Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Something on T.V. and some thoughts about faith and doubt and truth and the way of the mystics

I very rarely watch t.v. except for watching Braves baseball and Tennessee football or basketball. And, I watch some other college teams play too. But, I don't watch anything else, except every once in a while.

One show that Sue watches that I have watched a few times is called Glee. It is about high school kids in a music class/club at school. Tonight it was a particularly good show focused on the trouble one male student was having because his father and only living parent had had a severe heart attack. And, interwoven with this concern was an emphasis on spiritual music which was performed throughout the show. The boy with a critically ill father did not believe in God, whereas many of his classmates were involved in praying for his father. At one point, a girl who was a friend of his got him to go to her church and she led the whole church in a song for him ("Bridge Over Troubled Water"). She said before she started singing that she knew he didn't believe in God and that that was alright, but everybody had to find something to hold onto beyond what they could see. And, then she sang a song for him, and they all sang the song for him. He was white, and his friend was black as was the rest of the congregation.

That song seemed just right for me. It made room for him with his not-believing, but needing love, right in the middle of the believing community. There was room for him in that church as he was.

I have felt for some time that there ought to be room for atheism in a community of truth. Where there is no room for unbelief, I don't think there is room for belief. Since my college days, I have been struck with something solemn and almost sacred about doubt and even a lack of belief, when it is honestly expressed and felt. To me, it seems that with some people it is an sincere effort to struggle with the deepest things in life. Sometimes I don't think there can be any faith in our day, at least for the young, unless it has passed through or even been born in doubt and even unbelief. And, for some time now, it has also seemed that God's beliefs about us are much more important than our beliefs about God.

I know we think we can surround our children with faith and a community of faith and that will carry them through life. But, our children have to go out into the world soon enough - to school,to the playgrounds, and at some point to parties, workplaces, etc. Some go to wars, others to violent homes, others to jail,and still others to more secure places. And, I agree with passing on faith in God to our children the best we know how, but I don't know any way of really passing on anything without teaching our children to love the truth, and to love it even when it is hard to face. For me, faith was always about the search for truth, and a somewhat fearless search at that. It still is. That's why I always think it is good to teach children as they grow up that not only is it alright to doubt some things, but it is necessary to go through some doubt in order to find the way to some truths that will last in one's life.

I will turn 50 next month. And, I am thinking my way through to some new thoughts about faith and life and God. I have become interested explicitly in apophatic theology (mysticism of the "negative way of theology" as it is sometimes called), but implicitly I have been doing/experiencing this type of theology since I was a teenager. The apophatic way of believing is based on the conviction that true knowing and communion with God comes from reaching a profound sense of "unknowing." For mystics who follow in this way, all categories of belief end up collapsing into a mystery, the mystery of the Divine Presence, which may be more deeply experienced in the darkness than the light. All of my thinking pushes towards this mystery, which causes me to push every line of thought until it collapses or reveals its limits as it opens to something greater, as it points to something more.

There has always seemed to me something completely inexpressible about God, which common worship overlooks. I have always liked the solemn songs of praise that point to something way beyond our normal thoughts and experience. And, I have always loved the silence and the music without words in worship services. I have regularly found myself saying of Christian theology and Christian worship and Christian viewpoints through the years: "but, that isn't filled with the experience of God's holiness, God's love, and God's OTHERNESS." That's why I was so uplifted by Barth's early theological work about the HOLY OTHERNESS OF GOD,THE SHEER TRANSCENDENCE OF THE HOLY ONE. And, that's why when a couple of my friends in college expressed their lack of belief in God, it didn't seem so strange. It doesn't bother me that people are confused about God, and feel overwhelmed with trying to understand God. For me, that is part of faith. So, sometimes when a person expresses to me their doubts, I start feeling like they might be really coming to a true experience of God.

Once Thomas Aquinas said: "We do not know what type of being God is."

And, this week as I get ready to preach, I am reading over and over again the passage about Elijah hiding in the cleft of the great rock formation, waiting for God. And, there is a rushing wind, but the scripture says: "But,God was not in the wind." And, then there is a burning fire, but the scripture says: "But, God was not in the fire." Then an earthquake, as Elijah hides in the cleft of the great rock formation. Again, it is said: "But,God was not in the earthquake." And, then the scripture says something very amazing: "And, then there was the sound of sheer silence, and Elijah wrapped himself in his mantle."

In this profound silence, Elijah felt the presence of God and was in awe.

And, it is out of that silence that God speaks to Elijah. "The sound of sheer silence." Not the great wind, or fire or quaking of the earth, but in the sheer silence. So quiet it was arresting to the senses. Taking Elijah's focus within instead of without.

This passage makes me think about "what God is not," and how we ought to spend much of our spiritual teaching on "what God is not." Because, it is a little much for us most of the time to be able to say what God is. It often leads us into arrogance and a false sense of familiarity with the Divine to be talking all the time about what God is like. It would do us well to talk more and learn more about what God is not like.

And, that is what I am probably preaching on this Sunday. God is not the fire, the wind, the earthquake. God is not in the impressive demonstrations of power in this world - whether displays of beauty or wisdom or strength or magic or agility. In fact, God refuses to be found in these great displays, just as Jesus refused to be found in his wonder working. God chooses to be known in the weakness of the world, chooses the weak to shame the strong, chooses foolishness to shame human wisdom, submits to death to bring life. This is what Paul says in 1 Cor. 1. You can read it for yourself.

Paul's was a profound mysticism. He decided to "know only Jesus Christ,and him crucified." Jesus crucified is the image that breaks down all images or imaginings about God,and opens to a mystery that makes us tremble. "Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Where you there when they crucified my Lord? O ... o . . O.. . sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble . . . "

God is not . . . , God is not . . . , God is not . . . That's what the cross does for knowledge of God - deconstructs it before it constructs it.

The mystics discovered a movement of thought and feeling in which one could enter into a new way of experiencing, understanding God and self. It was the way of interiority, a way of finding a place of thought that is beyond thought, a place of feeling that is beyond feeling,and that is free from the downward pull of social and psychological struggle. For so many, this holy way was found in silence. Exterior silence, but more importantly interior silence in which the self felt itself folding into God's silence and presence.

But, you can't find this way without the interior experience of silence - which means a coming to rest deep down. Outer silence can be a help in finding inner silence, but outer silence may be accompanied by inner noise and fitfulness and distress and turmoil. Sometimes it takes outer silence to come to the point of realizing just how loud it is inside of us.

If I Could Only Tell the Truth!

If I could only tell the truth, I could really put some things on this blog that would be worth reading. If I could tell the truth about how much unfairness I see in a regular work week, and how much injustice I have gotten used to overlooking to be able to do my job. If I could tell you how callous I have become to the pain of others, and how I am amazed at how good and merciful and holy others are like Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, who have truly borne the pains and trouble of others and kept their bouyant spirit. If I could really write the truth and express from my heart what it is like to try to walk in faith and come up against barriers of hatred, arrogance, sadistic abuse of authority. If I could write about the worst of all barriers - the pettiness and emptiness within.

But, I can't write about those things on this blog. Because, well, you can't tell the truth in this world except to one or two or maybe three people, if you are lucky. And, I am lucky.

My friend, Mack, and I sat around talking over many things yesterday. We talked about some of those things I mentioned above that can't be written about on this blog. And, we talked until we reached a point of feeling like we had both heard each other and spoken to each other about some important things. I guess I am very fortunate that Mack is my "boss." I am certainly grateful for that. That is one truth I can write about.