Living into Truths

“Christianity . . . is, in other words, a form of life that requires—in order to be truly grasped—the engagement of the imagination, the sense and the intellect.”1

Photo by Ray Fragapane, Unsplash

In one of his most famous letters, Rainer Maria Rilke advises a young poet to “live the questions now,” to not be too quick to assume the answers. Let yourself experience life, Rilke says, and “Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer.”2 It is a matter of living everything, including the questions. He asks the young man to experience the mysteriousness of the questions, as if they were closed rooms or language in a strange tongue.

As an example of how we stumble onto truth, or rather peer into truths that wait quietly in the corners of our evenings, Rilke’s words illuminate. How often does a way through a thicket of questions appear after a night of dreams or the most obvious of meanings emerge in the gaps between our conscientious struggles with familiar problems? And how surprising and humbling to recognize, belatedly, how much was there in front of us that we did not see? We are built to want answers or at least to keep turning the questions over in our hands like smooth stones.

Rilke could avow this because he had learned, through solitude and transience, to live his own way into the questions. If you’re young, like his poet friend Kappus, questions are tools to help you pry open the chest where the secrets are kept. Kappus wanted to learn how to write poems that would make people gasp, that would open their eyes to what was around them. Rilke wanted precisely that for Kappus: to see his own life as a question directed to the answers that were within him, that no one but he could know.

***

All learning—so I learned after the fact—begins with questions. From a standing start, how high you could jump would be limited only by the spring of your questions. That’s not to say you would try to find the most obscure, complex questions, but rather that you asked the questions of the heart, the ones stated simply, the ones you had to ask.

My history with questions began with an early fascination with how things worked and why people did what they did. Because I loved to write, I found my way into a journalism major, the nearest I could come to learning how to write about what triggered my curiosity. Later, I extended my questions God-ward—where does our freedom and God’s will intersect? Why does God allow evil to exist? How and what can we know of God? Eventually, I took degrees in philosophy of religion.

When I began teaching, I discovered that the questions I asked often determined the answers given. At the time, fresh out of graduate school and trying to learn how to teach to learn, it was a revelation that lead me to epistemology—how we learn and what we can know.

To ask a question is to admit a deficit. It takes a certain humility, a learned virtue that we are not born with. We can practice epistemological humility; in time, it will be the bass line to the melody of the answers we perceive. In time, it may become a blind virtue, one that we don’t need to see with in order to move with confidence.

In the constantly re-forming seascape that is our consciousness, we pay attention, as William James said, to what matters to us. Yet, if we’re not aware of what we don’t know, how can we see the new if it does not break into our consciousness in some way, long enough for our attention to focus on it?

“Our perceptions shape our decisions, for good or ill,” David Harned reminds us, “and how we see is ‘a function of our character, of the history and habits of the self, and ultimately of the stories that we have heard and with which we identify ourselves.’”3

Farther back and higher up, above our questions, lies our imagination, fed on stories and images that shape us as we take them in to live with us. Questioning is an act of the imagination. When we ask, we are springing over the abyss, taking a leap to land on all fours, praying we can rise to walk. That’s one reason for teachers to encourage students to question; it’s also a reason not to scoff at the questions they ask. When we question—in our innocence—we are vulnerable, imagining a different world, a parallel universe perhaps, in which hazy ideas take root and a new way of being can emerge. Imagination previews transformation.

***

When it comes to religion, there are questions that should not be asked—or so we were told as teenagers. Hearing that some things ought not to be questioned turns curious students into moles digging tunnels. A constricted view assumes that all we need to know is what we have to do to get to heaven. It demands that we give up reason and imagination for blinkered obedience: “Here’s the algorithm—just run it.” But there is so much more to a life with God-in-Christ.

David Brown, in God and Mystery in Words, says, “two competing streams have characterized the history of western monotheism: the search for definition and explanation on the one hand and on the other the acceptance of mystery.”4 The tendency from medieval times to the present, favored explanation over mystery and experience. There is no reason why mystery and doctrine have to fight it out; in fact, epistemological humility would suggest they complement each other rather than compete. But we feel safer explaining than exploring.

Mystery calls for imagination while doctrine relies on reason. We can debate and argue and cajole one another over points of doctrine, but the only test that matters in matters of faith is whether faith can stand when the sand on which we stand slips out with the tide.

“There is no clean intellectual coherence, no abstract ultimate meaning to be found,” says Christian Wiman, “and if this is not recognized, the compulsion to find such certainty becomes its own punishment. This realization is not the end of theology, but the beginning of it: trust no theory . . . in which the author’s personal faith is not actively at risk.”5

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the rabbi-philosopher who has made awe and wonder the starting-point for authentic religion, declares two types of thinking: conceptual and situational. Conceptual thinking uses reason to extend our knowledge of the world. Science and philosophy are the methods. Situational thinking tries to understand issues “on which we stake our very existence.”6 Religion is often where these questions spring up.

Philosophy’s answers are really new questions in disguise, each answer opening new inquiries. “In religion, on the other hand, the mystery of the answer hovers over all questions.”7 Philosophy requires the detachment of observers, not participants. Problems are held at arms-length and the important ones are rendered as universals. For religion, though, every such problem is personal. “Unless we are involved,” insists Heschel, “the problem is not present.”8

If I have questioned my life’s direction, its meaning wells up in unguarded moments, as present as tears. It’s the oblique angles, the accidental discoveries, which startle us to attention. We see ourselves at a distance and strain to hear what we say, imagining how we might have done better to square the difference between our intentions and our inventions of ourselves. “Creative thinking,” offers Heschel, “is not stimulated by vicarious issues but by personal problems.”9

None of this should cancel out our reasoning, our listening to trusted friends, the solitude of our prayers. These are ways God breaks through our encrusted and stale shells. Even so, the imagination flourishes in asking if there is more than the dull repetitions of our spiritual treadmill. “What imagination offers is . . . to think laterally, to allow combinations that are not themselves necessarily present either in the mind or in nature.”10

I think the imagination is where the Spirit is most free to enliven us. It’s where our attention is captured, where our perceptions sharpen, where the patience to live into the questions is nurtured. It’s where we begin to trust that “Divine folly is wiser than the wisdom of man, and divine weakness stronger than man’s strength.”11

If we can imagine how God has chosen “mere nothings, to overthrow the existing order,” as improbable as that seems, then with a sense of profound relief we can give up trying to strong-arm our way through life and can look around us with renewed hope to see where God is at work in the world. “You are in Christ Jesus by God’s act . . . In him we are consecrated and set free.”12

  1. C. S. Lewis and Friends: Faith and the Power of Imagination. Edited by David Hein and Edward Henderson. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011, p. 2.
  2. Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet. Translated with an Introduction and Commentary by Reginald Snell. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2002, p. 21.
  3. Hein and Henderson, p. 4.
  4. Brown, David. God and Mystery in Words: Experience Through Metaphor and Drama. Oxford University, 2008, p. 4.
  5. Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 75.
  6. Heschel, Abraham Joshua. God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955, p. 5.
  7. Heschel, p. 4.
  8. Heschel, p. 5.
  9. Heschel, p. 5.
  10. Hein and Henderson, p. 4.
  11. I Corinthians 1:25 NEB.
  12. I Corinthians 1:30 NEB.

This is Only a Test

1NBMLabyrinth

Man is always being challenged; a question is always being asked of him. Abraham Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity

When I walked out of my comprehensive exams at graduate school, it was a beautiful Southern California day and I thought, “That’s it, I’m done. No more exams!” Of course, I was wrong, which is concrete evidence of how much I still didn’t know. Life is a series of tests, none of which we can cram for and many of which we will not see the results of until long after we’ve forgotten what we were tested on.

It’s not that I hated exams; I rather enjoyed the opportunity to explain, describe, and analyze complex issues. It was the build-up to the exams that brought anxiety, the persistent feeling that no matter how thorough your preparation there would always be some question designed not to show what you knew but to punish you for what you didn’t know.

When I started teaching, I kept in mind how I felt about exams. I steered clear of minutiae and tried to design questions that gave students an opportunity to take a long view. I made it clear I expected accuracy in portraying the positions of others, honesty in expressing one’s own position, and clarity in writing. Nobody was getting paid by the word; brevity and conciseness were virtues. On questions of ethical practice as distinguished from analysis of ethical theory, I blessed responses that were exploratory and forward-looking. I encouraged students in philosophy and ethics to use their imaginations as well as their reasoning and analytical powers. Above all, I asked them to see themselves as both teachers and learners.

How would they describe and explain what they knew to someone who was deeply interested in what they had to say, but lacked their foundational knowledge on the subject? Could such a person pick up their written responses and understand them? Could those responses be the starting point for a deep and exciting conversation? Could they lead others to see what they had learned? And could connections be made in all directions from the subject they were studying? What had they learned in their American history class that their ethics might address? Could their ethical theories apply to their health practices, their economics courses, and their intercultural communication?

“There is only one subject matter for education,” said A. N. Whitehead in The Aims of Education, “and that is Life in all its manifestations.”

***

There are two kinds of exams in education. One tests what we have learned (summative assessment) and the other tests what we need in order to learn (formative assessment). Generally speaking, the life of a spiritual wanderer, someone seeking the Water of life, is a process of formative assessment. If life is for learning, then we can look to every day as experimental research into that which helps us learn of God, of ourselves, and of others.

“Speculation does not precede faith,” says Abraham Heschel in God in Search of Man. “The antecedents of faith are the premise of wonder and the premise of praise. Worship of God precedes affirmation of His realness. We praise before we prove. We respond before we question.”

For those who have been on this path all their lives, and who find themselves no nearer knowing God than when they began, this may almost sound like mockery. How can a person in their fifth or sixth decade of life on this planet regain this wonder? “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” asks Nicodemus (Jn. 3:4). We get worn down by life; our capacity for wonder ebbs and our willingness to suspend our disbelief diminishes in inverse proportion to our need to appear objective and aloof. All the evidence that the world is indifferent to our struggle swarms before our eyes and we shake our heads in exasperation. Experience cannot be reverse-engineered back to innocence.

Heschel invites us to look again: “It is not from experience but from our inability to experience what is given to our mind that certainty of the realness of God is derived.” Our very lack of what we seek takes on the outlines of a God-shaped vacuum in our lives, the via negativa of the medieval mystics and contemplatives.

But we are twenty-first century people who respond more readily to the merest factoid, rather than venturing beyond our skepticism. The trust that is the DNA of faith does not come easily, despite the brave face of certainty that we profess when pressed. Instinctively, we believe that a testimony given must be anchored, not understanding that a profession of belief without the trust of commitment can sometimes be a grappling-hook thrown heaven-ward to draw us up.

Doing can result in being, a genuine form of faith.

But there are some caveats to the formative assessment of our education in faith. “Knowledge is not the same as awareness,” notes Heschel, “and expression is not the same as experience. By proceeding from awareness to knowledge we gain in clarity and lose in immediacy. What we gain in distinctness by going from experience to expression we lose in genuineness.”

It’s a risk worth taking. Heschel assures us that “To the prophets, wonder is a form of thinking,” a way forward when faced with the numinous, with the burning bushes, and the whispers of God within the hurricane. “Our certainty,” says Heschel, “is the result of wonder and radical amazement, of awe before the mystery and meaning of the totality of life beyond our rational discerning. Faith is the response to the mystery, shot through with meaning; the response to a challenge which no one can for ever ignore.”

For Christian existentialists, of whom I am one, authentic faith is a leap beyond what can be wholly certified through reason. “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable,” suggests poet Mary Oliver. That challenge comes in the form of questions put to us by God, corporately and personally. Some of them are formative: they shape us going forward. Others give us a needed pause on this journey, a timeout to catch our breath and look around us. They are summative of what we have learned through our experience.

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These are some of the questions I am seeking to be shaped by and to answer to.

“Where are you?” – Genesis 3:10

“What does the Lord require of you?” – Micah 6:8

“And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” – Matt. 6:27

“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” – Matt. 14:31

And the most important question of all . . .

“Who do you say that I am?” – Mk. 8: 29

We are questions to ourselves. Life itself throws us demands that we may field as questions. The ones that draw us in, turn us inside out, and lift us higher come to us from the Spirit “who searches everything, even the depths of God (1 Cor. 2:10).”

Photo: Barry Casey