Friday, October 13, 2006

The Healing Pain of Our Divisions II

Even supposing that rationalism, for example, might allow earnest theologians to"prove" the existence of God; if the God who emerges from such an exercise is a tyrant who condemns the vast majority of humanity to hellfire, then theology is left gazing into the mirror of its own elegance, while onlookers are inclined to respond with amusement, indifference, or revulsion.

It might be argued that raising such an issue is itself a demonstration of why theological and clerical training have been kept formally split for the last two hundred years. But I would like to suggest instead that this attitude exposes the underlying contempt of academia for pastoral concerns. Cultured by resentment in the seminary medium, this contempt spills over from pastors to their flocks. Ironically, the grassroots ecumenical movement has flourished in part by awakening to and discarding this yoke of contempt.

Blessing has thus issued from the very brokenness and divisions of theology itself. Indeed, it could be said that one constant element in Christian theology and polity that creates the climate in which divisions become necessary is the compulsive need to create a closed and static aesthetic of denial in pursuit of a specious purity. What is denied is the paradox of the fundamental sign that lies at the heart of Christianity, and its embrace of the reality of ambiguity in creation in all its mysterious diversity.

Without paradox and ambiguity and their accompanying fluidity, we live in closed systems, and there is no freedom—or salvation—in a closed system. We need to remember that one of the earliest meanings of the world "salvation" in Hebrew is deliverance into an open space—an open space with all of its unknowns, and that the hubris of every age is the presumption that we can acquire and correctly evaluate all the information we need to control what is ineffable.

It is arguable that the mystery of creation has an intrinsic aesthetic that far surpasses man-made syntheses, and that the source of this beauty lies, in part, in its elusive qualities. One reason that environmental questions are inherently theological issues is that, if we lose beauty, the beauty of diversity, the beauty of unique organisms, the beauty of empty space and untrammeled wilderness, we lose, as philosopher Erazim Kohàk has pointed out, a context that is greater than ourselves.

The importance of this context is precisely that it is not a human artifact. It is a context where human pain can become part of a larger whole and transfigured. In an artificial environment, pain can only be confronted and dealt with as a problem whose solution is anaesthesia, distraction, or management.

The same principle applies to every aspect of our lives, especially our lives in churches that are supposed to offer us transfiguration through liturgy, and the theology that underlies liturgy. If we fill up all the silence and all the empty space in the world, if we lose beauty by trying to nail everything down into artificial constructs and eliminate the elusive transcendent, that is, the context greater than our selves, then we have nowhere to take our pain.


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