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.

Sandro_botticelli,_sant'agostino_nello_studio,_1480_circa,_dall'ex-coro_dei_frati_umiliati,_01

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.

 

The Third Authority

Israel’s wisdom tradition offers a third source of revelation.

Whenever I have read the Old Testament, I have sailed hastily through the Book of Proverbs. It didn’t seem to offer much beyond strange musings about Lady Wisdom and then a chaotic collection of proverbs. Nothing tied together for me. I decided it was not worth much of my study time.

Pemberton

Then I read the newly published book, A Life that Is Good: The Message of Proverbs in a World Wanting Wisdom by Biblical scholar Glenn Pemberton (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018). He turned my attitude about Proverbs around 180 degrees. For one, he illuminates some of the repeated themes that weave through the book, themes that deal with living the good life as understood by ancient Israel’s sages.

Israel’s wisdom traditions were not primarily speculations about God, but reflections on what it means to live the good life. The good life is understood as more than a moral life. It is also a life that is healthy, stable, and successful. It is much more concerned with what we today would say are secular matters than religious, although the sages always see the good life grounded in a fundamental fear or reverence for God (see Proverbs 1:7and 9:10).

The source of their reflections is not the revealed word of God in Israel’s scriptures, but insights gained from observations of daily life and experience. Israel’s sages are also highly sensitive to wisdom coming from cultures and peoples outside of Israel. For example, scholars have noted that one section of the Book of Proverbs (22:17-24:22 ) draws extensively from the Instruction of Amenemope, a literary work of wisdom sayings from ancient 13thcentury B.C. Egypt.*

Three Sources of Authority

Pemberton offers one insight that was particularly striking to me. He says that in ancient Israel three sources of authority were recognized when talking about God and life with God. They held equal positions in Israel’s theological discussions.

The first source was what we might label the written word of God, contained in the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. The Torah told the origin stories that constituted Israel’s identity. They also held the laws and regulations that governed Israelite behavior and worship.

The authorized interpreters of Torah in ancient Israel were the priests. They had responsibility for teaching Torah to Israelites. By the time of Jesus the scribes had largely supplanted the priests in this role, while the priests concentrated on ritual.

The important matter is to note that when an ancient Israelite asked how he or she should behave, the priest would point to the revealed Torah for answers.

The second source was what we might label the oral word of God. It was the word of God that came through dreams, visions, inspirations, or even the direct voice of God. It was the special province of Israel’s prophets.

Pemberton describes the prophets as resembling prosecuting attorneys. They were primarily concerned with challenging Israel for its failures in keeping God’s covenant, especially in fulfilling the two great commandments to love God with all our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Their favored way of delivering their word was through oral sermons, oracles, and enacted parables.

The third source was what we might label the observed word of God. This was received through a careful study of God’s creation and especially the ways human beings lived in that creation. It was the special province of Israel’s sages.

Pemberton says that this wisdom coming from the sages was also regarded as part of God’s revealed word. “They accept these insights [coming from their observation] as normative and God-given, just as the prophet regards a vision and a priest regards Torah to be God’s message.” [Pemberton, page 9]

What this means is that theological discussion in Israel appeals to three and equal sources of authority: the written word of God, the oral word of God, and the observed word of God. The three supported, counter-balanced, and supplemented each other.

Attestation of the Three Authorities in Scripture

As evidence for this, Pemberton appeals to three passages in the Old and New Testaments. The first comes from Jeremiah. The prophet has offended the public with his largely negative message that Jerusalem will indeed fall to the Babylonians. In reaction some of the populace plots to silence him. He will not be missed, they say:

“Come, let us make plots against Jeremiah—for instruction shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet. Come, let us bring charges against him, and let us not heed any of his words.” [Jeremiah 18:18]

What Pemberton notes in this passage is the combination of priests, wise men, and prophets as sources of God’s word. None is given priority over the other.

This same linkage comes in a passage in the prophet Ezekiel. It likewise denounces the complacency of the Judahites as they face disaster before the Babylonians. Says Ezekiel:

Disaster comes upon disaster,

                        rumor follows rumor;

they shall keep seeking a vision from the prophet;

instruction shall perish from the priest,

                        and counsel from the elders. [Ezekiel 7:26]

Here again we see priest, prophet, and sage as equal sources for guidance from God.

Lest we think this is a purely Old Testament perspective, Pemberton then quotes Jesus in his denunciation of the hypocrisy of Pharisees, saying:

Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth….[Matthew 23:34-35]**

Commenting on this tri-fold division in Israel’s mindset, Pemberton concludes: “The prophets, priests, and sages of Israel all served the same God. The Lord simply used them to provide a more robust theology, a fuller picture of the life of faith, and a sharper image of the God who is larger than any one portrait.” [Pemberton, page 14]

A Christian Application?

Pemberton goes on, however, to suggest that this three-fold source of authority may also provide a fruitful pattern for theological thinking among Christians. Who among persons or groups today most resemble each of the three ancient interpreters? For successors to the priests, he suggests pastors and preachers who look to Scripture for God’s word and guidance.

As for successors to the prophets, it becomes a bit trickier. Most Christians today do not generally trust persons who claim to see God or hear God speak directly to them. Rather he suggests we see the prophets’ successors as those who speak out on the prophets’ chief concerns which center on faithfulness to God and justice issues in society.

Lastly as successors to the sages, he suggests we might turn to counselors, therapists, and scientists who rely primarily upon personal experience, careful observation, and accumulated knowledge for their insights.

This last suggestion raises an important question for most Protestants. With our fundamentally Protestant conviction that all authority for theology rests in the Bible and in the Bible alone, Pemberton asks, how will we respond when modern-day sages show up at our doors? “Would we toss them aside as secular and irrelevant advocates of situational ethics? Or would we welcome them to the table? I regret to inform you that Proverbs will not let this question go unanswered.” [Pemberton, pages 13-14, italics his]

I will admit this is a question that I have seldom thought about before. Yet I can see that how we respond will indeed have a deep impact on how we do our theological thinking and preaching.

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* It is also worth noting that another piece of Old Testament wisdom literature is the Book of Job. It tells the story of a righteous man living in Uz. He is not an Israelite. Yet the issue under discussion in the book–why do the righteous suffer?–is one of the most troubling and profound not only in Jewish thought, but also in all human experience.

** As I read these passages I was reminded of the canonical structure of the Hebrew Bible. It is divided into three portions:

  • The Torah: The five books of Moses
  • The Nevi’im: The prophets (consisting of the historical books and the classic prophets),
  • The Ketubim: The writings where we find Israel’s literary works of wisdom (Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes) along with the Psalms and other assorted writings of the Hebrew Bible.

 

Paul’s Pious Phonies

Paul’s critique of religious hypocrisy has a contemporary bite.

Venice_Carnival_-_Masked_Lovers_(2010)

The word hypocrisy derives from the masks that actors once wore in drama.

You don’t get very far into the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans before you encounter his sharp critique of hypocritical Jews in chapter 2. Paul is severe on his fellow Jews who seem to elevate their noses as they assess the many failures and flaws of the Gentiles. We might call them Paul’s pious phonies.

These Jews take great pride that God’s Torah has been given to them. They therefore know God’s will. This gives them a sense that they hold a superior responsibility for instructing others in that truth. We hear that attitude coming through in this question posed by Paul:

…if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law [Torah] and boast of your relation to God and know his will and determine what is best because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, you, then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself?

Who do you think you are when you judge and condemn others, asks Paul, when you yourselves commit the very same sins? All you are doing, he contends, is storing up God’s judgment on yourselves.

A Pointed Message for Christians, Too

It’s a pretty devastating critique. Christians, however, have no reason to feel self-satisfied. If Paul were to visit most churches today, he might level the same charge against a good many Christians. We Christians have no grounds for feeling superior over our Jewish cousins, let alone unbelievers.

Many of us, like the Jews Paul critiques, hold this idea that we are in possession of the Truth, with a capital T. Therefore we have no hesitancy in telling others how to live. I know this because I grew up in just such a church environment. I was constantly being told what I should believe and how I should behave. Church members harbored no doubts about the truth because they were self-proclaimed Bible believers.

But many did not live by the standards they proclaimed, especially the very stringent standards they proclaimed about our sexual lives. Just witness the many TV evangelists over the last 40 years who have been caught up in sexual scandals. The same could be said about financial scandals or irresponsible fundraising.

It gets worse as we broaden our vision beyond the evangelical world in which I grew up. Just take the continuing revelations of sexual abuse that are rocking the Roman Catholic Church. Nor is it just ethical breaches we must note. We can also cite the extreme bitterness shown in local church and denominational fights over power to control church administration and to define doctrine. The picture is not pretty.

The consequence of this Jewish behavior, says Paul, is that the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles. They violate the third commandment by making wrongful use of the name of the Lord. They bring a blemish on the good reputation of God.

The same can be said for Christian hypocrisy. Many atheists and agnostics cite the hypocrisy and judgmentalism of Christians as the primary reason they have no time for religion. It also underlies the attitudes of many today who claim to be spiritual, but not religious. Trust in religious institutions and religious leaders is low. It is not hard to find some of the compelling reasons why.

This should be a serious concern as Christians assess their own behavior as well as hold church authorities accountable.

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Photo credit: Frank Kovalchek.  Reproduced by Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

 

 

Let All that Breathes Praise the Lord

Exuberant music must have filled temple worship.

Jan_van_Eyck_-_The_Ghent_Altarpiece_-_Singing_Angels_(detail)_-_WGA07642

The angelic choir from Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, ca 1430.

If we are to believe the Old Testament psalms, exuberant music must have filled the air during temple worship.

Psalm 33, for example, issues its call to worship with these words:

Rejoice in the LORD, O you righteous.

            Praise befits the upright.

Praise the LORD with the lyre;

            make melody to him with the harp of ten strings.

Sing to him a new song;

            play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.(Psalm 33:1-3)

Psalm 150 mentions the array of musical instruments that were used: trumpets, lutes, harps, tambourines, strings, pipes, and cymbals. Other psalms (e.g., Psalms 4795108,  150) bear witness that people joined in with singing, shouting, clapping, and dance. What an amazing sound must have arisen from the temple’s courts.

I am particularly struck by the mention of dance, something usually absent from Christian worship today. We must keep in mind that the people did not sit in pews when they came to worship at the temple. They would have stood in the temple courts and walked around during the sacrifices.

As the music mounted, I can well imagine that the people would have spontaneously begun to sway and move with the rhythms. We are even told that King David broke into ecstatic dance as a liturgical procession carried the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:14-15).

In fact, I wonder if temple worship did not resemble more what happens in exuberant African-American worship services than in most of the churches I attend where worshippers sit motionless and rigid in hard, wooden pews.  African-American choirs sway and move in rhythm as they lift their voices in song.

A few other Protestant groups have also been noted for their physical movement in worship. It is the reason the Shakers got their name. Outsiders were struck by their practice of rhythmical movement in their worship times.

Today charismatic Christians sometimes revive the practice of dance. I once attended a charismatic Roman Catholic wedding. At the end of the ceremony, the bride and groom did not race down the aisle as at most weddings I attend. Instead they led the congregation in a joyful dance weaving up and down the church’s three aisles. Most of the congregation stood in bewilderment. A few joined them, including myself. I thought their dance expressed the joy of the ceremony we had just witnessed.

Outside of Christian circles liturgical dance has often formed part of worship. One thinks of the circle dances performed by native Americans or by African tribal cultures.

Were Reformation reforms truly reforms?

During the Reformation church leaders of the Reformed tradition insisted that all practices of worship should have explicit scriptural sanction. It is the reason that Reformed congregations limited all singing in the church to the singing of metrical psalms. When hymn writers like Isaac Watts began to compose fresh, new hymns, many Reformed congregations were scandalized. They saw no place for “human songs” in divine worship.

I find it curious that with their insistence that all worship practices have scriptural warrant that Reformed church leaders never approved of the use of dance in worship. It certainly had scriptural warrant too, if we listen carefully to the psalms.

Probably that was because the Reformed tradition put such a premium on the service of the Word. Worship was centered around the reading of Scripture and its explication through the sermon. It was worship geared to the ear, not the feet. As a result, Reformed worship became very wordy and non-physical.

Though the Reformers may have thought they were purifying worship, in my opinion they were, in fact, impoverishing worship. They left no place for the body and the senses in worship. For me that comes across as a great loss, not an improvement.

I, therefore, welcome the return of exuberant music and dance into Christian worship. By temperament I gravitate to the majestic music of J.S. Bach, George Frideric Handel, and Wolfgang Mozart. (Their music, too, can be exuberant. Just listen to the Sanctus in Bach’s B-Minor Mass and you cannot help let your soul soar.)

But I also appreciate the role that rock bands, folk music, and jazz can play in worship today. They too are a way for people to praise the Lord in voices and styles expressive of who they are.

So in a time when many congregations fight battles over worship styles and music, I say, Let exuberance flourish. That is one message of the psalms. Let all who have breath praise the Lord!

Added Note:With all that I have just written about the role music, clapping, and dance played in temple worship, there is also some evidence in the psalms and elsewhere in the Old Testament that periods of silence may have been a part of temple worship, too. Whether Psalm 62 is the voice of an individual or a group may be debatable, but Habakkuk 2:20 seems to be a very explicit reference to a role that silence played in the temple service:

But the LORD is in his holy temple;

                        let all the earth keep silence before him!

Worship today may need times for silence just as much as it needs times of joyful exuberance. We can think of silence and exuberance as the yin and yang of Christian worship.

When Faith Doesn’t Stick

Transmitting one faith to the next generation is always a chancy endeavor.

The Bible gives us precious few details about the family of Moses. We know his wife’s name is Zipporah. She is the daughter of a priest of Midian that Moses meets in the Sinai desert. They have two sons. Their names are Gershom and Eliezer.

We know they did not succeed their father as leader of the people of Israel. That fell to a family outsider, Joshua. Also in a short genealogical reference in 1 Chronicles 23:15-17, we learn that Gershom had a son named Shebuel, and Eliezer a son named Rehabiah. But that is the last we hear anything about Moses’ descendants, with one exception.

In the Book of Judges we encounter one more mention of another grandson of Moses. His name is Jonathan. The brief mention is a curious one.

Unsettled life in Israel during the era of the judges

The era of the judges in Israel was an unsettled one. The Israelites had entered the land of Canaan after their 40-year trek through the wilderness. They begin to take possession of the land. That process, however, comes across as a fluid and unsettled. Tribal boundaries were not yet fully delineated.

The religious life of Israel was also fluid and unsettled. The Biblical text suggests that adherence to the aniconic (prohibiting images) monotheism of the Sinai covenant was not yet firmly established everywhere. Israelites frequently adopted religious practices as well as the gods of the Canaanites. Syncretism was more properly the order of the day.

The migration of the tribe of Dan

Chapter 18 gives us a window into both of these realities. We read there an account of the migration of the Hebrew tribe of Dan, which seeks out a new patrimony on the northern border of Canaan. There they attack a peaceful people living in a town named Laish. They slaughter the residents, burn the city, and rebuild it as their own. They rename it Dan.

Storm god on bull

Image of a Canaanite storm god aside a bull.

It’s a rather grim story. The Danites come across as murderous bullies. This witnesses to the widespread violence of this era in Israelite history.

On the route to their raid, the Danites invade the homestead of a man named Micah. There they rob him of a cast-metal idol along with some other religious objects. They also give the free-lance Levite priest who serves as Micah’s chaplain an offer he can’t refuse. They carry both to their new city, where they set up the idol in a shrine for themselves and appoint the Levite as priest.

In verses 30-31 we learn that Micah’s chaplain is Jonathan, Moses’ grandson. The text then says that Jonathan and his descendants continue as priests at Dan for several hundred years.

This stray mention startles us. Moses’ grandson and his descendants have been set up as priests to serve a graven image.* One wonders how the Danites justified their action. It is possible that they did not see this idol as a rejection of the worship of the God of Israel. They may have just been following in the same mindset as the Israelites did in the exodus story when they set up the golden calf at Mount Sinai and worship it as a material representation of God. But were they not falling into the same deviance that those earlier Israelites had fallen into?

They also co-opt a member of the family of Moses in the process, just as the earlier Israelites had co-opted Aaron, Moses’ brother, to make the image for them.

One also wonders how the Moses of the Torah would have reacted if he had lived to see this development. We read in Exodus 32 the rage that Moses showed when the Israelites under Aaron had erected a golden calf at Mount Sinai and made it the object of their worship. It was a serious breach of the covenant, for it violated the very first two commandments of the Ten Commandments. Surely Moses would not have been tolerant of this violation of the covenant by his grandson.**

How do we account for Jonathan’s deviance from his grandfather’s way?

I call it a curious story because a reader of the Bible does not expect to find that a grandson of Moses would be skirting on the edge of his grandfather’s strict monotheism. How do we account for this?

One answer might be that the historical reality of early Israel was different from the picture we get in the Torah. Israel’s monotheism may not have been as settled in the beginning as the Torah suggests. Judges may give a more accurate picture.

But the story of Jonathan may also reflect a common reality in the life of faith. Transmitting one’s faith to future generations is never a sure thing. Even the spiritual stature of Moses could not guarantee that his descendants would continue to walk in the pathway of his faith.

This can be a consoling thought to all parents and grandparents who have watched their children or grandchildren abandon the faith in which they were raised or choose to walk a religious path far different from that they were taught. History offers many examples of when the process of faith transmission fails.

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* We get the sense that the author recounts this fact because the shrine at Dan later became a shrine/temple that rivaled the temple in Jerusalem. As a result the Danite shrine has a reputation in the Old Testament as a site of illegitimate worship.

** That a member of Moses’ family should have been connected with this deviant worship center at Dan may have caused something of a scandal for those who wrote and compiled the Old Testament. Maybe that is why in the ancient manuscripts, Jonathan is sometimes said to be a grandson of Moses and sometimes a grandson of Manasseh. Also when we read the mention of Gershom and his sons in 1 Chronicles 23:15-16, we do not find Jonathan listed. Was Jonathan omitted from the genealogical reference deliberately?

 

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.

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* 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.

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.

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* 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.”