About this blog

This Blog is named after an ancient gnoseological riddle which hints hidden, disseminated, omnipresent wisdom.
I invite you to search, listen and observe with me for "the word of tree, whisper of stone, and humming together of the abyss and stars."


Friday Message from Rutgers Church 2011-09-30

Church of open commensality 
Jesus was accused of being “a glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and other sinners.”(Matthew 11:19 and Luke 7:34)
It was a hostile attack, meant to be dismissive and undermining. But it was anything but that. This comment was true, and on Jesus' side his behaviour was intentional! 
This observation marvelously grasped the essence of his ministry. Just look up all those parables about eating, feasting and preparing food. 
Then, even more importantly, look at how often the gospels speak about eating or feasting with Jesus. Even that famous miracle of turning water into wine in Cana of Galilee: it was not about a bottle or two, it involved no less than 100 gallons of choice wine: 100 gallons!
       Eating and drinking with others was at the center of Jesus' ministry. Jesus intentionally and provocatively gathered people around his table who would otherwise hardly ever sit together. 
A prostitute in the family living room of a city mayor. The homeless and beggars at the table with the business elite (those famously corrupt state contractors and bankers). Who could be surprised that so many people felt uncomfortable?! This radically egalitarian table community stood at the center of Jesus’ ministry. This was his primary way of modeling, anticipating and beginning to create a new order of divine rule (Kingdom of God). 
       Clearly, many people did not like it. They disliked it so intensely that they thought they could eliminate this vision by getting rid of this provocative visionary. Thank God their murderous plan did not work! Every time we celebrate Holy Communion we dine with the resurrected. We personally perpetuate and participate in this revolutionary salvific vision of a new divine order, where there is enough sustenance, enough hope, enough forgiveness and enough welcome for anyone willing to enter. 


Friday Message from Rutgers Church 2011-09-23

Dysfunctional Biblical Family Values
Have you ever noticed how the Bible portrays family life? Abraham almost “sacrifices” his son in some kind of religious delusion. We hear about the tormenting and desperate escape of a pregnant surrogate mother, soon followed by her expulsion to the desert. Then there are several examples when mothers of faith are being “pimped” by their husbands for political and material profits. Or consider Rebecca’s misleading her elderly and blind husband to push forward her favorite son. There are siblings conspiring to murder their brother and settling on a “humane” solution of only selling him into slavery. We see a long history and well-established practice of dangerous intermarriages with close blood relatives. Remember the notorious love life of alpha-male David and the incest between David’s children? Or the Oedipean behavior of Absalom, or Solomon’s diplomatic harem, or his “the Arabian Night” affair with the Queen of Sheba? Oh, did I mention prophet Hosea with his strange style of preaching through his family life and names of his kids?  
It does not stop with what we call the Old Testament. We can continue with not unsubstantiated rumours about Jesus’s own parentage, or the attempts of Jesus’ family to have him declared insane and his reaction in disowning them and replacing them with a commune of his own making. We know about Jesus’s own blatant disrespect for the responsibilities of a son towards a dying father. Then there is Paul almost amusing family, and sexual advice hardly derived from any real family experience, tragically taken by some as a center of his religious genius and the holy writ itself. And all this menagerie of pathologies and dysfunctionality is just a short and brief list which I created almost in an instant and of the top of my head!
How is it possible? First, I think it is naked biblical truth-telling. Even the greatest and most celebrated heroes (to some extent even Jesus himself) are portrayed with honest realism. Second, it is the logic of storytelling and the means for stories to survive; only unique and somehow “ticklish” stories can make it down through the ages and generations. There is also a pedagogic reason - it is better and safer to learn from the mistakes of others. Finally there is a whole bunch of psychological, religious and theological reasons. As we observe models of behavior, and archetypes in action, our sense of morality is broadened; as we observe human merits (rather demerits) and divine grace in action, with Luther we can exclaim - “Sola Gratia” - By Grace Alone!
        This Sunday we will hear a unique intertwined, two-gospel parable about God’s own dysfunctional family (Matthew 21: 28-31 and Luke 15:11-32). Thus it is about us, about our families, about our society, but primarily about God and about the divine medicine of love and grace.


Preparing the New Rutgers' Book Discussion Group

After successful summer book discussion group when we read Gerd Theissen's The Shadow of the Galilean  I am now thinking about opening a new book discussion group.
All of the books are either short or easy to read or they share both of these characteristics.
The books are not selected because I swear by them, but as a trigger for our discussions.
Most of these books I have already "tested" in a small group/seminar setting and they generated interesting discussions. If you like to join us and/or have preference let me know - ostehlik@rutgerschurch.org

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Cost of discipleship - very interesting and important theological and political text. Can be accompanied with several films/documentaries on D.Bonhoeffer. Can be accompanied with discussion of the Barmen Declaration - part of the Presbyterian Book of Confessions, can be accompanied with selected Letters from Prison - an exposition of further radicalisation and deepening of Bonhoeffer’s theology.

Martin Buber: I and Though - we can have interesting discussion about Jewish hermeneutics and linguistic philosophy. Tangentially this can be accompanied with discussion of his interest in Chasidism and about our modern idealisation of exclusivisitic or esoteric movements. Even further tangentially as one of the very early Sionist Buber can offer very interesting insights in Near Eastern situation.

John Caputo: What would Jesus Deconstruct? - discussion about Social Gospel, Evangelism and evangelicalism, postmodern philosophy (please don't confuse with religious postmodernism which is just a religious mush) and Derrida etc.I only recently discovered this Syracuse professor of philosophy, very engaging thinker, can help us provide some clarity to thinking about our faith.

Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene (can be accompanied with a PBS film on evolution) discussions about faith and science. Might be interesting to discuss an early book of an author who later became vociferous critic of religion. Possible discussion about the difference between faith and religion.

Carl Gustav Jung: Terry Lectures (Psychology and Religion) or Analytical Psychology : Its Theory and Practice (The Tavistock Lectures) - Opportunity to discuss Jungian psychoanalysis, import of Jungian psychology for the study of religion, Jungian interest in Gnosticism.

John Shelby Spong: The Sins of the Scripture - episcopalian bishop and biblicist grappling with biblical fundamentalism, can be accompanied with some films - Selling God or an episode from Red Dwarf (on religion and fundamentalism)

Slavoj Žižek: The Fragile Absolute (Or Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting for?) - an international celebrity Marxist philosopher and psychoanalyst originally from Post-Yugoslav Slovenia. Very challenging an amusing writer, in this book defends Christianity and attempts reconciliation between Marxism and Christianity.


God is not a free-market-capitalist

The picture: Rising unemployment, chronic underemployment, people trapped in the vicious cycle of loans and morgages, crushing fear and the devastating reality of loan defaults and repossession of property, unfair and out of balance taxation, disproportionate emphasis on defense and military spending, poverty driven work migration, homelessness and near homelessness, use of modern tools of communication to control people’s minds and project official propaganda, astronomical and growing difference between haves and have-nots, official religious structures offering cheap and emotional fixes or short escape trips. 
     I am not speaking about our society, this is an image of Jesus’ Galilee and one way or the other an image repeated throughout the Roman Empire.
     For several decades a new generation of archeologists dedicated themselves to diligent and meticulous unsung work and techniques, such as the tedious canvassing of the countryside for every shard of pottery or remains of little farmhouses and farm installations. “There is no question that we now know more about the world of early Christianity than any previous generation since the end of Antiquity.” (Quotation from R.Hosley and N.Silberman - biblical historians and interpreters of archeology.)
     And for all those who are prepared and keen to listen and to have their eyes opened, it is a deeply transformative knowledge. Liberated from religious sentimental and ritualistic baggage, the biblical message suddenly starts to speak to the real world in which we live, and it starts to address our fears and our dreams, first by verbalizing them, and secondly by offering models of alternative thinking and living. It is a process of re-unifying and healing our faith and our lives again. This Sunday Jesus will talk to us about unemployment, how the economy of scarcity breeds crippling greed, and why God is not a free market capitalist. To paraphrase and combine Martin Luther or Dietrich Bonhoeffer - Divine grace is costly, but free and certainly not for sale!


Biblical argument for the same gender marriage

Why we celebrate gay marriage in Rutgers church.
(Written for church newsletter)
     This summer, New York State finally changed the law allowing people of the same gander to marry. The Marriage Equality Act was passed by the State Legislature, signed by Governor on the same day, and thus became effective on July 24, 2011.
     Unfortunately our denomination – the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.,) is less progressive than the secular authority of our state. Our denomination unequivocally allows ministers only to bless same gender unions in special ceremonies. However, our denomination is slow to embrace change and our church law is completely unclear about ministers conducting marriages in states where “gay marriage” is now allowed and legal. [Please understand that this article and blog was written and published before our denomination (PCUSA) changed its Book of Order - the church' constitution. Actually this article was part of our campaign striving for this change.]            
     One of the strongest biblical arguments (at least in my opinion) for gay marriage might surprise you. It comes from the Ten Commandments, a biblical passage which has been otherwise widely abused and misinterpreted by conservative evangelicals. The seventh commandment in the traditional translation states: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” In the Hebrew original there are just two words, a negative particle and a verb. I do not want to go into any detailed linguistic analysis, but anyone can understand that when two original words are translated by no fewer than five words, there is a substantial interpretation going on even on this most elemental level of language translation.
We might be in for some more surprises if we decided to understand and interpret this commandment for our times. The Biblical concept of adultery was quite specific and technical: A man could commit adultery only with someone else’s wife, thus undermining the other man’s marriage. A woman could commit adultery only if married, and it undermined only her own marriage (or more precisely, the marriage of her husband to her). 
Thus adultery was a hostile act that undermined the committed relationship of another male member of the society. It is clear that this legal and moral concept was fully rooted in the culture of a patriarchal society. Thousands years later, we do not live in patriarchal society any longer. This commandment must be re-interpreted. Quite often its meaning is simply expanded into any area of sexual morality. That is a clear example of what is called “easy-gesis,” a lazy interpretation that completely misses the main point.
The original intention of the biblical concept of adultery was: undermining someone else’s committed intimate relationship. This concept must remain at the center of any attempted modern interpretations. Our current social structures and definitions of relationships are different, but their protection should remain central to this commandment. 
We also need to recognize that, in our modern times, there are different ways to undermine other people’s relationships. One of ways of undermining other people's commited intimate relationships could easily be self-righteous religious campaigns against the same gender marriages! They vociferously reject providing security and protection to same gender couples. De facto they publicly break the seventh commandment and they achieve it regardless of their own marital fidelity. (Just try to visualize it! It would almost be an amusing idea, if it were not so sad.)    On July 24th, New York State finally extended its protection to the same gender committed relationships. We rejoiced in this change in our congregation, and we extend our recognition and protection of committed and loving relationships to all our couples. We want to live, as faithfully as we can, according to the tenets of our reformed faith and in harmony with biblical testimony. We hope that our denomination will soon find clarity in this matter, just as it did in the matter of ordination of LGTB deacons, elders and ministers.
Once again, Rutgers Church is offering its cultural and theological leadership.

This blog was written in 2011 - since then PCUSA eventually accepted and approved same gender marriages several years later and the language in the Book of Order was changed in March 2015. Rutgers Church and I personally were allowed to be a part of this change. We submitted several overtures to the General Assemblies and representatives from our church testified before the committees of the General Assembly in Pittsburgh (2012) and Detroit (2014).


Friday Message from Rutgers Church 2011-09-09

     This Sunday (2011-09-11) we will worship in the shadow of the tenth anniversary of a great national tragedy. This original tragedy has been subsequently dwarfed by even grater and still ongoing suffering which our political and military leaders chose to inflict on countless and diverse groups of people around the world.
     Our Worship Committee, with our new interim music team, prepared a deeply meaningful service of worship and reflection with the creative and beautiful use of music.
     As a basis for my meditation this Sunday I selected an unusual reading - a little known (unfortunately) agraphon from Fatehpur Sikri. “Agraphon” is a name for a word (a saying) of Jesus not recorded in the four biblical gospels. I chose this particular saying because this agraphon itself, its form, its existence, its multi-religious and multi-cultural background, powerfully embodies the hope for our world. Its message has the power to deepen our spiritual lives and understanding, uplifting what is truly and ultimately important.

And if you have read this far, here is some theological teasing provoked by my most recent readings (John Caputo: The Weakness of God) 
     Almost all human religious thinking and religious expectations presume and sometime postulate God as omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent. So how come, how is it possible, that the world is so full of unjust suffering and tragedies?
     Now what if this theodicy quandary is all wrong? What if these divine attributes are just delusions of our natural human religiosity, even worse, idolatry, the production of idols? What if God is personal but not a person at all? What if biblical testimony has been true all along? I mean that famous self-revelation EHYE ASHER EHYE - "I am who I am." What if Martin Buber had good inkling by presuming God to be embodied in a grammatical category of the essential pronoun? What if we need to take it even further?
What if God is not “embodied in a noun or pronoun” but is “an un-embodied active verb”? What if the best way of speaking and thinking about God is not in characteristics and descriptive adjectives, but in aspects, tenses and adverbs? What if Jesus spoke in parables (stories) to capture exactly this active, dynamic, verbal, happening, becoming and encountering the nature of God?
     What if God is not embodied in top-down power structures of rulers, priests, armies, and institutions? What if God is present and active in a much more elemental and essential manner? By the very virtue of being a verb, the grammatical principle of change, what if God is undermining all the powers of the status quo in the most essential manner? What if God is the persistent presence of this unembodied, weak, yet persistent potential for encounter, change and love?
     What if God is a verb opposing fanaticism, militarism, nationalism and narrow-mindedness in any form? What if God is a verb of longing for peace and forgiveness? What if God is a verb of companionship and sympathy of the downtrodden and suffering? What if God is an event of journeying with the lonely and the abandoned? What if God is a verb of sublime pro-existence (who exists for others)? How is this divine verb changing the verbs of our world and of our own living?


An explanation of the title

The Title of this blog is actually a quotation from an ancient epos preserved on a cuneiform tablet (KTU 1.3.iii) dated circa 1200 BCE.
     It is a part of a message of god Baal to goddess Anat asking her to abandon her bellicose inclinations and to come to him in her more life-affirming form, so that they can build up together his palace (a metaphor for the orderliness of the Universe):

"Bury war in the earth,
set strife in the dust,
pour a libation into the midst of the earth,
honey from a jar into the midst of the field.
   Grasp your spear and your club;
   let your feet hasten to me,
   let your legs hurry to me.
For I have a word that I would say to you,
a message that I would repeat to you:
   A word of tree and whisper of stone,
   the sighing of the heavens to the earth,
   of the abyss to the stars, 
  I understand the thunder
  which the havens do not know,
  a word unknown to men,
  which the multitudes of the earth do not understand.
Come, and I shall reveal it to you,
in the midst of my divine mountain Ṣaphon,
in the sanctuary on the rock of my inheritance,
in the pleasant place of my victory.

I like this gnoseological riddle of disseminated and hidden knowledge and especially this notion that epistemology is essential for peace. 
     Centuries later similar ideas appeared in Psalm 19:2ff, Hosea 2:21ff, and even some hints in Paul's letter to Romans 8:18ff. The religious insight of this mytheme is clearly integral, although hidden part of our judeo-christian tradition.
     I believe that this ancient riddle remain the task before any curious person and I invite you to search and listen, observe and feel with me on following pages for the word of tree, whisper of stone, and humming together of the depths and heavens, the abyss and the stars.
P.S. June 2014
I just came across a biological and gnoseological model called Umwelt by its proponent Estonian biologist Jacob von Uexküll. It presents an alternative model of perceiving and understanding nature as the complex flow of signs and communication between all its individual living parts. Here is an English translation of one of his essays.