catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 19 :: 2010.10.22 — 2010.11.04


Living from mystery

My husband Rob and I recently made a presentation to a local civic organization about *culture is not optional and the goings-on at Huss School.  During our story of the school’s purchase and our ideas for the building’s future, one of our friends who was in attendance noticed a pastor seated nearby issuing a question repeatedly under his breath: “But is it Bible-based?”

Since the question was never addressed to us directly, the opportunity for conversation was lost, but I’ve been reflecting on how I would have responded.  Like the questions, “Are you saved?” or “Are you a Christian?,” the question of whether something is Bible-based is loaded with assumptions that tend either to strongly cohere the people in conversation, or just as strongly divide.  The checklist of credibility is nearly visible as such questions are uttered and feelings about whether that checklist is a friend or foe are often visceral.  In the current political and religious climate of North America, we’ve exchanged our #2 pencils for big, fat Sharpies as we draw ever-more-stark boundaries around our individual and collective identities.

Such divisions are a symptom of a condition that’s been developing in the Church for centuries: the idolatry of reason.  In a letter to North American churches, artist Makoto Fujimura explains briefly how this idolatry of reason came to be and how it cut the Church off from certain ways of seeing and being in the world:

You began to believe in the late 18th century that we needed rational categories, to try to protect “faith” from “reason.”  Reason began to win the battle in this false dichotomy.  As a consequence, you began to suspect the mystery of our being and the miraculous presence of God behind the visible. What you call “Secularism” is your own offspring*, given articulation by the division and fragmentation within the church. As a result of this dichotomy, you began to exile artists whose existence, up to that point, helped to fuse the invisible reality with concrete reality. An artist knows that what you can see and observe is only the beginning of our journey to discover the world.  But you wanted proof, instead of mystery; justification instead of beauty.  Therefore you pushed artists to the margins of worship, while the secular world you helped to create championed us, and gave us, ironically, a priestly role. (*see the writings of Dr. Craig Calhoun of NYU)

In boiling down holistically human ways of knowing until only reason was left, the Church alienated individuals, but also cut out its heart.  Not everyone is an artist or a mystic, but the body as a whole needs members who see primarily with the eyes of the heart to keep us honest about who we are and who the person of God is.

Four years ago, Michael Perry wrote in his memoir Truck about the future he saw in the making: “We fight and fight to give it all order, have it all make sense, and in the process we tend to sell each other short or cultivate seething caricatures of each other as idiots.”  Citing the wisdom of one of his favorite bartenders, Perry writes, “Nolte will tell you it is good to be confused, rather than soak in your own certitude, be it dark or light.”  What Perry argues for is simply civil discourse, a space for conversation characterized by humility and hospitality and forgiveness.

But is it Bible-based?

To many askers of this question, I’ve already drowned myself in a sea of liberal claptrap with the last couple of paragraphs and the type of table Perry longs to sit around is to be avoided at all costs.  Humility is nigh unto a sign of weakness.  The truth is clear, so quit your yapping.  But let’s say we could find this elusive space and both of us did agree to sit down with our mutually professed love of God and of each other as our guide.  How would I respond?

Yes.  Even though I think you and I have very different ideas about what exactly that means, yes.

Yes, because I believe my life is a continuation of the narrative that begins with the loving creation of the world and continues with the founding of the Church, a community of disciples committed to working out a way of life together — a way distinctly marked by the cross and the life of the Suffering Servant.  In accepting an invitation to such a community, I accept the story of scripture as my story.

What I do not inherently accept in such an invitation is that the Bible is clear in a way that renders all interpretation a sin.  I hear over and over again the argument that “the Bible is clear,” said in tone that usually means to cut off the conversation while one party disappears to the moral high ground.  But Scripture itself doesn’t support that premise.  Poetry and storytelling are art forms, suggestive and allusive at their best, and there’s a lot of good stuff throughout both Testaments.  Right smack at the beginning of the story, we have two different versions of creation and the very climax of the whole thing in the Gospels is a collection of four accounts, some conflicting.  What approach is this kind of story inviting, if not the work of good interpretation to which we bring our whole selves, heads and hearts and blind spots and all? 

Interpretation is a gift, a grace-filled limitation that marks us as human and emphasizes our need for community.  Jumping off the ideas of the postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida, James K.A. Smith writes, “When we read we often imagine that the text or the language of the book is something we have to get through in order to recover the author’s original intention…. But this assumes there can be a reading (or experience) that does not involve interpretation.”  Rather than doing intellectual cartwheels to synthesize a mystical religion like Christianity with rationalism, Smith says that practicing good interpretation as communities of believers places us within a long history of biblical, prophetic witness.  He writes,

Deconstruction’s recognition that everything is interpretation opens a space of questioning — a space to call into question the received and dominant interpretations that often claim not to be interpretations at all. As such, deconstruction is interested in interpretations that have been marginalized and sidelined, activating voices that have been silenced…. Wall Street and Washington both want us to think that their rendering of the world is “just the way things are.” Deconstruction, by showing the way in which everything is interpretation, empowers us to question the interpretations of trigger-happy presidents and greedy CEOs — in a way not unlike the prophets’ questioning of the dominant interpretations of the world.

Along with a skepticism about objectivity as an approach to the biblical story, I also do not accept that confidence and certainty are always virtues.  In fact, I believe that non-judgment can be a virtue, a spiritual discipline even.  I’m not referring to non-judgment simply as a convenient way of making everyone around us happy or phobically avoiding commitment.  As Smith writes,

Acknowledging the interpreted status of the gospel should translate into a certain humility in our public theology. It should not, however, translate into skepticism about the truth of the Christian confession. If the interpretive status of the gospel rattles our confidence in its truth, this indicates that we remain haunted by the modern desire for objective certainty. But our confidence rests not on objectivity but rather on the convictional power of the Holy Spirit (which isn’t exactly objective); the loss of objectivity, then, does not entail a loss of kerygmatic boldness about the truth of the gospel.

Rather, I refer to non-judgment as a practice guided by the Holy Spirit and deeply rooted in God’s mercy. In her book on the wisdom that the fourth century desert mothers offer to us today, Mary Earle writes,

One of the most startling aspects of the spirituality of these desert mothers was their insistence on not judging the actions of others.  In our society, where the judging of others is constantly encouraged and practiced, this refusal to judge seems almost absurd.  The desert mothers based their insistent refusal to judge their neighbors on the merciful love of God revealed in Jesus.  They perceived that God’s mercy encompasses all human failure and that if God is willing to be merciful, so should we.  (The Desert Mothers)

Judging is not difficult; surrendering our opinions and trusting God is a disposition that requires faithful effort, even while it simultaneously liberates us.

Another paradox of the Christian way I’ve been reflecting on quite a bit lately is that as people of the resurrection, we define ourselves by mystery.   Like an ocean of water, the mystery of God is something we can immerse ourselves in fully, but never hold; even the few drops that fit in our hands slip through our fingers or evaporate into the air.  In her book Dakota, a memoir about her experiences with desert monasticism, Kathleen Norris writes,

For one modern Benedictine, repentance means “not primarily…a sense of regret,” but “a renunciation of narrow and sectarian human views that are not large enough for God’s mystery.”  It means recognizing that we have not always seen grace where it exists in the world, and agreeing “to turn away from a stubborn and obdurate position that cannot accept what is new and different and therefore cannot entertain God’s mysterious ways.”

Living from mystery is not inevitably a cowardly evasion of truth, but a willingness to surrender our black-and-white, earthbound interpretations to God’s Technicolor bird’s eye view, living with gratitude in love that we could never earn and seeking be agents of the same mystery to others.

So is it Bible-based?  Yes, because the way I seek and the work I do in that seeking is an attempt to be part of an old, old story.  The expression of such a faith is so much bigger than a list of ten rules posted on in the entry way or a moral code that prioritizes a few fashionable sins. The idolatry of reason puts up false parameters that promise safety, but ultimately lead to distortion of who God is and to a way of life that is so much less than what we were made for.  On the other hand, the absurd invitation to practice resurrection makes for a peculiar people as notable for their prophetic voices as for their fierce, merciful love.  In the tradition of an itinerant preacher who partied with sinners, turned water into wine and healed the blind, such strangeness is Bible-based indeed.

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