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SERMON ARCHIVE

 

 

 

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 is silence.

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 explanation.

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 sees?"

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 it belongs.

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 Israel."

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.

Alan Watts 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 ventriloquist dummy.

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 arrive.á

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
January 13, 1996

  

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