Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Mystical at Heart

I’m currently in the middle of the finals crunch, and my head has become a swirl of theories and names and books.  This semester I have been lucky to take a wonderful selection of courses on topics that are absolutely fascinating to me, so even though I have brain-fatigue from writing my various term papers, it is almost worth it.  

Today I handed in a terribly confusing paper about self-identity and theology.  Drawing on Giving an Account of Oneself by Judith Butler and Paul Ricoeur’s narrative identity theory, I argued that every time I try to talk about who I am, every time I try to identify myself through narrative, I am simultaneously doing theology.  Strange, I know.  And, no, there is no way I can explain it in a single blog post.  But it got me thinking…. 

Talking about God is one thing—a very difficult and worthwhile thing, no doubt—but relating to God is very different.  At the heart of a relationship with God, at the heart of Christian belief, is mysticism.  While this is likely not surprising to most people, it is not normally how I think about it. 

In the study of religion, especially historical theology, mysticism is often singled out as its own branch.  While some scholars don’t like the distinction, it is often contrasted with movements like scholasticism.  But the thing is, Christian belief is always mystical. 

Now, the flavor of Christianity that I was raised with had an interesting relationship with mysticism (though it would never have used that term).  It was made very clear that real Christians weren’t like those crazy people who spoke in tongues and got healed and ran around the sanctuary with flags and tambourines.  Those sorts of things were written off as feelings, as momentary—they weren’t real Christianity. 

Real Christianity was about knowing the truth.  It was about believing that Jesus was the Son of God who came to earth and died for our sins.  It was about believing in the trinity and the dual-nature of Christ.  It was about fighting the good fight, about renouncing the devil and living a life of faith—something that could not be pinned down by reason. 

So, even though certain expressions of Christian faith were written off as bogus and unrealistic, we were asked to embrace something that was admittedly non-rational.  But I didn’t realize that back then. 

Here I am now, years later, studying theology in an academic setting.  I’m writing papers about the efficacy of God-talk by Hindu theologians, about the connection between narrative identity and theology, and about the rhetorical structures of works of Christian ethics—but Christian belief is mystical.  That’s not to say it is wholly non-rational, somehow devoid of reason.  It can be reasonable and rational and intelligent—but it has to be more than that.  It has to go beyond that.  If it doesn’t, it is nothing more than a set of textbook answers, interesting to study, but not relevant to anything at all.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Heretical Parables of Jesus

Jesus went up to the hill to teach the crowds, saying, “Those who keep their faith will lose it, but to those who lose their faith, faith will be given. Again I say to you: All who hide their shame will be laid bare, but to them who are honest, shelter will be provided.”

Then Jesus said to them, “The kingdom of God is like a rock that fell from a great height. The foolish people said, ‘There is a rock! Let us take it home with us.’ However, when they went to retrieve it, they were crushed by the rock’s weight. But when the wise saw the rock they said, ‘There is a great mystery. Let us not approach too close, lest we be killed.’”

Then Jesus turned to his disciples and said, “The kingdom of God is like an American auto-maker. When the economy was strong, the company produced many American cars and made great profits. Seeing the great profits, the workers began to grumble because they were not paid well. The workers formed a union and fought the company for better wages and better pensions. After long negotiations the auto-maker finally compromised and the workers’ union gained great power. When the economy weakened, the company still produced many cars, but it could not make a profit. After too many quarters with no profit and after too many workers were laid off, the auto-maker went bankrupt. Then there were no more workers and no more new cars, no more union and no more company. The bad economy was just too bad, the union’s demands were just too demanding, and the American cars were just not American enough. After all these losses what can be said for the economy? Is it not time for the workers to rise up in revolt?”

When Jesus had finished saying these things, the disciples whispered to each other, “What can this mean? This is surely a hard saying.” Then they turned and walked back to the city confused.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Nevertheless, I Believe

Recently, one of my professors told us a brief story about the faith of one of her professors.  He was on the religion faculty where she went to school and straddled the difficult line between skeptical academic inquiry and religious faith.  Each week when his church recited the Nicene Creed, he would join in—with one small addition.  Just as he was about to begin reciting the creed he would say under his breath, “Nevertheless….”

That one word captures a whole host of thoughts and feelings—it is a faithful word, a doubting word, a word that expresses hope and despair.  Despite the difficulties that he was confronted with, despite the thoughts he might have to the contrary, he expressed his faith.  With that single word he was able to express his commitment to God and to his community of faith without denying his own struggles.  That word is honest.  That word is humble.  That word is human.

For him, that word is holy.

Nevertheless, I believe….