Monday, May 4, 2009

Editorial: Accept Me, Dangit!

Since I didn't write anything else this weekend, I present my 'autobiographical essay' for admission to Luther Seminary. Bonus: When I became a Christian, I was the same age as that girl in the quote I open with. Extra Bonus: That was Peter Powers who said I had an increasingly sophisticated mind!

I appreciate any remarks you might have.

“The child is not dead, but sleeping.” - Mark 5:39

I sleep well; I’m a good sleeper. I pass my dormant hours without much interruption. I’ve slept through thunderstorms, fire trucks, and ambulances. I sleep like the young. I sleep like the dead. But the world, of course, has never paused with me. So I’ve also slept through more than 6 million murders, 2.3 million rapes in America alone, and the deaths of 56 million children to starvation. All these things occurred while I was not watching, throughout the unconscious nights of my existence, only one third of my time upon this earth.

And while I cannot argue with Salman Rushdie when he says that “nobody can face the world with his eyes open all the time,” Christ points me precisely in that direction. The crux of faith is neither belief nor works, but consciousness: increasing mindfulness of Christ. The onus of Christianity is not on words or deeds but orientation. Disciples want to be like Christ. I want to step behind Christ’s eyes. And the vision of Christ beckons me into empathetic wakefulness, into awareness of sorrow and consciousness of joy. The light of my faith shines on and through and from a cosmos of mounting complexity and thrilling tension. I hum with paradox. A broken, healing world hums with me.

When I was twelve, I wanted to kill myself. Afflicted with what I would later recognize as a depressive disorder, I contemplated suicide. I did not because of a unique and reassuring vision: alone in the bathroom one morning, I imagined myself swimming along the surface of a lake. The water, I knew, was the undying love of God. Utterly transported, I would not and could not sink. Though to this day I have not learned to swim, the vision implies more than simple grace.

My Christian mother was asking me to make a decision about the church. I was fast approaching the age of Methodist confession and confirmation even as I fell further into inarticulate grief and unaccountable isolation. Connecting to God was difficult. Everything was, save this: fishing with my un-churched father at a nearby lake. This recognizably supplied the waters of my vision. God was doing through me what I am always doing myself: reconciling opposites, joining pious mother to unbelieving father, getting faith and doubt to talk.

I said yes to Jesus at the same time I said yes to church and my mother and yes, above all else, to the waters of the love of God. I also said yes to joy and yes to a self not bound by the sorrow I had so inchoately felt. The sprinkling of my baptism shone golden in a springtime light. I felt months of simple elation. This too, it seemed, was mine. I did not understand. Terrified and astonished, I wanted to hide the joy that threatened to burst right out of me.

Television, of all things, provided clarity. After Sunday service, I would hurry to watch a series of debates between a conservative and a liberal theologian. At the end of a particularly heated topic, they talked about being friends despite their disagreements. “What I respect about you,” one said to the other, “is that even when you err, you err on the side of love.” And I knew: I wanted to err on the side of love, forever. Intellectual argument, at a slant, had given me direction and a way to articulate a dazzling transformation.

So when I had the choice between state schools and a small, private Christian college, I chose the latter. My secret motive was to hear intelligent people talk about God, to continue the conversation. I never tired of it. That the debates got harder and the questions more complicated only intensified my interest. For my first two years I read theodicy, all the explanation and justification, it seemed, that anyone had ever given for suffering. And I found no answer, no sufficient grounds for a good God to allow even my adolescent depressions, let alone permit humanity’s broader ills and deeper cruelties.

At the bottom I found Dostoevsky’s “sticky little leaves” opening in spring. I sat on the campus lawn beneath a budding oak tree, at the nadir of despair. I watched the patterns of shadow and sunlight on the grass as clouds swept overhead, and remembered chasing them as a child. Again, it seemed I did, and the field was not made of grass, but the love of life in God. What else encompasses both darkness and light? What else endures through joy and sorrow, pain and bliss, but the God who is love, and who authors life? And what can one do but live and love in kind? When a philosophy professor remarked that Christianity, in sum, is a simple celebration of creation, my head pointed toward my heart. One feasts on life by the gut, the stomach, when understanding ends.

And my comprehension would end, again, of course. Fueled by an anomalous acedia, my postgraduate non-theism ended in Minneapolis, when I got off the light-rail after visiting a friend. Twenty people, seeing the Bible I was reading, had spent most of an hour quizzing me about God. I departed the train in a daze. I got lost somewhere in the four blocks home. It took me three hours to find my way in a city I had inhabited for more than a year. It had never occurred to me before that God might be authoring my confusion, might be casting me into urban wilderness because I had a different path ahead.

That my third vision subsequently depicted God as a sandstorm of ancient and incomprehensible force only deepened my commitment to the spiritual discernment I had begun. Through conversations with the vicar of the Episcopal church that I had begun to attend, I heard a call. Just as the answer to my fledgling despair and rapture of God was conversation, just as the answer to evil was my embodied response of love, so the answer to adult ambiguity and an unfathomable God was clear proclamation and one decision at a time.

So, I loved the stranger and shouted about the silence. Taking an opportunity, I taught a series of classes at my church on the kinesthetics of God working in the world – yes, but how does it happen? – and the nature of truth – yes, but what does it actually do? These classes led to sermons, and my lay speaking in the church. I delight in seeing another person understand, in passing the fires in my mind. I volunteered to blog as the church’s amateur theologian so that I could continue at all hours.

Thus I’ve stayed awake. I cannot sleep for any of these things; I sit up each night before I speak. Why shouldn’t I? Grief need not be the only thief of peace. Just listening to a lecture wakes me up, let alone speaking out. And I’m the only person I know who found undergraduate study easier the harder the classes got. I did not understand when a professor remarked that I had an increasingly sophisticated mind. But I should hope that wisdom would increase. I would strive for deeper knowledge, and welcome more adept intelligence. So much religious language about awakening must mean something.

I think so that others can think. Always coming out of caves, I waken so that I can awaken others. The years I spent at a Christian college were joyous not so that I could possess them, but so I could find a way to transmit to others that illumination of thought and delight in words about God. My first favorite writer, after all, was Martin Luther. As we confess, so we believe. As we believe, so we live our lives, so we give embody our mission and our purpose. A school tied to confessional tradition should not be remiss in education, in waking people to awakening.

I want to teach. More specifically, I want to teach theology to students not very different from the person I was the day I sat beneath an oak and realized that love is the field upon which all being plays. Christian faith is helped tremendously not by more thinking or less thinking, but by right thinking about God. Happily, this can be achieved by rigorous consideration and modest amounts of sanity and grace. Because theology is nothing if not embodied, good thinking toward God changes lives. We live out our ideas no matter what they are. How then can we not even determine what we believe?

Through my church, I started my project at, where any believer can contribute to a new creed, not so that anyone would jettison ancient beliefs, but so that everyone could deeply and collaboratively confront their meaning. I believe the current church is in disarray about not only what is true, but about what truth does. Nonetheless, church is the chief place where meaning about God can happen, the reception hall of heaven’s wedding to the world. I must attend. On our pilgrimage to Christ, we are left to walk only with other pilgrims.

I believe this must be enough, though I believe we need to go together, to be all of one body even when we are not all of one mind. While I affirm the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds each Sunday, I am glad I do not agree with each policy, decision or theology of the Episcopal Church. And I am grateful that my current church welcomes me to walk alongside them regardless. It beckons me, in fact, to constantly edge closer, to bump hips and hands with the rest of the bride of Christ.

Sleep is relentlessly individualistic. But my awakening has been into the simple awareness that I am not alone. Individual moments punctuate greater themes. The lake of God’s love meant a mentor who saw me through confirmation, introduced me to formal theology, and began the conversations about belief that limn my life with meaning. The field of God’s love meant two years of intimate debates with a friend about the paradoxes of free will and God’s sovereignty, and the intuition that response is a kind of answer to deep riddles. And yes, the storm of God’s love meant discernment, re-involvement with a Christian congregation and the end of an estrangement from our Trinitarian God.

Such developments should not surprise anyone. The universe is proving intricately relational, and love is demonstrably the best kind of human relationship. And I must say that the best type of love is Jesus Christ. I believe that the purpose of human life is to plunge whole-heartedly into the paradoxes of love, into all its immanent secrets and transcendent disclosures. I believe that truth takes the shape of relationship: self and other, similarity and alterity, answer and question, known and unknown. I believe that truth is thus fractal, not fractious. I believe that Catholicism gave us Martin Luther as surely as Newton gave us Einstein and my initial love of argument implied that I would one day write, speak and teach about God. All answers contain the next questions, and all questions lead to some new assurance.

This progression is not triumphant linearity but the turns and terms of a conversation we have with God about the nature of ultimate reality. Truth is not relative, but simply larger than we are. Truth bursts our understanding as though we ourselves were wineskins. Like Saul on the road to Damascus we are blinded not by darkness, but by light. In a world overwhelmed by meaning, we grope our way forward with words about God. I would hope that my time at Luther Seminary would prepare me to extend a hand to other pilgrims, and thus transmit a fire very much brighter and fiercer than myself.


Monica said...

This is wonderful! I think they'll accept you. Now do you have a couple years to talk a bunch of this stuff over? No wait, you have your lifetime, don't you? Go!

Anne G G said...

I'll send you more extended comments via email - this is the kind of lovely prose that I've come to expect from you, curiousmonk, and I think it's likely to be a delightful surprise to those on Luther Seminary's Admissions Committee.

Curious Monk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Monica said...

Now for more specific comments.

I very much like your statement that, "The crux of faith is neither belief nor works, but consciousness: increasing mindfulness of Christ." I think the relevance of consciousness, mindfulness & orientation are disregarded far too much.

However, I would request your assistance in clarifying what is meant by Christ. We identify Christ with Jesus and end up in a set of circular statements: Jesus is Christ, Christ is Jesus. Or we use other words, while still failing to give a clear explanation. Too few of us in the Church are clear about this for our ownselves. Much less are we effectively communicating with others, I suspect.

Curious Monk said...

Oh, this. first, everyone, let me thank you for your kind remarks. i put off writing this essay for far too long because of what it might mean if it doesn't happen, and well, you've been reassuring.

but christ. alright, i should say that when i say christ i pretty much just mean jesus. i prefer christ because it cuts down on the "geee-zus" vibe that sets my teeth on edge.

but more broadly, people need to be clear, absolutely. and i think theologian Jon Sobrino is right to say that because the concept of Christ/Messiah came first, it was more likely to be something like "Christ? That's Jesus" in the minds of the first believers.

in other words, it's not that Jesus was so jesus-y that he was the christ, it's that jesus historically fulfilled the jewish concept of messiah. christ jesus, perhaps, it truly ought to be.

Curious Monk said...

in some cases, though, in this essay i say christ because i think it has more of an impersonal connotation, as in the principle of god's love toward creation that manifests itself in the concept of messiah.

Monica said...

Ok, thanks. Now (sooner or later), we're going to have to clarify the concept(s?) of messiah. (I'm not going to make this easy you know) :)

I think your 2nd comment about the impersonal connotation is interesting. Images of God and of Christ are often pesonified beyond the balance that I've come to find helpful.

Curious Monk said...

fortunately, this has already been done! 2 quotes, the first mostly humorous:

"messiah is that which by definition never comes. for the jews, he is not here. for the christians, he was here, but he left. he's supposed to come again - which puts them in the same position. when messiah comes, he is no longer messiah." - john caputo

"Christ is the manward side of God." - Karl Barth, I think

My question: does that make Jesus the godward side of man? (err, woman?)