the continual sacralization of space

Alasdair John Milbank (born 23 October 1952) is a distinguished contemporary Anglican theologian. In a recent interview, he shared these thoughts about the church and incarnation:

The Church is at once very very spiritual and very very concrete. The Church continues that sense of the Incarnation, and I mean that quite literally, that the church is a communion of souls, it extends to another world, but it also is the material practices, it’s also physical churches, it’s also sacred sites, it’s also the continual sacralization of space, its also parish boundaries. I mean, I believe in all this fantastic stuff. I’m really bitterly opposed to this kind of disenchantment in the modern churches, including I think among most modern evangelicals. I mean recently in the Notthingham diocese they wanted to do a show about angels, and so the clergy – and this is a very evangelical diocese – sent around a circular saying, “Is there anyone around who still believes in angels enough to talk about this?” Now, in my view this is scandalous. They shouldn’t even be ordained if they can’t give a cogent account of the angelic and its place in the divine economy. I want everything put back again, in one sense. I believe in the lot. Pilgrimages, you know, everything. The importance of sacred sites, the traditions about the unseen, even about there being other creatures hidden within the dimensions of this world. These are things which I think we should take seriously that exist in many different traditions. And I think that one of the problems we have is that we have the wrong idea about monotheism, you know, that of course there are gods and angels and spirits, and what have you, in incredible plurality. The point about the divine unity is that it’s beyond all that. Monotheism is not denying the gods. The most radical monotheists have always seen that. There are many spiritual powers, and there may be some place between the good and the bad among them like the early Irish theologians acknowledged. Who knows? The point is that the supreme God is one who transcends any of that kind of thing, so for me, the Church is supremely concrete and supremely spiritual and I think that there is a sense in which, in a fallen world corporeality can lead us into despair, it’s a site of decay. And we can only not despair if corporeality is restored. So without the Incarnation and without the resurrection, we are not really going fully to value embodiment as glorious.

to make the painful things possible

To teach is to create a space in which obedience to truth is practiced.

…A learning space has three major characteristics, three essential dimensions: openness, boundaries, and an air of hospitality.

Openness is no more than the commonsense meaning of space. To create space is to remove the impediments to learning that we find around and within us…. So creating a learning space means resisting our own tendency to clutter up our consciousness and our classrooms. One source of that tendency is our fear of appearing ignorant to others or to ourselves. Even though we are bright into education by ignorance, the fear of “not knowing” often leads us to pack the learning space with projections and pretensions. Teachers lecture longest when they are least sure of what they are doing.

…If we can affirm the search for truth as a continual uncertain journey, we may find the courage to keep the space open rather than packing it with pretense. Second, we must remember that we not only seek truth but that truth seeks us as well. When we become obsessed with our own seeking, we fill the space with methods and hypotheses and reports that may be mere diversions. But when we understand that truth is constantly seeking us, we have reason to open a space in which truth might find us out.

The openness of a space is created by the firmness of its boundaries. A learning space cannot go on forever; if it did, it would not be a structure for learning but an invitation to confusion and chaos. A spaces edges, perimeters, limits. … The teacher who wants to create an open learning space must define and defend its boundaries with care. Not only will this keep the space open, it will also keep the students from fleeing that space. The openness of space–which is at first appealing to our jangled minds–soon becomes a threat. As the clutter falls away we realize how much we depend on clutter to keep our minds employed, to make them feel masterful. We do not want to face the barrenness that comes when our mind-made structures fail, so we run toward some distraction. If you doubt this, try creating a long silence in your classroom as Abba Felix did in his. Feel the anxieties arise in you and your students alike.

…The desert teachers know thees anxieties well. They know that in the desert, before we encounter truth, we must first wrestle with the demons of untruth that arise in the silence, demons that come from our own need to manipulate and master truth rather than let truth transform us. …So the desert teachers disciplined themselves to stand their ground, to stay within the boundaries of the learning space so that truth might seek them out. One symbol of this discipline was the “cell” (often a hut or cave) in which these teachers lived.

…Good teachers know that discomfort and pain are often signs that truth is struggling to be born among us. Such teachers will not allow their student, or themselves, to flee from the “cell.” They will hold the boundaries firm, and hold us all within them, so that truth can do its work.

But precisely because a learning space can be a painful place, it must have one other characteristic–hospitality.

…So the classroom where truth is central will be a place where every stranger and every strange utterance is met with welcome. This may suggest a classroom lacking essential rigor, a place in which questions of true and false, right and wrong, are subordinated to making sure that everyone “has a nice day.” But that would be a false understanding of hospitality. Hospitality is not an end in it self. It is offered for the sake of what it can allow, permit, encourage, and yield. A learning space needs to be hospitable not to make learning painless, but to make the painful things possible, things without which no learning can occur–things like exposing ignorance, testing tentative hypothesis, challenging false or partial information, and mutual criticism of thought. Each of these is essential to obedience to truth. But non of them can happen in an atmosphere where people feel threatened and judged.

…I have been in some classrooms where people seemed to be pressing each other, asking hard questions, stripping off the veils of falsehood and illusion. But behind the appearances, something else was often going on. In an inhospitable classroom, many questions do not come out of honest not knowing. They are rhetorical or political questions designed to score points with the teacher or against other students, questions asked not for truth’s sake but for the sake of winning. In such a setting it is nearly impossible to reveal genuine ignorance–which means that genuine openness to learning is nearly impossible as well.

To Know as We are Known by Parker J. Palmer on pages 69 to 75 (from chapter 5, “To Teach is to Create a Space…”).

sabbath was to time what temple was to space

The sabbath was the day when human time and God’s time met, when the day-to-day succession of tasks and sorrows was set aside and one entered a different sort of time, celebrating the original sabbath and looking forward to the ultimate one. This was the natural moment to celebrate, to worship, to pray, to study God’s law. The sabbath was the moment during which one sensed the onward movement of history from its first foundations to its ultimate resolution. If the Temple was the space in which God’s sphere and the human sphere met, the sabbath was the time when God’s time and human time coincided. Sabbath was to time what Temple was to space.

…This sense of looking forward was heightened by the larger sabbatical scheme in which the seventh year was a year of agricultural rest and the seven-times-seventh year the year of jubilee, the time for slaves to be freed, for debts to be cancelled, for life to get back on track.

…The jubilee was, as it were, the once-in-a-lifetime “exodus” that everyone could experience. We don’t know whether or to what extent the jubilee as set forth in Leviticus 25 was actually practiced in Jesus’s day. But it remained in the scriptures as a reminder that God’s time was being marked out week by week, seven years by seven years, half century by half century. Matthew hints at all this in his own way, right at the start of his gospel, by arranging Jesus’s genealogy in three groups of fourteen generations (that is, six sevens), so that Jesus appears at the start of the sabbath-of-sabbaths moment. And, as we have seen, people in Jesus’s day were pondering, calculating, and longing for the greatest superjubilee of them all, the “seventy weeks” (that is, seventy times seven years) of Daniel 9:24.

…Now, and only now, do we see what Jesus meant when he said the time is fulfilled. That was part of his announcement right at the start of his public career (Mark 1:15). Only this, I believe, will enable us to understand his extraordinary behavior immediately afterwards. He seems to have gone out of his way to flout the normal sabbath regulations. Most people in the modern church have imagined that this was because the sabbath had become “legalistic,” a kind of observance designed to boost one’s sense of moral achievement, and that Jesus had come to sweep all that away in a burst of libertarian, antilegalistic enthusiasm. That, though commonplace, is a trivial misunderstanding. It is too “modern” by half.

…In particular, Jesus came to Nazareth and announced the jubilee. This was the time—the time!—when all the sevens, all the sabbaths, would rush together. This was the moment Israel and the world had been waiting for. When you reach your destination, you don’t expect to see signposts anymore. …It was completely consistent with Jesus’s vision of his own vocation that he would do things that said, again and again from one angle after another, that the time had arrived, that the future, the new creation, was already here, and that one no longer needed the sabbath. The sabbath law was not, then, a stupid rule that could now be abolished (though some of the detailed sabbath regulations, as Jesus pointed out, had led to absurd extremes, so that you were allowed to pull a donkey out of a well on the sabbath, but not to heal the sick). It was a signpost whose purpose had now been accomplished

…If Jesus is a walking, living, breathing Temple, he is also the walking, celebrating, victorious sabbath. But this means that the time of Jesus’s public career, taken as a whole, also acquires a special significance. He spoke about this special significance when he insisted that the wedding guests can’t fast while the bridegroom is still at the party. Something new is happening; a new time has been launched; different things are now appropriate. Jesus has a sense of a rhythm to his work, a short rhythm in which he will launch God’s kingdom, the God’s-in-charge project, and complete it in the most shocking and dramatic symbolic act of all.

….In a solemn warning that resonates with many similar ones, Jesus warns his hearers that they may one day see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets—and people from east and west, from north and south!—sitting down to eat in the kingdom of God, while they themselves will be thrown out (Luke 13:18–30). The time of Jesus’s public career is the time of fulfillment, the time through which God’s new creation, his earth-as-in-heaven new reality, is being launched, up close and personal. But this means it is possible to miss the boat, to lose the one chance. That is the warning that goes with the note of fulfillment.

Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters by N. T. Wright