"It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy
for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats.
Religion declined not because it was refuted,
but because it became
When faith is completely replaced by creed,
worship by discipline,
love by habit;
when the crisis of today is ignored
because of the splendor of the past;
when faith becomes an heirloom
rather than a living fountain;
when religion speaks only in the name of authority
rather than with the voice of compassion--
its message becomes meaningless."
— Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man. A Philosophy of Judaism.
Heschel is a privileged presence in my Canon of Essential Writers. The Anthology, I Asked for Wonder is a treasure. Few writers combine so powerfully fierce honesty, spiritual passion, and laser accuracy in detecting human fallibility, with a disposition of compassion fueled by faith in the transcendence and mercy of God.
It was Martin Buber who called attention to the life-giving distinction we all must make if we are to value, respect, care for and take responsibility towards, each other. From the deep wells of Hebraic experience of God and community, Buber distinguished between relating to that which is beyond ourselves as "It" and relating to the Other who is beyond ourselves as "Thou". Only as I address the other person as "Thou" do I acknowledge the full dignity of their personhood.
And when that relationship of "I and Thou" takes root in the heart and in the will, then deeply human ties of respect, affection and shared commitments grow into committed and close relationships with those we call our closest friends. And within such friendship deeply human responses begin to be naturally expressed in trustful conversation, playful enjoyment of the other's presence, an inward orientation of care and commitment, and an investment of time and energy that is incalculable because unselfconscious, unreflective generous gift, the response of person to person and heart to heart. Friendship is not therefore a duty or a task, but the name we give to those few "I and Thou" relationships that not only enrich us but slowly and gently over time begin to define us by their very nature as gift and grace.
Reading Buber again for quite other reasons, I've been reminded of how profoundly relevant his view of the world is, in a world which is increasingly enmeshed in the endlessly trivial and restlessly fascinating web spinnings of social networking. It may be that Buber's passionate advocacy of personhood as that in the Other which we address as Thou, offers a way of putting social networking in its place. Facebook, Twitter, even this blog, can never be a substitute for person to person address, an intentional relationship of I and Thou.
At its best social networking supplements, informs, communicates and provides fuel and energy for existing relationships. Friendships as personal exchange and attentive address are nourished by such communication. In social networking stories are not only told but written in the fragments of exchange, and changed as they are responded to in the writing. But there are essential and defining qualities of human relating that cannot be replicated in social networking - they are what Buber means with his distinction between subject and object, Thou and It, - a vital life-enhancing distinction between that which I use as an "It" for my own ends, and this person whom I address as an end in herself or himself.
Here's vintage Buber - I and Thou take their stand not merely in relation, but also in the give and take of talk...Here what confonts us has blossomed into the full reality of the Thou. Here alone then, [in human friendship] as reality that cannot be lost, are gazing and being gazed upon, knowing and being known, loving and being loved.
The interactive gaze of two people, the knowing and being known, the loving and being loved, talking and listening, laughing and crying, supporting and being supported, these and much more that is of the extraordinary ordinariness of human friendship, are only visible expressions and signals of that address that in the presence of the other always, and faithfully, says "Thou". That is why the conversation of friends is such a great sacrament, the grace of words and silence, both alike interpreting and articulating the shared experience of the mystery and mercy of the life that is ours to live, and to share.
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him and without Him was not anything made that was made....and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth."
The mystery of vastness, the perplexing notion of infinity, the "cerebral inconveniences" of impossible mathematics, the loveliness and terror of images that reduce human significance to the omega point. That's what my new book is about - or at least that is what it's about if you can combine rational processing of data with aestheric responsiveness and an educated but not too loopy imagination.
A multi-tasking exegesis of John's Prologue might include simultaneous listening to Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001 Space odyssey), looking at these Hubble space images, saying by heart the text about the Word printed above, and asking the question with bewildered humility, "What are human beings that you are mindful of them?'
Not all theology is verbal. And not all pictures are theological. But as a human being capable of reflection and self-consciousness, I contemplate these images of the universe, and wonder, and trust, and hope, that "all indeed shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well". Julian's image of the hazelnut is more manageable -
"In this vision he showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, and it was round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought "What may this be?" And it was generally answered thus: "It is all that is made." I marvelled how it might last, for it seemed it might suddenly have sunk into nothing because of its littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: "It lasts and ever shall, because God loves it."
A vast universe that exists because it is loved presupposes a God of love beyond telling. Stands to reason.
When it comes to browsing in the Bible, after the Gospels I most often find myself in that supermarket trolley of good advice and wise counsel, the book of Proverbs. One of the words I enjoy saying, and reading, and hearing, is "wisdom". Just pronouncing it somehow conveys a reassuring sense of the world being made OK, of good decisions, of careful considerate behaviour, of something as good, beautiful and true as the knowing smile of a good friend.
Information informs and knowledge enables understanding. but then, when understanding and human experience flow together, the resulting confluence is wisdom, that deep way of knowing and being known that forms character, transforms lifestyle, and conforms us to the image of Christ. Paul knew about Christ and wisdom; he hoped the Christians of Laodicea would receive "all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God's mystery, that is, Christ himself in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge."
My own take on wisdom is profoundly Christological. The Word God utters, the knowledge of the Holy, the incarnate truth that is human life articulated in its surrender to God, the experience of the Creator accommodating to the creature, and thus understanding from within the truth of our humanity and limitation, this is the "loving wisdom of our God." And if indeed it is so that Christ is the wisdom of God, the source and repository of divine understanding and the finally uttered truth of who God is, then all wisdom is tested by Christ, and no wisdom is alien to Christ in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom."
So whether I am reading the book of Proverbs, or Pirke Avot that marvel of compression embedded in the Mishnah, or some of the great wisdom statements of other faith traditions, I recognise a certain ethical tone, a spiritual accent, an echo, perhaps slightly distorted, that is deeply resonant of the Wisdom of God. Wisdom is not disqualified from our consideration because it is uttered by another faith tradition whose dogmatic framework and doctrinal constructions are incompatible with Christian theology. "All the treasures of wisdom are hidden in Christ", the eternal Word subsumes the wisdom of the ages, and so in that incarnate life, crucified and risen, the wisdom of this world is converted into the currency of a quite other way of thinking, acting and being.
So when I come across words like the following, from the ancient Chinese wisdom tradition of LaoTzu, I listen respectfully. And if I do, I am attentive to that which resonates with the uttered words of Jesus, who lived a life which was the uttered Word of God:
Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people's approval
and you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.
Or as Jesus said, "Seek first the Kingdom of God and his justice, and all those other things will find their proper place."
settles among the tight black buds of a bare tree.
Then, like black buds unfolding,
they open their wings;
black notes in music.
He becomes aware that he is watching them with pleasure:
that something almost extinct,
some small gesture towards the future,
is ready to welcome the spring;
in some spare, desperate way
he is looking forward to Easter,
the end of Lenten fasting,
the end of penitence.
There is a world beyond this black world.
There is a world of the possible...
He sees it; then he doesn't.
The moment is fleeting.
But insight cannot be taken back.
You cannot return to the moment you were in before.
...... ...... ......
Actually not a poem. A beautifully written paragraph (which I've restructured) from Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel's novel about Thomas Cromwell and the intrigues, betrayals and political shenanigans of the Tudor Court. It describes the inner change of worldview and self-determination in Thomas Cromwell, as he moves finally from grief at the death of his family from plague, to a much more hopeful attention to his own future. His star is on the ascendant and he begins to sense it without yet fully understanding it. He has discovered the world of the possible.
This is historical fiction of exceptional standard - recreating the early modern world, Renaissance and Reformation Europe, and the reverberations across Christendom of Henry the VIII's obsession with producing a male heir. Reading this one slowly.
Rebecca Elson was a remarkable human being. One of the best ways to persuadethose who don't know about her that she was a human treaure is to point to this obituary from 1999. Becky Elson filled her 39 years with an astonishing range of human achievement, and would have been the first to dismiss living a full human life as any kind of achievement at all. Rather life is gift to be unwrapped and enjoyed, life is a love to be embraced, living is the response of the whole being to that which is, because it is. Ten years after her death, this astronomer poet, who climbed mountains and studied stars, who played football and taught creative writing at Harvard, who played the mandolin and understood the deep harmonies earlier generations called the music of the spheres.
I came across her work in a book on science and poetry, a juxtaposition of disciplines I still find intriguing. Even the title of her published work, Responsibility to Awe, tells you something of this woman's depths - intellectual, spiritual, emotional. She exulted in the physicality of life, the mystery of matter, the joyous enigmas of existence, the unimaginable vastness of a universe still expanding away from human attempts to calculate, control and bring under the domestication of intellect. Her poetry is a celebration of human knowing, its triumphs and limits, the textured varieties of human epistemology, and amongst the ways of knowing that she respects and from which she learns, those two words "responsibility" and "awe". Our age could lose its capacity for both, so superficial and mindless in ways of life that obsess on the transient and immediate, and ignore the vast mysteries of existence in a universe like ours. To enthuse about an awesome star more likely refers to a recent gig than a response to a several billion year old source of light that populates a night sky now permanently invisible above our well lit, energy greedy urban landscape. A recovery of responsibility and awe might be initial steps in that change of mindset needed to prevent ecological catastrophe and give impetus to a humane reform of the destructive economics of irresponsibility and avarice.
Rant ended. Here's a poem that says more, much more, about what matters, and why.
Carnal Knowledge by Rebecca Elson
Having picked the final datum From the universe And fixed it in its column, Named the causes of infinity, Performed the calculus Of the imaginary I, it seems
The body aches To come too, To the light, Transmit the grace of gravity, Express in its own algebra The symmetries of awe and fear, The shudder up the spine, The knowing passing like a cool wind That leaves the nape hairs leaping.
Teachers, carers, theologians, medical professionals and others, meeting together to explore a spirituality of community based on friendship, hospitality and conversation - it was a remarkable conference. Sponsored last autumn by the Centre for Spirituality, Health and Disability, at Aberdeen University, orgainsed by Professor John Swinton, the day featured two very different keynote speakers.
Jean Vanier is founder of L’Arche communities, an international network of local communities. Within L’Arche communities ‘people with learning disabilities and people who do not share that life experience, live together, not as carer and cared for, but as fellow human beings, who share a mutuality of care and need.’ In a world comfortable with hard edged distinctions, sold on efficiency, idolising individual rational choice, dissolving differences into a community of human supportiveness and mutual recognition of need – is both remarkable and prophetic.
Prophetic in the sense of providing a corrective to the self-concerned, often fearful, anxious and grasping way life is now lived in our culture; and prophetic in the sense of gentle critique, an invitation to consider alternative models of human relations. Vanier spoke of fundamental fear, the wound of loneliness, the preciousness of each human being – and did so with tenderness and gentleness, informed by a life experience remarkable in its influence for good in thousands of lives.
By contrast Stanley Hauerwas is one of America ’s leading theologians and ethicists. He disowns any claim to gentleness, is a combative outspoken Texan, eloquent but downright confrontational when he encounters injustice, exclusion and any process or system that diminishes the value and dignity of human life. In a telling contrast he quipped, ‘Where I see an enemy to be defeated, Jean sees a wound to be healed.’ This sharp tongued thinker identified and explored the phrase ‘the politics of gentleness’. He wasn’t always easy to follow, original thinkers seldom are, but as he might say at home, ‘we got the drift.’
Now neither of these men claim that their view of human life and community is the only way to go. And in a climate of party political in-fighting and warmongering, when backs have been stabbed, egos bruised, reputations and track records defended, and payback time gets closer, the phrase ‘politics of gentleness’, has an other-worldly sound. Gentleness is not our preferred way of doing business,nor of interacting socially, nor does gentle human responsiveness deeply inform our most vital relationships; we aren’t even gentle with ourselves.
What was being argued was a change of worldview – a way of looking at others that was not exploitative nor dismissive, that assumed worth and conferred dignity, that sought to understand rather than criticise. Hauerwas described Vanier and his work with a wistfulness that seemed to indicate his own failings in the matter, ‘He exemplifies a way of being which contradicts distrust, and dispels our loneliness of being a fearful human being’. Hauerwas' own definition of being human is also worth pondering: ‘You are stuck with being born; our creature-hood is not chosen; accept life as a gift without regret.’
Yes, and maybe through the politics of gentleness, lived out in our own local communities, informed and sustained by communities practising the love of Christ, we will be able, eventually, to accept every life as God’s gift – without regret.
The devil is but another name for our impatience. We want bread, we want to force God's hand to rescue us, we want peace - and we want all this now. But Jesus is our bead, he is our salvation, and he is our peace. That he is so requires that we learn to wait with him in a world of hunger, idolatry, and war to witness to the kingdom that is God's patience. The Father will have the kingdom present one small act at a time. That is what it means for us to be an apocalyptic people, that is, a people who believe that Jesus' refusal to accept the devil's terms for the world's salvation has made it possible for a people to exist that offers an alternative time to a world that believes we have no time to be just.
The devil's temptations are meant to force Jesus to acknowledge that our world is determined by death. Death creates w world of scarcity - a world without enough food, power or life itself. But Jesus resists the devil because he is God's abundance. Jesus brings a kingdom that is not a zero-sum game. There is enough food, power and life because the kingdom has come, making possible a people who have time to feed their neighbours. Fear creates scarcity, but Jesus has made it possible for us to live in trust....By resisting the devil's temptations Jesus has made it possible for us to live without fear.