The Jacob’s Ladder of an Examined Faith

“An unexamined faith is not worth having,” said James Luther Adams.  What, then, is a faith worth having?  The essay below links three sermons on transcendence, a foundational element in any faith tradition and for this reason, central to theology—that is, critical and creative reflection on religion.

This work had its origin in theme talks presented at The Point, a Unitarian Universalist family conference in Oklahoma in 2018.  The three sermons here reproduced were presented for Unitarian Universalists of the Blue Ridge, in Sperryville, Virginia, in 2020 and 2021.  They are titled: “Theology as the Quest for Faith Worth Having,” “Theology as Autobiography: Awakening to What Was There All Along,” and “Is Theology Science or Poetry?” The series is planned to continue at a future date with further rungs on this “Jacob’s Ladder,” on three further foundational themes: consciousness, pathos, and communion.  This interlinked cycle of themes applies Bernard Longergan’s outline of “the conscious and intentional operations of the mind” to my Adamsean theological agenda.  The author welcomes responses from readers.

–George Kimmich Beach


The Jacob’s Ladder of an Examined Faith – Part 1

Theology as a Faith Worth Having

In England, several years ago, a huge billboard advertising SKY television astonished me—a stadium crowd, soccer fans screaming, with a caption: “Football is our religion.”  I reflected that a great many Americans would say the same about our brand of football.  Only we wouldn’t be so blatant about it—or would we, in this, the Year of our Superbowl  LIV?  If sports has become a more engrossing, a more passionate religion for us, then an unembarrassed secularity has arrived in triumph.

But football is not our religion.  It is not a faith worth having.

Do I take a too solemn a view of secularity?  Why not say: “Well, in spectator sports, religion has simply taken a new form”?  Probably that’s why I keep rooting for the Cleveland Browns, year after year—through many miserable seasons.  Such loyalty teaches at least this, that hope  does spring eternal!  I grew up in Cleveland during the glory days of Otto Graham and Marion Motley and Dante Levelli.

So we must ask: Who’s to say that football or soccer is not as good a religion as any other?  Who’s to say? Authentic faith says so.  “Liberal” may mean open-minded, but not open at both ends!

The root of my lasting love for the Browns certainly is not the sport itself.  It is the home town effect—an ingrained pride of place.  Tennessee Williams said, “There are only three cities in America, New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans.  Everywhere else is just Cleveland.”  Such perverse recognition for a land I cleave to the farther I am cleaved from it!  Issues of religion matter to us because they are intimately related to our sense of identity.  Yet we know that our humanity cannot be reduced to a tribal identity, as religions commonly do.  The all-too-familiar spectacle of the violation of human dignity and of life itself by the super-pious makes us wary of religion itself.  And yet, and yet, our very sense of outrage—the feeling that something sacred is being violated when we or others or truth itself are violated, rekindles our enduring religious consciousness.

You may consider “liberal theology” an oxymoron.  So let me explain what I mean.  Theology is concerted reflection on the virtually universal human phenomenon of religion.  Everyone has faith in something—unless they are utterly cynical or entirely despairing.  Theology is as simple and as endlessly complex as that.  Yes, there are different kinds of theology.   Liberal theology is critical and creative reflection on religion.

Or put it this way:  Liberal theology is a quest, our quest, for a faith worth having.

This quest has deep, historical roots.  An authentic, liberal faith is one part prophetic and one part Socratic.  We learn from the ancient Hebrew prophets that tribalism (“my country, my religion, my people, right or wrong”) is a hearty weed, a pernicious form of idolatry.  And we learn from Socrates that “an unexamined life is not worth living.”  In the paraphrase of James Luther Adams, “An unexamined faith is not worth having.”

Nothing is more difficult and yet necessary to our humanity than a capacity to question ourselves.  And nothing is more disturbing, when we meet it in others, than an unwillingness to be self-reflective or to entertain any self-doubt.  Humility engenders trust, and arrogance engenders alarm.  (I shall refrain from naming the obvious example.)  Saying “an unexamined faith is not worth having” puts the matter mildly; in fact it’s morally dangerous.  The prophets of humanity have always known that faith in itself is not good, but only authentic faith.

But who’s to say what is authentic, and what, inauthentic?  We do.  I say: Authentic faith responds, first of all, to our sense of meeting a sacred limit.  Sacred is what we set apart from the merely useful; it is what we hold dear and will not degrade or violate.  It isn’t always easy to say how or why, but we know when the integrity and worth of ourselves or others is being violated.  If nothing is held sacred, if literally “anything goes”—if we live without acknowledging limits—then our humanity is at risk.  A faith worth having is a faith that sustains consciousness of sacred limits and thereby sustains our humanity.  If so, a faith worth having is a humanizing force.  It is both critical and creative, both prophetic and Socratic.  The quest for a faith worth having is a profoundly humanistic quest.

Being “critical and creative” has a nice ring to it, but we need to remind ourselves: Criticism begins with self-criticism.  We liberals are often sharply critical of Evangelicals.  A fair statement?  And sometimes we’re just plain condescending.  It gets us in trouble, moral trouble.  Remember Barack Obama’s “they cling to their Bibles and guns,” and Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”?  To condescend is to degrade, and it may mask an underlying jealousy: “Oh, dear!  Those Evangelicals are so forthright about their beliefs, while we liberals are so vague!”  Vagueness is the besetting sin of liberal religion.  It invites slack intellectual engagement and uncertain religious commitment.  The criticism of religion begins with self-criticism.

Some of us are old enough to remember the Edward R. Murrow series, “This I Believe”—short essays by famous people on their personal,  basic beliefs and values.  We all do well when we learn to say “This I believe,” with feeling and with conviction.  Why is this important?  Because self-definition brings clarity, and clarity brings the strength of knowing and being known.  Being not vague, but actual.  Alfred North Whitehead made this observation into a metaphysical principle: “Definition is the soul of actuality.”  Jim Adams loved that adage, for he saw that no person, no movement, no church, no being of any sort, achieves “actuality”—a dynamic  existence—without  “definition”—a strong, clear sense of identity.

We do not live by bread alone, but by meaning.  The secular spirit of the modern age has led many intellectuals to expect that, along with rising education and falling poverty, religion would simply fade away.  That’s a big shiny half-truth.  Paradoxically, religious revival has become a global phenomenon, such that scholars have taken to calling our age “post-secular.”  But it’s complicated.  The revival of “religion” regularly comes with nationalisms so strident and xenophobic that they morally discredit themselves.  And this opens us all to the spiritual demons of cynicism and despair.  Many conclude: “There is no faith worth having, no authentic faith; religion always dehumanizes. Give us not freedom of religion, but freedom from religion!”  And what do we say?  If we do not live by bread alone, by what do we live?

Begin with the recognition that religion—good, bad, or vanilla flavored—is hard-wired into our humanity.  One way or another, our hunger for meaning will be fed—if not by authentic religion then by all manner of fake religions, from mindless football to murderous fanaticism.  No one is exempt from the hunger for meaning, either as an individual or as a member of a proud tribe.  How, then, will we feed our hunger for soul-nourishing religious meaning?

Let me indicate where these chapters are leading, since they are only part of a larger whole.  The three sermons I’ve projected for this winter/spring season comprise, together, the first rung of my “Jacob’s ladder of an examined faith.”  The whole four-rung contraption invites reflection on four fundamental elements of religious awareness: transcendence, consciousness, pathos, and communion.  These realities of the spirit can’t be reduced to a single word, but for now perhaps one sentence per rung will suffice.  Here, in brief, is what I mean by these four large terms.  To indicate how they are linked to each other, I will put them in reverse order—something like the angels on Jacob’s ladder, who both descend and ascend:

“Communion” refers to our awareness of the blessings that come with participation in a dedicated community.  Such communities put us in touch with the emotional depths, the pathos, of humanity.

“Pathos” refers to the moral sensibility that flows, as with tears, from compassion.  Such compassion awakens deeper levels of humanity in ourselves as conscious, moral agents—capable of choices and commitments.

“Consciousness” refers to the deep conviction of our own creative freedom.  It is a liberating self-awareness.  It enables us to see that we can either squander by freedom on trivial and self-serving pursuits, or use it to overcome limitations and create new possibilities.

“Transcendence” refers to reflection on the ultimate context of human existence, the meaning-giving reality of which consciousness, pathos, and communion are primary markers along the way.  But to be entirely clear: the first set of three sermons focus on transcendence.

We speak of transcendence, the mystery of being itself, with difficulty.  If we have no sense of this mystery—if we think that life is a matter-of-fact sort of thing and the rest is just head-scratching—then we will probably be indifferent, or perhaps irked, by the very notion of transcendence .  To my mind transcendence is primary in religious awareness—an awareness of  wonder and mystery leading to ask mind-bending questions:  Why, after all, is there something and not nothing?  And to see that religious awareness is captured, if at all, in works of the imagination.  For instance, poetry and story.

Why poetry?  Because our sense of transcendence—something that goes before and underlies our existence—is elusive, fascinating, and suffused with feeling.  Poetry can take us where straightforward, expository prose cannot go.  Emily Dickinson said it straight:

Tell all the truth
but tell it slant
success in circuit lies . . .

Or did she say it slant?  Poetry can open unexpected pathways to recognition of transcendence, realities of the spirit that would otherwise remain hidden.  Our sense of transcendence is the sense of something beyond us and that yet includes us, something that eludes our grasp, and yet has laid its hold upon us and does not let us go.  The words we regularly say, being invited in this community of faith into silent meditation, I hear as a poem:

Allow the mystery
within us
to reach out
to the mystery beyond.

And why story?  Consider the Biblical legend of Jesus’ “temptation in the wilderness.”  In the Gospels it is the story of Jesus’ authentication as a prophet.  Mark tells us that directly following his baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, “the Spirit drove him into the wilderness.”  Jesus, seemingly overpowered, remains in the desert for forty days, “tempted by Satan,” while “the wild beasts and the angels” attended to his needs (Mark 1: 12-13).

Whatever history underlies the legend of Jesus’ sojourn and temptation in the wilderness, surely “something happened.”  Mark and the other Gospels are saying that Jesus’ faith was being examined, “field-tested” under severe conditions: forty days in the wilderness.  Not the woods, the desolate desert.  No, his beliefs were not in question; the Gospels always depict Jesus as a pious, if rebellious, authority-challenging, Jew.  (In this respect, a characteristic Jew!)  Rather, in the “temptation” story he is “put to the test,” and proves  himself worthy of the mission—to be a prophet of God’s in-breaking kingdom.  The Jesus we see in the story is remarkably human: He does not know in advance where this mission will lead him.  If he was fully human, as the Christian creeds have always stated, he could not know the future.  And just this is the nature of authentic faith: to believe in—to be committed to—spiritual realities you cannot fully know.  For ultimately they are mysteries.

The Gospel of Matthew elaborates Mark’s tersely told story in a way that accents his full humanity.  In Matthew, Satan invites Jesus three times over to use wizardry to show that he has magical or supernatural powers; Jesus declines with a profound saying each time.  When he is invited to turn stones into bread, his answer affirms both his common humanity and his lively faith: “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4: 4).

If we do not live by spectator sports, nor by fanaticism masquerading as faith, nor by magical fantasies, nor any other idolatry, then by what do we live?  Sacred tradition answers: “By every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”  This is not an invitation to Biblical literalism; it is poetic metaphor!  It means, quite simply: we live by words of creative power, not unlike the creative power ascribed to God in the first words of the book on Genesis: “In the beginning God said. . . . .”  Just so, we who are made “in the image of God” live by imaginative thought and creative expression. In poetry or storytelling or any of the arts.  To be human is to exercise this creative power; it is to transform raw experience into life-affirming meaning.

James Luther Adams called attention to our sense of linkage between past and present as basic to our sense of meaning in life itself:

I call that church free which is not bound to the present, which cowers not before the vaunted spirit of the times.  It earns and creates a tradition by binding together past, present, and future in a living tether, in a continuing covenant and identity, bringing forth treasures both new and old.  God speaks.  God has also spoken.

I would say: God speaks in and through whatever creates meaning.  Such meaning-full words speak to us in contemporary idiom.  But it is not their novelty that makes them creative and powerful; it’s that they resound with words we have heard before, words that have entered into our very bones.  We are like children who want to hear the same story again and again.

A spiritual truth remains unknown until we open our hearts to it.  The question—what do we live by?—addresses us personally, body and soul.  I’ve cited the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, which are central to the sacred tradition we inherit, and specifically the legend of Jesus’ “temptation in the wilderness.”  Like an atom, such a story needs to be broken open to release its energy; it needs to be recognized as legend or myth or parable or metaphor to be able to release its truth.  A story that is broken open is not destroyed; it is rescued from the idolatrous literalism of those who refuse to read the Bible as poetry and story.

Seeing this, religious liberals—members, it’s been said, of the church of “what’s happening now”—face a challenge: Can we, even today, invite sacred tradition to imaginatively transform our faith?  Or will we cast up so many mental reservations, asking for facts and explanations, that we clog the very springs of insight and self-knowledge?  Hear Denise Levertov’s poem, “The Fountain”:

Don’t say, don’t say there is no water
To solace the dryness at our hearts.
I have seen
The fountain springing out of the rock wall
And you drinking there.  And I too
Before your eyes
Found footholds and climbed
To drink the cool water.

The poem is responds to the poet’s memory of a certain place, a mountain stream with a natural fountain.  It is a cri de couerr bidding us to break through the deadening gauze of cynicism and despair that entangles our hearts, that entraps our minds, that binds our wills.

A faith worth having is finally an inner strength, a strength that reaches outward, beyond ourselves.  You cannot describe it in literal terms; you can only “tell it slant,” in circuitous, symbolic work-arounds.  A faith worth having is a faith that remembers transcendent moments that we have known, seek “footholds”  and clamor to reach, ever again,  May you find, may we all find, intimate and ultimate resources—“fountains springing out of the rock wall”—“cool water”—“to solace the dryness at our hearts.”


The Jacob’s Ladder of an Examined Faith – Part 2

Theology as Autobiography: Awakening to What Was There All Along

Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb,” delivered with rapid-fire conviction at the Inauguration on Capitol Hill, shortly after the pathetic Epiphany-day Insurrection, was another climbing exercise, another exaltation, another “Jacob’s Ladder.”

This is the second of three sermons which began with “Theology as the Quest for a Faith Worth Having”—for there are so many false or illusory faiths “in this rough world”!  We do well to consider: What is truly worth giving our trust and devotion to?  What is a faith worth having?  The theme that runs through the series, in a word, is transcendence.  Today I’m reflecting on the way that transcendence enters into our life-stories, especially their turning points, their awakenings.  Theology is rooted, it seems, in the urge to tell your story, in autobiography.

Let us begin with a prayer in the form of a sonnet.  Here e. e. cummings speaks in the first person, of his keen sense of dying to an old life and awakening to a new.  By speaking intimately, of himself, he is able to speak to us all.

i thank you God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky, and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You!
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

To speak of theology as autobiography first brings to mind Saint Augustine’s Confessions, a book of passionate devotion and relentless self-examination.  He asks: How did I arrive at the place, the faith, where I now find myself?  How?  The book leads him back to earliest childhood memories—leads him back in order that he may turn about and find his way forward.  To remember is to call up and re-capture what is already there.  Confessions as a whole is cast as a prayer.  Augustine prays: “Thou hast prompted us, that we should delight to praise thee, for thou hast made us for thyself, and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee.”  Transcendence always entails the quest for self-transcendence, an inward awakening to what was there all along.

So cummings, and so Augustine.  Consider Jacob, the Biblical patriarch who told of dreaming about a ladder that reached up to the heavens.  Or consider myself, growing up Unitarian, singing “Jacob’s Ladder” and wondering what it means.  Or Barack Obama, the President who wept and sang “Amazing Grace.”

But here’s my favorite case in point, a man whose life almost spanned the 20th century.  James Luther Adams was my teacher, mentor, and friend.  In a charming short essay, “A Come-outer,” he tells how he became a Unitarian, a story that reflects the deeply affective roots of faith.  Adams grew up in eastern Washington State, the son of a Baptist minister and farmer.  His father was so troubled by the “modernism” he saw creeping into Baptist thinking that he joined the Plymouth Brethren and took the example of Paul, a tent-maker who refused to accept pay for preaching the Gospel.  “In short, my father was a man of principle,” Adams said—which is admirable, but could be rough on father-son relationships.

Adams chose the University of Minnesota so he could pay his own way, working the night shift on the Northern Pacific Railroad.  Higher education represented what this farm boy called his “de-provincialzation.” Indeed, his quest soon brought him to a radical break from his parents’ fundamentalism, just as they had feared.  He and his “quondam fundamentalist” friends, he tells us, published “a radical campus sheet with the self-adoring name The Angels’ Revolt.” But something more was going on here: What would fill the spiritual void he had opened in his own, restless heart?

During his senior year he took a course in public speaking.  It required regular class speeches.  All of his, Adams recalls, “were vicious attacks on religion, or as vicious as I could make them.”  The teacher was a distinguished professor of rhetoric, Frank Rarig.  Adams  comments, “He seemed to enjoy my anti-religious pugnacity, and I enjoyed shocking my pious classmates.”  Then one day after class Adams casually mentioned to Professor Rarig that he didn’t know what he was going to do after graduation.  Rarig replied, “You don’t know what you’re going to do?  Why, I’ve known that for some time.”  And right there, Adams tells, “in the presence of my enemies, the fundamentalists, he smote me.  With unconcealed teasing, he said, ‘You are going to be a pr-reacher!  Come and see me if you wish to discuss this.’”

The next morning, Adams tells, he went—“like Nicodemus, by night”—to talk with this “strange counselor.”  He “told me I was provincial and naïve, that I apparently had never encountered a self-critical religion, and that this was the reason for my blanket hostility.  Nevertheless, my most passionate interest was evident—religion.”  Professor Rarig turned out to be a Unitarian, and “self-critical” seems to me a perfect definition of a liberal religion. To the astonishment of fellow students and perhaps even of himself, Adams enrolled at Harvard Divinity School the following fall.  He went on to become the most important Unitarian theologian and social ethicist of the 20th century.

Adams’s story is not unlike the stories of countless others who have lost the simplistic faith of their childhood, and seek a way to fill the spiritual void.  Increasingly, however, we’ve seen a younger generation of seekers grow up with no religious identification and wary of any kind of “organized religion.”  In Generation X, the book that coined the very term, Douglas Coupland says, “We are the first generation raised without religion.” Today growing numbers have joined the ranks of the “Nones.”

And yet, for all that, I think it difficult to deny that our species is incurably religious.  Our believing may be inarticulate, but our hearts remain restless.  I call religion the inclination of the heart toward wholeness.  Wallace Stevens speaks for many of us: “We believe without belief, beyond belief.” Paradoxically, belief must constantly negate and go beyond itself, finally to come to rest in itself.  Such is the inner logic of faith, to seek transcendence and find it, if at all, in moments of self-transcendence.

William James distinguished between religion of “the once-born” and religion of “the twice-born.”  Religious liberals have long been stuck, so to speak, on the once-born side.   “Why should I be born again?” the Boston matron asked; “I was born in Boston.”  What of myself?  Unlike Jim Adams, the “come-outer,” I’m a “born in the briar patch” Unitarian, firmly on the once-born side.  I vividly remember the old Unitarian church of my childhood, on Floyd Avenue, in Richmond.  Our family went to church religiously—every Sunday.  I grew up an utterly open-minded religious liberal—so what’s to rebel against?  The very creed glossed over by our creedlessness!  By the 1960s “scientific humanism” had become the dominant denominational mindset.   Not that I lost faith in the liberal way in religion, but capital-H Humanism seemed to cut us off from solemnity and devotion, humility and exaltation, all the intense feelings that underlie and burst through powerful forms of religious expression.  In short, growing up Unitarian gave me a heady sense of freedom-to-decide, but only a tenuous sense of a cherished sacred tradition.

But here I’m getting ahead of myself.  Before scientific humanism we were raised with a mix of what I’ll call naturalism and Biblical humanism.  I remember Sunday school books—Moses, Child of God, and Jesus the Carpenter’s Son.  Moses and Jesus were seen as exemplars of courage and compassion, with no miraculous partings of the Red Sea or Virgin Births.  I also remember an especially beautiful book, How Miracles Abound, with an image of the chambered nautilus, its shell bisected, revealing a perfect spiral—in fact, “the golden section.”  In the natural world, we learned, miracles abound!  We were invited to feel wonder, a primal religious feeling, a taste of transcendence.  So my Unitarian upbringing does get credit for my own restless heart.  No wonder I’m preaching about transcendence today, and more than once!

Recall the Biblical story of Jacob’s dream, about a ladder reaching up to the heavens, with angels ascending and descending upon it.  The story surely contains a kernel of authentic, personal memory.  It is Jacob’s own report—an autobiographical “confession” with deep religious import.   We know the story, if only from the folksong, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder. . . .”  Singing around a camp-fire, teen-age boys and girls together, hormones stirring, wonder-awakening questions arise: What is this ladder, why are we climbing it, where does it lead?

Consider that this charming legend remains for us a sacred tale—one that speaks to the anxieties that come with any life-journey, and binds us to a sense of transcendent purpose.   Something held sacred, never fully grasped but constantly reached for, makes us who we are.   Are we climbing Jacob’s ladder?

Abraham’s beloved son, Isaac, sends his own son, Jacob, on a long journey to find a wife among the people of his mother, Rebecca. So Jacob leaves Beersheba in the land of Canaan, walking to their ancestral homeland, in Mesopotamia.  He’s alone and on his own, a young man seeking his destiny.

Jacob sets off, across the barren highlands, until he reaches a resting place for the night.  Taking a large stone for a pillow, he sleeps and dreams: A ladder, set upon the earth reaches to the heavens, with angels ascending and descending upon it.  In the Bible angels are messengers of God, and how curious that they are going in both directions!  But of course, they expect to take a message back again, an answer yes or no.  Why else would God speak to us than to ask for an answer?  The voice from on high says: “I am the God of your fathers, Abraham and Isaac,” and “you and your descendents shall become a great nation.”  And this: “Be assured that I go with you.  I will keep you safe wherever you go.”  So a covenant, a commitment to the future, is offered to Jacob, and Jacob consents.

In the mythology of this ancient, patriarchal society—Jacob is himself one of its chief patriarchs—the high God Yahweh is masculine.  But note this oddity:  Being one alone (we call it monotheism) Yahweh has no consort, no companion.  Perhaps, then, gender is finally irrelevant, and we can say that God is transgender.  (Now that’s an interesting twist!)  I would add something more: God is certainly not a person, but is personal in this sense: God is the sacred other who calls us forth as persons.  This God has “prompted us,” as Augustine puts it, to tell our stories, our spiritual autobiographies.

The story of Jacob’s dream at Bethel is ancient, but this young man’s story is hardly foreign to our own experience.  We learn from the story that religious faith is both gift and task.  Acknowledging the gift, we consent to the task.  Awakening to the grace we are offered, we accept the commitment to which we are called.  An examined faith is rooted in the stuff of common, human experience, and it takes this form again and again: a gift given to us and a task set for us.

At root faith is not a set of beliefs, but an awakening—awakening to a sacred dimension of reality, something already present.  Hear Jacob’s awe-struck exclamation upon awakening from his dream: “He was afraid,” Genesis tells, “and he cried out, ‘How awesome is this place, and I did not know it!  For this is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”  A revelation comes to us as a sudden and wonderful insight, a truthful self-recognition, or the disclosure of what had been “hiding in plain sight.”  We can’t explain it but we can tell a story about it: It’s like awakening from sleep in a strange land on a long, risky journey and a discovering what was there all along—and we did not know it!

I call it existential revelation—a personally received, deeply felt, life-changing awakening.  So it was for Jacob.  We are told: “Rising early in the morning, Jacob took the stone he had used as a pillow, and set it up as a monument, pouring oil over the top of it.”  By anointing the stone he is sanctifying it. By naming this place in the wilderness Beth-el, he is naming what I call the presence of transcendence.  From this Beth of the El, this house of the God, he will venture onward, and to it, he vows to return.  His covenant with Yahweh joins gratitude with destiny.  Perhaps this is what a church really is: a rock solid enough to be there when you return, and soft enough—full enough of dreams—to rest your head on.

President Barack Obama took on the mantel of “pastor to the nation” several times during his presidency, and never more powerfully than in the memorial service for the nine murdered African Americans in a Charleston, South Carolina, church in 2015.  When he left prose behind and broke into song, “Amazing grace. . .” the congregation spontaneously rose to sing with him  It was a transfixing moment—to be able, in the face of unimaginable evil, to sing of an ultimate, a transcending goodness.

Paradoxically, faith flares most brightly in resistance to whatever threatens to destroy it, even the deeds of so twisted a soul as the Charleston assassin.  He said he wanted “to start a race war” by killing black people in a church.  He killed in cold blood, with calculation, but he was self-deceived.  He could not provoke hatred, and use it control others.  The people he targeted kept their spiritual freedom and responded from their inner core of spiritual strength.  Faith’s resistance at such times seems utterly unreasonable, but as humanity’s last line of defense, “believing [even] without belief, beyond belief,” it is utterly reasonable.

The root meaning of grace is simply gift.  Faith starts with awakening to the inexplicable gift of being.  It goes on to cherish the many gifts of being—lifting them up and blessing them, as Jacob did, anointing the stone he dreamed on with oil.   Celebrating the gifts of life in all we do, for others no less than for ourselves—this is our perpetual task.  Gift and task is the pattern of a faith worth having.

Grace is feels “amazing” because it comes unpredictably, when we had no reason to expect it.  “How awesome is this place,” Jacob cried out as he awoke.  “And I did not know it!”  Or e. e. cummings:  “now the ears of my ears awake and/ now the eyes of my eyes are opened.”   And we can add Amanda Gorman’s testament of faith.  The final lines of her amazing Inaugural poem call all of us to awaken to what was there all along, and to start climbing:

For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it,

If only we’re brave enough to be it.


The Jacob’s Ladder of an Examined Faith – Part 3

Is Theology Science or Poetry?

My first degree at Harvard Divinity School was called scientiae theologicae baccalaurei, bachelor of the science of theology.  Poetry I can believe, but science?  Ah, but even ol’ Haavad some years later got into step with the newer lingo and renamed the degree “ Master of Divinity.”   I prefer the Latin—scientiae theologicae—albeit an unnatural science.

Visiting the Cleveland Science Center with two grandchildren several years ago, we found a display called “Jacob’s Ladder,” a device with two diverging metal rods and a button.  Push the button and an electric arc flashes across the gap at the bottom and quickly runs up the rods, and it disappears, poof!  The placard asks, “What’s going on here?”  I read the explanation, twice, but my comprehension wasn’t quick enough to bridge the attention span of the fast-moving youngsters.  What can we say?  The device did its work–if only to arrest our attention and invite us to wonder: What is going on here?

Sounds to me like a scientific question and a religious question in equal measure.  The mind-awakening feeling is wonder, and the mind-leading question is, what’s the explanation?  Our theological Jacob’s Ladder begins with awakening and wonder.  Achieving this first rung, we are moved to reach for the second, inquiry and understanding.  Wonder and understanding are two stages in the cycle of faith, moving from simple awe, to the quest for comprehension. They name distinct moments in our response to the life within us and about us.  Yet they remain inextricably linked, and it is that linking that interests me here.  Wonder awakens the desire to understand; and yet, it also reminds us of the limits of rational understanding.  Scientiae, reasoned thought—yes; but “scientism”—the belief that all inquiries will yield to objective, rational analysis—no.

To be sure, religion and science are radically different, and often find themselves in acrimonious conflict.  They are different ways of looking at the world–the one personal and imaginative, the other impersonal and objective.  But it remains one and the same world we are looking at.  And not only looking at but also dwelling within.  And now more than ever before, that we are striving to sustain—with every resource, scientific or poetic, that we can muster.

I see religion and science as branches growing from the same great tree, the love of wisdom.  Plato said that philo-sophy—the love of wisdom—is “ born of wonder.”  He also invented theology—reasoning about the divine—and ever since, philosophers have seen theology as a science in the original sense of the word: a systematic and rational discipline.  But again and again they have been driven to recognize the intuitive and emotional elements in the wisdom they seek.  Wisdom about what?  I call it transcendence.

Our minds are impatient to move on from wonder or awe (the first rung of our Jacob’s ladder of an examined faith), to meaning and understanding (the second rung).  But once we have made the transition, we should never leave the sense of wonder behind.  Rather, we should return to it, recapture it, and celebrate it.  Think of the ancients observing the conjunction of Neptune and Saturn in the twilit sky, and our own recent experience of this event, giving us a sense of blessing to witness such a rare and magnificent and imagination-enlarging sight.  Ancient astronomers made precise observations and calculations of  “the heavenly bodies.”  They were authentic scientists.  They were also awed, and named the planets as gods.  We are no less awed, today, even though we come to the sight with centuries of answers to “What’s going on here?” in our heads.  Winston Churchill disliked the sense of being a mere speck in a vast universe; gazing up at the starry sky, he muttered, “Enough humility for one night.”

God is a name we give to transcendence.  We may give transcendence other names, but above and beyond all names is the sense of living in the presence of a sacred reality.  Transcendence in any language is paradoxical.  On the one hand it is something inviolable and apart from us; on the other hand it is very near and includes us.  James Luther Adams recalled the words of his namesake, Martin Luther: “God is closer to us than we are to our own hearts.”

“The language of the heart” is the title of a oft-reprinted collection of prayers by A. Powell Davies.  You may remember Davies as the leading voice of Washington Unitarianism, before his untimely death in 1957.  Having “a language of the heart ”—an inward and personal language, whether or not we call it prayer—seems to me vital to our well-being.  As a minister one is regularly called upon to offer public prayers.  And I always included a pastoral prayer in church services I led.  But personal sensitivities are involved when you pray with others.  Rather than begin with address to “God,” I often begin with “Thou,” invoking the sacredness inherent in our sense of relationship to that which transcends and yet includes us.  You have heard my words of benediction:

Thou, the Life of all our lives,
let us be joined each unto each as one community.
May we know now the calling of our time
And the grace offered us this day.  Amen

By speaking of what we experience as sacred, I am speaking of a phenomenon, the presence of transcendence—the first rung on my Jacob’s ladder.

Theological reflection need not be abstruse, removed from felt human experience.  Consider Martin Buber, the great Jewish thinker of the past century.  In his book, I and Thou, Buber describes how different our experience of human relationships becomes when we treat another being as a “thou,” a personal subject, rather than as an “it,” an impersonal object.  The I-thou relation may or may not change the other person, but it surely changes us.  This, I think, was Buber’s central insight: The I who enters into an I–It relation is a different I from the I who enters into an I–Thou relation.  The observation is simple and profound.  We are changed by the character of the relationships we enter into.

Martin Buber’s reflections on the “I-thou” relation led him to speak of God as the Eternal Thou.  He said that when we regard a person as a “thou” rather than as an “it,” we inviting a shared awareness of the sacred.  The relationship is like a circle that holds us together; we call it sacred because we know intuitively that we cannot violate the other without violating ourselves.  The sacred circle that draws us together, as I and Thou, is transcendence, the Eternal Thou.  Something like this is what people of authentic faith are talking about when they speak, sometimes haltingly but always personally, of God.

Another philosopher whose thought has entered deeply into liberal theology is Charles Hartshorne.  I came to know Charles in Austin, where he was on the faculty of the University of Texas, and I was minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church.  Charles and his wife, Dorothy, were members, albeit with somewhat spotty attendance records.  Charles once told me that he wanted to live in three centuries, and he made it!  Born in 1897, he died, age 103, in 2000.  But it’s not for his longevity that I call him a philosopher not of the last century, but of the present.

Charles was a prolific member of the Process Relational school of thought, stemming largely from Alfred North Whitehead.  It seems paradoxical, but the highly abstract language of Whitehead and Hartshorne does not exclude, but demands, a central role for feeling.  Whitehead spoke of the responsive feeling or “prehension” of all things for each other, down to the smallest particle.  But let’s stick with people.  Hartshorne distinguishes two ways of relating to the world about us, internally and externally. We relate to many things—probably most things—externally.  They are morally neutral; we view them objectively; we use them for our purposes.  Objectivity, impartiality, and clear-sightedness are essential virtues in many important pursuits.  For instance, if you are looking for a Corona 19 virus vaccine, they are essential.

On the other hand, significant human relationships—marriage, family, citizenship, vocation, team sports, religious community, and of course, God—are internal relations.  We call them moral and spiritual, for they involve love, loyalty, commitment, pride—on and on—and sometimes they involve shame, guilt, or betrayal.  Such relationships are alive with feeling and are never neutral. They  include us.  They constitute the human spirit.

The ghost of Aristotle has haunted theology for too long, said Hartshorne.  God, he argued, is not Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover,” unaffected by the temporal world and its creatures, a frigid abstraction.  Rather, God is the supremely moved mover, affected by everything in creation.  God is not unchanging and utterly remote, but relational and dynamic, intimately involved in time and human history.  Hartshorne’s God is the eminently relational reality.  His great book is titled The Divine Relativity.

Charles was a wonderful man—small of frame and with a high, piping voice.  No wonder he was also an ornithologist!  In his book, Born to Sing, he analyzes birdsong in precise detail—species by species, its complexity, strength, and varieties.  And he asks a philosophical question: Why do birds sing?  Can it be reduced to biological needs like marking your territory or finding a mate?  Or is it for the sheer pleasure of creating something beautiful?  Maybe you can guess his answer: They sing for the joy of it!  Why else would some sing long, elaborate lines, a musical poetry?  More broadly: Are such aesthetic qualities “real,” or are they only human perceptions projected onto the birds?  You can guess my answer.

Hartshorne held that scientific reductionism is a spiritual dead end, and I agree.  Poetry must make room for science, and likewise, science must make room for poetry—as pathways to “the real.”  Poetry is not a kind of emotional ornament on the tree of reality.  It is an essential tool in the kit-bag of humanity, an instrument for prying open unspoken truths, truths hidden from view but there all along.  T. S. Eliot spoke of poetry as “raids upon the inarticulate.”

It is no coincidence that Hartshorne’s idea of “the divine relativity” should arise in the age of Albert Einstein.  Just four years ago a group of scientists announced an exciting breakthrough as a result of years of work with the Laser Inter-ferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory—LIGO—in Geneva, Switzerland.  Their discovery, they said, was the first experimental confirmation of the “theory of general relativity” that Albert Einstein had proposed a century before.  An expert explained what the LIGO scientists found:  “. . . gravitational waves rippling across the universe from the merger of two black holes.”  Gravity, according to Einstein’s theory, is the warping of space-time, and the LIGO experiment enabled us actually to hear it happening.  Our primary window into the universe has always been light; now LIGO open a second window, sound.  Why was this important?  Because the vast preponderance of the “stuff” that’s out there is invisible.  Dark matter emits no light.  Ah, but it rumbles!

So much for way out there; what about in here?  Well, if there is vastly more dark matter than we knew “out there,” the same must be true of ourselves, “in here,” beings composed of the same cosmic dust.  We dwell in mystery, and cherish the occasional breakthrough moments that come to us.  The first great wonder of existence—that there is something, not nothing—just got more perplexing, more wonder-full.  In the experimental effort to probe the nature of the universe we have learned that is it vastly larger, more intricate, and more unfamiliar than we had imagined.  Imagination is being stretched, and with it, our awe before the grandeur of the universe.

That was Joseph Addison’s theme in his great poem, set to Franz Joseph Haydn’s great music:

The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame,
Their great Original proclaim.

Religious liberalism was spawned by Addison’s and Haydn’s vastly creative Age of Enlightenment.  But here a voice of our so-called Post-Enlightenment Age, Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour”:

Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.
This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
Who is this Interior Paramour?  Another, I think, in intimate relation to us.

Stevens invites us to picture ourselves, perhaps sitting—comfortably at  home—in an easy-chair—taking into our mind’s eye the world as a whole.  Nothing can contain it except, perhaps, the imagination.  “We think / The world [so] imagined is the ultimate good,” he says.  So we feel blessed to be here, happy to receive all that comes to us as a welcome guest.  This visiting presence he also calls “the intensest rendezvous.”  It’s an encounter so powerful that it pushes all other thoughts and feelings aside.  The poem continues:

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves,
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous,
Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one. . .
How high that highest candle lights the dark.
Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.
Now exhale!

In an essay Wallace Stevens comments that philosophical concepts sometimes “give the imagination sudden life.”  Giordano Bruno, the great Renaissance scientist, he calls “the orator of Copernican theory,” for he saw how the concept of the heliocentric solar system fundamentally altered the way we see our place in the cosmos.  “By this knowledge,” Bruno said, “we are loosened form the chains of a most narrow dungeon, and set at liberty to rove in a more august empire; we are removed from the presumptuous boundaries and poverty to the innumerable riches of an infinite space, of so worthy a field, and of such beautiful worlds. . . .   There is but one celestial expanse, where the stars choir forth in unbroken harmony.”  To which Stevens responds:  “If this is sixteenth-century philosophy, it is, equally, sixteenth-century poetry.  For Bruno, the vision of a Copernican universe enlarges and ennobles our humanity, even while it reveals the Creator’s majesty.”

Imagination seems to me equally scientific and poetic.  It invites us to grasp what is literally beyond our grasp—alluring and powerful things.  The more we know of the, the more that is unknown opens before us.  When Wallace Stevens asserts an identity between God and the imagination, he is expressing what he calls “the affinity of art and religion.”  (At last, the obscure poet speaks to us in prose!)  Art and religion, he says, “have to mediate a reality not ourselves.  . . .  That is what the poet does.  The supreme virtue here is humility, for the humble are those who carry the world about in their hearts.”

Just so, the ladder in Jacob’s dream mediated a reality “not himself,” and the vision both humbled him and exalted him.  Sleeping with his head on a stone for a pillow, his own Interior Paramour sent him a dream.  Awakening, he cried out, “How awesome is this place!”—this particular time and place where we literally find ourselves!  And ever after, wherever he went, he carried this place about in his heart—a place where he and we, like Wallace Stevens, have “felt the obscurity of an order, a whole, a knowledge of that which arranged the rendezvous.”

May we find in the arts and the sciences windows of the imagination that open our minds to a vastly larger world than we had known.  Its full depths remain invisible to us, but it rumbles!  Then we can truly say, with Wallace Stevens, that God and the imagination are one.

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