Friday, November 28, 2008

Talking about God

Recently I've been thinking a lot about what it means to talk about God.  It's almost funny that we, petty humans, even try to talk about someone so great—someone who is by nature ineffable and undescribable.  God is so far above/beyond our intellect and language that anything we say about God is at best insufficient and at worst flat-out wrong.

But that doesn't mean we should stop.  On the contrary, we must talk about God.  God is so ever present in our human lives that it would be disingenuous to remain silent.  It would be like ignoring an elephant in the room.

Yesterday, I ran across a passage in Mirror of Simple Souls by Margaret Porette (sometimes spelled Marguerite Porete) that expresses my thoughts perfectly:
For there is no God, other than he of whom one can know nothing perfectly; and he alone is my God of whom one cannot say a word [...] But I wish to speak of it, and I do not know what to say. But none the less [...] my love is such a mind that I had rather hear what is not true of you than that people should say nothing about you.  And that without a doubt is what I do.  I say of you what is not true, for everything which I say of you is nothing but untruth about your goodness.  But you must pardon what I say which is not true of you.
I agree with her—I would rather talk about our ineffable God and fail than remain silent.  I know that in my search for God I will say many wrong things, and I hope God will forgive my failings.  However, like Porette, I will continue to speak about God, even if it means I am bound to be wrong.

Then again, perhaps that isn't the best idea—Porette was burned at the stake as a heretic....

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Religious

Over the last few weeks and months, I've been trying to discern what direction I should head with my graduate studies.  Recently, I've begun to narrow things down a bit.  I think what I really want to explore is expressions of the religious apart from specifically religious institutions.  I find it fascinating that when people write and speak and think and hope and dream, so often religious elements are subtly present.  It seems that being human almost necessitates being religious.

Of course, that is a pretty broad claim—and I know people who would strongly object.  But to clarify, when I say "religious" I don't have in mind particular religions or rituals or doctrines.  What I do have in mind, however, is notoriously difficult to pin down.  When I say "religious" I mean it in a broad sense.  For instance, what I would identify as the "religious" part of Christianity would not only be the beliefs and practices (like going to church, taking communion, etc.) but also the desire deep inside that drives Christians to follow God in the first place.

The deep-seated desire that motivates Christians to follow God, I believe, exists in everyone.  Certainly it manifests itself differently in various peoples and cultures (and it can lead down some very divergent paths), but it is something common to all humans.  We all grapple with the religious because, at its core, the religious has to do with a search for meaning and identity.  It is, as one of my professors calls it, the "enduring presence and absence that is the mystery at the center of life."

This may seem a bit strange and possibly irrelevant to Chrisitanity, but it points to something interesting—because humans are inherently religious, that means that religious themes pop up all over the place.  The religious shows up in art, music, poetry, novels, architecture and in almost anything else that people create, and because it is all driven by the same deep-seated desire that everyone shares, that means that it is all potentially relevant to me.  If something by a Muslim novelist, a Mormon artist, or an atheist poet really strikes a chord in me, there is no need for me to discount it.  It is all relevant to me and my own search for God.

We are all engaged in the same task of finding meaning and identity, so I'm certain that there is a lot we can learn from others—even when we have drastically different outlooks.

*In case it wasn't clear, I don't use "religious" in the perjorative sense that many evangelicals do.  For me, the religious is something akin to "spiritual" (although that word can get me in trouble, too).  Maybe it is something like the "God-shaped hole in my heart" that I learned about in Sunday school when I was young.  Perhaps that's a crude way to phrase it, but I think I like it....

Monday, November 10, 2008

Reminding Myself that I Don't Know

Although I haven't written about it much in the last few months, agnosticism seems to be almost constantly on my mind.  I've been doing some thinking lately, trying to figure out why it is such an important concept to me, so I decided that I should reiterate (for my own benefit as much as yours) what I mean by agnosticism.  When I usethe word agnostic here on this blog, I'm not trying to call to mind all of the negative, apathetic, anti-religious, and sometimes nihilistic connotations that burden the term.  I'm not making any broadly sweeping claims about religion, God, or the universe.  By agnostic I simply mean a three word phrase, uttered out of conscious humility—I don't know.

For me, agnosticism is not the end of faith.  Agnosticism isn't a box that I check on surveys instead of a religion.  It isn't a term I toss around glibbly at 2 am in hip coffee shops, trying to show people that I'm enlightened.  It isn't something that can ever be an identity.  There are lots of things that agnosticism is not—but most importantly agnosticism is not the end.

Agnosticism is a beginning.

Imagine this situation: You invite me over tomorrow evening, we plop down on your couch, and you open up a bottle of cheap red wine, ready to enjoy a long night of lively conversation.  After the ordinary what-have-you-been-up-to-latelys and how's-life-been-treating-yous, you jump right in, asking my opinion on some of life's big questions:  Why are we here?  What is the purpose of life?  How can we know the truth?  Is there a God?

Assuming I haven't had too much wine, all of my answers will begin with the same three words: I don't know.  I begin my answers that way because it is the truth.  I am a human being, embodying plenty of possibilities and perils, but as limited as a shrink-wrapped potato.  No matter how much I am able to do or how much I fail, I am bound to this one body and this one mind.  Because I am a limited, fallible, finite human being, all of my answers have to begin with that three-word admission of humility.

But agnosticism is not an end.  It cannot be an end.  If I want to live and love and breathe, I have to find meaning.  I have to try.  After all, just because I don't know with certainty doesn't mean I can't make a good guess.

That is what agnostic theology is all about.  It starts with the humble admission I don't know, but it presses on from there.  None of us know, but we can't stop at that.  The world would be a large, mushy lump of nothingness if we let agnosticism be the end.  Just because we are limited human beings does not mean we don't experience longing and yearning for something greater.  

For millenia, humans have reached toward the heavens for answers, and agnosticism does not give impetus to stop.  Agnosticism has to be the beginning—a vocalization of our humanness which gets that truth out in the open—from which we then search and work and build.

When I write about agnosticism, I don't mean anything negative.  I mean something realistic.  When it comes to God and meaning and the universe, the fact of the matter is that I don't know.... 

But that's a beginning, not an end.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Change We Can Believe In

One of the things that strikes me about the 2008 Presidential campaign is how optimistic the whole thing is.

I don't mean that there hasn't been any negativity. Certainly the campaigns have taken a negative turn over the last few months. Additionally, many voters desperately fear what will happen to our country if their particular candidate doesn't win. But it's the opposite side of that fear that I find very interesting.

There is a notion that one candidate or the other possesses some extraordinary ability to transform our country. As much as anything else, this campaign season has been marked by hope. And it seems that what people are placing their hope in is change.

Yes, change has been the buzz word for the last year—and for good reason—but believing in change is a funny thing. Above all, it is terribly optimistic. Believing in change is believing in our ability (or our candidate's ability) to improve our world. It is believing in our ability to overcome evils—whether moral, systemic, or otherwise—and to transform things for the better.

But this belief in change is in tension with the idea of a fallen world. If all humans are ultimately disfigured by sin, to what degree is change actually possible? Sure, names and faces will change. Political balances of power will change. New systems and structures will be instituted and others will die out. But can we really change anything for the better? If so, how much better?

I don't mean to come across as cynical—I only mean to point out that if we truly live in a fallen world, then that is a reality we need to take into account. And that applies to more than just this election season. Social action organizations and human rights campaign face the same reality. In fact, any attempt to feed the hungry, quench the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and care for the sick and imprisoned is openly in tension with the reality of a fallen world.

Admittedly, I believe very strongly in social action efforts. I believe in the importance to working to improve our world. I believe in change.

But, is change really something we can believe in?