This is the first of five posts prompted by Bo Sanders of Homebrewed Christianity. Just today he put up a post entitled "Of Creeds and Lean-tos: thoughts on temporary shelters," and it made me remember that I'd had a bunch of posts that I wanted to put up on that topic and theology in general. These pieces were part of a short pre-semester reading I wrote for seminary students in a theology 101 course I co-taught here in Rochester. Over the next couple weeks I'll get them all up here, so… Thanks Bo!
What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too,
as do the trees, not needing names.
When we win it's with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler's sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.
-R.M. Rilke, “The Man Watching”
End of conversation.
For many folks, those two words are sufficient, and yet, for such a short declarative statement, the sentence "God is." has quite a bit of baggage packed into it. Whose god? we might ask. The God who allowed the Crusades to happen? The Shoah? Lynchings and slavery? That god? Is that the God that is? And immediately we plunge into other issues.
As soon as we attempt to provide positive affirmation of God's existence through words alone we stretch the limits of our language. Sure, details could be ironed out: What are the qualities of God? What are the powers of God? Is God a cognizant being? Does God have infinite foreknowledge? Does God feel?, but we might never reach satisfactory answers to these questions and we would still be lacking a better, short way of saying what it is that God is all about, let alone addressing questions of sin, redemption, end times, or the purpose of the church. The challenge of it all seem so complex and unsatisfactorily answerable that many conversations are cut short and overly simplified. And while I would agree that issues of the Divine are too complex to definitively settle and explain, that does not mean there is not another way. While some might throw their hands in the air in frustration, settling for "God just is," saying that language simply cannot express the enormity of the Divine, and others would attempt to reduce God to a mere logical construction for the sake of explaining it all the way through, I think there is another, richer path to tread.
Theology is human reflection upon the Divine Event, which is still happening. We reflect on that which still transpires, living in the tension of Rilke's wrestler: struggling against a mighty obstacle, knowing that there may be a blessing in the struggle. Holding both the power of language to bring clarity in perspective and the awareness that God ever makes things new, we might strike out on a fruitful course. A course during which we may find that language helps us to clarify our faith. That in thinking more sharply about the Divine we can root out the damaging and exclusionary teachings we have inherited not from a Divine source, but from fellow fallible humans. And yet, we must cede that for all that is to be gained, we may also encounter moments when in our days of wrestling with language for the Divine our best response will be to join with the trees bent in the immense storm: silent and moved by a greater force.
Language about God resides within the tensions of a challenging dilemma. On the one hand, God's transcendent nature and ineffability makes us want to abandon any attempt to put language to the Divine, knowing we're never going to quite get it perfect. On the other, our human predilection for wanting certainty and reassurance makes us want to clarify and propositionalize God's holy mystery. Most Christians believe that the Bible is authoritative. No problem there. The issue is how to interpret this authority correctly. The Bible is rife with contradictory passages, so the question becomes by what authority will you claim resolution of their tensions? Or will you allow the tensions to remain, their very lack of resolution driving you to new questions, perspectives, and faithfulness?
The Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber wrote that our task as thinking people of faith is to walk the “narrow ridge” between speechless relativism and lifeless dogma. Step too far in either direction, he suggests, and we succumb to the temptation of an easy out and the power and promise of the tension is lost. Move into an abandonment of language and we have nothing to say to those who make use of God's name to spread hate and nothing to say to people who ask of our own faith: we leave the work of naming the function of church entirely to others. On the other hand, trying to fully articulate and explain God means we inherently accept not only the premise that human reason, logic, and language can address the entirety of God, but that our articulation is the articulation. Somewhere between these extremes is that narrow ridge which ministers and scholars of theology must seek to find.
Beautiful Callid. I’m really grateful for smart people like you and Bo who can write about this stuff with such clarity, acumen and receptiveness. You make thinking fun! But I guess that’s your goal as an educator right? Good work 🙂
Thanks so much! That indeed is my goal. That, and (in teaching theology at least) a deepening faith that is both critically-informed and socially transformative.