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….

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Symbolic God

Right now I’m in the process of writing a short essay on In Face of Mystery by Gordon Kaufman. From what I can tell from the portion of the book we read for class, I very much identify with his approach. One of the things that is central to his theology (and very interesting to me) is his understanding of religious traditions as symbolic frames. Here’s a quick run-down on “symbolic frames”:

Humans, as creatures whose lives are embedded in culture (we are “sociocultural animals”), try to make sense of their lives through symbolic frames. Early in human history, these symbolic frames took the form of stories—myths about humans and their place in our world. Over time these stories were modified and fleshed out, creating broadly encompassing worldviews that provided a framework for meaning in human life. Religious traditions are perfect examples of these symbolic frames—they had origins in early myths but were developed into what we now recognize as Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc.

What’s important to note, however, is that religious traditions aren’t static. They are culturally located and dynamic. Christianity in first century Palestine was drastically different from Christianity in fifth century Egypt, and that is drastically different from Christianity in twenty-first century America. The symbolic frame we call Christianity has grown and morphed over time along with the changing culture. As new ideas and new kinds of experiences became a part of people’s lives, the symbolic frame had to change in order to accommodate and make sense of the new aspects of life.

What’s important about this is that the symbols within the framework—the symbols that hold meaning and importance in our lives—are understood to be human creations. Because symbolic frames are socially constructed over time in particular cultures, the symbols within that frame are ever-changing in their valences and meanings.

This includes the symbol “God.” Anytime we talk about God, we are talking about something that is a human creation.

Whoa … hold up! Let me offer a quick explanation that may alleviate some distress. A symbol is made up two parts—the signifier and the signified. Take for instance an apple. We use the word “apple” (either the two syllables that you say with your mouth or the five written marks you make with your pen) to point to an object. The word “apple” is the signifier. The actual apple itself (either the slightly mushy one in your kitchen or a shiny, imaginary one in your head) is the signified. The signifier points to the signified. Put these two together, and you get a symbol. And it is only through symbols that we can have meaning. Symbols are the connection between our meaningful thoughts and the things we are thinking about.

Meaning is expressed in symbols. And symbols are human creations.

There may be an actual God (“God” the signified) whom we try to talk about with words (“God” the signifier)—but we have to recognize that there is no such thing as access to that God except through symbols. The only way we can talk about or think about God is by using humanly created symbols, or as Kaufman puts it: “all talk of God belongs to and has its meaning within a particular symbolical frame for orientation for human life.”

What this means is that anytime we talk about God, we are confronted by the symbols and meanings that we have created. But this human limitation also makes us more aware of the vastness of the mystery of God. Since we are limited in the face of a mysterious, ungraspable God, what option do we have except humble agnosticism?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Church of the Dead

On my way home from class this afternoon, I took time to notice the old graveyard on the left. Surrounded by a simple wrought iron fence, the burying ground (that's what they're called out here) is a small church yard of rolling hills punctuated haphazardly by slim stone grave markers. For the first time in weeks all the snow has finally melted away, revealing the depressingly brown grass beneath. When I had reached the far end, I glanced backwards toward the burying ground and the church steeple caught my eye. Suddenly a thought popped into my head:

Too often the church is a graveyard.

One of the tragic things about the church is that it can be so oriented toward the hereafter that Christians begin to rest-in-peace here in this life. People get saved in the pews and die right there in the sanctuary—and before long the church begins to stink.

In a few of my classes, death comes up frequently in conversation. The idea of living our lives oriented toward death is often tied up with ideas of nihilism and meaninglessness. For thinkers like Nietzsche and Heidegger, there is something about this crushing reality, when grasped in all its weight and finality, that throws into sharp relief the value and beauty of our present life. Living toward death necessitates creating meaning and saying a bold "Yes!" to the time that we have.

What is odd is that Christianity is also oriented toward death—but too often with the opposite result. Instead of generating a life-affirming "Yes!" to our lives here and now, Christianity too often casts an austere, reprimanding glance toward this life and then stares soberly ahead toward what is yet to come.

Honestly, this sort of attitude makes no sense to me. There is no reason that the anticipation of a grand future has to cast a grim shadow on the present. This life needs to be reclaimed. God has placed us here on this earth in this particular place at this particular time with these particular people for a reason. To neglect this life—with its great blessings as well as its great adversities—is to shrug off our connectedness with God. This life is where we meet our fellow humans in a deep and intimate way. This life is where we do the work of God. This life is where we first truly see God.

God is not the God of corpse-like living, of sitting and rotting in the church pews while the organist's dirge echoes around the sanctuary. God is the God of yes-saying, of vibrant and engaged living here and now. God has given us life—it is our responsibility to live.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Fork in the Road

Right now I feel like I'm caught in an endless sea of questions, being thrashed about by the waves. As far as storms go, this isn't a big one—in fact, I rather like the choppy water. But the problem is that the sky is cloudy and I've lost my bearing. I'm disoriented. Which direction am I supposed to be heading? But more fundamental than that is the question: in my search for God, what am I looking for?

In some ways it seems like God should be easy to find. If all I want to do is to locate God, then it seems like all I need to do is stop by one of those old buildings with steeples that are scattered around my neighborhood. But there's obviously more to it than that. I'm not trying to find God in a National Geographic Explorer sort of way. What I'm looking for is somehow deeper than that.

That big question (what am I looking for?) inevitably brings up a whole host of other related questions. What do I expect to find? How do I expect to find it? Do I really believe that I can find it through intellectual pursuit? To what extent does the pursuit have to be spiritual? If the journey is 100% spiritual (and, thus, subjective), can I trust what I find? What about if it's only 50% spiritual? Can these things be quantified? What good does it do for me, as a particular human being, to search, anyway?

And then arises the most troubling dilemma for me: what exactly am I willing to presuppose?

We all come from somewhere. We all have starting points and worldviews. And if we truly examine our thoughts and beliefs, we reach about point where we can offer no further explanations. As Wittgenstein puts it:
If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: "This is simply what I do."
For me to continue my exploration of God in earnest, I have to address the problem of presuppositions. On the one hand, if I allow myself to question everything, ultimately I can go nowhere. On the other hand, if I just accept a number of presuppositions, much progress can be made. But does the progress outweigh what I give up?

Ultimately, what is to be gained? What is to be lost?

As you can see, I am at something of a crossroads. But chances are I'll end up punching it into four-wheel drive and going off-road....

Monday, January 26, 2009

I'm Not Alone

Sometimes I wonder whether I am alone in my uncertainty and blindness.  Then I read things like this:

"And do thou, O Lord my God, teach my heart where and how to seek thee, where and how to find thee. Lord, if thou art not here, where shall I seek thee who art absent? But if thou art everywhere, why do I not see thee who art present?"

"O Lord, thou art my God and thou art my Lord, and I have never seen thee. Thou hast made me and remade me, and thou hat bestowed on me all the good things I possess, and still I do not know thee. Finally, I was made in order to see thee, and I have not yet done that for which I was made."

- Anselm of Canterbury, An Address, from A Scholastic Miscellany pp 69-70, trans. and ed. by E. Fairweather

It feels good to have some company.

Degrees of Uncertainty

In a recent conversation, my friend Nigel brought to my attention a problem with my discussion of the latency of God—I haven't been defining my terms well.  To a certain extent my ambiguity is on purpose because I'm still doing quite a bit of searching, but I suppose a little clarity would be helpful.  Although I'm not sure I can offer much of a definition of latency yet, here's some more explanation....

The basis for much of my thinking about God (and the rest of life, for that matter) is that I cannot know anything with complete certainty for the simple reason that I am not omniscient.  Because I am a limited, finite human being, there is always a chance that I am wrong about the things I think I know.  It is important to note, however, that this isn't a crippling realization for me.  It's something we all deal with everyday—it's a simple fact of life.  Not knowing for certain which apple will be crisp, juicy, and sweet doesn't stop me from picking out apples in the produce section.  Not knowing with absolute certainty whether my wife loves me didn't stop me from marrying her.  Every decision I make is based on either approximations or trust (or occasionally on blind guesses).

So, I guess that means that my uncertainty about God is not qualitatively different from my uncertainty about which apples are tastiest.  But there is certainly a quantitative difference.  If we limit our discussion to the notion of existence, I can't be absolutely certain that the table I'm sitting at or the computer I'm using actually exist.  There is some chance that I'm hallucinating or that I'm actually in some sort of interactive simulation (like in the Matrix).  However, my uncertainty about the existence of the table or computer are obviously quite different from my uncertainty about God.  I think what it comes down to is sensation....

In ordinary life, the way that we "know" something exists is that we can sense it.  That means we rely on sight or touch or some combination of our senses (or, in the case of scientists, they rely on their instruments to do the sensing for them) to suggest to our minds that there is something there.  For the most part it is pretty straight-forward—I can see a chair in front of me, I can touch its wooden back and padded seat, and I "know" that it exists.  In ordinary life, it doesn't matter that theoretically I could be wrong.  I base my day-to-day living on this type of "knowledge."

However, there are some things that aren't quite as straight-forward, some things that are kind of on the edges.  Usually they are things that we sense only briefly, infrequently or faintly, like hearing noises when we're home alone or like seeing faint, quick shooting stars.  We sense them but because we can't really hear or see them again, we're uncertain about their existence.  To some extent, it seems to me that God often falls into this category.  Experiences of God are often hard to grasp and hold onto, they are brief and often occur when we least expect it.  For some people, these brief experiences are enough to say that they "know" God exists.  However, for many of us, our experiences of God are similar to uncertain noises or faint shooting stars, leaving us unsure whether the experience was real.

So, when I talk about being uncertain about God's existence, I'm not talking in a purely theoretical sense—for me, the latency of God has as much to do with lived experience as it does with theory.  As much as I wish God's existence were as apparent to me as the physical objects I encounter in everyday life, that just isn't the case.  Even if the existence of physical objects is theoretically questionable, it seems to me that God is questionable in a much more real sense than that.

You can call God mysterious, unfathomable, unknowable, or infinite.

I'll call God uncertain.