Mobius

The other day, when I was lost in the backwoods of Kentucky, I received a call from my sister. I was driving back from work at church, my mind filled with thoughts from the previous week, when I realized that the exit which I needed to take on the highway was three or four back. Faced with heading straight on to Cincinnati, I turned off the road at the next exit and began picking my way back west on some winding Kentucky back roads.

The car wound its way through rolling hills and fields filled with corn, its meandering nature following the same course as my mind as it twisted this way and that. After a wandering the country, I noticed that my tank was hovering just above empty. As a gas station appeared, I pulled in and got out.

The smell of gasoline filled the air and mingled with the sound of crickets and the frogs which made their home in and around the Ohio River. Some folk music was gently piped in under the florescent lights of the gas station. I would have stayed a bit longer to listen and watch the sun set had my phone in my car not rang.

As I climbed in and continued my return home, I picked up the call. It had been a couple of weeks since my sister and I had caught up. I smiled as we shot the breeze for a bit. After getting me up to date on things back in New England, she switched the topic.

“Have you ever heard of Rachel Held Evans?” she asked. “I just discovered her and this book I just finished by her just has been incredible.”

“Really?” I asked as I slowed to a stop at a four-way intersection. “How so?”

“Basically, the one big take-away from the book is, and I know this sounds obvious but, bear with me here. It’s that there are multiple ways to interpret Scripture.”

There was a moment of silence as I felt laughter bubbling up in my chest. After chuckling for a few seconds, I apologized, and explained, “Kristen, you wouldn’t believe it, but I find myself learning and re-learning this constantly. If this is the first time you’ve encountered Evans’ work, you have a treat ahead of you.”

The light turned green and I continued down the road, disappearing around another cornfield a few moments later.

Several years ago, I remember sitting down with my older brother over a discovery he had made. As a math and physics person, my brother and I don’t always see eye to eye – in part because we’ve been trained that way. An elegant equation looks like gobbledygook to me. To him, it’s meaningful in some way.

In his hands, Dave had a length of paper, cut to be about an inch wide. He took the paper and twisted it one hundred and eighty degrees once before taping it together. The result was a rather odd shape.

“This,” he began, “is a Mobius strip.”

“The cool thing about this is that it only has one side.”

My mouth dropped open. “What? You’re lying. It obviously has two.”

Dave offered me a pen.

“Try and draw a single continuous line and you’ll see I’m right.”

After making my way around the strip, I was shocked to see that waiting for me at the other end was the line I started with. I flipped the strip over. The pen’s trail was still there. Dave was right.

“Now here’s the kicker,” he continued. “Imagine that you were a two-dimensional person who lived on the Mobius Strip called a Flatlander. You would have no idea that you’re flipping. It’s all flat to you. But perspective matters, as we can see what’s happening in three dimensions.”

Something clicked in my mind. “It’s kind of like living in a cave all your life and seeing the sun for the first time.”

Dave furrowed his brow.

“I mean, I guess. Whatever floats your boat.”

My mind’s been going in circles recently. Or rather, been thinking on them. Perhaps as I drive along winding country roads outside of Louisville and work with people with vastly different backgrounds and life experience as me, it’s causing me to reflect on perspective. And after a summer’s worth of reflection, I have increasingly come to the conclusion that I am a maniac. Or rather, I’ve always been. I’m just becoming more aware of it.

G. K. Chesterton makes the observation that maniacs are deemed so not because of their lack of reason, but because of their perfection of it. “The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactorily […] Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is just as infinite as a large circle; but though it is infinite, it is not so large. In the same way, the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not as large.” For the madman or -woman, the explanations that they create are systematic and complete. But for those who find themselves more clued in on the reality of things, it seems as though the madman or -woman is missing out on so much more.

The theologian Frederick Buechner observed that theology is just like a dung beetle taking up a study of humans with the goal of understanding everything there is to know about them. “If so,” he concludes, “we would probably be more touched and amused than irritated. One hopes that God feels likewise.” When we arrive at the notion that, while God wants to be known and does so most clearly through the person of Christ, and yet simultaneously cannot be fully comprehended as a beetle cannot fully comprehend the complexity of a human person, we realize that in a certain way, we humans have constructed, over the course of many centuries and with the work of many careful and reflective theologians, circles of our own making. We’re Flatlanders, trying to make sense of a three-dimensional reality. When we hold to one school of thought to the exclusion of others, I think that God sees us as maniacs. Or maniacs trying our best.

The nice thing is that special revelation provides us with some correlation of the bigger picture, we hope. Experience typically reinforces this notion. And yet, I must confess that oftentimes we struggle to encompass all of it because we are finite creatures in a universe that is vastly other. While I believe that there are absolutes, I’m realizing that approaching those absolutes are a much harder task than modernity had led us to believe.

Evans writes that “when you stop trying to force the Bible to be something it’s not—static, perspicacious, certain, absolute—then you’re free to revel in what it is: living, breathing, confounding, surprising, and yes, perhaps even magic […] ‘The adventure,’ wrote Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky in Reading the Book, lies in ‘learning the secrets of the palace, unlocking all the doors and perhaps catching a glimpse of the King in all His splendor.’”

This, I believe, inspires humility. I trust and, I would think, know experientially that what I have received in faith is true, it also reminds me that the universe, Scripture, and the Creator it reveals is a much more complicated and multifaceted reality than the way I thought they were like back in my earlier days. Using Scripture as a window to this greater reality, then, logically would generate several meanings when viewed from different places—different rooms in the palace—as we constantly grapple with God.

Here’s hoping that, like Jacob, we might not let go until God blesses us. And may it cause us to walk differently.

These Word Games We Play With The Wildness of God

“Be still and know that I am God.”[1]

 

Contrary to popular belief given my penchant to utilize excessively polysyllabic and absurdly convoluted expressions within my dialoguing among my peers, I suck at playing Scrabble. I’m simply terrible at it. When it came to game night in my family’s household, I was never one to mince words. Instead of strategizing with how to budget my tiles, I would try and create the longest word possible each and every time. Eventually, I would be left with a bunch of consonants spelling out nothing but gibberish.

What a concept.

If I can be honest, there are nights when I wonder whether the Bible we read is nothing more than gibberish on a Scrabble board when considering the universe.

I have been having trouble reading Scripture lately. When much of one’s day is spent talking about God, thinking about God, studying God’s Word and the many peculiarities within it, it is hard to simply sit and open Scripture as something which is a living text that wants to speak to me. Most days, when I do crack open my Bible to read it devotionally, the words glare back unblinkingly, its eyes glossy to me.

Sometimes I wonder if I am just an infant trying to play Scrabble with God. Across the table, he would sit, with all his letters and words ready to play, while I remain in my high chair, a Q-tile stuck in my mouth without a thought in my mind even close to comprehending the notion of “Q-ness,” let alone the rules of the game. And no matter hard I tried, I could not find it in me to perceive the eternal truths which God had spelled out for me – as well as the fact that he just got a triple word score.

On some nights, I doubt whether Scripture’s claim on accurately describing some element of any objective truth is feasible at all.

Postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty once stated that “To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations…”[2] When we do not have the words to describe something, it cannot be judged as true or false. Part of the purpose of the sciences is to observe and hypothesize systems which can assimilate new phenomena which we lacked words to describe prior to that point. When we have no words for something, we are blind to it. “The world is out there,” Rorty concluded, “But descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false.”[3]

Now, while I am prone to disagree with Rorty on some of his later arguments in his book, I have to agree with his notion here. There is no view from nowhere.[4] Every time we speak, we draw upon our own prior experiences and use language to express what we mean. The universe in and of itself is not true or false—as if something can be falsely existing on its own—but our attempts at interpreting the universe around us can be. Language, as I stated before, is a self-referential system of a word game that we play with ourselves and with one another for the sake of understanding the “out there” to which Rorty refers. The frustrating thing is that even our understanding or comprehension of what is may actually hold no bearing on what actually is. Even if every person came to understand the same perspective, we still cannot escape the lens of humanity.  Who’s to say what we collectively experience has any bearing on what is?

Even if we believe in God’s existence (which, in the same spirit of G.K. Chesterton, I will state is an underlying assumption within this piece and will not dedicate space to that topic here) – how can we begin to think that anything we say or write or think would properly illuminate who he/she/it/etc. is? And by extension, how could Scripture be considered “god-breathed” when it, too, was written by human hands?

The biblical writers provide a story of theirs regarding this topic in the opening few chapters of the book of Exodus. After spending a good portion of his life living an average existence, Moses encounters God in a burning bush and is commissioned by him to return to Egypt to lead the Israelites out of bondage. Turning to leave, Moses pauses for a moment and asks, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”[5]

God replies, and replies by giving Moses his name. Within the Ancient Near East, there was a common belief that in order to control or manipulate a god into providing favorable circumstances, a priest would have to invoke the respective deity’s name. In a similar manner, Frederick Buechner points out:

When I tell you my name, I have given you a hold over me that you didn’t have before. If you call it out, I stop, look, and listen whether I want to or not. [When] God tells Moses his name is Yahweh, [he] hasn’t had a peaceful moment since.[6]

The difference between the gods of the ancient Near East and the God of the Hebrews was the fact that most of the gods had names which defined them, limiting them to their role or realm which they controlled. When Moses’ God responded, he gave Moses a name that is commonly rendered: I AM WHO I AM, or better yet: I WILL BECOME WHO I WILL BECOME. The problem with the former is that it still smacks of a property of definition and limitation similar to that of the other ancient Near Eastern gods, with ties to the Septuagint’s rough Koine translation of “the Being One.”[7] Instead, the latter emphasizes the dynamism of God being unable to be bound unless He wills it. This, of course, even extends to our language. Because God cannot be adequately expressed through the words we speak, this only emphasizes that He can do or be how He will, free from any forms of human meddling.

A Franciscan theologian with an oddly similar name in relation to the postmodern philosopher previously mentioned, Richard Rohr, once describes this frustrating quality of God as his wildness:

“Now, believe it or not, we are threatened by such a free God because it takes away our ability to control or engineer the process [of transformation.] It leaves us powerless, and changes the language from any language of performance or achievement to that of surrender, trust, and vulnerability…. That is the so-called ‘wildness’ of God. We cannot control God by any means whatsoever, not even by our good behavior, which tends to be our first and natural instinct…. That utter and absolute freedom of God is fortunately used totally in our favor, even though we are still afraid of it. It is called providence, forgiveness, free election, or mercy…. But to us, it feels like wildness — precisely because we cannot control it, manipulate it, direct it, earn it, or lose it. Anyone into controlling God by his or her actions will feel very useless, impotent, and ineffective.”[8]

If we think we can get a grasp of the divine on our own initiative, we deceive ourselves. God would not be God if his fullness can be grasped by a human – the notion, if possible, would suggest human invention if comprehension were possible. Instead, he can only be known, but only in part.

That being said, how would this lead us to then accept Scripture as authoritative even while accepting that the word games that we play cannot grasp God in his wildness, that a divine reality exists when Scripture too is also an obvious human invention? What might bridge the gap between God and humanity?

The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth wrestled with this subject within his magnum opus. Within the opening pages, relatively speaking, of his Church Dogmatics, he remarks: “The fact that God’s own address becomes an event in the human word of the Bible is, however, God’s affair and not ours… The Bible is God’s Word to the extent that God causes it to be his word, to the extent that he speaks through it.”[9] Given that all language is contingent, shaped and informed by our own personal experiences, we would have no ability in and of ourselves to reach the divine. Or, if in the case we could, that we could determine from our own limited perspective that the thing we claimed as an eternal truth was in fact an eternal truth. Instead, the divine, knowing that we had no capacity to save ourselves from the mess we had gotten ourselves into, breaks into our limited subjective lenses through which we interpret and relate to the world and one another in such a manner that we might be able to know Him and truths about Him. And as Christians, we also hold that he specifically broke into our subjective experience first through the Law, then the Prophets, and finally, most fully, in Christ.[10]

Of course, this does not mean that every insight or proposition that a person might gain from Scripture correlates with the reality of the divine. Less than two hundred years ago, we Americans used Scripture to justify slavery. Less than one hundred years ago, we used it to justify colonialism and social Darwinism. Discernment through tradition, reason, and communal experience is necessary to keep our interpretations of special revelation in check. Rorty was right in this respect. We must understand that how we read something is how our culture or subculture has taught us to read it. Insofar that we realize our contingencies, we will become better Christians and people in general.

Doesn’t mean I won’t suck at Scrabble though.

But here’s to hoping.

 

[1] Ps. 46:10a+b, New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 5.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Dennis Okholm, “Gathering: You Can Only Act in the World You Can See.” (Lecture, Theology and the Christian Life, Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, CA, January 11, 2017).

[5] Exod. 3:13, NRSV.

[6] Frederick Buechner, “Buechner,” in Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 13-14.

[7] William Yarchin, Ph.D. “St. Jerome and the Latin Bible.” (Lecture, The History of Biblical Interpretation, Azusa Pacific University, Azusa, CA, January 31, 2017).

[8] Richard Rohr with Joseph Martos, From Wild Man to Wise Man: Reflections on Male Spirituality (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005), 2.

[9] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/1, §4:2, 109.

[10] Heb. 1:1-2, NRSV.