Questions and Answers: Theological Thought of the Day

Today was a really beautiful, if cold, Seattle day so I'm just back from a few hours spent ruminating and perambulating in Discovery Park. Here's a part of where it took me:

One of the fundamental questions of human existence is "What is worth giving my life to/for?" Most people, I'd guess, ask the question at some point. Probably a lesser majority also find an answer to it that they're satisfied with, which gives life a sense of meaning, purpose, and mission. Happiness, family, community, truth, beauty, money, power, self-improvement, sex, church, music, whatever. Most of us will eventually get disillusioned with whatever it is that we give our lives to, b/c none of it ever makes life perfect - only better than the alternatives, at best. Some of us will find out that our answers were way off, which sucks. Most probably plug along in life, more satisfied than not.

Religious types have a generally clever response to the question, because they give their life to "that which is greater and more perfect than anything that can be imagined". There's a real sense that this perfect 'purpose' can't ultimately let you down - if it seems to, the problem is a failure of imagination rather than a failure of God, or whatever you happen to call it. I think this is an essential characteristic of at least Christian religion. God is greater than your understanding.

Looking at the Christian Church from this perspective, I think we're living in times when we're collectively realizing that our imagination has failed and that we've lost our religious way.

1) A certain type of liberal is a Christian who has given up or lost faith in that 'greater' principle - they've found "God", or our perception thereof, wanting, and have shifted their allegiance to something else Christian-y - social justice, The Church as an institution, the Christian community, spiritual fulfillment, etc. This type of Christian is maybe a bit too arrogant - they think that they can imagine 'the thing that is greater than anything that can be imagined', and find that it isn't that great after all, and probably isn't even real. Or, maybe they just never caught the religious vision of a purpose that is greater than they can imagine, and have found that giving their lives to an imaginable God is disappointing. Or, maybe they just haven't been looking for 'purpose' in religion, or haven't found anything there worth giving their lives for.

2) A certain type of conservative has a strong commitment to the 'greater', and a strong sense of purpose, but they've gotten it wrong because they've convinced themselves that they can imagine the unimaginable as well, and are certain about what the unimaginable is. They've gotten away with it for awhile, because no one (not even themself) could demonstrably refute their claims about the unimaginable. Nowadays though they're sitting on a timebomb. Their imagined God has visible holes that they can't keep denying personally or publicly. The thing that they've given their life to is going to be exposed as a falsehood. It was an intellectual Golden Calf, after all - a representation of something that didn't live up to the reality.

3) Whatever our disappointments with life, the 'greater', of course, is still greater than we can imagine - a carrot dangling in front of our face that we aren't going to catch, but that might be worth chasing. It might make us better, or stronger, or bring us closer to the truth. And it might allow us to take all of those other things that give our lives meaning (happiness, family, community, truth, beauty, money, power, self-improvement, sex, church, music, whatever) and put them in their proper place so they can continue to feed us, rather than leaving us cold and disappointed. That 'greater' thing might humble liberals and conservatives and emergents and Catholics and Orthodox and agnostics and atheists all, and provide us again with something worth giving our lives to.

Job 40:6 Then the LORD spoke to Job out of the storm:

7 "Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.

8 "Would you discredit my justice?
Would you condemn me to justify yourself?

9 Do you have an arm like God's,
and can your voice thunder like his?

10 Then adorn yourself with glory and splendor,
and clothe yourself in honor and majesty.

11 Unleash the fury of your wrath,
look at every proud man and bring him low,

12 look at every proud man and humble him,
crush the wicked where they stand.

13 Bury them all in the dust together;
shroud their faces in the grave.

14 Then I myself will admit to you
that your own right hand can save you.

15 "Look at the behemoth,
which I made along with you
and which feeds on grass like an ox.

16 What strength he has in his loins,
what power in the muscles of his belly!

17 His tail sways like a cedar;
the sinews of his thighs are close-knit.

18 His bones are tubes of bronze,
his limbs like rods of iron.

19 He ranks first among the works of God,
yet his Maker can approach him with his sword.

20 The hills bring him their produce,
and all the wild animals play nearby.

21 Under the lotus plants he lies,
hidden among the reeds in the marsh.

22 The lotuses conceal him in their shadow;
the poplars by the stream surround him.

23 When the river rages, he is not alarmed;
he is secure, though the Jordan should surge against his mouth.

24 Can anyone capture him by the eyes,
or trap him and pierce his nose?

41:1 "Can you pull in the leviathan with a fishhook
or tie down his tongue with a rope?

2 Can you put a cord through his nose
or pierce his jaw with a hook?

3 Will he keep begging you for mercy?
Will he speak to you with gentle words?

4 Will he make an agreement with you
for you to take him as your slave for life?

5 Can you make a pet of him like a bird
or put him on a leash for your girls?

6 Will traders barter for him?
Will they divide him up among the merchants?

7 Can you fill his hide with harpoons
or his head with fishing spears?

8 If you lay a hand on him,
you will remember the struggle and never do it again!

9 Any hope of subduing him is false;
the mere sight of him is overpowering.

10 No one is fierce enough to rouse him.
Who then is able to stand against me?

11 Who has a claim against me that I must pay?
Everything under heaven belongs to me.

12 "I will not fail to speak of his limbs,
his strength and his graceful form.

13 Who can strip off his outer coat?
Who would approach him with a bridle?

14 Who dares open the doors of his mouth,
ringed about with his fearsome teeth?

15 His back has [b] rows of shields
tightly sealed together;

16 each is so close to the next
that no air can pass between.

17 They are joined fast to one another;
they cling together and cannot be parted.

18 His snorting throws out flashes of light;
his eyes are like the rays of dawn.

19 Firebrands stream from his mouth;
sparks of fire shoot out.

20 Smoke pours from his nostrils
as from a boiling pot over a fire of reeds.

21 His breath sets coals ablaze,
and flames dart from his mouth.

22 Strength resides in his neck;
dismay goes before him.

23 The folds of his flesh are tightly joined;
they are firm and immovable.

24 His chest is hard as rock,
hard as a lower millstone.

25 When he rises up, the mighty are terrified;
they retreat before his thrashing.

26 The sword that reaches him has no effect,
nor does the spear or the dart or the javelin.

27 Iron he treats like straw
and bronze like rotten wood.

28 Arrows do not make him flee;
slingstones are like chaff to him.

29 A club seems to him but a piece of straw;
he laughs at the rattling of the lance.

30 His undersides are jagged potsherds,
leaving a trail in the mud like a threshing sledge.

31 He makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron
and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment.

32 Behind him he leaves a glistening wake;
one would think the deep had white hair.

33 Nothing on earth is his equal—
a creature without fear.

34 He looks down on all that are haughty;
he is king over all that are proud."