Derogating The Divine

Last night, Chris Corrigan prodded me (in the comments thread to my remarks about cartoons and riots) about the nature of blasphemy. How do we know, he wonders, “ that any truth is indeed transcendent”?

You mean, apart from “AKMA told me”?

I have to evade some of the far-reaching epistemological questions on that one (since David started this, maybe he can weigh in on some possible-worlds modal-logic answers; I’m inflected by Wittgenstein on religious knowledge). I’ll stick with the pragmatic, and exasperating, point that some of us simply do know. Now, hastily, I add “(by our own accounts)” — that is, the imam in the next town and the rabbi a few blocks down the street and I all know about transcendent truth. To frame the issue as Marx did, we stake our lives and their meaning on the truth of what we profess. If I don’t know about the truth of the Gospel, I’m very profoundly wrong (as Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. . . . If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied”).

Of course, my hypothetical imam and rabbi would give different accounts of the transcendent truth that they know. And — vitally important — we can’t reconcile these divergent accounts without producing yet another, divergent account that departs from what each of these claims, and that entails another superior vision of transcendent truth.

This gets back to my version of gospel pacifism (not that I invented it, but the version that I’ve received and assimilated): If the Gospel didn’t demand that I follow in a Way of non-coercion, I would have reason to cry out for blasphemers to be punished, for impiety to be stifled by force. I hear clearly the arguments of some of the leaders who (evidently, from follow-up news reports, on the basis of bogus evidence) feel the urgency of lashing back at the heedless, impious scoundrels who [allegedly] defame the Truth. Aftera ll, the notion of “the usefulness of a charge of blasphemy against someone who is not a member of the faith in question” only arises when we’re in a situation that starts by deferring the question of whose version of transcendent truth applies. In many localities, that deferral is itself a symptom of godlessness.

Though Chris’s proposals (the first, an inner-community definition of blasphemy by which one adherent indicates to a fellow-adherent, “You’ve transgressed community boundaries” and a personal, internal condition, “the opposite of grace with respect to one’s personal practice”) both sound sensible with reference to the fields they address, they leave out the most powerful dimension of “blasphemy” as a concept and as the basis for the current upheavals: that is, the sense that someone who doesn’t care about “my” knowledge of transcendent truth may not derogate that truth. There’s the rub; in a liberal democracy, the question of transcendent truth must be deferred, but transcendent truth demands that all defer to it (regardless of their preference or dissidence).

As a parenthetical conclusion, I always ponder the fact that Christians have a paradoxical inheritance on the topic of blasphemy. Jesus evidently said something like, “People will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven” (the different gospels frame his saying differently). Then Jesus changes the subject, so that we’re left to puzzle out just what constitutes blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

Several points to note, though: First, Jesus stipulates that every sin and every blasphemy are forgivable, save one. That covers a lot of terrain, a lot that many Christian would hesitate to endorse.

Second, whatever constitutes blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, it must entail some sort of repudiating the possibility of grace; for blasphemy to constitute the only, ultimate, unforgivable transgression, it can’t mean just tripping over a technicality or disagreeing with someone else about a point of doctrine. For the whole theological plan to hang together at this point, the ultimate blasphemy must mean something such as “I want no part of your forgiveness, I despise the [false] truth you espouse, and even if it means I commit my eternity to torment, I opt for that destiny rather than accept the generosity and forgiveness of a God who would forgive my condescending impiety.” As always, though, forgive me if I err in this.

As I pushed “post,” Les McCann and Eddie Harris came on my iTunes list, playing “Compared to What”:

Church on Sunday, sleep and nod
Tryin’ to duck the wrath of God
Preacher’s fillin’ us with fright
Tryin’ to tell us what he thinks is right
He really got to be some kind of nut (I can’t use it!)
Tryin’ to make it real — compared to what?

12 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Thanks for the deep response AKMA…prods me into a couple more questions, if that’s all right.

    First, I’m having trouble reconciling transcendent truth with blasphemey. If a truth is truly transcendent, that what can a blasphemer do that would tear it down? And how is it that the Holy Spirit has this Achilles heel? I’m willing to believe in a transendent Holy Spirit, but only one that truly transcends. That’s not so that I can find a moral code that will let me get away with wahtever I want, rather, it is particularly important to me that there be something bigger than everything, including the personal decision of someone to eschew grace. I would say my faith, however that is constituted, hangs rather heavily on that particular hook.

    Anyway, this may simply be the quandry that Jesus left for us to contemplate, a Christian koan that at least keeps the believer’s eyes on the subject. Sometimes, certainty is not preferable to mindful vigilence.

    Having said that, with respect to the second question, your point about blasphemy being truly a personal stance that takes one fully from grace (surely this is the biggest and most unreconcilable sin, at least as Jesus sees it), I wonder what anyone would care, if suddenly one blasphemed to such an extent. I mean if you are beyond even the salvation of Jesus, how could I possibly help?

    Already though this conversation, in it’s depth and sophistication leads me to believe that much of what is being called blasphemy in the world at the moment is really just a power play, the inner-community proposal that I wrote about earlier, as a way of exerting control and coercion. To me, this cheapening of the idea, whether it is over a graven image or a utterance of disrespect, is the bigger problem.

  2. Regarding blasphemy against the Holy Spirit: I’m no longer sure that there is such a thing. I admit the concept in the way you explained it — that is, removing yourself in some way from the possibility of grace. But I no longer think that can be done. About seven years ago I had a heart attack and “died.” I went into cardiac arrest was “gone” for a while. I had spent the previous 35 years or so first flatly denying the existence of God, then simply not caring one way or the other, then 10 years of cursing God after the death of my son. As I cashed in my chips, I was suddenly asking God for help. One place for blasphemy against the Holy Spirit could be here — to refuse to ask God for help. I don’t think that’s possible though, no matter how rough and tough and intellectually rebellious you are. Then some time later before they brought me back, God was suddenly there. Another place for blasphemy against the Holy Spirit would be here — to tell God to go away. I don’t think anyone could do that either. I certainly couldn’t. The experience of grace was so incredibly overwhelming that I couldn’t do anything but accept it. Yes, when I was healthy and strong, I could stand out in a lightning storm and dare God to strike me down. But at the moment when God came running down the road to gather me into the Presence, I was paralyzed. All I could do was confess my sin. No excuses, no favors asked, no promises, nothing but “My Lord and my God.”

  3. Perhaps not, it is a deep conversation and we are still thinking.

    If I understand the point, it is not that anyone would turn away, but that it has to be possible. Without that possibility there is no free choice. I can’t help but think that Chris is also right that even then, there is a larger spirit to capture that one soul who might take it all the way. Wouldn’t you think God would love that soul to for completing the plan?

    What then is the status of doctrinal debates if this is true (and it must be) about the great openness of the Holy Spirit? Those who cling to one hard line doctrine or another would be objectively wrong, no? The strategy of motivating my fear can only succeed by also keeping the flock ignorant of the more important truth of inclusion and communion with the widest community of spirit.

  4. I don’t quite know how to respond without writing a book. If I understand everything you said (and I think I do), I agree with it. Yes, I think the choice is always there to accept or reject grace. As a practical matter, I don’t think anyone *will* reject it. I believe God will come to everyone at least once with the offer. And if it is only once, it will be at death.

    As far as “completing the plan” is concerened, this is where I can’t really be very succinct about what I think. I don’t think there is a plan in the sense of a “script” or a cast of characters including the good guys and the bad guys. I think the “plan” arises from the nature of God and the nature of creation. I think God and God’s creation act out of their nature. It’s true that the response of us as created beings with freedom of choice can be a long and winding road before we reach the acceptance of grace, but in the end I believe it is our nature to accept it, and that we will. Does that make any sense?

    And I think much of our prideful and rebellious response comes from the way we understand and the vocabulary that is used to express that understanding. I believe, for example, we are sinful by nature. Unfortunately many (most?) people equate being “sinful” with being “totally depraved.” They have visions of folks other than them being more beast than human, living life salivating at the vision of all their unholy lusts. Sin, in fact, is only that which keeps us from having the relationship with God that God wants us to have. And that is bad enough, but it’s not a result of being inherently perverted.

    The traditional understanding of the Ten “Commandments” (which in Hebrew are merely the Ten Words) is that they are “LAWS” that we DISOBEY at the peril of our salvation. They are actually explanations of how creation works. God did not say, for example, that we should not covet anything that is our neighbor’s because God is a sadist who wants to deny us our heart’s desire and is going to get off watching us struggle with our desires. God said that creation is such that if we covet that which is our neighbor’s, we will be so eaten up with jealousy and lust for it that we won’t be able to enjoy all the blessings God has given us. In the same way, God didn’t say that we should have no other God’s before him because he is a rock star and needs us all to be groupies, but because if we put tobacco, alcohol, lust for fame or money or sex, etc., etc., etc. ahead of our created nature to be children of God, we will miss partaking of that nature.

    In fact, we all do violate these “commandments” many times in our earthly lives and remove ourselves from our source and our essence. The acceptance of grace is not some reluctant acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty, saying, “OK I give up. I’m afraid you’ll kick my butt and banish me to hell if I don’t behave myself.” It’s the sudden AHA or Eureka that happens when we suddenly understand its nature. That is what we call “the working out of the plan.”

    And, yes, those who cling to one hard line doctrine or another are objectively wrong. The strategy of motivating my fear is, IMHO, only a power play that puts the possession of power ahead of God.

    I hope I made some sense to you — even if you don’t entirely agree. I’m going to go take a couple of aspirin now to try to get rid of this headache. 😉

  5. So much of this is about the moment of death. I am thinking about the Buddhist ideas about death and the clinging that holds one back. The practice of letting go in myriad forms is about preparing for that moment when our cligning is gone and we can be released into clear light.

    Bill, you are talking about the commandments in the same way: avoid these behaviours because they compromise your ability to be free, essentially. I think there is much merit in this interpretation, and it strikes me as interesting in the context of a conversation in which Jesus’s exhortation is to a mindful practice of faith. Blasphemy is simply a way of drawing some lines. It’s not that trangressions of these lines somehow puts you in line for everlasting pain, more like these lines are guides for everything we know about practicing faith mindfully and without having deamons ruin your experience of the divine.

    I can see this, and it makes me profoundly suspicious of those who use the term “blasphemy” as a kind of judgement.

    There is much more to say about this…I’m still interested in AKMA’s take on this and some of the questions that Gerry has raised too.

  6. No, not plan in the sense of a script, I don’t see it that way either. In the sense that a totality is not complete without all of its parts, even its negation. Lucifer is a necessary archetype of creation, and the essense of what I’m saying is that God loves Lucifer too, and lets him choose his own Hell.

    And yes to thinking about “laws” being given in the sense of being a necessary structure of reality. Like the “Law of Two Feet” in open space they simply describe something true. What AKMA says above about transcendant truth has the same feel. It’s not what you believe that matters, it matters what is actually so, given in the deepest sense.

    So, if we posit that all religions are attempting to describe and relate to the same transcendant reality, then doctrinal differences are no more serious than divisions within the disciplines of science of philosophy. We know our current knowledge will be tentative and incomplete even as we strive to complete it. Unwarranted certainty is the sign of a closed mind, not unshakable faith.

  7. Because I just am that way, I’m not going to comment (at the moment) about death, commandments, “all religions,” or “not making a difference.” Well, I probably will, but I want to start by concentrating solely on the question of blasphemy.

    I’ve stuck to the premise that blasphemy constitutes some extreme sort of the prohibition of name-taking-in-vain, a polar opposite to invoking God in praise and blessing. If (as my Reformed brothers and sisters remind us) humanity’s chief end is to glorify God and to praise God forever, “blasphemy” seems to involve “behavior antithetical to praising and glorifying God”: derogating the Divine.

    Now, whether it’s possible to commit that derogation as an ultimate act of will, I don’t know — I certainly think it dangerous simply to assume that one can’t, that all one’s transgressions and follies amount to nought and that no matter what, God will receive our inevitable plea for mercy without hesitation. (Bill obviously has first-hand experience that I can’t claim, so I’m not contradicting him; I just say, along with the Christian tradition in general, that we have to allow for the possibility of rejecting God.)

    If that’s so, then any act of rejecting, repudiating, mocking, derogating God would constitute a very dangerous first step toward making a habit of that rejection, and would establish a social environment where dissing God seemed unimportant, indifferent, perhaps even cool. “I be so big and bad I can say tough things about your wimpy ol’ God, and positive things about Satan” (or mutatis mutandis, “Jehovah” and “Nazism,” or “Muhammed” and “the U.S. imperial impulse”). Or whatever.

    So, contra Chris, I think that what one believes makes a tremendous difference, especially since our beliefs involve some sort of testing against reality. I do think that if we bear in mind that my faith is no more nearly infallible than an imam’s faith, a guru’s faith, a tzaddik’s faith, or a materialist’s resolute unfaith, we can negotiate honest deeply-held disagreements and differentiate them from blasphemy.

    I’m against blasphemy; but then again, I’m against gratuitously insulting anybody (much more so any purported deity). Blasphemy pollutes the spiritual ecology. If I weren’t opposed in principle to coercive violence, I might well think that blasphemy constituted a reasonable occasion for rioting and mayhem.

    Blasphemy bothers me as much for its stupidity (most of the time) as for its impiety. People who can’t elicit a response from others by wit or insight can resort to blasphemy in order to disturb even serene and patient interlocutors. That’s cheap, and stupid, and tends to engender a culture of cheap stupidity, of which I want no part. Elegant, witty blasphemy — I’ll admit that I’m susceptible to admiring that.

  8. A couple years ago, a group of us were blogging through the Gospel of Mark and discussed the unforgivable sin here and here. It sounds like the traditional Catholic understanding of this sin could throw the net pretty wide, covering just about any mortal sin. But I guess that’s what Purgatory is for, because we’d all rack up quite a few to burn off.

  9. It looks like I didn’t explain myself quite well enough. That’s probably why I’m not a seminary professor and AKMA is. So let me see if I can’t quickly dig myself out of the hole I might be in.

    I am perfectly comfortable with AKMA’s description of blasphemy in the second paragraph above. And I agree with his assertion in the third paragraph that we have to allow for the possibility of rejecting God. I also have to deal with the possibility that under certain circumstances God might not receive our pleas for forgiveness.

    I did not intend to imply that my experience should trump the discussion. I hope I didn’t give that impression. My experience may have been an hallucination caused by cerebral anoxia, although I strongly reject that idea. I was only saying that I have an experiential theology, not a systematic one, that gives me strong reason to think salvation will be universal. A lot can happen between the moment you close your eyes for the last time and when you are irretrievably, 24-carat-gold-plated dead. It involves lots of stuff about personal purgatory and things that are WAY off topic. But, yes, I grant the possibility of judgement and condemnation.

    And so, yes, I am against blasphemy (against the Holy Spirit or anyone else) if for no other reason than it is not in the example Christ set for me.

    Does that help to clarify what I said before?

  10. I’ve been hoping others would continue before I add more thoughts of my own, but I did want to open up one question prompted by this conversation and moreso by AKMA’s linked post about the cartoons and violence.

    What is the relationship between an non-believing or a differently believing person to blasphemy? Similar to the heretic who knows what the creed contains, but chooses another path. These differentiated stands on transcendent truth can be acknowledged to be in opposition to the authoritative stance, but if I am not a member of group X who believes Y, is it even reasonable to talk about this as blasphemy?

    There is a seperate question about manners when someone intentionally puts up someone else’s sacred symbols in a derogative way, but I don’t see how you get to questions of right belief or blasphemy from there.

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