Neither Christian nor Un Christian

February 26, 2012

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Real Christians have real doctrines. Doctrines are sturdy and they like to comprehend, not just understand, but comprehend. They tell us where things started, where they are now, and where they are going. They are teleological. Telos: the deep goal of all things. Telos: the deep direction of all things. Teleological refers to the final cause, the actual origin. It imagines that there is a deep design in nature – and that you can either be in compliance or out of compliance with it. You can have pay for full cable with a doctrine or just get a few stations. Teleological may sound high fallutin’ or old fashioned or both. But if you have ever said, things happen for a purpose, you are behaving teleologically. Many of you of late have been behaving telelogically when you give thanks for that big stomach flu or broken toe that took you out of action for a while. You call these interruptions, “a blessing in disguise.” You imagine a deeper design and you go with its flow.

In Christian doctrine, Christ is the Alpha and the Omega. Christ was present at Creation. All things have been heading for Christ and all things will end in Christ’s victory over sin and death. During Lent we are particularly teleological. We imagine the story of Jesus temptation and death and resurrection as being the design of nature. Doctrinal Christians – the kind who often call themselves real Christians -- imagine that Jacob and Moses and Isaac and Leah and Esau and Rebecca were all part of a larger narrative.

Here we speak of Jesus all the time but rarely of Christ. I personally gave up using the word Christ -- and not just for Lent! --- a long, long time ago. I believe it to be an over reach and finally un-Christological. I don’t think Jesus wanted to be the final end of nature or history – and believe instead that his final and real power is more deeply and chaotically distributed in nature and history. I am a Christian who does not believe that Jesus is the only way to God. I believe that there are many ways – and that Jesus is mine. Not everybody’s, just mine.

I know that is a long introduction to this single verse to which we will attend today. This verse carries all the baggage of Christology and teleology and some of the lightness of Jesus within it. I will try to show how.

The verse says that the people think they are running out of land for their animals to graze. They imagine an end before they are ready. How can their way of life be good if they have to change the way their animals eat? This is a very good question and one that people still face in the debt crisis, the ecological crisis, the democratic crisis and in the burning of the Koran in far off places. When you are afraid for your future, you justify it as being the best future and therefore worthy of preservation. Your tribe is the deep design of creation. Its animals are the omega of time. Its sacred texts are the only sacred texts and in their name you can destroy other people’s books. Today I want you to return to Jesus, forgo Christ, and become modestly teleological. I want to offer some comfort to the great sense of ending which is the cultural water also of our moment in time. Just comfort. No solutions. Just comfort. No great calls to action. Comfort is the capacity to live well while looking for grain for the cows. It is no more and no less.

So much of the Jacob cycle is so heroic in its interpretation. They managed then, we will manage now. That is another version of teleology. The original design of creation is that people manage. We shift shape. They weren’t really out of land then and we are not really out of land now. It just feels that way. Sneaky teleological comforts abound. They are usually heroic in nature and don’t work. The comfort I offer here takes another kind of courage than the one that comes with big explanations. The comfort I offer here is a small explanation, intentionally so. I might even call it the small animal approach to being a human being. The text is about animals as much as humans so I am now going to attend its real subjects.

Before there were human beings who thought up doctrines there were animals. Even this text is written from the point of view of the humans complaining about what their animals didn’t have. Possibly their animals were less worried. Small c Christians give up worry and not just for Lent.

In the book, The Bear: History of a Fallen King, we are advised to pay more attention to animals and less to the human world. There is substantial evidence that before doctrines, before Jacob, before his tribe, which became many tribes, which became Jesus, which became us, bears were considered Gods. The word Ursine is our word for that which belongs to the bear…. that time before humans or their doctrine. The history of the bear is that the bear became domesticated, after being a God. And yes, bears had sex with humans along the evolutionary route. Bears also grew plush, diminutive and moved to the crib in the form of a teddy bear. We began calling them “Beastly.” We told important stories about what happened to “Little Red Riding Hood.” You can interpret this brief history as teleological – the bear was part of our evolution as humans who then became Christians, who will soon run the entire world. Or you can imagine what life was like for the bear in the bear’s short history of grass eating.

Kathy Rudy, associate professor of women’s studies and ethics at Duke., has written many important books and articles about animals, as pre-human and also as having their own fields of grass, their own time and space. She asks us to flip the paradigm that animals are just for us and about us – and quickly then about our Christ – to have real feelings for them, as the location of a cultural shift. “What if we could, for just a moment, assume that animals serve as our bridge to the natural and the supernatural?” If you must have a teleology, if you just can’t bear looking at life without big beginnings and big endings and big Gods, then begin to think of the rule of the bear as nature culture, all one word, not nature and culture. Once culture splits off from nature, Christology shows up. Thinking Christologically is probably the last thing Jesus and his love wanted. We have plenty of doctrine and very little love since nature and culture split. Once the question of final ends or natural design enters the conversation, the tribes need to fight over land for their cows. Omit that and the cattle move on or they just die out. Dying out is less of a problem to those who love Jesus than it is to those who love Christ.

I know it is weird to talk about grass and fields in New York City but if you have ever watched people compete for an apartment you will understand. We domesticate animals and we domesticate thought and then we domesticate teleology. Comfort is wild, not domesticated. It comes from imagining that our death or the death of our way of life is “ok”, a funny teleology all in itself. Comfort is living without the promise and the premise of more grass. Put another way, our teleology has made the human way too much and the animal way too small. We have overused our magnificent brains, and that has made us deeply uncomfortable.

The Mayans found out how time worked by watching the sun set in a different spot every night. By watching the stars, they developed a numerical system. They didn’t know when to start planting the corn without the priest. When the priest said, this is the day to burn the field, they burnt the field. When I speak of living without a teleology of grain and grass, I don’t’ mean that we don’t perfect our agricultural practices and teamwork practices, our computers or our cars. We do try to last as long as we can. Instead I mean that we abandon the teleology of teddy bears, turning so called beasts into something we can control with overworked imaginations. I imagine a life without the imperialism of our immortality, a loving life that is Christian without being Christian. I imagine a Christ who cast off divinity and became Jesus, who is beyond domestication.

Many people are living within the ancient bear cult and doing it beautifully. I think of fur coats and tattoos, body art, which makes us look both animal and human in different ways. I think of the Algonquin hotel always making sure it has one cat in its dining rooms. The current one is named Hamlet. People keep animals around because they love them. Animals are also a great reminder of who we are and were. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, comes to mind – not just for bears or Hamlet but also for ways of life, points of view, Christology’s and teleologies. When we are too full of ourselves, we are strangers to comfort. When we are less full of ourselves, we are more comfortable. We are less domesticated by either WOLF BLITZER or the golden calf of Wall Street.

Believe it or not, many of you have asked me to preach about vegetarianism. So here goes, as a small c Christian, member of the tribe of Jacob, who cares less about the grass and grain than you might imagine. Also the text today is about grain and grass and cattle. It is a veritable trinity for the small c Christian. No, I am not a vegetarian. However, when I eat an animal, I know it is an animal. “Good evening, my name is fluffy, I will be your lamb chop this evening.” To me that is not a joke. The animal that I eat is not eaten because I have a right to – because I am the end point of civilization and deserve to do so. That again is teleological thinking. I eat the animal ‘pointlessly.”

A huge gap has appeared between our meat and us. I like to think of myself as a “compassionate carnivore.” I know that eating less meat will keep our civilization going longer. I don’t think of that as a Jesus like goal. It is a Christological, teleological goal, but not a Jesus Goal. I hope that shows you more of the comfort I am exploring. A huge gap has developed between the chicken and our potpie, the pig and the hot dog. Just consider these titles and their teleologies: “The Compassionate Carnivore: How to Reduce your Hoofprint, Save Old MacDonald’s Farm and Still Eat Meat” by Catherine Friend. Or “Meeting my Meat: Confessions of a Tender Carnivore.” Meat is the flesh of a dead animal. The text today is about people worrying about their meat. The point is to be less worried. The point is to be less pointed towards one thing. The point is to imagine death as a part of life, not something to be avoided at all costs, either individually or collectively. Does that mean I can’t carry certain Christological Doctrines along with me? Of course, I can. I just need to treat them less teleologically. My indecision about Christology is final! No, I am not going to write “A fat free guide to raising pigs in your apartment.” Instead, when I shed Christology for small c Christianity, I discover I am not as old as I used to be. The end of grass and grain feels less scary. I eat meat because I enjoy it, not because I think I do or don’t deserve it. Small C Christians make a lot of decisions that are partial, different, imperfect, not fully justified.

Some of you know Cheri Kroon as one of our former members and community ministers, now associate pastor at the Flatbush Avenue Dutch Church in Brooklyn. You have probably looked at its steeple more than one time. Coming South on Flatbush Avenue, you will note that it has a definite tilt towards the street. The steeple is not straight – and mercifully neither is the church. The church has been there since 1654. The City of Brooklyn issued a citation in December, suggesting that something had to be done about the steeple and its tilt. Apparently they just noticed and say that the tilt in the steeple is dangerous to the public. Well, it has been dangerous to the public for several centuries in that great way that small c Christians are often dangerous to communities. As Desmond Tutu put it, they should never have given us the bible. Small c Christians last by accident more than on purpose. Lasting on purpose turns you into a bigot or a totalitarian. Lasting dangerously tilted towards the street is a much safer way to last. What is really dangerous to the community are the two banks directly across the street. Chase Manhattan. Citibank. I don’t know that citations were issued? What is truly dangerous to the community is how straight and ugly Raquel’s Shoes occupying the fourth corner at Flatbush and Church. Each of these neighbors is straight, boxed, flat, gaudy, alarmed and secured, teleologically as interested in preserving their future as any Christian ever was. Teleology is contagious. When people understand they are a little off center, a little tilted, a little less square, a little less straight, we will be less tempted by the teleology of Christology or its Citibank version and more available to the lamb of God.

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