Self Portrait by David Whyte
Job 38:1-7; 12-13; 16-18
Who is this who darkens counsel, speaking without knowledge?
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?
Speak, if you have understanding.
Do you know who fixed its dimensions, or who measured it with a line?
Onto what were its bases sunk?
Who set its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the divine beings shouted for joy? . . .
Have you commanded the day to break, assigned the dawn its place, so that it seizes the corners of the earth and shakes the wicked out of it?
Have you penetrated to the sources of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been disclosed to you?
Have you surveyed the expanses of the earth?
If you know of these – tell me.
The writer Eric Weiner tells of how one day he found himself doubled over with abdominal pain in a New York City emergency room. As he shivered in his paper gown waiting for the doctor, a nurse arrived to draw some blood. The woman, about his age with features and an accent that seemed to him Caribbean or West African, paused and said quietly, “Have you found your God yet?”
Taken aback, he stammered, “Why?” Did she know something he didn’t, he wondered. She didn’t reply but just gave him what seemed like a wise, knowing look and left.
Weiner’s medical episode ended uneventfully – turns out to have been just a severe attack of gas – but the nurse’s question weighed on him. Had he found his God . . . yet? It set him wondering. She wasn’t asking whether he had found a God or the God or just plain God, but his God, as it there were one out there for him, waiting.
For a while he put it aside. It wasn’t a question he felt was relevant to his life. God, religion: he had left all that stuff behind in his youth, growing up in a culturally Jewish but not especially religious household. And besides he very much saw himself as a rationalist – someone who looks to science and reason as a guide to living – and he saw little about the notion of God that seemed rational to him.
Still, he wrote, he had to admit that in his experience, while “reason is an excellent tool for solving problems (it) offers little guidance in identifying which problems we should solve and why.” In the words of G.K. Chesterton: reason doesn’t account well for those moments in life that “bewilder the intellect, yet utterly quiet the heart.”
There was something about that nurse’s question that nagged at him, but he had no notion of how to begin to answer it. Searching for a spiritual category where he might plant his flag, he gave up, declaring himself simply a “confusionist” armed with this credo: “We have absolutely no idea what our religious views are. We’re not even sure we have any, but we’re open to the unexpected, and believe – no, hope – there is more to life than meets the eye.”
For Weiner, this puzzlement was the goad for a journey that he recounted in a best-selling book, Man Seeks God. The book tells of Weiner’s travels around the world to learn about and experience eight religious traditions, ranging from Sufism and Buddhism to Franciscan Catholicism and Kabbalah.
Few of us have the resources for such an adventure, but for many of us Weiner’s label of “confusionist” rings a bell, especially when it comes to this notion of God.
I remember when I was around 9 or 10 years old playing with a friend by a stream near my home when he casually asked me, “Do you believe in God?” I didn’t know what to say, but to hide my embarrassment I just mumbled something like, I did, and that ended the conversation.
So, I guess I could date my own history of wrestling with the notion of God from that moment. It wasn’t as if I had never heard of God. In my Unitarian Universalist religious education classes I had encountered God and gods from many cultures in many guises. But I had never instructed on an answer to that bald question: Do you believe in God?
I know now that the stories I heard and the lessons participated in were intended not to deliver received answers on the mind-boggling questions that religion poses – who am I, what matters, where did I and all of this come from – but to encourage my wondering mind to work through them and come to answers that made sense to me, answers that surely would change as I changed and grew, but that were rooted in my own understanding and experience.
That has been true of this religion since the days of its founding in the early 19th century when William Ellery Channing declared that “the great end in religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own; not to make them see with our eyes, but to look inquiringly and steadily with their own.”
And it remains true of us today. When a volunteer teacher in our Spirit Play classes reads a story, he or she will invite the children to comment on it with a reflection that begins with the words, “I wonder . . . .” I wonder how that felt, I wonder what they meant, I wonder why she said that. And you’ll recognize that I’m inviting you as our worship theme for the month to do some wondering of your own.
Looking back on my childhood encounter, though, I see that there was something more than puzzlement behind my confused answer at the streamside: something that I now recognize as shame. Young as I was, I had lived long enough to perceive that at the time in the larger culture there was really only one socially acceptable answer to my friend’s question, and I gave it.
Things have loosened a bit since the early 1960s, but the presumption is still strong, especially here in the South, that when asked, one will respond as I did. So, if nothing else it challenges people like us who find integrity affirming a range of responses, from “yes” to “no” to “Well, tell me what you mean by God,” to broaden the conversation and work to find some clarity for ourselves.
Karen Armstrong begins her book, The Case for God, by declaring, “We are talking far too much about God these days, and what we say is often facile.” God, she says, is bandied about by so many people in so many settings that we are left with the presumption that the concept of God should be easy. You know, God: Supreme Being, Creator of all Things, infinitely loving, ultimately inscrutable, utterly transcendent, and yet counting every fallen sparrow. Simple!
Wait a minute: did you say simple? With so many imponderables wrapped around it, this tiny word quickly expands beyond our common capacity to make sense of it, and so it becomes a convenient screen on which we humans can project our hopes and fears; our aspirations and ambitions, pinning on attributes, such as pronouns – him, mostly; and motives – smiting these people, blessing those others.
Probably no work offers a more effective caution against this practice than the ancient Book of Job that I quoted earlier. You’ll recall that the book begins with God looking down from on high and praising his good servant Job, while Satan insists the Job is only good because he’s treated well. Test him, Satan says, and you’ll see him curse you.
So, God does, inflicting him with every measure of disease and misfortune. But Job insists that he holds to his faith. Friends arrive, and while they commiserate, they suggest that Job must have done something to deserve all these ills, for God only punishes those who deserve it. This goes on for some time, and Job bemoans his outcast state until the figure of God breaks in with a long soliloquy, part of which you heard.
It is an amazing passage. As the writer Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, God speaks, not apparently because Job has been irresistibly persuasive in arguing why he has been ill-served, but, she says, “because God cannot stand one more minute of his yammering.”
The language in these questions is lyrical – “Where were you when the morning stars sang together? Have you seen the gates of deep darkness?” I can imagine the writers pushing their imaginations to the limit – how to express the inconceivable? how to communicate how infinitely unknowable the ways of the universe are? The question that the book seems set up to answer – why do bad things happen to good people – is blown out of the water, and along with it the neat image of a friendly God who watches over us and finds us parking spots.
Forget that! The wisdom that Job offers us is that suffering happens, and we are left to make of our lives what we can. But, God? Well, back to the drawing board.
Karen Armstrong observes that theology, literally the study of God, “is a very wordy discipline.” People, she says, “have written reams and talked unstoppably about God.” (Speaking from the experience of four years of seminary and 10 years of ministry, I can only say, “Oh, preach it, sister.”) And while much of it is impenetrable and some of it is actually beautiful, it doesn’t necessarily take us much closer to making sense of God, if there is any sense to be made.
Armstrong argues that the trouble began when in our modern age, the Christian church and its scholars took to applying the language of science – which she describes as “logos” – to the study of religion, which she says had been the imaginative realm of what she calls “mythos.”
One unfortunate result of all this, she says, is that it pulled religion out of where it originated, as a rich and metaphorical guide to living, and set it up in the academy as an artifact for arcane study. The old image of scholars counting how many angels can dance on a pin was the product of this way of thinking.
In fact, Karen Armstrong argues, religion holds the most promise not as a place of proof texts, but as “a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart.” The notion of God, too, she says, works better when it comes out of the clouds, loses its pronouns and invites us to reflect on what is most deeply real and impinges on us most profoundly.
My colleague Galen Guengerich has argued for describing God as, in his words, “an experience that intimately and extensively connects me to all that is.” And a consequence of this experience, he says, is to invite us to see ourselves as agents of the best there is, call it the divine, call it all that upholds life and love in the universe.
Could that be “your” God? Perhaps, perhaps not. The sense of transcendence that Galen describes is something that all of us experience in one form or another, but there are many ways of framing it that need have nothing to do with God.
Our music today offers a sense of the variety of ways that transcendent appears to us. Joan Osbourne invites us to find the holy in the scrubby stranger on the bus, the other we avert our eyes to avoid. Pete Seeger believed he found all he ever needed in the songs he used to break through the boundaries that keep us human beings apart. And Mendelsohn’s beautiful chorus lifts us up with its bounteous imagery of God as the unsleeping source of compassion that quickens our languishing hearts.
So, in answer to Eric Weiner’s nurse, must we expect that at some time we will hitch our own spiritual wagon to some understanding of God? No, not necessarily, and really that’s not the central question. I think that David Whyte’s poem, which Bob read earlier, comes closer to the point. Called “Self Portrait,” it is, I’m told, something he wrote one night in a period of spiritual crisis while he was looking in the mirror. So, the person to whom he is speaking is one he knows well.
When you let go of the labels, the clever scripts that you’ve cobbled together for when the “religion” question comes up, when you are fully present to yourself: what do you see? To what, to whom do you belong? What is your answer when despair visits you? As the world pushes and prods, wheedles and pleads, how do you find your center?
Are you prepared to give yourself fully to the truth that lives within you? I love the vividness of his imagery – do you know how to melt, holding nothing back, into that fierce heat of living that feels like nothing less than falling toward the center of your longing?
And how will you live day by day with the consequences of all the commitments you have made in your life, the love that both nourishes and tears at your heart, knowing that one day all of it – you and I, too – will be gone?
Oh friends, let us set to wondering. Let us be good company, and let the space we create and hold here be the crucible for our work.
It matters not if there is one God or many Gods or any Gods, when it comes down to it. What matters is that we be witnesses to the beauty and wonder of the world, that we live with integrity and compassion, that we honor that ineffable transcendence in which we and all things participate, the stream that, as Tagore put its, runs through the world, that shouts in joy through the grasses and is rocked in the ocean cradle of birth and death, moving through us this very moment.