nothing matters

I’m supposed to speak to my study group on the 3rd and the 10th, and I still haven’t a clue what to say.

What I won’t do

Come out to them. Although what is most on my mind is the truth of Christ as it relates to my being created gay, it isn’t yet appropriate to dump it all on them, especially as they hardly know me, or I them.

 I am pretty sure they want me to talk about how a fundamentalist can move from such proof-texting narrowmindedness to where I am now, but the personal motivation of such a huge change is not something I feel I want to share just yet. Not because I’m hiding (I’m not, the pastor and some good friends at this church know I’m gay), but because I want my coming out to be fruitful, not destructive.

I actually have a plan: that people get to know me, and fall in love with me as me first. That we become friends, mutually respecting each other. And then, when the time is right, to come out and then let them feel the fullness of tension between who they know me to be and (if they’ve got a problem with homosexuality) their belief set. I want them to feel the incongruity and have as a consequence a need to change, and the responsibility to account for the decision they’ve made, a decision informed by what they know of me, not merely suggested to them by words I say.

I want my coming out to be transformative and reconciling, not masochistic and divisive.

And this is, you’ll soon see, absolutely related to what I will do.

What I will probably do

Talk about grace. The focus of this last year of soul-reconstruction has been to learn to understand the depth of grace and what it truly means to be a Christian—to understand the importance of orthopraxy over orthodoxy.

The former, right practice has to do with how we live out the love Christ has lived into us. The latter worries about whether we have the right belief set. But Paul said “follow me as I follow Christ,” not “believe this set of creedal statements”; he wrote that we are saved by grace, not by having the right set of beliefs on a 3-by-5 card in our back pocket.

One thing I’ve been doing in my Cartesian reassessment of my own belief set has been to reread the Bible in a wholly new way.

Because the focus is on Christ, it seems right to me to find out how to read the Bible through the filter of the life of Jesus, and how to understand him at the most basic level. 

By that, I mean I want to understand how he was perceived by his earliest disciples, not by the latest doctrines and creeds. I want to know who Paul believed in, not the set of propositions we today hold as belief. I want to know who this Christ is that motivated such a dramatic change in lifestyle and daily activity (orthopraxy), and to see how this slowly developed into the doctrines of a growing church. So I’m reading the New Testament in the order it was written, doing my best to read slowly, carefully, and questioningly—questioning every doctrine I might read into the text, by looking to see whether it is there, or was something later developed by Gospel, epistolary, or other Christian writers.

So far, I’ve read Galatians, I Thessalonians, and a bit of I Corinthians.

I was stopped short in the first chapter of I Corinthians, because of my experiential, philosophical, and doctrinal background. And this hit me so hard, I thought I’d try to process the grace application I read therein.

The Experiential Background

I wasn’t supposed to exist. Not as me, though I could be a good facade, showing the world the good Christian girl, the daughter of one of the elders in the church, who properly reflected the family’s honor and spirituality.

This was something I thought I came to terms with years ago, as I realized the “lady” mom always told me I was expected to be was never defined. I had a ridiculously long list of things a lady wasn’t, but never what she was.

Well, this is useless. I can tell you a cat is not a dog, a stuffed pepper, a red marker, a squeaky duck toy, a porcelain figurine, a pewter frame, but no matter how long the list goes, I’ll never have told you what a cat is. Thus, you cannot define something with only negatives. And unfortunately for me regarding the whole lady thing, I was required to be this undefined thing, all the while doing all the things that were plainly stated as not ladylike.

I came to accept my never being a lady, especially as it seemed she couldn’t exist as a living human being, given all the things she was not. But what did hit me, and what I had to deal with in my late 20s, was the fact that I was supposed to be a lady, and that I wasn’t supposed to be all the things I in fact was. Hence, I wasn’t supposed to exist as I was, but as something impossible to attain.

Since I’d never attain that, and since I was stuck being what I wasn’t supposed to be, I wasn’t supposed to be.

Now I reconciled all this and reached a level of freedom by realizing that what my family (especially my mother) required of me was not indicative of what God required of me. In fact, this new understanding freed me to pursue my education and the publication of some of my poetry.

But still, I was not gay. That of all things was not allowed, not even by God, so far as I believed.

Well, of course, I was only internalizing what was not allowed to exist. What did not exist. And thus, though I was still as gay as gay can be, I had forbidden myself to exist. I was so good at being a facade, that, although I had come far in allowing a part of me to exist, I had still made the core of myself (hence myself) nonexistent. Like the puppet in Lewis’s Great Divorce, I was a big front, chattering confidently, even while the real, though nonexistent, me cowered behind the strings.

The Philosophical and Doctrinal Background

Read the first chapter of I Corinthians, and you enter into the heart of a debate in the early church. We tend to think that denominational divisions are a thing of Protestant doing, but in fact, they were already germinating in Paul’s day, even before the first Gospel was written. Paul notes that some people claim to follow Paul, some Cephas, some Apollos, and that the followers of Chloe have brought to Paul a question regarding what to do with such divisions.

My reading of this was the standard reading: we are all one in Christ. Fine. But in the discussion of this problem, Paul notes that not many were wise, rich, powerful, etc., but that God has used what seems foolish to confound the seemingly wise.

Now here’s the reading that my doctrinal background foisted upon me. It is a dangerous thing to get an education, especially one in a ‘worldly institution.’ So much so that homeschooling is advocated, and it is better to attend an unaccredited Bible School than to go to a community college or a liberal arts university, where your mind is sure to be polluted and confused with humanistic ‘wisdom’ that will block you from the wisdom of God. The emphasis in this text was always to avoid divisiveness in the church, and that divisiveness was strongly tied to disagreement, and that if you disagreed because of logic, or some other worldly thing, then you were in the wrong, and needed to seek the “mind of Christ”, which was a mind wholly in agreement with the doctrines of the church as interpreted by the leaders in your own fellowship.

I’ve always had a lot of problems with that. But you know, disagreeing was rebellion, and rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.

Not that I bought that last bit, but I’ve heard it enough times.

So rereading I Corinthians 1. First thing to note: even the Inclusive Bible misses this one. The people who came to Paul with a letter of questions were not from Chloe’s household, but from her house church. The word Paul uses is the same word as he uses when he says somebody “follows” Paul, “follows” Cephas, or “follows” Apollo. These were followers of Chloe, that is, members of the church that met at her house. Chloe was a pastor of a church.

Of course, Chloe as pastor is not allowed, so, following the reasoning I used above, Pastor Chloe is not allowed to exist. Since not allowed, she doesn’t exist. She can be some sort of matriarch, a facade the patriarchal church tradition can handle, but never a leader of people, especially not men.

Second, I see that Paul is setting up two stumbling blocks here.

In my upbringing, it was always bad to seek human knowledge. Even Augustine sets up a juxtaposition between the City of Man and the City of God, the former being analogous to the Hebrew (Jewish) understanding of wisdom, the latter being Roman (founded on Greek notions). I was raised in this Augustinian tradition (though it is doubtful many of my pastors knew they were following Augustine), being taught to seek spiritual signs and not logical argument. The foolishness of man (e.g., contradictions, fallacies, and unfortunately, even stupidity) was the wisdom of God.

But Paul here writes of the problems with both the Jewish and the Greek systems. There are two kinds of wisdom being set up as foils against the wisdom of God.

The Jewish wisdom is a mystical one, demanding signs and depth of scholarly knowledge in scripture. The Greek wisdom is a philosophical one, demanding careful argumentation and depth of understanding of rhetoric, logic, mathematics, and science. Both build careful metaphysical systems, around their notion of who God is, and how one should be faithful to God as so defined.

But Paul writes that neither the scripture scholar (Jew) nor the rhetorician (Greek) is wise before God. That the signs demanded by Jews and the careful argument demanded by Greeks are missing the point, are incapable of aspiring to the heights of divine Transcendence, as emulated in the Anointed One, Jesus. Neither the wise Jews nor the wise Greeks recognized Jesus as Anointed One. Thus to Jew and Greek alike, Christ is a stumbling block.

Jesus as stumbling block to the scripturally savvy is unthinkable. Often (if not usually), we are told to study scripture so that we are able to discern the truth of God. But Paul here is hinting that even this is inadequate, and that if we rely on our own tendency for either logical argument or emotional / physical signs, we’ll miss it. In fact, when we codify our own understanding of scripture and let that calcify into an inflexible doctrine, we’ve put our trust in a natural phenomenon (a text) instead of the supernatural source of being. We’ve given up the transcendence of God for the wisdom of humanity.

We do not allow God to move outside our own agendas, demanding either a ‘sign’, telling God what to do (a popular, but bossy, tactic common in positive confession prayer), or a reasonable argument, insisting that God as we have defined cannot exist because of evil or so-called ‘reasonable nonbelief’ (ala Schellenberg). But then, we are saying God does not exist if God does not supply us with signs or reasons. Paul here is saying all this is missing the point, yet we cannot, it seems, escape our narrowmindedness.

So God cannot exist, either.

How so? If God is transcendent and if we insist that nothing can exist that transcends wisdom (as defined by empirically accessible data (e.g., signs) or by logically accessible argument), then God as transcendent cannot exist. But if God isn’t transcendent, then whatever that non-transcendent thing is, it cannot be God. So as non-transcendent, God cannot exist, either. This follows from human wisdom, either “Jewish” or “Greek.”

Here is what hit me hardest this time around, what I cannot get past. We should consider ourselves as an illustration to God’s hugeness. Not many of us (though some of us, sure) were “wise” by the world’s standards. That means that only a few of us were good at either Jewish or Greek wisdom. Paul, remember, was good at the former, and could certainly hold his own at the latter. But the thing is, it doesn’t matter. It matters so little that even these characteristics don’t count against us in Christ. They are nothing. In the kingdom of heaven, they don’t exist.

Philosophically, nothing is a very hard concept to grasp. Perhaps the best way to illustrate is to draw an analogy from the brilliant children’s book, The Neverending Story. The huge terror of the story is the Great Nothing, that one cannot look upon, that eats parts of people up, that is simply a void where something once was, or where something should be. Analytic philosophers argue that nothing is no thing, that therefore we cannot talk as if nothing were a something that doesn’t exist. Everything exists. But here, in I Cor. 1, Paul talks about nothing in a non-Analytic way. Analytics like to make fun of a philosopher Meinong, who talks about different kinds of being. Some being includes existing, some being does not. So you can have things that have being—that are–even though these things don’t exist. So there are unicorns, though unicorns don’t exist.

It seems this is kind of what Paul is hinting at here. He writes, God selected the lowborn things of the world and the things which have been looked down on, and the things which do not exist, in order to render inoperative those things which do exist, so that the whole natural realm would have no grounds to boast in God’s presence. (vs. 28-29).

In my trusty NIV, we have “things which are not to nullify things that are” and in the Inclusive, “those who count for nothing were chosen by God to reduce to nothing those who were something.” In the Greek, so far as I can read it, the Source seems to have the best translation. Paul doesn’t talk about people who count as nothing, as the Inclusive has it. The NIV’s things which are not is right, but since from the translation I’ve read for 22 years, it didn’t stick out so starkly to me.

In fact, Paul says this. Things that don’t exist are used by God to disable things that do exist.

As a gay Christian in a world populated by sign-seekers and rhetoricians, I don’t exist. Gay Christians cannot exist. Church wisdom tells us that being gay and being Christian are contradictory properties. Logic tells us that nothing can have contradictory properties. So by human wisdom, gay Christians cannot exist—nothing is both gay and Christian.

Yet here I am, not existing, all the while somehow having being in the Anointed One, Jesus. My very being contradicts people’s long-held wisdom, their set of propositions that they believe one must hold to be a Christian. And it is my non-existing little self (along with other non-existent things) that God will use to render inoperative the very-loudly existing dogmas, the very-strongly held arguments and interpreted signs, so that only the grace of God remains.

Nothing, not even a couple thousand years of church ‘wisdom’, which is yet a part of the natural realm, can boast in God’s presence (no matter how much we boast in our own company). That is, nothing that exists can boast in God’s presence.

Yet nothing can boast in God’s presence. Nothing can boast, for there is nothing not existing, even though the nothing has being in Christ.

In The Neverending Story, Bastian becomes an emperor, one who has the power to wish things into existence, to define the very story and essence of Fantastica. Yet each time he wishes, he loses a bit of himself, slowly becoming empty of identity, incapable of all thought and activity. One day, he chances upon the City of Old Emperors, a place haunted by mindless drones who terrify him with their senility. And he learns that this is where he will wind up, too, if he does not give up the Auryn, the amulet that gives him authority in Fantastica, if he does not relenquish the power to define. And the only way, it turns out, he can do this, is to wish himself out of all self, into a place where he is completely empty and nonexistent, for only then when he has nothing left can he enter reality and be whole.

God’s grace is poured lavishly out on nothing and elevates nothing such that somethings likewise become nothing. All that is left then, is God, and God’s grace. And only then, when we no longer try to make Christianity our own dominion, are we real. Only when we no longer exist.

It is this, I believe, that Paul has in mind when he writes in Galatians that there are no divisions among us—neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, rich, poor, educated, ignorant, or anything else. All there is is God, and God’s grace. God is so huge that nothing else can exist beside.

No wonder this is foolishness. That God’s grace makes nothing of something is beyond us. That God uses non-existent things to disable the existing things is bewildering. Yet so very powerful, humbling, and awe-inspiring to those of us who do not exist.

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6 thoughts on “nothing matters

  1. Eliz Anderson

    Wow! I will need to reread this. You have expounded on a train of thought I only had a snippet of. I love how you equate the two main processes of logic and understanding with Paul’s writing. Thank you

    Reply
  2. flayed Hypatia Post author

    Actually, things got pushed back. Now it’s the 10th, the 17th, and the 24th. And I’ve still no clue what to say, having written two false starts already.

    Tick, tick, tick.

    I just know I’m going to talk about grace, but I’d sure like to have a bit of a heads up exactly what direction God wants me to go….

    Reply

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