It was a surreal night at the pub, which began with the ominous hint that we might be meeting in purgatory. That clarified a lot of things for everyone, like why we’d all had feelings of being stuck, of going in circles, of having been here before. Or something like that.
The CEO Stout was back on the board, which pleased many folks, as did the Fat Lad, an imperial Russian oatmeal stout. I stuck with the Black and Blue Porter, a roasty porter fermented with Michigan blueberries. It’s better than it sounds (the blueberry is subtle).
So, a nice turnout this past Thursday, and we began with the question of anxiety.
First Topic: In what ways has your faith been influenced by anxiety? Fueled anxiety? Calmed anxiety? How has anxiety played a role in your spiritual journey?
The first respondent noted the way that faith can cause anxiety. The example was being in a challenging situation, and finding oneself wanting to pray or make some sort of request of God, even though she wouldn’t normally consider herself a person of faith. This then could cause a sort of anxiety: why am I doing this? Is there some deep-rooted spiritual reality within me, or is this just a culturally and socially-conditioned habit?
Another person noted that faith often calms anxiety. It is a realization that things which are out of our control are in God’s hands, and this brings an enormous sense of calm and well-being. That reminds me of something Jesus said: “Do not worry about your life… Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things… therefore do not worry about tomorrow.”
Someone countered with: “But if it’s out of your hands, why are you worried about it at all? Why bring in God to the situation? It’s out of your hands, so worry about the stuff you can deal with, and leave the rest alone. It will take care of itself whether God is involved or not. (And it often seems he’s not).”
I could resonate with all three of these comments, at least in part. On occasion there are times I wonder if I’m not just talking to myself when I pray (if I’m honest), or if God really is paying attention or cares… but at the end of the day, my experience more generally is that prayer does give me a connection with the divine, and my faith allows me to *trust* that God is there, whether I always feel it or not, and this does give me a sense of calm, and respite from anxiety. He’s working things out in his ways, his timing, and ultimately it’s not up to me.
What about you? How does worry or anxiety play a role in your faith journey?
Second Topic: Is theology simply archival, or is there more work to be done?
In other words, has all the real theology already been done, and our job is simply to dig in the archives, or the library, pull the dusty tomes off the shelves and memorize what’s already been accomplished? There was one sarcastic yes (it’s simply archival), but everyone generally agreed, theology must be an ongoing discipline, a necessary engagement for everyone and every generation. We didn’t spend much time on this, but my own sense is not that we reinvent theology every generation, but rather that we build upon the foundation we’ve already been given, with the occasional need to deconstruct former assumptions. We certainly don’t start from scratch. We have been handed a tradition, and it is our job to be faithful *within* that tradition, which does not mean being slaves to it, but reappropriating and rearticulating it for today.
Third Topic: “We have not allowed the meaning of the facts of our infinite universe to affect us and our view of God.”
This one came out of a paper delivered by Lissa McCullough at the Future of Continental Philosophy Conference, entitled: Affirmations, Negations, Counter-Reformations: How God Outgrew Religion. In other words, much of our theology was developed when the idea that man was the center of the universe and the crown of God’s creation was taken for granted. But once it was noted that the earth is not the center of the universe, nor even our own galaxy or solar system, this idea was necessarily strained. The contention in the paper was that “We have not allowed the meaning of the facts of our infinite universe to affect us and our view of God.” In other words, we haven’t experienced it. We still talk in ways that seem that God is concerned primarily with not only humanity, but each of us individually. That claim was pressed by Lissa, who noted that rather than being us who killed God, it was God who killed man, the God who is de-centered and apparently loves galaxies (of which there are, at last count, at least 500 billion), each containing millions of stars and possible worlds like ours. Her contention is that our God is too small, and we need to realize that God is clearly a universal God, not simply a tribal God. Giordano Bruno (b.1548), an Italian Dominican Friar who was also an astronomer noted that we must seek “joy in the infinite… joy in an infinite universe which is the image of a God who is not simply anthropocentric.”
Fourth Topic: “It’s impossible to escape the constraints of language and objectively say whether our beliefs are true or not. Whatever your choice, faith is required.”
In other words, we cannot move beyond language into the actual. All our words are approximations, attempts at describing the actual which is always in some sense beyond us, and certainly beyond our conceptualizations of it.
A couple of quotes help here:
“Truth cannot be out there—cannot exist independently of the human mind—because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own—unaided by the describing activities of humans—cannot.” – Richard Rorty
“The truth is that there is no answer in the back of the book to which there is assent, no final arbiter who will finally adjudicate rival claims – not in this life anyway. And most of those who want absolutes tend to accept authority only if that authority makes the absolute claims to which they are already disposed. At this point we only have perspectives on ultimate truth and not ultimate truth itself.” – Walter Brueggemann
I think these are helpful perspectives for us to carry what many call a ‘chastened faith’, or a hermeneutic of humility. Yes we have God’s Word, as Christians, but there are endless interpretations of those words by well-meaning Christians throughout history. It seems when the church acts on certainty and an unwarranted confidence that its views and perspectives and understandings are absolutely right, it tends to cause serious problems in the world.
There are absolute truths, of course. But no one has indisputable access to them. We grasp them, as believers, by faith. A faith that is humble, but hopeful.
(And gets us out of purgatory).
Have a thought on the above? Leave your comment below!