Reflections on the spiritual merits of losing your way
I recently traveled to a relatively large city that I was unfamiliar with: Belfast, in Northern Ireland. I had never been there before, so I watched a Rick Steve’s video on Ireland, perused a guidebook or two, and picked up a map of the city at the airport.
My first instinct was to chart out a plan for what to see in the city. So I made a list in my head. First stop: a used bookstore near Queen’s University, which was a gem of a place – old dusty books, some on shelves, some scattered haphazardly; dirty, marked-up tables with melted candles on them serving as both cafe and reading area. I nearly picked up an old Paul Tillich volume, but it proved to be out of my budget, so I settled on a paperback for three pounds – Violence, by Slavoj Zizek. Next I wandered over to the University to sit in on a class. Somehow I ended up in a lecture for Accounting 101 rather than Irish Culture in Art and Image (so much for planning!) Fortunately Zizek got me through the class. Then I stopped in at a pub for some food and my first Guinness in Ireland, as recommended by the guidebook. Great stuff. So far so good. All according to plan (mostly).
The next day I decided to do it a little differently. I left the guidebook in the hotel room. I refused to consult the map. I stepped out the door onto the street, and amidst the busy-ness of taxis, buses, and pedestrians, acted like I knew where I was going. I had no idea. I just walked. And walked. And walked. Noticed the shops, the pubs, the people. Saw several old churches. City hall. Turned up an alleyway. More shops. Should I keep going this way? I have no idea where I am. Yet as I was getting more and more ‘lost’, I felt a profound excitement – this was new territory, there were places to discover, and I felt as though on the edge of discovery. This was a journey. This was living. Planned is certainly OK, but the unknown somehow allures.
Is this not true in relationships? The relation to the other, says John Caputo, is “bracing but risky business.” He gives an example: When you get married, you are saying “I do” not only to who this person is, or who you think this person is, but to whomever or whatever this person is going to become, which is unknown and unforeseen to the both of you. In other words, it’s a risk – what Levinas called, a “beautiful risk,” yet a risk all the same. This willingness to go forward despite (and perhaps at some level because of) the risk is what leads us to call it beautiful. Caputo quips, “If it were a sure thing, it would be about as beautiful as a conversation with your stockbroker.”
I keep walking. Another street. Another small alley with stone pavers. What’s this? A cafe with outdoor seating. Old wooden tables. Flower beds awaiting spring. A man standing outside, smoking. I thought, ‘What the heck?’ and went in. Inside was more like a traditional pub. I walk up to the bar.
Bartender: “What’ll you have, mate?”
“Do you have coffee?”
“Sure – Cappuccino, Latte, Americano.”
“I’ll have an Americano – for outside.”
I ended up having an enjoyable couple hours reading outside this small cafe, eating lunch, reading Zizek, and drinking good coffee. Further, I asked the guy smoking to take my picture, and we got into a great conversation. Introduced myself as Bryan and he said, “I’m Brian as well.” After complimenting each other on our great names, he asked why I was there, and I mentioned something about a conference on theology. Said I was a pastor. He said, “I grew up strictly religious, but I’m an atheist myself.”
I asked him if he had a good question for my friends meeting at the pub back in the States. He answered by way of telling me about a book he had written: A Dream of Jesus in My Cocktail, or something to that effect (still seeking publication). It’s about three missionaries to S. Africa who refuse to engage in the physical and social challenges facing the people, but merely offer them the panacea of hope after this life. Then the question: “Is it wrong to delude people if the delusion is serving the greater good?”
He had to jet, work was calling. I had another Americano and kept reading. After awhile the weather began to turn, so I decided to head out and explore a little more. Found a few other nooks and crannies, and some that came in handy later in the week. I learned the city with my feet rather than from a book. I saw it with my own eyes, not just on TV. I got lost. And in getting lost, something was found. Here I was at a conference which was exploring new ways to articulate the journey of faith, about exploring the sometimes fuzzy edge between theism and atheism, and I run into a local man who grew up religious and thinks he has left all that rubbage behind, yet clearly has not. A terrific discovery that could never have been “planned” or even “foreseen”.
I wonder how this relates to our spiritual journeys. My sense is that traditionally we like to go ‘by the book’. In other words, we’re on a journey, but the trail has already been blazed. All we need to do is look for the signposts left by all who have gone before. The discovery is all done. The theological trail has been marked. Just as there are no explorers discovering new continents on our planet anymore, so it seems there is no new spiritual territory to discover. In What Would Jesus Deconstruct, John Caputo asks, “When is faith really faith?” Great question, and I don’t have a simple answer for that. His response: “Not when it is looking more and more like we are right, but when the situation is beginning to look impossible, in the darkest night of the soul.” In our circles, we didn’t let people come back who admitted to having a ‘dark night of the soul’. We needed security. Certainty. And we had it, or so we thought.
But I wonder what kind of a journey this really is? Caputo ponders the nature of a journey: “If you knew very well where you were going from the start and had the means to get there, it would almost be like getting there before you even set out, or like ending up where you were all along.” Indeed. If it’s all charted territory, and there is no discovery – is it actually a journey? Or are we willing to traverse places where there are bends in the road around which we cannot yet see? It seems to me that this is the essence of what faith is about. If the path is already lit, if there are no moments of darkness, if the map has been drawn – then of what need is faith? True faith, at its core, involves radical trust. So if there is no element of risk, no venturing into the unknown, then our spiritual journeys have never really left home. Caputo continues: “Going to a place we already know how to reach or going with a tour guide who has mapped out every stop along the way, or along a paved road with guard rails, rest stops, and food stands where everyone speaks English, is hardly a journey at all.”
This extends not just to our personal faith lives, but to our churches as well. My experience in being part of starting a new church is that many people inevitably ask, “So what is the long-range plan?”, “What’s next?” or “Where is this thing going?” The understood (and hoped-for) answer generally has to do with stability, money, perhaps even a building. My usual answer has been, “I don’t know exactly.” We know what things we value, what kind of ethos we are seeking to have as a community, but as to how all that plays out – who knows? Indeed, who can know, as we have not yet been there. We seem to want to squeeze out any room for the Spirit, which Jesus noted “blows wherever it will”. We eschew the need for actual faith. We want to know if we’re investing in something that is “going to make it”, or “headed for success”, otherwise we’ll invest our time and energy elsewhere. So much for risk. So much for faith. Yet Caputo puts it this way: “The more credible things are, the less faith is needed, but the more incredible things seem, the more faith is required, the faith that is said to move mountains.”
And so as I wandered around Belfast with no real idea where I was going, it felt as though I were really on a journey. What was around the bend? Where would this street lead? Where would be my next stop? Who would I meet? The times that were not mapped out and were not on the itinerary were some of the highlights of my trip (we’ll have to save the story of Pete Rollins getting us lost on the way back to Belfast from the North Coast for another time). It was the moments in which I was, you might say, “creatively adrift”, and on a true adventure (ad-venire), in which the “incoming” of something unforeseeable was made possible. That is a journey worth taking, or as my friends at Ikon would sing: “I once was found, but now I’m lost.”
A shortened version of this article was published in the Traverse City Record-Eagle.