God in the midst of uncertainty
CLOSE TO THE EDGE
GOD: THE EDGE IN THE MIDST OF CERTAINTY
Introduction: Certainties past and present
As we gather to discuss and learn from each other how we might speak of God in the present age, there is no overarching story and agreed hermeneutic (and probably never has been) but a menu of beliefs, perceptions and opinions that create moral voids and conflicts.
We have the continual problem of who is right and who is wrong – and the ever–abiding question, is there an absolute?
These immense and critical questions get submerged. The commitments and concerns of each day often form a pattern of routines which in turn gives way to a structure of certainty upon which we not only experience life but which then determines the way that we see the wider world and interpret its bigger meaning.
I write as a parish priest where even a ministerial life resembles more and more the role of a manager and administrator; the patterns and routines of contemporary life seem disassociated from the source of meaning, wonder, worship, commitment and sacrifice.
We can only experience and speak of God in the relative terms of our humanity. What is it that we have in common and with which we can receive and share that sense of the absolute in the crises and traumas of our relativism?
The past may seem to be full of religious certainties but many of them were born of fear and maintained by the control of thought and information. Today’s emancipation embraces considerable levels of clinical pain, greater longevity and material comfort and an explosion of information and its practical application. However, such information needs not only to have free access but needs to be read and understood beyond individual opinion and cultural prejudice if difference is not to prove threatening and destructive. Hierarchies of truth must be recognised and shared, learnt and refined, and perhaps some even abandoned – but above all they must be visible and honoured in all our thinking.
Speaking of God inherently involves transcendence and the unknown – that strange and testing dialectic in any revelation and ensuing system of belief. Yet this, I believe, is what breaks through in the minutiae of daily living as well as the great issues of the day. The language that we use and share must involve the consistent commitment to our ignorance and mortality and our need for that meaning which comes from the unknown. Revelation and theology require the discipline and language that keeps us faithful to this end: close to the edge.
This short paper I hope will constitute part of my preparation for a larger work.
The certainty of uncertainty: openness to transcendence
I remember when I was very young being taken to Beachy Head and seeing Belle Tout, the old light house built in 1831, which by the mid 20th century perched precariously close to the cliff edge. We walked by it on the cliff side and this early experience of the ‘edge’ is one I have never forgotten. In March 1999 the entire structure was moved inland 17 metres (56 feet) and out of danger for perhaps 150 years.
Using this metaphor and the memory of the vertiginous precipice, I would like to explore some ways in which this openness to transcendence might unite and help us in speaking of God in the secular and multi–faith world of today.
The edge is where everything certain, materially substantial and malleable falls away. In spiritual and moral terms the edge is not what lies below but the vacuum which overwhelms all our powers and appears to destroy what we are, what we have and what we can create.
At the edge, God does not seem to underwrite our humanity and civilisation but to nullify it; at the same time it is the edge which mediates transcendence and gives the meaning to our human dimensions and understanding. It is from the ‘nothingness’ of God that his presence and his attributes can change and challenge and form a new way of living. In his book on mysticism Both Alike to Thee, Melvyn Matthews calls for a retrieval of the mystical way into the life of the Christian Church and its conversations about God in the contemporary world. “No longer should it feel the need to state the faith in such a way as only rational people can understand; no longer does human reason have to be the sole guardian of a reasonable faith; no longer are pre–modern realities automatically assumed to be superstitious realities. The modern, with its use of reason, can take its place as one of the tools by which faith is interpreted and expressed, one of the metaphors which are available for the exposition of the faith, one of the ways in which we come to understanding, but not, any longer, the sole way.” (Melvyn Matthews – Both Alike to Thee: Mysticism and the Postmodern p. 93).
But instead religion is tempted to occupy the certainties far from the edge and so develops a theology that answers every question and circumscribes all behaviour and eventuality. Nearly 35 years ago, Charles Davis, the Catholic theologian, wrote The Temptations of Religion in which he identified four areas which maroon the Church and the risk of faith far inland and ‘safe’ from the edge:
• The Lust for Certitude
• Cosmic Vanity (the claim to have privileged knowledge)
• The Pride of History (humankind’s glory in its own autonomy and historicity)
• The Anger of Morality (the insistence upon an established pattern of behaviour and thought for its own sake which chokes love and freedom)
All four temptations are worthy of deeper exploration but for the purposes of this essay, I can only visit the first. It is certitude that destroys the possibility for new questions and new answers in the light of the unknown truth that must be God. Davis puts it thus: “Even the scientific enterprise, dependent as it is upon empirical verification, would come to a halt if scientists insisted upon nothing less than certitude before proceeding further. …Religious thought, too, flourishes, not when the theologians are carefully weighing degrees of certitude …but when the religious community is actively concerned with understanding its faith in relation to the concrete data of its experience, individual and social.” (p.20) This experience of faith must involve the transcendence of God, and use language forged close to the edge.
Information and imagination: facts and mystery
At this stage I would like to introduce Thomas Gradgrind from Hard Times and Bill Bryson from the present times! Charles Dickens opens his novel in a dramatic and startling way in a classroom where cold objective fact is to reign. Imagination, creativity and any notion or experience of the transcendent is anathema. (See Appendix 1) Although a caricature from the Victorian world, it portrays the lust for certitude and the monopoly of certainty as an inevitable triumph for cruelty and lovelessness. Our language and conversations about God cannot be shaped in this way – tempting though it may be to speak only in the currency of what is objectively verifiable. By contrast, Bill Bryson in his book, A Short History of Nearly Everything opens with a description of our physical composition (See Appendix 2). The science may be factually accurate but the language has an openness and sense of mystery that brings warmth and humanity to the trillions of atoms and the 650,000 hours that constitute the outline of a human life. The facts are there but they teeter on the brink of a greater mystery and meaning: close to the edge.
An outspoken and challenging approach comes from those who now hold that God is a manmade notion so that there is no edge beyond our thinking and rationality. Language, they claim, is not to be shaped in any way by transcendence because it does not and cannot exist. Don Cupitt and the Sea of Faith network (the latter’s mission is "To explore and promote religious faith as a human creation") dismiss the transcendent as a fantasy, an invention, an illusion. Using the metaphor of the long–legged fly, Cupitt writes: “As soon as possible, we need a faith that is truly on the level and without illusions. It must all be cashed in terms of vibrations on the skin surface, where flesh meets word and feeling becomes meaning. That is what Christ is about ….As a religion of salvation, Christianity sought to unite what had previously been disjoined: the divine and the human, culture and nature, the holy and the common, meaning and sensuous feeling, spirit and flesh, language and the body. The aim was to produce the first–ever fully adult and emancipated human beings, active and capable, who could see life as it is and say Yes to it.” (The Long–Legged Fly p.p161–2) For Cupitt, the unknown is invention and yearning – and all language about God must take us far away from the edge and the mystery beyond us. The long–legged fly is the pond skater who makes its whole world out of vibrations on a surface. In its world of pond life, there is no edge, no God; “Like the pond skater’s world, our theology will have to be perfectly horizontal” (Don Cupitt – Author’s note ~ ibid). But does the horizontal have an end and edge? Is there life beyond the pond? Is language allowed to intimate those experiences that lie outside and beyond the purely rational and verifiable?
The Bible, Christ and the edge
The language of the Bible and its theology is far from perfectly horizontal and the created world is experienced as being afire with the spirit and presence of the living God. The veil between the known and the eternal, the mortal and the divine becomes thin and transparent in the language of patriarch and prophet. As soon as the transcendent is exchanged for the idol, and the awe of the edge is displaced by temporal security and selfish certainties, God is perceived to act, to punish and to vindicate. Tony Benn, on a number of occasions and in his book, Dare to be a Daniel, remembers how his mother, “when she read me Bible stories, always distinguished between the kings of Israel who exercised power and the prophets of Israel who preached righteousness”. In a graphic and neat way this identifies the difference between temporal glory and aggrandisement as an end in itself and the outsider who lives and speaks on the edge and warns the nation of the perils of apostasy. This is a constant tension in the pages of the Bible and Israel is constantly under judgement when it strays from the risk and provisionality of journeying and settling down.
In the New Testament, Jesus is the ‘Edge’ inasmuch as his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension are marked by that risk of giving up everything and living only for the Kingdom of God. His parables and teachings are all edge–centred and transpose the utilitarian meaning of our lives into the divine will by living with the presence of the transcendent Father. Although Jesus lived within the Law and the systematic theology of the Jews, his language, ‘kingdom language’, always propelled itself away from the power of intellectual and credal certainty into the risk of love and faith. All this leads to the challenge of our talk about God. It must be authentic and first hand in which personal and social commitment is strong and real yet it must also be open to the ‘edge’, the transcendence that qualifies our desire for security, superiority and assurance. In our dialogue with other faiths our conversations require a mutual courage and humility to face the unknown and the unknowable – and how that might subsist in the other’s certainties.
The laboratory of parish life!
Parish life is punctuated by the crises and milestones of life: it is here that people speak authentically of their experiences when the ‘edge’ opens up in birth, marriage, death and crisis. It is when certainties fall away as we experience changes beyond our control or even imagining that our language can be remade and renewed in terms of God and meaning and the possibility of annihilation. This precipice is essential to our experience of God and critically shapes our provisional and poetic language sharing revelation and meaning. This kind of language is not ammunition or defence or fantasy: this is the language that leads us and confronts the mystery of the edge and which is spoken in humility and trustfulness. And just as people’s lives encounter tragedy, testing and the unknown, so imagination and symbolic and non–verbal language speaks at depths below the surface of syntax and words. Art in its widest forms is the experience and intimation of transcendence; eg the language of music. Music is always incomplete, elusive, for it can only be heard through the passage of time and yet in its notation it is generally complete and its meaning is both entire and unfinished. Here is another language formed on the edge – teetering always on the knife–edge of the dissonance of chaos and meaninglessness. Music reaches out – beyond and below – the horizons and depths of rationality into another dimension and world.
Speaking about God
The edge is our frontier onto God who is that mystery which inhabits everything and without which everything would be pointless.
Sometimes the land of our certainties will open up with terrifying suddenness and confront us with our mortality, inadequacy and humanity. At other times we can move further and further away from the edge and consider ourselves ‘safe’ and unthreatened by the reality of the abyss. Art like faith propels us to the frontiers our humanity and understanding. In the issues that confront us at the start of this century, we need to rediscover the space and the paradox that allows the transcendent to be acknowledged. Information and wisdom need to coexist – and need to be honoured equally in all learning and powers. Dickens’ commented on Mr M’Choakumchild, the ‘model’ schoolmaster, If only he had learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more! Perhaps that is one lesson of the edge – and a practical one for the 21st century! Our factual knowledge too often smothers the transcendent and cuts us off from God and one another. Our language has to be edged–oriented and edge–formed when we speak of God. Such authenticity to the transcendent will always prove costly and pare down our baggage from that which brings comfort to the austere. The poet R.S. Thomas reminds us that as human beings we can do this: …”we have been given wings and a needle in the mind”, albeit a call to “respond to his bleak north”. What matter if we should not arrive to breed or to winter in the climate of our conception? What matter indeed? We can live close to the edge where there is light there all night long.
He is that great void
we must enter, calling
to one another on our way
in the direction from which
he blows. What matter
if we should never arrive
to breed or to winter
in the climate of our conception?
Enough we have been given wings
and a needle in the mind
to respond to his bleak north.
There are times even at the Pole
when he, too, pauses in his withdrawal
so that it is light there all night long.
R.S. Thomas – ‘Counterpoint’
From Hard Times ~ Charles Dickens
The One Thing Needful
“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”
Murdering The Innocents
‘Fact, fact, fact!’ said the gentleman. And ‘Fact, fact, fact!’ repeated Thomas Gradgrind.
‘You are to be in all things regulated and governed,’ said the gentleman, ‘by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact. You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery. You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls. You must use,’ said the gentleman, ‘for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.’
‘Now, if Mr M’Choakumchild,’ said the gentleman, ‘will proceed to give his first lesson here, Mr Gradgrind, I shall be happy, at your request, to observe his mode of procedure.’
Mr Gradgrind was much obliged. ‘Mr M’Choakumchild, we only wait for you.’
So, Mr M’Choakumchild began in his best manner. He and some one hundred and forty other schoolmasters, had been lately turned at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs. He had been put through an immense variety of paces, and had answered volumes of head–breaking questions. Orthography, etymology, syntax, and prosody, biography, astronomy, geography, and general cosmography, the sciences of compound proportion, algebra, land–surveying and levelling, vocal music, and drawing from models, were all at the ends of his ten chilled fingers. He had worked his stony way into Her Majesty’s most Honourable Privy Council’s Schedule B, and had taken the bloom off the higher branches of mathematics and physical science, French, German, Latin, and Greek. He knew all about all the Water Sheds of all the world (whatever they are), and all the histories of all the peoples, and all the names of all the rivers and mountains, and all the productions, manners, and customs of all the countries, and all their boundaries and bearings on the two and thirty points of the compass. Ah, rather overdone, M’Choakumchild. If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!
From Introduction to
A Short History of Nearly Everything ~ Bill Bryson
…for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an
intricate and curiously obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialised and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, co–operative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally under appreciated state known as existence.
Why atoms take this trouble is a bit of a puzzle. Being you is not a gratifying experience at the atomic level. For all their devoted attention, your atoms don’t actually care about you – indeed, don’t even know that they are there. They are mindless particles, after all, and not even themselves alive. (It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.) Yet somehow for the period of your existence they will answer to a single rigid impulse: to keep you you.
The bad news is that atoms are fickle – fleeting indeed. Even a long human life adds up to only about 650,000 hours. And when that modest milestone flashes into view, or at some other point thereabouts, for reasons unknown your atoms will close you down, then silently disassemble and go off to be other things. And that’s it for you.
CLOSE TO THE EDGE
GOD: THE EDGE IN THE MIDST OF OUR CERTAINTY
This paper looks at the tension that exists between the certainties of knowledge and the uncertainties of life and faith. Any language concerning God must involve the transcendence that lies in the mystery of the unknown. Using the image of the cliff edge it is proposed that all our language must be forged and used close to this unknown in our knowledge. Religion that relies on certitude ignores the experiences of the Bible, scientific research, everyday life and creative art. The unknowable is ever present and must shape our thinking in openness, wisdom and paradox. The paper argues that openness to transcendence might unite and help us in speaking of God in the secular and multi–faith world of today.
© Neil Thompson