26 October 2006

love and control

A few weeks ago I wrote about the illusions and reality of security. ("Safety and the 'nature of the world in which we live'.") To live securely is to know no enemy can endanger our deepest values, but for physical safety there are no guarantees. For us to live in fear and anger might suit the agendas of some politicians, but it's hard to imagine that kind of life being labeled "secure."

This being the last days of an election season in the USA, the fear factor is getting heavy play. The Republican National Committee's video, "Stakes," is not subtle. Excerpts from speeches by Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri include lines such as "With God's permission we call on everyone who believes in God ... to comply with His will to kill the Americans." The quotation fades, but the words "kill the Americans" linger a moment. Next quotation: "They will not come to their senses unless the attacks fall on their heads and ... until the battle has moved inside America." Again the words linger: "inside America." And more of the same.

The ad ends: "These are the stakes. Vote November 7th." What is this supposed to mean? The team that has been both incompetent and corrupt are the only chance we have to avoid having suitcase bombs brought into America? The Democrats would be even worse? These tactics absolutely depend on people being too fearful to think.

If it is true that security on an national scale cannot be obtained through fear and control, is it also true in interpersonal relations? In theory, I feel that it's true. I was talking to a friend about relationships and intimacy, and ventured that intimacy required yielding. To yield is not the same as to surrender; a strong person can yield; maybe yielding actually requires a certain strength. It's hard to imagine intimacy when one is holding the other at arm's length, wanting the fruits of intimacy without giving up control.

What kind of strength allows one to yield? I think it is the strength that comes from knowing that one is rooted in love--knowing without doubt that one is loved and always will be. It's not just a theoretical knowing, one has to be willing to put weight on that belief, to rest in it, to let it calm fears of inadequacy, failure, abandonment. Until that place of certainty is reached, I think one needs not to hurry into counterfeit intimacy or into defensiveness--instead, choosing to stay tender to oneself and laying doubts honestly before God and trusted friends.

I said these brave things, and then a day or two later I was caught short by a pang of doubt: speaking to my friend, I was able to defend this concept of yielding for the sake of genuine intimacy, but do I in fact yield? Or is it something that only others should do?

I won't use this space to give a glib answer; failing to recognize when to yield has been a source of great pain.

Righteous links: Last week, the Sightings newsletter of the University of Chicago's Martin Marty Center published an interesting little essay, "Acts of God or Forces of Nature?" The authors reflected on the increasingly unclear boundary between forces of nature and the cumulative decisions of humans (with Hurricane Katrina and its uneven impact being Exhibit A). Teaser:
Many religious communities are concerned about new biotechnologies and the worsening situation of the environment. But Christian theology in the west finds itself in an especially difficult position, since it has relied heavily upon some version of "Nature" to express the meaning of "grace." The present destabilization of Nature thus raises a series of challenging questions. What position are Christian theologians now in to address this loss of Nature?

Monday Morning Insight provided these reflections on the emergent church movement. Given my own struggles with unity and disunity among Friends, I was touched by the author's reflections on the cost and value of unity among people whose passion exceeds their allergies. One of his nicely-worded comments:
To me… this is the real “emergent” issue - honoring all of the Scriptures… including the tensions that fly against our personal hot button platforms… and being able to dialogue all over the place in order to find a *balance of tensions* that honors the Bible in its disorderly coherence.


Nancy A said...

The Monday Morning Insight was very thoughtful and honest.

I describe the two approaches to scripture as "descriptive" and "prescriptive". The "descriptivists" see the bible as describing the way the spirit works, describing how people responded to it or failed to respond to it. Descriptivists look at each character in scriptural stories as real, flawed people. Featured characters, such as Lot, are not necessarily good guys: they may be showing how *not* to live.

The "prescriptivists" see the bible as telling us how to live. It doesn't describe: it prescribes. So what the descriptivists see as a description, these people see as a rule.

Sometimes the discussion between these two groups works better if we have names for the two perspectives.

The descriptivist/prescriptivist dilemma affects other areas besides religion. Dictionaries are either descriptivist (they describe the language such as it is spoken and written and keep up with changes) or prescriptivist (they prescribe what the language should be and struggle to maintain its purity).

Moreover, should our creeds, doctrines, dogmas, and testimonies describe what we actually do believe, or should they prescribe what we should believe (assuming we can force ourselves to believe something we don't believe!)?

I suspect most people blend descriptive and prescriptive perspectives, depending on their situation. But it helps to see the "mix" in our own perspectives to understand the "mix" in someone else's.

Johan Maurer said...

Nancy, your categories of prescriptivists and descriptivists are helpful, especially when used tenderly (as you do when you say correctly that most of us blend these perspectives).

When I really engage with the Bible, which I try to do daily, I admit that I don't usually hear a prescriptive voice. I have enough respect for the authority of the Bible not to "insert" that voice unless it seems explicitly there: "Thus says the LORD!" That is, I don't assume that an instruction is being given to me or my community, or a normative model is being laid down, unless the text actually says that it is. Instead, the Bible is a scrapbook with clippings and pictures of my family, the family I joined when I converted. It's not just any old scrapbook: it has a divine blessing that tells me, "Take this book seriously; it is foundational. Without it you have no clue as to this family you've joined, its relationship with its Creator, and its long-standing struggles with idolatry--a life-and-death struggle that you yourself, as a believer, are now going to face."

Even when the instructions seem explicit, such as Paul's admonitions, I also resist assuming that the audience he is addressing is the audience now reading his words. That resistance is not for the purpose of carving out space to sin. I simply recognize that Paul spoke to specific situations. We're confronted by his teachings in order to discern, with brains and prayer, the most Godly equivalent for our own situations. We're not at liberty either to apply a literal formula supposedly derived from his teachings (but usually serving one or another contemporary agenda as well!), or to disregard his challenges altogether. That's why the Richmond Declaration of Faith has a wonderfully interactive understanding of Biblical authority: The Bible is crucial for discernment, but can only be interpreted through the same Spirit Who inspired it.

- Johan