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.

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 One

Not all that long ago I wrote an article about approaching life and faith with a sense of artistry. Art isn’t limited to painters and poets—that would be boring! Using a wide lens view, art is really just a practice where ordinary people apply authenticity, imagination and experiment to every corner of our lives. We need each of these elements as we encounter the present moment. Authenticity enables us to say it like it is—just as we feel right now. It’s the honest admission that we don’t have all the answers; we’re all cracked pots. It’s the acknowledgement of our own mundane messes. Imagination is the ability to rethink those obstacles, those immediate realities. Imagination looks at a dilapidated shanty and pronounces it to be a cottage or a bungalow. Imagination reshapes the landscape of the “here and now” with the “could be” and “what if.” Imagination is the engine that drives all great transformations. Finally, experiment is the leap of faith to attempt, to risk, to try—regardless of possible failure. An air of adventure clouds around an experimental person. Experiment lifts our honesty and our fantasy and places them on the solid ground of reality, if only for a moment. These qualities transform plumbers and politicians, mothers and millet grinders, car salesmen and cow herders into true artists.

Futures studies – an interdisciplinary field covering science, business, sociology, and psychology – tells us that there are actually a variety of types of futures. For the most part we’re used to dealing with what we might call “the relative future.” If we change our diet and exercise routine today, something will be different tomorrow as a result. The relative future is the future that is literally relative to what we are doing right now in the present. It’s the dent that we make on tomorrow, and the children of tomorrow, by the choices we make in this moment. In general we don’t consider the relative future enough. We still feel too much like little boats getting tossed around by the hurricane of fate, Sovereignty, or inevitability. Generally speaking, while our culture talks a lot about “freedom of choice” and the power of that freedom, most people doubt that they’re really going to make an impact. Consider the staggeringly small percentage of the population that actually determines a political election. The number one reason people give for not voting is because they don’t believe their vote will make a difference. It’s the same reason why people don’t make adequate retirement plans or start saving income when they’re young or even planning for next week’s agenda. Culturally we have an underdeveloped view of the relative future. It seems too unrealistic; too unrealized; too far away. Organizations and individuals must begin to take the future seriously in the immediate moment and use the qualities of the artist as the road map forward. Authenticity, imagination, and experiment are how we prepare for the future in the present. I believe these tools will be incredibly important tools for navigating the complexity of the 21st century. But I also believe they are inadequate.  There’s another kind of future, one we’re even less equipped to face.

Much Ado about nothing…

Truth is a slippery thing these days. 

Let’s take science for instance.  Say you wanted to observe and reasonably understand with a level of predictability the collision of two air molecules.  Air molecules are fairly simply, they’re relatively uncomplicated; the event of the collision will occur within a fourteen millionth of a second which means there’s shouldn’t be a mass of data spread out across time.  It looks straightforward enough.  The only problem is that in order to observe and predict this single collision taking place in a fourteen millionth of a second scientists tell us that we would need to take into account an electron (the smallest particle of matter) on the other side of the known universe (as far from HERE as you can go)!  All of this to say that detailed behavior is absolutely unpredictable without absolutely universal understanding.  To neglect even a single electron is to radically misinterpret the information. 

The rather backwards admission that we don’t have universal understanding on any given subject confronts the assertion that we have a leg to stand on with even the smallest of claims.  If I can’t know everything (which seems rather strange to say out loud but DOES form a basic assumption in Western science, philosophy, and certainly religion) then can I really know anything? 

I can feel the fundamental hackles rising. 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing the reality of Reality here…I’m just sniffing around on the subject of our ability to know it.  Not long ago I might have agreed with that to a point but then countered something along the lines of God’s ability to overwhelm our natural inabilities.  What is impossible with man (Absolute understanding) is possible with God.  And because God wishes people to know him he is perfectly willing to break all the laws of quantum physics in order to serve up a detailed knowledge of Godself to us.  Well, that’s how the logic goes–perhaps. 

That argument is believable up to a point.  But it starts to break when we think about our relationship with the toute autres–the wholly Other.  If something is completely outside of the constructs of what we have known or understood it will quite simply pass over us.  If something that was purely unknown to us entered our space we wouldn’t even recognize it.  Our senses wouldn’t have categories for it. Our sight would fail us. The wholly Other would be lost on is, like the ships of the Spaniards on the early South American tribes–invisible. 

This means that when a “new” idea bursts like a flash of lightening from heaven onto us–it’s rarely new.  In some way, no matter how brilliantly or orginally conceived, revelation–especially the revelation of the wholly Other–is dependent on what we’ve already known or understood.  Perhaps another way of saying all this more to the point is that even something like revelation is dependent on our existing categories and concepts.  It’s still perilously linked into us, our dispositions, affinities and affirmations.  That makes it, in my finite mind, still suspect.  If everything that I process or that proceeds through me is stamped with my interpretations and since I do not have “universal understanding” I’m still in the same boat of not knowing anything about…anything…for certain at least…

So where does this leave us? 

If I can’t gage anything with certainty or absolutism am I doomed to a purposeless Nihilistic existence?  Isn’t it exactly as my friend Kevin said, “the trouble with stripping away one’s core belief structure is it can leave you spinning free into an abyss of endless possibility. no right or wrong, no up or down, and no real direction at all. you’re faced with the realization that there may actually be no greater purpose to this life“? 

This is what the exestentialists called “the anguish of freedom”.  Perplexity. Despondency.  Hopelessness.  All these are feelings that flow into this place where nothing seems absolute–where absolute reason has fled out the door and we’re left with no solid ground to stand on–save only sinking sand.  Where is our Rock to build upon?  Faced with a plurality of reality is there any Real to set up shop at? 

Camping out is what True believers are always apt to do.  Jesus, “the Way, the TRUTH, and the Life”, has to gently remind willful Peter to come down off the mountain, to not set up booths on the Mountain of Transfiguration, and to keep step as Truth moved on.  Moses is allowed to see God but only his rear–where God has just previously been.  The Name of God (YHWH) is less than a name and more of a Divine kiss off, roughly translated as “Never You Mind”…”I am that I am.” An earlier patriarch, Abraham, isn’t even given that much. The name he affirms God with is simply rendered as “Most High God”…or the god above the other ones.  For Abraham, while there were certainly other god’s, this one–this Most High God–was the one for him.  And there’s the jumping off point for me.

If I could take a bit of connected rabbit trail….

…let’s talk about love. I fell in love with my wife NOT out of fate…not because I thought that was my destiny…  not because she was the ONLY woman in the world…  In other words, I didn’t hedge my bets.    With love you really can’t be certain.  There aren’t absolutes.  You could wish there were.  You could wish that suffering or death or rejection or betrayal were not elements in love. And what one of us chooses love anticipating rejection or betrayal?  In fact while we don’t have any Certain Assurance or Absolute Reason for choosing our loves we do probably have good reasons… We look at the beauty standing in front of us and say to ourselves, “This One may not be the only one, may not even be the eternal one, but they are the one for me in this moment here and now.”  This is the choice of Love. 

That’s how I see Abraham’s name for God, “Most High God” relating.  It’s a statement of Love.  He’s not discounting the reality of the other gods.  He’s well aware that there are other games in town–but this One–this is the Most high…above all the others…towering over them…the others don’t hold a candle to Most high God. 

In the end this is how we navigate the world. 

Outwardly we approach the Loving Unknown with a degree of artistry. We encounter life with experiment, imagination and authenticity.  We engage the relative future (the future that is related to the present decisions that we make) with the knowledge that we have choice and responsiblity.  Who we are is detirmined (in this case) by the actions we have and will undertake. Make today count. Try. Dare. Risk. 

There are also though encounters of the “Im/possible”.  The unexplained and unprepared for, which then enters our reality and overturns our applecarts.  We couldn’t have even conceived of such an event and it exceeds all of our natural reserves.  It, by its very nature, subverts the paradigms we operated within.  The tables get turned over and the money changers of our ordered way of doing things are reversed.  How do we approach those events?  With the inward resolve of what one ancient philosopher called “the things that remain: faith, hope and love (with the greatest being love)”.  That is how we embrace the wild card future…faith, hope and love…

That’s how we then live…we live with certainty, certainly knowing our uncertain state. 

If in the end our reasons, our certainties, and our absolutes are eroded to deconstructables floating on the refuse heap we are left with the need for far more FAITH than we ever imagined.  If things, including science and philosophy and religion, are all interpretations that we can’t ever be completely sure of or imagine that we have the irrefutable answer to, then we have to take one step at a time walking down a darkened hall. 


The Seeker #4

The Seeker once commented that it might be better if we called God a word such as “mud” or “worm.”  When asked why, he replied that if we did this then perhaps we would not become so attached to those sort of words, or in danger of imaging that they somehow could contain the event that we name (rather flippantly) God. We would know, he mused, that the event of God was beyond these rather stupid and ill suited words we use to signify meaning.

Flame and (im)possibility

This morning I’ve lit a candle in my office, symbolizing “the Prayer” and the “Divine Presence”.  I keep looking at it, watching it flicker back and forth and dance to and from itself.  It occurs to me that the flame is never stationary–it never stays still, it’s never in the same place it just was.  In a sense it is constantly dying and being reborn, some place else.  I think that is somehow like God.  But just as I get my hands around never being able to get my hands around God, I notice something else about this candle.  There actually is a stationary center–the wick.  And it’s odd because that is the very core of the flame but also absent of the fire.  In other words, the place the fire is, it is not.  The absence at the center is the flame.  This is also like God I think. 

Deep faith requires, I think, radical uncertainty.  “Lord I believe, help me in my unbelief” (Mark 5).  True hope, as Paul says, is “hope against hope”.  And real love, not false or easy likability, is unreasonable and absolutely against common sense.  It is patient and kind (when it shouldn’t be).  It keeps no record of wrong and isn’t easily angered (when it should).  Faith, hope, and love…these are the tools that are, as Derrida might say, of the (im)possible.  They are (im)possible instruments through which we embrace the (im)possible God. 

This is where the flame and the flicker are taking me this morning…

Son of who, exactly? Exactly.

It’s not going to surprise anyone that the story of the Exodus, and particularly elements from the Moses biographic portion, are about (un)knowing God.  Take the burning bush incident for example: here Moses asks to to know the name of God.  From the ancient cultural understanding to know the Name of something, to name someone, is to control it or them; it is to have power, the power of knowledge or definition.  And you know how the story goes. In a manner of speaking God gives Moses the great kiss off.  The “name” he tells Moses is far less of a name and far more of an event, or even a stiff middle finger. One well known Old Testament scholar said that YHWH, “I am that I am” or “I am what I will be” is actually rather like saying “Never you mind, is my name”.  God refuses to be controlled, conquered, or even discerned.

Later on, as you again already know, Moses gets up the courage to ask God to show his glory.  Glory, T. Austin Sparks said once, is the “fullness of something.” The glory of a Rose would be a fully blooming one, fully developed, etc… It has to do with maturity and reaching the apex of possibility.  In other words, once again Moses was asking to see the very being of God. Coming from his Egyptian tradition, in a way, he would have been requesting substance, form…an idol.  He wanted a knowable God.  This time God concedes…but with a caveat.  God’s would shelter Moses’ eyes as His glory passed before him, and then Moses could look at God’s backside.  I’ve always thought that was strange.  But I love the ancient rabbinical reading of it suggesting that by “backside”, the writer’s meant where God had just been.  Moses could look upon God’s fullness, but only where it had just previously been.  Once again, God refuses to be given form or definition.  He is knowable…but inscrutable.  His goodness is not question, but rather his discernibility at each and every level.  

Those are both rather well known examples. I’ve read them in a dozen places it seems in the last year alone.  But recently I saw something that I hadn’t heard before. It had to do with Moses’ actual name.

Moses is not a Hebrew name.  It is actually Egyptian.  We’ve actually seen it so many places that it has become common to us. Tutmoses, Ramoses…etc…Moses means “son of”.  In the Egyptian tradition royalty were given the name of their patron God and declared themselves to be divine.  Son of Tut. Son of Ra. Etc…  Historians presume that at one time Moses had a longer name as well. He was defined by his divine lineage. He had a certain God and a certain manifest destiny.  But…somewhere along the line his name was cut off. His name was abbreviated to simply “Son of”.  Son of what?  Son of who?  Exactly.  Uncertain. Inscrutable. Indefinable.  Even his own name would be a constant reminder to him that he could not fathom God.  

Pretty interesting stuff.