Imagine That

ImagineDesert:mohamed-nohassi-427279

“Once when the king of Aram was at war with Israel, he took counsel with his officers. He said, ‘At such and such a place shall be my camp.’ But the man of God sent word to the king of Israel, ‘Take care not to pass this place, because the Arameans are going down there.’ The king of Israel sent word to the place of which the man of God spoke. More than once or twice he warned such a place so that it was on the alert.

The mind of the king of Aram was greatly perturbed because of this; he called his officers and said to them, ‘Now tell me who among us sides with the king of Israel?’ Then one of his officers said, ‘No one, my lord king. It is Elisha, the prophet in Israel, who tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedchamber.’ He said, ‘Go and find where he is; I will send and seize him.’ He was told, ‘He is in Dothan.’ So he sent horses and chariots there and a great army; they came by night and surrounded the city.

When a servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. His servant said, ‘Alas, master! What shall we do?’ He replied, ‘Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.’ Then Elisha prayed: ‘O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.’ So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” (2 Kings 6: 8-17)

And what stops us in our tracks is not the cloak-and-dagger tension of military secrets revealed, and not the perfectly understandable reaction of the servant to besiegement, but the laconic way the man of God answers his servant’s terrified cry. He may not have even looked up when the fellow burst in through the door as the first streaks of morning light shot across the threshold.

“They’ve come for you, you know!”

“Yes.”

“What are we going to do?”

It was a matter of what one sees and what one understands. Was it a trick of the light, maybe a distortion in the retina that early in the morning? The eye sees dark shapes, maybe boulders . . . but then they move, and suddenly a vast army is revealed and we cannot see it now as anything but rank upon rank of men and horses, standing silently, with a stamping of hooves occasionally, and a muttered command, and an awful dryness in the mouth as one’s eye begins to twitch.

William James says we pay attention to what matters to us and yet we grasp so little. “One of the most extraordinary facts of our life is that, although we are besieged at every moment by impressions from our whole sensory surface, we notice so very small a part of them.”

Let us imagine the young man as one of us, a person who relies on the facts, sees for himself what is real, and runs everything he encounters through his field-tested, rigorized, and fully guaranteed BS filter. We are surrounded by insurgents in white Toyota Land Cruisers with turret-mounted 50-caliber machine guns, grenade-launchers, and farther back, armored trucks.

“Don’t worry,” says the master behind us. “There’s more with us than are with them.” And he prays, short and simple: “Lord, open his eyes that he might see.”

We can see alright. We know what we see before us and what we see is a guarantee of a quick but excruciating death. If it were dark we could still see with night-scopes, night-vision goggles, and all manner of devices to cut through the darkness and the fear. We see what can be touched. Our hope for survival is built on nothing less.

Thomas Merton says, “So much depends on our idea of God! . . We must learn to realize that the love of God seeks us in every situation, and seeks our good. His inscrutable love seeks our awakening.”

So let us freeze this frame and ask ourselves what the old man sees that we are missing? What is out there that he is so sure exists that he doesn’t even come to the window, he doesn’t even get up from the table nor close the book he is reading? What does he know that we don’t?

 * * * *

In his The Practice of Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann asks what would happen if we imagined that the triune God was real. How would our perception of the world change? Brueggemann does not assume that such a claim is obvious, but rather that we must establish again and again the evidence for such words. “The key term in my thesis is ‘imagine,’ that is, to utter, entertain, describe, and construe a world other than the one that is manifest in front to us . . .”

Against the evidence of our senses—and certainly against the prevailing common sense of this culture—the prophetic imagination invites us to see with the eyes of faith what the heart longs to experience.

We are witnessing two divergent narrative streams. The dominant narrative is rarely questioned nor is its conceptual framework laid bare. Because its narrative arc sets our own expectations of life we cannot stand away from it far enough to see it for what it is. Brueggemann calls it “military consumerism,” the story of self-invention for self-sufficiency, a social construction whose origin we no longer recognize.

The alternate narrative is the story of YHWH, grounded in the prophets and reflected in the gospels. In its simplicity and directness it sets up a contest like Elijah’s Mt. Carmel showdown between the gods and YHWH. Two construals of reality, one decision to be made.

In our time, this story may flow through the preaching of those who are embedded in the alternative narrative of YHWH. It may also be ours if we can see with the eyes of humility. “Thus the offer of prophetic imagination is one that contradicts the taken-for-granted world around us,” writes Brueggemann.

In the Old Testament the expression of it is the Exodus story in which the “Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm . . . and gave us a land flowing with milk and honey.” In the New Testament Paul crisply summarizes the kerygma “that Christ died for our sins . . . that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.”

These are acts of the imagination, not that they are conjured up by us, but that we are asked to imagine ourselves living in that narrative stream instead of “in the old dispensation/With an alien people clutching their gods.”

  * * * *

So Elisha prays that the young man will see through the surface appearance to the essence of the moment, a reality that shimmers just beyond the senses, a gift of magnification. Elisha’s own seeing, seared into his memory when he saw his master, Elijah, caught up into the heavens, was enough to last a lifetime. He knows what is there without looking.

Today, we are that young man whose world is constricted to the obvious appearances. Against all odds and experience the Word comes to us as a gift.

Imagine that.

(Photo: Mohamed Nohassi, Unsplash.com)

Augustine and the Word of Love

Augustine1:anna-vander-stel-60342

In 387, Augustine, the man who would become the greatest theologian of the early Christian church, was baptized by Bishop Ambrose in Milan, giving up a glittering career in the emperor’s court and renown as a celebrated teacher of rhetoric. A year later he and several equally distinguished friends returned to North Africa and Thagaste, where he was born. Settling there on his family’s estate, Augustine began a life of writing and contemplation. But by 391 he was ordained to the priesthood and had moved to Hippo Regius, on the coast of Algeria, to found a monastery. Legend has it that one Sunday as he was attending services in the cathedral, the presiding bishop, Valerius, looked out in the congregation and cried out, ‘Stop that man! Do not let him escape. He is to be my successor when I die.’

Four years later, in 395, Augustine was consecrated as Bishop of Hippo Regius and remained its bishop until his death in 430. But in 397, a decade after his baptism and only two years into his bishopric, Augustine was 43, approaching middle age. In the midst of a busy life of teaching, pastoring, and defending the faith, he wrote his Confessions, a remarkable work of intellectual and spiritual therapy set as a literary prayer to God which we are allowed to overhear.

Were we not already numbed by countless current memoirs that revel in self-defecatory ‘honesty’ we might find his Confessions startling. Unlike so many ancient and medieval biographies, for instance, which depict their subjects as heroically exhibiting ideal qualities, Augustine reveals himself as a man whose past still resonates in his present. He is a bishop whose youthful sexual adventures still haunt him and whose memories are still painful. He underscores the force of desires that result in habits which become engrained and lock a person into paths not easily reversed. Long before Freud, Augustine understood that childhood experiences shape the adult. But unlike Freud he knew that change could only come from processes beyond one’s control. His prayer is suffused with wonder and gratitude at God’s intervention in his life.

The Confessions is comprised of thirteen books, what we would call chapters. In Book 12 Augustine takes up a dispute over the meaning of the phrase “heaven and earth,” in the Genesis Creation story. It’s an argument on whether God created ex nihilo,’ out of nothing,’ or whether He used pre-existing material on hand in order to bring a new world to life. Within the intellectual and theological community of which Augustine was a member, this was, apparently, a matter worth coming to blows over.

He poses a number of interpretations of what the phrase could mean and assesses their relative merits. Some make more sense than others, but Augustine asserts that any of them could be true, since we don’t know exactly what Moses was thinking. What we do know is that what comes from God is truth.

Augustine believes that the interpretation he has arrived at is that which God prompted him to understand, but he holds that others may have arrived at different truths. His principle is to settle for one truth, “so long as it is firm and helpful, however many other truths may suggest themselves.”

When there are so many possibilities for interpreting scripture Augustine confesses that “I make my testimony on the understanding that if I have identified what your servant Moses meant, that is the best and highest truth, the one I was bound to strive for.”

That would be the ideal, as difficult as that would be to reach. In humility, though, Augustine concludes that if he didn’t reach that truth, “let me at least express what your truth willed me to take from the author’s words, just as your truth willed what the author himself said.”

Apply your understanding through love, says Augustine: “So when one man says Moses meant what he means, and another says Moses meant what he means, I think it is more in the spirit of our love to say: Why cannot both be true?” After all, why shouldn’t we think that Moses intended all these various meanings?

God, states Augustine, “has suited his Scripture to readers who will find various truths when different minds interpret it.”

Augustine had come to realize that his earlier difficulties with understanding the Bible were because of spiritual pride; the scriptures were only accessible to those who had rid themselves of conceit and self-importance. God spoke through images that we could understand, but even so we could never know the whole truth in this life. Language fails us, even in our relationships with others. How impossible, then, that we should be able to fully express the mystery of God in our own words. Wrangling and bitter disputes about the meaning of scripture were futile. As Karen Armstrong puts it in her The Bible: A Biography, “Instead of engaging in uncharitable controversies, in which everybody insisted that he alone was right, a humble acknowledgment of our lack of insight should draw us together.”

Augustine had arrived at the insight of the renowned Rabbi Hillel and others: “Charity was the central principle of Torah and everything else was commentary (Armstrong).” For him, the rule of faith was not lodged in a doctrine, but in the spirit of love.

This would not be easy—Augustine rather ruefully begs for divine help in disputations:

“O my God . . . rain down gentleness into my heart, that I may patiently put up with such people, who say this to me not because they are godlike and have seen what they assert in the heart of your servant, but because they are proud, and without having grasped Moses’ idea they are infatuated with their own, not because it is true but because it is theirs.”

If we can each see some truth in what the other says, observes Augustine, where do we see it? “I certainly do not see it in you, nor do you see it in me; we both see it in the immutable truth itself which towers above our minds.”

Thus, we can arrive at a principle of Bible study: trust that if we open our hearts in humility to God’s teaching through scripture, and if we do not claim to have the sole authoritative interpretation, then we can trust that we have been led into a truth which God has for us.

In Armstrong’s felicitous phrase this is “a compassionate hermeneutic.”

What would such a hermeneutic look like in practice? We might, with charity toward all, apply it to our current controversies. We have nothing to lose but our fear.

Translations of The Confessions used are those by Garry Wills (2006) and Sister Maria Boulding (2017). Image is by Anna vander Stel (Unsplash.com)

You Can Climb Through This Window

Writing1:green-chameleon-21532

“This writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else.” — Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

There was a time, many decades ago, when an aspiring writer could make a subsistence living by writing book reviews. George Orwell did it for years, turning them out weekly, along with novels, opinion pieces, columns, commentaries, and essays. The voice in his essays is so distinctive that anyone who paid attention in their high school literature classes could probably pick his work out of an audible lineup. For anyone writing essays in the last century and this one, Orwell is the mountain that fills the foreground. You can’t go around him—he simply must be climbed. To see the world through Orwell’s eyes from that peak is to glimpse a landscape without ornament: no frills, no unnecessary adornment, just solidity casting shadows.

His wry, lean, prose caught me early in my reading life and I have never completely gotten over it. “Shooting an Elephant,” “A Nice Cup of Tea,” “Politics and the English Language (required reading for anyone who is a citizen of a country)” and especially, “Why I Write,” became lodestones for me. If I was within five feet of an Orwell collection and had 10 minutes to myself, I’d be pulled in magnetically to trace through his paragraphs, wishing I’d written them, and trying to hear my own voice in dialogue with his.

A good writer is like a window, he said, and in my journalism and writing classes in college I strove to become one. I didn’t have the chutzpah or the incandescent trajectories that Norman Mailer could throw into the air nor could I take on the flat, uninflected observations of Joan Didion that usually ended with a shard of glass in one’s eye. Instead, I learned to subtract rather than multiply. There are always enough words to go around, Orwell said. Not to worry. Less is more as long as you tell the truth.

But I had little of consequence to write about. You have to have something—anything—there in order to subtract from it, and piling on adjectives just to strip them away is as perverse as digging holes in order to fill them in. In time I came to see that the essay, a sounding of one’s thoughts with an individual voice that registers the frequencies of one’s age, was ideal for me. The imagination that could spin out a novel as it goes ever on was not yet mine to employ.

“When you write, you lay out a line of words,” says Annie Dillard in the first sentence of The Writing Life. “Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.”

You peer ahead through the fog, imagining the shapes of trees or monsters, and, with patience, a rough path appears. You follow it. You lay down more words like flagstones, and eventually you see that you are somewhere, although just where is not clear. But it’s a ‘where’ that is worth the moment and you build on it. That’s the sense in which we discover through our writing where—and who—we are.

For Dillard the trigger often seems to be the natural world. Her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, an epistle of unsentimental wonder about a few square acres of wilderness in Virginia, is like dropping from the sky-blue ionosphere into a forest thicket, to land softly and to be still and to watch a turtle slip silently off a log into the water. Biology becomes prose, prose becomes a window: we look through and are transformed.

Orwell insisted that all art is propaganda, that the writer is trying to get across a particular world view that is rooted in personal experience, and that it flowers in a specific time and place. It was supremely important, he thought, that the writer say what he or she saw. The ordinary person, like a scout on reconnaissance, could report back momentous discoveries disguised in the everyday happenings of life. It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or non-fiction; what matters is the truth expressed.

“Push it,” urges Dillard. “Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search . . . . Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you.”

Freely we have received, freely give.

“Language is mysterious,” says Karen Armstrong in The Bible: A Biography. “When a word is spoken, the ethereal is made flesh.”

The Word and the word are living waters: those who profess faith have drawn much from the well of the Bible. It serves us as a portal to the ancient world of the Hebrews and to the first stirrings of the community of Jesus. It has shaped our language, given us metaphors and analogies that are the substratum of our conversation, and narratives that play out in our imagination. It is our library (ta biblia, the books) from which we may constantly listen for the thunder of the prophets, the crisp wisdom of Proverbs, the angst and awe of Job, the breathless narrative of Mark, the Christ-intoxicated letters of Paul. This is given to us as an open-ended revelation of what life on the Way has been for this great cloud of witnesses that swirls around us. What will we do with this gift?

It is just this which can open us up. What I want to read is how life is opened to another’s eye and then passed along from one to another. What I want to write is to say, “See? Look what I found! What do you think about that?”

To lay out a line of words as truthfully as possible, and for that to be taken up by others . . . Ah, that is worth the struggle.

(Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash.com)