Saturday, June 7, 2014

Like Dorothy Chasing after the Wizard's Balloon, or, Ascension Sunday

I am, seemingly, behind the ball this week. Last weekend I wrote a brief post that served as part two of the post I had written the weekend before that. I felt that it was called for, so I went for it. However, I still want to write about the readings for Ascension Sunday (also last Sunday). I feel that, also, is called for. So I'm going for it, even though it is now the day before Pentecost... I blame my present state of needing to catch up on the end of the school year, which just happening this past week. But since it is the end of the school year and I've been a little punchy, here is a snapshot of what I was thinking about with the title of this post:

Is likening Ascension Sunday to The Wizard of Oz slightly heretical?
I don't think so...

And since I'm doing something abnormal with my the timing of my post, here is something I do normally; provide a humorous meme related to the topic:

Included thanks to Episcopal Church Memes

For my readers who are less familiar with Ascension Sunday, the meme is pretty much spot on (more or less...). It's spot on because the story in Acts describes Jesus being literally drawn up into the sky, where heaven is presumably located, but not before reminding his disciples about how they will receive the Holy Spirit. The caption on the meme, meanwhile, is a funny joke about Jesus' Second Coming... even though that's not a part of the story in the Acts of the Apostles. Oops.

The Gospel, meanwhile, is a very abstract account from John that deals with Jesus conversing with God the Creator with many convoluted prepositions dealing with whose glory will be a part of whose and which part of God is where. It is fairly confusing. However, I like the strategy that the Pulpit Fiction guys used to explain what all these prepositions might mean, with regard to glory. They suggested interpreting this concept of "glory" in terms of a high school athletic team. The way that people describe a win usually involves the term we; "Were you at the game? We totally surged ahead in the second half to win!" The we pronoun is used, whether or not the speaker is actually on the team. Nevertheless, the athletic team's win is a sort of glory that is shared with all their fans, supporters, friends and families. The idea of the Creator's glory being in Jesus' glory and vice versa is a much broader, more inclusive sense of glory than any athletic team.

So how do the lesson from Acts and the Gospel relate? Well, I think that the passage from John is intended to show that there is a unity between Jesus, God the Creator, and also with the disciples. This is not a physical unity where everyone is conjoined by a body part, but rather a joint spiritual existence.  And the glory, light, and honor that is God's and Jesus' also belongs to the disciples. That being said, I think there is a certain element of the Gospel writers wanting to demonstrate that there is a happening truth to the story truth that they tell.

Okay, now everyone is thinking "Tom, what the heck are you talking about? Why are you trying to describe different kinds of truth? Isn't there just Truth?" And my answer is yes. And no.

See, this is the part of the discussion where I piss off everyone who takes the Bible literally. And I also piss off the people who look at the Bible and describe it as a book of moral teachings.  Because I say that it's a both/and situation. Let me try to get more concrete...

What we have in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles is a vignette that illustrates Jesus (who has already risen from the dead by this point) leaving his disciples by rising off the ground and floating up into the sky to join God the Creator. And I think this story made perfect sense to people in the Hellenistic Mediterranean world and later in Europe and other places where Western philosophy predominated. When you have a concept of the created world as a series of successive planes of existence, it makes sense that this world we know is in between the lower world of punishment and the higher world of reward and paradise. This 3-layer cake world-view has everything to do with the Greek Olympian mythology and Platonic philosophy. So without regurgitating my Philosophy 101 course from college, I can say that when Jesus ascends into heaven, you could just as easily say that Jesus is going to that place-that-is-not-this-place where good people go to be rewarded. I think that, if this story were to happen and be told today, it would probably involve some method of Jesus' atoms coming apart at a quantum level and being scattered across the cosmos so that they can resonate in harmony with the universe forever.

What, then, does that cosmological scattering of the Savior have to do with story truth versus happening truth? I think that the writer of the Acts of the Apostles told the story of Jesus returning to the Creator in the best way they knew how, with the language and the tools that were available to them in their time. So that means that Jesus' ascension is story true. But my secret disclosure to you about the happening truth of the story is that I just don't know. I wish I could have been there in the first century CE to see these things for myself so that I don't need to live my life of faith based on the stories passed down through the ages in a book that's been translated through at least three languages before it came to a format that I can read. I really wish that I didn't have to go out on a limb to understand these things. But I don't know what happened for sure, and in that is what Lesley Hazelton spoke of in "the doubt essential to faith." I need to live knowing that the story truth and the happening truth of this piece of scripture are both True, even though the two don't agree with each other. [For those of you who have been reading my blog regularly, this lack of agreement is another facet of my struggle to live in the light of the Risen Christ]

I also know that this stance, holding the tension between the story truth of scripture and the uncertain happening truth of it, is something that is highly criticized by many sects of American society. Most prominently, I am reminded of a blog written by a man named Dan Fincke who I met on Twitter a few months back. Fincke is an Atheist, a professor of Philosophy, and in the particular blog I'm thinking of he took aim at the theological conclusion that has been drawn from Jesus' ascension, as it has been written in the Acts of the Apostles. He pointed out an inconsistency; that many Christians deny conceptualizing God as the Old, Bearded Man in the Clouds, but here we have a story of a bearded man who lived approximately 2,000 years ago, had a beard, and was raised into the clouds. Hmm... I see that he has a point. That does seem inconsistent. That is, if you expect the story to be interpreted in light of the Western philosophers and the world view that I described above in this post. I do hope that Prof. Fincke has a chance to read this post and respond to my thoughts on this story from scripture.

So where is my conclusion? If the readings for Ascension Sunday were the basis for a formation class that I was teaching, I would spend the larger portion of class time wading through objections, such as Prof. Fincke's, that are brought against the scripture passages. I would welcome the discussion that is spawned by the formation candidates' own doubts and misgivings about the happening truth of the story. And then, in the end, I would try to offer the passage from John's Gospel as a way to highlight the point of Ascension Sunday. I think the point is that Jesus came to preach and walk a new way to God. And I think that Christ's glory is our glory, too, and that it is found at the cross. When we let go of our own ambitions or the ambitions that the world tells us we ought to pursue, we are free to love and serve like Christ did. And that might be how we live as Easter people.