Sunday, February 1, 2009

Dreamt of in Philosophy

[This is my response to Emily's post below. Please read her post in its entirety before you read my response. This post is dedicated to Emily Rains. Your patience, encouragement and critiques have been a blessing to me throughout our friendship. I look forward to our continued dialogue and my conversations with a treasured friend.]

"And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Hamlet Act 1, Scene 5, 165-167.

Yes. As I read Emily's essay, that was my first response. Absolutely. You understand. But what do you understand?

At first glance, much of your essay is set up in such a way as to assert my story as being an idol, an object of my own construction. You write: "God IS. We simply have to deal with that fact," that God is "infinite transcendence" and "only idols are constructed." I am open that the story I tell is a construction. Questions remain though - is the story merely my construction alone? AND is there room in my philosophical approach to be able to both assert the value of the story I tell as well as assert that it does not exhaust the meaning of God?

I believe the answer to the first question is "no," just as is the case with any story. The story I tell is just as much an extension of the communities and the localities I am a part of as it extends itself from me. Our stories extend beyond ourselves. Of course, this does nothing to counter your claim that such a story is still an idol. After all, whole localities and communities can be deceived.

I believe the answer to the second question is "yes." Consider the quote from Hamlet above. There is always a surplus of meaning beyond the stories we dream. My stories never claim to exhaust the nature of God. God is certainly transcendent over and beyond my stories. Life is more than a solipsistic hell. Life is more than just what our individual stories share. Our stories might glimpse the meaning of the "stranger," and in that they have value. Still, God is beyond our individual stories. It does us all well to remember that.

This is the difference between an idol and an eikon for me. Eikon is a popular word in greek, both amongst philosophers and in the Bible. An idol claims to be exhaustive of God. An eikon is an image of the prism of God, a glance at the stranger beyond our dreams.

The problem, of course, lies in the fact that I don't have access to that exhaustive, transcendent story. Emily also acknowledges she does not have access to the complete story - "we have not yet exhausted the task." So what are we supposed to do? We work with what we have. There is a different form of realism at work here - the acknowledgement on my part that we don't have all the answers. Do we give up? My answer is an emphatic "no." We must work with what we have. And so we story-tell.

You might notice that on first glance there is a real shift in the mode of the storyteller between Emily's story and mine. To Emily, the storyteller is God. For the story I tell, the nexus of the individual is the storyteller. My unusual realism creates this shift in emphasis - even if the "storyteller" of the world is God/potential, ultimately we simply cannot tell the story from God's perspective. We don't know what God's perspective might be like. It is like attempting to share in the perspective of another - I have known my brother, for example, for my whole life, and yet, still, (luckily for him, perhaps) I cannot always get into his head. Consider the stranger. "There are more things..."

As such, for both of us God/potential might be the storyteller of creation as a whole, but Emily and I are the storytellers here. The majority of Emily's essay (my post isn't mentioned for five pages after the introduction) is Emily presenting a counter-story to mine. That is what she understands, for me. If you don't like a story, (re)tell a new one.

Of course, there is much possible overlap between our stories. "This Christmas Day" never claimed to be exhaustive, and as Emily rightly points out, it is possible for the story to extend before the birth of Jesus (and after his death). There is much I will not mention in her story that I would be happy to embrace with my story(s).

As I read Emily's story, a theme seemed present to me - even if we are the storytellers of our human stories, God should always be seen as the center, THE storyteller. Emily does give room for human creation, but it is in a very specific role - that of reaction within relationship. Consider, a small list of a few subject/verbs in your essay - "Man rebelled," "Abraham obeyed," "He [Isaac] dreamt." Emily writes that we are in "awe" of God as a "soul-shaking experience" and that "only God could save." And yet within that experience of salvation (within God's domain) we are supposed to "hope in you [God]." "And thus man is faced with a choice."

Absolutely - we are faced with choice(s), choice(s) born in a (re)action toward God. What story will we tell? But it is not a matter of simply choosing God's story or choosing a story of our own. After all, the moment words leave our lips, to a certain degree, we have already made it our own (no matter the story). That is the blessing and curse of choice. Within our lack of knowledge we have a terrible (and liberating/creative) freedom. That freedom is responsibility. What story would we tell?

Emily, you understand - tell a story to counter another story. The question, of course, remains as to whether your story does successfully challenge mine. What is the authority, the values behind your story? Do they successfully pull the story I tell apart?

As far as I read it, your argument, Emily, is this - the story you tell is the story of tradition, while my story is not. For example you say that "He [God] has not changed," and "The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is still the Holy One of Israel." You extend the story of Christ so that your story gains authority for being rooted in tradition.

There are several problems within this argument, however. First, it is difficult for me to understand why "substitutionary atonement" and David's response to God are related. The story you tell does not necessarily hold together. I, too, value trust, Emily. Acting with trust toward God (as stranger), trust that tragedy will not consume us, trust that our individual stories are not the final words is critically important. However, what does that have to do with God murdering his son for a cruel and vindictive sense of absurd honor?

Secondly, which tradition? There is no unitary whole that holds the world of Christian tradition together. In fact, there had already been several interpretations of the crucifixion before Anselm told the story of substitutionary atonement. Which tradition should we choose? And why? We need to know what traditions to hold as authoritative before we respond with "meek obedience." Who is the stranger that is God? Who is the stranger we have relationship with?

The choices keep revealing themselves. We all have choices to make. You write that it is my "arrogance to make [my] own god and tell [my] own story." You then write that it is "this arrogance [that] lies hidden throughout much of [my] story as [I] cover the safe and unthreatening parts of God's story." I sense poetry - for you what I hide is exactly what I reveal. I reveal safety, the security-blanket God for what it is - a falsehood. It is a falsehood because it keeps us from owning up to our responsibility - the impossible responsibility we have, that we are burdened with. We have choice.

What you see as arrogance, Emily, I see as responsibility. We, as humans, must own up to the fact that we have choices to make, that we have responsibility. That responsibility is not something I take pride in, nor is it something that I am happy to be "arrogant" about. It is a burden we must all live into. We don't have the answers. It isn't in our capacity to know. And so we act and story-tell with what we have. All with the hope that our (re)actions and stories hint toward the stranger that is God. You understand Emily, because your act of storytelling in your essay is exactly that - a grasping in the dark toward God. We grasp together.

To you, "[I] have had the arrogance to tell God who he is and what he wrote." I don't believe that for one moment. Every day, I pray to God for the courage to (re)act toward God, to meet God as stranger. It is that or the void. The void can be tempting at times. Grasping in the dark is exhausting. But the courage God gives me does not allow me to give up. We must not give up simply because we are stuck within our own finite perspectives as storytellers. We must not give up. I cannot give up, because I too "worship... a God who was [is/will be] bigger than any of [my] stories."

And within that grasping, Emily, let it be known that I am not afraid of power. I am afraid of meaninglessness. Call it stubbornness, but even if a omnipotent being that could eliminate me without a trace told me to do an evil act, I would not. Emily, if Satan had set the rules, would you worship him? All we can speak of is "what ought to be." If that condemns us, so be it. At least we will have lived a life of meaning rather than power. Considering that Paul writes that God is a God of the ta me onta, of the powerless and the foolish, of the outcasts, I have to believe that God works with us in our search for meaning (rather than against it). After all, our search for meaning is filled with enough tragedy already.

Ultimately, you write: "Perhaps it would be more accurate to draw a picture of a mighty warrior holding a hollering infant in his firm grasp, his mother left without breath, eyes glued to her child." Call it an idol, call it an eikon, but that mighty warrior is not God, even if that mighty warrior "is." The mighty warrior, militaristic and consumed by power (and nothing else) is the meaningless void. Gripped by it, we struggle on. Our struggling might be futile. And yet, we must not give into the void, into meaningless. Meanwhile, the mother is God, sharing in our suffering, "left without breath, eyes glued to her child." The mother is God, horrified by the death of her son on the cross. That God might not have the coercive power that the mighty warrior has, the dangerously fascinating, crippling pull of the void. Ultimately, though, as you point out, we have choices to make. And I will continue to pray to God for the courage to choose the mother every single time. And as we pray to God for what ought to be, like Job, and find no voice come out of the whirlwind, it is not because God is not there, or because God is the warrior. Instead, it is because God is breathless.

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