Welcome the Wilderness

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

IMG_0864

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.

 

Advertisements

Truth Beyond Understanding

Rationality has its limits as a way of knowing reality.

The_south_transept_rose_at_Notre-Dame_de_Chartres

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trans-rational knowing

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

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

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

Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud,

            be gracious to me and answer me!

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

            Your face, LORD, do I seek.

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

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

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

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

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

The trans-rational experience of Thomas Aquinas

St-thomas-aquinas

Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________

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

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

The Mystery of the Transfiguration

A gospel story that challenges my reductionist assumptions.

icon of transfiguration

An Orthodox icon of the Transfiguration

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Dialogue with Orthodoxy

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Testimony of Saint Seraphim of Sarov

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

Seraphim_of_Sarov

Seraphim of Sarov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Extraordinarily well,” I said.

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

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

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

“An extraordinary sweetness,” I replied.

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

“An extraordinary joy in all my heart.”

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

 A Story Bearing Cautions

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

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

The world is charged with the grandeur of God,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___________________

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

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

 

A God Who Questions

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

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

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

First Example: God with Adam and Eve

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

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

Second Example: God with Cain

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

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

Third Example: God with Jonah

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

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

Fourth Example: God with Job

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

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

Who is this that darkens counsel by

                        words without knowledge?

            Gird up your loins like a man,

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

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

Fifth Example: Jesus with the Lawyer

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

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

Why Does God Ask Questions?

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

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

Questions as the High Road to Self-Knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

Questions Nurture Personal Relationship

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

1200px-Martin_Buber_portrait

Martin Buber, 1878-1965

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

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

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

Becoming an I through Meeting

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

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

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

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

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

____________

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

** Buber, I and Thou, Page 28.

 

The Garden City

In the symbolism of Revelation, we glimpse Christianity’s ultimate aspiration.

Italian-Renaissance-garden_design

An Italian renaissance garden.

I find Revelation 21-22 attracts me back over and over again just as a burning light bulb allures the flying moth at night. As evidence, you my readers may notice that I’ve written about these two chapters twice before in this blog (see my two postings Heaven’s Not My Home and Jerusalem–Icon of Unity).

The appeal of Revelation 21-22 is not that I take them as a literal description of what heaven will look like. I don’t take any of Revelation as a literal blueprint of God’s plans for the future, as the dispensationalists do.

Instead I read Revelation’s imagery as I do imagery in poetry. Some of the images serve a symbolic function. Others are loaded with literary associations, usually looking back to the Old Testament. All seek to convey a deeply Christian vision of life and of God’s work in the world—past, present, and future.

In Revelation 21-22, the seer John gives us a glimpse of what lies ahead after the end of history. That is, what lies ahead after what Christian theology calls the Eschaton, the End. This brings the end of the universe as we presently know it. It ends God’s creative and redemptive work, which has been the grand story of Scripture.

At the Eschaton, the universe dies. Here John’s vision agrees with modern cosmology, which says that some billions upon billions of years ahead from now the universe will die either from extreme expansion or extreme contraction.

What comes after this death is the great promise of the Christian gospel: resurrection. Revelation 21-22 foresees a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. We are in a new creation, but it is not discontinuous with the previous creation. Rather it is a transformed creation, just as are the resurrected bodies that the apostle Paul looks for in 1 Corinthians 15.

The Crown Jewel of the New Creation

In John’s vision, the crown jewel of this new creation is the new city of Jerusalem that descends from heaven to the earth. The fact that it descends from heaven is John’s way of bearing witness that it is ultimately the gift of God, not the capstone of human creativity through the ages. John has no time for any utopian human agendas.

It is a city of stunning beauty, for it is as a bride adorned for her husband (Revelation 21:2). It is also the place where God dwells:

 ‘See, the home [Greek: tabernacle] of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them;

They will be his peoples,

And God himself will be with them….’ (Revelation 21:3)

In this vision the incarnation of God in his creation has expanded beyond just the man Jesus to embrace the whole of humanity. The whole community of humanity (symbolized by the city) now composes the tabernacle or dwelling place of God.*

This is a breath-taking vision. It is why the Eastern Orthodox tradition is not blasphemous when it proclaims that God became a human being in order that human beings might become divine.** The Orthodox have grasped far better the full meaning of salvation than have most Protestants.

Revelation 21 then goes on to describe this city in glowing imagery. It has golden streets. Its gates are made from precious jewels. It radiates light. There is no night.

The Garden of Eden Redux

Revelation 22 continues John’s description of the city. From the heart of the city flows a river of the water of life. On each side of the river grows the tree of life, which bears fruit non-stop. Its leaves convey healing.

These verses clearly allude to the Garden of Eden described in Genesis 2. From the center of Eden also flows a river, which then divides into four branches. And in the midst of the Garden grows the tree of life.

In John’s vision of the Eschaton the Garden of Eden has not been discarded. It has been preserved or rather resurrected, but now abides as part of a city. The rural and the urban no longer form the two sides of a human conflict that has afflicted human history. Nor do primitive nature and highly evolved human culture. They have been united into one.

What strikes me so much in this Christian aspiration for the future is how it contrasts so dramatically with the aspiration for the future that we find in ancient Greek culture, especially its philosophy.

Greek culture tended to assume that human life was grounded in a deadly dualism. The material side of life and the spiritual/intellectual side of life were always in conflict. This dualism was the cause of human suffering. Salvation was escaping it. (The classic expression of this viewpoint is found in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo.)

So life in the human body and in all the material side of life constituted a prison for the spirit and mind of human beings. The great longing was to set that mind/spirit free. This in turn fed a strong ascetical spirit in Greek philosophy. That spirit would later provide one of the springs of Christian asceticism.

God’s Home

But in John’s vision in Revelation, the material side of nature and the bodily life of human beings are not banished. Rather they come to be indwelt by divinity. God chooses to dwell in the new material creation. But this time the creation is truly in-Spirited. The material universe reaches its ultimate destiny–to be the tabernacle of God.

What we see in John’s vision is the ultimate working out of the Christian doctrine of Incarnation. God’s incarnation was not to end with the birth of the baby of Bethlehem. Rather God’s incarnation makes its first entrance into the world in that birth, but does not end until I believe the whole of creation is home to God’s Spirit. Talk about a big, big story!

The implications of this understanding of the Christian aspiration are immense for Christian understandings of ministry and ethics. They provide, I contend, the foundation for the Christian sacraments and for Christian ministries of healing, of feeding the hungry, of social service, of Christian engagement in politics and in ecology, of Christian respect for sexuality and the arts, and even of Christian attitudes towards what constitutes healthy Christian asceticism.***

Why do John’s visions in Revelation make my spirit soar? Let the implications of John’s symbolism sink in and you may begin to see why.

____________

* As I noted above, the Greek word that the NRSV translators translate as home in Revelation 21:3 is the literal word tabernacle. This is a weighty Biblical word. It alludes back to the tabernacle in the Old Testament’s Exodus story. There God instructs Moses to construct a portable tent sanctuary that could function as the meeting place between God and Israel during its 40-year journey through the Sinai desert. In John’s vision the transient place of meeting between God and Israel has now been replaced with a permanent meeting place.

But the word tabernacle also carries us back to the opening of John’s gospel. There in John 1:14 the gospel writer summarizes the Christmas gospel in the sentence, And the Word became flesh, and lived [Greek: tabernacled] among us, and we have seen his glory…. When we read John in Revelation, we must carry with us these two previous uses of the word.

** They call this the doctrine of theosis.

*** One of my favorite modern Christian writers who I believed has plumbed the depths of meaning in the Christian doctrine of incarnation is the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin. His view of Christian spirituality is quite distinctive in his emphasis on matter being raised to participate fully in spirit rather than in matter being abandoned in an effort to give the spirit freedom to flourish.

 

Guilt vs. Shame

Because they are not the same, they call for different responses.

Jesus and adulterous woman

Jesus and the woman caught in adultery

Recently I was talking with a friend with professional training in psychology. We were discussing guilt and shame. My friend pointed out to me that although guilt can slide into shame, they are not the same thing. It is important to our well-being that we stay aware of the distinction.

One of the best expressions of the distinction is found in a book by Merle Fossum and Marilyn Mason, titled Facing Shame: Families in Recovery. They write: While guilt is a painful feeling of regret and responsibility for one’s actions, shame is a painful feeling about oneself as a person.*  My friend put it more succinctly for me. He said: Guilt is feeling bad about something I have done; shame is feeling bad about who I am.

I find this distinction very illuminating. I have been one who has tended to confuse guilt and shame by assuming they were variations of the same emotion.

When we feel guilty, my friend went on, we feel that in our behavior we have violated a value that we ought to have respected. That value may have been set by our society and culture. Or the violation may have been against our own internal values. But the key point is our violation comes through our behavior.

As an example, let us say we tell a lie. We feel bad about our doing so. We believe we should honor the truth, but we have violated that value by telling a lie. We feel guilty.

In shame, however, we feel bad about what we are or who we are. We feel bad about our very being. I am bad, not just in my actions, but in the very core of my being. As a result, we can feel our very right to exist or to belong is called into question.

To continue my example of telling a lie, shame tells us that when we told our lie, we became a liar. That defines who we are. We are wicked in our very being. We are no longer worthy of being loved, accepted, or belonging.

Shame’s Bitter Fruit

The emotional consequences are, therefore, often much more substantial. On the one hand, shame can trigger low self-esteem that moves into acute depression. On the other, it can trigger violent rage, especially when the shame has been induced by a real or perceived act of humiliation.

Recently I was reading a news feature in a Sunday edition of The Washington Post.** It told the stories of six angry men who had participated in the white supremacist march on Charlottesville on August 12. It explored the long roads they had traveled in developing the hate they now espouse.

Each man’s story—and his road into hate—was different. But I noticed that they all shared one factor in common. All felt alienated from the wider society. And often that feeling of alienation had come to a head through experiences when they felt they had been bullied, sneered at, or humiliated.

In humiliation, someone in effect tells us that we are so bad we cannot be loved. That violation of our sense of goodness then bears toxic fruit: anger and rage. I know from my  own experiences of being humiliated by others. If, however, we believe their negative assessment of our value, the violation can trigger deep depression. We are trapped in shame.

The Shamed Person’s Greatest Need

It seems to me then that if guilt and shame are very different, they may require different responses, especially if you are as I am a Christian pastor ministering to parishioners.

When dealing with guilt, I think we have an effective tool in the hallowed Christian practice of confession and absolution.  A person acknowledges how he or she has violated a norm by his or her behavior. As a pastor, counselor, or friend provides some form of absolution, the penitent is set free to go back to daily life, freed from the emotional burden guilt brings.

The penitent may fall into the same negative behavior again, but the absolution assures the penitent that he or she can seek to do better the next time they are tempted to engage in the same negative behavior.

But I am not sure that the traditional tool of confession and absolution is the best response for healing shame. For shame is about more than just what one has done. It is about one’s very being. One feels contempt about one’s very being alive. That contempt may have been imposed by someone else or by one’s own self. And because we are not good in our being, we believe that we can never do anything better when we confront the same temptation to engage in negative behavior.

In dealing with shame, we have to assure someone that it is OK to be who they are, to be the unique creation of God that they are. We have to convey to them that they are of value; in short, that they are loved. They may have done wrong, but that does not mean they are rubbish just because they exist. Conveying that healing message may not be an instantaneous thing. It may require slow and patient work.

Jesus, Guilt, and Shame

Because of the insight that my friend gave me into the difference between guilt and shame, I find myself looking at several gospel stories in a new light.

In Mark 2:1-12, for example, we read the story of Jesus preaching in a house in Capernaum. Because of the large crowd surrounding Jesus, a group of men cannot bring their paralyzed friend close enough to Jesus for him to heal him. So they remove the roof above him and lower their friend on a stretcher.

Jesus heals the man, but before releasing the paralysis, he forgives the man of his sins. The story suggests that the paralysis is in some way tied to a sense of guilt that the man has because of some wrong he has done. Absolution of his wrong behavior sets the man free. As a result he regains his mobility. I see this story as one purely about guilt and its effective release. We encounter no sense that shaming has played any role in the paralyzed man’s plight.

It’s another matter, however, in the story we find in John 7:53-8-11. Here we have again a story about someone who has done wrong, in this case, a woman caught in adultery. Some scribes and Pharisees drag her out in public and place her before Jesus, demanding what Jesus thinks should be done with the woman. Should she be stoned to death as the Law of Moses requires?

Their actions are a public act of shaming for the woman, presumably in front of a crowd consisting only of men. She may not have been literally naked, but she must have felt emotionally as if she were. She would then not only have been terrified for her life, but also feeling deeply shamed.

Such acts of public shaming have often happened in the history of the church. It was a common practice in the early church for notorious sinners to be brought before the bishop and condemned publicly in front of the assembled congregation.

They would then be barred from participation in the Eucharist for a specified period of time. They might also be required to follow a particular program of penances. But whatever the specific requirements, the effect was to bring them into shame in front of the community.

The Catholic practice of private confession was introduced in the early Middle Ages in an effort to provide a more compassionate way of dealing with sin. It made the confession of sin and absolution a private affair between the penitent and the priest, not in front of the whole assembled congregation.***

In effect, Jesus forgives the act of sin when he tells the woman to “go, and do not sin again.” But what is going on in this story is a more powerful response on the part of Jesus to the public shaming of the woman. When he tells the crowd, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her,” he addresses their shaming ploy head on.

It works. Each man in the crowd slinks away, so that Jesus is left alone with the woman. He then says to her, “Neither do I condemn you: go and do not sin again.” The woman’s dignity as a human being has been affirmed. She is set free again to be, to be who she is as a child of God.

The Father’s Response to the Prodigal Son’s Shame

Finally, it seems to me that we watch an amazing example of the healing of shame as we read the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. Here a man’s younger son demands his inheritance which he then squanders in a foreign land. He is reduced to poverty, but also disgraced by his circumstances. He as a Jew is reduced to feeding pigs.

It induces a profound sense of shame. As a result, he resolves to return home, but not to request to be re-installed in the family. Just to be enlisted among his father’s hired servants. He feels he no longer deserves to be regarded as a son. Instead he deserves to be an outsider to the family, and so he confesses as he meets his father.

But amazingly the father does not condemn his son for his failures nor consign him to servanthood. Instead, full of compassion, he runs to his son, embraces him, and kisses him. He dresses him in fine garments, and throws a banquet for him. The son is re-installed as a son.

The rationale the father gives is: …let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.

The response of the father to the son’s profound sense of shame is to communicate as strongly as he can that his son is loved. He is still his son, and always has been, despite his disgraceful behavior. What is most important to the father is not the forgiving of his son’s guilt, but the healing of his son’s shame.

I find these gospel stories so powerful because they suggest that expressions of forgiveness alone may not be enough when we are dealing with deep-seated shame. Healing shame requires something more. We need to know that we are loved.

This adds a whole new layer of meaning for me to what the apostle Paul says in Romans 5:8: …God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. God loves us even before we repent of any wrong we have done. That, I believe, is the key to the healing power of the gospel.

Footnotes:

* Fossum, Merle A and Mason, Marilyn J. Facing Shame: Families in Recovery. W.W. Norton, 1986. I actually encountered this quotation in the article on Shame in Wikipedia.

** McCoy, Terrence, Six angry men and their long roads to hate, The Washington Post, August 20, 2017. Front page.

*** Historians attribute the introduction of private confession into the church to the influence of Celtic Christians and their practice of anamchara (soul friendship), a practice in which spiritual friends mutually confessed their sins to each other and received absolution.

 

Know Thyself

Spending some time alone may be healthy before we rush into active service.

Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of the Thinker placed in front of his rendition of the Gates of Hell, 1880, Museé Rodin, Paris.

Mark’s gospel (Mark 1:9-13) tells us that immediately after Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness there to be tested by Satan. Why does Jesus need to be alone for 40 days in a barren landscape?

I like to think that need follows inexorably from the breakthrough experience Jesus has at his baptism. At the moment when he comes up out of the water, Jesus hears a voice in heaven say: You are my Son, my beloved; with you I am well pleased (Mark 1:11).

The heavenly voice speaks a word of unimaginable affirmation. It singles Jesus out for the spiritual distinction of being the beloved Son of God. The voice is saying in effect, “You are uniquely close to me, as close as a son is to his father.” This affirmation is accompanied by a filling with spiritual power as the Spirit descends upon Jesus.

Talk about a mountaintop spiritual experience! It must have been an incredible high. That is precisely what made it dangerous. This high could have led to Jesus’ spiritual and mental unhinging. He could have become so full of himself and his special status that he could have become unbearable to be around. Or he could have gone mad, just as many mentally deranged persons have who have delusions about being god.

Either outcome would have defeated his mission. For Jesus’ status is given to him for the purpose of his mission. He needed to learn how to subordinate his ego-centrism to his mission.*

I think that was the task he faced as he was driven out into the wilderness. Jesus had to come to understand deep in himself what it meant to be the Son of God. What that status permitted him to do and what it did not permit him to do. He had to understand his identity in a profound way before he was fit to pursue his mission.

Matthew’s and Luke’s Takes on the Temptations

I suggest this interpretation of his testing in the wilderness because of what the gospels of Matthew and Luke bring to the story. Mark tells us nothing about the exact nature of the temptations Satan poses to Jesus. But Matthew and Luke do. We need to pay particular attention to the wording they give to the words of Satan.

When Satan poses his first temptation, it is a temptation to Jesus to use his spiritual power to gratify himself, in particular to turn stones into bread to satisfy his hunger. But we need to note how Satan introduces that temptation. His first words are: If you are the Son of God…. Satan zeroes in on that very special identity that Jesus has been given by the heavenly voice at the baptism.

Again when Satan raises the second temptation, the temptation is to use Jesus’s special relationship with God to call attention to himself and to gain fame and admiration. He is to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple, trusting that God’s angels will rescue him from killing himself.

Once again we need to note how Satan introduces the temptation. He begins: If you are the Son of God…. Satan exploits the heavenly voice’s words to Jesus.

Satan does not use these same words to introduce the third temptation. But the third temptation presumes upon the status which has been conferred on Jesus. In its Old Testament usage the words Son of God have royal associations.** Jesus is tempted to seize his right to be king by worshipping power as represented by Satan.

Each of these temptations derives its power as a temptation because it exploits Jesus’ new consciousness of being the Son of God. Jesus must penetrate into this revelation to understand it, to understand what behavior is appropriate to his identity and what is not. And that takes some solitary time alone to wrestle with his own self.

Out there in the wilderness Jesus was probably not spending the bulk of his time watching the gauzy clouds float by in the sky. He was probably struggling with his own thoughts and emotions trying to plumb the meaning of the breakthrough experience that had been his in his baptism.

The Biblical Paradigm of the Exodus

What I find fascinating about Jesus’ experience is that it seems to be a common experience for people who undergo breakthrough spiritual experiences. Take the apostle Paul. In Galatians 1:17, Paul tells us that after his breakthrough experience with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, he immediately went away into Arabia.

Paul tells us nothing about what he was doing there nor for how long. But he does move out into the wilderness. I like to think that he did so to be alone, to try to begin to understand what had happened to him in his revelatory experience with Christ and what this now meant for him and his life. I suspect he was wrestling with his own new identity and calling just as Jesus was in the desert.

What I find further fascinating about both Jesus’ and Paul’s experiences is how they conform to the Old Testament paradigm of the Exodus. When Israel is freed from slavery in Egypt, especially in the breakthrough experience of the miraculous crossing the Red Sea, God leads the people out into the Sinai desert there to wander for 40 years before they enter the Promised Land.

There is, I believe, a very concrete reason why God does this. In Exodus 4:22-23, God refers to the people of Israel as his firstborn son. Pharaoh is to let God’s son go so Israel may worship and serve the Lord.

Israel as a people is given the same status as Jesus in his baptism. And Israel must learn to understand what that status means for them just as Jesus must. That is the important work that is going on in the Sinai wilderness those 40 years of wandering. They are being shaped into a people who will be able to live as the chosen corporate son of God when they enter into the land. We can then see the Exodus wanderings as a series of educational temptations.

Israel, of course, never fully passes the tests. When they enter the land of Canaan, they enter with an imperfect understanding of what their special status means. As a result they fall prey to new temptations to exploit and abuse their status as a son of God. In the Christian story, this sets the stage for the coming of Jesus, who will finally fulfill Israel’s destiny.

This Exodus paradigm has been lived out over and over again the lives of many Christian saints. An outstanding example is St. Anthony, the hermit in the Egyptian desert who helped launch the monastic movement in Christianity. And the monastic tradition has continued this paradigm by requiring candidates to undergo a lengthy novitiate (a time of spiritual formation and testing) before they take their final professional vows.

I believe we need to honor this Exodus paradigm as well as we individually go through our spiritual journey in life. When we have breakthrough experiences spiritually, it may be hazardous to our spiritual health to rush out into Christian service in the world. Instead we may need, just as much as Jesus, Paul, and Anthony did, to take some time to be alone, free of distractions, to plumb the meaning of what has happened to us. Unless we do, we will botch our mission by misunderstanding the meaning of our identity.


* Jesus will once again confront the issue of ego-centrism in the Garden of Gethsemane. There he must subordinate his own desire to live with the demands of God’s will. He does so in the words of his prayer, Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want (Mark 14:36).

** For examples, see Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14.