The Problem of Pain

This afternoon one of my co-workers stood in my office sobbing.  Every few seconds she would catch her breath, sort of gaining composure, only to drift back into tears.  She poured out, between the bursts of sniffles, her gutwrenching story of an inexplicable break up.  The boy she loved claimed to no longer love, or even worse, no longer to need her.  It was actually more complicated than that really.  I suppose it always is.  As she neared the end of her story, she asked candidly, “What do I do?” 

Ugh.

And what do I say? My mind is a perfect blank slate.  I just sort of stammered something already obvious and then offered a hug.  What’s amazing about that encounter is that I see it happen often enough.  All of our high flying talk about “the cross” and “suffering” and “love” and “the impossible” and “miracles” and “resurrection” and “choice” disappear in the face of pain. The problem of pain for me isn’t the inability to explain its existence. The problem of pain is simply knowing how to love the person who doesn’t NEED the explanation. While we can glibly say that the hug is enough, and it may be for some, there is still the expectant look on the other’s face waiting for the words that will irrevocably release them.

I have no such Word.
While I can say something pious such as “God sees when even the smallest of sparrow’s falls to the ground,” the inevitable response is simply that the sparrow still falls…now what?

It’s then that I’m left with saying the most honest thing imaginable, “I don’t know what to say.

The Impossible Now–Part Four

This is the final installment of an introductory position paper I’m calling “The Impossible Now” or “Towards a Theology of the Impossible.”  There are three previous parts.  You can find them here, here, and here.  In this final installment I talk about “the religious question.”  Cheers!

…The im/possible is refusing, as it always does, to be pinned down and become a part of someone’s strategic planning. It will always retreat from our view, from our expectation, from our massaging of what is possible, and back into the realm of the unexpected and truly unimaginable….

The Event of the im/possible cannot be prepared for and at the same time cannot be depended on. These are horrible words to hear for strategic planning! How then do we live with such (non)knowledge? If authenticity, imagination and experiment are the tools that we shape the relative future with, what are the tools we use to embrace the wildcard future—the im/possible? What can we possibly do or say or prepare in reference to something that lies so completely out of our ability to do or say or prepare for? It is for this place, this absurd, unexpected, undeterminable place that a different set of internal reservoirs are needed. Religion, good religion, seeks to address this sort of question.

Having done all to encounter the present in a meaningful way, we are still often left with seemingly meaningless events that continually take us by surprise, disturbing our best laid plans. This realization is, at its highest, a religious experience. It doesn’t require belief in a Personal Origin, or First Cause. But it does require something of us. That much is certain. The “what” is actually rather well-known. The attributes I’m going to mention are in many ways universals. They’re what philosopher’s might call “un-deconstructables,” in that they are ideals—almost always un-fully-realized urges that keep us reaching toward them. The most famous of Jesus’ early followers, the apostle Paul, said it best, in my opinion, “…in the end, these three things remain: faith, hope, and love. The greatest of these is love.”

This simple three word formula provides the basis for the intersection between the im/possible and the real. Faith isn’t so much a mental adherence to theoretical propositions about the nature of truth, but rather living today in the light of the future as it should be. Faith sees the idealized Peaceful Tomorrow, the future where swords have been beaten into plowshares, and tanks made into tractors, and determines to live peaceably today, even while the world is filled with wars and rumors of wars. Faith is an active, aggressive leap forward toward the Good, the Just, and the Best in spite of evidence contrary. Faith is an investment in particularity and locality, refusing to be theoretical and (merely) universal. Faith is always personal, though hardly private.

Hope isn’t the spindly sickly stuff of fantasy; it’s longing contentment. Hope sees the possibility of renewal and resurrection where others see lifelessness or death. Hope believes in commonality, compassion and a desire for connection with the Other where fear informs us that only Strangers and Monsters await on the other side of the unknown.

And love…Love is the greatest of these. Even faith and hope must give way before love. What can be said of love? Those who have known both Love and God have said that God is Love. If God can be spoken of and said to be anything at all, God is spoken of as and said to be Love. The substance of the divine is bound up in love. Concrete love. Active love. Visible, tangible, touchable love. Love, which covers a multitude of sins. Love which walks the extra mile. Love which gives up the second coat. Love which willingly lays down its life for another, for the Other. Love, of whom we may sing a thousand songs.

Our deep need to account for the unaccounted for, forces us to build up, to work on, a different skill set entirely. The things that are simply cannot prepare us for the things that are not. For those sorts of im/possible occurrences we must draw on the deep fountains that lurk at the corner of our being, not quite yet realized, still in formation, and dependent on some previously unforeseen happening to unleash their potential in our lives. In some strange way, these too, carry the stamp of Artistry. Art, in all of its forms, somehow allows to us to look upon, and hint at, those things which we cannot view in a straightforward way. Artistry gives birth to the Encounter of im/possibility which we are able to meet with arms open, acting out of faith, hope, and love.

God, rid me of God

I’m on a journey.  Since having left the wild and wacky world of “primitive Christianity” (house church with a splash of new-monasticism and a strong sprinkling of fundamentalism) I have essentially been searching high and low for a place to hang my hat.  It is taking me across some interesting places.  Many of the posts I’ve thrown up in the last several months are themed towards this.  It isn’t exactly a worldview, but I am attempting to come to grips with both the content and implications of the places where I am.  In response to a recent comment I posted the following, and I think it’s a fitting description of where I am currently and what interests me:

The Project: Religion With/Out Religion

For the past while, I’ve been attempting to find some sort of working model for what Bonhoeffer called “religionless Christianity” and Derrida called “religion without religion”. Those seem, to me, to be very important concepts–and they resonate with me, they speak to me. Can God be the good news of the religionless without converting them to being religionFULL?  I would say, yes…and I’m trying to flesh out what that means. Part of what my war on certainty has affirmed is that almost everything requires a choice–a value decision. There really isn’t anything that is just “plain truth”, no matter how much science (or their kissing cousins fundamentalists) believe so. They are choosing the narratives that make sense to them. I believe this is Polkinghornes point from my last blog post of quotes(by the way–his charge was, i believe, more or less leveled at rationalists who come up with a utilitarian model of a clocklike universe…that lacks any sort of life, beauty, mystery, or wonder…).

The (Un)Wholly Other

I have also been meditating on the im/possiblity of God.  Or rather the impossible as God.  One way of thinking about this is that God is wholly other. In other words, we mostly fail to see God. Our intellect, our very ability to perceive God, is what is ill-equipped to witness God. Another way of thinking about this is that our imaged thoughts of God do not allow for God. This is why Meister Eckhardt cries out, “God, rid me of God!” Our concepts of God prevent us from experiencing God…often. However, God cannot be wholly other…else we would miss God altogether. There is, admittedly, an element that lies within our constructs causing an awareness. We are not totally oblivious to God.  There are aspects of the unknowable which, surprisingly, are  knowable. 

Here comes the first critical choice…on one hand you could say that the human species has evolved this collective consciousness of God…it cannot exist without having an Other to live with…This view seems to say that there is a God construct that our survival instinct depends on.  But that is a supposition, an interpretation, and hardly the only assumption to be drawn (I would also add it’s not even an assumption that bears out in our normal existence.) Far more common sense, frankly, is that the thing which we desire, and can sense (if not altogether perceive) is communicated by that which desires us (and wishes us to sense it). Just as hunger testifies to the dependence on and the existence of food, so too our own awareness to the wholy other speaks of the wholly other which is in relationship to us.   This to me, makes God, once more–loving, relational, and personal. God as being, or more than being, or less than being (I don’t know) is engaged in whispering and wooing.  Our awareness describes not constructs but communication.  I recognize that this is as a subjective choice, a value decision…but to me it paints a much more beautiful picture than the other subjective choice that opts for the other side of things.

Loving Love

Having said that, I’ve taken up the Augustinian question, that Caputo alliterates, “who do I love when I love my God?” And I’m trying to find a working articulation of what exactly I mean when I speak of God. Personally, I am coming to the Johannian (as in the epistle writer) view, that the first name of God, is love. That love, in all its forms, pure love is God. Love is something intangeble…always drawing us into action, but never quite resolving in that event…it requires more of us. God is that which we desire, but also that which desires us and pulls and propells us towards the event of love. Love in this case is so deeply intimate that to describe it impersonal, or unrelational, would be to demote it. Love requires such relating and such personhood.

If God is Love…Then Who Are We?

“If Love is the first name of God, then ‘of God’ is the name of those who love”. We’re always looking for who’s in and who’s out… To me, love, is the dividing line…always. This is why a secular person who’s life is for the other, is always a religious or God filled life. And a religious person who is only for themselves and what they consider right and wrong is not at all religious and God filled. The people of God are those who are lovers.

The (non)Spiritual Journey

The spiritual journey then is discovering that love…both in terms of our own sense of Belovedness and in terms of being a channel through which that love may flow.

So…these are the places I am coming to…I’m using, perhaps, overly vague language…and doing so because I deeply believe that the Christinese that we have so often used, no longer has place in this world. It has lost the right to speak. it has, to often, been complicit in evil for to speak of lofty good. It’s words are poison. This is the project I’m attempting to develop. I recognize that both cardinals and ordinary Christians alike may not be very happy about the direction its going. I suppose that’s the price I’ll have to pay for thinking about Christianity without Christianity.  But, I have to try…I can do no other.

Who do I love…

Augustine’s question, “who do I love when I say I love my God?” is an apt one.  It’s honest.  For all of our highly articulated dogma’s or “namings” we must acknowledge, in the end, that a question mark lingers with the person of God.  The face of God, unrevealed to Moses, is still no more revealed to us.  A hazy gauze lingers there, and a promise that one day “we will know even as we are presently known.”  In other words, the “event” of God–the experience–is still a Mystery (something known but not understood).  While we have many names for this underlying event (and it takes all of them to even begin to touch the event they house), no one of them takes the cake, so to speak.

But my point isn’t that we shouldn’t attempt to give name, or honor the particularity of names (such as Jesus).  Like the writer of the gospel of John, I think it would take all the words in the human language, and fill all the books ever written, to describe the presence of God.  No, I think part of what we must do is labor to give birth to better and higher articulations.  My feeling is that we must exhaust every available resource in the knowing of God in order to fall backwards into enjoyment; tossing our hands up and proclaiming, “this is a mystery.” 

So I search for better names and better namings. Last night I came across a simply beautiful phrasing of “the event of God.”  I was really blown away by it.  I think this most clearly articulates my current understanding of who God is and how we interact with Godself.  It’s from a book I’ve been reading called, “The Sparrow“.  This is a lovely novel. I can almost guarentee it will make my top 2009 list.  Amazing.  If you haven’t read it, please consider doing so.  Anyhow, here is the part I was drawn to, a working definition of who I love when I say “I love you my God”:

There are times…when we are in the midst of life–moments of confrontation with birth or death, or moments of beauty when nature or love is fully revealed, or moments of terrible loneliness–times when a holy and awesome awareness comes upon us.  It may come as deep inner stillness or a rush of overflowing emotion.  It may seem to come from beyond us, without any provocation, or from within us, evoked by music or a sleeping child.  If we open our hearts at such moments, creation reveals itself to us in all its unity and fullness. And when we return from such a moment of awareness, our hearts long to find some way to capture it in words forever, so that we can remain faithful to its higher truth…

…when we search for a name to give to the truth we feel at those moments, we [may] call it God, and when we capture that understanding in timeless poetry, we [may] call it praying.

Isn’t that beautiful?  I know that some will object to its universality, rather than its particularity (Russell doesn’t point to any one religion in this passage as the “name above all names” does she?).  Still, let’s not cut off our nose to spite the face.  Or in this case perhaps, let’s not cut off the face to eccentuate the nose.  The experiences and names we give God will (conceivably) be particular to our situations and context. I don’t think we have to work at bringing God down to our context, if anything we have to work at allowing God to be as big as s/he is.  As one of my friends put it, “there are thousands of types of lungs, thousands of ways to breathe in the air–still there is only one air…and I’m not sure if it cares what you call it…it still does it’s job” (my paraphrase). We do well to remember the differences and diversity–we also do well to remember the unity and BIGNESS of God. 

One final thought: if God is indeed who I imagine him to be then he will most certainly be bigger than my ability to imagine him.

The Impossible Now–Part Three

…we build Emergency Rooms…

Of course this doesn’t stop the im/possible from occurring again. Wildcard futures, the unexpected and unpredicted, keep on happening; but just not in the same way. If we can count on them, they are no longer miraculous; they would have crystallized into just another part of the natural world. The im/possible, in order to remain impossible, will always recede back into the swirling primordial waters of the edge of chaos where it awaits upsetting the apple cart another time, in a different way than before. Going back to the Exodus narrative we see this played out in several places. The absurd provision of manna, a sort of cake-like heavenly food (whose name literally means “what is it” and emphasizes the confusion such im/possible events leave us with) is a seminal occurrence in Hebrew literature. However, the manna’s presence ends as the Israelites cross over into Canaan. Most interpret this to mean that God’s miraculous provision was no longer needed in the light of the bounty of Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey, and so God withdrew the needless gift. But in another reading, the manna actually disappears just when they need it and can count on it the most. It’s been forty years that they’ve relied on manna from God-knows-where. In some ways the generation that grew up with manna pudding and manna tar-tar has no concept of how to hunt or gather, let alone cook, anything else. Their conquest of the land will take another entire generation—who doesn’t need a regular stock of food and supplies for such an undertaking, especially one such as this that they have learned to depend on? In a sense, the rug is being pulled out from under the Hebrews’ feet. The im/possible is refusing, as it always does, to be pinned down and become a part of someone’s strategic planning. It will always retreat from our view, from our expectation, from our massaging of what is possible, and back into the realm of the unexpected and truly unimaginable.

The Impossible Now–Part Two

…There’s another kind of future, one we’re even less equipped to face….

Truthfully, the kind of event I’m envisioning can’t be prepared for. We cannot even begin to imagine or plan ahead for this kind of future—the wildcard future. It’s always out of nowhere. Nobody sees it coming. As post-structuralist philosopher Jaques Derrida said, it is the im/possible—the impossible that becomes possible by colliding with our immediate reality. The im/possible is truly unimaginable. And of course, the unimaginable happens all the time. We hear it in the sobs of the newly widowed, “I never thought anything like this could happen.” We observe it on the shocked faces of political pundits as outsider-unaccounted-for’s win primaries and then even presidential races. We feel it from time… to time…to time. In fact we encounter the im/possible so often in life that it’s a surprise that we’re surprised. Of course the examples I’ve used are basic, even bottom of the barrel; they’re somehow incredible familiar events. Truthfully, the reason why they’re familiar to us at all, why we relate to sentiment of the grieving widow or the shocked commentator is because we expect the unexpected. Culturally, we’ve built them in to our routine. Think about emergency rooms. What a strange place. It’s an institution built entirely on the premise that we will be taken off guard. Emergency rooms are a societal contingency plan. They’re an admission of our own lack of control. But even this apprehendible-unanticipatible is not the im/possible I speak of – not really. What I mean is an event outside of the built-in contingency plans; circumstances that overturn the apple cart altogether.

It’s difficult to get concrete with that term, “the im/possible.” Partially this is true because as soon as the unexplained and the unexpected enter our universe, we begin to explain and expect it. The impossible becomes…possible. That’s why I notate it with a little slash separating the word, because it is simultaneously possible and impossible.  Take a Biblical example, something outlandish – the crossing of the Red Sea for instance. In the book of Exodus, as their Egyptian taskmasters and previous owners are in hot pursuit, the children of Israel get stuck between a rock and a hard place. The armies of Egypt are behind them, and a body of seemingly un-crossable water is ahead. What happens next is remarkable. The im/possible occurs. There’s a divine intervention. The wave’s part and dry land appears. The ex-slaves pass through the clearing just in time and the story ends with pursuant horse and rider being swept away by the collapsing wall of water. Miraculous. My point isn’t the “fact” of the event; whether it happened that way or not. Actually my point is the absurdity of it all. These things don’t happen every day. It couldn’t have been expected or anticipated. And while the cries of the desperate would have certainly bordered on polite requests for rescue, no one could have imagined that the Sea itself would have been parted. Within the context of story itself it is a brilliant example of the impossible intersecting reality. What’s more is that the event is not only unexpected but is also unexplainable, at least within the text. The author of Exodus doesn’t attempt to give detailed scientific or historical precedent for the event but allows it to remain teetering on the edge of chaotic disturbance.

Several years ago the History Channel aired a series called “Mysteries of The Bible.” It featured various scholars, historians, archeologists and other experts in the field, each of whom took their best shot at rationalizing a handful of biblical stories such as the one above. I’ll never forget the slough of explanations for the crossing of the Red Sea. There were several of them. One focused on wind power and hurricane strength to clear water, rather instantaneously, from sea floors. Another proposed a case of mistaken identities; the body of water mentioned in the book of Exodus couldn’t have rationally been such a huge expanse as the Red Sea we know of, so it must have been a smaller one, such as the Sea of Reeds. The Sea of Reeds, being rather shallow, could have conceivably dried, in due season, in one place or another, allowing for a mass exodus such as the one described in the Bible. On and on the explaining went, until any logical person watching the show would have been sufficiently convinced that the real crossing of the Red Sea was slightly (or vastly) different than presented in the Biblical rendition, but was therefore entirely possible, conceivable, and explainable. In other words, the im/possible just became possible. As soon as the unimaginable future enters into our reality we immediately reconstruct our thinking to account for it. We rationalize how we could have been prepared (had we only thought far enough ahead or enough outside the box). As this happens an event ceases to be impossible and starts to acclimate into our version of reality. Experts figure out the science behind the magic. Historians matriculate the timeline of crucial events. Theologians and philosophers craft carefully articulated statements of description and prescription. Going back to a previous example, we build Emergency Rooms.

The Truth Shop

There’s a story that I’ve become fond of recently:

A man was wandering through the famous Portobello Street in London taking in all the bizarre shops and sights when, hardly believing his eyes, he saw a sign over a door front that read: “Truth Shop“.  Needless to say he decided it was best to investigate. 

The saleswoman was extremely polite. She asked what type of truth the man would like to purchase, partial or whole?  The man didn’t think twice about the choice.  No more defenses. No more rationalizations or justifications. No more deceptions.  Only the plain, unadulterated, and absolute truth.  She waived the man to the other side of the store. 

The salesman on that side of the store pointed to the price tag.  “The going rate of absolute truth is very high sir,” he said.  “Well, what is it?”  the man asked, determined to get the whole truth no matter what the cost.  “Your certainty sir. Your certainty.” 

And so the man went away sad. The cost of Truth was to great.  He needed to hold on to the security of his certainties more than he needed the truth he sought.

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