatory of the Future

 

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The most powerful and the deepest reality exists where everything enters into the effective action, without reserve the whole man [or woman] and God the all-embracing – the united I and the boundless Thou. Martin Buber, I and Thou, 89.

The progress of time is exhausting. Seemingly against our will, we’re pushed forward toward growing uncertainty and insecurity. What wonders or terrors lie beyond the boundary of the present? Both terrifying and alluring, the future beckons us forward with greater promises and marvels. That boundary, between present and future, seems impossible to cross. And yet, almost miraculously, we cross that boundary with every passing moment. Both unstoppable and irresistible, the future loses no battles. Through either force or enticement, the future calmly and confidently lures us forward. It leaves us in the purgatory of the future.

The purgatory of the future is the never-ending burden of passage from moment to moment. Weary and spent, we suffer at the hands of an unpredictable future. Such suffering comes from the continual and never-ending crossing between the present and future. And at each crossing, we suffer a little more at the hands of a burdensome future that seems uncaring and indifferent. Ultimately, it grinds and consumes us each at instance we cross from the present to the future. Its promises feel empty, nevertheless it continues to attract us with promises of a better future. It reassures us that “it will be better soon, just wait and see.”

This is what the future feels like for many of us. It’s a liminal existence. Always expecting more, we endure the wearisome task of hoping for a fruitful future. Such a burden is particularly draining for those living in-between. Those in-between the false promises of the future and the burdens of the past. This is the purgatory that the future offers. A ceaseless barrage of false promises and broken narratives.

A liminal theology embraces the present. Such a theology refuses to be held hostage by future dictated by the so-called “Masters of Mankind.” Instead, it’s time to seize the present for the sake of the future. The restoration of hope, and the commandeering of the future, begins in the present.

I envision the day of a truly present theology. Present in both senses of the word. Present in being with and being now. It is the now that most occupies my thoughts. How long must we wait for justice? How long must we wait for equality? How long must we wait for a democratic and free society for all 

How long must we endure the purgatory of the future?

 

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

Liminal Symbol

 

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A symbol has truth: it is adequate to the revelation it expresses. A symbol is true: it is the expression of a true revelation.

Religious symbols are double-edged. They are directed toward the infinite which they symbolize and toward the finite through which they symbolize it. They force the infinite down to finitude and the finite up to infinity. They open the divine for the human and the human for the divine.

– Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology: Volume One

Is the liminal symbolic? Yes and…

Liminality teeters on the border between the symbolic and the real. Finding comfort in neither, liminality holds both in tension and anxiety. The liminal has no home. With no principle or metaphysic of its own, the liminal swirls in a nexus of flux. The liminal cannot be. It’s incapable of doing so, of being, for its very establishment negates itself. The liminal can be…must be symbolic; yet, it cannot remain bound by it. The real pulls it away from the symbolic. True life, the muck and mire of the everyday, comprises the stuff of liminality. Hence, the uncategorized mess of the everyday becomes both Symbol and Truth.

As a symbol, the liminal re-presents and re-flects what the powerful and elite have tried so hard to wipe away: the hope in the unknown and a future yet to be written. It challenges the status quo that the plutocrats and traditionalists strive so hard to maintain. Thus, liminality terrifies those who prefer stability and order. It’s no wonder then that the powerful attempt to fool the weak into believing that change is too hard. The powerful seeks to convince the poor and marginalized that change isn’t possible using the false narrative that this is a lack of “political will.”

The liminal is symbolic of societal frustration and despair. It symbolizes weakness and impoverishment. It is the symbol for the marginalized and depressed. It is the aspiration that the most exciting, significant, and progressive ideas are found at the periphery.  Among the margins are the people, groups, and ideas willing to push against the status quo. As such, the liminal points to those, both marginalized and forgotten, who embody the desire for transition and change. Consequently, the liminal embodies those who know that things are not as the should be. Because at the margins, people still search and strive for the ideal of goodness. Liminality symbolizes the search for true justice and equality. Therefore, the search for truth continues among those on the margins. Such a search continues not out of desire, but from necessity.

Those on the margins, who strive against power, symbolize our hope. The liminal is not a place of despair, though it comprises those who have despaired. The liminal is not a place of weakness, though it comprises the weak. The liminal is not forgotten, thought it constitutes those who are forgotten. The liminal symbolizes the fight and struggle for change in a cruel and harsh world. It re-presents and re-flects the symbolic hope for true and lasting progress for all: A passion for a more just future.

The liminal is symbolic. As a symbol, it orients one back to the everyday. It forces us to reconsider the massive implications and possibilities found within ourselves, each other, and our communities. Though pushed to the boundary, the liminal symbolizes the anticipation of a better future. A future that finally resembles the kingdom that Jesus of Nazareth spoke of.

Jesus demonstrated radical actions on behalf of the poor and weak. His actions were a remarkable challenge to the contemporary status quo in both the social and religious spheres. Jesus’ condemnation of power and his own refusal to seek power, presented an alternative to the either/or political and social solutions advocated by both the rich and powerful. Though marginalized and despised by the powerful and elite, Jesus embraced the boundary. He is and continues to be an enduring liminal symbol of hope, change, and justice.

 

Photo by Oliver Wendel on Unsplash

 

 

 

Between Chaos and Order

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Justice, in other words, is what the metaphysics of presence keeps trying and failing to identify with some set of institutions or principles. Such identification is impossible, because every institution or principle will produce new, unexpected, injustices of its own. Every imaginable utopia will need a social protest movement. Justice is a ghost that can never be laid. – Richard Rorty. Philosophy and Social Hope

What does it mean to be at the boundary? To feel trapped within the neither here-nor-there? Frankly, it’s hard to say. At best, the boundary feels like no-man’s-land; an unforgiving and forgotten space for the marginalized and despised. Few would choose to live on the boundary. The boundary is a liminal space. As such, it means a continual grappling with place and purpose.

As a discipline, theology is incapable of understanding the boundary. As a field of study, it lacks the ability to truly relate to those whose existence is transitory, ambiguous, and confined. Theology’s strength, its need to be something, is also its hindrance. A theology of systems and dogmas stands as a wall that separates theology from those in need of it. Theology is needed, but not as it is.

Beyond the wall, far removed from the metaphysics of presence, is a place removed from systems. A place of theological destiny. The liminal is the call between chaos and order. Uncomfortable and restless, liminality is the transitory struggle for justice. A realization that justice is never complete, but rather ongoing. That no truth is itself final, but a recurrent conversation straining between hope and despair. The liminal is a fight of justice for those who have none.

What is required is a liminal theology, a theology that struggles with order and chaos, the pragmatic and postmodern. Such a theology deconstructs itself by removing its strength and privilege, while remaining useful and constructive. An embrace of weakness and the removal of strength is the affirmation of in-determinism and conversation.

Theology must not perpetuate itself, but instead perpetuate the search for justice. Doing so is to accept and join those at the boundary, who live a liminal existence. It means accepting those without voice, opportunity, or freedom. It means rejecting the strong in favor of the weak.

Consequently, theologians must make a choice. Will theology be an an intellectual playground for the powerful, elite, and the bored? Or will it instead be a willful choice for the marginal and forgotten? Sadly, even the idea of choice reeks of elitism and power. For many of those at the boundary never had a choice. Falling into the boundary, a land of marginalization, those in-between were denied the opportunity for anything else.

What will come from this liminal space? No one knows, for “Justice is a ghost that can never be laid.” All that can be said with confidence is that the theological struggle for liberation is ongoing. Theology must never leave this liminal space between chaos and order. Resisting the urge of utopia, theology instead sacrifices itself so that others might have hope.

Photo by Oliver Hihn on Unsplash