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Earlier this week, I started excerpting Frederick Buechner’s challenging book, Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, by Frederick Buechner (New York, N.Y.: Harper Collins Publishers, 2007, pp.28-31).
My mother Lois gave me the book for my birthday in 2006, and I read through it slowly and thoughtfully over the next two years as a morning devotion. Knowing her so well, I can only imagine that she had found Buechner to be a helpful spiritual advisor in her own faithful struggles with doubt, and that she intuited my need for his gentleness.
I returned to this book a few weeks ago once I recognized that I have been in a long period of spiritual dryness. This is not the same as doubt or disbelief but, rather, a vaguely distressing, fallow sort of time, when I feel nothing of that curiously visceral connectedness which obtains when I am consciously “in the Spirit.”
Let me quote more excerpts from Buechner and see what arises.
A man drives along the highway…[and sees on] a concrete abutment of a bridge, written out in large, clumsy letters,…the message JESUS SAVES…. And if that man is like most of the people I know, including myself much of the time and in many ways, he will wince at the message; and that is really a very strange and interesting thing, both the message and the wincing….
[In] our strange times, among people more or less like us, the effect at least of the words is clear enough: Jesus saves…. [We] wince because we are embarrassed, and embarrassed for all kinds of reasons…. [There] is something in the name “Jesus” itself that embarrasses us when it stands naked and alone like that, just Jesus with no title to soften the blow.
It seems to me that the words “Christ Saves” would not bother us half so much because they have a kind of objective, theological ring to them, whereas “Jesus Saves” seems cringingly, painfully personal—somebody named Jesus, of all names, saving somebody named whatever your name happens to be. It is something very personal written up in a place that is very public, like the names of lovers carved into the back of a park bench or on an outhouse wall.
And that is the key for me. I’m not concerned about anyone—including myself—embracing the orthodox Christian theology of Jesus as the “only begotten Son of God.” Theology is not my visceral concern. Connection with the personal, with life, is my concern.
Jesus Saves is embarrassing because if you can hear it at all through your wincing,…what it says to everybody who passes by, and most importantly and unforgivably of all of course what it says to you, is that you need to be saved.
I’m not concerned about being saved from “original sin.” This is my concern:
[The word “saved”] is in its way an offense to…all of us, because what it says in effect to all of us is, “You have no peace inside your skin. You are not happy, not whole.”
That, of course, is the human condition. It is not a consequence of a “fall.” It is simply the reality of being conscious—which means being limited to the few sensory and conceptual glimpses of reality which our organic brains are able to contain within consciousness. We cannot know all that is. We cannot even know all that we are.
To have peace “inside our skin,” we need to connect personally with Something which we can trust to hold in Itself that whole knowledge which it is impossible for us to obtain as human beings.
If [the man who painted the JESUS SAVES sign] had said God, at least that would be an idea, and if you reject it, it is only an idea that you are rejecting on some kind of intellectual grounds. But by saying “Jesus” he puts it on a level where what you accept or reject is not an idea at all but a person; where what you accept or reject, however dim and disfigured by time, is still just barely recognizable as a human face.
And that is the crux of the matter.
When I encounter spiritual dryness, that sensation warns me that I have in some sense stopped being a breathing human being and have become, in some weird sense, just an idea of myself. I need to reconnect with a Person.
Reconnecting with the Person Jesus does this for me.
I don’t say that others need to connect with Jesus. What they need is to connect with the divine Personhood of reality.
And so it is.
The following is an excerpt from a sermon on the Christmas story in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, by Frederick Buechner (New York, N.Y.: Harper Collins Publishers, 2007, pp.23-24).
Buechner begins by describing the first scene of Enrico Fellini’s 1960 film, La Dolce Vita, in which a helicopter carries a life-size statue of Jesus over the outskirts of Rome toward its destination at the Vatican.
Children running in the street, construction workers and girls on rooftops in bikinis all see the statue, wave and shout, “Ehi, è Gesù!”
Nobody laughed during that moment because there was something about that face, for a few seconds there on the screen, that made them be silent—the face hovering there in the sky and the outspread arms.
For a moment, not very long to be sure, there was no sound, as if the face were their face somehow, their secret face that they had never seen before but that they knew belonged to them, or the face that they had never seen before but that they knew, if only for a moment, they belonged to.
I think that is much of what the Christian faith is. It is for a moment, just for a little while, seeing the face and being still, that is all….
Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in a stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind.
If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too.
And this means that we are never safe, that there is no place where we can hide from God, no place where we are safe from his power to break in two and recreate the human heart, because it is just where he seems most helpless that he is most strong, and just where we least expect him that he come most fully.
For those who believe in God, it means, this birth, that God himself is never safe from us, and maybe that is the dark side of Christmas, the terror of the silence. He comes in such a way that we can always turn him down, as we could crack the baby’s skull like an eggshell or nail him up when he gets to big for that.
God comes to us in the hungry people we do not have to feed, comes to us in the lonely people we do not have to comfort, comes to us in all the desperate human need of people everywhere that we are always free to turn our backs upon.
It means that God puts himself at our mercy not only in the sense of the suffering that we can cause him by our blindness and coldness and cruelty, but the suffering we can cause him simply by suffering ourselves.
Because that is the way love works, and when someone we love suffers, we suffer with him, and we would not have it otherwise because the suffering and the love are one, just as it is with God’s love for us.
And so it is.
This morning, while preparing for waiting worship, I started to read another sermon from Frederick Buechner’s Secrets in the Dark (see also here and here). This one is called “Adolescence and the Stewardship of Pain” (205-20).
Buechner begins by decribing the etymology of the word “adolescent”: from the Latin verb adolescere = ad “toward” + alescere “to grow.”
The word designates human beings who are in the process of growing up. It is as simple as that. (205)
He then raises the question of whether we human beings are ever fully adult, and he shares this about himself:
[To] call me an adult or grown-up is an oversimplification at best and a downright misnomer at worst…. I am not a having-grown-up one but a growing-up one, a groping-up one, not even sure much of the time just where my growing and groping are taking me or where they are supposed to be taking me. (206)
Buechner decides it would be useful to coin an alternative, spurious etymology, one which he admits has no basis in linguistic fact, but which seems truer to human experience.
He pretends that the word adolescent is made up of the Latin preposition ad “toward” and the Latin noun dolor “pain.”
Thus “adolescent” becomes a term that designates human beings who are in above all else a painful process, more specifically those who are in the process of discovering pain itself, of trying somehow to come to terms with pain, to figure out how to deal with pain, not just how to survive pain but how to turn it to some human and creative use in their own encounters with it. (207)
How remarkably close to the leadings which have strengthened me in recent years! How fitting a label for my cycles within cycles of revisiting things I’ve thought I had grown through yet keep stumbling back into!
And Buechner cites two examples from sacred story which clearly resonate for him much as they have for me:
Adolescents are Adam and Eve in the process of tasting the forbidden fruit and discovering that in addition to good, there is also evil, that in addition to the joy of being alive, there is also the sadness and hurt of being alive and being themselves.
Adolescents are Gautama the Buddha as he recognizes the first of the Four Noble Truths, which is that life is suffering, that at any given moment life can be lots of happy things too, but that suffering is universal and inevitable and that to face that reality and to come to terms with that reality is the beginning of wisdom and at the heart of what human growing is all about. (207)
I came to waiting worship eagerly this morning, ready to center down and trust the silence. For a while, though, I was distracted by thoughts of an attractive young man I’ve seen recently.
Occasionally such chance meetings are distressing. On the one hand is my longing in imagination, on the other, my love for my life-partner Jim. Though I know I won’t act on such longings, the choice feels like loss.
Something opened, though, in worship this morning.
I thought of that man and his relationships, whatever they are. I thought of the joy and affection that Jim and I share.
And I suddenly knew what a blessing it is to be finite.
Having limits isn’t only about lacking what lies beyond them. Having limits also means being complete in oneself.
There’s a freedom in those limits one gradually welcomes as healthy. A calmness. A centeredness and contentment.
As Buechner would say, today I came through another cycle of adolescence and found it a gift.
I am glad for my finiteness.
And so it is.
The inside blurb to Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons begins, “Frederick Buechner has long been a kindred spirit to those who find elements of doubt as constant companions on their journey of faith.”
The book was a birthday gift from my mother two years ago, and I’ve been slowly making my way through its gentle, surprising sermons ever since Christmas of that year.
This past weekend, just as the newest post for Walhydra’s Porch was starting to come together, I opened the book to “Faith and Fiction,” a long piece in which Buechner tells about his experience as a religious novelist and explores how faith and fiction rely upon common characteristics:
The word fiction comes from a Latin verb meaning “to shape, fashion, feign.” That is what fiction does, and in many ways it is what faith does too. You fashion your story, as you fashion your faith, out of the great hodgepodge of your life—the things that have happened to you and the things you have dreamed of happening….
In faith and fiction both you fashion out of the raw stuff of your experience. If you want to remain open to the luck and grace of things anyway, you shape that stuff in the sense less of imposing a shape on it than of discovering a shape. And in both you feign—feigning as imagining, as making visible images for invisible things. (174-75)
Toward the end of the piece, Buechner revisits these parallels:
To whistle in the dark is more than just to try to convince yourself that dark is not all there is. It is also to remind yourself that dark is not all there is or the end of all there is because even in the dark there is hope…. The tunes you whistle in the dark are the images you make of that hope, that power. They are the books you write.
In just the same way faith could be called a kind of whistling in the dark too, of course. The living out of faith. The writing out of fiction. In both you shape, you fashion, you feign. Maybe what they have most richly in common is a way of paying attention. (182)
These passages frame Buechner’s description of writing several novels about an imaginary saint and one more about a historical one.
The passage which caught my attention, though, on the morning when Walhydra got going with her latest piece, is this one:
If you had to bet your life, which one would you bet it on? On Yes, there is God in the highest, or, if such language is no longer viable, there is Mystery and Meaning in the deepest? On No, there is whatever happens to happen, and it means whatever you choose it to mean, and that is all there is?
We may bet Yes this evening and No tomorrow morning…. But we all of us bet, and it’s our lives themselves we’re betting with in the sense that the betting is what shapes our lives. And we can never be sure we’ve bet right, of course. The evidence both ways is fragmentary, fragile, ambiguous…. Whether we bet Yes or No, it is equally an act of faith….
Faith…is distinctively different from other aspects of the religious live and not to be confused with them….
Faith is different from theology because theology is reasoned, systematic, and orderly, whereas faith is disorderly, intermittent, and full of surprises. Faith is different from mysticism because mystics in their ecstasy become one with what faith can at most see only from afar. Faith is different from ethics because ethics is primarily concerned not, like faith, with our relationship to God but with our relationship to each other.
Faith is closest perhaps to worship because like worship it is essentially a response to God and involves the emotions and the physical senses as well as the mind, but worship is consistent, structured, single-minded and seems to know what it’s doing while faith is a stranger and exile on the earth and doesn’t know for certain about anything.
Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting. Faith is journeying through space and through time. (172-73)
And so it is.
“Someone should start laughing”
I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question:
How are you?
I have a thousand brilliant lies
For the question:
What is God?
If you think that Truth can be known
If you think that the Sun and the Ocean
Can pass through that tiny opening
Called the mouth,
O someone should start laughing!
Someone should start wildly
Whenever anyone asks my spouse Jim if he believes in reincarnation, his droll response is: “Not in this lifetime.”
It is tempting to use that response as my answer to the title question of this three-part series. Tempting, first of all, because it approaches the question with laughter. Second, because it is confessional: it says merely that nontheism is not the language of my heart, not the language with which I presently describe to myself what sustains me in my interaction with Life. Third, because it is not prescriptive: it leaves the door open for other options.
Nontheist options: One of those options is the nontheism of empirical science and, more specifically, that of the research into the neurobiology of consciousness about which I have written in other posts (here and here, for example).
It doesn’t confound me to be told that what I experience as the “self” is what Antonio Damasio calls “a perpetually re-created neurobiological state,” a higher order construct maintained by the brain as a framework upon which to organize its neural representations of what the senses perceive (Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, pp. 99-100). Knowing how complex and powerful the workings of human consciousness are, I don’t feel that this empirical description diminishes me.
Another option is the curiously analogous nontheism of Buddhism. Here, too, though couched in a very different language than that of Western science, is that core recognition that the “self” is a transient, ever-changing construct. That what is Real is not so much the perceiver as the flow of things perceived.
Both of these models of consciousness have helped me in recent years, as I settle into a more mature way of walking through mortal existence. It is useful to be able to stop, take a breath, and say to myself, “Ah, this is simply the present moment, and all of these insistent thoughts and feelings are simply this organism’s efforts to interpret and respond to the moment.” Such poise is helpful, whenever I can relax into it.
Private shuddering: Yet there is something else of conscious experience which I miss in these models.
In his richly insightful Harvard Divinity Bulletin (Winter 2007) article, “The Democratic Dilemma,” Todd Shy contrasts the approach to liberal morality of Walter Lippmann, writing in the 1920s, with the current approaches of Jim Wallis and Michael Lerner. The passage which resonates most strongly for me is this one:
Wallis’s God is the champion of justice and the defender of the poor, but there is nothing about him as compelling as the elusiveness, say, of Luther’s God, or the inscrutability of Job’s. His God is not a God who hides; his Jesus is never bewildering.
Wallis offers us the clarion morality of the prophets, but not the shifting range of Old Testament experience. The bound child is pulled away from harm, but no knife has been raised by the godly over the ropes. Biblical writers grope to understand a difficult Creator; Wallis seems content with what he knows.
In the end, religion, like our other deep experiences, is disturbing, unsettling, even as it irresistibly holds our devotion. Liberals like Wallis need to engage us on the level of our private shuddering in order to energize our public commitments. After all, the success of religious conservatives is not the raw manipulation of an issue like abortion, but rather the education of congregations to see God as a being who would revolt at the abortion of a fetus.
The portrait of God is all. The rest is just elaboration, which is why Augustine’s famous quip, love God and do whatever you want, makes utter sense to the religious conservative, who wouldn’t dream of intentionally abusing it, precisely as Augustine knew. (p.70)
“On the level of our private shuddering.” That phrase pierces to the heart of our collective dilemma over the marriage of belief and action.
Wherever we are on the spectrum of belief, what we tell ourselves we believe—or disbelieve—can both drive and constrain our actions. Yet on the level of our private shuddering, a level at once more visceral and more spiritual than belief, something else drives and constrains us.
At its best, we do not know rationally yet are still convinced—on the level of our private shuddering—that whatever drives and constrains us is Something Else which is larger than any one or several of us.
Or at least we hope for that.
Belief versus faith: I know I confess to both shuddering and hope in the tales on Walhydra’s Porch. Though emotionally challenging, it is ultimately easier for me to give voice to both on that blog, simply because the intent there is storytelling.
Here on The Empty Path, where the intent is rational discussion, such topics are much more difficult to address. Reason insists upon the sort of precise correspondence between words and their denotations which is impossible in the realm of the Spirit. That realm demands poetry.
Part of what helps me is the distinction I make between belief and faith. Belief focuses on statements; faith, on actions. These are not mutually exclusive categories, yet I don’t need to have worked out a definitive statement of belief in order to live moment by moment on faith.
But what in the world am I talking about?
Survival faith and practice: In Part II, I wrote that “the challenges of the past decade have increasingly imposed upon me a different sort of spiritual economy,” what I call “survival faith and practice.”
I coined that phrase last October, well into the clinical depression which had been sneaking up on me since at least a year earlier.
As the Walhydra stories linked here relate, September of 2006 was when I first admitted to myself that my brilliant, compassionate mother was probably slipping into Alzheimer’s dementia (“In which Walhydra reconsiders“).
By March of last year, my sister and brother and I knew it was no longer safe for Mom to live alone, and we moved her to my sister’s home in Pensacola (“Which next thing?“). By June, Mom’s obvious decline was confounding me with grief, even while I struggled with anxiety over handling her legal matters and finances and the need to sell her home from 300 miles away (“Walhydra’s sadness“).
Shortly after I published Part II, I began the strange adventure—doubly strange for a former clinical counselor—of using anti-depressants and short-term therapy to climb back out of the depths (“Walhydra’s year of becoming mortal” and “Is it Spring yet?“).
Sharing this personal context is essential to demonstrating what I mean about faith.
Spiritual discipline: As my depression deepened over the past year, both practical and emotional necessity drove me to seek a more intense focus for my spiritual discipline. As I tell it in “Walhydra’s year of becoming mortal,”
[Walhydra] finally recognized just how much of her energy and concentration it was taking each day to tightrope walk with equanimity between anxiety and despair.
“Hell!” Walhydra says. “It’s taking concentration just to make myself get out of bed in the morning…let alone do tai chi foundations, sitting meditation, bike riding, prayer, breakfast, or any of those other things which might nudge me toward wanting to do another day.”
Eventually, I saw the depression for what it was. Describing the deaths of father-in-law and friends and the decline of my elderly parents, I wrote:
This is not just temperament, or circumstance. This is Walhydra’s own personal version of what every human being faces: death and the certainty of death.
It’s enough to make one want to be beyond feeling.
And that, Walhydra now realizes, is what she has actually been working on in her haphazard morning rituals over the past year: trying to be “beyond feeling.”
She hasn’t been denying causes of grief or fear, yet she’s been trying to avoid the slippery slope of melancholia. In the process, her brain has done what that organ knows how to do: suppress its own chemistry until Walhydra was deep in depression.
Applied nontheism: In my desperate efforts to regain stability (at least momentary) before I began taking anti-depressants, and in my much more successful efforts since, I can observe the combined application of those two nontheisms I described earlier.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (aka SSRI anti-depressants) help the brain to reestablish neurochemical homeostasis, so that disturbances from the environment or from imagination do not disable thinking and choice with emotional reactions which are way out of scale. There (grossly oversimplified) is the nontheism of neurobiology.
Taoist tai chi practice, zazen meditation and the disciplines of prayer I’ve learned from Quaker silent worship help consciousness to observe and let go of the flow of thoughts and feelings, without needing to react to or act upon any of them. There (grossly oversimplified) is the nontheism of Buddhism.
I can and do rely upon a discipline of mindfulness informed by both neurobiology and Buddhist psychology, whenever I remember to calm consciousness and recenter it in the moment. This is a discipline of maturity for which I am very grateful.
Something Else: However, on the level of my private shuddering, I am far more grateful for Something Else. Whether I am in the midst of turmoil and despair or settled into the stillness and poise of the moment, I am not alone.
Here is where reason falters, where I have to shift to mythopoetic language in order to suggest what I cannot define.
In Part I, I described becoming “a refugee from the ‘christian’ world” after I came out as a gay man and left Lutheran seminary in 1973.
On one level, the search I began then is for a living, breathing coherence in personal belief. What is the true character of God and our relationship with God, when orthodoxy condemns the homosexual love I have come to understand as a God-given blessing rather than a curse in my life? What is the true nature of salvation, when orthodoxy denies it to non-believers?
On a deeper level, as I acknowledged at the end of Part II, my coming out of Christian orthodoxy is a somewhat uncomfortable search for a way around the notion of “obeying God’s will”—or, better, a search for a living, breathing version of obedience which I can affirm and practice. What if those who reject homosexuals and non-believers are right? Or, if they are not, how do I perceive and follow that real “God’s will” which is beyond orthodoxies?
On the deepest level, the level of my private shuddering, my search is for what Thomas Merton calls “the possibility of an uninterrupted dialogue with God…a dialogue of love and of choice. A dialogue of deep wills” (New Seeds of Contemplation, pp. 16-17).
In other words, a search for relationship, not with “God” as learned from and defined by others, but with Divine Presence as experienced in consciousness, unmediated by words and concepts.
Recall Todd Shy’s words quoted earlier: “The portrait of God is all.”
In the depth of depression, as I was finishing Part II, I reached the following passage in my reading of Merton’s New Seeds:
In all the situations of life the “will of God” comes to us not merely as an external dictate of impersonal law but above all as an interior invitation of personal love.
Too often the conventional conception of “God’s will” as a sphinx-like and arbitrary force bearing down upon us with implacable hostility, leads men to lose faith in a God they cannot find it possible to love. Such a view of the divine will drives human weakness to despair and one wonders if it is not, itself, often the expression of a despair too intolerable to be admitted to conscious consideration.
These arbitrary “dictates” of a domineering and insensible Father are more often seeds of hatred than of love. If that is our concept of the will of God, we cannot possibly seek the obscure and intimate mystery of the encounter that takes place in contemplation. We will desire only to fly as far as possible from Him and hide from His face forever.
So much depends on our idea of God! Yet no idea of Him, however pure and perfect, is adequate to express Him as He really is. Our idea of God tells us more about ourselves than about Him” (p. 17).
Yes, yes, and yes.
In future posts I will tell more about myself by writing more about the idea of God. For now, in saying that I am not a nontheist, what I am acknowledging is that I have made peace with and understood the value of my “native religious language.”
It is the mythopoetic language in which I first learned to conceptualize and describe the experience of “the Divine.” It is not a language for definition—certainly not for doctrinal formulation. It is, rather, a language for evoking spiritual shuddering.
As I wrote in “Is it Spring yet?“:
In the past few years, though, Walhydra has been looking for the pre-theological core of her faith, her spiritual enthusiasm [from Greek enthous, entheos, possessed, inspired : en-, in + theos, god].
Guess what? She found its roots in the positive visceral childhood experiences of Lutheran Sunday School, her father’s sermons, her mother’s organ-playing, and the hymn-singing of the congregation’s old ladies.
What an interesting surprise!
This actually makes sense, though. Ever since childhood, the real Jesus—who is far more real than any of the “Christianities” seem able to express—has been Walhydra’s hero.
Walhydra imbibed all of those Sunday School stories and sermons and hymns, to the point that Jesus became a real presence for her, a divine human of fierce integrity and fierce compassion. Whenever anyone makes false claims in his name, he lets her know. More to the point, whenever Walhydra causes harm or tries to hide, he lets her know.
Another way to say this is that my faith is not about what I believe but about what I trust.
When I am in turmoil or despair, my child’s heart turns to a personified Divine Presence, to a “God” who, as Frederick Buechner writes, is “a God like Jesus, which is to say a God of love” (“The Clown in the Belfrey,” in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, p. 125).
When I am poised in sacred stillness, I feel the joy of “being right with God, trusting the deep-down rightness of the life God has created for us and in us, and riding that trust the way a red-tailed hawk rides the currents of the air” (Ibid., p. 127).
In between these times, I experience the constant shifting of my trust, my faith. As Buechner writes:
Some days it’s easier to say Yes than other days. And even when we say Yes, there’s always a no lurking somewhere in the shadows, just as when we say no there’s always a Yes. That’s the way faith breathes in and breathes out, I think, the way it stays alive and grows. (Ibid., p. 129)
And so it is.