Friday, September 25, 2009

O Magnum Mysterium

Much time has passed since I started this discussion, but the subject never leaves my mind for long. I suppose that’s because the subject of “mystery” keeps flowing in and out of my life and my conversations. Coincidence? Or just chaos theory in action?

And today is the fifth anniversary of my blog--I guess that deserves some sort of effort on my part.

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Mystical Seeker (MS) asked some wonderful questions in the comments to my previous post on this topic, and I have spent a lot of time pondering them.

I’ve questioned the best way to engage in dialogue here. To do point/counter-point has the advantage of forcing me to confront the questions MS and others raised, and I think it’s important to do that. I don’t want to look as if I’m ducking the hard issues.

The downside to my responding in that way, however, is that it can look as if I am trying to argue people into agreeing with me (or at least to “prove” that I am somehow correct in my approach or interpretations). I assure you that is not my project. Like anyone else, I prefer to be “right,” but I long ago accepted that—if we are honest—in matters of faith, there ARE no right answers.

For me, the whole point of this exercise is that I am still trying to figure out for myself what *I* believe---why I feel this need to hold “truth” and “mystery” in tension with one another and let the baby splash in the bathwater without throwing either of them out.

As I have noted, in some parts of my life, being a confessing Christian seems very...exotic. It’s like saying you believe in fairies or the boogeyman. In those parts of my life, people cut me some slack because they know I’m not one of “those” Christians. I don’t proselytize and I don’t speak about my faith unless invited to do so.

But the question is always there, though usually unspoken: How can you believe “that stuff?!”

Even in church, I get that feeling sometimes. Last Sunday morning I attended a discussion on Jesus for the Nonreligious in my home parish. The class was well-attended and quite lively and interesting. Several people made comments about how they had reached a point in their journeys of faith where they could no longer have remained in the Christian fold if they had to believe that “nonsense” about virgin births and miracles.

And I thought to myself, “Am I the ONLY one who thinks I can believe in quantum physics and miracles at the same time?”

And so, I type to MS and the others who commented—but I am really talking to myself...

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The fact that we exist at all--that's a mystery. The fact that there is love--that's a mystery. I don't have to believe in the literal truth of fantastical tales in order to believe in a mystery.

But what IS “mystery?” Is it simply a word that means “what I/we cannot (yet) know or understand?” Or is it more than that?

And, in the immortal words of Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?” It seems to me that this is the unasked question in +Spong’s work—he assumes he knows exactly what “truth” is, and that you will agree with him about the definition.

I suppose I am too postmodern in my approach to truth. While I believe that there *is* Absolute Truth, I’m also pretty sure we can’t know it in this life. So, in that sense, all truth is relative. “Truth” changes because our understanding about the world expands and changes over time.

Having said that, I wonder sometimes if that is why we have lost the capacity to appreciate miracles—and why so many people no longer believe in them. We put our faith in science, as our modern version of “truth,” and think that we are so much more advanced than our first-century cousins in Palestine.

But are we really so different than they were? Many people--me, among them—accept the “truth” of the Big Bang theory. (Please note the quotation marks—I am well aware that scientists do not use the word “truth” about theories, but, in practice, we all do it.) But it seems to me that the notion of a singularity that is infinitely dense and hot and then—BAM!—expands to create the universe in less than a picosecond is at least as fantastical as the stories of miracles in the Bible!

What constitutes a mystery in your world? Tell me that and I will know something about your version of the truth.

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The universe is for me such an amazing source of awe, I don't have to revert to a five-year-old mentality and believe in Santa Clause in order to feel this awe.

I, too, am awed by the universe. But I guess I’m with Mary Sue on this. What’s wrong with being a 5-year-old when it comes to stories? Who enjoys Christmas more? The grown-ups who “know” there is no Santa Claus, or the little kids who can hardly sleep for quivering with excitement?

I know the objection to this, of course--Santa Claus isn’t “real.” But, for me, that’s where the mystery comes in. As crazy as it sounds, I DO believe in Santa Claus. Because the “reality” of Santa Claus is that there is love and generosity in the universe, and, when I “play” Santa Claus for my children, I am acting on behalf of that for them. From my perspective, I am merely channeling what already exists--and giving them some fun and lovely memories while I’m doing it.

This is why I think Jesus made such a point of talking about having faith like a child. They haven’t lost their capacity for wonder. They aren’t bound by “rationality” and science. They still know how to thrill to something. They aren’t cynical and jaded like the adults in their lives.

I really do aspire to be more child-like in that sense. It’s not about accepting falsehoods. It’s about being open to things that are not always rational. And if that doesn’t define God and faith, I don’t know what does...

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One of the problems that I see in religious credulity is that it often boils down to "my fairy tale is true; your fairy tale is false." So Christians can believe that Jesus literally walked around after being resuscitated, but they will refuse to believe the fantastical claims of Muhammad or Joseph Smith. Incredulity with other religions, credulity with my own.

Fair point. But I don’t believe that. I’m fully aware of just how crazy the Christian story is, and willing to grant that Muslims or Mormons ALSO have the “right” story—or at least another facet of it.

My “problem” is that I’m a Christian who doesn’t believe that Christianity is the only way to God--but I’m lumped in with all the fundagelicals.

I started this conversation by asking why people who can’t accept the idea that Jesus was anything other than a good teacher would want to hold on to him--but I guess I should ask myself why I want to hold on to him when I don’t think I “have to” in order to be saved (whatever that means) and it puts me in the same group with people whose theology and worldview I find repugnant?

That conversation, I suspect, will be a lifelong one...

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The difference between Cinderella and Jesus' resurrection is that adults don't take Cinderella literally, but lots of adults do take the fanciful tales in Matthew, Luke and John about his resurrection literally.

I will beg to differ with you on this. They may not take it “literally” in the way that you mean it, but women in our culture have internalized the story of Cinderella and I think the damage is incalculable. From the time they are infants, girls hear almost nothing but stories about beautiful princesses who are rescued by handsome princes—and then go on to live “happily ever after.” Those stories shape the way girls feel about themselves and the way they look at their relationships with men. I’m trying hard to figure out how believing that Jesus turned water into wine can have that same type of negative cultural impact...

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I discovered a lot of churches where people read Borg or Spong in reading groups, but when push comes to shove, as this discussion bears out, most Christians, even progressive or non-fundamentalist ones, seem to prefer to treat these stories as if they are true.

That’s because they MEAN something to us.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I find it difficult to live in a completely “rational” world all the time. That’s where poetry and music and stories come in for me. If you read those biblical stories as “poems,” what’s wrong with accepting that miraculous things happen? You can’t “prove” that they didn’t, anymore than I can prove that they did--but my life would be much poorer without those stories.

For instance, I think many people fail to see the beauty and power of the story of the virgin birth. Think about it for a moment--God comes to earth in human form, and there is no man involved! Do you grasp how radical and life-affirming that could be from a feminist standpoint?

I’m not willing to stake my faith on that story being “true” in a literal sense, because I know all about the history of virgin birth stories--and I don’t demand that anyone else believe it. But I love it, and I’m not willing to give it up because some people declare it to be impossible. If I can believe in a God that created the universe (and I do, however that has worked itself out over the last 14 billion years), believing in the virgin birth is really not much of a stretch. For the God who could create this:


a virgin birth—or turning water into wine—would be little more than a parlor trick.

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There is more--much more--but this is already too long and I want to post something tonight. So I will close with this...

When I was in high school, I sang in the school choir (known as the A Cappella). Our choir director was a man of great talent who held high expectations of us, and, one year, he entered us in a regional choral contest. Here is what we performed:




It was ambitious for a bunch of fundamentalist kids who had never seen Latin before the day he handed us the music. I don’t remember that we did particularly well at the contest, but I have never forgotten the beauty of that piece. In some sense, it is the story of my faith:

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare
Dominum Christum.
Alleluia.