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Theology

I believe most in humanity through community, not as a replacement for what has traditionally been called God or faith or religion, but as the most perfect expression of precisely these things.

It is only through one another, through community, through being with and for each other that God appears, that faith finds substance, that religion becomes more than empty theology and conquering orthodoxy. It is not in the rigorously spiritual nor the perfectly orthodox that we discover God. It is in love for one another, not a love that is perfect, but in a love that desires earnestly for perfection.

All else is meaningless.

I have just finished reading The Hidden Room, a collection of poetry by P.K. Page.  There is much in the collection that I enjoyed, and there is much that I could take up further, but there is one small section that I don’t feel like I can leave alone.  Near the end of the collection, in a poem entitled, “Song… Much of it Borrowed,” Page writes,

God is a poet in a poet
a poem in a poem
and a word in a word

There is a real truth in this for me, that God is in the thingness of the thing, that the closer something comes to being itself and nothing else, the more it reveals what is God in it. It is not in any poet or poem or word that God is, but it is the poet in the poet and the poem in the poem and the word in the word. To practice the presence of God through art is not somehow to make art show God, but to make art be itself, and then God becomes its art. This is not an artistic technique or movement. It is a different posture before art, and indeed, a different posture before everything.

There is no perhaps in God.  God is and is not and is to come and may be and in every case surpasses our human categories of being and time, but there is no perhaps in God, because every perhaps is limited by happanstance.  There is perhaps only in the human.

I’ve been reading Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil again, and I was arrested this time by her idea of thickness, where what lies between us and God is the infinite thickness of time and space. 

In the section called The Cross, she writes, “God wears Himself out through the infinite thickness of time and space in order to reach the soul and to captivate it. […] It has in its turn, but gropingly, to cross the infinite thickness of time and space in search of Him whom it loves. It is thus that the soul, starting from the opposite end, makes the same journey that God made towards it.” A little later she says, “We have to cross the infinite thickness of time and space — and God has to do it first, because he comes to us first,” and then again, “God crosses through the thickness of the world to come to us.”

What I find in this idea of thickness is a particularly apt description of how I myself experience the universe, time and space, being, or any of that whole constellation of ideas, how I experience the impossibility of self, of universe, and of self in the universe. It feels to me that there is a thickness to all of this, not just in the sense of breadth, but also in the sense of texture, the thickness of layers and complexity, the thickness of fog and cloud, of bog and mire, of wind and forest, a thickness of idea and description and experience.

What this thickness describes for me is the texture of the universe’s impossibility, not the impossibility itself, but how the impossibility feels as I make my way through it, as I run my hands over its surfaces. It describes how I experience the impossibility of everything, from roasting coffee, to loving my children, to sitting on the toilet, all of it too full of otherness and specificity and complexity and ambiguity, too full of thickness to be possible, and nevertheless here for me and in me.

Any approach to the universe, whether through the gods of religion or of atheism, must account for this thickness, because to cross it, or to make the attempt, is constitutively human, even and especially if the attempt is impossible, if the crossing must be made from whatever lies beyond the thickness of space and time, a whatever that comes to us, comes first, to reach and captivate us.

We say, “Let the desire of my heart be the desire of God’s heart,” and what we mean is, “Let my desire be in agreement with God’s desire,” but when we say and mean in this way we are still insisting that we keep our own desire, however changed. Instead, we need to say, “Let the desire of my heart be the desire of God’s heart,” and we need to mean, “Let my desire be altogether replaced by God’s desire,” because only then have we admitted that are own desire can never be sufficiently changed.

As of this morning, I am no longer an employee of Emmanuel Bible College.  After something like nine years of teaching English literature there, I am no longer able to sign the school’s statement of faith, and so it withdrew its offer of a contract this fall.

My feelings are mixed, because I enjoyed my time at EBC, especially my opportunity to meet the students, some of whom I would now count among my friends, and I am saddened that I will no longer have the opportunity to be an alternative voice for them at the school, but I am increasingly uncomfortable, not only with some of the specific elements that the school includes in its statement of faith, but also with the very idea of a statement of faith, at least in the sense of a standardized list of criteria for orthodoxy.  It is not that I object to the idea of people or even organizations expressing what they believe, but I do object to the idea that these kinds of statements should be or possibly could be definitive of belief.

When we make statements of faith, we need always to recognize how provisional and impossible they are, how inadequate they necessarily are to say anything definitive about God, never mind something prescriptive for those who might be trying to know God.  To assume that any such statement could possibly include all those who are sincerely seeking God is simple pride and hubris, and to exclude on the basis of any such statement can only serve to increase division among people whose common purpose is, at least in theory, to know God better.

In my own case, for example, I object to the statement of faith affirming a belief in the Bible before a belief in God, and also to its description of the Bible as “the only supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct,” an idea that the Bible does not itself contain and that runs counter to the Bible’s frequent depiction of God working also through tradition and personal revelation.  I would say that God, not the Bible, is the only supreme authority, and that the Bible is a means, one of several, through which God communicates.

None of this should put me essentially at odds with most of the people at the school.  It is a point of theological difference where we might disagree, but it is not a matter where the sincerity of anyone’s belief is in question.  Yet, the assumption that we all need to affirm the same list of theological criteria in order to be orthodox, and perhaps to affirm several different lists as we go from church to work to camp to community drop-in center, imposes a final and irrevocable division between us.  This is a great sadness to me.

Let me propose an alternative.  Suppose that each of us, regardless of our religious beliefs or lack thereof, was expected to have a personal statement of faith, even if it was only so short a thing as, “I haven’t a clue what to believe,” and what if we were to regard these things not as prescriptive in any way, but as opportunities to engage one another about these questions that, whatever we believe about them, lie at the core of our humanity, and what if we were expected to hold these statements of faith, not absolutely and for all time, but with equal amounts of humility and passion, so that we would be as willing to admit the possibility that we were wrong as we would be willing to live fully what we believe is right.

Perhaps, just perhaps, this supposition would have me teaching my students this fall.

The experience of God cannot be summoned or controlled, only awaited.  Our participation in its arrival is only to await, not in passivity only, but also in active expectation, to be open to however and wherever it will arrive, to expect that it will arrive in the times and the places where it is least expected.  This is why there is no church — whatever name it might bear, no altar — whatever sacrifice it might carry,  no symbol — whatever meaning it might offer, that has anything to do with the experience of God except to the degree that it brings us to a place of waiting.

I have heard people claim that they do not pray because prayer does not work, but I suspect that the opposite is true, that they do not pray because prayer really does work, only in ways that they do not want or expect.  They would like prayer to be primarily about what they ask from God, and they discover that it is actually about what God asks of them.  They go asking God to change the world, to alleviate their problems, to send down wrath on their enemies, and they find instead that God is asking them to be changed themselves, to alleviate the suffering of others, and to love their enemies.  They do not pray, because prayer asks too much of them.

I am interested in the experience of the miraculous, not as a way of proving the existence of miracles, and certainly not as a way of proving the existence of God, whom no amount of miracles would be sufficient to prove and whom no lack of miracles would be sufficient to disprove, but rather as a unique aspect of human existence.  I am interested, in other words, not in miracles as such, but in how people perceive and describe and experience something that they can only call miraculous, even if this something is afterwards demonstrated to have an entirely mundane cause.  What is significant for me here is the experience itself, how it determines how people act, how it comes to be spoken and written and shared, particularly in our current culture where speaking about these kinds of experiences is increasingly unacceptable.  It does not matter, therefore, whether there are miracles.  It only matters that miracles might be possible, that people might believe in them, that they might live differently because of this belief, and that they might share this belief with one another.

Part of what intrigues me about the idea of the miracle is that it is by definition unpredictable, unnatural, unreproducible.  Despite the claims of faith healers and charlatans everywhere, our common experience readily tells us that no amount of prayer, no degree of faith, no focus of will, nor anything else for that matter, is capable of producing miracles on demand.  If there are miracles, if such things do occur, they only occur quite apart from our desires and our wills, and virtually all scientific research on the subject, such as it is, has confirmed this, finding no substantial difference in populations who receive prayer and those who do not.  Of course, if we could produce miracles on demand, they would no longer be miracles, and so part of what makes a miracle essentially a miracle is that it cannot be produced on demand, that it occurs, if it occurs, only where and when it we do not expect it.

The other intriguing part of miracles is that, also by definition, they can never be definitively verified.  It is always possible to rationalize, explain, ignore, or otherwise reject any proofs that might be offered for miracles.  Even if someone was to be raised from the dead, it would always be possible to claim that there had been no death in the first place, that a medical error had been made or that a hoax had been perpetrated.  No evidence can really suffice for miracles.  Because miracles lie, in their nature, entirely outside of scientific and experiential norms, because they cannot be replicated or reproduced, they can never be truly verified, and the very idea of a verified miracle should strike us as a bit bazaar.

Despite all this, many of the people with whom I speak, religious or otherwise, have admitted to experiencing things that have appeared to them as inexplicable, as impossibly coincidental, as unnatural, as miraculous, though they are often reluctant to admit to these kinds of experiences.  They have encountered something that does not fit with their understanding of the world and that certainly does not fit with their rational and scientific culture, and they are not sure what to do or say about it.  The experience has sometimes even come to play a central part in their lives, and yet it is not something that they can readily articulate.

This situation, where the experience of the miraculous has only a tenuous place in public discourse, is a fairly recent one.  Stories of signs and miracles were standard fare in western culture before they were gradually displaced by scientific and rationalist discourses, and these kinds of miraculous stories remain significant in certain of our microcultures, particularly religious ones, but they no longer find any place in our broader public discourses, and I am curious to see how this experience of the miraculous would be expressed were it given an appropriate forum.

So, I am proposing a discursive experiment.  What if were to use a second blog to solicit stories from people about where and how they have encountered the miraculous in one form or another, from the extraordinary to the banal. The stories would be submitted by comment on the static main page, and I would select from among them and publish them as posts.  Submissions could be made anonymously, and they would not need to conform to any form in particular.  The purpose of the project would not be to prove anything about miracles, but to open a space where people could begin to describe their experience of the miraculous within a culture that is no longer able to hear this kind of discourse.  Its aim will be to explore how the phenomenon of the miraculous experience operates in our lives despite the fact that we are no longer able to discuss it openly.  I am not sure how long I would give to let the project run its course, but I think it would be fascinating to read people describe their experiences.

What do people think of think of this idea?  Is there any merit in it?

It occurs to me that there is something unique about the two thieves between whom Christ is said to have been crucified.

There were certainly those who believed in Christ before these thieves, those who believed in him as the fulfillment of Jewish messianic prophesy, those who believed in him as the promised Messiah who would reign as king over Israel.  They chose to believe in a man who would defeat their enemies, who would raise up their nation, who would offer them  political and military as well as spiritual salvation.

There were also certainly those who believed in Christ after these thieves, those who believed in him as the originator of a new Messianism, those who believed in him as a Messiah who would inaugurate and rule over a spiritual kingdom.  They chose to believe in a man who could pardon their sins, who could raise up a new kind of faith, who could offer salvation to the Jews first but also to the gentiles.

It is only the two thieves, however, who are asked to believe between these two Messianisms, between a triumphal Judaism on one hand and a triumphal Christianity on the other.  It is only they who encounter him solely in the moment between, where he appears to have failed in every respect, where he is broken and bleeding and dying.  Is it any wonder then, despite two thousand years and more of Christian condemnation, that one of the thieves is recorded as mocking Christ?  Mockery was the only logical response to a man who had claimed to be the Messiah and who was dying like a common thief.  Such a man deserves only mockery, or perhaps pity, but certainly not belief.

Yet, in this very same moment, in those hours between the Messiah that Christ had been and the Messiah that he would be, in the time when he was nothing more than a common criminal, in the moment when no one claimed him or made any claims on his behalf, the other thief believed.  What could account for this?  Surely it is the most remarkable act of faith every recorded.  This second thief has as little reason to believe as the first.  He too has encountered Christ in the moment of his failure, and yet he chooses, against all logic and sense, to believe.

This choice is indefensible.  It is either the most faithful or the most foolish choice there has ever been.