The Wager: A Re-Frame That Mattered

July 31, 2017

Religion is what people do with their wonder.  — Abraham Heschel

From my perch in aging, now a distant eighteen years from retirement, I am amazed. I am astounded by the wager we make. You and I have this in common: we have bet our lives on a reality we cannot measure or control or prove or name precisely. This reality, in the words of Rudolph Otto, is mysterium tremendum et fascinans: mystery that makes us tremble with awe, shakes us up, yet ever lures us forward with fascination. Furthermore, you and I wager that this mystery, most clear in Jesus of Nazareth, is a Love from which nothing in life or death, now or later can separate us. In other words, you wager that reality in its essence is relational, inter-connective, oneness, love-energy, shalom. And, as if that is not wonder enough, this gracious mystery wants to be incarnated or embodied in us.

So strong was this fascination that you staked your vocational life on this invisible Spirit that, like the wind, blows where it wills. Daily you gamble with what you have, your life energy. Daily you place your bet with the coins of your time — 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 hours a week; 20, 30 even for some 50, 60, 70 years of your life — declaring a wager that can look foolish in a world that distrusts what’s not explainable. You surrender. You doubt. You adore. You wonder. You stammer. You accept being “fingers pointing to the Moon” — so you point. You witness. This fact remains: Without the existence and our experience of this mysterious Spirit our vocation collapses into folly.

Will Campbell was a maverick Baptist in my time. Once I was in a group of pastors where Will was present. The conversation turned toward an “ain’t it awful” direction. Will, it seems, weary of the clergy complaining, proceeded to stop the bitching session in its tracks. “Well, as I see it,” speaking in his drawn out Southern drawl, “life is a horse race. And I’m bettin’ on Jesus.” While the mystery remains with multiple interpretations of Jesus, nevertheless you and I keep looking to Jesus as our way, our truth-full witness and our clue to abundant living. In short: you keep bettin’ on Jesus, so much so, you serve the church that called you to be his body in the world. Amazing. Absolutely amazing.

This re-frame, a full-of-mystery wager, stoked by radical amazement, surfaced with clarity for me against the backdrop of its opposite — my denomination’s ideological turn toward “certainty.” For this re-frame it’s important to understand this context. In the 1980s and 90’s a fundamentalist arm of Southern Baptists gradually, deliberately seized control by establishing doctrinal norms, the primary one being the infallibility of Scripture. Denominational agencies, including seminaries, were required to affirm a doctrinal statement of faith. This set of beliefs served as a knife that divided those “in” from those “out,” the faithful from unfaithful, truth from error. I felt the sharp edge of this knife, so much so, the congregation I served was cut from its denomination’s ties in 1992. I was also dismissed as an adjunct professor at a near-by seminary. I, and those like me, were deemed cancer to the body and must be cut out.

This was my learning: up close I saw the danger of religion that hardens its arteries in the form of set beliefs. Mystery is forfeited. Wonder is silenced. “Right” beliefs thrive on certainty, fueled by binary thinking with its either/or, right/wrong, in/out, true/false ways of seeing. And, this as well, belief systems require opposition to stay alive. Advocates for their own belief system enter the battle for “truth” with self-sacrificial allegiance.

During that fundamentalist takeover a gift dropped into my lap. In 1983 I was introduced to the life and thought of Rabbi Abraham Heschel through his book, Man Is Not Alone, loaned to me by a member of the congregation. That book and his other writings re-awakened in me what was being depreciated by my family of faith — the awesome wonder of faith, hope and love that had summoned me in the first place. We hear Heschel’s voice in these few quotes.

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement . . . get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

“The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted. Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin. Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious man’s attitude toward history and nature.”

“Only one response can maintain us: gratefulness for witnessing the wonder, for the gift of our unearned right to serve, to adore, and to fulfill. It is gratefulness which makes the soul great.”

A personal story captures the heart of his witness. Heschel, from a long line of hasidic rabbis, spent most of his years as teacher and writer at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. When he was coming toward the end of his life his rabbi friend, Samuel Dresner, visits him. Dresner writes: “Heschel spoke slowly and with effort . . . ‘I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And You [Yahweh] gave it to me.’” Religion, as he noted, is what we do with that wonder.

In retirement I came across James P. Carse’s book, The Religious Case Against Belief. Carse illuminates some important nuances of wonder in his distinguishing three types of ignorance.

  • Ordinary ignorance is simply not knowing. We don’t know who will be the next President or who will win the World Series next year or when we will die.
  • Willful ignorance is choosing not to know. We may choose not to hear the news of a bad diagnosis or see the contradictions in Scripture or admit the verification of global warming. We can close our eyes or refuse to listen to what we don’t want to see or hear.
  • Higher ignorance, Carse suggests, is learned curiosity about what we don’t know. It’s the “wondering about” that fuels scientists, philosophers, and yes, theologians and preachers. This perspective invites us to lead with inquisitive questions, not answers. Only from “not knowing” can we reach for the understanding we don’t possess. Higher ignorance exchanges the certainty of right-believing for paradox, curiosity and mystery. The risks of faith, Carse insists, do not guarantee safe, conclusive conclusions. Rather, they assure the exhilaration of creativity and new learning.

With the witness of Heschel and Carse highlighting the wager we keep making, how then might this re-frame translate into ministry? I suggest two opposite postures. You can either lean in or step back.

Leaning in means leading from curious questions, admitting, even valuing the stance of not-knowing. In preaching you publicly, and with a playful curiosity, lean into the connection between the storied, biblical text and the storied life of congregants. In pastoral care you lean in with curious questions, probing with the parishioner into what new territory their crisis may be taking them. In committee meetings you lean in from a not-knowing position with curious questions that invite creative solutions. In pastoral conversations you lean in, asking open-ended queries, experiencing the wonder of where the vulnerable exchanges take you, the other, and your relationship. Or coming up close, very close to a flower, butterfly, weed or any one aspect of nature, you and I cannot help but marvel at its beauty and complexity.

Or, you can step back allowing the radical amazement of any situation to sink in. Have you ever stepped back from glancing through the church directory or from scanning the congregation on a Sunday morning and felt the wonder of it all — all these people choosing to volunteer their time, money, love energy in common cause, making church possible? Have you ever paused for even a moment in the pulpit with Bible before a congregation and pondered the miracle of this 2,000 year old narrative in your hand or the miracle of your worship space bequeathed by those not present? And if we step way, way back we can’t suppress the awe over being a very recent species, arriving the last 30 minutes if we imagine evolution as a 12-month calendar. Have you ever walked away from a family, whether profoundly grieving or celebrating, asking yourself, “How can people love so deeply and be loved so profoundly? Where does such capacity come from?” What mystery! What grace, what gift!

This practice you can do any time and from any place: stepping back, pausing, focusing and noticing the breath-taking gift of what or who is before you. Immediately you go to that place of wonder, radical amazement. You may even hear yourself saying, “This wonders me — this thing, this person, these persons wonder me!”

You and I are in the mystery business. We work with realities — love, life, faith, trust, community, grace, forgiveness, hope — that we cannot measure or prove or name with certainty. In the spirit of Rabbi Heschel, we could say, “I asked for wonder and God gave it to me in a vocation.”

But we cannot live and serve from wonder and mystery alone. We must risk words and Word becoming flesh, only to fall short every time. This is what we do. We wager. We wager on the mystery with our lives. We wonder at the mystery, yes, but also wager on its Truth. We lean into life with curiosity and occasionally step back in awe. Over time this posture became a new way of framing the complex ministry we offer.

 


Evolution: A Re-frame That Mattered

June 20, 2016

The picture frame: God and evolution at opposite corners. The re-frame: God within evolution as the meta-narrative, an umbrella story into which the Christian narrative is folded.

For the first half of my ministry the understanding of God and the understanding of our evolving universe co-existed, with little interaction between the two. During my first years as pastor, the concept of evolution seldom showed up in my sermons or teaching. It was there as a background story, acknowledged but seldom connecting with life experience. Occasionally, if pressed by a Creationist, I would defend my view of creation as unfolding over millenniums. It was a “soft” belief, one which I knew to be well-documented by contemporary scientists.

What a shock it must have been during the late Middle Ages for humans to hear, “You are no longer the center of the universe!” This startling truth—the earth revolving around the sun—shattered our primal place within a presumed stable, orderly world. During the centuries that followed the church was largely in denial about this discovery, while at the same time science emerged, triumphantly solidifying our evolving as humans in an evolving universe. Even the sun lost its prominence, becoming but one of countless suns within countless galaxies.

Picture the vastness of evolution compressed into 100 years, a schema perhaps familiar to you. The Big Bang occurred in the first year, then after about 67 years our solar system is formed, with us, the human species, appearing around the 99th year. That leaves the birth of Jesus occurring during the last hours, which, in turn, leaves me with my mouth wide open in radical amazement. Imagine that! Christianity and other faith traditions are recent—just getting started, we could say. You and I serve an early, early church. Could there be a more abrupt shift in perspective?

My turn toward this re-frame—the evolving universe as meta-narrative—began with Claude Stewart, a nearby professor, who I asked in 1987 to deepen my understanding of “process theology.” My first assignment took me by surprise. “Read Report to Greco by Nikos Kazantzakis,” he said. Claude in his wisdom didn’t want us to begin with an intellectual discussion of theory. First, he invited me to experience “process,” to feel it in my bones, know it viscerally, and encounter its throbbing dynamism. He wanted the starting point to be the awe, power, and beauty of evolution. Kazantzakis’ poetic grasp of evolution did just that. I’ll quote part of it.

Blowing through heaven and earth, and in our hearts and the heart of every living thing, is a gigantic breath—a great Cry—which we call God. Plant life wished to continue its motionless sleep next to stagnant water, but the Cry leaped up within it and violently shook its roots: “Away, let go of the earth, walk!” Had the tree been able to think and judge, it would have cried, “I don’t want to. What are you urging me to do! You are demanding the impossible! But the Cry, without pity, kept shaking its roots and shouting, “Away, let go of the earth, walk!”

It shouted in this way for thousands of eons; and lo! As a result of desire and struggle, life escaped the motionless tree and was liberated.

Animals appeared—worms—making themselves at home in water and mud. “We are just fine here,” they said. “We have peace and security; we’re not budging!”

But the terrible Cry hammered itself pitilessly into their loins. “Leave the mud, stand up, give birth to your betters!”

“We don’t want to! We can’t.”

“You can’t, but I can. Stand up!”

And lo! After thousands of eons, man emerged, trembling on his still unsolid legs. Man calls in despair, “Where can I go?”

And the Cry answers, “I am beyond. Stand up!”

This Cry, this pitiless hammering in our loins, the Beyond luring us forward—don’t you feel it at times? You know that fiery mixture of fear and excitement welling up within, whispering or shouting sometimes, “Wake up. Leave your comfort zone. Risk. Stand up. Give birth to your betters!”

Your mother felt this Cry. So did my mother. At our births each one heard the Cry. While fearing, “I can’t do this! This is too hard, too painful!” they heard the counter Cry rising within them: “You can. Let go. Yield to the struggle. Embrace the pain. Don’t hold back. Give birth to ‘your betters.’ Welcome the new life coming through you!”

You felt that Cry when you decided for the first time to stand up on your own two legs. It was a micro moment of defying fear by choosing the risk of walking over the comfort of crawling. It was the same Cry calling you to courage when you risked preaching your first sermon, when you vowed “yes” at your ordination, when you risked rejection within an important personal relationship for a deeper acceptance and intimacy, or when you took a stand out of integrity in the face of inner voices shouting, “No. Don’t do it. We’re just fine here. Don’t disturb us.” Yet, you heeded a different voice, and, to your surprise, your self-confidence thickened. The feared catastrophe likely didn’t happen. This is the process that occurs when you “give birth to your betters.”

You can almost hear this Cry pounding in the heart of a trapeze artist: the risk of letting go of one bar, feeling the “up in the air” anxious suspension, yet trusting the new bar coming toward you. It’s the metaphor I turn to when I think of evolution: the summons—to risk failure for a higher stage, to risk discomfort for the sake of integrity, to risk misunderstanding for a more complex, deeper mutuality. It’s the Cry, a gigantic breath “blowing through heaven and earth, and in our hearts and in the heart of every living thing,” a force some of us call God and Spirit.

This re-frame shifted my perspective in multiple directions. My understanding of evolution evolved as God within evolution became the meta-narrative. You gain a sense of this shifting from these short paragraphs.

  • If time is imagined as a long corridor, then this evolving universe blew away the backdoor on my sense of history. Our human capacity for transcendence is comparably recent.
  • Creation did not happen; creation is happening. Nothing is ordered, fixed and stable; life is dynamic, chaotic, devolving, evolving, ever more complex, demanding ever more collaboration. At our best, we are co-creators with God in an unfinished universe.
  • Our planet, the beautiful blue ball pictured from outer space as whole, undivided, is the mythic symbol of our age.
  • Reality is relational, interconnected, systemic, fluid, ever evolving on all levels from micro to macro within an expanding universe. Separation is an illusion.
  • God is active within our evolving creation; our evolving creation is within God (pan-en-theism). God is the Cry, the Lure, the summoning life-force of Love—Love as eros, desiring to connect creatively; as philia, forming covenant partnerships; and as agape, radical self-giving to the “other,” the neighbor “as yourself.” God is the subject of Love, glowing and active in and through our relationships.
  • The Spirit is divine Love-in-action. Evolution is Spirit-in-action, a Ken Wilber phrase.
  • Jesus, Life-giver, icon of the fully human, is the divine Cry incarnated, giving body, mind, and soul to this movement toward the fullness of shalom.
  • Church is those who desire and allow the Love embodied in Jesus to be embodied in them, his Body in the world.
  • Prayer is surrendering to and partnering with this divine movement toward justice and right relationships (shalom), allowing ourselves to be transformed in the process.
  • Meditation is an inner muscle builder, a repeated practice of letting go the inner noise of anxious mental thoughts, past or future, and falling into the heart space of “belovedness,” our true human nature, our deepest identity.
  • Worship, from a place of awe, is our self-offering to the God movement toward shalom.
  • Hope is standing back, way, way back, far enough to see the vastness of evolution with its repeated patterns of death and resurrection, dying and rising, the Paschal Mystery and its movement toward increasing complexity and collaboration in the direction of wholeness. My hope is in those who hear and heed this summoning Cry, feeling it, questioning it, fearing it, and who finally, over and over again, yield to its call to “give birth to their betters.”

I am not proposing determinism. We experience both the pull of evolution and the force of devolution. Extinctions are occurring. From self-destructive and earth-destructive behavior, we homo sapiens might be the next. Yet, evolution will not end. Death never has the last word. Life keeps coming out of death—a conviction formed from my understanding of the Gospel, my trust in the Cry, and my understanding of evolution.

Recently some elder friends and I were lamenting the current state of affairs. The conversation bounced around the table. “Democracy is gone. Let’s face it. We have an oligarchy—the few with wealth, political power calling the shots,” said one friend. Another bemoaned international crises, saying “I can’t stand watching nations implode, with thousands of refugees fleeing for safety. I see no solution.” Still another reminded us of our founders’ choice—a messy political process over the option of tyranny—and despaired, “Yet now in the last decade people are elected to obstruct the political process as a way to sabotage the other political party.” The chorus claiming our voices was “Ain’t it awful! Ain’t it awful!”

On and on it went. After a while I asked my friends, “Well, what gives you hope?” Like a boomerang the question came back, “Well, Mahan, what gives you hope?”

I told them about the Cry. It’s been a re-frame that’s mattered.

 

For further reading:

The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love, by Ilia Delio