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Saturday, December 24, 2011

In praise of implausiblity

When I saw this cartoon in the latest New Yorker, I thought of Luke Timothy Johnson's hilarious polemic on some of the methods of the Jesus Seminar.  In case you can't or don't want to link to the cartoon, it portrays a man tossing crutches aside and jumping for joy next to a gesturing and haloed Jesus.  A skeptic looks on and says, good luck trying to get that peer reviewed.

The event of miraculous healing is, of course, highly unscientific and extremely implausible.  To skeptics, this is a sign of folly, or at the very least untruth.  But to believers its implausibility is precisely the point, as Johnson makes plain.  It's implausibility helps make the narrative compelling and transforming.  Obviously, a faith built on the entirely plausible is no faith at all, and scripture filled with the completely believable will fail to transform souls and inspire imaginations to hope.  The life of faith is an imaginative one, it calls us to imagine what is not that might be, what does not seem plausible that might become possible.  Imagination is the fertile soil of hope.

So as you tell the Christmas story with your families this year, let its glorious implausibility fertilize your imaginations to hope anew.


Roy said...

Imagination in matters of faith is a good thing. I think all religious ideas are products of human imagination. But how does modern imagination connect with ancient imagination? When world views and cosmologies change, the context of the imagination changes. Why does the church insist on ancient imaginations?

Phil Waite said...

A good point Roy. I would say that the failure of the church has come with literalism, not with ancient imagination. The other Dec. 24 post refers to a Marilynne Robinson essay which is largely a celebration of the ancient biblical imagination. I suspect she and I are both drawing heavily on the work of Walter Brueggemann and Paul Ricouer. (As is Walter Wink in his fine work on the powers.)

Robinson's point is that the fact that the story of a poor or marginalized person is even worth telling in Western culture is purely a product of the biblical imagination. I believe that imagination can adapt well to new realities. Yes, the church has resisted this.

Well, I could write more on this topic, but I will say, that the world of justice and peace imagined by the Hebrew prophets is one I want to live in, however implausible.

I think too often we combat right wing literalism in the church with another kind of literalism. This is a mistake.

JFS said...

Phil, I appreciated the earlier exchange and would like to make the following two points. First, regarding the resistance to let go of the ancient imagination, I worry that we/the church struggle with determining when letting go is the right thing to do. We are all painfully aware of the problem the church had in coming to grips with Galileo. Leaping from Galileo to today, ancient imagination (or the lack thereof) continues to thwart women in positions of leadership in the the vast majority of the Christian church (CMC excepted, thankfully). My point is simply to concur that within the church, religious beliefs or positions are sticky (we resist changing them), at times to the detriment of the church.
I also wanted to ask a question about miraculous healing. Miraculous healing was widely reported in the ancient world, to include the pagan Asclepius, the pagan holy man, Apollonius of Tyana, the Jewish miracle worker, Hanina ben Dosa, Jesus of Nazareth and more. According to Ramsey MacMullen (Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries), “the pagan world was a ‘cure-seeking world’ in which the chief attraction for special journeys to temples was ‘the longing for cures.’” MacMullen comments further that “Also displayed on the walls of shrines would be inscriptions recording answers to prayer, many of these being quite substantial narratives.” (MacMullen, pp. 54-56) Phil, with your comments, are you accepting the miraculous healing of all of the ancients?

Phil Waite said...

JFS, I guess I am true to my seminary training in that I am like many of my colleagues in regard to the questions you ask. I don't find them interesting or even that relevant. They strike me as residue of the modernist-fundamentalist split, the battles of an earlier era.

Author Richard Rohr says that, rather than being something that isn't true, myth is something that reveals a deeper truth, and sometimes really happened. This I find interesting and relevant.

I believe God reveals God's self to us in many ways, certainly through scripture. And I believe God acts in time and space in ways we find difficult to understand or explain. I am content to leave plenty of room for mystery, something the modern mind, including the fundamentalist modern mind, has a difficult time accepting.

I find it interesting and relevant that the Hebrew people, and the Bible which emerged from their journey, had the imagination to conceive a world radically different from any the world around them had known before.

Maybe this conversation would be a good one to have as part of our Wednesday evening activities coming up next month.