A Spirituality of Inquiry:
A New Apology for Wonder
First, the Apophasis of
doubt--even if we embrace no positive beliefs it is because we do not want to
misrepresent the Truth, nor reduce it to an idol.
Cf., Niebuhr: Even Absolute
Truth must be relativized to accommodate the limited human mind. A real
revelation could never be translated into conceptuality at all! "Those who
say don't know, those who know don't say." Thus the only true revelation
This is why I can be a
rationalist-agnostic and pro-mystic at the same time!
The error of supernaturalism
is to try to drag down the divine into the realm of cause-&-effect. To make the Holy a being.
Second, the Asceticism of
doubt: not surfeiting in the candy of pleasant, sugary but false beliefs. Forgo
the God of theism for the desert of the Godhead, where no one is at home.
And this can be done
equally, I believe, in mystical absorption or in secular, death-of-God,
Bergmanian questing into the godless world.
But let me go further, into
a new way of understanding the numinous experience. Otto's
Todorov implies a new angle
on it. Awe and wonder comes down to wonder, even to wondering. The difference between the fantastic, the uncanny, and the
marvelous. In both the uncanny and the marvelous, the wondrous is
eventually reduced to the mundane, either by exploding it as a figment, or by
redrawing the ground rules of narrative reality. Either way, we are back to the
mundane, we have released the apparently fantastic to the mundane.
This is linked with the
theology of Hope. Hope is central to Messianic religion, not faith. Faith only
tries to repress the disappointment of disappointed hope. Messiah= hope, thus
must remain in the ever-coming but never-arriving future. If it should step
onto the stage of history, it vanishes, like a character stepping outside the
holodeck. The gravity of the real world will crush it delicate angel wings. A
present messiah is ipso facto a failed messiah. "Who hopes for what he
A present messiah cannot
deliver on the promise of which he is the incarnation. The world goes on as it
has since the fathers fell asleep (2 Peter). And then we abandon him and start
anticipating his second coming, placing his coming into the future, back where
This, by the way, accounts
for D.Z. Phillips's paradox. If Christ seemed to appear as a man in the sky, no
one would believe it. It could never match your expectations. Just as any film
portrayal of a favorite literary character is going to disappoint because every
reader already has his own customized picture of the hero. The actor cannot
match the literary figure. Christ may stand on the threshold and knock at the
door. He may be near, even at the gate. But he must come no further, or he will
leave his identity as the Christ behind.
Or think of Christmas
morning. Admit it: as great as it is, it's always a disappointment, because
certainty never blazes with the nebulous glory of the uncertain off there in
the future horizon.
Even when a cult has a
present Messiah, he only seems divine so long as the mysterious aura of
expectation surrounds him, in other words, as long as he keeps them guessing
("All men wondered, questioning in their hearts whether John might be the
Christ." He disappoints them by announcing he is not. But he would have
disappointed them equally if he had announced he was! Just as when Jesus at
last accepts messianic accolades at the Triumphal Entry, he is having his last
hurrah! The crowd has turned on him a week later and is howling for the death
of this false messiah! As two of them say on the road to Emmaus, "We had
hoped he was the one to redeem
Jesus maintained his
mystique as long as he gave answers like "You say that I am." As long
as he limits himself to that he can still be the messiah, because the element
of lingering uncertainty keeps him, keeps his messianic self-revelation, one
step away in the future. Even if he but one minute from announcing it, his
messianic self-disclosure has not arrived. And yet he is already the messiah by
virtue of remaining in the future. He must not let the delicate tension lapse
by letting the cat out of the bag!
It remains the fantastic
only so long as it does not lapse back into either the mundane ("He's just
a teacher.") or the marvelous ("He came down from heaven!").
There is a sense of wonder only so long as we are kept guessing, suspecting,
anticipating. We feel awe and wonder only so long as we are kept wondering. And
the difference between wondering and believing is doubt, uncertainty. It is
only in the space opened up by the question mark that wonder can thrive!
This is why the religion of certainty and blessed assurance acts as a
numbing narcotic. Because uncertainty is a difficult burden to bear, despite its
spiritual reward. Pat Robertson once wrote a question and answer book for his
fans. It should have been called "Pat Answers," because for fundamentalisms
there can be no other kind. But a spirituality of inquiry is inimical to this.
in Beyond Theology. People claim to believe earth-shaking things, if you listen to
their rhetoric. But they live as they would live as if none of it were true. In
fact in a strange way, their Technicolor mythic beliefs gives them license to
live as if none of it were true, because it says, "I am a child of God. I
will be on top when it all comes down. I am sitting pretty, fat and happy in
the palm of the savior's hand." But here, God, Jesus, Truth has become
like a cheap plastic dashboard totem, a crudely carved and garishly painted
And again, remember the
words of Lessing, the religious rationalist. "If God should present both
hands, offering truth in the right and the never ending search for the truth in
the left, I should without hesitation choose the search for truth. Truth as
such is not for mortals, but for God only (in other words, for no one!)."
Smug certainty that you possess the truth results in monsters like Pat
Robertson. Absolute truth corrupts absolutely. Life is in the quest, adventure
is in the seeking. We get closer to the truth, farther from error, even though
the truth runs on ahead of us and we will never catch up.
The Jesus of the inquirer,
of the questioner, the doubter, is the Jesus who might be more than man, not
the one who is, whose nature we can define with the
Nicene formula. The Jesus of the questioner is not he who comes down from
heaven, but rather who is coming from the future, though he will never actually
Poor Jehovah's Witnesses!
They were so embarrassed their predictions for the second coming never panned
out that they changed their history books, a la Winston Smith, to hide the
fact. But they were doing us all a favor by proving out what Derrida says, that
the Parousia, the final coming and revealing of the truth, when we shall see it
face to face--simply can never happen. Because Differance is
the permeating factor of existence. Truth is illusive, always one step
ahead, one step beyond, ever deferred.
Like Jesus after his first
exciting day healing in
Galilee. His disciples are thrilled to have him. But
they cannot keep him unless they get up and go. A long time before sunrise,
Mark says, he rose and went out to a desert place to pray. The disciples awaken
later and panic to notice him gone! The search for him and find him and tell
him the crowd is waiting for him back home. But he is not their possession, not
anyone's I must go to other towns, to proclaim there
too, That is why I was sent. What a parable of truth deferring, ricocheting,
like a nimble butterfly always flitting beyond the range of the seeker's net!
That is the Jesus, that is the Truth, with whom we
have to do.
Jesus was a wanderer, an itinerant, He had no lasting city here. And the one who
would follow him, or even continue for a while as a comrade in his journey,
must wander, must keep on the move. The disciple of truth is ever a nomad, like
the truth itself.
Robert M. Price
CopyrightŠ2004 by Robert
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