An Hour is Not Enough

2223044823_03405d8ab8There is something about the spiritual life — having a relationship with God — that we are often reluctant to admit to ourselves:  it takes time and effort.

This is, in fact, true of all relationships, from friendships to marriages.  A relationship which is not tended to with care will begin to fall apart, and will ultimately cease to exist all together.  We know this about relationships.  Even when we are not tending to a relationship adequately, and it is falling apart or has done so, we know that our lack of attention to it was a problem.  Yet, we are often reluctant to admit that.

Of course, some relationships fall apart despite our attention to them, for a variety of reasons.  And sometimes, it is not because of our inattention, but of that of the other person in the relationship.  After all, it takes attention from both parties for a relationship to thrive.

There really is no difference when it comes to our relationship with God:  if it is to thrive, we need to tend to it with care.  What we can be sure of is that God is always ready to tend to that relationship.  Indeed, God is always tending to it.  So, as some wise person said, if you feel that God is far away, guess who moved?  It is always us who move away — never God.

And yet, I sometimes encounter people who seem to hold God responsible for the distance, and express it in some variation of the comment, “If God is so loving/powerful, then why is my life/the life of the world not better?”   Indeed, there are many who use the state of the world, or of individual lives, to conclude that there must be no God, or at least not a God worth paying attention to.  Because, they assume, if God is, then the world would be idyllic.

What we often fail to notice when our thoughts travel along such paths is the message that Jesus as Christ points to:  that  God is not a supernatural being who somewhat capriciously intervenes (or not) in our world, but rather, God’s presence unfolds within human experience, drawing us into a relationship that is transformative.  And when we tend to that relationship, when we spend time allowing God to transform us, then we are  able to contribute to the world’s transformation.

Most of the time, when we are tempted to put the suffering of the world on God’s doorstep, we are engaging in an act of spiritual immaturity, because we are unwilling to admit our responsibility.  Much of human suffering is attributable to human action or inaction.  If we wish to live in a more just, more peaceful, more idyllic world, then we must be the ones who make that happen, rather than wishing that some great divine Parent would come and do it for us.

But changing the world begins with changing ourselves.  And to do that, we must be willing to spend time with God in the context of prayer, of spiritual practice.  We must tend to the relationship.  An hour a week at a church service is probably not enough.  Corporate, communal worship is meant to support, guide, and strengthen our practice and relationship.  The sacraments of the Christian tradition, especially the Eucharist, are spiritual food for the journey.  But that can’t be the sum total of our spiritual lives:  we need our own personal practice to move us closer to God, to strengthen that relationship, and begin to change.

The Camels are Telling

20765It was announced this week that archaeologists had made a major discovery concerning — camels.  Using carbon dating techniques to determine the age of the oldest known camel bones, researchers determined that camels were introduced in Israel in the 9th century BCE — a dating that is at odds with Bible stories that point to the presence of camels at an earlier time.   Some suggested that this new evidence, if correct, shows up a discrepancy between history as presented by the Bible and history as illuminated by scientific inquiry.  The news led at least one commentator to ask if such a revelation would change one’s view of the Bible.

My hope is that it will.   For far too long now, the Bible has been treated as though it were a textbook that places a high value on accuracy.  The reality is that the Bible is unconcerned with accuracy, at least when it comes to history.  The biblical authors did not intend to provide what we would understand as an accurate, well-documented historical account.  Their concern was not to present the facts!  Rather, they were preoccupied with proclamation:  their goal was to point to the relationship between God and humanity, between God and creation, and they told the stories of their traditions from that point of view.   Their primary concern was to reveal the deeper meaning of things, not to accurately report what had happened.

The biblical stories are very similar to the stories of our own lives.  As human beings, we make sense and bring meaning to our lives through the stories we tell about ourselves.  If, for example, you were to ask a relatively young person to tell you what her life was about, you would get a certain story about her life up to that point, and what that story meant in terms of who she understood herself to be.   If, many years later, you asked the same question to the same person, you would get a story that was different in some important respects.  Some of the details would be the same, but some of them would have shifted a bit, and you would likely get a different interpretation of what that person understood her life to be about, and the meaning she assigned to various aspects of it.  It is not that the story she told when she was younger was untrue, whereas the story now is true (or vice versa).  Rather, it’s that the woman’s perspective had changed over the years, and that perspective led to a change in how she interpreted her own life story.   Any rich telling of any human being’s story is likely to be more heavily waited toward meaningful interpretation than it is toward factual accuracy.  That is, in part, because human beings don’t tend to remember things exactly as they happened.  Instead, we tend to remember things based on our interpretation of what they meant to us.   We have a tendency to want to see the depth of things, and the more emotionally moving we find an event in our lives to be, the more that is the case.

The biblical authors were really doing the same sort of thing.   In most cases, they were using stories that had been passed down to them to illuminate their own experience of God, and doing so in the hope that these stories could connect with the stories of future human beings and help them (us!) to illuminate their own experiences of God.  They were not concerned with whether the details were exactly correct (a rather modern preoccupation), but whether the depth and meaning connected to those details were being brought forward.  They were interpreting their tradition, not attempting to reconstruct it accurately.  It would, therefore, probably not at all disturb any of the biblical authors to learn that Abraham couldn’t possibly have owned any camels.  They would probably find our fascination with that detail to be the best indicator that we had tragically missed their point.

The archaeologist William Dever seems to appreciate this in comments he made during a PBS interview a few years back.  He said,

“We want to make the Bible history. Many people think it has to be history or nothing. But there is no word for history in the Hebrew Bible. In other words, what did the biblical writers think they were doing? Writing objective history? No. That’s a modern discipline. They were telling stories. They wanted you to know what these purported events mean.”   (quoted here)

To that I say a heart-felt, “Amen.”

Dissonance

dissdoorThe term “dissonance” can refer to a number of things, from properties of an interval or chord in music to a state of mental conflict to discomfort experienced in the midst of change.  Recently, I have wondered about dissonance in the context of faith.

For the most part, we probably consider dissonance as something that should be avoided.  When we find ourselves in a state of mental conflict, for example, our inclination is usually to resolve that conflict as quickly as we can.  The same thing is true when we find ourselves uncomfortable as things are changing around us:  we want to move through whatever the change is and acclimate ourselves to it as quickly as possible to rid ourselves of the discomfort.  Or, alternatively, we might put a lot of energy in trying to stop the change, to make things return to a state in which we are no longer uncomfortable.  The experience of dissonance in the context of faith prompts a similar reaction:  most of us want it to end as soon as possible.

When we hear a sermon or a theology or an interpretation that doesn’t square with our own sense of things, or our own experience of the divine, we can find ourselves conflicted or uncomfortable.  When a cherished liturgy or spiritual practice, or some other aspect of our experience of our faith community, changes, we can experience that same sort of dissonance, finding ourselves newly uncomfortable in a space that we perhaps had looked to for comfort.  When people of faith experience these kinds of dissonances, there are three ways in which they tend to work them out.  The first is to leave their faith community — and perhaps even their faith — behind.  They may continue to have a lively spirituality, but they no longer live that out in connection with any particular faith community.   Or, they may jettison the spiritual life entirely.   The second type of response is to switch from one community to another.  People may enter a period of what is often called “church shopping” as they test out different communities to see if they can occupy them more comfortably, without the dissonance they had been experiencing.  Sometimes, people who react to dissonance in this way end up with a kind of nomadic spiritual existence, as communities which had seemed comfortable to them cease to be so over time.   People will move from community to community, always hoping that in the new community, nothing will happen to lead them into a sense of internal conflict or discomfort.  The third type of response is, in my experience, the most rare:  it is to remain in the dissonance, facing it head on, and seeking to work through it by seeking to discover its source and its meaning.

In many ways, I think any spiritual life or participation in any faith community is supposed to include the experience of dissonance.  Indeed, it is perhaps where people of faith are supposed to live most of the time.  One of the truths that lies at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition is that life itself is an experience of dissonance, because we are meant to perceive that life as we experience it is not the life that God intends us to be living in certain important respects.  The prophetic tradition in Judaism is a ministry designed to create dissonance by pointing out the ways in which people and communities are mis-aligned with the dream and call of God.  In Christianity, Jesus offers the image of the kingdom of God to point to God’s call to live a transformed life that reflects the love of God.  Indeed, it is the case with all the religious traditions that they perceive a dissonance between what is and what might be or should be.  One could argue that it is that perception of dissonance itself that gives rise to religious traditions in the first place.

All of this is to say that we should be cautious about running from that place of dissonance when we find ourselves in it.  Our traditions teach us that these places are like the wildernesses of the Bible:  places that seem desolate, yet places where we are most likely to encounter the divine.  It is at these “pinch points” in our lives of faith that we may find the most challenge but also the most growth.  As people of faith, we are called to live in tension.  And while it may sometimes feel exhausting, it is often within that tension that the most creative energy is to be found.