The Siren Call of Fame

Fame issues a bogus promise of immortality.

The Bible’s authors and editors have a predisposition to juxtapose stories that they want us to read in dialogue with each other.

A wonderful example occurs in Mark 10:35-52. This passage recounts two stories about Jesus. The first (Mark 10:35-45) tells of an occasion when James and John ask Jesus if they can sit on his right and left when he enters into his glory. The second (Mark 10:46-52) tells the story of Jesus healing a blind man named Bartimaeus on the outskirts of Jericho.

I believe that Mark wants us to hear these two stories in juxtaposition. Why? Because of a phrase that Jesus asks in each story. When he is approached by James and John, Jesus asks: What do you want me to do for you?(Mark 10:36) When Bartimaeus shouts to get Jesus’ attention and Jesus stops to talk with him, Jesus asks the very same question: What do you want me to do for you?(Mark 10:51).

This repeated question links the two stories together. Mark wants us to reflect on the very different answers the three people give. In particular, the answer Bartimaeus gives throws a whole different light on the answer James and John give.

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America’s tower: The Empire State Building in New York City.

Juxtaposed Stories in Genesis: The Tower of Babel

Another example occurs in the Book of Genesis with the two stories of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) and the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-9). I believe the editors of Genesis want us to read these two stories in juxtaposition, too. Let me explain why.

The story of the Tower of Babel tells of an effort by a group of people in the plain of Shinar who set out to build a city. Its crown jewel will be a tower which will extend its top into heaven.

What fascinates me in this story is their motivation. They say they want to make a name for themselves because they are afraid that they will be scattered upon the face of the earth. In response to this fear they launch a huge public works endeavor.

How does building a name for themselves protect them from being scattered? The way I understand the link is by seeing the fear of scattering as a stand-in for the fear of death.  What the people of Babel are really afraid of is the oblivion that follows upon death. After we have been dead two or three generations, who will remember us? Will we not all sink into that great mass of humanity who have died and been forgotten?

How can we prevent that?  By creating such a great name and reputation that people will continue to remember us and talk about us long after we have died. We thereby gain a measure of immortality by our continuing fame.

We see another example of this craving for a measure of immortality in the heroes that Homer celebrates in The Illiad. The warriors in that epic share the same value system as does Achilles. Achilles is offered a choice. He can live a long and prosperous life in rural obscurity. Or he can live a short life but one made shining and glorious by his constantly celebrated deeds as a warrior.

Achilles chooses the latter option. He does obtain a measure of immortality. His deeds continue to be celebrated down through the centuries of Greek history as they are sung by bards like Homer. His fame continues even unto today.*

This hope that fame will confer on us some measure of immortality makes its promises so seductive. So we spend a great deal of energy and resources on our quest for our own celebration in the realm of public opinion and the organs of the news media. I ask if it is not this same quest for immortality that Achilles and the residents of Babel crave, a quest that fuels so much of our own society’s obsession with publicity.

In the end the quest of the people of Babel is thwarted. Not only does God block the building of their tower, but also their search for fame. The text does not remember any name of the tower’s builders other than telling us they lived in the plain of Shinar.

Juxtaposed Stories in Genesis: The Call of Abraham

Now let us turn to the story of the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-9). Abraham (then named Abram) is living in obscurity in the region of Haran when he receives a call from God. God calls him to leave his country, his family, and his native culture and migrate to a land that God will show him.

If Abram will obey God’s command, then God makes some extravagant promises to him. First, God will make him into a great nation. Second, God will bless Abram (which as the story unfolds we learn includes great prosperity). Third, God will make Abram’s name great. And fourth, God will use Abram to bring a blessing upon all peoples of the earth.

These are extravagant promises. They represent all the great dreams and cravings of kings and other potentates through the ages. These powers have exhausted immense resources in order to acquire just these desirables.

But what catches my eye when I read this story is that third promise from God. God promises to make Abram’s name great. This was the great longing of the people of Babel when they launched their tower. Abram is promised this great blessing with an amazing fame that will indeed extend down through generations upon generations and throughout the earth.

God, however, invites Abraham not to seek this blessing by his own initiative. Abraham is not instructed to go and do great deeds that will rebound with praise among the people around him, especially great deeds in war or business. Instead Abraham is invited to simply respond to God in obedience to his command to go on an undoubtedly risky venture.

Abraham does obey. The text states that obedience in one short sentence. So Abram went, as the Lord had told him( Genesis 12:4). God lives up to his promise. Abraham is today one of the most remembered and celebrated names in human history and the great hero of faith in three world religions. He is granted that measure of immortality that the people of Babel (and the heroes ofThe Illiad) so craved.

 Stories that Probe Our Inner Spirit

What links the stories of the Tower of Babel and the call of Abraham is this repeated theme of making a great name for one’s self. That theme figures prominently in both stories. That fact, I contend, is the signal to us that the editors want us to read these two stories in juxtaposition.

What these two stories can do together is provoke us to think as well about our true motivations for doing the things we do in our own lives. Are we motivated by a desire to make a great reputation for ourselves that will establish, for example, our superior status in the community? If so, are we falling for the bogus promise that the siren goddess sings.

Or are we motivated by other factors: our genuine desire to be of service to God or to the community. Or by our sheer delight and joy in doing the things that give us delight and joy regardless of whether we win recognition for what we do or not?

This is how I find reflecting on these two stories from Genesis shines a probing light on my own inner spirit.

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* Achilles has a very different take on his choice when Odysseus encounters him in the land of the dead in the eleventh chapter of The Odyssey. When Odysseus points out to Achilles his great fortune in holding such a renowned reputation as a warrior on earth, Achilles protests that he would rather be a plough man on earth working for a poor farmer than lord over this collection of dead warriors, which Achilles calls “used-up men.”

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Darkness Is My Only Companion

Psalm 88 is a psalm of lament like no other.

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Photo by Suliman Sallehi on Pexels.com

It’s a common misperception that the Old Testament psalms are all songs of praise or thanksgiving. The reality is that the majority of them are desperate pleas for help in times of trouble. Scholars label them psalms of lament.

The troubles listed in these laments are the many troubles and tribulations that afflict human beings. They include: life-threatening illness, anxiety, malicious gossip and reputation smearing, social ostracism, betrayal by friends, murder by ambush, oppression by the rich and powerful, defeat in battle, foreign invasion, even old age.

What is striking about these lament psalms is that the psalmists bring all these troubles before God. The lament psalms are poetic prayers. They plead for God’s saving intervention.

And in most, there is not only a fervent plea but also an ardent hope that God will come soon to save them. Yet if God delays, the psalmist remains confident that God will nonetheless come. A good example is Psalm 22, where after the psalmist expresses his torment in anguished terms, he concludes the psalm in confident praise.

The Israelite Horror before Death

Psalm 88, however, stands apart from all the other lament psalms. For one thing, it contains one of the most vivid descriptions of the ancient Israelite’s expectation on the afterlife. That expectation did not involve a belief in either a heaven or a hell. Instead all the dead, righteous or evil, entered the subterranean world of Sheol (also called the Pit). We see this world described in verses 3-6 and again in verses 10-12.

This land of the dead was a shadowy world where the dead subsisted in a drained-out ghostly existence. We might think of them as zombies. What was most distressing about this world of the dead was that God was not present in it. God abandoned them.

We experience the bleakness of this vision of the afterlife when we hear the psalmist talk of the dead as …those whom you [God] remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. (Verse 5). This is intensified when the psalmist rhetorically asks: Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise you? (Verse 10) The implied answer, of course, is No.

In this language we see how much of an existential horror death is to the ancient Israelite mindset. The expectation of resurrection has yet to dawn in the Israelite consciousness. This is important to remember when we read the language of salvation in the Old Testament. It does not mean going to heaven when we die. Rather salvation language talks of God’s intervening rescue of us in the trials and tribulations of this life. The Exodus story is the great epic of salvation in the Old Testament.

A Dialogue of Accusation

The second striking feature of Psalm 88 is the psalmist’s boldness in accusing God as the source of his troubles. In Verses 6-7, he moves to second-person address, saying, You [God] have put me in the depths of the Pit…your wrath lies heavy upon me.

This accusatory speech continues as the psalm progresses. Inverses 13-18, one accusation piles onto another:

O Lord, why do you cast me off?

            Why do you hide your face from me? (Verse 14)

I suffer your terrors; I am desperate. (Verse 15)

Your wrath has swept over me;

            your dread assaults destroy me. (Verse 16)

 I am astounded at the psalmist’s boldness in accusing God of being the cause of all his troubles, in effect, his enemy. If biblical faith is to be understood as trust, then here we see its almost negation. The only vestige of faith that I can identity in this psalm is the fact that throughout the psalm, the psalmist continues to address his complaints to God.

The psalm in fact is a prayer, for it begins O Lord, God of my salvation(Verse 1). The psalmist has not cut off his dialogue with God, even though the tone has turned angry and vituperative. This psalm calls to mind the boldness of Job as well as he contends with God over the cause of his misery.

At the Bottom, Despair

The final striking feature of this psalm is its ending. The psalm comes to an abrupt stop on a bottom note of deep despair:

You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;

            my companions are in darkness.(Verse 18)

This is how the New Revised Standard Version translates the verse. But the Psalter in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer gives it an even more desolate expression.

My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me,

            and darkness is my only companion.

Here the psalmist finds himself in profound and deep isolation. He sees no reason for hope or confidence that God will hear his prayer or reverse his situation. It is certainly the starkest verse in all the psalms and possibly in all of the Bible. Whereas the other psalms of lament have various expressions of hope and confidence in God, this one stands apart in its utter hopelessness.

A Psalm for Humanity in Its Depths

I find myself amazed that the editors of the psalms should have included this psalm in their collection of ancient Israelite poetry. The tendency of most pious would have been to exclude it as a perversion of faith.

I am glad the editors did not. It seems to me this psalm gives expression to those times when our own faith hangs on by something as fragile as a spider’s silk strand. These are the times when life experiences throw us into such confusion and despair that we can see no light at the end of our tunnel.

At such times, we, too, know darkness as our only companion. I certainly have experienced such times in my own life, especially in my young adult years. It is reassuring that the psalmist seems to give us sanction for lifting up such times of depression to God, even if it must be in the words of accusation, desperation, and despair.

It is also why this psalm can speak powerfully to people trapped in a downward spiral. Once when I was serving as a hospital chaplain, I visited a patient who was suffering from a serious kidney disease that had endured for ten years. She was a good church woman. But as we talked, she expressed her weariness with God who did not seem to respond to her prayers for healing. She felt, she said, so utterly alone and abandoned, especially as her friends at church continued to enjoy robust health.

I suggested that I read a psalm to her and then ask if it expressed how she was feeling. I read Psalm 88. When I finished, she looked at me and said, “Chaplain, I don’t feel that bad yet.” This psalm may have been helping her to realize that her faith was not yet at such an end as she thought it was.

One of the things that has always drawn me to the Bible is the astonishing range of human experience that its words give expression to. Its understanding of the realm of faith is far more expansive of human experience and emotions that most religious people dare go.

 

Our Ego and God’s Kingdom

Spiritual growth involves a surprising paradox.

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St. Martin’s Cross at Iona Abbey

As I read through some of the popular modern writers on the spiritual life (for example, Richard Rohr), I encounter a paradox that has baffled me.

These writers like to talk about the two stages in the spiritual life. In the first stage, normally associated with our youth and young adult years, our challenge is to develop a strong identity and a strong ego. This is very important, they say. We need a strong identity and ego in order to assume our proper place in life in our world.

But in the second half of our spiritual life, we are called upon to surrender if not our identity, then especially our ego. The second half of life is about letting go, letting go of everything we have worked so hard to acquire: our social achievements, our well polished skills, our professional competence, our wisdom and knowledge, and ultimately of our very body in death. This is necessary to rise to the fulfillment of our spiritual destiny.

As I said, I have found myself baffled by this paradox. If developing a strong ego is so important, then why is it imperative to surrender that ego in the second stage of life? Is that saying that these writers are engaged in a contradiction? In the end is our ego not as important to acquire as these writers say? How can I make sense of such talk?

I’ve wrestled with these questions for some time. Here’s how I came to a personal resolution for myself.

The Importance of the Ego

I think daily life as well as modern psychology both demonstrate the importance of young people developing a strong personal identity. Without such a strong identity, young people will prove unable to stand resolute when the gales of life, such as social and work pressure blow against them.

Along with that identity, young people need to develop their God-given talents and acquire the skills and knowledge they need to hold down jobs and invest themselves in service to the world. Education and training are of fundamental importance.

I argue that all of this is part of developing a strong ego. So what’s the problem with a strong ego? There is no problem with a strong ego per se. What becomes the problem is the ends to which we put that ego, with its talents, hard-won skills and knowledge. Do we use them all simply to advance our own well-being and self-aggrandizement?  If so, then we adopt a basic stance of ego-centrism in facing the world. Our lives are all about me and my well-being.

Or do we place our talents, our skills, and knowledge in service to a purpose beyond just our own well-being and self-aggrandizement? Do we marshal our identity into service to something that exceeds our own person? If we do not, then our egocentrism does indeed become an obstacle to growth, both in the spiritual life as well as in healthy human relationships.

That purpose that goes beyond our own welfare and enrichment may take many forms. It can be a devotion to a family, a business, a community, or a social or political cause. It can be a religious vocation. It often takes the form of patriotism or some form of nationalism. It is why when we become involved in a cause greater than ourselves, we can feel that our lives are more expansive, more meaningful.

Jesus’ Counsel

All this can be very good, but I think Jesus suggests that it does not go far enough. In all of these cases, devotion to a greater cause than ourselves can be corrupted into another form of egocentrism, as we try to impose our own vision and desires upon the cause we serve.

Jesus offers an alternative in his Sermon on the Mount when he preaches:

…strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things [the necessities of life, like food and raiment] will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. [Matthew 6:33-34]

It does not seem to me that in this counsel Jesus is denying the importance of a strong ego, especially those talents, skills, and knowledge that we bring to our daily living. But he is directing us to put those assets to work in a cause greater than our own self-survival and enhancement. Place your life in service to God’s kingdom, says Jesus.

If we are serious in following his counsel, we will find that truly seeking the Kingdom of God constantly challenges our own conceptions and desires as to what serving the kingdom of God is. God defines the kingdom, not us, and what the kingdom needs. If we truly seek the kingdom of God first, we will constantly be challenged to subordinate our own ego needs and demands to that spiritual reality. And that will often be experienced as a form of death.

Yet the paradox is that as we consent to that kind of death of the ego, we find that our service brings the very enhancement of life that our ego so ardently desires and presumes it is giving up when it consents to its death.

Here it seems to me lies the resolution to the contradiction that I said has so baffled me.

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Author’s Note:  I think we can attribute the popularity of this vision of the two halves of the spiritual life to two important writers of the early 20thcentury. They are the psychiatrist Carl Jungand the scientist/theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Both writers have had a profound influence on conceptions of the spiritual life that we find reflected in popular writings today.

 

 

 

Welcome the Wilderness

When the Israelites leave Egypt, they take the long route to Canaan for some very good reasons.

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Former monk cells carved into the volcanic rock of the Cappadocian wilderness of Turkey.

Exodus 13:17-18 tells us that when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, God did not permit them to take the shortest route to Canaan. That way would have been the road that followed the Mediterranean coast into the Gaza region of Canaan. The trip would have taken only weeks.

Exodus anachronistically calls this road the way of the Philistines. It was the historic route that travelers, merchants, and armies followed in making the trek from Egypt to Syria and beyond. It was therefore heavily guarded by Egyptian garrisons.

Exodus tells us that God was afraid the newly freed Israelites would come into conflict with one of these armed camps and lose heart. They might just then return to Egypt. Instead God directs them into a more roundabout route through the heart of the Sinai wilderness. The journey to Canaan ends up taking 40 years.

I think, however, the Biblical text gives only one part of God’s rationale in making this change of course. There is much more going on in those 40 years than just avoiding skirmishes with Egyptian troops.

The Wilderness as a Place of Testing

For one, the Israelites have just been freed from slavery in Egypt. They have experienced a totally unexpected liberation, thanks to an unbelievable act of God’s grace. But now who is this God who has set them free? What is his character? Can he be trusted always to be for them?

The Israelites need time and experience to come to know this God who has called them. So the years of wandering in the wilderness become a time of testing, as Israel tests God to see if God will provide for them and guide them. There will be much wavering along the way. It takes time, truly a lot of time, to come to have a deep trust in this God.

In a similar way, God does not fully know who this people are whom he has just liberated from Egypt. Will they trust him? Will they follow his guidance? Or will they fight him and vex him?

Over the 40 years God will learn much about this people. He will learn that they are a mixed bag of faith and fear. One day they will covenant with God and promise to have no other god before them. The next day they will give way to anxiety and grumble about God and Moses. On occasion they will even break their promises and flirt with other gods.

In the first years of any marriage, a husband and wife are engaged in a process of coming to know each other more deeply. Will this deeper knowledge lead to greater commitment or to new alienation? Will they be able to love each other despite the flaws and failures they find in each other?

In a comparable way God and Israel are coming to know each other during those long 40 years in the desert. This process of coming to know each other takes on more intimacy because in the desert the people are deprived of the many distractions that go with urban life in a city or with rural life in a settled agricultural community. In an environment of deprivation, the partners must deal directly with each other.

Understanding this about the 40 years of wilderness wandering gives insight into the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ temptation after his baptism (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13). The texts say this time of temptation was 40 days long. It took place in the wilderness.

The gospel writers are clearly looking backwards at the exodus story. Just as Israel faced a time of testing in the desert, so must Jesus as he makes an exodus journey in his own life. Can God count on Jesus or not? Can Jesus count on his heavenly Father? Only a time of testing will demonstrate.

The Wilderness as the Place of Nation-Building

There is, I believe, a second important reason why Israel must spend 40 years in the wilderness.

When the Israelites fled Egypt, they experienced the giddy exuberance of a long-desired freedom from oppression. You hear their giddiness in the joyful song that Moses and the Israelites sing in Exodus 15.

But this mass of freed slaves is still just a disorganized rabble. The Israelites need a national structure that will give them an identity and a stability that will enable the work of national development to proceed. Without some organizing focus, this rabble will fly in all directions and dissipate as a people.

God clearly understands this need. He sets out to give Israel this organizing focus through the covenant established at Mount Sinai. In its wake come two important gifts. The gift of torah law will give structure to Israel’s corporate life. The gift of the tabernacle and priesthood will give it a focus for its worship.

With these gifts God begins the hard work of replacing a slave’s mindset with the mindset of a people who can confidently take responsibility for their life under God’s rule. In short, this is the task of nation building, a necessary task after any revolution.

As we Americans should especially know, nation building is not a quick and easy task. It takes time and constant vigilance. It is especially challenging to change a people’s mindset. But without that change, the risk of the people surrendering their freedom and returning to the patterns of Egyptian oppression is very high.

With freedom also comes anxiety. Too many people find the pain of anxiety so high that they will willingly surrender that freedom to someone who will relieve them of that pain.  Israel will prove just as vulnerable to that temptation as have been many peoples in history since.

The 40 years Israel spends in the wilderness constitute a noble effort to accomplish this important change of mindset. In the terms of Christian spirituality, we call that change conversion.

The result is decidedly mixed. When Israel finally enters Canaan, it will fall prey over and over again to the appeal of an Egyptian pattern of living. Yet Israel will never completely forget its calling. Its prophets will repeatedly remind the Israelites of what a converted life looks like. And Israel will seek to reform over and over again.

The Wilderness as Model for Our Spiritual Journey

Here is the power of the exodus story as a model of the spiritual journey for anyone who sincerely seeks to engage in that journey. The journey may begin with baptism or an emotional altar call response or simply a serious though rational decision for God. But however the journey begins, the start is just that, a start. The spiritual journey of conversion always remains a journey. And for all of us it takes a lifetime and then beyond to complete.

If we are serious about this journey, the exodus story tells us that periods of living in the desert are necessary stages on that journey. Those experiences deprive us of the distractions of ordinary, daily life. We can then concentrate our attention on the Lord and our life with him. In the process we hope to experience that deeper conversion of life to which the Lord calls us.

This is why the early monastic movement began in the Egyptian, Syrian, and Anatolian wilderness. The first monks fled the Greco-Roman cities for the desert exactly to escape the distractions of city life so they could concentrate their energies on their spiritual growth and maturation. In their desert cells and communities, the monks sought to become deeply converted men and women. Once that conversion was advanced, some might safely return to life in the city, there to live and serve without succumbing to a Egyptian mindset.

Though many people may not explicitly realize it, it is why spiritual retreats hold such appeal. When we go on retreat, we are returning in a sense to the desert to refocus our lives free of the distractions of our daily living. Most retreats are short in duration and so may not lead to any deep conversion. But they still give us a taste of the blessing of detachment.

This is also I believe the appeal of contemplative prayer for many people today. As we enter into the silence of contemplative prayer, we too experience a kind of return to the desert, a spiritual desert where we seek to be free of our distracting thoughts, emotions, and verbosity so we can simply be with the Lord and come to know him as he knows us.

So let us welcome the wilderness experiences in our lives. They bring their own special blessings.

 

Truth Beyond Understanding

Rationality has its limits as a way of knowing reality.

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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

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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.”

 

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.

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* 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.