Faith at the ‘Between’ Places

“We are beginning to see

now it is matter is the scaffolding

of spirit; that the poem emerges

from morphemes and phonemes; that

as form in sculpture is the prisoner

of the hard rock, so in everyday life

it is the plain facts and natural happenings

that conceal God and reveal him to us

little by little under the mind’s tooling.” — R. S. Thomas, from “Emerging

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“Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray/from the straight road and woke to find myself/alone in a dark wood.” So said Dante, and so echoed I, if not in word, then in experience. But Dante woke to find himself there; I stumbled into it with my eyes wide open. Dante had his Virgil—and his Beatrice—to guide him through what lay ahead. I had Rainer Rilke, Jurgen Moltmann, the Gospels, and U2.

With my life at a standstill, trying to write a dissertation for a degree I wasn’t at all sure I would have the chance to use, I woke to who I was — and wished I could sleep again. There is much about our selves that we sense is just behind us, but we’re too afraid to look. There is still more that we don’t know until a fissure opens and we fall into the depths. Once there, every shadow is menacing, every sound unnerving, every thought doubling back on itself in an endless loop. We wonder if we were ever who we thought we were, and we are sure that everyone sees us more starkly and completely than we see ourselves.

Trying to write a dissertation about hope and suffering and the mystery of evil when one has little hope becomes an ordinance of humility. The suffering we cause, when named and owned, is first a fire that sucks up all the air, and then a cleansing flame that scours away our pretense.

Down in the depths there is nothing to be gained by plugging in the formulae that others assure us we will need for peace of heart. What is needed is clarity, a fierce honesty that stops down the aperture of our soul to a brilliant point of light.

***

I visited my father once when he was working in research for a major defense contractor. He asked if I’d like to experience a sensory deprivation chamber. He promised to let me out after a few minutes, since I would have no sense of the passage of time. That was a darkness that seemed to atomize my body. Although I could touch my hand, I could not see it no matter how close I held it to my eyes. And although I shouted as loudly as I could there was absolutely no sound. None. It was like a mini-death, but I felt no panic, only a pang of loss, as if I could no longer remember my name or my face.

***

When we long for the presence of God, of a word we can hold in front of us like a candle, we feel the limits of our faith. How is it, as Christian Wiman ruefully admits in My Bright Abyss, that he can wake up as a Christian and go to bed an atheist? Why should we expect, as people of faith, that the path before us will be cleared of all obstacles before we touch a foot upon it? Why do we imagine that our faith in that which is eternal will be satisfied once for all? Why do we expect that the flame that is lit between ourselves and the Spirit will burn steadily from that moment onward?

Rilke was there with his angels, those terrifying angels, and the grandeur he uncovered in the spaces between prayers. He gave syllables to the breath within me that could just utter the name of God without choking up. I finished the dissertation in due course, defended it, and reinvented myself. I began to see hope in the crucified God and to turn my face toward the garden of the resurrection.

“It is not that he can’t speak:

who created languages

but God? Nor that he won’t;

to say that is to imply

malice. It is just that

he doesn’t, or does so at times

when we are not listening, in

ways we have yet to recognize

as speech.”

There are days when we put on the brave face and speak of faith to others and pray that they don’t see the desperation in our eyes. Doubt and faith journey together; when one falls behind the other pauses to wait patiently. Thomas became my patron saint, I his twin brother. When he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” he had seen through the familiar figure of Jesus to the God within. I wondered if I could see that God in the pale and fastidious Jesus of religious media.

“Christian faith teaches that the One whom we are to love most is the one whom we can never fully possess,” writes Mark Oakley in The Splash of Words. “It means that our faith’s language will be inevitably infused with desire, ache and search. The One we long for most finally eludes us.”

I learned that faith grows in the ‘between’ places, and that if I could not bear the potted version that provided contentment for many, that God would generously, with patience and good humor, meet me where I stood, defiant but uncertain.

Oakley says, “we are not seeking relevance but resonance — not the transient ideas of today that can convince for a time but the truths that address the deepest longings of a human life and a fragile world.” Our faith weakens, “when we think we somehow have captured God or contain God. This is when certainty more than doubt becomes the opposite of faith.”

“But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. . .”

Someone said — perhaps Rumi — that every morning we may say, “Now I begin!” If we can believe it, God starts anew with us every moment; each breath may be our untainted first. Because we carry our memories and our guilt with us, and because we are creatures of time, we think in linear fashion: first this must happen, then that, and finally, this will be the result. God, unbounded and beyond all constraints of time, sees us as we were, and are, and shall be evermore in every moment.

“As a Christian,” Oakley says, “I believe that God has given us all a gift. It is our being. God asks for a gift in return—our becoming, who we become with our being. Because our gift back to God is lifelong and continually shifting and changing, it means that any language that is to be true to this spiritual adventure of being alive needs equally to resist closure, to protest at black and white conclusions and fixed meanings.”

We are unfinished beings, mercifully limited by space and time, and blessed with curiosity and imagination. If we believe that the One who started this good work in us will continue in our renewing, perhaps we will have the courage to see beyond the dark wood.

Poem selections are, respectively, “Emerging” and “Nuclear,” by R. S. Thomas, in Collected Poems: 1945-1990.

Photo: Beschte Photography, Unsplash.com

The Gods Dissolve Like Clouds

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“There are billions of gods in the world . . . Most of them are too small to see and never get worshipped. . . They are the small gods. Because what they lack is belief. . . Because what gods need is belief, and what humans want is gods.” — Terry Pratchett, Small Gods

Sometimes we need a brisk jolt to the spiritual nervous system, like the whack from the paddle that the Zen master gives his novices who zone out under his watchful eye during their sitting meditation. Terry Pratchett does this with his cheerful parody of institutional religion called Small Gods. If all you got out of it was the epigraph above, you’d still be ahead of the game.

The root idea here is that the gods are remarkably human in that they rely on others to validate their existence. The more the followers, the greater the size of the god. The field can get crowded, the advertising intense, as the gods compete for air time and loyalty. Let us see how this knowledge might be applied.

***

There are gods for everything: The God of Laundry, who restores the one lost sock; the God of The Mother of All Headaches; the God of Parking Spaces; and the God of Snappy Comebacks After Arguments. Most of these pass through their life cycles unnoticed, unheralded, and unmourned because they simply don’t have the polling power of, say, the God of Instant Recall or the God of Social Skills or the big one, the God of Ultimate Truth. The grace note for the smaller ones is that like Home Depot, there’s a tool for every job. If you need to put your hands on a paper clip, the God of Hammers just won’t do.

There is specialization to the nth degree, but the really wise gods become generalists in order to play to the broadest possible audiences. The God of Polite Euphemisms, for instance, competes favorably with the God of Sly Innuendo, while a current favorite, the God of Plain Speaking, polls just ahead of an evangelical mainstay, the God of Thus Saith the Lord.

Granted, there are whole swaths of humanity who have never heard of these gods, of any gods for that matter, for whom the news that gods are dying by the billions arrives with all the interest quotient of banana price indices. These are tough audiences. They are unmoved by tragedy, indifferent to complexity, focused on the trivial, and contemptuous of procedural niceties. They lack a sense of history. Timelines mean nothing to them nor does the inherent authority claimed by certain small gods command respect or compliance.

We may well ask whence cometh and goeth these gods anyway. For this we can turn to Wallace Stevens, one of the truly great American poets and a man of letters, who conjectures in a lecture that “To speak of the origin and end of gods is not a light matter. It is to speak of the origin and end of eras of human belief.” Humans and gods are so closely intertwined, allows Stevens, that the demise of the gods cannot but change the very nature of humans.

I quote at length from his lecture, “Two or Three Ideas,” in Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose:

“To see the gods dispelled in mid-air and dissolve like clouds is one of the great human experiences. It is not as if they had gone over the horizon to disappear for a time; nor as if they had been overcome by other gods of greater power and profounder knowledge. It is simply that they came to nothing . . . It was their annihilation, not ours, and yet it left us feeling that in a measure we, too, had been annihilated.”

To be sure, these gods once played a significant role in the lives of many. The God of Tradition, for instance, carried a respectable train of believers for centuries, while the God of Fundamentals enjoyed tremendous growth even as his fundamental traits tripled, making it difficult to clearly discern the fundamentals from the incidentals.

But the God of Institutional Authority, one of the biggest in the pantheon, lost millions of adherents when he abused their trust in a naked grab for more power. The reaction was at first puzzlement: why would he do that? Many had been happy to serve in his court without need for coercion or arm-twisting. But puzzlement turned to concern, and then a stiffening of resolve, as it became clear that the God of Institutional Authority no longer trusted them nor looked on them of equal worth. No amount of evident sincerity could mitigate against the feeling that sincerity could be wrong if it overlooked, nay deliberately set aside, such a foundational element as equality.

The aberrant behavior of the God of Institutional Authority prompted endless discussion, even argument, among those for whom god-watching was their profession, and others for whom it was a consuming avocation. There were some who muttered darkly that such abuse ran in dynastic god families, even unto the third and fourth generation, and that nothing more could be expected from such a god — ‘like father, like son,’ was the summarizing phrase. Others just as vehemently argued that the God of Institutional Authority was merely exercising the power he had been entrusted with to keep order, enforce the rules, and maintain the hierarchy of responsibilities that was so important for a smoothly functioning organization. “It’s not for us to question him,” they said. “He carries enormous burdens. On him rests the well-being of millions. Who are we to thwart the will of the gods?”

This prompted some to turn once again to Stevens, who noted parenthetically that “Their [the gods] fundamental glory is the fundamental glory of men and women, who being in need of it create it, elevate it, without too much searching of its identity.” Stevens then added, prophetically as it turned out, “The people, not the priests, made the gods.”

Among the professional god-watchers there were a few whose expertise and knowledge of the gods was unparalleled. Many people relied upon them to discern the movements of the God of Institutional Authority and his court, and to place this within a larger framework of cosmic events. One of them had been knighted for his efforts and was known affectionately and colloquially as Sir George the Dragon-Slayer. Even though he was supported by a comparatively large and established network, there were those who privately worried that there was a bounty on his head. Some cited Henry VIII’s off-hand and exasperated remark, “Who will rid me of this troublesome prelate,” as historical precedent for vigilante action against Sir George by devoted free-lance enforcers.

This brings us to the present in what is a developing story. Because there are many facets to these developments, one should not be too quick to pronounce that the definitive analysis is in. After all, on the central point of equality of members and service, decades of blue-ribbon commissions were commissioned, only to see their conclusions and recommendations dismissed on the wind. Looking ahead for the consequences of present actions, intended or otherwise, one need only invoke the carefree butterfly flitting above a chrysanthemum on a remote Japanese island, to shudder at the hurricane that might await us up ahead.

In the meantime there comes to us a word from another professional god-watcher, the sociologist Peter Berger, who warned in his book, A Far Glory, about something which seems to have been lost in the current confusion. I will quote it at length:

“All true worship is a difficult attempt to reach out for transcendence. It is this reaching out that must be symbolized, by whatever resources a particular tradition has at hand. . . The community itself is not the object of the exercise; at best it is the subject . . . The congregation itself is not what matters, but the community of the Kingdom of God which the gathered congregation feebly foreshadows. Nor is this proleptic community contained within the walls of a particular sanctuary: It includes the community of the living everywhere, and of the living and the dead; ultimately it includes the worshiping community of the angels and all creation.”

There must be a God for that.

Photo: Samuel Zeller, Unsplash.com

A Path We Can Imagine

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As often as I think I am seeking other people out in order to get something for myself, the deeper truth is that I am hoping they will draw me out of myself. — Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith

I began reading about Dorothy Day while a graduate student in Philosophy of Religion at Claremont Graduate School, in California. I had picked up a copy of the Catholic Worker in Los Angeles, a newspaper published to highlight social justice issues in the Catholic tradition. It was started by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933 and has been published continuously ever since. I was taking classes in liberation theology and social justice at Claremont, learning about the movements in Latin America by Catholic priests to educate the people and to teach them to read, using the Bible. Then later, when I came to Columbia Union College in Takoma Park, Maryland to teach, I contacted the Sojourners community in Washington, DC, met Jim Wallis, the editor and co-leader, and became aware of some of the networks of Christians in the Metro area who were working with the homeless.

Eventually, I met Mitch Snyder, who was living and working out of a row house on Euclid St. in Washington, DC. He had been an adman on Madison Avenue before he dedicated his life to the homeless. He and some friends operated a soup kitchen in an abandoned garage across the street. My students and I would go down on Sunday mornings to cut up vegetables for stew and often we’d come back to hand out meals in the evenings. We continued to work with Mitch and his community over the years, as they advocated and cared for the homeless. Always aware of the official studied neglect by governments of the homeless, he fasted to the brink of death until the city capitulated and opened the DC Shelter on 4th Street in Washington. Many students worked and helped out at the shelter over the years.

My friendship with Mitch continued even after we were no longer actively involved in the community. One evening, he asked if I’d like to go up to Baltimore and meet Dan and Phil Berrigan, the Catholic priests who had been in the vanguard of protests against the Vietnam War and who had worked for decades in the civil rights movement. When we arrived we were ushered into a row house filling with young people as well as grizzled veterans of the peace movement. As the sun was going down, light streaming into the windows, Phil Berrigan led us in a worship and prayer service for the homeless. For me, this was a golden moment, a revelation of the commonalities of Christian activism that begin with prayer and are sustained through worship.

My interest in the Catholic Worker movement had begun much earlier, when a friend from college decided to become a Catholic priest. We were graduate students together at Andrews University and unbeknownst to me he was taking catechumen lessons at Notre Dame University. The night before Easter Sunday he was baptized into the Catholic Church. We stood in for him as witnesses, since his family, staunch SDAs in Southern California, had rejected him and his calling. He felt his calling was to work in East LA among the barrios, the poverty and the gangs. His life, after baptism, was brimming with hope; his enthusiasm for the Catholic Worker movement and its mission to reach those in poverty led him to give up his comfortable upper middle-class life and to enter a vocation that was open to the Spirit’s leading in all parts of his life.

Witnessing his baptism and seeing his joy caused me to reflect on what had brought him from Adventism to Catholicism, from wealth to voluntary poverty. While he was one of the most intelligent people I’ve known, it was his single-minded direction toward Christian activism that stirred me.

Years before, as a teenager newly-awakened, I was keen to witness. I wanted to fix the spiritual errors that I saw around me and to confront those, especially in the Catholic Church, who I felt were perpetuating these errors. One of our high-school faculty, our Bible and history teacher, invited a Catholic priest to his home one Sabbath, so that some of us could learn more about Catholic beliefs and his friend’s faith. I confronted the priest with all the bravado and ignorance that a 15-year-old on a mission from God could muster. He graciously answered my questions, parried my thrusts, and generally treated me with respect and interest. I came away feeling that I had made a holy fool of myself.

While at graduate school at Claremont I took a course in Liturgies of the Church. We studied all the major liturgies and their history, from the time of Justin Martyr in CE 155 up to John Wesley’s “Service of the Methodists in North America,” written in 1784. One of the requirements of the course was to attend a worshipping community outside of our own faith for the semester. At that time, I was an active member of the North Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church in Claremont, but I easily found an Anglican church in Ontario and began attending their Sunday services also.

I was immediately struck by two things. One was the homily delivered each week (without notes) by the priest. It was literate, deeply Scriptural, and invariably opened windows into the life of discipleship. It brought together the liturgy, the Scripture, and current news in ways that set my imagination on fire.

The second thing was the compassion and respect shown toward the gay couple that attended from week to week. This was in 1977, not a particularly easy time for gays, and especially not the norm for the Anglican Church. But each week that they were there they were surrounded by people who obviously cared about them, who did not regard them as either a curiosity nor an abomination, and who did not shy away from sharing the cup with them during the Eucharist.

***

There is a sociological and communications theory known as Symbolic Interactionism that counts among its strengths the idea that “it is through social interaction that (our) identities are formed, maintained, and changed,” as scholar Joel Charon puts it in his Symbolic Interactionism. Founded on the work of George Herbert Mead and extended by Herbert Blumer and others, SI says that we form our self-identity through interaction with others. We are social beings, said Mead, and we shape each other through our interactions. That may seem self-evident, but Mead believed that it is only through what he called ‘role-taking’ that we can communicate, develop a self-identity, and become part of a society.

Role-taking relies on imagination, a central characteristic of humans that makes it possible to put ourselves in the place of others. The ones who influence us the most are our significant others; they may be parents, friends, role-models, heroic figures, people we emulate or admire. They may even be people we fear. We imagine how our actions will affect them, and we imagine what they might be thinking, feeling, and understanding in certain situations. It’s impossible to ever take on another’s role with complete accuracy, but it’s essential for everything that we do as human beings to try our best. As we grow more capable of it we become more understanding of others, better communicators, more able to anticipate the expectations of others so that we can conform, rebel, choose, and exercise our will in relation to others.

Mead called another group of people our ‘generalized other,’ a combination of several significant others who make up a group or a community, a society of sorts that we visualize as we act. We might think of ‘my friends,’ or ‘my family’ or ‘my church’, or even ‘my generation’ and ‘my country.’ Another term for this is a reference group, a group of significant others we hold in our imagination.

While we need to take others into account in almost everything we do, there are two exceptions to this: those who are extremely selfish and those who hold extreme power. Those who are almost totally self-centered may regard others as simply objects to be manipulated, and those who have extreme power may actually do so. Of course, by provoking fear or anger in others, such people can expect retaliation in kind, which generally reinforces their selfishness. As long as their power is intact they are personal hurricanes of chaos. They lack the imagination and the social intelligence to take the role of anyone but themselves.

Symbolic interactionism gives us perspectives through which we can actively and consistently see ourselves and others in a new light. It provides a consciousness which can be turned to great good or to evil. We can learn to empathize with others or to manipulate them. It means that we go through our days with eyes wide open, continually attempting to see the world—and ourselves—through the eyes of those we are communicating with.

As a Christian, a person attempting to live in grace by faith, it helps me to visualize and imagine the lives of others. It helps me to learn from those with whom I interact. To try to see the world through the eyes of a person in the LGBTQ+ community or to try to imagine how a Protestant asking a Catholic about sexual abuse by priests must seem to a Catholic — those are exercises of the imagination worth attempting.

***

In recent years I have been teaching at two universities, both embedded in the history of the renegade order of nuns who came to America from France and established colleges for young women in the early 20th century. My friendships with colleagues at both schools have opened my eyes to larger issues of justice, education for the disadvantaged, and the power of a constant witness to Biblical activism in the nation’s capital. In a way, the ripple that began at The Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame on that Easter many years ago has finally lapped against the shore. The sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, whom I have gotten to know at Trinity, were once as young as my college friend. In their lives of devotion to scholarship, service, and compassion, I imagine the trajectory of my friend, now lost to me these many years. He moved me to question how fervent was my faith; the sisters’ lives are testament to a steady will in a singular direction.

These kinds of moments might have come to me in other ways. Perhaps because of temperament, inclination, opportunity, and curiosity I leaned this way instead of other ways. I needed work, they opened their doors, it turned out well for both parties. Going forward, I did not have a long-range plan. We rarely do in life. Nor did I determine to follow a specific course to meet people who understood and practiced faith in ways different than mine. Rather, I found myself responding to intuition, the promptings of the Holy Spirit, the openness of God to “strangers,” and the curiosity that searches out how others worship and come to know God.

The experiences that we have and the people we meet may seem random, but there is reason to believe that the paths we cross with others can be seen, in time, as part of a larger pattern. God has a multitude of ways to meet us in unexpected places and to reveal the moments of grace we need in the midst of the mundane, the sublime, and the tragic.

Photo: Inbal Marilli, Unsplash.com

The Original Sin of the Species

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“Yet the quality of a religious system depends perhaps less on its specific doctrine, than on the choice of problems that it regards as important, the areas of human experience to which it directs attention.” — Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo

Peter Brown (who wrote one of the most highly-regarded biographies of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, and the greatest influence on the Christian Church after Paul and before Aquinas) gives us a perch from which to regard one of the great controversies that Augustine was determined to stamp out.

Augustine’s disputation with Julian, the young ex-bishop of Eclanum, on the origins and effects of original sin, is described by Augustine as an explanation for the misery and suffering of the human race. Their battle comes late in Augustine’s life, the old lion up against a whip-smart and ruthless opponent half his age for whom this battle is personal.

Brown makes it clear that Augustine’s loathing of sex, even within marriage, determines his view of Adam and Eve falling into sin through their unbridled lust for one another. The behavior which Augustine assumes as evidence is their shame at their nakedness after eating from the tree. Everything flows from this. Fully developed, the doctrine then requires baptism for sin in order to escape the horrors of hell—even infant baptism—because even newborns do not escape the stain of original sin. Everyone who is born of a woman is the result of lust; it follows then, infers Augustine, that everyone is born in sin, preternaturally bent from the moment of conception to choose the wrong, to stain the holy, and to willfully, at every turn, gallop off the path of righteousness.

It’s a tortured and torturing logic, one that has inflicted untold pain on Christians since the time of Augustine. In contrast to Augustine, Julian upheld the view that God was, above all, a god of equity. God’s justice was toward each of us individually, not all of us lumped together. We were responsible for our own failures, but God’s grace would be sufficient for us.

What Augustine did in the service of theology — and what many following him in the Church have done from his time to the present — is to ascribe our human propensity to fall and to fail to the weakness of Eve. This has serious consequences. It means that we deflect responsibility for our own state of separation, as Paul Tillich characterized the effects of sin. It builds in moral passivity and projects onto others the motivations for our own deceit. It calls into question whether even God can reach beings so utterly corrupted and debased.

But most of all, it perpetuates sexism because it lays the blame for the world’s misery on women. To paraphrase Paul: “And thus abideth racism, xenophobia, and sexism. But the most pervasive of these is sexism.”

We are, all of us, without exception, complicit in the sin that Adam and Eve committed. Nor do any of us need convincing about the horrors humans can perpetrate on one another. So, we’re not denying that evil can have a human face. It’s just that for millenia the face that appears most often in the Church’s grand narrative of the Fall is that of a woman.

It is interesting that in Paul’s recounting of the story sin entered the world through Adam, not through Eve. But the story that the Christian world accepts — and it could be argued that the world accepts — lays the blame on Eve.

If it is true, as Brown reminds us, “that the quality of a religious system depends . . . On the choice of problems” it gives its attention to, then such a religious system is only as strong as its weakest link. The blame for sin that is laid on women derives its power from assumptions that underlie not only matters of theology, hermeneutics, and worship, but also policies and hiring decisions. Its direct application in churches around the world weakens the hope for redemption that we are encouraged to hold. When people use it to denigrate women and “keep them in their place” they are not only wronging women specifically, but they are also trivializing the real issues of grace and redemption.

Brown’s epigram asks us to take seriously where our attention lies, as a church and as Christians. How long are we going to punish women? What are the problems that consume our time, energy, and money?

But if all our essential beliefs are meant to point us to the burning bush of God’s saving love, then we should at least examine that through which we have relegated fifty percent of the human race to the flickering shadows at the circumference of that light.

This prejudice runs deep, as unseen and seemingly innocuous as the air we breathe. It begins early in our lives, with the first telling of the temptation story, and it remains part of our cellular structure until we realize how extensive its roots really are. If you’re a Christian, you know what I mean. In fact, if you’re Western — no, make that human — if you’re human, you know this is the primal prejudice, the one most difficult to overcome because it seems to be the natural order of the world. Augustine’s attitudes towards women were no doubt influenced by his own proclivities and the temptations he wrestled with, but they are not prescriptions for contemporary life. His attempt to derive a theological explanation from biological and emotional responses need not be our default position nor should the Church’s hardening on the role of women be accepted as a fait accompli.

We might begin with the original myth itself — ‘myth’ being defined as an archetypal story about our human origins, not a story that is untrue. The Genesis story of the Fall can be interpreted in many ways, but one central note is the exhilarating paradox that reveals our moral freedom as both liberating and binding us. We are subject to the dizzying expectations of both obedience and independence. We need obedience to claim our independence; we need independence to be freely obedient. It’s a setup for a tragicomedy. Granted, from outside the Garden we literally can’t imagine human existence without the failures of sin built in, but we can imagine (and live) the joy that comes when we know we are accepted by God. Can we accept that we are accepted, as Tillich so powerfully stated in one of his sermons?

There is a streak of sadism that runs through the administering of Christianity. It’s the belief that salvation is only as real as the guilt that makes it necessary. The greater the feeling of guilt, the sweeter the salvation — and there are always people willing to tighten the screws in the service of compliance. All of that for our own good, of course.

But our dilemma is that we do that which we ought not to do, and we do not do what we ought to do. We don’t do the ‘oughts’ because we can’t see how or why they would help us. And we can’t imagine how they would help us because we can’t trust that which we did not make. It’s our desire for independence that brushes aside the ‘oughts’, but it’s that very independence which can turn the ‘oughts’ into that which we desire with all our heart.

***

After they turn to leave the Garden, we do not read of Adam and Eve talking to God again. A force field has been raised behind them. Nor do they seem resentful at their loss. Stoically, they set about making a life east of Eden — ‘Eden,’ the Hebrew word for ‘delight.’ Once they lived in the innocence of children; now, with experience, they have shouldered the responsibilities that come with consciousness. We wonder, too, if at the end of a long day of toil, they find satisfaction in that which they have hewn out of the hard rock of endurance. There is heartbreak ahead for them, but they will suffer it together, alone and in silence. There is joy in the midst of pain.

They hope for us what they cannot taste: the sweetness of unexpected grace and forgiveness. And we look back, almost wistfully, longing for even the shards of memory which they hold of the Garden.

No promise but that which heals could foreclose on Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, for all the anguish it has caused and all the anger it has raised. Among the rifts between people that we Christians have driven wedges into over the centuries, this one that casts women into a ritually inferior state must be bridged.

“Let us say

We are all confused, incomprehensible,

Dangerous, contemptible, corrupt,

And in that condition pass the evening

Thankfully and well,” says the Countess in Christopher Fry’s, The Dark is Light Enough. “In our plain defects

We already know the brotherhood of man.”

Photo: Anqi Lu, Unsplash.com

When a Bowl is Not a Bowl

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The most provocative of all realities is that reality of which we never lose sight but never see solely as it is.” Wallace Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose.

There is a Zen saying:

“Before enlightenment, a bowl is just a bowl.

During enlightenment, a bowl is no longer a bowl.

After enlightenment, a bowl is a bowl again.”

More and more these days, this expresses much of how I perceive the paradoxes and puzzlements I face in life.

The saying refers to those moments when the host prepares the tea for his guest. Each step is carefully attended to, unhurried and calm. To hear the sound of the hot water being poured into the bowl and how the tone changes as the level rises; to hear the sound of the whisk briskly stirring; to see the steam rising from the surface and feel its heat through the bowl held in one’s hands—these are each moments to be lived into with all our senses and to be remembered. In other words, the point is not to slurp down a cup of tea and rush out the door, but to see in the most common of moments a glimpse into the sacred beauty of life. It is also to grasp, with a shock of heightened awareness, that something we took for granted may be pointing us to a truth.

Here is a mundane example of how our perceptions change in other realms of life: I buy a book that catches my eye. The subject is within the universe of interests that I carry, and I think I would like it. I read the front, the back, the introduction, scan the table of contents and the first paragraph. And I buy it. Fickle beast that I am sometimes, my interest wanes and I put it on the shelf. A decade later I take it down; memory has stirred curiosity and I am entranced. I wonder why I hadn’t seen the riches of this book years ago. I study it fervently, underline and annotate it, commit passages to memory. In short, it has become one of the most cherished books in my library. Nothing has changed except my perception of its relevance and meaning to me—and that has made all the difference.

How does our perception change relative to the universals and the particulars? Jesus, in his suspension of the Sabbath law (Mark 2, Luke 6), teaches us to aspire to the universal (the love and care of others) over the particular (keeping the Sabbath commandment pure). How do we reconcile this? How should we work this out in practical terms? Do we ignore all Sabbath restrictions? Abandon the Sabbath altogether? What is the universal here? Is there a principle by which we can live?

We judge our theologies by several criteria. We ask if they are grounded in Scripture, by which we understand that the doctrine is not founded on a single verse, but multiple sources throughout the Book. We ask if they are carried by Christian communities down through the centuries, an argument from continuity and tradition. Sometimes they are not, like the seventh-day Sabbath, so we revert to the Scriptural criterion.

But we also ask what any given doctrine reveals about God’s character and thus, how that knowledge affects our relation to God and to others. In short, we want to know if this belief will make a difference in our lives. What is the “cash value,” as William James says, of our beliefs to our conduct and meaning for life?

The most basic universal principle from our side, the human response to God, is that freedom to choose to follow God is part of our learned spiritual behavior. In fact, we can say that freedom to choose is our human birthright. It’s always been a principle part of our defining identity as humans, and people of faith are bold enough to say that it is God-given. It took the Enlightenment to bring this into the foreground, against the resistance of religious and political powers who had a fierce determination to bring about their ends through any means possible.

Now we are in a post-modern era in which the very idea of truth is vulnerable. Our economy of truth trades on facts—usually those of science—and the gathering, collating, dissemination and testing by facts is our major industry. Because determining what is factual is arduous and costly, we rely on experts who have the time, the skills, and the interest to uncover the truth in many areas of life. Although a good scientist’s professional modus operandi is that current truth is only as good as its last iteration, when it comes to religion some seem to think that beliefs stated by committees should stand for eternity.

Part of the difficulty here is that theology, our human reading of God’s ineffability, cannot be verified or proven false in the ways that scientific propositions are. As Richard Holloway puts it in his Doubts and Loves, ”The reason theological dispute is so endless is that there are no empirical experiments we can appeal to that can obviously settle them, the way we might settle a dispute over the exact temperature of the boiling point of water.” And that is where religions pick up the weapons of coercion, guilt, and intimidation.

We return to the example of Jesus and the disciples, famished in a field on the Sabbath day. Raising the bodily needs above the ritual requirements, Jesus says nothing as the disciples pluck and eat the grains on their way. It’s only when the Pharisees confront him (were they keeping the disciples and Jesus under surveillance?) that he responds, upsetting their carefully honed arguments. David, he said, allowed his soldiers to eat the consecrated bread, even though only the priest may do so. Then he adds the statement that relativizes our theological maxims: “The Sabbath was made for the sake of man and not man for the Sabbath: therefore the Son of Man is sovereign even over the Sabbath.”

What this seems to affirm is that when human needs come up against religious requirements, human needs must take precedence. If there’s one thing that Jesus and God insist upon it’s the practical care of others. See that you care for the widows, the orphans, the poor, the disabled, says Jesus. Care for the children. I’ve come for the sick, not the healthy, he says. Of course, if we think we’re healthy and wealthy and in need of nothing, then we’re probably suffering from spiritual and social blindness—and we might not even know it if we’re incapable of seeing beyond our feet.

We have our particulars and they have their place. In religion, they help us pay attention to the details. Do we pray with hands raised and eyes closed? Do we tithe? Do we observe holy days and live modestly? Sweep away the details and we wobble from one religious fad to the next. But to make absolutes out of the details is to place formidable barriers between us and God. In those cases God can still get through to us, but the question is: when we see the barriers falling will we realize we are being liberated or will we think we’re being attacked?

***

So, in the end, after enlightenment, the bowl is just a bowl again. Once it was simply a means of holding the tea. Then it was the vehicle for clarity and insight, perhaps thought of as something miraculous because of it. Now, once again, it is a means of holding tea, not to be venerated but certainly respected for the part it played in opening one’s eyes. Without the bowl there would be no drinking of the tea, but without the tea there would be no purpose for the bowl. The tea is the purpose of the bowl, the bowl is the means of the tea, and together they provide the moment in which to be fully present.

Let us say that the church, as distinct from our spiritual communities, is the bowl.

There is another aspect to this which is even more important: The means to the realization of any truths, as important as they may be, are not the truths. The map is not the territory, the symbol is not the reality to which it points, the law is not the gospel—in fact, even the Gospel points beyond itself to the person of Jesus and the being of God. We too easily settle for that which can be categorized, quantified, and assessed. In the language of Paul Tillich, we turn the penultimate into our ultimate concern—whether it be the Bible, our personal faith, or our church. We look at the finger pointing at the moon instead of the moon itself.

Zen has a cure for that: if you keep returning to the bowl instead of going forward to the truth it’s pointing to, then you need to drop the bowl.

Photo: Percy Pham, Unsplash.com

A Loneliness that Hears

WinchesterCath

We do not have to discover the world of faith; we only have to recover it. It is not a terra incognita, an unknown land; it is a forgotten land, and our relation to God is a palimpsest rather than a tabula rasa. There is no one who has no faith (141). Abraham Heschel, God in Search of Man

“Be here now. Be some other place some other time. Is that so difficult?”

That is my recollection of a quote I heard several years ago attributed to Ram Dass, an American guru in the Hindu tradition. It’s no wonder we find it difficult to be in the present moment: we can’t see its edges. It’s a Venn diagram rather than a line or a point. Yet thousands of years of spiritual tradition and writings insist that this is where God is, here, in the present moment.

“Just as clairvoyants may see the future,” says Abraham Heschel in God in Search of Man, “the religious man comes to sense the present moment.” Is this an extra-sensory perception? Something that only one in a hundred are born with, those with a second sight, the fortunate few who travel always in the assurance of being surrounded by the divine? “It is primarily, it seems, an enhancement of the soul,” says Heschel, ”a sharpening of one’s spiritual sense, an endowment with a new sensibility . . . Things have past and a future, but only God is pure presence.”

***

There is a Native American perspective that when we talk to one another we are surrounded by everyone and everything that has brought us to that moment. Our ancestors hover over and behind us; our past experiences and actions are melded into our bone marrow; our thoughts and words spring from the rivers of tradition and culture that water our singular desolation at times when we feel most alone. I have mentioned this to my students in ethics courses as a way of suggesting our links to our past and our debts to those who have gone before us.

When we speak, then, it is our entire experience of life to that point that shapes our responses to the person in front of us. Sure, we’re processing the signals we encounter, decoding while we encode, taking in the feedback—both verbal and nonverbal—and trying to see the moment through the eyes of our partner; all of this in the wider context of our social, political, and psychological sensitivities. That we do all of this in seconds, without even breaking a sweat, is testament to the commonplace extraordinariness of communication between humans, surely one of the most complex aspects of our species. But that’s just the baseline, something that most of us take for granted, like gravity or sneezing with our eyes closed. To recognize who we are as a result of our past can give us a wider understanding in order to be fully present in that moment.

When it comes to communicating with or even sensing God, though, we feel knocked back on our heels. Theories abound, well-meaning, but ultimately trite and foolish. We try: we adjust the parameters of our experiments in reaching God, taking notes when something seems to work, discarding methods like junk mail with hardly a glance. At prayer we try not to put our own desires forth, somehow thinking that if we refuse to acknowledge the very thing we so desperately need, that God will be good enough to give it to us. It all becomes ridiculous after a while, akin to superstition or sorcery—prayer as incantation. So, we drop it in disgust or regretfully move on or determine to go it alone.

I was in Winchester Cathedral with friends recently; we had come for Evensong on a summer’s afternoon, making our way from the Hospital of St. Cross and the 12th-century Almshouse of Noble Poverty, through the quiet back streets, past Winchester College, following the roofline of the cathedral in the near distance. When we arrived and slipped inside I had a deja vu moment reaching back four decades to when I had hitchhiked there as a student. I remembered it as one of the holiest moments of my life, in which I had encountered God in the echoing stillness of an afternoon as I knelt near the altar. There was no prayer, no words, no conjuring up of any images. The soaring windows above the nave and the transept, the light pouring in through the clerestory, were enough to lift me and awe me to my knees.

“Only those who have gone through days on which words were of no avail,” comments Heschel, “on which the most brilliant theories jarred the ear like mere slang; only those who have experienced ultimate not-knowing, the voicelessness of a soul struck by wonder, total muteness, are able to enter the meaning of God, a meaning greater than the mind.”

I knew nothing of that then, just that the sheer immensity of a hovering and sheltering Being was there, a Real Presence that transcended and shattered all sectarian rigidity. The fact that the building was designed to evoke such a response did not detract from the experience nor does the recognition that my recent visit, while spiritually uplifting and inspiring, did not overwhelm me in the same way as my first encounter—none of that diminished my sense of God’s presence therein.

Abraham Maslow’s little book, Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences, offers insight into these things. Maslow compares and contrasts ‘plateau-experiences’ with ‘peak-experiences,’ and suggests that the former “is serene and calm” rather than the climactic response to “the miraculous, the awesome, the sacralized, the Unitive” that we get in peak experiences. Whereas the peak experience is almost purely emotional, the plateau experience always, says Maslow, ”has a noetic and cognitive element . . . It is far more voluntary than peak-experiences are.” As we age and begin to make our peace with death, we are more likely to cherish, with sweet sadness, the contrast between our own mortality and the “eternal quality of what sets off the experience.”

Perhaps most important, says Maslow, is to realize that plateau-experiencing can be learned, achieved, practiced, and continued throughout life. There are no shortcuts to this, however, and, as Maslow notes, there isn’t any way of “bypassing the necessary maturing, experiencing, living, learning. All of this takes time.”

We don’t—and can’t—live on the peaks continuously. Indeed, Maslow cautions that those who put the peak experience before everything else can become the nastiest, meanest, least compassionate, people around. Furthermore, their constant pursuit of ecstasy-triggers, the compulsion for an escalation of stronger spiritual stimuli, easily slides over into magic, the anti-rational, the obsessive.

Some of the greatest spiritual adepts have had their “dark night of the soul,” when God cannot be found or even sensed. Most of us only have our gray days of the spirit, when our spiritual pulse is barely flickering. In those times we call upon our memories of the vistas we have seen from the peaks we have scaled.

“The most precious gifts come to us unawares and remain unnoted,” says Heschel. “God’s grace resounds in our lives like a staccato. Only by retaining the seemingly disconnected notes do we acquire the ability to grasp the theme.” In those gray days, and especially in the dark ones, we connect the dots looking back in order to be fully here in the Now.

There will be days when God seems not to answer, not to be found. God is not a pearl deep in the ocean, warns Heschel, as if we could, through our skills and intelligence, dive deep to discover Him. We can take the initiative—in fact, we must not be passive—but without God’s response and aid we cannot come close to Him.

There is an aloneness that is solitary, yet not abandoned. I felt it upon leaving Winchester Cathedral, and have felt it since. But there are times when the peaks are enshrouded in fog, when even the plateaus are beyond our reach, when the valleys are the only possible route forward. In those times, declares Heschel, “There is a loneliness in us that hears. When the soul parts from the company of the ego and its retinue of petty conceits; when we cease to exploit all things but instead pray the world’s cry, the world’s sigh, our loneliness may hear the living grace beyond all power.”

Photo: Winchester Cathedral by Barry Casey

Wandering, Not Lost

GreenLane

I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.

I want to free what waits within me.

so that what no one has dared to wish for

may for once spring clear

without my contriving. — Rainer Maria Rilke

During my year of college in England in the early 1970s I hitchhiked as often as I could. The roads were less crowded then, I dare say it was safer too, and students wearing their college colors could almost always get a ride with lorry drivers or other travelers. On a fine autumn afternoon I set out from my college near Windsor for Stratford (as in Shakespeare), a short hop of less than 50 miles. I was used to getting a ride within half an hour, but I grew impatient as the afternoon waned. So I crossed the road to the opposite direction and got a lift within five minutes. The driver was headed south and west, whereas I had been heading north. But that was alright, so I went along.

The protocol for conversations ran along fairly predictable lines. I would jump in, he or she would state where their destination was, the driver would ask where I was going, and off we would go. Often, the next set of questions would be, “Where are you studying?” or “What are you studying?” or more generally, “What brings you to this country?”

After my response that I was studying religion, the driver glanced over at me and gave a short laugh. He looked to be in his fifties, wearing jeans and a jean jacket, short, graying hair, a ruggedly handsome face.

“I wonder if you can help me,” he said. “My marriage is breaking up—my third marriage—and I don’t know what to do. I have a cottage out in Cornwall—“ he paused, “and I guess I’ll stay there until I figure something out. You’re religious; what should I do?”

I was a sophomore in college, 19 years old, unschooled in the ways of the world, and near the bottom of the list for reliable marriage counseling. But I did have malpractice insurance and it was this: I had made a pact with God that if I got a lift I would speak of my faith in Christ as the opportunity presented itself. I added a rider to the agreement that only if the driver initiated the subject would I “witness” of my faith. I’d had enough of running into roaming packs of overenthusiastic Christian youths in Berkeley and San Francisco to know that imposing or tricking people into listening to a witnessing spiel was not for me.

So here it was: my cue to speak. I should also mention that the final clause in the agreement was that I be given the words to say. Not asking too much, I reasoned, given the stakes. So we talked, or rather I talked and he listened as we puttered along in his little Citroen. He listened intently, with a question or two now and then, or he smiled and nodded. Finally, up ahead was Stonehenge, where I had decided to get out, and with the stones silhouetted against a blazing sunset we coasted to a stop by the road. We sat for a moment, gazing in wonder at the sight. Then he turned to me with tears in his eyes and said, “Will you pray for me?” “Of course,” I said, and opened the door to get out. “No, I mean now,” he said, and put a hand on my arm. “Here, right now.” I gulped, and then I prayed with him. We shook hands, I got out, he drove off. And I stood there with a full heart and a mind full of questions.

Here’s the thing: when I got out—and even in the days that followed—I couldn’t remember anything of what I’d said, except that at one point I recited I Corinthians 13 in its entirety—a passage I had never memorized to my knowledge. Now, some 46 years later, with a memory I no longer trust out of my sight, that recitation is still all I can remember saying. I don’t know what happened to that man; I hope his life turned around. I know mine did. Theory turned into practice, hoped-for faith into action. It was enough.

We often describe our youth as lost, when they just may be seeking a point from which to launch. If you don’t have a destination you can’t be lost. It’s only when we establish a goal or a time limit or a linear point that we become concerned about losing our way. But on many of our life journeys we don’t know the final point and we may not even know the way. Our lives are moving illustrations of faith as a rolling wave, traveling in a general direction without a specific landing point.

***

Somewhere in his many writings Kurt Vonnegut sardonically tosses out the fact that the universe is expanding in every direction, whistling past our ears outward at thousands of miles per second. Everything else, he intimates, pales beside that. By contrast, Northrop Frye says in his classic, The Great Code, that our default demand for unity and integration, for drawing reality in around us, can only rise as high as our finite imagination.

We choose our metaphors, but before that they somehow choose us. Our descriptions of our paths through life (there’s one!) are the images of what draws us onward (another one!) at certain points in our trajectory (you see?). They may change as we change; the important thing to remember is that we adapt to live up to them.

For many people today, their life metaphor is exile and homelessness. Even if they live in the Hamptons, Aspen, or Palm Beach, they feel themselves to be adrift. Another group, often evangelical Christians, revel in the faintly militaristic strains of “We’re marching to Zion,” and while the route ahead runs off the edge of the map they plunge ahead with confidence. Still others, as advanced in years as they are free to be both curious and experienced, will see their lives as a guided wandering, neither aimless nor pre-determined.

We need to wander until being “lost” doesn’t matter.

We need to wander until our reference points are behind us.

We need to wander without fear or assumptions.

But how long can you travel before it’s too far to return?

Frye says that if we really want to see past the event horizon we need to follow a way or direction until we reach the state of guided innocence symbolized by the sheep in the twenty-third Psalm.

Even though I walk through the

darkest valley,

I fear no evil;

for you are with me. — Ps. 23:4

Frye goes on to note that Jesus was a wanderer and that the diffusion of early Christianity “is symbolically connected with the progress of man back to the garden of Eden (159),” the “wandering but guided pastoral world of the twenty-third Psalm.”

The “wandering” motif runs against our linear, goal-driven, deadline-clutching lifestyle, and while there’s a necessity for all of that, there can also be a place for unfettered curiosity and the luxury of wandering without a necessity or obligation.

Try it sometime: take a stroll through the gospels or the prophets or the Psalms, finding a text that lights up the imagination and following its references and associations until you reach a place you’ve not been to before. What do you find? Who is there? What do they smile or frown about? What makes them laugh and what are they completely serious about?

Try on a new idea or flip an old one around and see what difference it makes. Imagine that God is in search of us; that your co-worker poses no threat, but is struggling to get through her life; that a good word in due season is on the tip of your tongue; and that truth still really matters.

I look back on those hitchhiking days and I marvel sometimes. I would set out with no money and a light heart, sleeping in fields, trudging through the rain, alone on some country road with no traffic for miles—but it was all good. Countless times there were strangers who protected me, friends who gave me shelter, warmth, and a cuppa, country churches and city cathedrals which opened their arms to me, fields and meadows that welcomed me—there was even delight in adversity. What I didn’t know freed me, what I was learning strengthened me, what there was to learn lured me onward. Be it ever so.

Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (1996). Translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. New York: Berkeley Publishing Group.

Photo: Murray Mahon, The Village of Hambledon, Hampshire, UK

Rooted Sideways

Rooted1:stephen-leonardi-369733-unsplash

“Strictly speaking it is incorrect to say that the single individual thinks. Rather it is more correct to insist that he participates in thinking further what other men have thought before him.” Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia

One can look at this in both positive and negative lights. Negatively, we’ll never have an original thought. Everything we think and wrestle with is contingent and formed from time immemorial before us. We may rearrange the words, and thus arrive at some new shadings or nuances, but essentially everything has been thought of before. More ominously, these patterns that we inherit may be racist and sexist, prejudiced to the core, modes of thinking and acting that appear normal unless they are countered by different patterns.

Positively, we are connected with our past and with everything that has been expressed before. And that means, in like manner, we may continue to have an influence on those who come after us, who read what we write and think about what we have said. This is an argument for choosing our formative societies wisely or, more realistically, for experiencing, with eyes wide open, a variety of societies.

Karl Mannheim (1893-1947) was a Hungarian-born sociologist, who was one of the co-founders of the sociology of knowledge. His best-known book, Ideology and Utopia, argued that our ideas and ideologies are products of our times and of the social status of those who hold them. Knowing that this could lead to a harmful relativism, Mannheim proposed instead “relationism,” in which we understand that our ideas are limited and that we must trace them back to their roots in our history to see how they have influenced how we relate to society. He broadened the concept of ideology beyond its political roots to include how we arrive at ideas and how those ideas mirror our life and times.

This idea can be fruitful for religious groups who take the time to recognize that their conceptions about God, religion, social and religious behavior, and culture are rooted in history. In my view, as an Adventist Christian, it calls me to recognize that my beliefs are born in history and can be traced back to their sources. It both gives me a link to the past and helps me to recognize that my group and I don’t hold the key to all the secrets of life. It builds in epistemological humility without sacrificing awareness of what we owe to our forebears.

Mannheim says we think in patterns that are established by our societies. Which patterns become the dominant patterns? How do they change? He says that groups of people, scattered along the social strata, will not change unless there is tremendous upheaval to their way of life. Only when there is a conflict of ideas can change be possible—and even then, the ideas must somehow impinge on us or push us into radically new ways of thinking and seeing.

Mannheim again: “As long as the same meanings of words, the same ways of deducing ideas, are inculcated from childhood on into every member of the group, divergent thought-processes cannot exist in that society.”

I think it’s questionable if we each are imprinted with the template to this extent or if every person in our group falls as easily into these patterns. Most of us can remember some who stood out—often the quiet ones—in our school or college years because they would not follow the stream. I found them interesting, even admirable, and later came to think of them as remarkable for their independence of spirit against the pressures to conform.

Nevertheless, Mannheim is right, I believe, that for the most part we fall into a comfortable sharing of rituals, symbols, references, and habits that mark us as belonging to the same tribe. The question is, how do we think and act in new ways? Perhaps more to the point: what would prompt us to question that which we are?

Recently, I went to a reunion at the college I had attended in England back in the 70s. Aside from the delight of seeing people I had known almost 50 years ago, there was also the more sobering effect of hearing the stories of their journeys of faith in all that time. Illnesses, deaths of loved ones, divorce, reversal of fortunes — we had not escaped these molders and shapers of experience. Tentatively, at first, and then more confidently, we began to open up to each other about our faith and our doubts. Many of us had worked for our church denomination’s educational, medical and religious organizations for decades, and now we were verging on retirement or had already ventured into it.

The stories emerged, blinking in the sunlight, over the weekend. Consistently, as I listened I found myself thinking of the (somewhat) innocent youths that we were all those years ago, compared to the (somewhat) more experienced persons we are today. The people that we were and are presently serve as bookends to the volumes of years in between; over the weekend we found we could distinguish between the bookends and the books.

Some of these friends had worked in many different cultures and countries around the world, moving in and out of places as disparate as Rwanda, London, Iceland, and Michigan. All of this while raising children, finding homes to live in, establishing gardens, and getting the car fixed. Others had remained teaching or pastoring—or both—in one country, while seeing their societies evolving, changing, growing ever more diverse and sometimes more polarized.

Over the weekend you could see clusters of people together, laughing, leaning in to listen, pausing to remember something and then going on with a chuckle, knowing that what they were trying to retrieve would return to memory after the conversation was over. In any given group of four or five people there could be a combined total of over 200 years of work and service. And now these people were sensing gaps between what they had done and experienced and what they had hoped their church might become. They had diverged from the theological and social boundary markers they had been raised to guard because those positions were stationary, and life moves on. It was not that those beliefs were now invalid, but more that from day to day, in living and working with people, the larger concerns of compassion, patience, and humility had edged those beliefs to the periphery. Now they were wondering if they were alone in this or if there were others who also felt these gaps. They were like people who set down their burdens to travel lightly with the essential provisions.

“I believe in absolute truth and absolute contingency, at the same time,” says Christian Wiman in My Bright Abyss. On this side of the bookends, and at this stage in our life journeys, we are down to the essentials. They are essentials because they have been proven through experience to be useful for making one’s way through life faithfully and with care for others. “And I believe that Christ is the seam soldering together these wholes,” continues Wiman, “that our half vision—and our entire clock-bound, logic-locked way of life—shapes as polarities.”

At times we change our minds and our lives, decisively and consciously, at the same time we are being changed passively and incrementally over time. When we pause to look back, it is then that we realize how different our outlook presently is from the other end of the bookshelf where we began.

Mannheim says we only break out of the conventional ways we were raised to think in through horizontal or vertical mobility. Horizontal mobility is where we change locations or even countries without changing our social status and, in this way, we come to realize how differently people think and live. Vertical mobility is where our social status ascends or descends rapidly, and this, says Mannheim, “is the decisive factor in making persons uncertain and skeptical of their traditional view of the world.”

In conversation about this with a friend she remarked that those of us who find ourselves in these gaps have not radically stepped away from our Adventist roots and from our social context as she has. Viewed from the outside, our unease is trifling and our “gap-mindedness” comes from being too close to the trees to see the forest. Yet, there are many in this position who have paid dearly for their honest doubts and who are viewed with deep suspicion and distrust by those who hold power inside the Adventist religious organization. Depending on one’s vantage point, we have moved an inch or a thousand miles. In practical terms, this means that some in power in our church may already regard us as “outside the camp” with no possibility of being accepted back in. By contrast, some of those I spoke with at the reunion thought of themselves as at the boundary—but still within the circle. Most striking was the feeling that no one in authority should define us out of the church by drawing the circle tighter and thus excluding us. Being woke means being responsible for one’s actions.

Mannheim asks, “how it is possible that identical human thought-processes concerned with the same world produce divergent conceptions of that world. . . May it not be found, when one has examined all the possibilities of human thought, that there are numerous alternative paths which can be followed?”

One of the central metaphors of the New Testament is the idea of a spiritual communion with enough room for many different kinds and ways of serving and living. It is an expansive view rather than a constricted and exclusive position.

“There are varieties of gifts,” says Paul, “but the same Spirit. There are varieties of service, but the same Lord. There are many forms of work, but all of them, in all [people], are the work of the same God. In each of us the Spirit is manifested in one particular way, for some useful purpose (1 Corinthians 12: 4-7).”

There were some I spoke with who had found spiritual succor in other faith communities. They talked of being accepted, of simple caring and friendship, of the delight in finding shared spiritual communion. While they were not about to abandon their Adventist roots, it was invigorating to realize that spiritual sustenance could be found outside the camp.

Gary Gunderson writes in his Deeply Woven Roots, “Although we’ve been told for all our lives that we should put our roots down deep, actually, the healthy trees send them sideways . . . At the microbial level, the roots live together so intimately they literally function as one organism so that the light from one, the food from another is shared—even among different species. At least in healthy forests, a healthy community it is. Where are your roots tangled with others? How are you reaching sideways?”

Photo: Stephen Leonardi, Unsplash.com

Faith as Poetry

StoneChurch:stefan-kunze-16862-unsplash

Have patience with everything that is unsolved in your heart and try to cherish the questions themselves . . . Do not search now for the answers which cannot be given you because you could not live them. It is a matter of living everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer. — Rainier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

What if creating our personal faith was like writing a poem? Not doggerel or a sentimental one-size-fits-all Hallmark card, but a creation of content, form, style—all of that welling up through hard-won experience.

What is “faith”? Is it a journey, a process, a procedure with a product at the end, a string of moments that our memories turn into a continuous experience? Should we tend our faith like we would a garden, yanking out the weeds and watering regularly? Is it like playing a piece that we’ve performed hundreds of times, each performance slightly different from the last because we have incrementally changed since last we performed it? Perhaps, as we are often told, it is a gift not received until we open it. Or is it the speaking into sound of our suffering, the dis-ease we feel being apart from God, the telos of our completion?

If it were simple we would not be having this communion. I don’t know all the ways in which faith is veiled to our comprehension, but I can give voice to what I am beginning to grasp about it in the light of poetry.

Like poetry, faith can form from a slight movement within our vision or from a word that drops into our life at an opportune moment. As in poetry, we form an idea and express it in a way that allows for both consistency and fluidity. The writing of it—and the living of it—takes attention, creativity, commitment, sacrifice, and an ability to lift thought to sound. There is something on the page and in the life that can be read and understood; there is something else that arises and moves beyond the meaning of the words, something that could not be entirely predicted from the arrangement of those words. It is a seeing-into, an awareness of the numinous sleeping inside the modestly mundane.

Mary Oliver says in A Poetry Handbook that writing poetry demands “a perfect seriousness. For the would-be writer of poems, this is the first and most essential thing to understand.” Rainer Rilke, in his incomparable Letters to a Young Poet, implores his young friend who is doubtful about his calling, “This before all: ask yourself in the quietest hour of your night: must I write? . . . And if this should be in the affirmative, if you may meet this solemn question with a strong and simple ’I must,’ then build your life according to this necessity.” Could we ask for a deeper motivation for the building of our faith?

Rilke’s correspondent, a young officer in the army who longs to be a published poet, has asked for Rilke’s critique of his poems. Rilke responds gently: “You are looking outwards, and of all things that is what you must now not do. Nobody can advise and help you, nobody. There is only one single means. Go inside yourself.”

And we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling, a motion of utter seriousness, and yet not without its playfulness. Where do we begin?

Mary Oliver commends to beginning poets that “to write well it is entirely necessary to read widely and deeply. Good poems are the best teachers.” In flowing that out to faith we have no end of examples. For me, the two that I return to over and over are Abraham contesting with God for the souls in Sodom and Gomorrah, and Jacob desperately wrestling through the night by the river Jabbok. They are heroic figures, all the more appealing in their finitude, striving with all their might with a benignly awesome force that could flick them out of the way in a heartbeat. To read these stories is to wake up; it is to realize with a shiver that while God will not be mocked, He yearns for engagement at close quarters. Our faith is most alive when it is thrown on its back foot; whether reverently challenging God’s judgments as did Abraham or striving to realize our new identity in God as Jacob did, we learn first by seeing and then by doing.

Oliver continues her master class with an invitation to imitate. “Before we can be poets, we must practice; imitation is a very good way of investigating the real thing.” As she says, there is very little downside to this. In imitation we try on the unfamiliar, testing whether the expression we’re holding feels like it could be ours. “Imitation fades as a poet’s own style—that is, the poet’s own determined goals . . . Begins to be embraced.”

Are we the impassioned, but clear thinking Augustine of The Confessions, or the restrained tensile strength of Dorothy Day and Simone Weil? The gentle and comforting hand of Henri Nouwen or the stern ebullience of Martin Luther? The brilliant erudition of John Donne and Karl Rahner or the urgent intensity of Jurgen Moltmann and Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

We must begin in faith to find our “style” of faith. We are beginners and we do not know ourselves enough to know what is truly ours. Rilke, advising the young Herr Kappus, says, ”To love is also good: for love is difficult . . . Therefore young people, who are beginners in everything, cannot know love yet: they have to learn it.”

And we have to learn faith—it’s not self-evident or obvious nor is it a matter of simply trusting the smirking and coiffed televangelist. Whatever else we may learn about faith, we can know by example, by story—eventually by experience—that it is supple and flexible rather than hard and brittle. It not only adapts to changes, it is change; if it were not so there would be no possibility of surviving our pasts.

“What might it mean to be drawn into meanings that, in some profound and necessary sense, shatter us?,” asks Christian Wiman in My Bright Abyss. “This is what it means to love. This is what it should mean to write one more poem. The inner and outer urgency of it, the mysterious and confused agency of it. All love abhors habit, and poetry is a species of love.” The spark that jumps where love and faith touch is enough to renew us in responding to the God who “makes all things new.”

Our experience is all we’ve got, but it’s enough. Our bodies, ourselves, our needs and wants, may coalesce into some kind of coherent narrative over time, but that usually appears in the rear-view mirror. Going forward, and in the present moment, it’s much more difficult to know where we are. Christian Wiman, commenting on the American poet, Hart Crane, muses that “he did to some extent confuse meaningful experience with mere turbulence, as if one weren’t truly in one’s life unless one were being overwhelmed by it.” We needn’t feel ashamed if our experience is quiet, even reticent, rather than crackling with drama. We get the conversions we need, not the ones we envy.

There is a way of relating to faith that is indolently passive. We go about our business, occasionally mildly surprised that nothing has bloomed in the no-mans land between us and God—a change of situation, an uplifting feeling, a new viewpoint on our life’s journey—something that should happen to us. But when we attempt to make something happen it inevitably falls flat. Maybe we read our Bible for fifteen minutes a day, pray for fifteen, start going to church more or even for the first time, disconsolately trudging down the path mapped out by spiritual self-help consultants. These actions can seem like we’re priming the pump or cutting down on the odds that lightning will strike and we’ll have a spiritual experience. This is not the dark night of the soul, it’s more like twilight for spiritual zombies. If that sounds harsh it’s because there is no formula for writing great poetry any more than there is a formula for walking, open and unafraid, in faith.

Great poetry, I am convinced, is the result of being rooted in this world while seeing beyond it. It takes our full attention, both as writers and as readers. It is often difficult, because speaking life through our words is hard, just as folding our words into our waking lives is hard. All this can be said of faith, no doubt.

For poets, and for the rest of us, what really matters in life and in poetry begins with questions. For the poet, as for the traveler in faith, there is an active waiting, not straining, that is as much about hope as it is about faith. As the epigram from Rilke says, “Live the questions now,” and we may “one distant day live right into the answer.”

Photo: Stefan Kunze, Unsplash.com

The Worlds We Make

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We can have words without a world but no world without words or other symbols. — Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking

The first line of the Dhammapada, a collection of the Buddha’s sayings, is, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.” With that, the Buddha signals that thought precedes action and mind shapes character. This is in common with the words of another sage: “As a man thinketh, so is he (Proverbs 23:7),” a maxim which suggests in its context to beware of the stingy who insincerely invite one to share a meal. They are not to be trusted, for the hidden thought will be exposed in the interplay between the two.

So, I am here quoting those who once lived upon this earth, people we know only through their words. The gulf that lies between the utterance of those words in time and where we stand today is not just about the millennia that have passed between us, but about the worlds those words brought into being and the worlds that arise when we read them today. Are they the same worlds?

We create worlds through our words, says Nelson Goodman, in Ways of Worldmaking. In a few pages of closely reasoned arguments, Goodman shows that the frames of reference we construct to describe what we experience are systems of description; they are not that which is being described. We never truly apprehend the object of our experience, only the description we construct to talk about it.

An example: If we say, “The sun always moves,” and “The sun never moves,” both statements are equally true and equally at odds with one another. Goodman asks if these statements describe different worlds— whether there are “as many different worlds as there are such mutually exclusive truths?” No, rather we make accommodation by saying that under this frame of reference this statement is true and with another frame of reference the other statement is true. “Our universe, so to speak,” says Goodman, “consists of these ways rather than of a world or of worlds.”

I find this both invigorating and disconcerting. In a way, Goodman is playing games—language games—to make a point: there is no irrefutable foundation for all truth, only descriptions that are more or less right for their context. The fact that we construct these descriptions out of what we find in anthropology, physics, psychology, literature, philosophy, theology, and other disciplines, means that we are constantly remaking our worlds of thought. “Worldmaking as we know it,” says Goodman, “always starts from worlds already on hand; the making is a remaking.”

***

Here are some materials at hand that we can make a story out of, a description of something and someone that matters a great deal to us.

Jesus is crucified about 33 CE and the first gospel, generally thought to be Mark’s gospel, is written about 70 CE. That is a gap of about 40 years—a whole generation—without any written source of Jesus’ life. The people who gathered each week in small groups to remember the Lord were those who had had first-hand knowledge of Jesus. The boy who gave over the loaves and fishes that Jesus fed five thousand people with would have been a man with children and grandchildren of his own. Lazarus, raised from the tomb and given a second life, would have passed on by this time. The disciples, men with families when Jesus chose them, would have grown old and scattered, some to Rome, others staying in Jerusalem, Thomas (as legend has it) making his way to India to establish a Christian community, and Philip probably down in Ethiopia. All of these people lived and died on the stories that were told and retold about Jesus, as they met together in upper rooms, sometimes in a wealthy person’s home, sometimes on the run, often over a meal with song and celebration. They were people, quite literally, of the word, the Word that came and lived amongst them.

Think of the stories they told, the anecdotes tenderly passed down through the family chain like pearls of great value. From the sayings of Jesus to the signs he performed to the parables he told, these narratives sustained these groups through their days and eventually formed the web of Mark’s gospel.

In his breathless and rustic style, the author of Mark’s gospel creates a narrative—a world!—that Matthew and Luke break down to use in the remaking of their individual worlds. Later, around 90-100 CE, comes John’s gospel, a parallel universe to the previous gospels, converging at points, but drawing its own course through its orbit. It closes with these tantalizing words:

“But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

These gospels are the Gospel, the good news about Jesus who came into the world and “the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him (John 1: 10).”

***

We read these words today, millennia away from their creation, in the awareness that the bone and sinew, words and meaning of their author and the person of which he wrote come down to language and symbols, marks on paper or pixels on a screen. Despite the billions of words devoted to this Jesus, the stories that could be told have no end because these words, having been written, continue to produce new stories in the strength that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:5).”

Instead, we may become accustomed to these stories to the extent that we no longer take in their meaning. Our eyes pass over the letters, we register the shape of the words as we would the silhouette of objects whose outlines against the light are familiar only because of the form of their darkness.

“This world, indeed,” notes Goodman, “is the one most often taken as real; for reality in a world, like realism in a picture, is largely a matter of habit.”

“Language can create faith but can’t sustain it,” says Christian Wiman in Ambition and Survival. I’m not so sure. When I read of the Buddha holding up a flower before his gathered disciples and one of them—only one—smiles, and Buddha says the equivalent of “He gets it!,” something in me thrills to that imagined scene. When Jesus begins with “The kingdom of heaven is like . . .,” it’s “Once upon a time” all over again. We’re hardwired for stories: good, bad, mediocre, we pick them up, and turn them over and over in our hands until we find the seam that opens them. From these we fashion a world that we can live in.

“To have faith in a religion, any religion,” continues Wiman, “is to accept at some primary level that its particular language of words and symbols says something true about reality.” That I can agree with.

He goes on: “This doesn’t mean that the words and symbols are reality (that’s fundamentalism), nor that you will ever master those words and symbols well enough to regard reality as some fixed thing. What it does mean, though, . . . is that the only way to deepen your knowledge and experience of ultimate divinity is to deepen your knowledge of the all-too-temporal symbols and language of a particular religion.”

Separated as we are by thousands of years and the innumerable worlds of language and imagination between us and Jesus, these slender figures on our pages are the portals between our worlds. The path to the divine remains, astonishingly, through the darkness and light that is our world.

Photo: Lydia Shi, Unsplash.com