A (Very) Brief History of Silence

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Emma González, one of the last of the student speakers at the March for Life in Washington, D.C., called out all 17 names of the students murdered in the Parkland shooting, and then fell silent. As she gazed out over the enormous throng on the Mall, the minutes ticked slowly by. At first, the crowd thought she had been overcome with emotion, but although tears trickled down her cheeks, she did not waver. Three minutes went by and some in the crowd raised a cheer to fill the silence. Four minutes, and by now we understood that she had a purpose in mind. Many in the crowd around me bowed their heads and wept. Finally, she spoke again: “Since the time that I came out here, it has been 6 minutes and 20 seconds, the shooter has ceased shooting and will soon abandon his rifle and blend in with the students so he can walk free for an hour before arrest.”

Silence can be a presence and a protest. Sometimes it’s a cold absence. But it is never nothing. It can make a difference to one’s spirit to know these silences.

In the Bible there is the silence of God’s darkness in the Psalms, the main exhibit being Psalm 88; there is the silence of fidelity in Jesus’ response to his captors; the silence of endurance of God toward Jesus’ agony on the cross; and the silence of awe and understanding in Revelation 8 when heaven itself falls silent for half an hour.

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The Silence of God’s Darkness

N. T. Wright, in his book, Evil and the Justice of God, has called Psalm 88 “the darkest and most hopeless of any prayer in Scripture.” The psalm is not a theological treatise, it’s not interested in speculation. It’s a brutal eyewitness account of what it’s like to be a partner to a God who does not answer when the situation is dire.

Walter Brueggemann calls Psalm 88 one of the “Psalms of disorientation” in The Message of the Psalms. These Psalms speak of terror, the sense of forsakenness, the inexplicable silence of God. Brueggemann says, “The truth of this psalm is that Israel lives in a world where there is no answer.”

In verses 6-9, the Psalmist calls out in sorrow and anger. Not only has he descended to the Pit, but it’s Yahweh who put him there. “You have made me a thing of horror.” God doesn’t come off well here. “Do you work wonders for the dead?” cries the Psalmist. “Are your wonders known in the darkness?” Of course not.

But the silence of God does not silence the speaker. There is no atheism here or rejection of God. The speaker redoubles his efforts to break through the silence and to force God to act. As Brueggeman says, “Yahweh must be addressed, even if Yahweh never answers.”

The Psalm closes in desperation: “Your wrath has swept over me, your dread assaults destroy me.” You’d think some of this would rouse Yahweh to respond or even just to acknowledge the situation. But no. The Psalm ends as it began—in darkness and silence, but this time a darkness that is brought on by Yahweh in contrast to the natural darkness of the night.

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The Silence of Fidelity

Jesus’ silence before those who mock him at his trial is the silence of fidelity, of staying true to his vision of God rather than escaping to fight another day. Even in captivity, Jesus regards his tormentors with assurance and humility. He will neither elaborate upon nor dumb down that which he has already revealed about the character of God and his Kingdom in a multitude of ways over many encounters.

“When violent resistance to evil is renounced,” says Jack Miles in his book, Christ, “there is no guarantee that dignity or decorum will be retained.” When the righteous are mocked in the Psalms they complain, expecting the Lord to smash the wicked in the mouth. But here God is laughed at in the person of Jesus. Miles continues: “If God has not spared himself ridicule, his people cannot expect that he will spare them. The psalmbook has to be read in a new way. The servant, as he has reminded them, is not greater than the master.”

In his brief but pointed exchanges with Annas and Caiaphas, the high priests at his trial, Jesus refuses to engage them, while pointing out that he has taught openly in their synagogues and the Temple. “Why ask me?” he says. “Ask my hearers about my teaching.” And then calmly: “They know what I said.”

“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus says before Pilate. “So, then, you are a king.” Jesus replies, ‘It is you who say that I am a king.’ Miles comments that “His confrontation with Pilate marks the birth of the Western tradition of nonviolent resistance.”

In his silence toward his captors Jesus fights for the greater cause and God’s longer game. He may not have understood all the moves in this game, but he trusted that God had the upper hand in this cosmic battle. That is why Jesus could commend his spirit to God, even when he felt forsaken by God in his agony on the cross.

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The Silence of Endurance

God’s silence toward Jesus on the cross is a silence of endurance. ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ Jesus cries, the prayer that God does not answer.

Jesus’ agony on the cross is mirrored by God’s agony of silence. In the Christian mythos this is the culminating moment in cosmic history and God will not intervene. This is not about God requiring His pound of flesh in some legalistic payback scheme; it’s about revealing the lengths to which God—and God in Christ— is willing to go to show that love wins in the end over hatred.

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The Silence of Awe and Understanding

In the clangor and violence of the Book of Revelation there comes a breathtaking moment: “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour,” Revelation 8:1 recounts. “On the whole,” writes Sigve Tonstad in God of Sense and Traditions of Non-Sense, “Revelation depicts heaven as a noisy place. But silence is itself a distinctive category of response, the most spontaneous and intuitive form of reacting to the unexpected and the most trustworthy measure of the magnitude of the surprise.”

The breaking of the seventh seal rips a sharp intake of breath in heaven. There are no words. It is the sigh of understanding that all religions and faiths and peoples have longed for throughout the ages.

“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands (Rev. 7:9).” It is the culmination, at this stage, of what can be experienced of God by humans.

But this is also just the beginning of what the apostle Paul looked for, the revelation of which is to “know as we are known.” For those caught up in God, entheos,the glass, so dark before, grows brighter moment by moment.

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In the Tao Te Ching, the book of Taoism, emptiness has a place. “We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want. We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable. We work with being, but non-being is what we use.”

Emptiness, silence — these elements in Taoism are regarded not as negation or lack, but rather a presence to be apprehended through intuition.

The Hebrew metaphysic is quite different. Emptiness and silence are to be resisted; they are an affront to the soul, a setback to the vigorous movement of the body through the obstacles strewn in our way in this life. God, having once spoken, is not allowed to remain silent, not even to take a breather out of sight in an adjacent room from the clamorous clanging of His errant children. The great Hebrew visionaries, the Psalmist among them, take their cues for meaning from the Creator: words bring objects into being and words create reality. Silence is dismissal, not conversation in another musical scale. For this we should be grateful, since it is through words that many of us live and move and have our being. What you cannot construct with your hands you can imagine with your mind and bring into being with your words.

Perhaps if it were not for the righteous fury of the prophets and the Psalmist in the silent darkness of God, we could not bear to hear from those in the Christian tradition who have learned to live in that silence—people such as St. John of the Cross, St. Therese of Avila, Thomas a Kempis, Thomas Merton and C. S. Lewis. Like the Psalmist, they did not shrink from the plain reality that for us God is often silent too and clothed in darkness.

Until we see God face to face, we must take the dark with the light, and find in God’s silence our memory and our future in faith. “Silence is the language of faith,” says Christian Wiman. “Action—be it church or charity, politics or poetry—is the translation . . . It is also true that without these constant translations into action, that original, sustaining silence begins to be less powerful, and then less accessible, and then finally impossible.”

To see and understand in this way in this life is the working out of our faith within the world’s travails. But it is also the anticipation of a much deeper understanding of God through the eucatastrophe, the ‘good down stroke or breaking in,’ of God that will reveal the knower to the known.

Photo: Nicola Fioravanti, Unsplash.com

Suffer the Children

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In these years of our discontent there is no shortage of outrage. If you are a Trump supporter, these are your salad days in which the outrages of the Obama administration are finally receiving their comeuppance. If you are not a Trump supporter, but now find your moral sensibilities being dragged behind a pickup with three rifle racks across a landscape of cacti, rocks, and boiling sand, then there is a certain relief in shouting out loud. It is cathartic. I am in the latter group. You are free to leave at this point; no hard feelings.

I mention that it is catharsis only because so much has already been written and said and analyzed and disseminated about the Trump administration’s policy of tearing children away from their parents at the border. I am writing because thinking out loud helps me understand what is important to me, and more to the point, how I can express a spiritual faith in times like these.

There are a few moral precepts that one should be able to affirm without agonizing over. Slavery, the rape and abuse of women, and the abuse of children are among them. Stating them thus does not exclude other precepts nor should it be considered a knee-jerk reaction without thought and reflection. Rather, these are simply part of one’s moral landscape, familiar markers that commemorate a covenant between God, oneself, and others, markers that remind us of the (now) obvious conditions of being faithful to God, responsible to one’s society, and true to oneself. These are also three reasons for moral action, as I understand it.

The first one is that God asks us to refrain from certain actions and to do other actions. For people of faith, whatever form their god may take, this is often enough reason to act. It is a powerful reason, and for some does not require any further reflection.

Even some who are moved by it still find themselves intrigued by Plato’s question: are actions right because the gods approve of them or do the gods approve of them because they are right? According to some lines of the historical discussion, if we do them because the gods approve of them we may run the risk of blindly following some arbitrary divine commands. What if your gods are tricksters, irresponsible, forgetful, or otherwise not to be trusted? On the other hand, if the gods do them because they are right then while that is a powerful vote of confidence in the moral justification of the actions, it makes the gods look weak. In the first case, the gods have arbitrary and perhaps capricious power; in the second case, not enough power to make them worthy of worship.

Most historical religions have a moral structure and some even have commands for meeting moral and religious expectations. We could chose to think of these commands as arbitrary, but then we would have given up any semblance of trust or even of thoughtful reflection on our relationship with our god. Again, it’s a matter of trust: we do these things not only because our gods ask us to, but also because doing them is an exercise of our moral freedom.

The second reason is to be responsible to one’s community—and again, we may choose to act for a number of reasons. We may wish to avoid jail time if we break the rules; we may desire to be in favor with our neighbors, our friends, and our families (Adam Smith called it the ‘approbation of society’ in his Theory of Moral Sentiments); we may want the rewards that come with good behavior or we may genuinely want to contribute to the well-being of our society. These are all good reasons for doing the right thing, and as many have pointed out, one does not have to be religious to accomplish them. For many people today, ethics is the new religion.

The third reason is to be true to oneself, a piece of advice that can be traced back at least to Aristotle. It’s not hard to see that either or both of the previous reasons could give us a sense of ‘self,’ but some people will immediately get diverted into questions of whether we have a self or not, and if we do, how much of it is the result of genetics plus environment. Since most of us act as if we are selves and treat others as if they are selves too, we can leave the questions to others and try to think about whywe ought to be true to ourselves.

Classical ethical theory invokes Aristotle here (practicing virtue aligns us with our true end or telos , which is to flourish) and Kant (do the right thing because you respect yourself and others and you’d want the same respect for everyone else).

Being true to oneself not only involves respect for oneself and others, but going deeper in and farther back to find the highest regard we can have for the human being.

In an essay on goodness, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) examines the relation between habit and nature. “Goodness I call the habit,” he says, “and goodness of nature the inclination. This, of all virtues and dignities of the mind, is the greatest, being the character of the Deity; and without it man is a busy, mischievous, wretched thing, no better than a kind of vermin.” Bacon believes that we achieve a “habit of goodness” through “right reason,” but that just as there is in some people a natural inclination toward goodness and a willingness to help others, there is in others a “natural malignity” that drives them beyond mere irritation with others to envy, anger, and selfishness.

Such people revel in the calamities of others. They are like flies buzzing around a raw wound, says Bacon, and rather than bind up the wounds of those who are suffering these misanthropi enjoy the misfortunes of others. “Such dispositions are the very errors of human nature; and yet they are the fittest timbers to make great politics of.”

Having been the victim of some palace intrigues in the courts of Elizabeth I and King James I, Bacon knew from first-hand experience how crooked the timbers of politics could be.

The policy of the immigration hardliners in the Trump administration to separate children from their parents has been roundly condemned by congressional Democrats and some Republicans. Immigration-advocacy groups, lawyers, children’s rights organizations, psychologists, educators, and doctors, all have been scathing in their criticisms. The Catholic Church has flatly called out the practice as immoral. Melania Trump has expressed her horror at it and former First Lady Laura Bush, diffident to a fault, has written an op ed in which she called the policy “heartbreaking.” Even Franklin Graham, who refuses to call out Trump on anything, has characterized the practice as “disgraceful.”

And yet here is Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General of the United States, whose shrill pronouncements increasingly sound like the cries of a desperate man, fiercely clinging to his “zero-toleration” position. When Christian authoritarians run out of options for justifying their immoral policies and laws they reach for the fire extinguisher they think will put out the blaze—Romans 13—in which the Apostle Paul advises his readers to obey the laws because the authorities have been put in place by God. Read out of context these verses (Romans 13: 1-7) have been used to justify slavery, war, apartheid, and systemic evils of all kinds. Marilynne Robinson drily comments in her recent collection of essays, What Are We Doing Here?, that “Indeed, unread books may govern the world, not well, since they so often are taken to justify our worst impulses and prejudices. The Holy Bible is a case in point.”

Read in context, these verses are sandwiched between the marks of a true Christian—extending hospitality to strangers, living in harmony with others, and overcoming evil with good—and showing love for one another by loving our neighbors as ourselves. Paul is pretty clear earlier in his letter to the Romans that every person, Christian or not, knows in his or her heart the basics of what is right. The implication is that Christians try to do what is right in every situation out of love for the neighbor and respect for that which God has created. The assumption is that good rulers and good laws have the blessing of God; the knowledge that there are bad rulers and worse laws is so obvious that it does not need mentioning. God’s people are expected to know the difference and to live by their consciences accordingly.

People of faith who look to the Bible to understand the function of principles in shaping our ethics and actions see that caring for children is pretty high up on the hierarchy of values for Jesus. In the gospels of Matthew and Luke Jesus makes the point that people make mistakes in caring for children, but woe to the person who deliberately hurts a child. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea (Matt, 18: 6).

With his characteristic irony and pointed hyperbole Jesus lays it down that crushing a child’s faith and hope is a deadly sin. These are things that everybody is expected to know and abide by. As Bono says, “Jesus said ‘Suffer the children to come unto me,’ not make the children suffer!” But the fact that Jesus speaks so urgently means that this fundamental precept of human existence, caring for the children, was alarmingly ignored in his time. So it has ever been. And now we’re doing it again with howling cynicism and hypocrisy by appealing to the sanctity of the rule of law and the authority of God and scripture. Except that it’s literally not a law but a prejudice, and Jesus condemns such actions in the strongest possible terms.

In the increasingly fractious and twisted arguments over immigration one thing should be clear: these children have the most to lose right now and in the years to come. And as for us adults, it’s time to throw off our millstones.

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

Can a Leper Change His Spots?

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“There is so much more meaning in reality than the soul can take in . . . This, then, is an insight we gain in acts of wonder: not to measure meaning in terms of our own mind, but to sense a meaning infinitely greater than ourselves” — Abraham Heschel, God in Search of Man

I’ve been thinking lately about the ten lepers that Jesus healed, and the one that returned to thank him. The story is in Luke 17:11-19, and at first glance it seems oddly out of place in the narrative of that chapter. It is one of those pericopes,the nuggets of stories that make up so much of the weight and heft of the Gospels. They are like pearls on a necklace: cut the string and they scatter in every direction, losing value as they bounce away. But scoop them up and place them next to one another and they gain a certain nobility of place.

Jesus and the disciples are heading south to Jerusalem, coming through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As they enter a village, ten lepers, keeping the prescribed distance, call out to him in desperation, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Jesus sees them and answers, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” And Luke adds laconically, “And as they went, they were made clean.”

Where do we find ourselves in this story? Who do we identify with and why? One of my professors in graduate school told us that in reading the parables, for example, we should stand in the audience which Jesus was addressing instead of standing next to him, basking in our self-righteousness and our proximity to the Master.

If we stood in the audience hearing Luke’s gospel read out loud in gatherings, we would instantly and instinctively react to the prejudice behind this story. Jews and Samaritans did not get along, hated each other with a religious passion that ran deep, generation after generation, like Irish Catholics and Protestants used to. Luke places the event at the border of Samaria and Galilee, a flashpoint of possible conflict or perhaps a neutral zone where peace could break out. The roving band of lepers, cast out with curses from their villages, find a bond of mutual misery together. Jesus is their last, best hope.

Perhaps his notoriety had proceeded him. Perhaps a sympathetic relative tipped them off that Jesus and his disciples were on the road. In any case, the exchange between Jesus and the lepers is brief, decisive, and effective. They ask, he responds, and they are healed when they move.

Nine of them are Jews: we know this because they immediately set out for Jerusalem to be certified as clean by the priests—a journey of several days. So . . . no time to lose.

The verse doesn’t mention how long it took for them to realize they were healed. But one of them saw the new flesh, pink with life. He spun around, praising God loudly (loudly enough for the other nine to hear?), ran back and threw himself down at Jesus’ feet, thanking him. The one who returned was a Samaritan. Luke points it out in a way that cannot be mistaken, and Jesus rather caustically asks, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Jesus’ sense of irony rings through this. Here are his own, his people, off down the road without a backward glance, while a traditional enemy, one not deserving of respect by tribal measures, comes back to praise God and thank God’s servant. It’s enough to make a person erase the lines in the sand.

Luke raises the contrast between those getting on with their lives and those who, unexpectedly, in one glorious moment, see God like a fountain springing up from within the eyes of this man. The nine were no less healed in their haste, but having received much had perceived so little.

New Testament scholars tell us that Luke’s gospel was intended to show how Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God was open to everyone, strangers and foreigners, as well as Israel. That would include us, readers searching the stories for points of contact, people of an era that desperately claws at the slope down which it is plummeting headlong. If there is a “still, small voice” of God to be heard we will have to remove our earbuds first.

Here we are, over 2,000 years later, picking up a Gideon’s Bible in a Motel 6, flipping it open to a random place and finding this story. What could make us pause, finger tracing the words, long enough to turn from the window and sit on the edge of the bed? Northrop Frye says in Words with Power, that “Experience is of the particular and the unique, and takes place in time; knowledge is of the universal and the assimilated, and contains an element withdrawn from time.” Both are needed: the expected flow is from experience to knowledge. Could it be reversed? Could knowledge of an event long ago on a dusty road create an experience that blooms within us? Isn’t that implicit in every story written down and sent into the world?

Abraham Heschel writes in God in Search of Man, “The soul is endowed with a sense of indebtedness, and wonder, awe, and fear unlock that sense of indebtedness.” Look both ways and hold hands when you cross the street together, say please and thank you, clean up after yourself, be good to each other, and don’t tell lies. These are some of the universals, and as we mature we realize how much we owe to others, the indebtedness that has not only kept us on the way, but has made the way even possible. “Oh, the debt I owe,” sings James Taylor in ”Watchin’ Over Me.” “I said oh the damage done/How’m I gonna pay that debt I owe.”

Jesus looks at the man at his feet: “Get up and go on your way,” he says, “your faith has made you well.” What was freely given was freely received. All of the ten asked, all were healed. One came back to thank the Master. What does this act reveal?

An indebtedness acknowledged to an enemy of one’s people renders that enmity chained. And in turning back, the Samaritan not only offers thanks, but sees in the man before him the God of all people, lepers and Samaritans included. Like the others, this man’s body was restored and his social curse lifted; unlike the rest, his faith opened his eyes to the wonder of a meaning he now carried that was greater than himself.

And we may respond, also, to a story with a life beyond its telling. Abraham Heschel writes, “We cannot survive unless we know what is asked of us. But to whom does man in his priceless and unbridled freedom owe anything? Where does the asking come from? To whom is he accountable?”

Our leprosies may be the means for seeing how great is the height and depth and breadth of the love that sets us free.

“We journey through a narrative,” writes Northrop Frye, “and then we stop and confront what we have read as though it were objective. It is not objective, because it is already a part of ourselves. There is a further stage of response, however, where something like a journeying movement is resumed, a movement that may well take us far beyond the world’s end, and yet is still no journey.”

Photo: Alex Woods, Unsplash.com

The Faith of a Heretic

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In the matter of religion, as indeed in other areas of human life and thought . . . the modern individual is faced not just with the opportunity but with the necessity to make choices as to his beliefs. This fact constitutes the heretical imperative in the contemporary situation. —Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative

The English word ‘heresy’ comes from a Greek verb, hairein, which meant ‘to choose.’ Hairesis, then, simply meant ‘to make a choice.’

To be a heretic is to be a person who makes choices.

Within the Christian tradition, however, it holds a much more negative meaning. The apostle Paul warns in Galatians 5:20 against those who engage in a ‘party spirit’ (hairesis)—akin to partisan politics, but not to be confused with a keg-draining frat party. Those with a party spirit divide and fracture the community. In the theological and legal history of the early Christian church heretics were identified as those who promoted deviant views over against the authority and teachings of the Church. To be tagged with the term meant to carry a target on one’s back, to suffer denunciation, a quick trial, and sometimes a grisly death. In his The Heretical Imperative , sociologist of religion Peter Berger writes of heresy with straight-faced understatement: “Its etymology remains sharply illuminating.”

One of the major themes that Berger explored throughout his long career as a sociologist of religion who was also a practicing Christian, was the impact that modernity has had on religion and people of faith—not just in Christianity, but in all major religions.

In a premodern society religion had the quality of objective certainty for most people. The society supported this certainty and enforced it, to a degree, by making it difficult to question the social structures that undergirded its reality. Modern society, in contrast, undermines that certainty by collapsing the assumptions that allow us to take our social reality for granted. It relativizes knowledge and subjectivizes religion.

“If the typical condition of premodern man is one of religious certainty,” says Berger, “it follows that that of modern man is one of religious doubt.” If the background of premodern people was this religious consensus, then that authoritative consensus for modern society has vanished. Heresy—choosing a different religious path—was a rarity in societies in which the questions were settled, the religious and political authority was secure, and the penalties for deviance were dire. Yet, it’s very difficult to follow a consensus that is no longer available. “In other words,” says Berger, “individuals now must pick and choose. Having done so, it is very difficult to forget the fact.”

Berger makes the point that the orthodox person defines him or herself as living within a tradition. Traditions, by their very nature, are taken for granted, but this state of taken-for-grantedness is no longer possible in today’s society. “Every tradition consists of frozen memories,” says Berger, “And every questioning of tradition is likely to lead to an effort at unfreezing the memories.” The unfreezing of memories means that every generation questions why the tradition exists and where it came from. On the principle, however vaguely sensed in one’s life, that we cannot inherit our grandparent’s religion, we question in order to understand. It’s a natural and essential process. Through the asking of questions and the testing of traditions we may come full circle back to our starting point, but now we know what we believe and who we put our trust in.

Where the social and religious consensus breaks down, pluralism rises. Modernity opens up choices and narrows down what was considered destiny. In any given city across America the religious traveller has a choice to attend the services of not only most of the major world religions, but also scores of Christian denominations and sects. American religion is a buffet of choices.

But beyond the choices to be made between religions, there are choices to be made within a religion. It’s interesting how ‘heresy’ transmogrified from ‘choice’ to anathema—as if the true disciple would never ask questions, never see differences, never compare, and never step over the lines drawn by authority. In fact, faith requires choice, otherwise it would not be faith but a cramped and reluctant obedience to authority. When the integrity of religious authority collapses, the inward turning to reflection on one’s religious experience is both inevitable and necessary for one’s faith. That is, after all, where the exhortation to develop a “personal relationship with Christ” will lead.

Christ asks for our free choice in faith. The rich young ruler is dismayed because he must choose between identifying with his wealth or following Jesus. The man born blind chooses Jesus over his rigid tradition—and risks the sullen plotting of the religious authorities in retaliation.

What we call heresy may be viewed as making a choice out of what was previously thought to be closed, over and done with. Faith, then, is the continual act of choosing the way we should go. There is less certainty here. But while modernity alienates and isolates us from each other, we are saying that community can be found with others who also choose. Because we are social beings and because we make our ethical and moral decisions to a great extent according to what is affirmed by our communities, we need each other. Because our worship is both solitary and communal our fellowship of faith is a fellowship of heretics, people who continue to make their choices every day about Jesus as they live within the world. To be faithful is to exercise choice and thus to be a heretic.

Berger gives us three ways that people live within their religions. The first is what he calls the deductive approach, familiar to orthodoxy, in which we go on believing as if nothing had changed in the world. The behaviors are prescribed according to law, the rewards are contractually-based, and knowledge of traditions and rules is paramount. Certainty is high because our unquestioning trust is in religious authorities.

At the other extreme is the reductionist approach, typical of liberal theology, in which accommodation to the secularizing force of society is almost total. Religion is reduced to a political agenda and there is little sense of a personal religious experience. Jesus is seen as the great ethicist and the New Testament a compendium of motifs of justice and responses to the oppression of others. What makes religion palatable to a secular person, then, is its emphasis on psychological, political, and ethical analyses of our current unjust society.

Berger’s choice is the third option, the inductive approach, in which we turn from external authorities, both religious and political, and from tradition, to our own experience of God. This is the heretical imperative in which our faith is constantly making choices and our trust in Christ is the experience that lifts us daily. It is not an easy path and uncertainty is high because we are not following well-worn paths of tradition nor are we simply swept along with the crowd. We reason, we “test the spirits,” we recall that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,” we revel in Scripture and in the many avenues to the Spirit that we find. We pray and we decide; we seek in order to realize our foundness.

There is much that is good in tradition and the assurance it bears. Tradition gives us stability and it reminds us of the mountains and valleys in the experiences of our forebears; it can be a bright line of consistency when everything else is murky and chaotic. But it may too easily slide from authority into authoritarianism and from guidance into coercion. It substitutes response to God with reaction to religious power.

We must be clear that other people’s experience of God, crystallized into tradition and dogma, will never be enough for those of us on the road to Emmaus. We need to see Christ’s hands for ourselves.

The heresy that is faithfulness relies on thinking for oneself, praying for guidance, looking to counsel from those we trust, and finally, choosing our path. It is a path of humility; there is no glory to be gained in side-stepping religious authority that is exercised just to keep one in line.

In the original sense of the word, we may all aspire to be heretics, people who choose daily, with eyes wide open, to follow Christ.

Photo: Thomas Young, Unsplash.com

My Bibles, My Life

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“The Bible, more than most books, forms part of one’s life once it is absorbed into the system. It does not remain static, any more than you remain ever the same. Your perspective of it will change with the years.” — A. N. Wilson, The Book of the People

I cannot remember a time in my reading life when a Bible was not within my reach, both literally and figuratively. In the home I grew up in, the Scripture was the primary source of one’s instruction and inspiration. It was read aloud morning and evening, discussed at church, memorized as Bible verses, emblazoned on bulletin boards at school, and called upon in times of celebration and grief. Its phrases came naturally to the lips, its stories became the video of our imaginations long before there were pixels, the grand highway of its narrative from Genesis to Revelation (pitted with potholes in the Pentateuch) provided both a spiritual history of humankind and a kind of eschatological weather report (“Look for a cloud on the horizon the size of a man’s hand!”). Later, through the ministrations of our well-meaning elders, its revelations came to us like birthday gifts from distant uncles who still thought of us as five-year olds. It was unavoidable and indispensable.

But I find I can trace out the course of my life by looking at the Bibles on my bookshelves, each one having played a role in my life that was both episodic and cumulative.

***

In high school my Bibles of choice were the Living Bible and Good News for Modern Man: The New Testament in Today’s English. The Living Bible was a paperback brick, lovingly slipped into a doeskin cover that my grandfather had gotten for me in Canada, with a painting of an Indian brave on the front. Inside the end pages I wrote notes of favorite verses, quotes from religious authors, and lines of poetry. The LB was fresh, a bit cheeky, conversational without falling into cultural jargon. The Good News New Testament was plain, small enough to carry in one hand, and modest in its literary aspirations. Its line drawings were simple, evocative, and good-humored. I was also reading a lot of C. S. Lewis at the time, along with Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Byron, Shelley, Yeats, and Matthew Arnold. It was a heady mix.

My first year in college, working on a double major in religion and journalism, I used a standard issue King James in my religion classes. I’d had it since my baptism at 12 and I knew my way around its paths by sight. These were the phrases and verses I had heard all my life. They seeped into my consciousness and became the language of my operating system, an eloquent counterpoint to the informality of the modern versions.

***

In the summer of 1971 I left California for England to work with friends in Coventry in starting and running a Christian folk club and then to spend the school year at Newbold College. Away from home for the first time, I spent the year in a constant state of wonder and discovery. That summer I bought my first New English Bible, a paperback Penguin version of the New Testament whose language and verses seemed like poetry to me. I found a tanner’s shop in Leamington Spa and made a book cover for it from suede leather, stitching a peace symbol with a cross in the center on the front. The cover art on the Penguin version was a reproduction of Georges Rouault’s Head of Christ, thus beginning a lifelong admiration for his art. In the fall, as a student at Newbold, I hitchhiked down to Reading and bought J. B. Phillip’s The New Testament in Modern English. I also started a year-long course in Koine Greek. I was terrible at it, but I scraped by with enough margin to be given a copy of the British and Foreign Bible Society’s Greek New Testament with critical apparatus. Burrowing into the permutations of Greek verbs and nouns reinforced my life-long fascination with word origins and their meanings.

That year I always carried in my backpack at least one Bible, usually two. As I hitchhiked to Scotland or down to Wales or up to London, these Bibles became my traveling companions, provoking comment and conversation from the generous people who gave me rides. Comparing these translations and paraphrases jolted my imagination and gave me different lines of sight to their meaning. And always I carried a small Authorized Version whose cover could be zipped closed. I left it behind in a train station in Milan one December; two years later it showed up in my mailbox at Pacific Union College, having made the journey through the kindness of strangers on the strength of my college address at Newbold.

***

All through graduate studies at Andrews University and Claremont Graduate University, my familiars were the New English Bible I had bought in Wales in 1974 when I worked in evangelism there, and The Jerusalem Bible, another chunk of a Bible whose lyrical Psalms were refreshing and whose Job was high tragedy. Later, teaching Jesus and the Gospels, Hebrew Prophets, and Paul and His Letters at Columbia Union College, I entered into a professional relationship with The New International Version. Those who knew their Biblical languages assured me it was the latest and most accurate rendering, but its starched and anemic language gave me no joy. Time and again I went back to my NEB, by now so annotated and stuffed with typed-out quotes and photos of friends, that when the spine finally collapsed my wife made me a book cover for it from the jeans I wore out hitchhiking through the UK.

***

In these later years I have come back to the New Revised Standard Version, not to be confused with the Revised English Bible, a second take on the NEB. As I write there is one just behind my shoulder on the bookshelf, another one next to my comfy chair across the loft, and a third one, barely marked, in another bookshelf. Recently, having finished my courses for the semester at Trinity Washington University, I stopped into the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, right across the street from Catholic University, and indulged myself in a beautifully leather-bound Catholic edition of the Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. I intend to study the Apocrypha this summer.

***

I’ve entered the Bible as into a vast and varied library — ta biblia, the books. Not a single, coherent narrative, but stories of wonder, beginning in a garden of light and ending in a city with a river running through it. To try to understand the people within the stories is to read with a dual vision: that in certain irreducible ways they and we come from the same stock and harbor the same emotions and motivations. And in other ways, bound by time, culture, language, and technology, we arrive at our final home having traveled such disparate paths. I am grateful to the archeologists, linguists, anthropologists, and theologians who have peeled back the layers of the Bible for us and interpreted its structures.

The Bible has meant different things to me through many different stages of life. It has both revealed and hidden God, and it has held a mirror up to myself. The Jesus I have found there is no less enigmatically divine than when I first began with the Gospels, but now even more touchingly human. The Bible, I’ve found, is large enough that it can play many roles in a person’s life. Like the Earth itself it presents a different but constant face to the observer hovering in orbit above it. It is guide, wisdom, puzzle, danger, mystery, and light. It is still the literary foundation of many of us.

The Bible creates an alternate world that runs parallel to our own. It is like holding two magnets in tension so that you feel the pull of one to the other. Let one go and the tension is gone, the case closed, the story resolved, the horizon suddenly walled up. Unless we see both the fragments of light it illumines around us and the Light itself — and the distinction makes all the difference — the Bible remains just another revered and unread bestseller.

Photo: Rafael Barquero, Unsplash

Almost Thou Persuadest Me

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‘King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.’ Agrippa said to Paul, ‘Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?’ Paul replied, ‘Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am—except for these chains.’ — Acts 26:27-29

Paul, canny fellow that he was, rarely missed an opportunity to speak freely and to testify about his conversion from domestic terrorist to revolutionary preacher. In this episode, appearing in chains before Festus the governor and King Agrippa II and his wife, Queen Bereniece—who also happened to be his sister—Paul charges in where angels fear to tread. Evangelist that he is, he asks a question and quickly answers it: ‘I know that you believe.’ And Agrippa? You can almost hear the incredulity in his voice: ‘Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?’ But Paul will not be diverted. In a rhetorical jujitsu move, he deflects the criticism and extends the offer to everyone within earshot—the whole court. Agrippa doesn’t bite, but as the party moves offstage they are heard giving Paul a pass. “He doesn’t sound all that bad.”

Paul is now inside Agrippa’s head and who knows what the result will be down the road?

We can speculate why Agrippa reacted the way he did with the aid of a communication theory that analyzes attitudinal changes for persuasion.

Social Judgement Theory says that when we hear or read a message we immediately assign it a location on the attitude scale in our minds. This is a subconscious sorting of ideas that occurs at the instant of perception. In other words, it’s a reaction rather than a considered response. We judge every idea by comparing how far away or close to our present point of view it is. That present point of view is called our anchor point.

Carolyn and Muzafer Sherif, the authors of the theory, believed that our attitudes can be understood as an amalgam of three latitudes of acceptance, rejection, and noncommitment. The latitude of acceptance is the range of ideas that a person sees as reasonable or worthy of consideration. The latitude of rejection is the range of ideas that someone sees as unreasonable or unworthy of consideration. And the latitude of noncommitment is the range of ideas that a person sees neither as acceptable nor objectionable. Carolyn Sherif said that as persuaders we need to know the location and the width of each of these latitudes in order to know what it will take to persuade that person.

Another important concept in Social Judgement Theory is what the Sherifs called ego-involvement: the importance of the issue to us. High ego-involvement means you have a lot invested in the position, that you feel strongly about it, and that you’re likely to reject most challenges to it. The greater the degree of ego-involvement the harder it will be for attitudes to change and to persuade those persons to shift their position.

There are three characteristics of people with high ego-involvement in an issue. First, their latitude of noncommitment is almost zero. If we really care about an issue we’ll tend toward the extremes of either zone of acceptance or rejection.

The second feature of high ego-involvement is that the latitude of rejection will be large. We’ll see things in black and white. If we thought about it more we might see something we agree with—but our quick inferences judge even mild statements as something to be rejected.

The third characteristic is that people who hold extreme opinions often take criticism personally. Extreme positions and high ego-involvement go together. It’s a matter of identity: if you attack my position then you’re attacking me.

All of this describes how the Sherifs pictured the cognitive structure of a person’s attitude. But what is the process that is triggered when we read or hear a message?

Muzafer Sherif said we compare our anchor point to all incoming messages and judge accordingly. Messages that we reject we push even farther away from our anchor point so we don’t have to deal with them. Messages that we agree with we snuggle up to—even if they may not have all that much in common with our anchor point.

These two effects are called contrast and assimilation. Messages that we reject we sharply contrast with our anchor point. Our reasons for drawing the contrast may be that we don’t like the speaker or the issue is too complex for us, or we are impatient, bored, or tired. And sometimes messages that are intended to persuade us through fear or force we will reject even more decisively in a boomerang effect. We are more often driven to attitudinal positions than we are drawn to them.

But messages that we like we may judge closer to our anchor point than they really are because we find the speaker attractive or the message reinforces what we’ve always thought. We won’t embrace it fully, but our position will shift incrementally. We will assimilate it into our thinking.

The authors thus believe that the greater the discrepancy, the more the hearers will adjust their attitudes. Nevertheless, we don’t leap from one extreme to the other. Change, if it comes, takes place in small steps, incrementally.

Most of these changes occur below our awareness, yet they powerfully shape attitudes and actions. From the outside, we may see no change in a person until suddenly the tectonic plates slip, and a major quake takes place. What looks impulsive and momentary may have been building for a long time. Persuasion is a gradual process. It’s also a social process that has the most lasting effect on us as a result of the influence of those we care about.

What advice do the Sharifs have for us if we want to persuade people? We need to find a message that is right on the edge of their latitude of acceptance. If there’s a small step from rejection to wary acceptance, that is much better than the boomerang effect. Don’t ask for too much at first; accept them and reward them for small steps.

Some things have become clear in the testing of social judgement theory One is that the greater the perceived expertise of the speaker the wider the latitude of acceptance. Credibility makes a difference, and credibility is a combination of honesty and expertise.

A second thing is that ambiguity often persuades better than clarity. We might think of it as emphasizing the general over the particular in order to appeal to a wider audience.

Finally, some people are simply hardwired for dogmatism on every issue. Their minds are made up. There isn’t much point in trying to shift them because they are probably rooted in place.

This theory has some interesting implications for our communication with others, especially as we apply it to how we talk about spiritual matters and as we examine our own position within a faith community.

Through the years, as I was teaching courses in communication theory and persuasion and propaganda, this theory stood out because of something I had read years before by Ellen White, a 19th-century American writer, about conversion. She was talking of Saul’s “Damascus Road” experience, a Biblical story that has become synonymous with a traumatic and instantaneous change of heart and life. She said something to the effect that Saul would not have become Paul had not the Holy Spirit been working on him for a long while. Being flung from his horse and hearing a voice from heaven was the culmination of a long phase toward conversion. It was not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. Unconscious prejudice gave way to conscious allegiance and to the eruption of a new fire in his heart.

SJT illuminates the forming up of our attitudes and how those attitudes trigger our decisions and actions. It could also rattle our thinking about the effectiveness of mass evangelism techniques. I believe it calls us, instead, to speak one-to-one, to be thoughtful, and to be sensitive to the time it takes a person to reflect on profound ideas. Most of all, it recognizes the freedom God gives us to respond to the persuasion of the Holy Spirit, all in good time. Kairos, Paul would call it—the right time.

Photo: Justin Veenema, Unsplash.com

Our Infinite Choice

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“The religious life or practice that I become part of must not only be my choice, but it must speak to me, it must make sense in terms of my spiritual development as I understand this.” — Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

One of the extraordinary features of religion, as one studies it, is the infinite variety of its expressions. The moment we step out of the holy place wherein we worship, and into the crowd swirling past outside, we are enveloped in a multitude of faiths, each one with a history, symbols, myths, art, language, casualties, diagnoses and prescriptions. They pour past us as we stand transfixed in the midst of the stream.

Some might picture themselves as a rock, immovable and stalwart, dividing the waters that flow past, resisting the current, sure in their grounding in the streambed. Others, less sure than curious, join the flow to ask those at their elbows and around them where they’re going, what set them on their path, or why they continue. Still others will do their best to divert the stream into side channels, away from the swiftly-flowing current into quieter, shallower rivulets, and eventually to pools of standing water.

We will step lightly up on the riverbank now, away from the analogy, carrying with us the twin observations of the variety of religious expressions and our attitude toward them.

The sheer number of religions sparks in us wonder that God could be filtered through so many veils and still be perceived in coherent form. At the very least the history, traditions, and practices cause us to view our own thin wedge of religious history as one among many.

Ask yourself this: If you joined your religion as an adult, what was the deciding factor? If you were born into your religion, why do you continue in it?

Joiners or borners—the questions stand open.

Is a religion a vehicle to deliver us to a destination, at which point, our quest fulfilled, we will enter into a sacral bliss? Is a religion a chrysalis within which we are transformed into another creature, a new creation? Perhaps we are pilgrims traveling through a barren land, seeking a city not made with human hands. If we become disciples of Jesus we will have no place to lay our heads, even if foxes have their dens and the birds of the air their nests.

“What makes a man human,” says Abraham Heschel, “is his openness to transcendence, which lifts him to a level higher than himself.” Religion, despite its flaws and obsessions, and depending on its light source, can be both a mirror and a window to transcendence.

Metaphors matter, because they both reflect and shape our experience and behavior.

Machiavelli regarded religion as a paltry crutch for an individual, but he saw the value in it for creating conformity and confining the masses. Durkheim regarded it as the social glue that created community and provided fellowship between people — solidarité.

When we bow in epistemological humility before our need for evidence that will undergird our faith, it is bracing to recall the debate between W. K. Clifford and William James.

Clifford, a British mathematician and a psychologist like James, was a friend of his, but also someone with whom he was delighted to debate. Clifford’s assertion in his The Ethics of Belief begins with the idea that our hypotheses ought never to be accepted until we have solid evidence for them. We find easy comfort in that which pleases us and soothes our doubts, says Clifford. We need to resolutely turn our backs on these superficial comforts and take the manly road of ethical integrity to face the universe as it really is. As it is in science, so it ought to be in all matters of life, including religion. As James quotes Clifford: “Belief is desecrated when given to unproved and unquestioned statements, for the solace and private pleasure of the believer . . . It is wrong always, and everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”(Emphasis supplied)

James answered Clifford in a closely reasoned essay entitled, The Will to Believe,a title that James came to regret because so many erroneously took it to mean “believe what you will.” In fact, it is about both the right and the will to believe.

There are two ways of dealing with received opinion, says James: “Believe truth! Shun error! . . . by choosing between them we may end by coloring differently our whole intellectual life.” Clifford, asserts James, would have us choose the latter, to remain in suspense forever as we wait for conclusive evidence in order to avoid the risk of believing lies. In the thousand ways each day that we believe and act on the thinnest of evidence, says James, even Clifford fails his own stringency. But in withholding our trust until all—how would we even knowif it was “all”—the evidence is clocked, tallied, and catalogued, James says we have already made our decision. Not to decide is to decide—a forced option.

Where do we get the spark of trust in order to light the fuse of faith? Augustine writes of the faith that precedes faith in God—and intimates that God gives us that faith as well.

No trust is without risk, as anyone who has ever fallen in love knows. We think that the currency of trust is backed by the gold standard of the degree of risk involved. In our calculus great risk should equate to great reward. But when it comes to trusting God we often find that a step taken in clenched fear, with a breath of hope, turns out to be merely a passing shadow in the waves of joy and relief after the act.

The debate between W. K. Clifford and William James in The Will to Believe is an example of calcified certainty (Clifford) versus the right to believe (James). We cannot wait for all the evidence to be in before we make decisions; James chooses to believe with both reason and passion.

For those of us born into our religion, we must choose at some point to make it our own or to search elsewhere for transcendence. What goes into choice? Circumstance, inclination, temperament, and tradition. But also reason, coherence with our reality, conviction, and passion.

“But the spiritual life can be lived in as many ways as there are people,” says Henri Nouwen in Making All Things New. “What is new is that we have moved from the many things to the kingdom of God. What is new is that we are set free from the compulsions of our world and have set our hearts on the only necessary thing. What is new is that we no longer experience the many things, people, and events as endless causes for worry, but begin to experience them as the rich variety of ways in which God makes his presence known to us.”

Photo: Johannes Plenio, Unsplash.com

Burn for the Infinite

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“But a thinker who has no desire to think cannot think . . . And one who desires but cannot imagine what it is he wants is not getting very far with his desire, which, if it were real, would attempt to achieve an intelligible form.” — Northrop Frye. Fearful Symmetry, 27

How might we know an infinite God . . . as finite as we are? If we shall someday perfectly “know as we are known,” and if perfection is completeness, and if we’ve never experienced perfection, would we know the Infinite if we believed?

Reinhold Niebuhr, writing in Beyond Tragedy, says we have lost the tragic view of life. We think history is the record of “the progressive triumph of good over evil.” We do not recognize the “simple but profound truth that man’s life remains self-contradictory in its sin, no matter how high human culture rises; that the wisest expression of human spirituality, therefore, contains also the subtlest form of human sin.”

Three Conjectures

Our human tragedy is that we burn for the Infinite, yet we lack the imagination to reach for it.

What if we were honest with ourselves and admitted that what we know about the patriarchs and prophets in the Bible isn’t much after all? That in the stories we grew up with we got flashes of insight like lightning in thunderclouds or we heard something faint, like French horns in a fog, that made us curious, longing to climb through the story and drop down to the person beyond? That maybe, with respect, we need to bracket for the time being the things we’ve been indoctrinated with and widen our scope. That most of what we know about God that wasn’t thrust upon us we picked up at a yard sale secondhand, and maybe it’s time we thought for ourselves as we read these stories. Maybe it’s time we see David, Rahab, Jereboam, Isaiah, and Jonah as real people instead of characters in a sermon illustration that inevitably ends up somehow washed of all life’s reversals, misunderstandings, beauty and tragedy, and reflects—however improbably—the necessary successes of a middle-class American life.

We have two sources to think and imagine our way into the lives of these ancients: the tradition of memory and our personal insights. We hear our tradition as we read these stories together; we understand ourselves as we stand within the shadows of these people.

When we read, says Northrop Frye, we feel the centripetal force within the story, drawing us into its time and place; we also feel the centrifugal force spinning us out through memory to the external world and the meanings we associate with the words we read as we align ourselves with our reality.

As Christopher Fry says in his play, The Dark is Light Enough, “in our plain defects we already know the brotherhood of man.” Can we know then, these people whose experiences are so distant from ours in time and yet who are so tangibly, breathtakingly, solidly drawn?

Thought and desire, reason and imagination . . . these are the avenues of the soul Godwards, even as we sit trapped in traffic at the end of the day.

Our human tragedy is that we do not burn for the Infinite, yet we envy those who do.

What is tragic about exceeding our limitations, about “reaching for the stars,” about striving to become more than what we are? Isn’t this the very core of American exceptionalism and individualism, that we are limited only by our ambition and work ethic? That if we work hard enough we can achieve anything we put our minds and our hearts to? That we can fly if only we believe we can?

The poet, Stephen Spender, says in The Public Son of a Public Man,

“How shall we know that we really exist

Unless we hear, over and over,

Our egos through the world insist

With all the guns of the self-lover?”

We desire to be gods in our impatience with the “merely” human. When we substitute the penultimate for the Ultimate, says Paul Tillich, our false gods dry us up at the root.

Our human tragedy is that we burn for the Infinite, yet we cannot fully perceive it.

We cannot tell the whole truth about God because we do not know it and we couldn’t express it fully even if we did. That’s our tragedy, such as it is, when we live and move in the Spirit in this mortal dimension. When we speak or write in the name of Christ, then, we know that we are deceivers, yet true. Going in we know that whatever our metaphors of God in our best moments of self-reflection, our highest reach for truth, they will still result in gaps, miscues, diversions, and muddiness when we express them. To take the pulpit swelled with pride is to guarantee our own deflation. Yet in imagination, through will and hope, in some mysterious way through God’s Spirit, we may be lifted higher.

“Our minds are constantly trying to bring God down to our level,” says Christian Wiman, in his My Bright Abyss, “rather than letting him lift us into levels of which we were not previously capable.”

What we do know is that our best in potentia falls short in actuality. Between imagination and action, between desire and fulfillment, between thought and speech, between the mountain spring and the sea, lie numberless deflections, any one of which can turn the flow in another direction or stop it up completely. But we try. That’s what matters.

Niebuhr says, “Human existence denies its own deepest and most essential nature. That is tragic . . . But out of this despair hope is born. The hope is simply this: that the contradictions of human existence, which man cannot surmount, are swallowed up in the life of God Himself. The God of Christian faith is not only creator but redeemer. He does not allow human existence to end tragically. He snatches victory from defeat (19).”

There is a moment of finite perfection. It lingers before the singer takes a breath or the preacher speaks the first word before her people or the diver on the cliff’s edge flexes up on his toes before flight. In that moment is the potency of imagination, that which none greater can be experienced under our bright star.

Photo: Karen Hammega, Unsplash.com

All Our Gods

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When I was teaching a world religions class from semester to semester I would sometimes ask my students a question: Are God and Allah the same entity?

It was a complex question, but it would invariably provoke a simple response. At first there would be a momentary silence, with faces looking back at me in shock or puzzlement, as if they were waiting for me to say, “Just kidding!” But I wasn’t, and then the hands would go up and we were off, with questions and assertions richocheting around the room for the next few minutes.

The lines of consensus would usually form up in some fairly consistent ways. There was one group that was unequivocal: Allah is not God, no way, not ever. How could they be sure? Well, look at the kinds of horrific crimes against humanity that the followers of Allah have perpetrated. How could a real . . . god . . . be in charge of such a cruel and capricious lot?

Others would then point out the crusades of Christians against Jews and Moslems, the genocide by American Christians against native Americans, and the centuries of slavery. The Holocaust would be raised and apartheid in South Africa would be recognized.

Having fought to a draw, both sides would then stand down, panting a little. Then a hand would be raised. “Yes, I think they are both the same entity.”

But why?

“Because God can appear as Allah if He wants. He can do anything He wants. Besides, who are we to say who God is or what He does?”

If we think of this response as illustrating an epistemological pebble causing a ripple, then the degree of certainty expressed diminishes rapidly as the energy dissipates outward.

The question about God and Allah is complex because we cannot prove, by the usual standards of observation or deduction, if there are such entities, much less ones that answer to this name and not that one. What this question does first is to stop us in our tracks as it reveals the limits of language in the service of knowledge. As Job says into the whirlwind, “I have spoken of things I do not understand.”

This is not a concession by Job to withdraw his demand that God answer his charge of injustice, but an admission that, putting his charge aside, Job cannot grasp all that God is. But this does not stop him from addressing the God he does know, nor should it stop us.

The mystery is that God is more than we can know, but not less than we can desire.

Traversing the terrain of God’s nature in this way is throttled by some people when the conversation about the divine leaps into the higher elevations. Often, in the midst of animated conversations after the church potluck, someone will play the Homo sapiens card: “Now you’re thinking man’s thoughts. If they speak not according to the word it is because there is no light in them.” The fact that it took human cogitation to come up with that sentence is lost on such a person. For him the Bible is a literal transcript of pronouncements God gave in dictation to selected secretaries over the course of thousands of years. In his view it is an answer book for vexatious questions and a recipe book for doctrinal casseroles.

The problem with such a fundamentalism is, strangely enough, a coldly indifferent lack of respect for God. The metaphors of God that ring through the Biblical stories are about a being who is fiercely—and tenderly—involved with His creations. By contrast, the contractual obligation of the fundamentalist God is to deliver on the promise of an eschatological gated community in return for fulfillment of stipulations on conduct and creed. It keeps God at a distance, a being so abstract that the only indications of its existence are the myriad ways it is not like us.

There is no intellectual curiosity, but even worse, no spiritual wonderment and awe.

But there is a second purpose for such a question, and that is for us to discover the values that form our descriptions of God and how those values shape our action in the world. Like Parent, like children, you might say. Who do we think God or Allah is? How do we characterize them? How do the values we attribute to our gods align with those we live by? What do those values have in common with believers in other religions? And most importantly: What practical effect do such “God-shaped” values have as we learn to live with others and their divine values?

There are two ways of thinking about this. Conceptual thinking reasons out the problems and is useful when we try to add to our knowledge of the world. Situational thinking involves an experience. We need them both.

Abraham Heschel, the great twentieth-century rabbi and philosopher, says in God in Search of Man, “Situational thinking is necessary when we are engaged in an effort to understand issues on which we stake our very existence.” The nature of God, and our relation to people of faith in all religions would qualify for both kinds of thinking. Conceptual thinking would explore the history of the ideas, the development of nuances in religious philosophies, the sources of wisdom in the traditions. But situational thinking would look to events, the times and places where the gods touch the earth, and the songs and visions and psalms that well up from those springs.

Somewhere, theologian Stanley Hauerwas has said, “The truth of a religion is found in the kind of people it produces.” On the face of it the hearer might nod and agree, thinking, perhaps, that the proof is in the pudding and that our puddings should be of the highest quality, lest they be spewed out of the mouth of the Lord. But then a second thought occurs: Wait! Given our record as human beings and the monumental capacity we display for turning a silk purse into a sow’s ear, what hope is there for any religion? Considering the many shortcomings and pure screw-ups of any given denomination, especially one’s own, surely this is a bar no one can reach, a standard that cannot be achieved?

We do, however, have Jesus saying, “By their fruits you shall know them,” and cursing a fig tree for not producing fruit in due season, and stories about cutting down trees that don’t produce. Behavior seems to matter to Jesus.

I would amend it to read: “The truth of a religion is found in the kind of people it is producing.” We are not end-products; we are in process. The gardener knows the tree will thrive when it has the nutrients it needs.

Christian Wiman, poet and essayist, notes in his wonderful book, My Bright Abyss, that “An observed particle passed through a screen will always go through one hole. A particle that is unobserved but mechanically monitored will pass through multiple holes at the same time. What this suggests is that what we call reality is conditioned by the limitations of our senses, and there is some other reality much larger and more complex than we are able to perceive.”

In the loving embrace of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate, we may sense, rather than see, the One who is closer to us than the vein in our neck.

Photo: Val Vesa, Unsplash.com

Consider the Lilies

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“Consider the lilies,” says Jesus.

Is it a demand, like “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice?’” Or is it an invitation like that extended to Matthew who, as a taxman, was sitting in his booth collecting the blood-money from his people to be handed over to the occupying Roman force?

Jesus is walking along, says the Scripture, and he sees Matthew in his little booth, like those photo booths you’d see in parking lots of grocery stores, not even as big as a restroom at a Phillips 66 service station, and he just says, “Follow me,” and “he got up and followed him,” says the Gospel according to Matthew (no relation).

This invitation comes to Matthew as something of a command, for how else to explain leaving a job in which the money is made so easily (the size of the booth notwithstanding), just a matter of slipping an extra 10 percent on the standard tax so the Empire gets its money, you get your slice (in addition to your paltry salary), and everyone is happy—well, everyone with the exception of your people who await with dread and resentment the next shakedown at your command. If you didn’t mind being a pariah and knowing that every face turned toward you was either coldly indifferent or seething, then the job had its advantages. A pariah you might be, but a rich pariah you were, and that almost made up for being alone.

The lilies, then.

“They toil not, neither do they spin.”

***

Our work, what we do for most of the life we have, how do we see it? Is it a command or an invitation? Were we sitting in the little booths of our adolescence, bored and avaricious, waiting for a summons that only we would know when we heard it? Did we think the summons would be dispersed in general to everyone like us around us or would it single us out—we alone—lifted up out of the ordinary on the strength of a talent long buried like a bone in the garden, a talent perhaps, that we had ourselves buried for shame for even imagining it was our talent?

Or did we back into the spot, the one available at the time, that would become our place for so long that the weeds would grow up around the tires and the seasons wear down the frame as it settled?

Our self-image, like a Polaroid snapshot, emerges gradually from black to gray to color as we phase through our work life.

We imagine ourselves to be vaulting over all obstacles, achieving that which others have despaired of reaching, or bending down kindly to raise up those behind us who are slipping on the rungs of achievement. Suddenly there is no one ahead of us, the field is clear, we have been called to lead! We turn with an encouraging shout, only to find that the others, leaders and followers, have calmly dropped back. They regard us from a distance with pitying looks. We are alone.

We do not recognize the person we are until we see ourselves at work in the vocation we believe ourselves to be called to. Then we wonder if the gap between perception and vision can be bridged. We give ourselves to the work, glancing to the side at colleagues and up ahead at those who beckon—they make it look so effortless. We feel like imposters. It is in those moments that a fundamental truth is revealed to us: we have entered a conversation that precedes us by thousands of years and will continue after we cease to speak. It is possible that by listening we may learn and by speaking we may remember what we have learned. In speaking our own minds we may find that we have also spoken what others have thought but could not say. With Emerson we may be like the one who is “happy enough if he can satisfy himself alone that this day he has seen something truly.”

***

Matthew followed Jesus, seemingly without hesitation. Was it a relief to shuck off the taxman’s cloak? He gave up routine, the comforting groove of repetition, for day-to-day dislocation and the tingle of the unknown. In a moment he jackknifed himself from solitude into a band of brothers, discarding ambition like a fraying belt and making no plans beyond the setting of the sun. What his former life had been was the mention of some nudges and terse comments at first, but then that arc of his life evaporated and was gone. Filled with a strange elation, he fell into the rhythm of the days, feeling his stride lengthen and his horizons widen. What was he now? The first time someone asked, “Where is your master?,” he almost laughed before he realized that he had become a disciple, a follower.

“It is precisely the most solitary people who have the greatest share of commonality,” said Rilke. “The one who could perceive the whole melody would be most solitary and most in the community at once.”

Strangely, what Jesus offered was a hallowedness that made every action seem both familiar and sacral. There was an inwardness about him that lingered even when he smiled. Matthew found it compelling, a sense that even as Jesus was among them, sharing meals and stories and the hard ground under the stars, he was yet just beyond their reach.

His intensity was infectious, if exhausting. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” he cried out. He acted like a man whose life was converging with a future that was accelerating toward him at the speed of light.

The next day they were moving through a springtime field awash with flowers, heading north following the line of hills to the west. “Consider the lilies,” he said, trailing a hand through the blossoms as they walked. “They neither toil nor spin.” They didn’t need to toil to justify their short time on this earth. They simply were: they were their own reason for existing. As brief as their lives were, he said, God took care of them. Wouldn’t He do the same and more for you? God knows what you need.

That night he said to them, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Don’t worry about tomorrow.” He looked round at them, quizzical faces turned up in the firelight. “Tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

And now Matthew is considering the lilies, even as he turns over all that Jesus has said. He thinks about those for whom life is one hard-scrabble decision after another, those who could never imagine that the story provides an excuse for blithe idleness. For them, subsistence is necessity and tomorrow is never guaranteed. For them, faith is all the guarantee they will get—and all they will need.

He decides it is an invitation: “Consider the lilies!”

Photo: Josephine Amalie Paysen, Unsplash.com