The Allure of God

Experiences of beauty point beyond themselves.

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Last week my wife and I attended a play about the Christian conversion of C.S. Lewis. His conversion was a process, not a one-time event. An important element in that process, he says, was some early experiences he had of joy. They set the stage for his conversion. In fact, he titled his autobiographical account of his conversion Surprised by Joy.

He gives his understanding of joy, however, a twist. In his experiences of joy, the ecstatic elation of feeling did not last long. Joy triggers an intense, almost poignant, longing or craving, a craving for that which had somehow caused that momentary experience of joy. His concept parallels that of the romantic German concept of sehnsucht.

What is “that” that has momentarily touched him? For Lewis, it is on a surface level beauty. What we find beautiful may differ from person to person (“beauty lies in the eye of the beholder”), yet wherever we find it, it seems to trigger a sense of pleasurable elation. We are drawn to it, as the night moth is drawn to the porch light.

And, as Lewis found, beauty feeds that intense desire to be in the presence of what we find beautiful. To hold onto it and possess it if we can.

Beauty as a Pointer

But for Lewis, beauty wherever we find it points to something beyond itself. It draws its allure from a higher source–God. Beauty then becomes one of the defining qualities of divinity. When we are fully in the presence of God, we are touched poignantly by God’s supreme beauty and by the beauty that he in grace bestows on all he has made.

So when we stand in awe of a stunning sunset, we are experiencing a beauty which derives from the godhead. When we examine a complex spider web in the light of early dawn, we perceive a beauty that flows from a divine source. When we admire the beauty of a handsome man or woman, we take joy in a beauty that is conferred by his or her maker.

When we work on a mathematic problem and we discover the solution is one of sublime simplicity, we feel we are once again discerning a beauty that derives from the One who creates mathematics. When we feel a sense of amazement at the beauty of some kind, compassionate action, we are recognizing that beauty adheres not only to things, but to behavior as well.

Supreme Beauty

If God then is supreme beauty as God is also supreme goodness and truth, then the words of the psalmist make sense:

As a deer longs for the flowing streams,

            so my soul longs for you, O God.

My soul thirsts for God,

            for the living God.

When shall I come and behold

            the face of God? (Psalm 42:1-2)

When we are touched, if only momentarily, by the beauty, goodness, and truth of God, then we long, sometimes poignantly, for that experience again. Our soul thirsts with an intense thirst, that ultimately only God alone can satisfy by bringing us into his own presence. We can never quite be the same again.

That’s why, I believe, that believers have had a hard time not understanding the Song of Songs in the Old Testament allegorically. What is this longing for God like when we experience it deeply? The closest thing in human experience is the intense longing of lovers for each other. And the Song of Songs is primarily a poem about longing, intense erotic longing.

A Poignant Experience of Beauty

I write this way because of my own experience. When I was in graduate school, some classmates and I decided one weekend to make a retreat at the Cistercian monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts. There we were invited to attend the round of daily prayers in the chapel.

We were not allowed to actually sit in the choir stalls with the monks. Instead we had to gather in a separate room attached to the chapel. There we could listen to the divine offices through a lattice grill. We heard the monks as they chanted their psalms and sang their hymns, sometimes to a strumming guitar.

Even in our somewhat isolated confinement, I found the music flowing to us through the grill intensely beautiful. In Homer’s Odyssey, the music of the sirens is described as so intensely beautiful that sailors were inevitably drawn to plunge into the sea as they passed the sirens’ island. The plunge was always fatal as the waves would dash them up against the jagged rocks. So Odysseus ordered his crew to stop up their ears with wax. Only he would be able to listen, but securely lashed to the ship’s mast.

Well, for me the music of the monks felt something like that coming from divine sirens. I could not believe how deeply it moved me. In some strange way I must have been experiencing something of the beauty that was flowing in their voices from the very God they were praising.

A week later, back in my dorm room, I woke up one night consumed with intense longing to that music. The pangs were so intense that they bordered on pain. They kept me awake for hours. I so wanted to experience that beauty again.

The intensity of the experience confused and frightened me. What was it saying about me? I struggled with that question for years to come. I still do not understand all that was going on that experience, except it did reveal for me the immense power of beauty when we experience it in some very deep way. That power can resemble both pleasure and pain. It can shake us the core of our being.

Signposts of the Universe’s Destiny

Like Lewis, I have come to view such experiences of beauty as pointers to something beyond themselves. They are preparing us, I suspect, for that great experience of unimaginable beauty that will be disclosed to us when God brings the universe to its final fulfillment. God then will be in all that is, no longer obscure and veiled from our eyes, but shining in a dazzling effulgence that will be indescribable. It can only be experienced, not described in words. But all creation will break forth in pealing shouts of joy.

In that day will be fulfilled the words of the psalmist:

Those who go out weeping

Bearing the seed for sowing,

Shall come home with shouts of joy,

Carrying their sheaves. (Psalm 126:6)

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

When Too Many Voices Speak for God

We can stagger under the impact of know-it-all voices.

Religious hypocrisy is a perennial problem among Christians. In fact, none of us ever live lives fully consistent with the gospel we claim to believe. One bitter fruit of this is that God’s good reputation gets tarnished outside of the circles of professed believers. I wrote about this in a previous blog, Paul’s Pious Phonies.

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There is another unfortunate fruit (more like a thistle) of this hypocrisy. Confidence in the message we preach and teach is undermined. This loss of confidence is intensified when we hear multiple voices proclaiming divergent understandings of God’s will.

I have lived most of my life in environments where I have heard a cacophony of conflicting voices each claiming to understand the truth for the church. I have often experienced a sense of betrayal by people (not only professional theologians and preachers, but also Sunday school teachers and devotional book writers) who have confidently proclaimed what they believe to be the will of God and therefore how I should live. As a boy and youth I accepted their claims without question.

But as I have advanced in my spiritual journey, I have come to question, if not outright reject, much of what was taught me when I was younger. I have adopted a lively caution as I listen to what I hear proclaimed today, not only in Evangelical circles, but in mainstream Protestant and Catholic circles. That caution works like a spiritual Geiger counter that constantly tests for what may be nothing more than religious cant.

What often sets off that spiritual Geiger counter is any claim by a speaker or writer that he or she is presenting the only one true way to God. The tone is I-know-it-all. This strikes me as true arrogance. My God will not be boxed into one theological box. My God may accomplish his purposes in ways far beyond anything I can imagine or expect.

What is called for, I believe, is a fundamental humility about our understandings of God and God’s will. We can and should live our lives confidently in the beliefs and convictions we hold. That is the way of maturity. Yet we must always be ready to admit that we might just be wrong. Infallibility is not a gift given to mankind.*

My Debt to the Reformation

To be honest, however, such a stance of humility can bear its own disquieting fruit. We can listen to the many theologies and ethical systems laid before us by preachers, spiritual teachers, theologians, and fellow lay Christians and then feel totally confused. Such confusion saps us of confident living. How do we end up making choices about what is right and true, choices on which we can choose to live our lives?

Here is where I realize that despite many qualms about my upbringing, I remain a spiritual son of the Reformation. For when I am confronted with a viewpoint that I do not fully understand or trust, I return to the Bible to find my bearings once again. It serves as the spiritual polar star that orients my faith journey. It is the rudder that keeps my spiritual ship sailing within a life-delivering channel. It is why the study of the Bible remains central to my spiritual life and my preaching and teaching.

When I say that, I am not saying that I practice some form of proof-texting where I find some verse in the Bible which I then extract out of context and turn into an isolated statement of universal truth. Such proof-texting lies behind much of the religious know-it-all arrogance from which I rebel.

I don’t believe that because a particular sentence appears in the Bible, it automatically becomes the authoritative word of God. Context and literary genre, for example, matter. So when I read the Bible, I try to be especially acute to the context of a phrase or sentence as well as the literary genre in which that phrase or sentence is embedded.

What I am doing  when I turn to Scripture is that I seek to soak myself in Scripture’s spirit and mindset. That means that, in a spiritual sense, I bathe myself in the waters of Scripture, listening to and meditating on what the Bible’s many diverse writers are saying. For I do not find one consistent message in the Bible, but a group of diverse voices in dialogue with each other. Their many voices remind me of the many voices of the rabbis whose wide-ranging discussions lie behind the creation of the Talmud.

Within that diversity of opinion and vision, I hope that I will tap into the Spirit who animates them all. The Spirit can do his work to cultivate within me the mind of Christ, which Paul urges us to adopt in Philippians 2:5: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus….

As we come to look more and more at the world and at our own individual lives from within that mind of Christ, we can have confidence that the Spirit will lead us deeper and deeper into the truth.**

This is one important reason why I write this blog. I have confidence in the Bible because I have confidence in the Spirit that lies behind the Bible. The Bible therefore is worth the hours of energy that I invest in reading it and trying to understand its complex and spacious message.

This confidence in the Spirit is no guarantee, however, that my thinking will be without error. My creaturely mind will never be big enough to comprehend the fullness of truth. There will never be any grounds for intellectual or spiritual arrogance. But I can hope that I will be drawn deeper into the truth as I remain open both to the Spirit’s reshaping of my mind and heart and to perceptions of the truth offered by my fellow human beings.

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* On the issue of humility, I want to affirm the spirit expressed in this prayer from Thomas Merton:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end, nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me ,and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

I was introduced to this prayer in a 2012 issue of the magazine Reflections, published by Yale Divinity School. The theme of the issue was: Seizing the Day: Vocation, Calling, and Work.

 ** What I am trying to say about the role of the Bible in my life parallels what the sages who wrote the Book of Proverbs say about the search for wisdom. For them, what ensures that their search for wisdom will prove fruitful is that it is grounded in an underlying fear of the Lord. This fear is understood not as terror, but as awe, reverence, and trust. The classic statement of this viewpoint comes in Proverbs 9:10:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,

And the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.

For me, one dimension of fearing the Lord is my basic reverence and openness to the words and thoughts I find in the Bible.

 

Qoheleth and the Trinity

If love is real, what does that say about the meaning of the universe?

If you are prone to depression, then you might be wise not to tackle the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. The author is billed as the Preacher (Qoheleth in Hebrew.) As a revered sage, he reflects upon his life obsession with discovering the meaning of life.

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The Great Sage: Augustine of Hippo in his study by Sandro Botticelli, 1480.

His conclusion is disappointing. Vanities of vanities!, he concludes, all is vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:2). The Hebrew might be more accurately translated as “mere breath” or “a puff of wind.” Nothing lasts. What is here today is gone tomorrow. And in example after example he drives that point home.

So what’s his advice for wise living?

This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot. (Ecclesiastes 5:18)

 This conclusion is the fruit of his lifelong pursuit of wisdom. He has read deeply. He has observed the world of both nature and human beings. He has applied all his rational powers to trying to understand it. His approach parallels that of most philosophers and scientists today.

The Dead End Search for Meaning

He comes to the same conclusion as many of them do as well. Years ago I read a book titled Why Does the World Exist? byJim Holt.* The author seeks to penetrate the mystery of existence by interviewing a number of distinguished philosophers and scientists, including Nobel laureates.

His interviewees offer a number of answers, some of which mirror those of various philosophers down through the ages. But what I found most curious was the number of cosmologists and physicists who said the end result of all of their scientific explorations was the conclusion that the world was meaningless. There is no discernable reason why the world exists.

It reminded me of something that the philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote.

Even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home… that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temper of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.**

 One gets the idea that Qoheleth would fit right in in the halls and classrooms of modern academia and scientific labs.

In an intellectual world in which only rational conclusions are accepted as valid, it seems to me that Qoheleth and his companions present a perfectly persuasive argument. The law of entropy suggests that a form of death is the irreversible fate of all that exists in the universe. And if you take up the task of trying to answer why evil exists, then you are probably hammering the nails into the coffin of meaningfulness.

But What About Love?

I was reading Ecclesiastes recently, as I have many times before. I noticed something peculiar this time. The author is convinced that God is real. But the author’s favorite image of God seems to be that of the judge. This leads to the book’s final note of advice:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

What is strikingly missing from the author’s reflections is any perception of God as a God of love. The theme of love is missing throughout the book. And I find myself wondering if that lack accounts for the author’s such dismal conclusions.

If love is real–and human experience says it is, even if in all the partial and broken ways we experience it­–then there is a force at work in the universe that cannot ultimately be captured by human reason or scientific instruments. And may the meaningfulness of the universe be ultimately grounded in that reality? I would like to suggest that is not a phantom assumption.

Love Grounded in the Triune Character of God

I suggest that on the basis of the orthodox Christian assertion that God is triune–a Godhead that is not a singular, motionless monad, but a Godhead who is a unified, yet complex network of presences, presences that Christians have labeled Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When we confess that God is love, we are saying more than that God relates to creation–and to us–in love. We are saying that God is love within God’s own very being. The doctrine of the Trinity makes that very clear when it asserts that what constitutes the very being or life of the Godhead is the eternal dance of giving and receiving that goes on among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That dance is itself love.

Meaning is to be found and experienced within all our networks of love, but most especially in the network of love that constitutes the divinity. If God is love, then the universe that comes from him and is sustained always by him is grounded in love. And that will give the universe and human experience its ultimate meaning.

We may not be able to fully express what that meaning is in words, but we can be confident that when we experience love, we are experiencing in a deeply existential sort of way the meaning of our own lives as well as the meaning of the whole universe.

If all this is true, then Qoheleth’s search for the meaning of life takes on a whole different complexion. Let us indeed eat, drink, and be merry, but in the sobriety as well as the intoxication of love in all its many dimensions.

Writer’s Note: I recognize that I am likely to be vastly misunderstood in what I say if my reader limits his or her understanding of love to erotic love alone. When I talk of love, I have in mind the full spectrum of love as the Christian tradition has understood it. That includes erotic love, but even more importantly compassionate love, service love, and sacrificial love. For the Christian tradition, the highest expression of love was the love of Christ who  accepted the suffering of the cross for the sake of the salvation of the world.

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* Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist?, New York: Liveright Publishing Company, 2012.

** Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not A Christian,  Simon And Schuster, New York, 1957, p. 106.

 

A King James Surprise

Because English has changed so much since 1611, we miss a subtle feature employed by the King James translators.

The King James Version (KJV) has an unmatched eminence among English translations of the Bible. It has profoundly influenced English speech ever since, especially English rhetoric and literary style. One needs only remember that the power of Abraham Lincoln’s oratory owed much to his childhood immersion in the King James Bible and Shakespeare.

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The title page of the King James Bible published in 1611.

One of the enduring influences of the KJV is the elevated tone it set for religious language in English, especially the language used in liturgy. The KJV translators adopted some features of middle English that were already becoming archaic in their own day to give their Bible a more heightened style as divine scripture. For example, verb forms like falleth and doest would have sounded old-fashioned to Jacobeans just as they do to us.

We tend to assume that one other feature of this heightening tone is the KJV’s standard use of thou, thee, and thy as the pronouns in addressing or referring to God. Ever since English speakers have assumed that these pronouns give elevated sanctity to our addresses to God.*

If we make this assumption, we are wrong. The KJV translators were striving for something else in using these pronouns in reference to God.

The Original Association of Thou, Thee, and Thy

Thou, thee, and thy were once the standard pronouns in middle English used for the second person singular. Thou was the nominative form, thee the accusative form, and thy the possessive form. If you were addressing a single person, you would have addressed him or her as thou.

You and yours were the second person plural pronouns. If you used the word you, it was understood that you were addressing more than one person. The effect would have been similar to that of the slang expression we use today you all (clearly a plural address).

Middle English also shared with other European languages the custom of using the second person plural pronouns in formal speech. If a lower-status person were addressing a person of high rank, he would have used you, even if he were only talking to one person. For example, he would have said your majesty to a king, not thy majesty.

The second person singular forms, however, were the customary pronouns that you used in addressing someone you were familiar or intimate with. So a mother might address her child as thou. Likewise a man might address his wife or a close, bosom friend. Using thou, thee, and thy was then a sign that someone was in an intimate or familiar relationship with you.  The effect was to include that person within the circle of your family.

This intimate cast of the word thou would have been parallel to the use of tu in French or du in German. All of these words carried the trappings of familiarity, intimacy, or some social level of equality.

In the Elizabethan era the use of thou, thee, and thy was beginning to fade. All second person speech, whether singular or plural, was being covered by the all inclusive you. But there were yet memories of how thou, thee, and thy had this cast of intimacy. That is why Quakers continued to use these forms into the 17th,  18th, and 19th  centuries. Quakers considered all members of their sect as brothers and sisters, and so all should be addressed using the intimate form of the second person pronouns.

The Emotional Effect of Retaining Thou, Thee, and Thy

The KJV translators retain these second person pronouns in referring to God. But their intent was something different than choosing a heightened terminology in addressing God. They were not communicating that God was exalted, remote, and distant.

Rather by choosing this terminology, they were signaling that our relationship with God is one of intimacy.  God is our loving Father. Therefore, God should not be addressed with the formal you but with the informal, intimate thou. For God is in a sense so close to us that he forms a part of our family. He is the father of our spiritual family. Jesus was conveying the same sense when he chose to address God as Abba, which was Aramaic for the word Daddy.

But as English has changed, we have lost touch with this intimate cast of the second person singular pronouns thou, thee, and thy. Instead they have become formal terms heightened by their use in talk about the divinity. As a result, they tend to speak to us of the spiritual distance of God rather than of God’s intimate presence with us. And as that happens, we undermine the intent of the King James translators. How ironic!**

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* It was also the adopted practice of Thomas Cramner in his drafting of the Book of Common Prayer. That book has had even greater influence on the vocabulary we have traditionally used in English-speaking worship.

** I want to acknowledge that this insight into this feature of the KJV translators is one that I gained from listening to the lecture series The History of the English Language, by Professor Seth Lerer of Stanford University. The lecture series is published by the Great Courses company of Chantilly, Virginia. The series is an excellent survey of the development of the English language. Lerer devotes one whole lecture to the translators of the King James Bible.

 

What the Apostle Paul Means by Freedom

The apostle’s view runs counter to that of most Americans.

 Two years ago when I published my study guide to the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, I titled it Charter of Christian Freedom. I did so because Christians have long regarded Galatians as a powerful statement about the freedom Christ has conferred upon believers.

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The apostle’s point comes through most boldly in Galatians 5:1:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

This verse is Paul’s gospel claim within the sphere of public debate. It could be printed on posters and mounted prominently in every church.

It is easy, however, to pervert Paul’s message if we do not take time to understand what he means by freedom. We especially do so when we Americans bring to Paul our own prevailing understanding of freedom.

The Common American Understanding of Freedom

When America issued its Declaration of Independence in 1776, it stated that all human beings are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Ever since Americans have made liberty one of their most cherished—if not the greatest–values.

But what does freedom mean to most Americans today? When I hear my fellow citizens talk about freedom, I get the sense that what freedom means for them is license to do whatever they please. No external compulsive power is able to tell us what to do or how to live.

Nothing—whether government regulation, social convention, institutional authority, or family pressure—blocks us from doing whatever we want to do. Our home is our individual castle which presides over our own world of individual sovereignty. This concept of freedom, I believe, lies at the core of a lot of libertarian as well as identity politics.

The problem is: How do you maintain a wholesome social order with this understanding of freedom? For this concept of freedom remains essentially ego-centric. What counts in the end is my ability to do what I please. The momentum behind such a concept of freedom is the drive to fulfill my own self-interest, my own well-being and prosperity.

The ego-centrism may not just be confined to individual persons. It can also characterize groups and societies as corporate individuals. And so we can find that ethnic or religious groups can make the advancement of their own well-being the primary focus of their energies. Likewise, nations can say all that really counts in international relations is each country following its own national self-interest.

Finding Our Way in Such a World of Freedom

 How do we negotiate our way in such a context of freedom? Usually by two options. One is competition. All free individuals are in competition with one another. In competition, conflict is resolved when one party wins and all others lose. It tends to be a zero-sum game. If I win, you lose. If you win, I lose.

It was the fundamental assumption of ancient Greek society, the society in which Paul’s readers and listeners had grown up. Greek city states presumed that strife (eris)– strife between states, between social classes, between individuals–was the natural condition of life.

Paul recognizes the perils of this understanding of freedom when he warns his readers:

If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another (Galatians 5:15).

 That was abundantly fulfilled in the history of ancient Greece. All the rival city states fought each other incessantly, as each individual state sought to achieve hegemony within the Greek world. In the process they weakened each other so much that when Macedonian imperial power invaded Greece, no city state could successfully resist such integrated power.

The other negotiating option is compromise. But to someone who prizes his or her self-interest above all other values, compromise can feel distasteful. I have to moderate my own desires and needs by accommodating to the desires and needs of others. That can feel like I am settling for second best, not the best. We find this distaste for compromise among many extremist groups today.

Paul’s Concept of Freedom

So what does Paul mean by freedom? I think we get at his concept of freedom in Galatians 5:13-14:

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Freedom for Paul is the experience of being liberated or released from our dominating ego-centrism. It removes all the obstacles that keep us from being the people God created us to be, from living the life that God calls us to live. That life embraces two important tasks:

  • To recognize, develop, and use our God-given gifts, talents, and skills for God’s glory and for service to others, and
  • To give ourselves in love to others and to receive their love and service in return without impediment.

Paradoxically when we live into such love and service to others, we find ourselves becoming most fully the individuals that God created each of us to be uniquely. Our own personal fulfillment is the unexpected by-product of this paradoxical freedom.

Obstacles to Freedom

The obstacles that keep us from experiencing such freedom may be many. They can be:

  • Psychological hang-ups,
  • Social prejudice,
  • Family or societal expectations,
  • Paralyzing feelings of guilt or shame,
  • Distorted thinking,
  • Political or economic oppression,
  • Ethnic or religious discrimination,
  • Spiritual woundedness,
  • Physical diseases and disabilities.

Especially potent obstacles for Paul are spiritual forces at work in the world. Paul refers to them in passing in Galatians 4:3, when he speaks of “the elemental spirits of the world.” Elsewhere he will call them the “principalities and powers in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10). Today we might describe them as the systemic structures, mindsets, and expectations that govern the way the world operates.

They are so deadly to human freedom that Paul warns his readers in Ephesians 6:10-12:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Life can be full of obstacles that keep us from being the unique persons God calls us to be. That is what the work of God’s salvation is all about, setting us free from all these obstacles.  Salvation is all about liberation. That is clear from the Exodus story, which becomes the paradigm for all of God’s future works of salvation.

When we enter fully into this kind of freedom—the freedom for which Christ has set us free–we can be truly spontaneous in our way of living, for our whole being will be governed by the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit. It is at the same time a responsible freedom. It takes seriously God’s call to respect the dignity and value of all others, including even the natural creation.

When we enter into this kind of freedom, we can finally live without a spiritual or psychological hang-up the counsel that St Augustine gave his congregation centuries ago:

Once for all, then, a short precept is given thee: Love, and do what thou wilt….*

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* St. Augustine, Seventh Homily on 1 John 4:4-12

Promise or Delusion?

How are we to take the prophet Isaiah’s vision of a new Jerusalem?

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Vision of the new Jerusalem, as envisioned by the French artist Gustave Doré, 1890

I’ve been reading my way through the Old Testament prophetic book of Isaiah. The prophets are full of denunciations of sin and forewarnings of divine judgment. But chapter 62 of Isaiah is very different. It is a magnificent vision of a new Jerusalem that God promises to create in the future.

It is a glowing vision. The prophet describes the restored city as a crown and diadem in the hand of God. The city will be renowned in the earth. Gentiles, who have oppressed the city, will now serve it. They will harvest the grain and grapes to feed the city’s residents, who will be called The Holy People.

The prophet in fact describes the city in the metaphor of a bride, decked out in all her jewels and finery. For the city will have been restored into a loving relationship with God, who is described in the metaphorical language of a bridegroom. The city that was once described as Forsaken and Desolate will now be called My Delight and Married.*

The passage is a beautiful note of consolation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon.** They need not despair. Their exile is not the last word from God. What lies ahead of them is a glorious future, when all their misery will be transformed into joy.

My spirit flares up when I read the passage, just as the prophet describes Zion’s vindication shining out like the dawn. It gives me a hopeful heart.

A question, however, lurks in the background of my thoughts. When is this future that the prophet so lovingly proclaims? How should I as the reader understand the timing of that future?

Option for Understanding/1

There are various options for understanding the prophet’s words. When the prophet spoke these words, he may well have expected that the glorious restoration of Zion lay in the near future. That’s why his words could be such a consolation to the discouraged exiles.

Is he saying to the exiles: Buck up! This exile is not going to last long. You will soon return to Zion, but when you do, you will return to a glorious city that will reverse all the conditions of life that you are now experiencing.

If that is what the prophet assumed the inspired words meant when he spoke them, then he was wrong. Yes, Jews would return from exile under the Persian emperor Cyrus and rebuild the city.

But the city they rebuilt was a shabby provincial city that the wider world would have largely ignored. We know from the books of Ezra and Nehemiah as well as from the prophetic books of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi that life in this new Jerusalem was pretty precarious and demoralizing for a long time.

If this was the time frame that the prophet had in mind, then his words were not ultimately words of consolation, but words that fostered a great disappointment.

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But, of course, the prophet is never precise in identifying the timing he has in mind. For this reason, many Biblical scholars will argue that what the prophet is expressing is an eschatological vision. The Greek word eschaton means end, in the sense of terminal end. So eschatological has become an adjective that scholars apply to any talk about The End in the sense of the end of history.

The prophet then is describing a vision of Zion that will be realized when history comes to its grand and glorious conclusion. The eschaton will not only be the end as finis of history. It also represents the divine goal, the fulfillment, to which God has been ceaselessly working through all the complex forces of history. Yet it is an end whose locus will still be on the earth.

If this is how we are to read the vision, then its fulfillment has yet to come. Nothing so far that has happened in the history of Jerusalem has fulfilled the promise. The fulfillment lies yet ahead in an indeterminate future.

If we read the prophecy in this way, we understand that the prophet is holding out an existential consolation to the exiles in their present misery. But the consolation depends upon an indeterminate future date that may be far in the future beyond their own deaths and the deaths of their descendants. How well did this word console a people trapped in their daily struggle to survive in an alien land?

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A variation of this eschatological vision is the interpretation that what the prophet offers is a vision of heaven. Here is, yes, an eschatological vision, but the eschaton has been moved from the end of history to eternity. It is a description of life that will be fulfilled in eternity. This was a favored interpretation of medieval monks who looked forward longingly to that life after death that would be ours in Jerusalem the Golden, that is, heaven itself.***

In this interpretation the prophet’s words are words of consolation not just to the Jewish exiles in 6thcentury B.C. Babylon. They are inspiring words for all humanity. They open up to us a breath-taking cosmic vision. And so the prophet’s words remain an eternal divine promise. We can count on it because God is always faithful to his promises.

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 Or lastly we might read the prophet’s vision not as inspired expression but as just plain wishful thinking. He longs to speak a word of consolation to his dispirited compatriots. A vision of the glorious future of their ruined, devastated city might have seemed just what everyone needed. But is it grounded in any reality? Is it not just a cruel delusion?

I confess that I don’t know which of these options I find most persuasive. I like those that seem to nurture faith and confidence. Yet doubt creeps around the edges and raises pesky questions.

The Dance of Doubt and Faith

And isn’t that exactly the experience of a life of faith? We hear the promises of God spoken in Scripture. We take confidence in living because of those promises. And yet the circumstances of our lives as they unfold constantly call that confidence into question. Could all the promises we hear be in the end delusions?

Blaise Pascal famously described faith as taking a bet on God. I have placed my bet on God and his promises. But that does not mean that my faith ever completely silences the whispers of doubt. Doubt and faith dance together. And in the end we live by faith, not by certainty.

I’m curious how any of you my readers deal with  the questions that a passage like Isaiah 62 raise for me. If you would like to share your thoughts, I would welcome hearing from you.

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* The Hebrew words of My Delight and Married are the words Hephzibah and Beulah. Isaiah 62 is the source for what were once quite common names for women in the English-speaking world. I myself had an aunt who was named Beulah.

** I understand the prophet speaking in Isaiah 62 to not be the 8th century prophet under King Hezekiah, but an anonymous prophet, probably in Babylon, of the late 6th century B.C.

*** One of the most soaring descriptions of heaven as Jerusalem the Golden is found in the 12thcentury Latin poem De Contemptu Mundi  by the Cluniac monk Bernard. It reads:

Jerusalem the Golden,

With milk and honey blest,

Beneath thy contemplation

Sink heart and voice oppressed.

I know not, O I know not,

What social joys are there,

What radiancy of glory,

What light beyond compare!

The passage has inspired a number of Christian hymns that we regularly sing in church.

 

 

The Lament Psalms

The Bible’s sanction for bringing our rawest feelings to God.

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Among people who do not read the Bible often, there is a misconception that the Book of Psalms is a collection of praise songs and thanksgivings. The reality is different. A large number of them are poems of complaint and sorrow.

Scholars call these songs the lament psalms. In them the psalmist (or the assembly that sings or chants them) cries out in anguish to God. The anguish may well up from a threatening situation in the psalmist’s life, such as a serious illness that looks as if it is going to be fatal (Psalm 38) or a bout of depression (Psalm 88)*.

More often the anguish is a result of cruelty or injustice that the psalmist is experiencing. The injustice may be a betrayal by a psalmist’s best friend (Psalm 55). Or it may be vicious gossip that one’s neighbors are spreading in the community (Psalm 109). Or it may be ambushes or violence that one is suffering in the streets (Psalms 56 and 64).

The source of the anguish may not, however, be personal. It may be national. It may be the exploitation of the poor and marginalized by the powerful classes in society (Psalm 109). Or it may arise from the devastation brought upon the land by foreign invaders (Psalms 74 and 79). Or by a threat to annihilate Israel (Psalm 83).

Though many, the sources of the anguish all stir up a desperate cry to God that often begins with words like these:

How long, O Lord, how long? Will you forget me forever?

            How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I bear pain in my soul,

            and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Psalm 13:1-2)

Language of Shocking Violence

What is so disconcerting about these lament psalms is the violent language the psalmist uses in regard to his enemies. He curses his enemies and cries out to God to wreak revenge on those who are attacking and oppressing him.

A good example is Psalm 109. Here the psalmist’s enemies are maligning his reputation in the community. They speak hate. They spread lies. They say to themselves:

Appoint a wicked man against him;

            let an accuser stand on his right.

 When he is tried, let him be found guilty;

            let his prayer be counted as sin.

May his days be few;

            may another seize his position.

May his children be orphans,

            and his wife a widow.

May his children wander about and beg;

            may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit.

May the creditor seize all that he has;

            may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil.

May there be no one to do him a kindness,

            nor anyone to pity his orphaned children. (Psalm 109:7-12)

The psalmist takes up their very words and turn them against them. He asks God to bring the same fate upon them and their families. We are in the realm of something approaching a blood feud.

In Psalm 137, the hatred of the psalmist is turned against the Babylonians who have leveled the city of Jerusalem and killed or exiled its population. The psalmist reaches a climax in his hatred when he wishes that some other invader will come and dash the babies of the Babylonians against the rocks just as the Babylonians did to the Judean babies.

This is strong stuff. Many of us recoil against such bitter prayers. So much so that many churches will ban the lament psalms, especially the cursing psalms, from recitation in their liturgies. Others will exclude them from published editions of the psalms.

There is a danger in this banning, as the writer Kathleen Norris reminds us all in a beautiful essay on the psalms.** These lament psalms bear witness to the fact that life is full of suffering, pains, and injustice. She quotes a Benedictine nun, who once said, “The human experience is full of violence, and the psalms reflect our experience of the world.”***

If we are to have an authentic worship life, we cannot ignore the hatred and injustice in the world, especially within our own inner selves. That is the rationale for beginning a worship service with a confession of sin. We come before God with mixed emotions. We are people of light anddarkness. People of love and, yes, hatred. That is our reality.

Retaining Laments in Our Worship

Keeping the lament psalms in our liturgies and in our Bibles does raise the question: How do we deal with these difficult and emotionally complex psalms? How do we integrate them with the admonition of Jesus to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44)? Let me say a few things about how I handle these psalms.

One, the lament psalms give us sanction, I believe, to bring our rawest feelings into our relationship with God. The words of these psalms are strong, but they do reflect our most painful experiences. When we try to suppress these strong feelings from our consciousness, we drive them into our unconsciousness where they can fester and wreak havoc with our lives. This is the very personal experience of military veterans suffering from PTSD.

The first step to healing is to bring our most troubling feelings into the open. And the lament psalms provide a model for doing so.

This does not mean that God–or we–may fully approve of the feelings we are releasing. There may be morally troubling aspects with those feelings. But we cannot deal with feelings that remain buried and hidden from sight.

The lament psalms in fact gives words for expressing feelings we may not yet be able to articulate for ourselves. I’ve been told that after the event of September 11, 2001, many churches who incorporated lament psalms into their liturgies of sorrow and remembrances found those very psalms expressed best what many in the congregation were feeling. The language of the lament psalms remains relevant over and over again.

Prayers of Violence Directed to God

Two, we need to notice that the lament psalms are usually addressed to God. That means they are prayers. That’s very important in my book.

The psalmist is expressing raw feelings, but he is expressing them to God, not directly to his enemies. He may be wanting God to act on his violent requests. But when we bring our violent feelings to God, we may be surprised with God’s response.

God may choose not to act on our requests, for to do so would violate his own character as a loving Father. Instead God may in a sense say to us, “Now that you’ve brought your desires to me, let’s begin to work on them. Let me begin to heal them.” That can happen by God bringing us into a change of perspective that ends up in transforming our desires and feelings.

We see this very action modeled in Psalm 73. The psalmist begins with a lament about how the wicked seem to experience no negative consequences from their evil actions. They seem to prosper and enjoy health and public esteem. How unfair!

Then the psalmist says he walked into the sanctuary of God (Psalm 73:17). There he underwent a change of perspective. He saw how God had set them in slippery places and how they can be destroyed in a moment.

As a result, he undergoes a dramatic change of attitude.

When my soul was embittered,

            when I was pricked in heart,

I was stupid and ignorant;

            I was like a brute beast toward you.

Nevertheless I am continually with you;

            you hold my right hand. (Psalm 73:21-23)

Our lament prayers may begin the first steps in a purification process that leads to a dramatic reversal in our feelings and attitudes. At the end of the process, we may recognize how foolish we were in all the revenge we begged God for. Prayer can indeed be a transforming power, transforming us rather than our enemies.

Songs of Solidarity

Lastly, it is important too to note that most of the psalms are meant to be sung or chanted in a community of faith. Even when the psalmist speaks in the first person singular, scholars point out that we cannot always be sure if the “I” of the psalm is meant to be just an individual speaking or is a communal “I”. Is the “I” really meant to be the voice of “We”?

That is important to remember when someone complains about the lament psalms that they do not express what he or she is feeling that day. But the psalms are expressing the feelings that other members of our faith community may be feeling or that believers may be feeling somewhere else in the world. By reciting these psalms in our liturgies, we acknowledge our solidarity with believers not only who are rejoicing, but also suffering grievous sorrow and injustice.

They also tend to draw us into an awareness of how we participate not only in suffering with others, but also inflicting suffering on others. Kathleen Norris says this in a striking way.

The psalms mirror our world but do not allow us to become voyeurs. In a nation unwilling to look at its own violence, they force us to recognize our part in it. They make us reexamine our values.****

So do you still want to ban the lament psalms from your worship and Bible study? I for one do not. They prevent my religion from becoming a form of escapist fantasy. They keep me grounded into real life. And it is only there that I can cultivate a wholesome relationship with God and with my neighbor.

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* Psalm 88 is unique among the psalms. A deeply anguished psalmist cries out to God, but he seems to have no expectation that God will come to his rescue. The final line is the most despairing in all the psalms:

You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;

            my companions are in darkness.

** “The Paradox of the Psalms,” in Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk. New York:Riverhead Books, 1987.

*** Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, page 97.

**** Norris, The Cloister Walk, page 103.