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.

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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!

Faith Explorers Welcome

Recently, I was talking to my friend Jennifer.  Among other things, we started talking about religion.  Jennifer grew up in one Christian tradition and is married to a man who grew up in another.   A few years ago, they started a family, and like many couples, decided to get more serious about church.  Jennifer grew up Roman Catholic and her husband grew up Protestant, so they’ve found a local Episcopal congregation in which they feel comfortable.  I’m not sure how we got onto it, our conversation wandered to our beliefs, and questions, about God.  As long as I’ve known her, Jennifer has displayed an inquiring, questioning mind.  She thinks deeply about things.  The domain of religion and spirituality is no exception.  When it comes to God, she has lots of questions.  So, in the course of our conversation, she asked me an interesting questions:  “Is it right for a person who is not sure what she believes about God, or even who is pretty sure she does not accept a standard Christian view of God, to say the creeds during worship?”  A very interesting question.

Jennifer’s question took my mind back to a chapter in Barbara Brown Taylor’s wonderful memoir, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith.  In chapter 14, Taylor recalls her experiences in the months following her decision to leave the parish ministry and become a professor of religion.  For her entire life to that point she had lived and breathed in the world of church.  As she stepped into her new life, she discovered a different side of reality, a side she not paid attention to before.  She also began to explore her beliefs more honestly.  Suddenly, things she had preached about and taught became objects of questioning and sometimes doubt.  “Freed from defending the faith,” she writes, “I began to revisit what faith really meant to me and found that much of the old center did not hold.”  Her view of faith changed.  “I had arrived at an understanding of faith that had far more to do with trust than with certainty.  I trusted God to be God, even if I could not say who God was for sure.”

Taylor found herself wandering off her “old spiritual map.”  But in the process she discovered something else.  She discovered “people at the edge” of “the spiritual landscape.”  I love the way she describes these pioneers.  She writes,

“ . . . All we had to do was step outside the Church and walk to where the lights of the sanctuary did not pierce the darkness anymore.  All we had to do was lay down the books we could no longer read and listen to the howling that our favorite hymns no longer covered up.  There were no slate roofs or signs to the restrooms out there, no printed programs or friendly ushers.  There was just the unscripted encounter with the undomesticated God whose name was unpronounceable – that, and a bunch of flimsy tents lit up by lanterns inside, pitched by those who were either seeking such an encounter or huddling in their sleeping bags while they recovered from one.  These people at the edge kept the map from becoming redundant.”

Taylor’s words express my own wandering and wondering thoughts as a Christian.  Sometimes publicly, but sometimes just in my mind and heart, I wonder whether I can accept all of the doctrines and formulations of the church.  Sometimes I feel like one who is exploring the edges; sometimes I feel like one who is just plain lost.  Taylor’s honesty about her own exploration frees me and affirms me.  “According to the Bible,” she writes, “both the center and the edge are essential to the spiritual landscape. . . “  And a few pages later, “If my time in the wilderness taught me anything, it is that faith in God has both a center and an edge and that each is necessary for the soul’s health.”

I don’t know whether I helped Jennifer answer her question.  I suggested that when the congregation recites the creed, it is affirming the faith of the gathered church as a whole.  It is not so much a claim by each individual that he or she holds unwaveringly to the dogma of the creed, as an opportunity for God’s people as a community to affirm the “center” of their faith, the story that forms them as a community.   And so I encouraged her, as a part of the body of Christ, to recite the creeds with all of us, some of us at the center and others at the edge, in whom and through whom the Spirit is at work.  As Barbara Brown Taylor would remind us, the church needs the center, but it needs the edge as well.   In today’s world, I am convinced that the need to be open to the edges, to the explorers, is desperate.  It is as we welcome those at the edge that the church will survive into the future.

Leaving Church is a great book.  If you find yourself exploring, read it.  Since writing Leaving Church, Taylor has also published An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. Although I have not read it yet, Taylor’s brand new title, Learning to Walk in the Dark has got to be good.  What a perfect title for explorers.  Check out the Barbara Brown Taylor website at: http://www.barbarabrowntaylor.com/.