Truth Beyond Understanding

Rationality has its limits as a way of knowing reality.

The_south_transept_rose_at_Notre-Dame_de_Chartres

The south transept rose window of Chartres Cathedral–for me a visual symbol of trans-rational knowing.

I am glad that the canon of the Bible includes the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. Its weary skepticism provides a needed antidote to the many times we get way too confident in talking about our faith.

Towards the very end of his book, the author (known as Qoheleth, the Preacher) expresses this opinion: Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh (Ecclesiastes 12:12). Recently I find myself saying with him: Amen.*

I have spent a good part of my life studying the Christian faith, reading theology, pondering the Bible, all in an effort to make rational sense out of this faith that I inherited from parents and the religious culture in which I grew up. In particular, I’ve wanted to see if I could separate the distortions in what I was taught from the pure truth of the gospel.

I’ve then in turn devoted great energy to sharing my discoveries with others, through preaching, teaching, writing, conversations, and even this blog.

And yet that pure, unadulterated grasp of the truths of Christianity still exceeds me. The faith I study so diligently continues to hold mysteries, paradoxes, and puzzles that I cannot resolve.

Especially puzzling are the mysterious ways God works in God’s world, ways that seem to refuse to yield to rational comprehension. This is no new insight on my part. It is the old, old message of the Book of Job in the Bible. Job resonates with anyone who tries to discern where God is at work in times of unspeakable tragedy.

What all this does for me is underscore the fact that the truth for which we long seems to exceed our rational ability to grasp it. This is not to say that truth is irrational. Neither is it rational. Rather, I have come to believe, it is trans-rational. It eludes any rational attempt to understand it or cage it in human words.

Trans-rational knowing

Can we know the truth? Yes, I continue to hope that we can, but we must approach it in a trans-rational way. What is that way? I concede that I don’t know.

That’s because it is likely to be far different from the way of knowing that we are taught in our schools, a way of knowing that goes back to the Greek philosophers and scientists that lie at the start of the Western cultural tradition. The Greek tradition assumes that the truth is an objective it that can be grasped intellectually and expressed in rational propositions. Its reward is the gift of an intellectual certainty on which we can build a secure base for our lives.

When I try to guess what this trans-rational way of knowing looks like, I am brought back to those lines in Psalm 27 where the psalmist writes:

Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud,

            be gracious to me and answer me!

“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”

            Your face, LORD, do I seek.

         Do not hide your face from me.(Psalm 27:7-9)

The psalmist, it seems to me, here describes a way of knowing God that he metaphorically calls seeing God face-to-face. It is a kind of knowing that is direct and deeply relational. It is a way of knowing that is hard to express in words because it is so deeply direct and relational. Yet it is still a way of knowing the Truth (with a capital T), which turns out to be not a proposition, but a deeply personal One.**

If what I say is correct, then I think we must take seriously the contemplative and mystical traditions of Christianity. For it is the mystics who bear witness to this kind of trans-rational knowing. The mystics claim that they have come to know the One, but they struggle to find words to express that quality of knowing.

Words cannot express their experience adequately. And so the words they do write can sound awfully befuddling to one who has not had their experience. Sometimes, as a result of their experiences, the mystics may abandon writing words completely. One can know what they have experienced, they say, only by experiencing it for oneself.

For me the best exemplar of this is Thomas Aquinas. There are few theologians who have relied more upon reason to express the truths of the Christian faith systematically or written more voluminous books. Of Aquinas’ scholarship, it can truly be said there was much making of books.

The trans-rational experience of Thomas Aquinas

St-thomas-aquinas

Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274

One of his companions reports, however, that towards the end of Aquinas’ life, Thomas heard Jesus speak to him during mass, saying “You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward would you have for your labor?” Thomas replied: “Nothing but you, Lord.”

It seems that afterwards he experienced some kind of spiritual vision or ecstasy. Aquinas never shared precisely the details of what he experienced. But it dramatically changed the course of his work. He stopped writing and never wrote again during the remaining months of his life.

When his confessor urged him to take up his writing again, Aquinas responded: “Reginald, I can do no more. Such secrets were revealed to me that all I have written now appears of little value.”

When I read this account, I find myself asking: In his mystical experience, did Aquinas move into that realm of trans-rational knowing where he perceived the inadequacy of words to express the Truth he had come to know directly and relationally?

There comes, it seems to me, a point in the life of any scholar (as it seems to have come in my own) when one must finally admit that reason alone cannot ultimately answer all the questions we bring to our study of life and the world.

To continue to trust in reason alone is to imprison oneself within the constantly fluctuating world of scholarly opinion or to experience emotional burnout as one seeks a certainty that constantly eludes us. What is given in this trans-rational way of knowing is not intellectual certainty, but a connection to the Truth that serves as an anchor through all the vicissitudes of life.

If we cannot make the leap into trans-rational knowing, then maybe it is wisdom indeed to follow the further advice of Qoheleth: The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.(Ecclesiastes 12:13). And for most of us that may indeed be the way of wisdom in our daily living.

______________

* In recent months I have been experiencing severe pain in my neck. The doctor says the pain results from hyper-stressed neck muscles. The cause, he says, is the head posture I assume when I am doing my reading and writing. The making (and reading) of many books, it seems, can indeed become a pain in the neck.

** I say the One (with a capital O), because I am trying to express the idea that the Truth is not an impersonal It. But another way of saying it is to say that the Truth we seek to know is a Thou. That is the way Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, expresses it in his book I and Thou. This is a book (among the making of many books) that has had a deep influence on my thinking.

 

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The Mystery of the Transfiguration

A gospel story that challenges my reductionist assumptions.

icon of transfiguration

An Orthodox icon of the Transfiguration

When I read the gospel stories of Jesus’ transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36), I have lots of questions. The stories describe something so out of ordinary human experience that I don’t know what to make of it.

Is this story a case of the gospel writers engaging in a form of myth-making to create a numinous aura around Jesus? Or did this event really happen in Jesus’ ministry?

If the story is real, what are we to make of the brilliant light? Should we understand it as a supernatural breakthrough into ordinary material reality? The natural world possesses no such divine light, but for one bright moment, God works a supernatural miracle.

Or is it the case that the natural world already possesses–and has always possessed–this divine glory, but our natural organs of perception cannot perceive it? To explain what I mean, let me draw upon the analogy of radio waves. Radio waves have always existed, but humans could not perceive them and exploit them until we invented radio receivers. In the transfiguration, were Peter, James, and John for one short moment given the spiritual organs to perceive the divine glory that permeates all creation?

Finally, was the transfiguration of Jesus a completely unique event that has happened to no one else in history? Or is it an experience that can be potentially, if not often, repeated in the experience of other humans?

These questions will suggest that I take the story of the transfiguration quite seriously. I do indeed. One reason is my extensive reading in Eastern Orthodox theology. The Orthodox give prominence to this story, especially in their spirituality.

My Dialogue with Orthodoxy

As Orthodox writers understand it, when Jesus was transfigured on the mountain top, he shone with the brilliant, uncreated light of divinity. The three disciples–Peter, James, and John–are given the privilege of perceiving that light, something human beings cannot normally do.

What they perceive is the glory that is to come when God’s creative/redemptive plan is complete. All humanity will shine in this divine light.

It will be the fulfillment of that great hope which the apostle Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 5:1-5. There he says he knows that death will strip us of mortal bodies (which he describes as tents). But we will not be left as naked spirits. Rather we will be re-clothed. We will receive new bodies, but superior bodies that he refers to in the metaphor of “heavenly dwellings.”

Orthodox theology refers to this transformation as theosis or divinization. And a part of that transformation will include our new bodies shining with the same light that the disciples saw at Jesus’ transfiguration.

The Book of Revelation does not limit this transformation to human beings. It will envelope all creation:

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and  its lamp is the Lamb. (Revelation 21:22-23)

The Testimony of Saint Seraphim of Sarov

Clearly then what Jesus and the three disciples experienced on the mountain was a foretaste of life in the Eschaton when the kingdom of God will come in its fullness. But was the one foretaste of the eschaton a one and only one-time event? Orthodox spirituality says no. Other Christians may occasionally—even though rarely—experience it, too.

Seraphim_of_Sarov

Seraphim of Sarov

The most accessible account of such an experience is the one told about Saint Seraphim of Sarov (1754-1833) by the Russian writer Nicholas Motovilov (1809-1879). Seraphim was a starets, a monk who lived in seclusion in a hut in a forest. His sanctity was so renowned that many sought him out for spiritual direction. Motovilov was one of those.

One winter day, the two of them were walking in the forest and talking about the Holy Spirit. Seraphim was talking about the need of acquiring the Holy Spirit. In response, Motovilov asked, “How can a man be sure of ‘being in the Spirit of God.’

Then Father Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: “We are both in the Spirit of God now, my son. Why don’t you look at me?”

I replied: “I cannot look, Father, because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache with pain.”

Father Seraphim said: “Don’t be alarmed, your Godliness! Now you yourself have become as bright as I am. You are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God yourself; otherwise you would not be able to see me as I am.”

Then, bending his head towards me, he whispered softly in my ear: “Thank the Lord God for His unutterable mercy to us! You saw that I did not even cross myself; and only in my heart I prayed mentally to the Lord God and said within myself: ‘Lord, grant him to see clearly with his bodily eyes that descent of Thy Spirit which Thou grantest to Thy servants when Thou art pleased to appear in the light of Thy magnificent glory.’ And you see, my son, the Lord instantly fulfilled the humble prayer of poor Seraphim. How then shall we not thank Him for this unspeakable gift to us both? Even to the greatest hermits, my son, the Lord God does not always show His mercy in this way. This grace of God, like a loving mother, has been pleased to comfort your contrite heart at the intercession of the Mother of God herself. But why, my son, do you not look me in the eyes? Just look, and don’t be afraid! The Lord is with us!”

After these words I glanced at his face and there came over me an even greater reverent awe. Imagine in the center of the sun, in the dazzling light of its midday rays, the face of a man talking to you. You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel someone holding your shoulders; yet you do not see his hands, you do not even see yourself or his figure, but only a blinding light spreading far around for several yards and illumining with its glaring sheen both the snow-blanket which covered the forest glade and the snow-flakes which besprinkled me and the great Elder. You can imagine the state I was in!

“How do you feel now?” Father Seraphim asked me.

“Extraordinarily well,” I said.

“But in what way? How exactly do you feel well?”

I answered: “I feel such calmness and peace in my soul that no words can express it.”

“This, your Godliness,” said Father Seraphim, “is that peace of which the Lord said to His disciples: My peace I give unto you; not as the world gives, give I unto you (Jn. 14:21). If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you (Jn. 15:19). But be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (Jn. 16:33). And to those people whom this world hates but who are chosen by the Lord, the Lord gives that peace which you now feel within you, the peace which, in the words of the Apostle, passes all understanding (Phil. 4:7)…What else do you feel?” Father Seraphim asked me.

“An extraordinary sweetness,” I replied.

And he continued: “This is that sweetness of which it is said in Holy Scripture: They will be inebriated with the fatness of Thy house; and Thou shalt make them drink of the torrent of Thy delight (Ps. 35:8). And now this sweetness is flooding our hearts and coursing through our veins with unutterable delight. From this sweetness our hearts melt as it were, and both of us are filled with such happiness as tongue cannot tell. What else do you feel?”

“An extraordinary joy in all my heart.”

And Father Seraphim continued: “When the Spirit of God comes down to man and overshadows him with the fullness of His inspiration, then the human soul overflows with unspeakable joy, for the Spirit of God fills with joy whatever He touches.* 

 A Story Bearing Cautions

When I first read this conversation when I was in college, I was astounded by it. I did not know what to make of it then nor now, just as I don’t know what to make of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration.

Both stories challenge me, however, not to lock myself into reductionist assumptions about God or our relationship with God. There are mysteries to what God can do in the world, mysteries that we may not be able to understand but that we also dare not exclude from human experience. All this confirms for me the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins,

The world is charged with the grandeur of God,

            It will flame out, like shining from shook foil…**

Quite literally so, I have come to believe, more than most of us are ready to concede.

Yet the transfiguration accounts caution us not to become obsessed with such extraordinary experiences or even to seek them out. They are, as Seraphim says, gifts of God’s grace when they come, but always rare and extraordinary gifts.

Peter in the stories represents those who would seek out and try to possess these experiences. He wants to build three booths to commemorate them. But the voice from heaven deflects him from this desire. Instead it says, This is my Son, my Beloved; listen to him. (Mark 9:6)

We are not to be bedazzled by the experiences, but to listen to and live by the word Jesus speaks. And it is no accident, I believe, that in its context, the words that Jesus speaks immediately before the transfiguration are the words:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? (Mark 8:36-38)

Here is the wisdom—and the light–Jesus confers. And it is accessible to anyone who truly and intently listens.

___________________

* You can access a complete transcript of the conversation between Nicholas Motovilov and Seraphim at the Orthodox Christian Information Center site.

** These are the opening lines of his sonnet “God’s Grandeur.”

 

A God Who Questions

More than giving answers, the God of the Bible asks questions.

A striking feature of the way the Bible presents God is God’s proclivity for engaging in dialogue with individual human beings. We might expect that in this dialogue human beings are the ones asking questions of God and God giving answers.

But in fact the reverse is more often the case. God asks the questions. Human beings are expected to give the answers.

First Example: God with Adam and Eve

A good example is found in the dialogue God holds with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden right after the two have eaten the forbidden fruit and discovered they are naked (Genesis 3). The two humans hide. God comes seeking them out. And the first words he speaks are a question: Where are you?

That question can be understood on several different levels. It is much more than a question about the physical location of the two humans in the garden. It is ultimately a question about the humans’ spiritual condition. Where are they existentially? The dialogue continues as God asks more questions, peeling off more layers of the spiritual onion.

Second Example: God with Cain

We also meet this God asking questions in the very next chapter of Genesis (Genesis 4:1-16). Here we hear the story of the first murder. Cain kills his brother Abel out of jealousy. When God confronts Cain about the murder, the first words he speaks are again a question: Where is your brother Abel?

After countering with a denial that he knows anything, Cain challenges God with a question: Am I my brother’s keeper? This triggers more questioning from God that ultimately leads to exile for Cain.

Third Example: God with Jonah

There are many examples of God asking questions throughout the Old Testament. Let me offer up just two more. When the people of Nineveh repent and God does not destroy their city, the prophet Jonah is incensed. He sits outside the city and pouts (Jonah 3-4).

God comes to him. He challenges Jonah’s petulance by asking him questions. The story finishes on an unanswered question: Was God right to be merciful to the residents of Nineveh or not? Jonah is placed in the position of being judge over God.

Fourth Example: God with Job

Probably the weightiest dialogue of divine questioning comes in the conclusion of the book of Job (Job 38-42). Job has suffered a series of tragedies and can find no answer why. His three comforting friends suggest that they have been brought on by his sin. But Job responds that he is not conscious of any such sin that would have brought these tragedies in consequence. He looks to God for answers.

He receives no answers from God. Instead God comes to him in a whirlwind. God launches into a stream of questions directed at Job. This stream begins with these potent words:

Who is this that darkens counsel by

                        words without knowledge?

            Gird up your loins like a man,

                        I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

And then the questions flow out like a gush of flood waters for the next four chapters. Job is reduced basically to speechlessness, but also to a consciousness of the human condition before the mystery of God.

Fifth Example: Jesus with the Lawyer

This divine pattern of asking questions gets repeated in the ministry of Jesus. Again one notable example. When Jesus counsels a lawyer to love his neighbor as himself, the lawyer asks Jesus the question: Who is my neighbor? Jesus responds by telling the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

Jesus finishes his tale by then turning to the lawyer and asking: Which of these three, do you think, was neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? Jesus does not give the answer. He awaits the lawyer’s answer, an answer in which the lawyer will answer his own original question.

Why Does God Ask Questions?

When I confront these many examples in Scripture of God asking questions of human beings, I ask why is this God’s habit. One answer can be discarded quickly. God does not have a gap in his knowledge that he is trying to fill. He is not seeking information that he does not have. If God is omniscient, there is no information out there that he does not already know.

So there must another reason, or other reasons, why God asks questions. I think there are. And they profoundly affect how we understand God and ourselves.

Questions as the High Road to Self-Knowledge

One reason, I believe, is that God wants us to know ourselves. The great adage of Greek culture was the phrase inscribed above the door to Apollo’s temple at Delphi: Know yourself. It was a guiding star for Socrates as he strolled around Athens asking questions.

But how do we come to know ourselves? One way may be through self-reflection and meditation on ourselves. But we all have blind spots and inner defenses that keep us from being in touch with our full inner selves. We have to batter through those defenses. And one of the best ways is through others posing questions to us. It is a technique psychotherapists use all the time.

When we are asked questions, especially existentialist questions about our own lives, we must respond by drawing upon our own inner self. In the process we begin to learn what we really do think or believe or value.

I once read a literary author (I’ve forgotten his name) who wrote that he did not really know what he thought until he had to sit down and write out his thoughts. I think that is also true for all of us.

One of the most revealing questions that anyone can ask us is the question: What is it that you really desire in the deepest point of your heart? If we are truly honest in answering the question, we will learn a lot about what really motivates our behavior rather than what we delude ourselves that motivates us. I believe desires drive our action. And if we are to change our actions, that requires our getting to know our real desires.

Questions Nurture Personal Relationship

But there is a deeper spiritual reason why I believe God asks questions. It is that what God desires from us is a relationship of love, not a relationship of manipulation. This is what I think it means to have a personal relationship with God or with other people.

1200px-Martin_Buber_portrait

Martin Buber, 1878-1965

One thinker who has helped me understand this is Martin Buber, the German Jewish philosopher of the early 20th century. He wrote an important book titled I and Thou. In it he contrasts the relationship of I with God or others seen as an It with the relationship of I with God or others seen as a You or Thou.

In an I-It relationship, I relate to God or others as an impersonal It. That allows me to try both to comprehend and to manipulate the other. It easily degenerates into a desire to dominate. That I believe drives a lot of science in the world today.

In an I-You relationship, however, the other never becomes truly impersonal. The relationship therefore retains a sense of mutuality. It also retains some sense of mystery and freedom. We never fully comprehend and therefore can never fully dominate the other, whether that be God or another human being. It involves a constant exchange and adaptation if the relationship is to thrive, as any married person knows who has remained married for a long time.

Becoming an I through Meeting

 At the heart of this relationship is a meeting. And in that meeting I come to know about myself in ways that I can never do by solo reflection. Which leads Buber to say that all real living is meeting.*

The God of the Bible is not one who is satisfied with a relationship with us in which we regard God as an It. God wants a relationship with us in which we relate to him in mutuality, in a shared initiative and response. He wants us to be persons in the fullest sense of that word. And one of the best ways to come to that goal is for God to ask us questions where we have to become real persons in giving a response. We are compelled to stand up for who we are, speak our insight or belief, and then accept accountability for who we are.

In that respect defiance can be a truly personal response just as much as compassion and love. And sometimes our journey in our relationship with God must involve defiance before it can move into trust and love.

The God of the Bible is not one who wants people to lose and dissolve their identity in union with him. That is the desired goal of a lot of Eastern mysticism. Rather God wants us to find our unique I in our relationship with him. Again to quote Buber, Through the Thou, a man becomes I.**

So if we would grow in our relationship with God, with others, and with ourselves, we can expect to encounter great questions in our lives, questions that challenge us to the core of our being. For it is in the questions and our attempts to answer them that we emerge from out of the mysterious clouds of unconsciousness into the conscious light of personhood and love.

____________

* Martin Buber, I and Thou, New York: Charles Scribner’s and Sons, 1958. Page 11. Although Buber does not mention it, I find it striking that in its Exodus wanderings, Israel’s tabernacle shrine bore the name the Tent of Meeting (see Exodus 33:7-11 and Exodus 40). It was given that name because it was the place where Moses (and through Moses all Israel) met with God. Whether it was through the word Moses received from God or through the sacrifices Israel raised up to God, it was the place of encounter between Israel and the divine, the encounter that gave Israel its very being.

** Buber, I and Thou, Page 28.

 

Men in Crisis

Another mass shooting raises questions about how we understand masculinity.

Da_Vinci_Vitruve_Luc_Viatour (1)

“The Vitruvian Man,” a pen-and-ink drawing by Leonardo da Vinci showing what he regarded as the ideal proportions of a male body. ca. 1490.

Oh, my God! Another mass shooting. In a Baptist church in Texas. I can’t be surprised anymore. Mass shootings have become too much a part of normal American public life.

This one, too, was perpetrated by another troubled young man, 26 years old. I note this, because we should be noting that the vast majority of those who commit our mass shootings are men in their late teens, 20s, and 30s.

Women are seldom the ones who engage in mass shootings. Likewise it is usually not old men, although the shooter in the Las Vegas shooting is a notable exception. Instead it is young men who over and over again express their anger, their despair, or whatever their motivating emotion in shooting innocent people.

It is also young men who predominate in the terrorist attacks by young Muslims, who march in the alt-right and white supremacist rallies, and populate violent street gangs in our cities. This is not to say that women and old people do not engage in violence. They do. But they are not creating the headlines in most cases.

As we deal with public violence, we talk most often about issues of gun control, mental health, and economic and social disparities. They are all factors. They need our attention. But I find myself more and more asking why so many young men are drawn to violence. What’s triggering them?

The Modern Crisis in Masculinity

I also find myself wondering if part of the reason is that modern life has sparked a crisis in how we define masculinity. Modern life increasingly espouses the ideal of gender equality. We believe that men and women should engage with each other as equal partners, not only in marriage and family life, but also in all aspects of public life, including business and government. We feel less tolerance for sexual harassment than did previous generations.

But for such equality to work we must come up with a new understanding of what it means to be a man. That means changing an ideal that has prevailed through most of human history, for millennia in fact.

One part of that traditional definition has been the ideal of the warrior hero. We see expressions of it in Homer’s heroic battlefield champions, in the medieval romance of the jousting knight, in the lone, rifle-toting cowboy, in the Star Wars jedi wielding his light saber, and in the helmet-clad football player plowing through the defense.

Men have traditionally gained honor, respect, and renown by victory in individual combat. We encounter this reality even in the Bible. Take, for example, the story of the duel between David and Goliath. In that combat David first makes a name for himself and is launched in his road to kingship.

This ideal has also assumed that men exercised superiority over women. Women were often the prize for victory in combat. The quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles which lies at the heart of The Illiad began over a disagreement as to whom a woman won as war booty belonged to. For the medieval knight, the greatly desired prize for winning a jousting victory was receiving the torn sleeve of his lady.

We find this ideal of masculinity has roots in most cultures and goes back several thousand years. Which means it is well entrenched in the masculine psyche. So deeply entrenched is it that a social scientist like Brené Brown says that her research has shown that for most American men today, their understanding of normal masculinity includes these five factors:

  • Emotional stoicism (big boys don’t cry),
  • The primacy of work in life,
  • Pursuit of status through violence,
  • Control of women, and
  • Outward disdain for homosexuality. *

This traditional ideal, however, does not sit well with the new, modern demand that men and women relate to each other as equals. Such a relationship requires different attitudes, different skills, and different ideals.

The Transition Crisis

Here’s where the crisis arises. The old traditional ideal is well understood, both by men and women. It is pervasive in the raising of young boys. But a new ideal of masculinity that is compatible with a new understanding of the relationship between genders has not yet fully emerged. We are in an era of transition.

We do not know how to articulate the new ideal. We do not see it clearly yet. We sense that it cannot involve a feminization of masculine identity. That would be to substitute a form of matriarchy over patriarchy, which would simply substitute another form of gender superiority for the old one. Nature has created a gender difference. I don’t think most human beings will be happy with an erasure of that difference in a universal unisex.

How do we affirm the unique characteristics of masculinity while at the same time affirming the unique characteristics of femininity? In fact, what are those unique characteristics of both sexes? How do we affirm them without sinking into various forms of supremacy?

Furthermore, which characteristics are rooted in nature and which are products of culture? That is, I think, at the heart of many Christian debates over what is the proper role of men and women in the family, in society, and the in the church. When Christians argue over gender roles by appealing to proof texts in the Bible, they are, I believe, just trying to wrap what they regard as nature in the trappings of divinity. But how much of those roles are truly grounded in nature/God and how much in culture? The distinctions are not quite as clear cut, in my opinion, as some Christians believe.

We are living through so much confusion on these issues at the present time that I believe young men, in particular, have been psychologically set adrift. We do not know what it means to be a man today. The anxiety is intense. And as Brené Brown points out, when men are afraid, the old masculine ideal says that they are not allowed to be afraid. So they turn their fear into rage. Is this possibly at least one fundamental reason why so many young men are perpetrators of the mass shootings and terrorism we experience today?

Furthermore, this is not just an American dilemma. It is a world-wide phenomenon. When we explore some of the reasons for the anger of Islamic radicals, one theme comes up over and over again. That is the threat they feel to traditional gender relations by the Western ideal of gender equality.

I confess that I experience this confusion just as much as other men today. I do not have a clearly drawn alternate understanding for masculinity to offer for the old traditional one. However, whatever the new understanding that emerges turns out to be, I am firmly convinced it must be one that gives dignity and value to being a man just as it also gives dignity and value to being a woman. We cannot revert to a new form of gender supremacy.

What Help Might We Expect from the Bible?

As a Christian, I must ask what guidance in this contentious discussion can we expect from the Bible. I do not think we can just simply appeal to various proof texts alone. Too often such proof texting simply kills discussion. Here is the proof text. Discussion closed.

Instead I would want to begin the discussion by a taking a careful look at the figure of Jesus. How does the person he was and the life he lived expressed his masculinity? He certainly did not exemplify the heroic warrior ideal, unless, of course, you want to totally spiritualize that ideal. Nor does he come across as spineless. There is strength, but there is also the ability to surrender strength for the sake of love.

If you, my readers, have any thoughts on how Jesus might serve as a model for what it means to be a man, I would like to hear from you.

___________________

* I am indebted for this insight to Brené Brown’s two-CD lecture series Men, Women, & Worthiness: The Experience of Shame and the Power of Being Enough, Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2012. I found the two CDs an amazingly rich and engaging discussion on how differently men and women experience shame. She also gives very helpful insight into how we can build shame resilience.

 

 

The Year of Liberty

A utopian law to address a social reality.

Shofar_for_the_Sabbath_from_the_Matson_Collection,_ca._1934-39_(LOC)

The year of jubilee got its name from the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn, at the beginning of the year.

Among all the provisions the Torah prescribes for organizing Israelite life, one of the most curious is the provision regulating the year of jubilee (sometimes translated as the year of liberty). The provisions are found in Leviticus 25 and 27.

The provisions specify that the Israelites are to let their agricultural land lie fallow every seventh year. This cycle is to be repeated seven times. After completing 49 years the Israelites are to proclaim a year of jubilee. From the biblical text it is not quite clear whether the 49th year is the year of jubilee, or the 50th year. Scholars disagree.

Regardless of the precise dating, some important things are to happen in the year of liberty. They include:

  • The agricultural land is to remain fallow once again. If the year of jubilee falls in the 50th year, then the land lies fallow for two years in a row.
  • If an Israelite has sold some of his ancestral land to another Israelite, the buyer is to restore ownership of that land to the original seller or his heirs.
  • If an Israelite has sold his house in his village to another Israelite or lost his house in payment of a debt, the buyer or the creditor is to return the house to the original owner or his heirs.
  • If an Israelite has sold his own person or a member of his family to another Israelite into indentured service, the man or his family member is to be released from that service in the year of jubilee and restored to full freedom.
  • The price a buyer pays for a piece of land or for the service of an indentured servant is calculated on the number of years yet remaining until the next year of jubilee. If some land is sold, for example, while there are yet 44 years to go before the next jubilee, then the price for the land will be higher than the price for a piece of land that is sold 12 years before the next jubilee.

A common economic problem

This legislation was designed to deal with a common economic problem. Due to the uncontrollable vicissitudes of life or to careless planning and management, people can fall into financial distress. To deal with that distress, they borrow funds to get by. But sometimes they get trapped in their debt and cannot break free again.

As a result, lands and property can begin to accumulate into the hands of a small, wealthy elite, while the poor get poorer as they lose more and more of the assets they possess. The poor find themselves in financial or service bondage to the rich. As this situation advances, a greater and greater disparity can begin to open up between society’s rich and its poor.

The provisions for the year of jubilee seek to address this disparity. They seek to restore some sense of economic fairness within the society. Those who have acquired greater property at the expense of those who have been financially distressed are forced to redistribute some of their wealth with the disadvantaged. Those bearing the burdens of service have their burdens lifted so that they can return to being free members of society.

The provisions are predicated upon the belief that God is the ultimate owner of the land (Leviticus 25:23). Israelites do not own their land. They possess it as a gift from God. They are called to be tenant/stewards of the land on God’s behalf.

Furthermore, the Israelites are to remember always that God freed them from their bondage to the Egyptians (Leviticus 25:38, 42). They are not to engage then in the same behavior, binding their brothers in bondage, as the Egyptians did them. They are not to recreate Egypt in the land of Israel.*

The prophetic context for a utopian law

No one knows for sure whether this legislation was ever implemented in ancient Israelite practice. Many scholars consider it a utopian law, an economic ideal that no one put into real effect.

If that is the case, then why did the ancient scholars who compiled the Torah include such a utopian law within its provisions? I wonder if the provisions for the year of jubilee are not a testimony that some sensitive souls in ancient Israel recognized the de-stabilizing power of vast disparities in wealth and income in a society. When great gaps open up between the rich and the poor, tensions are created that can undermine the stability and security of a society, just as underground rivers can erode the rock and create the vacuums into which sink holes collapse.

The Old Testament prophets had an acute sensitivity to the economic injustice involved in the rich living in great luxury at the expense of the poor. (One thinks immediately of the prophet Amos and his denunciations of the soft elite of Samaria.) I think their message can be summarized in the succinct phrase: Where there is no economic justice, there is no peace.

Whether the legislation for the year of jubilee preceded the prophets or emerged from the message of the prophets, the Old Testament shows an amazing sensitivity to the economic foundations of social stability.

I think that modern believers need to remain sensitive to that same Old Testament sensitivity. The ancient insights can be far more relevant to our own society than many Christians may be willing to admit. We see all around us in the world today the ways in which economic injustice fuels social and political instability as well as great migrations of people. This instability is exacerbated by a libertarian attitude towards capitalism, an attitude that unregulated markets should supremely rule the economy.

We need to ask whether there is not a wisdom built into the Torah’s regulations for the year of jubilee. It may be a wisdom that we need to pay heed to.


* The Leviticus legislation may not be perfect by our standards today. Israelites can own chattel slaves if the slaves come not from among their fellow Israelites, but from foreign peoples. The sense of the moral evil of slavery per se has not yet dawned within the biblical consciousness.

 

A Pang for Eternity

Does life have meaning? It depends upon where you look for an answer.

gustave_dore_-_dante_alighieri_-_inferno_-_plate_18_canto_v_-_dante_has_a_touch_of_the_vapours

Gustave Doré’s rendition (19th century) of Dante’s vision of Paola and Francesca in Hell.

I was reading Ecclesiastes when I stumbled upon this sentence: He [God] has made everything beautiful in its times; also he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end (Ecclesiastes 3:11 RSV).

The sentence is evocative like good poetry. I had to pause and take in what the author was saying. It struck me as something very perceptive.

Odd Book in the Canon

Ecclesiastes is an odd book in the Hebrew canon. The author is called the Preacher and linked to Solomon, proverbially the wisest of the Hebrew sages. But he does not speak like a Hebrew sage. More like a Greek philosopher or moralist.

He is decidedly rationalistic in approaching the meaning of life. He travels widely, observing carefully all around him. Though he believes in God, he does not rely much on the precepts of Hebrew religion for his analysis. Rather he is skeptical of much of what the Hebrew faith teaches.

What does he conclude from his observations? Everywhere he looks, he sees impermanence. Seasons come and go, so do human beings. All–king or peasant, rich or poor, wise or foolish, noble lady or maid–all face the same fate: the grave.

So his final conclusion is: all is vanity. All is but a puff of wind. What is here today is gone tomorrow. Human beings therefore should just enjoy the pleasures of today nor work too obsessively, for they do not know what tomorrow brings. It’s a distinctly morose view of life.

The Longing for Meaning

That’s why the sentence I quoted at the beginning so struck me. The author seems to believe that a longing for something permanent, something forever meaningful, lies within the mind and heart of human beings, but we can never find it.

The longing lies deep in the human psyche. The question is: Is there any way to satisfy it? The Preacher is skeptical. Human beings, despite all their longing, cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

This would suggest that human life is always restless, never able to find contentment. This brings to mind the image in Dante’s Divine Comedy of the lovers Paolo and Francesca whirling around their circle of Hell passionately pursuing each other but never able to find a moment to rest and connect.

Rationalism’s Dead End

I wonder if the Preacher’s dismal vision may not represent where a totally rationalistic approach to life ultimately ends. Can reason alone, whether inductive or empirical, finally penetrate into the inner secrets of life and the universe? Can we ever really understand to our full contentment? I think the Preacher would say No.

I find this a provocative question because a couple of years ago I read Jim Holt’s book Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story. In it he traces the way modern human beings try to answer the vexing question: What is the mystery of existence? Why should there be a universe at all, and why are we a part of it?

He seeks answers by interviewing some of today’s top philosophers, physicists, and cosmologists. Many of them are working on the far reaches of current scientific exploration. It is amazing how much modern science has uncovered secret after secret about the universe.

And yet, despite their amazing knowledge, Holt quotes a number of scientists who have concluded at the end of all their study that the universe is meaningless. It has no purpose. It just is, period. Now, I think the Preacher would be right at home within their circle. All is but a breath of wind.

Moving Beyond Reason

If this is the ultimate end point for a purely rationalistic approach to understanding life and the world, then human beings have to turn elsewhere for an answer. Some, I think, turn to the world of imagination. Others to the world of religion. Human beings have eternity in their minds. If science cannot satisfy their longing, then they will search in alternative fields.

In the world of imagination, they can explore a world which has meaning. That’s one reason, I suspect, we are constantly attracted to stories–whether in print or cinema–where good ultimately triumphs over evil. We encounter them in fairy tales, TV police dramas, compelling novels, and cinema (the Star Wars series is a great example).

Imagination may not be able to prove its case by rational argument, but imagination may intuitively perceive a truth that is not available to reason. Or alternatively there is always the possibility that imagination may be dead wrong. Yet we are drawn back over and over again to stories that posit some kind of meaning to the lives we live. Our fascination with these stories bears witness to the depth of our longings.

The other alternative is religion, especially if the religion is based upon some belief in divine revelation as do Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Historically religion has been probably the most prevalent way for most of humanity to find the contentment to the longing for eternity that the Preacher detects in the human mind.

One Christian Answer

Certainly the Christian faith does that for me. And no one provides it better for me than something out of my spiritual heritage as a Presbyterian. In the 17th century English Presbyterians adopted what are known as the Westminster Standards. They include a catechism for instruction in the faith.

The opening question of the catechism with its answer is probably the best known statement in all of the Westminster Standards. It reads:

Q. What is the chief end of man? 

A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

 There, at the very start of its exposition of the fundamental teachings of the Christian faith, the catechism tackles the question of meaning right on. Life has meaning, and it’s tied up with our relationship to God.

It is easy to write this off as pious frou-frou. But I find it strangely profound. The universe, human beings, find their purpose in being in relationship, a relationship with their Maker. That relationship has two dimensions. One is the glorification of God; the other, however, is the enjoyment of God. Ultimately we are to bring pleasure to God and to enjoy pleasure ourselves through our relationship to the same loving God.

God creates out of a loving delight. We find our meaning as we respond to this same God in loving delight. Maybe that is the answer to that glimmer of eternity that the Preacher finds in human minds. But it is not an answer that reason alone could deliver. Only divine grace does.

What Constitutes Human Nature?

The view of the Hebrew Bible can surprise us.

michelangelos-creation-of-man

Michelangelo’s depiction of the creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

What constitutes human nature? It’s time, I think, we paid more attention to the ancient Hebrew answer.

We can begin by noting what is said in the two creation stories that we find in Genesis 1 and 2. They don’t give the full Hebrew answer, but they do provide an important starting point.

Humans Embedded in Nature

First, Genesis 2:4-23. This account is not as stately as Genesis 1, which has the feel of a liturgical procession. Genesis 2 reads more like a colorful folk tale. It starts out its account of God’s creative activity with the creation of a human being. But note how it expresses this wonderful creative moment:

…then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)

God, like a potter, creates a kind of figurine out of the elements of the ground. Then God breathes upon it, and the lifeless figurine becomes a living being.*

Though the author has used mythological language (I do not take Genesis 2 as an actual historical account), the statement firmly situates a human being in the order of nature. Humans are made out of the same chemical elements as the rest of the earth and its living beings. We arise out of the physical world and remain embedded in it.

In this respect the Genesis account agrees with modern scientific thought. Both the evolutionary theory and the Genesis account see human beings emerging out of the physical world. We are one with the rest of nature.

That has an important consequence for the Hebrew view of humanity. The natural drives and hungers that motivate men and women are good, not evil, as is clear by God’s blessing upon the physical creation (see Genesis 1:31). Those drives can be corrupted and need to be controlled, but they are not to be denied and despised. Here some forms of Christian asceticism have departed from their Hebrew roots.

Likewise our physical bodies contribute an essential dimension to our individual identities. We recognize each other by those bodily features that are unique to each of us–our body shape, our face, our voices, our gait, our fingerprints.

So important are bodies to our unique identities that the ultimate hope of the Biblical tradition is the hope for resurrection. How can each of us be said to survive with a unique identity in the kingdom of God without our bodies? Hebrew and Christian thought cannot imagine that.

The Contrasting Greek Mindset

This contrasts dramatically with the conception of human beings that prevailed to a large degree in the ancient Greek mindset. That mindset assumes that a radical duality constitutes human nature, a duality that pits body against soul.

The essence of an individual human being is to be found in his or her soul. That identity defines who he or she is. And it is immortal. It will survive physical death as the immortal soul returns to the divine realm from which it comes. During this earthly life the body provide a physical dwelling for that soul, but it will be shed at death. And good riddance, the Greeks thought, for the soul will escape its confining prison. **

Human nature, therefore, is not a unity (as in the Hebrew conception), but a division. And that is the fundamental cause of human misery. The human soul longs to return to its divine realm, a realm of order, rationality, and static perfection. The body, on the other hand, accounts for all the afflictions of life–disease, instability, disordered longings, and ultimately death.

This Greek conception of human nature had some stark practical consequences. The duality in human nature that Greek philosophy assumed meant that the Greek tradition placed a high premium on the things it associated with the soul: order, hierarchy, rationality, and stability. It also assumed that men gravitated towards these things, so that men were naturally superior to women.

The Greeks in turn placed a low value on those things that they associated with the body: appetites, emotions, and manual labor. And since women gave birth to and nursed infants, they gravitated to this physical realm. For the good of an ordered society, they had to be placed under the governance of men.

For the Hebrew Bible, on the other hand, the source of the miseries of life is not our physical nature, but our disordered wills, wills that betray our call to loving relationship. Instead we seek autonomy and other-denying independence. This idea is the contribution of Genesis 3, the story of the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve.

Images of the Triune God

Which leads to the other Genesis creation story (Genesis 1:1-2:4). This account adds another crucial dimension to the Hebrew Bible’s view of human beings. In this account the creation of human beings climaxes God’s creative work, not initiates it.

The contribution that this account makes to the Hebrew conception of human beings comes in Genesis 1:27:

So God created humankind in his image,

in the image of God he created them,

male and female he created them.

Although human beings are one with the rest of the physical creation, there is nonetheless something godlike about them, even though they are not divine. We cannot think of human beings solely in physical terms. That is a misleading form of reductionism.

Biblical scholars have debated for centuries just what constitutes this image of God in human beings. Some have identified it with our rationality, others with our dominance over nature. The Biblical text never fully identifies it.

But if this image mirrors God, then maybe what we are created to mirror is the character of God as relationship. That is the surprising contribution that the Christian doctrine of God as Trinity can make to the discussion.

By that doctrine, the character of God is fundamentally one that consists of relationship, the movement of giving and receiving in love. It is that movement that creates the unique identities of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We are, therefore, most godlike in our capability for relationship, especially relationships of love. We image this God when we grow in our ability to give and receive with others in love. Yet in all this we remain mortal.

This conception of human beings also has practical consequences. The exalted virtues in Biblical thought are moral ones, fundamentally the virtues of trust and loving commitment. This was expressed in the central role and value the Bible gives to covenant, relationships grounded in mutual commitment between God and human beings, and between human beings with one another.

When human beings live out this commitment to covenant in the conditions of their physical, mortal existence, they most fulfill their unique calling within the wide world of nature.


* I discovered another statement of this Hebrew conception in 2 Esdras, one of the books of the Apocrypha. Its author describes the creation of Adam in these words:

O sovereign Lord, did you not speak at the beginning when you planted the earth—and that without help—and commanded the dust and it gave you Adam, a lifeless body? Yet he was the creation of your hands, and you breathed into him the breath of life, and he was made alive in your presence. (2 Esdras 3:4-5)

Clearly the author of 2 Esdras knew the Genesis account and took it as authoritative.

** The classic expression of this Greek view of death is found in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo. It recounts a discussion on the meaning of death between Socrates and his disciples just before his execution.