March 15th, 2004

abstract butterfly

sans fear, sans trembling

"Theology is a peculiarly beautiful discipline. Indeed, we can confidently say that it is the most beautiful of all disciplines. To find academic study distasteful is the mark of the Philistine. It is an extreme form of Philistinism to find, or to be able to find, theology distasteful. The theologian who labors without joy is not a theologian at all. Sulky faces, morose thoughts and boring ways of speaking are intolerable in this field."
-- Karl Barth

Tonight I think of my theory of personal philosophy as a jigsaw. All these puzzles one must put together. But it's not just any jigsaw--it's a jigsaw in which one's mind holds all the pieces, and one may constantly reshape the pieces to fit the theory. Indeed, it's a jigsaw which exists in fluid time and in ever-changing space, because one can believe and disbelieve things simultaneously. Some years ago, the folks in Copenhagen had fun with the idea that all physics re-unites with eastern concepts as to the mutability of matter and energy. Things exist and don't exist, simultaneously, appear and disappear, are justified and unjustifiable. I like to think that personal notions about faith and the Way Things Work similarly involve apparent contradictions, which are only contradictions if one is stuck in a Newtonian mindset in what is a post-quantum time. I meet a lot of folks who use Newtonian mechanics, which is interesting, but to me less useful in the broader universe.

In my part of the south, the churches often have a call at the end of the service. If the attendee has a personal experience of religious feeling, that person can come before the entire congregation and show that he or she has been touched by what he or she has heard. This call is given in many places--not just the south. But the call frequently is answered at churches of certain denominations in the south. I've known the joy of walking to the front, at a Baptist church of all places (I am easily the least Baptist person you might meet) seeking a renewal. I've known the alienation of seeing others do so, and failing to imagine how that could ever work for me. I can manage to feel simultaneously a part of and estranged from personal faith and from a denial of faith. I do not like a world that excludes people based on whether they feel it right to walk up the aisle. I'd rather live so that the fellow who stays home in bed that morning matters just as much.

So many formulae attend these visitations of deep feeling--recitals of phrases such as "do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior?". Words have such power that one gospel uses the phrase "The Word" to express everything that matters. I know that sometimes people ask me "are you a Christian?" and my answer will in context vary from "yes" to "not in the way you mean". I've come to believe that the labels more often divide than unite.

I've got this piece in my jigsaw puzzle that I call God. But perhaps you call that piece something else--coincidence, the Void, the Universe. I've got this place in my jigsaw puzzle that I call grace, but you may just as well call it serenity. I like the idea that "Do you believe in God?" can only be answered with "That's not the right question". I've always thought that the term theologian is too narrowly construed. I find that I learn so much theology from people who profess no faith at all. I also learn a lot from people whose idea of faith is much more rigid and unbending than my own.

I weary of dry theory as a substitute for making an internal map of the universe.
That internal map of the universe is what I call "really living". I think moments of pure joy arise when a piece fits into place. I think that even the frustration of the pieces not quite slotting together has a certain playful worth.

I also weary of store-bought solutions. If I wanted a picture of a sailboat, I'd surely go to eBay and buy one. But I'm assembling my jigsaw, and it may be a sailboat--but then, it may be the white folds of a giant parachute. It may be something I have never dreamed of knowing. It may be something from my dreams. Since I don't remember many dreams, I may never know if I have dreamed about it, for that matter. All I know is the card table is full of pieces, and I'm slotting a few in at a time.

The letter-writing fellow suggested that one works out one's salvation with fear and trembling. That's all as true as can be, I suppose, if one means the fear and trembling that any adrenaline-excited important thing can cause. But ultimately, it's not about trying to browbeat someone else into a way of thinking or use Hellfire to scare one into "right thinking". It's about self-evaluation, a curious mix of science and intuition.

But I love to read the things that others have written before me, whether of faith or of doubt. I also believe, with Mr. Barth, that this is a grand adventure, be its destination a Heaven or a void. I don't know the answer to hardly anything, but I'm just piecing it out. I even use a jig saw to resize the pieces whenever
my eye just can't make it all fit.