A Fractured Gift to God

“The color of water is that of its container.” — Al-Junayd (14th c. Sufi)

Photo: Luca Baggio, Unsplash

Our ability to both experience and examine religion is the cause of both inspiration and disillusionment. Entering college in the early Seventies, I wavered between a major in English or a double major of Religion and Communication, with a minor in Sociology. I had a vague notion that communication studies and sociology would fit together well, and it wouldn’t hurt to know how people acted in groups. I have a wariness of crowds and crowd behavior, and I thought knowing more about it might give me some insights into religion and help me as a writer.

I knew I wasn’t made in the pastor mold, but I couldn’t shake religion. It fascinated, irritated, and inspired me—and still does—and I wanted to know why it was there and how it worked. My tradition regarded religion as something handed down to us and recommended by God—acting as our loving Father—rather in the way that implicit suggestions from your father are actually veiled commands. Even then, I had a half-formed view that religion ran the other way—from the downside up—that it was a human construct that appeared in all times and in all places. I wondered why.

The English Department chair, a personal friend, talked me out of majoring in English. “If you love books,” he said, “the process of dissecting them might not be for you.” In the event, I stayed with Religion and Communication, and kept my interest in sociology strictly amateur.

A complete neophyte, I started with Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, and then jumped to C. Wright Mills and Erving Goffman, with an ongoing trek through Gustave LeBon’s, The Crowd. But for the most part, my mentor in this has been Peter Berger, an Austrian-born American professor, one of the premier sociologists of our time, and a Protestant theologian. He spent a good share of his life (1929-2017) working over ideas in the sociology of religion that could be understood by laypeople in books such as A Far Glory, The Noise of Solemn Assemblies, A Rumor of Angels, The Heretical Imperative, and In Praise of Doubt.

His most famous work was The Social Construction of Reality, written with Thomas Luckmann, in which they examined how society builds up the layers of what it terms “reality.” “Society,” says Berger, “not only controls our movements, but shapes our identity, our thought and our emotions.”1

Berger’s book, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, helped me understand how religion could be a human construct, while not excluding the possibility that this longing pointed to a transcendent being we call God. Or as Berger put it, “the projected meanings may have an ultimate status independent of man.”2

In graduate school I read Ludwig Feuerbach, who reduced theology to anthropology—God as a proportionate magnification of our own fathers. Berger casually offered up the idea that “man projects ultimate meanings into reality because that reality is, indeed, ultimately meaningful, and because his own being . . . Contains and intends these same ultimate meanings.”3 Anthropology, then, could be reconstructed as theology. Berger playfully called this “an intellectual man-bites-dog feat,” and begged off pursuing it further while wanting “to at least suggest the possibility to the theologian.”4

Every society, says Berger, is in the business of world-building. Religion is a part of that. We make our societies and, in turn, our societies mold us. This is not a contradiction, says Berger, it is rather how this dialectical process works. We find ourselves in an open world, one that must be fashioned by our own activity. It does not come to us as an Ikea kit, ready for assembly with one simple tool. We must establish a relationship to the world, and because we are finite and tend to slip on the one banana peel within range of our feet, that relationship has a built-in instability. We are always out of balance with ourselves and with our world, and so we constantly strive for the ultimate while living the penultimate. As Tillich warned, we often substitute the penultimate for the ultimate.

What we produce is culture, something that has to be continuously produced, repaired, maintained, and reproduced. Religion is a part of culture and that tremendously complicates life for any person of faith. As Berger notes rather drily, “suffice it to say that, while it is necessary that worlds be built, it is quite difficult to keep them going.”5

To put this spiritually, we yearn for ultimate meaning and that yearning picks up the faint signals of the memory of Jesus, God-become-human, transmitted to us by the Holy Spirit. As incomplete and as wobbly as we are, if we listen to our deeper self that self is straining to hear the music and the rhythm of God, despite the booms, tweets, whistles, pops, and thuds from the culture around us.

Somewhere, C. S. Lewis encourages us in the face of our frustrations with the forms and outcomes of our religions. Standing for the hymn during Evensong, he winces at the braying of an old woman next to him, but clings to the notion that God rejoices to hear such praise offered up.

Religion is the locus of some of the most heinous acts of human beings, but it also gives us humans at their most sublime. If we regard it not as something handed down to us by God and subsequently bent out of all recognition, but rather as our fractured, misshapen, but well-intentioned gift to a loving and bemused God, we’ll all be better off.

***

Berger led me, via his footnotes and bibliography, to Georg Simmel, who was born in Berlin in 1858 and spent most of his professional life there lecturing at the University of Berlin.

Although Simmel was a sociologist, his interests and influence spanned ethics, aesthetics, epistemology, metaphysics, and intellectual history—in addition to blazing new trails in sociology. He refused to stay rigidly within his discipline, however, and as a result was viciously excluded by his colleagues in philosophy and the social sciences at Berlin, although he counted as friends such luminaries as Max Weber, Rainer Maria Rilke, Auguste Rodin, Martin Buber, Albert Schweitzer, and Ernst Troeltsch.

An expressed anti-Semitism and a bias against sociology kept Simmel from getting a regular faculty appointment for most of his career. It probably didn’t help that he was extraordinarily original in his thinking and did not quote his predecessors or contemporaries.6 He was less interested in creating a full-blown system of thought as he was in following his interests where they led him for the intellectual and practical cultivation of individuals.

Although his publishing career was haphazard, he wrote over two dozen books and more than two hundred articles. He was considered one of the most brilliant lecturers of his generation, and he constantly led his students to think for themselves, rather than to push forward a narrow set of his own thoughts at the expense of discussion. He was a multi-disciplinary adjunct teacher, who cared more for his students than for scholarly advancement, God bless him.

I keep dropping in on him from time to time because he always stimulates thought. And since I’m not constrained either to master his sprawling fields of interest nor to fit them all into a system, I feel free to take what interests me at the moment and come back later for more.

He describes the difference between the young person and the old in an essay entitled “The Adventurer.” Comparing an adventure to the danger and attraction of love, Simmel says the decisive point is that an adventure is “a form of experiencing. The content of the experience does not make the adventure (author’s emphasis).”7 He goes on to say that the color, ardor, and zest for life which we bring to love decisively transform a mere experience into an adventure.

Attitude and perspective make all the difference. “Such a principle of accentuation,” says Simmel, “is alien to old age. In general, only youth knows this predominance of the processes of life over its substance; whereas in old age, when the process begins to slow up and coagulate . . . it then proceeds . . . in a certain timeless manner, indifferent to the tempo and passion of its being experienced.”8

Lord preserve us from such rigor mortis.

There is the world “out there” and there are the worlds we carry inside us. Each shapes the other, each one influences us in ways we may feel more than understand. There are days when, as Christian Wiman says, I can wake up a believer and go to bed an atheist. On those days a certain distance toward religion may be an act of self-preservation. A sociological perspective which regards religion as a human construct offered up to God restores our equilibrium and good humor on those grey days when our adventure of faith slows, coagulates, and loses its passion.

Here, we draw inspiration so we may exhale religion as adventure, one that both entices and extends us, even as we are both immersed in it and observe it from a distance, a kind of wave and particle theory of divine and human interaction.

  1. Berger, Peter. Invitation to Sociology. New York: Random House, 1963, p. 121.
  2. Berger, Peter. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. New York: Random House, 1967, p. 180.
  3. Berger, 180.
  4. Berger, 181.
  5. Berger, 6.
  6. Simmel, Georg. On Individuality and Social Forms. Edited and with an Introduction by Donald N. Levine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971, p. X.
  7. Simmel, Georg. “The Adventurer,” in On Individuality and Social Forms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971, p. 197.
  8. Simmel, 198.

Sing, and Keep Walking

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For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:15,16, AV

One of the memories that ties Protestants of a certain vintage and social class together is the revival meeting. In my religious neighborhood this was visited upon us longsuffering teenagers during our annual Week of Prayer. At our parochial elementary school or high school, a speaker, usually known as a ‘youth pastor’ for his position in guiding the youth, would take up residence in our midst for a week to bring us to the Lord. This meant that we had chapel every day of the week, instead of our usual assembly once a week. Invariably, the last day of the week would be given over — we were tensed for it — a Call, in which the speaker would appeal to us to give our hearts to Jesus.

The organ or piano would play, the speaker would stand astride the platform, an immovable object through whom we would have to pass in order to see the sky, the light, the earth again. Our ticket, our passport to freedom, was to admit our sins and to publicly stand for Jesus, proclaiming by our verticality that we had cast aside our old life and had given ourselves over to a new attempt at sanctification. I was usually tolerant of this, sometimes moved by it, but on one occasion I hardened my heart toward the speaker and his wiles.

For wiles they were, and he wielded them with the skill of a trained propagandist. There were the glittering generalities, the card stacking (only certain facts allowed), the plain folks approach (I’m just like you; I sin too), the testimonials (I turned my life over to Jesus and you can too), and — as the numbers of those standing inched upward — the bandwagon effect (won’t you join us?). But the twin screws of fear and guilt were usually enough to break the most recalcitrant. It was our sins that had nailed Jesus to the cross and that kept Him there — never mind the resurrection and the promise of eternal life. The sight of squirming 14-year-olds trying to come up with sins toxic enough to kill Christ was disheartening.

There was a point in this emotional fire-hosing when we realized that we’d left a real encounter with Christ behind and that now the speaker was running up the score, carving notches on his belt, and counting scalps. That’s when I hardened my heart and prayed for release. Not wanting to offend or cause another to stumble, I was struggling to stay in my seat, and yet I knew I should not be false to my own relation to Christ. I had a tentative, but sincere, connection with God; if there remained anything standing between me and a commitment to Jesus, it would not be bulldozed aside just to give The Speaker the satisfaction. So I remained sitting, to the consternation of my teachers and some of my friends, since I occasionally assisted as a student leader in religious activities.

Fear and guilt, endemic as they are to humans, are not the best roads to Paradise. I think guilt has a place in waking us up to our situation — the move is called repentance, metanoia in the Greek, and it means ‘to turn around’ — but no one ever built a lasting and healthy communion with another based on fear and guilt alone.

Moreover, such tactics in the hands of a skilled and unscrupulous religious leader too easily result in counting for numbers, herding impressionable people toward a decision they barely comprehend and cannot articulate. It is enough that we see how futile our efforts to walk on water really are and that we reach out to God in Christ.

Wendell Berry has said that “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.” It is in that context that we can ask what it means to say that Jesus was tempted as we are.

However, we derail ourselves if we insist on a detailed catalogue of the temptations that a first-century Jesus couldn’t have been subjected to. How would Jesus have handled the easy access to online pornography, the money to be made in drugs, plagiarism by students of term papers, or vaping?

If we broaden the scope beyond personal temptation to include ethical dilemmas made unavoidable through advanced technology, it illustrates the fact that as a society our achievements are double-edged: they are gifts that change our environment and our values even as they benefit us. What about genetic screening for inherited diseases, surrogate pregnancies, assisted suicide and DNRs, biological and neurological enhancement, and the use of placebos in clinical testing? Science and technology in our era often outrun ethics; this is the world that we have made. So, presenting God with a list of exemptions based on our technology isn’t going to help us nor does claiming that He couldn’t possibly understand what we are going through. As the Buddha said about discussions on the afterlife: “This does not lead to edification.”

We are opened to a new perspective with Richmond Lattimore’s translation of Hebrews 4:15,16 as he writes: “For the high priest we have is not one who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, since he has suffered all the trials we have, except that he did not sin.” The solidarity Jesus extends to us comes not from specific temptations faced, but from suffering the weaknesses of being human.

To be human is to live in paradox. We are made of earth but aspire to the heavens. We wish to be infinite but are bounded on all sides. We want to please those whom we love, placate those whom we fear, be admired by those we admire. We want to be the masters of our destiny, but on some days we fall and we can’t get up.

“We work our jobs

Collect our pay

Believe we’re gliding down the highway

When in fact we’re slip slidin’ away”1

We can stand apart from the path we are on in the present and ask ourselves what the trajectory of our lives points toward and where we might arrive at if we continue. No other creature can do that, and it is both the blessing and the curse of our condition that we can perceive — if only in hindsight — our misdirections, wrong turns, willful diversions from the way, and lost opportunities.

We are flesh and spirit; we are blind, but we can see that we are blind. We give in to the power of sin and yet we resist. “The fact that we accuse ourselves,” said Paul Tillich, “proves that we still have an awareness of what we truly are, and therefore ought to be. And the fact that we excuse ourselves shows that we cannot acknowledge our estrangement from our true nature. The fact that we are ashamed shows that we still know what we ought to be.”2

God may not snatch us out of temptation or even necessarily lessen our suffering. We may ask, then, how God is present to us in our time of trial. Christ’s credentials here are not a smug “been there, done that” throwaway line. Nor does he peddle cheap grace like some ham-fisted TV evangelist. Christ lives with us in our temptations, suffers with us in our temptations, and does not abandon us when we are tempted.

Christian Wiman says in My Bright Abyss, that “Herein lies the great difference between divine weakness and human weakness, the wounds of Christ and the wounds of man. Two human weaknesses only intensify each other. But human weakness plus Christ’s weakness equals a supernatural strength.” And, we might add, “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”

“Let us sing alleluia,” says Augustine in a sermon from 418 CE. God doesn’t say he will keep us from temptation, but “with the temptation he will also make a way out, so that you may be able to endure it (1 Cor. 10:13).”

I wish I’d understood that when I chose to remain seated during that call to stand. The way it was presented to me, I was either in or out: sunk in sin and at war with Jesus or cleansed and on the right side. Somehow, instinctively, I knew that it wasn’t that cut and dried. My heart’s cry and my intention were to live in Christ; the reality was that this would take some time.

What I later came to realize is that Christ takes the intention of our hearts as what we really are. Living up to that intention is living within the new being, the new reality, one day at a time. “So now, my dear brothers and sisters,” concludes Augustine in his sermon, “let us sing, not to delight our leisure, but to ease our toil . . . Sing, and keep on walking. Don’t stray off the road, don’t go back, don’t stay where you are.”

Sing, and keep on walking.

  1. Paul Simon, “Slip Slidin’ Away”, 1975. Universal Music Publishing Group
  2. Paul Tillich, “The Good That I Will, I Do Not,” The Eternal Now. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,1963, p. 54.

Photo: Nathan McBride, Unsplash

The Stories We Become

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“The stories we live by are made, not found.” — Dan McAdams, The Stories We Live By

Are we a project or a discovery? Do we make ourselves or are we disclosed to ourselves? The question has been for me a touchstone of sorts, something I return to with intensity in liminal moments—those thresholds we cross that change how we see the trajectory of our lives.

As a college student in the 70s I was drawn to existentialism, especially the kind that Albert Camus lived out. Somehow, he brought together elements of Stoicism and Romanticism into a resolute philosophy of life that emphasized commitment to principle along with a sensuous enjoyment of nature. Being brought up by English grandparents in California in the 60s, in a home that was religiously devout and loyal to the church, oddly enough, paralleled that outlook and even converged at some points.

My grandfather was English, from Yorkshire, average in height, stoic in his perseverance without complaint, and quietly consistent in his gentleness and understanding. His commitments to principle were unwavering, but his ability to forgive was just as strong. God was a presence he rarely named, but he lived in gratitude for how he had been led that expressed itself in moments between us, especially as we talked while wrestling boulders out of our volcanic soil under the heat of a California sun.

Camus, on the other hand, refused God, but never managed to turn his face away completely. Since his only perception of God was that portrayed by the Church, he was inevitably disappointed. It seemed to me that he lived as if he wished God were real. He saw life as a beautiful tragedy, something that appealed to my adolescent romanticism.

But above all, he believed that we made ourselves through our decisions and actions. Life required commitment, faith in each other, a willingness to sacrifice for principle. Dr. Rieux, in Camus’ novel, The Plague, daily faced death as he worked to relieve the suffering of his patients, simply because it was the right thing to do. That sense of duty to principle is where the Adventism of my grandparents and the humanism of Camus overlapped. There was a cross-pollination that has influenced me to this day.

Because of our strong heritage from one of the founders of our church, Ellen White, most of us of a certain vintage have grown up with phrases like being “as true to duty as the needle to the pole,” and “Everything depends on the right action of the will.” In effect, most of us were raised as Kantians, with a strong sense of duty, manifesting a kind of “disinterested benevolence,” to use another of Ellen White’s maxims. We were encouraged not to trust our emotions, since they could easily be swayed, but to trust in Scripture, our spirit of prophecy, and the moral precepts we derived from both.

The idea that we “make” ourselves can go in several directions. We could think of it as a by-product of duty, not something to be sought after, but not something to be dismissed either. Or we could choose, like Aristotle advocated, to seek a higher end or telos, through cultivating the virtues, a choice that we make through reason.

Yet, as Adventists, we are conflicted about trying to become virtuous. It seems presumptuous to us to imagine that we could pursue such an end, even one directed to God. It seems to emphasize works over faith, as if we might work ourselves out of the need for a savior or somewhere along the way, slough off the Holy Spirit. We want to be virtuous, but we don’t want to look like we’re trying to be. There is also a virulent strain of perfectionism in current Adventism that is curiously hostile both to virtue ethics (because it relies on philosophy) and to grace (because it’s not rigorous enough). So, an understanding of how we might be nourished and strengthened by practicing the fruits of the Spirit and the virtues, for instance, is timely and welcome.

There is another way that we make ourselves and that is through the stories we imagine for ourselves about who we are. Dan McAdams, in his ground-breaking book, The Stories We Live By, calls them “personal myths,” and defines them as “an act of imagination that is a patterned integration of our remembered past, perceived present, and anticipated future.” Over the course of years, from adolescence to middle adulthood, McAdams says our personal myths should reflect increasing coherence, openness, credibility, differentiation, reconciliation, and generative integration. These six “narrative standards” are the elements of a good story in human identity, one that reflects who we are and lures us onward to what we may become.

As we become more differentiated in life, we face conflicts and paradoxes. Our personal stories become richer, more textured, as we learn to cope with suffering, disappointment, and conflicts. We seek reconciliation and harmony between the conflicting elements within ourselves and between ourselves and others. Reconciliation, says, McAdams, “is one of the most challenging tasks in the making of personal myth,” and psychologically, we’re not prepared to face it until in midlife.

McAdams’ research is original, but in some respects roughly parallels James Fowler’s Stages of Faith. Fowler argued that faith was a universal in human existence, and that one did not have to be “religious” in order to have faith. We look for order and patterns in the universe, and we live by what we find. He identified “faith as relating” and “faith as knowing,” and it is the latter that McAdams understands as contributing to our personal myths. McAdams sees the stories we construct for ourselves as developmental stages, “qualitatively different structures of religious belief and value.” He separates these into four positions, A through D.

Position A understands faith as specific rules about good behavior and has only vague notions about God, nature, human identity, and so forth. While it can be authentic, there is little reflection on meaning and even less on putting one’s thoughts in order. Nevertheless, it’s a beginning.

Position B, what Fowler calls “synthetic-conventional” faith, gathers up beliefs into a systematic creed or system, whether it be provided by the Church or the scientific enterprise. These are the positions, typically, of adolescents and young adults. There is structure within a system, but little questioning, either of beliefs or of the organizing principles.

With Position C, the individual moves beyond the conventions and begins to fashion a more individual and personalized faith structure. There is questioning of the conventions of the previous position and a good deal of soul-searching. We attempt to find something that is both authentic and truly expressive of who we think we are. And when we reflect on our faith and our conventions we may ultimately reject some and accept others—but the ones we accept will no doubt be those we reason are most honestly ours. We try to reconcile inconsistencies between our beliefs and those of other people through reason and logic. We wish the world were as reasonable as we are.

Position D, however, understands that reason is not enough. “A very small number of people,” says McAdams rather wryly, “beginning probably in mid-life, reorganize their beliefs and values in order to accommodate paradox and inconsistency in life.” In this phase we may gain a renewed appreciation for the simple stories of faith we grew up on, while at the same time recognizing that life is more complex and multi-layered than it first appears. James Fowler calls this “conjunctive faith” because it allows a person to join together ideas and images that are usually kept separate. It makes room for paradox and irony, qualities that are needed to think about the mystery of evil or the redeeming characteristics of our enemies and the darkness of our heroes. It lives with ambiguity and paradox. Some of its most articulate expressions are found in Soren Kierkegaard, Thomas Merton, and Parker Palmer.

It’s what I would call “innocent experience,” the quality of perception that comes after we take a fall from innocence into despair and knowledge and are forgiven and raised to a point beyond our innocence. If we’re fortunate enough to belong to a community, and humble enough to recognize our constant need for honesty, then we can live with paradox and uncertainty—and press ahead with faith.

If Position C—questioning and rejecting our conventional mores and theology—is the prodigal leaving home, Position D is the prodigal returning: wiser, humbler, and armed with a no-nonsense BS detector. The prodigal leaves home innocently arrogant, crosses over into weary cynicism, and returns with the gifts of openness and empathy.

In the summer of 2015, after the GC Session, I posted the following observation on my Facebook page. I think it applies now more than ever, especially since Annual Council 2018 (Battle Creek edition) presents us with an opportunity for authenticity, a way to re-imagine our faith together.

“It may be that in the post-San Antonio era, with another five years under Ted Wilson, many who have been Adventists all their lives, and many who may never have questioned church policy, procedures, and prejudices, will quietly realize how little they need to look to the church structure for their spiritual strength. They may see their friends, their pastors, those they have met online, their non-Adventist and non-Christian friends, as their spiritual community. They may understand that it’s possible to be in the church, but not of the church, that we don’t have to be hindered by unjust practices and blatant mismanagement to the extent that it blinds us to who Jesus is for us today. If we want, we can carry the invisible church within us every day. It will be exciting to see how we may grow and learn through adversity. We need to hold our fellow travelers close on this journey.” — Facebook, July 2015

Costumes and creeds do not a faith provide, but we can write a new story that does.

“Cease to dwell on days gone by

and to brood over past history.

Here and now I will do a new thing;

this moment it will break from the bud.

Can you not perceive it (Isa. 43:18,19)?”

Photo: Aurelien Romain, 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

My Bibles, My Life

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

Photo: Rafael Barquero, Unsplash

Our Infinite Choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joiners or borners—the questions stand open.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Johannes Plenio, Unsplash.com

Lane Walkers

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“The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality.” — Walden, Henry David Thoreau

How much of our life do we truly comprehend? We may feel like political observers at a rigged election: we can see what’s going on but we lack the power to change it. Caught up in our routines, not daring to vary from them lest we lose a step, we see the surface changes of light and shadow, while we sense that tectonic shifts are taking place beneath us.

At a corner of an intersection frequented by panhandlers a man held a hand-lettered sign which proclaimed him to be God’s anointed, a “prophetic, proud, American preacher.” I held a dollar out to him while waiting for the light to change, and listened while he spoke about his ministry. He was a handyman who had been touched by the Lord some years ago and sent on a mission to bring a message of hope, prosperity, happiness, and health to all who would listen. He gave me a flyer he had written up, complete with a website, and resources that, if ordered, would restore a sense of pride in America and gratitude to the Almighty. There was no irony for him in the fact that as the bearer of the message he was a walking refutation of its benefits. But that suspicion was answered by his earnest claim that it was his humility which marked him out for the divine dispensation.

His jaunty sanctity was touching. Far from being an object of pity he thought of himself as a man with a mission. He wasn’t begging, he was witnessing. The transactional nature of his work called for him to give as well as to receive. If I gave a dollar he was happy to bless me and share with me the nature of his work. The dollar, a gesture of solidarity, was less a donation to an indigent than it was a validation of his calling. You’ve got to respect a man like that. As the light changed and the phalanx of cars pulled away, he proclaimed his willingness to work at anything—car repair, house painting, yard work, preaching.

I’ve wondered at the necessities and rules of panhandling. No doubt there are social norms that come with the occupation, perhaps even vocabularies and expectations that must be met. Does a median strip belong to those with seniority or is it ‘first come, first served’? Do you dress for the neighborhood or for the rigors of the job? On blazing hot days can the men go shirtless or is that  a social faux pas that cannot be tolerated? Must the women always be mothers with four children and no rent money or can they be young, single, and brave—with time on their hands? How does the body adapt to or resist the thrumming roar of traffic, the waves of heat radiating from exhausts, engines, and metal surfaces? Do you stay on the median or walk between the lanes? Smile and thank whoever pauses or keep the gestures to a minimum?

These are the lines of adaptation to which the organism conforms, the terrain that must be plowed, the rules of engagement for a public transaction of a moment. I’ve seen lithe, well-dressed young men, affable and surefooted in the traffic, whose only indication of need was the hand-lettered sign they carried. And I’ve seen men, perhaps veterans of our interminable wars, whose faces were roasted red from the heat, whose hair was bleached and lifeless from the exhaust and the wind, and whose clothes had lost all semblance of garments.

I have found myself asking, while waiting out the light, what slight movements of the spirit brought them to this place and this moment. What butterfly, blithely flitting from flower to bush in a garden on an island in Japan, set in motion the winds that blew these people up on our concrete beaches? Alone in a crowd, islands in a river of molded plastic and glass, do they wonder as they pace their walkways, if there was an inexorable fate that brought them here? Were they singled out for punishment or just slower than the rest sprinting for the exits?

The consistency and persistence of these people is what lingers in the memory. Every day they are out there in all weathers, working the lanes, radiating a cheerful resilience, regulating their practice according to the elements they have found that work through necessity and chance.

Every one of them began as a child without guile. Most were loved, some no doubt carried the hopes of the family on their shoulders. There is no need to romanticize them or bill them as urban artists; they have too much dignity in themselves to be the object of our casual pity.

They live with the facts, the bare unadorned necessities of survival. They are not a tribe apart, they are the rest of us stripped down, without our pretense and assurances, without our facile privilege. There was a time when the Fates would have gotten the credit for having twisted up these lives in ways that could not easily be undone. Now those lives are proxies for the millions whose existence, when noted, is signaled merely by a downward tick on a graph in a Senate hearing.

“We know not where we are,” says Thoreau near the end of Walden. “Yet we esteem ourselves wise, and have an established order on the surface.”

Practicing the Grace We Have Received

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Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? —Matthew 25:37 (NRSV)

When I took a group of students down to a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C. some years ago, I fell into a conversation with a young man who was living and working there. His father was a professor at Yale and this fellow had grown up in ease, if not luxury, and had gotten an Ivy League education for free. I wondered what kept him there, working day in and day out, never getting a word of thanks from those he helped. I wondered because I had just witnessed a homeless man, clutching his coat around him in the January chill, roundly curse out my acquaintance as he served him soup in the gathering shadows outside the row house on Euclid Street.

“Do they ever thank you?” I asked. Kevin stopped for a moment and thought, and then shrugged. “Not really,” he said. “Why do you ask?” He leaned forward to ladle soup into an outstretched bowl.

“Because I wonder what’s in it for you,” I said. “Why do you stay, considering the kind of upbringing you had? You could be anywhere else, doing whatever you want.”

“I am doing what I want,” he said. He frowned, puzzled. “It doesn’t matter whether they thank me or not.”

I persisted. “But you see the same people day after day. Nothing changes for them. Why do you keep at it?”

His answer was indistinct as he reached for a bowl to hand to the old woman in front of him. “Because they could be gods,” I thought I heard him say. Or perhaps he said, “Because they could be God’s.”

The story Jesus tells in Matthew 24 is about Judgment Day. All the nations are gathered in front of the Son of Man who sits upon his throne. He divides them up, some on his right side, some on his left. The writer calls those on the right side “sheep” and those on the left he calls “goats.” Those hearing the story must have understood the analogy because there is no explanation why sheep are preferred over goats as moral exemplars. Since we probably derive most of what we know about sheep and goats from this and other stories in the Gospels, we have to find the meaning for ourselves. And there are two things that are intriguing in this story.

The first is that the list of good actions taken by the sheep is repeated—once with approval by the king and again in puzzlement by the sheep-people. In fact, when we get to the goat part the list is again repeated, this time as actions not taken by the goats (to the disapproval of the king) and their anxious query: Tell us again when we didn’t do these things for you? The actions are important to the writer and to Jesus. Feeding the hungry and thirsty, taking in the stranger and clothing the refugee and the displaced persons, being with the sick and those forgotten in prison—these are the actions which separate the sheep from the goats.

This is what we are to do, all of us, from all the nations. Not just those from churches, mosques, and temples, but just people. They are designated not by religions but by nation-states and cultures. And what separates the nations is not creeds of beliefs or political ideologies or even economic prowess, but how well they take care of those pushed into the shadows and left behind.

The second thing that intrigues is the apparent blindness of both the sheep and the goats to their actions. Both are genuinely surprised at the judgments of the king. The sheep can’t remember doing anything of the sort and the goats are anxiously raking through their memories, trying to think how they could have overlooked something so obviously to their advantage. Both were unconscious of their actions and therein lies the meaning of this tale.

In intercultural communication studies there is a grid that shows the stages a person might go through as they grow aware of the complexity of communication. It is divided into four quadrants of communication competence.

The first is unconscious incompetence, the stage in which we are blithely unaware of our rampaging incompetence. We don’t even notice the trail of missed cues, trampled symbols, and outright weirdness on our part. Somehow, through the grace of God and the graciousness of others, we are spared the humiliation of being called out in public for our sins of commission and omission, and we live to err another day.

But then someone might kindly take us aside and clue us in to what we’ve missed and now, embarrassed but determined, we follow the actions of others like a cat on a laser-pointer. We are focused and aware, but we still make mistakes that can only be lived through and learned from. We are consciously incompetent.

The third phase comes through practice, patience, and imagination as we become consciously competent in our communication with others. While our actions still demand our attention, we have the experience and the confidence to handle most situations that come our way.

In the final phase, rare but not impossible to attain, we are unconsciously competent. We have watched, listened, followed, and learned to the point where we no longer have to decide every action. The situation gives rise to our response. We act in the right way at the right time for the right reason and with the right result. It is so much a part of us that others may describe it as our ‘second nature.’

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This is what Aristotle called virtue, the habit of choosing the right action between the extremes of excess and deficiency. Finding the sweet spot between them is neither formulaic nor precise, he said. Ethics is not like mathematics and we should recognize this for ourselves and others. Cut some slack, he said, this kind of thing takes a lot of practice. It’s not enough to self-consciously act appropriately one time and feel we’ve done our duty, for “one swallow does not a summer make.”

This is what Confucianism and Taoism call wu wei, “action-less action,” that which requires no effort on our part because we have practiced. The body and muscles retain memory, just as does our conscience. It is what Jesus calls “walking in the Way.” Aristotle thought it would be best if we started early in life on this and Hebrew sages encouraged parents to train up their children in the way they should go and when they were old (adults) they would not depart from it.

We do depart from it, of course, and quite frequently. Just as the sheep can learn the unconscious competence of virtue through practice, the goats can learn the unconscious competence of vice in the same way. This is what flares up into deadly force between people and roars up into wars. It’s what turns economic policy into weapons against the poor and cuts off those who struggle to speak.

The habits of a lifetime become our character. None of us succeed at this without effort; all of us are capable of behavior that is grace-filled.

Photo: Pixabay, Graphic: Barry Casey

Imagine That

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“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)

God Incognito


“I think, therefore I am,” says Descartes, and thereby overturns centuries of philosophy past. He imagines a dark spirit with infinite powers to deceive, who could turn lightness into dark and cause one to doubt the very ground upon which one stands.

Suppose, suggests Descartes, that I am mistaken about the ‘hereness’ of my body, about the realness of the world ‘out there’, about the existence of God? Suppose that every shard of reality I cling to is an illusion: how would I know? How do we claw through the fog? If it’s all wisps and shadows, how will we know when our little bark has run up on the beach?

He edges out on the high wire, squinting hard at the far post, determined to reject everything except that which he could not doubt. And what he could not doubt is that he is the one doing the doubting, and that those who doubt their existence must exist in order to do the doubting. ‘Cogito ergo, sum’ — I think, therefore I am.

It’s a grand and audacious mind game that Descartes is playing. It’s an axiom dressed as a revelation, a discovery of the self. He invites us to doubt, but he never really doubted anyway. What sets Descartes apart, though, is that he’s given personal experience and his own thought as much authority as conventional wisdom. Find the truth, he says. Think for yourself; argue it out in your own head. Be the master of your interior world. You think, therefore you are. And therefore, is God.

What do we mean when we say we “know” God? Do we “know” the wind? Do we “know” the darkness within the cloud? Do we “know” the cry of our own voice caught up and away in the wind and the cloud? This will not suffice; there must be more.

* * * *

The mild-mannered parishioner two pews over, his attention wandering during the homily, moistens a finger and doubles the pages of his Bible under his thumb. He has an idea to look for God in the Old Testament, but not in the bloody chronicles of genocide and terror. Ecclesiastes appears, but he remembers something about everything as vanity. He frowns: he needs a handhold, not a slippery slope. The Psalms are familiar — he’ll pitch his tent there for awhile in hopes of a well-known verse or two.

“Answer me when I call, O God of my right!,” shouts the ragged singer of the Psalms. He rages, he twists, he cries out; he will stitch up one star to another if he has to and create a zip line to Yahweh. Our parishioner stiffens in the pew; no one should talk to God like that. He reads it again, his finger tracing the words. He whispers it to himself, bending over the page, eyebrows lifted. He imagines ravens wheeling against the desert sun, a cave behind him, the whorl of a desert dust devil swirling closer. He raises an arm against the sun and the shriek of the wind, the ground rocks beneath him, and he hears it, a whisper: “I am.”

“Yes,” he says out loud. “Yes, you are.”

Elaborated Spontaneity #4 (Photo: Clarisse Meyers, Unsplash.com)