Saturday, January 10, 2009

3.1 God's Truth May Not Be Man's Truth

In a literature class my first year of college I read “The Spiritual Autobiography” of Simone Weil, an early-twentieth century French philosopher and labor activist,. I was captivated by her way of thinking through her faith. It was logical, and full of integrity and absolute conviction. Soon after I picked up a book of her letters and essays concerning faith titled Waiting for God. In it, she articulates a vision of the core of Christian faith that eschewed the rules of the Catholicism of her era. Passionate, perhaps to the point of dramatic, about heeding God before all else she wrote the following about refusing baptism until God called her to it, “If it were conceivable that in obeying God one should bring about one’s own damnation while in disobeying him one could be saved, I should still choose the way of obedience.” (Weil, 1951, p. 47) I took it as a confirmation that God’s way is not always the church’s way. Sometimes the fuller expression of faith was the one that defied the conventions of the community.

I clung to another passage as justification of my resistance. It became an expression of my desire, a prayer almost, for a real and vital relationship with truth.
For it seemed to me certain, and I still think so today, that one can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms. (Weil, 1951, p. 69)

Her words composed a new illustration of my evangelical Christian regard for truth and personal relationship with Christ. Questioning became to me an expression of faith, rather than evidence of its absence.

But it was this last passage that characterized my identity as a Christian and faith in Christ during those searching years:
Social enthusiasms have such power today, they raise people so effectively to the supreme degree of heroism in suffering and death, that I think it is as well that a few sheep should remain outside the fold in order to bear witness that the love of Christ is essentially something different. (Weil, 1951, p. 81)

My life did not come close to the challenges she endured but I indulged myself in an almost ironic sense of camaraderie with Weil as a sheep outside the fold. What did “essentially something different” mean? Here was a woman who had met the Madwoman and was keeping her secrets. Her writing assured me that there is a divine call that does not abide the sentiments and limitations of man-made institutions.

Sara Maitland is a contemporary Catholic, a British writer, who shares a deep faith that is not restrained by the conventions of her religious community. In A Big Enough God she reminds the reader that God is revealed in the creation and so the sciences are not something to fear. She fills page after page delighting in obscure mathematical formulas and startling discoveries in quantum physics. Chaos and complexity are also God’s. Fully aware of the challenge that poses she pushes the point:
Whenever anyone tells you that God is ‘endangered’ or put at risk by something they are always really talking about their own power-base. A God so frail that she has to be protected from the thoughts that minds created by her come up with is not worth the bother, and I think we all know that. (Maitland, 1995, p.100)

She states her faith and her critique in direct tones, a fearless and playful invitation to join her exploration. I reveled in her articulation of a big God who can always be rediscovered, way out beyond human logic, imagination, and possession. The book released my own frustration and fueled my hope for a God who broke through rules that could never be rendered in God-size.

Without making gender the book’s primary issue, Maitland identifies herself as a feminist and recognizes the influence of gender in theology. She consistently uses female pronouns for God catching the reader’s awareness that God is not female, nor is God male, and furthermore God is utterly other than human. But gendered language for God is not just about approximating an accurate sense of an awesome God. It is also about power.

Church leaders chose to call God Father. Maitland notes that churchwomen have called on that Heavenly Father as a source of strength and wisdom as they defied church fathers and other men. The word “Father” depicts God as male and not female. This designation eliminates any special knowledge that women could share with God by virtue of sameness. It reserves that special identification for men. From that connection men derive a special power over others they deem as not like God. As long as gender is locked to power this struggle of identification, relationship, and otherness will persist. (Maitland, 1995, pp 18-24) Perhaps mitigating that dynamic, Maitland acknowledges the work by feminists in assembling new language for talking about God. She found value in it, even when clumsy or failed, because it offers a way to know newly the meaning of the words we use by rote. It questions why these words are significant. What more or other ways are there than what we know?

In the same vein, Maitland locates art, creativity, and new stories within “God’s Grand Narrative” rather than in opposition to it. A big God requires a big story! Similar to scientific discoveries, she deems that these new creations by humans pose no threat to the ultimate creator God. Again, she makes the connection between God and the community of believers. She describes stories as a medium for change by pointing to Jesus own use of them.
Any movement for social change requires a revolution of the imagination; and for that, perfect theory is not good enough. There have to be stories told afresh, rhythms created anew, meanings presented to the heart. That is what Jesus’ parables are: they aren’t just mnemonic aids to good behavior; they are new stories which construct things afresh. (Maitland, 1995, p. 143)

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