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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.