Midnight Rendezvoux

Photo by Rudy Van der Veen

In his book, Hoping Against Hope (Confessions of a Postmodern Pilgrim), John D. Caputo reflects on a dialogue of those who seek a faith “without protection from doubt.”  His words spoke to my heart.  He names the place at which I find myself these days.

“Derrida once said of himself that he ‘rightly passed for an atheist.’  When asked, why he did not say I am an atheist, he said it was because he did not know if he were.  That is what people say of him and, by the standards of the local rabbi, that is correct.  But the deeper truth (beyond correctness) and the deeper faith (beyond belief) is that there are many voices inside him, and they give each other no rest, so that he cannot say who or what he is, as if that were something final or finished.  Atheist and theist have to do with beliefs, positions that condense into propositions meant to represent entities, which are contingent and even birth-switchable.  The truth has to do with a deeper and more ambiguous faith and hope.  His ‘rightly passing for’ provides a splendid formula for theology, for any deeper faith in the unconditional.  What better way to describe the nature of the hold we have on any belief we think we hold, for any contingent opinion we have formed based on the shifting times and tides of circumstances and accidents of birth.  Do we not all ‘rightly pass’ for something or other, for Christian or Muslim, theist or atheist, right-wingers or left-wingers, ‘or whatever,’ as we say in our postmodern age – while more deeply considered we are all a great question to ourselves? Derrida’s remark parallels a famous saying by Johannes Climacus, one of Kierkegaard’s most important pseudonyms, who declined to claim he was a Christian and said instead that he was ‘trying to become’ one.

“In sum, and this is what I cannot find in my catechism, the more unconditional model of hospitality is the rule without rule that reigns in the kingdom of God.  The kingdom is made up of beings of a deeper darker faith communicating in a midnight rendezvoux, whatever they may ‘rightly pass for’ during the daylight hours. The darker dialogue takes place among communities of faith, communities of those without communities practicing an unconditional faith, a faith without protection from doubt.  Such people dare to let their beliefs weaken in order to allow a more underlying but unstable faith break through and to permit the appearance of a more elementary hope in a more indelible but indiscernible promise.  The rose blossoms among communities of non-knowers, gathered in the night of non-knowing, among those who cannot see what is coming.  There a smile breaks out on the surface of matter, a rose blossoms unseen in a remote corner of infinity, and then all too soon is gone.  The cosmos – that vaunting arch that Jackie had been contemplating these many years – movies on, en route to the absolutely unthought.  About this religion, the priests and nuns kept their counsel.”

John D. Caputo, Hoping Against Hope (Confessions of a Postmodern Pilgrim), Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2015, pages 101-102. The quotation from Jacques Derrida is from the essay, “Circumfession: Fifty-Nine Periods and Paraphrases,” in Geoffrey Bennington and Jacques Derrida, Jacques Derrida (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 155.


“The Apologist’s Evening Prayer”

Since I first came across this prayer among C.S. Lewis’s poems, it has been an encouragement to me.  As Lewis reminds us, our thoughts are mere images, not to be trusted.  Even our thoughts of God, if not seen for what they are, are mere trumpery.

The Apologist’s Evening Prayer, by C. S. Lewis

From all my lame defeats and oh! much more

From all the victories that I seemed to score;

From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf

At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;

From all my proofs of Thy divinity,

Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.


Thoughts are but coins.  Let me not trust, instead

Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.

From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,

O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.

Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,

Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.


From: C.S. Lewis, Poems, Edited by Walter Hooper, (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964,) 129.

False Lights

Photo by Peter Heeling

In the past few weeks, I have been encouraged by several books by Peter Enns.   For years Enns lived and flourished in a conservative Reformed environment.  But as he studied the Bible, especially as an Old Testament scholar, he became uncomfortable with the tight, easy answers that are common in his Christian tradition, and in the wider evangelical community.   In The Bible Tells Me So, Enns argues that if we really let the Bible be itself, a collection of writings written by human beings in varying historical situations, with sometimes contradictory perspectives, but nevertheless God’s Word, we will be freed to allow the Bible to be a source of spiritual nourishment as we seek to put our trust in God.  We will see that the Bible is a messy book (collection of books) that speaks to our messy world.  In a more recent book, The Sin of Certainty, Enns argues that contrary to the teachings of much of the evangelical church,  the key to the Christian faith is not holding the proper beliefs, nor is it knowing what you believe.  In fact, being certain of what one believes is, as the title says, a sin.  As he writes,

When we grab hold of “correct” thinking for dear life, when we refuse to let go because we think that doing so means letting go of God, when we dig in our heels and stay firmly planted even when we sense that we need to let go and move on, at that point we are trusting in our thoughts rather than God.  We have turned away from God’s invitation to trust in order to cling to an idol.

The need for certainty is sin because it works off of fear and limts God to our mental images.  And God does not like be boxed in.  By definition, God can’t be.  I believe we are prone to forget that.  (The Sin of Certainty, 19)

I am only half way through the book, but it has already been a great help to me as I think about what it means to trust God, even when my mind is full of questions and doubts about what I really believe, what I can believe.

In the front of the book, Enns includes three quotations from the Bible.  I have been forcefully struck by the first, from Isaiah 50:10:

“Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant, who walks in the darkness and has no light, yet trusts in the name of the Lord and relies upon his God.”

I turned to my Bible and read on:

“But all of you are kindlers of fire, lighters of firebrands.  Walk in the flame of your fire, and among the brands that you have kindled.  This is what you shall have from my hand: you shall lie down in torment.”

In so many places, the Bible seems to say that to walk with God is to walk in the light.  But not here.  In this place, the prophet speaks God’s word against the creators of false lights.  It is the one who walks in the dark whom God extols!

Thoughts and ideas, especially those which make things look brighter and clearer than they really are, are idols!  May God help us walk in the dark.



“To Know the Dark”

As I have shared in earlier blogs, sometimes the walk of grace is a walk in the dark.  When people ask, “How are you doing?” what is a person to say?  If I were to say I was experiencing a time of darkness, a time of depression even, people would try to shine their light into my darkness.  “What you need to do is . . . ” they say.  But maybe they should turn off their lights and come into the darkness.  Maybe they should just be quiet and listen to the dark with me.  Maybe there are things to be learned.  I recently came across the following lovely poem by Wendell Berry that spoke wonderfully to my desire to know the dark.

To Know the Dark

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

“To Know the Dark” by Wendell Berry, from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. © Counterpoint, 1999.

Signs of Grace

This morning, on my walk to work, a cool Spring breeze was blowing on my face.  Bird songs filled the air.  All of a sudden loud chirp dominated the music, like the voice of a soloist rising above the softer voices of the choir.  I looked up above me and saw a cardinal, all dressed up in the red mating feathers of Spring, not more than six or seven feet above my head.  I stopped and looked straight up at the bird, bright red against the light green buds of the tree.  Something changed in my heart.  As I walked on, the words and tune of an old hymn played in my mind.

This is my Father’s world,
And to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings
The music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world:
I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas–
His hand the wonders wrought.

This is my Father’s world:
The birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white,
Declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world:
He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass,
He speaks to me everywhere.

This is my Father’s world:
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the Ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world:
Why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King: let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let earth be glad!

(Maltbie D. Babcock, 1901)

Humming the tune in my mind, I walked down Grace Street toward my office.  I saw a rabbit, some ten feet from the sidewalk, sitting warily as I passed.  The cardinal, the rabbit, are signs of grace.  And this old song was for me a wonderful expression of my response to that grace.

I know that for some the image of God as Father is extremely problematic.  And for that reason it makes it hard for them to sing this hymn.  Too often Christians have used the image of God as Father to reinforce patriarchal domination.  We in the church, calling God “Father,” have assumed that God is a man, using this assumption to imply that men should rule over women, that men are stronger than women, that men are superior in all sorts of ways to women. This is all nonsense.  God is not male and female.  God transcends our gender divisions.  And as Christians, we should be working for justice, not reinforcing structures of oppression.  Unfortunately, patriarchal Christianity pollutes the metaphor of God as father, making it hard to appreciate old hymns like the one that came into my mind this morning.

But there is something deeply true in its words.   If we are open to the music sung by the natural world in which we live, we can be lifted into the arms of the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.”  This “One” is beyond our limited concepts of human relations, not in some impersonal way, but in a “trans-personal” way.  And when “the wrong seems oft so strong,” this hymn points us to One who is, in a way that transcends even this metaphor, our loving parent.

Too often, Christianity has told us to look away from the world in which we live.  This hymn reminds us that the world around us God’s creation.  It sings of God’s creative love and power.  Islam teaches that the everything in the world, including plants and animals, are muslim.  That is, they submit to God.  And for that reason, they are signs of God for those who would but understand them.  This is a teaching that Christians, like me, could benefit from listening to.  After all, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it”(Psalm 24:1), and “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 10:1).  There are songs being sung, signs on display, that point to our God.

I am deeply disturbed by the wrong I see all around me, and I have reflected on it in recent posts.  But this morning, I stop to thank and praise God for the signs of grace I encounter as I walk down the sidewalk, for the songs of love that I hear, for the birds, the squirrels, the rabbit, the breeze.  My brothers and sisters in God’s family.  Praise be to God, the one to whom we all submit.

Easter Darkness

A few weeks ago, we celebrated Easter.  But in the Christian church the season of Easter continues for fifty days, until the church celebrates Pentecost.  So we are still in the season of Easter.  A time of celebration of life.  A time of joy!  A time to come together with friends and family.  But in a previous post, I mentioned that I have been thinking a lot recently about darkness, the darkness of doubt and depression.  Like all holidays, for those who struggle with depression or doubt, Easter can be a time of struggle as well as joy.  Like a cloud, depression sheds its dark shadow on even this most holy of days.  As I reflect upon the season of Easter, I grasp onto the hope if offers.  But, if I am honest, for me even Easter is a time of questioning and doubt.  “In raising Jesus from the death, God won the victory over death.” That’s the message. But do I really believe it? Can I really believe it?  As I travel through life, time seems to move quickly toward my own death?  More importantly, death is alive and well in the world.A recent bombing in Brussels, making front page news around the world, left more than 30 people dead and over 100 injured.  This is indeed horrible.  But consider the even more horrendous things that happen in our world every day.  The New York Times reports that in four and a half years of civil war in Syria, more than 200,000 people have been killed.  If I do the math, I discover that this conflict, which is far from over, has taken the lives of 120 people every day!  Most of these people, I am willing to guess, were innocent people who simply wanted to live in peace.  And now they’re dead.   Closer to home, there were over 500 homicides in Chicago in 2015.  That is more each month than were killed in the Brussels attack.

Even the Earth as a whole seems headed toward death.  Overwhelming evidence points to the fact that the climate of the earth is changing radically, and that much of the change is caused by human actions.  But as most other American’s, I continue to live my life as if I can go on living the way I do.  And in fact, in the short time that I have left to live, climate change may not impact my own life much at all.  But in other parts of the world, poorer parts of the world, people are already suffering and dying from the impact changing weather patterns.  Individual animals and whole species are dying.  Even human communities are dying as they anticipate rising sea levels that will destroy their homes.  And in the future, changes promise to bring suffering, and even death, closer to home.

So what can I make of the Easter message?  “Jesus is risen!” “He is reason, indeed!”  Indeed?  Really?  If Jesus won the victory over death, why is there so much of it troubling our world?  As I sit in the pew, or reflect in front of my computer, the skeptic in me raises questions.  Did Jesus really rise?  Does God really care about this world?  Has death, in fact, lost its sting?  Yes, Easter can be a day of darkness as well as light.

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her wonderful book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, reflects upon her experience in a cave with two friends.  These experienced cavers acted as her guides, but allowed her to experience the total darkness one encounters deep in a cave.  Afterwards, as she reflected on her experience, Taylor reminds us that historians tell us that the stable in which Jesus was born was probably a cave.  And it was in a cave that God raised Jesus from the dead.  Taylor writres, “As many years as I have been listening to Easter sermons, I have never heard anyone talk about that part.  Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light.  But it did not happen that way.  If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air.  Sitting deep in the heart of Organ Cave, I let this sink in:  new life starts in the dark.  Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.”

We live in dark times.  It is not difficult for some of us to feel discouraged and depressed, to doubt whether God cares for us, whether God cares for the world at all.  Life seems very dark indeed.  But perhaps there is an Easter message for those in darkness as well.  With Barbara Brown Taylor, let us let it sink in:  perhaps this, this darkness, is where new life, where hope begins.  Perhaps God is at work, even in the darkness.  Maybe there are wonders that only those who have grown accustomed to the darkness can see.  May God enable all of us to trust that love is at work, in our minds, in our hearts, in our families, in our world, even when it feels dark and cold.

Hallelujah!  Jesus is risen!

I Doubt It!

When I was in college, I had a friend with whom I would share my doubts.  We were both members of an evangelical campus group, but we also had skeptical minds.  My skepticism emerged particularly when I read the works of Christian apologists claiming to demonstrate the rationality of Christian faith.  While some of my friends were encouraged by such arguments, my reaction tended to be “I doubt it.”  It wasn’t that I wasn’t a Christian.  It was just that I didn’t find the arguments convincing.  My Christian friends accepted the arguments, it seemed to me, because they reinforced their beliefs, not because the arguments were good arguments.  And so, when Brian and I would sit and talk together, I’d suggest that someday I’d write a book called, “I doubt it,” critiquing the ideas and arguments of Christian apologists.

It’s been over 30 years since my college days, and I haven’t written that book.  But I’ve done a lot of thinking about doubt. and the discouragement and depression that can sometimes come with it.  Through those years, God hasn’t let me go.  I’m still a Christian, and I’m still a skeptic.  My inner life doesn’t tend to be very peaceful.  My mind raises lots of questions, especially about God, about the kinds of things that happen in the world, about the church, about all sorts of things that make me wonder about my faith.  For good or for bad, my mind usually doesn’t come up with answers.  Just troubling questions.  In various ways, things that Christians say or do or believe don’t seem to make sense, or are just plain wrong.  Things in the world don’t seem to suggest that God is in control, or that God even cares.  Christians have used the Bible to support slavery, war, racism, violence against women and children, and all sorts of evil things.  Sometimes churches seem to do more to support structures of evil than to promote justice and peace, shalom.  All kinds of things make me skeptical of this faith I call my own.  Can I really believe this?  Do I really want to identify myself with that?

In short, I’ve been thinking about darkness, doubt, and skepticism for a long time.  I’ve read books about the nature of skepticism and how to overcome it.  I’ve read apologists and Christian philosophers.  Sometimes, I’ve wondered if sin is the problem.  If I could just overcome my favorite sins, I’d no longer doubt.  Recently, I’ve been reading several books on living with experiential darkness, doubt and depression.  And I think I’ve found some insights.  One particularly helpful idea came to me from Addison Hodges Hart’s little book, Knowing Darkness: On Skepticism, Melancholy, Friendship and God.  Hart suggests that skepticism is not the opposite of faith, that it need not be viewed as the enemy of faith.  Skepticism helps one remember the limitations of human reason and knowledge.  It challenges one not to settle for easy answers.  It holds out for truth.  “Skepticism,” he writes, “within the context of Christian faith is, I believe, a good thing. . . . It is a faith open to questioning God, examining his ways, complaining to him, and even expressing exasperation at his silence.  It is a faith that admits sorrow and sadness and mental darkness, one that places melancholy before God in a place of legitimacy, as well as a sense of humor. . . . this is the kind of faith we find in the Bible itself” (page 23). What these words have helped me see is that skepticism is part of my faith, not opposed to it.  Perhaps I am a person for whom faith without doubt is impossible. Doubting (what Hart prefers to call skepticism) is an aspect of “how I do faith.”

And I don’t believe this is because of my sin.  Yes, I am a sinner.  I am well aware of that.  But doubt is not a punishment for sin, nor it is just the natural outcome of sin.  Certainty is not a reward I can expect once I get my life totally together.  No, skepticism is a gift from God, a gift that can be used in many ways, to build up the body of Christ, to help discover truth, and to understand and love others.  Skepticism reminds us that our limited ideas and concepts are never adequate to understand the God they point to.  And while I sometimes find myself in the dark, whether intellectually or emotionally, I am coming to believe that God is still there, walking with me whether I am aware of the divine presence or not.  “Though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”  Sometimes my mind yells out to God, “I doubt it;”  sometimes my heart protests, “Where are you?  I feel so cold!”  Even in those times, I will look up at the street sign and remind myself, whether I feel it or not, that I am walking on Grace Street!