Saturday, February 09, 2008
I'm reading through Peter Rollins "How Not to Speak of God". He begins the book by talking about how all of our reflections and thoughts about God in themselves can never really capture who God is, and that while we can acknowledge the reality of God, we need to recognize that we ourselves are limited. God is bigger and more profoundly real than any of our attempts to express or understand. In this, Rollins draws upon the teachings of mystics and their idea that union with the God is found in entering into a "cloud of unknowing," finding God in the dark.
What concerns me here is that in some mystical writings there is a sense of dread, distance, and emptiness that strikes me as abusive and life-sucking. So I am led to ask: how can we approach God in humility and need, not as ones who are devalued and torn down, but in the wide open way that children trust with helpless abandon? The idea of being born again that Jesus talks about in the Gospel of John conveyed this kind of childlike dependent stance. The term "born again" was not original to Jesus, but one common at the time. It meant one who was brand new at something, unexperienced. Church historian Homersham Cox in his "First Century of Christianity" writes,
This phrase "born again" was very common, and was applied in a variety of circumstances to persons who commenced a new career in life. The bridegroom on his marriage, the chief of the academy on his promotion, the king on his enthronement were figuratively said to be newly born. Proselytes are constantly spoken of in the Talmud as new creatures. "If any one become a proselyte he is like a child new born." (p. 274)
In essence, the term "born again" here that Jesus uses is a parallel idea to his teaching that one must "become as a little child" before they can enter into the Kingdom. This was such an affront to Nicodemus because it meant that he would, as an established Jewish leader, need to strip himself of all knowledge, authority, and right and become as one who knew nothing, becoming helpless - a needy dependent child.
The thing that is liberating about this image of becoming a new born baby is that it implies along with dependency a beloved embrace of intimacy with God as Abba Father. It implies being able, in the foolishness of childhood to exclaim at the top of our lungs "I love you Daddy!" The picture the Gospels give us here is of children running to him, interrupting the important meeting of the grow-ups and jumping in his lap, and in that sloppy dirty embrace being welcomed and defended.
Of course as adults this should not mean that we act irresponsibly. We don't need to underplay our ability to make God look good. We should act as intelligently as we are able, using all of our ability, character, and resources. But in that we can find a way as adults to become like little children in how we love the ineffable God - in humility recognizing our limitations and need. That's the paradoxical challenge of learning how to be "as a new born child" while still being a responsible moral adult. How can we learn to speak with the bold trust of a child, while knowing that our feeble words an acts are always just that? Because ultimately it is not about us trying to express or capture truth, it is about loving and being loved by the one who is Truth. We know we cannot have a monopoly on truth, but through childlike loving dependency... maybe Truth can have a monopoly on us.
Rollins insists that transcendence is not a contradiction to immanence, and that in encountering God intimately we also encounter and are overcome by God's hugeness - like an overloaded circuit. I want to agree and underscore this point of his, and at the same time affirm that the converse is also true: not only can we in acknowledging God's transcendence still dare to speak in terms of intimacy with God, but in fact it is precisely in that place of helpless dependent intimacy that we encounter the transcendent God. Rollins is down on "fundamentalist certainty", which he understands as an idolatrous certainty in our own human formulations of who God is. I agree, but there is another kind of certainty: relational certainty. This is a certainty not based in ourselves, but in relationally being known by God. It says in devotion and trust "I know my redeemer lives". Rollins again speaks of the contrast between the Greek concept of knowing facts vis a vis the Hebrew idea of knowing in a relational sense. This Hebrew knowing is one of trust, a "knowing" synonymous with being loved - "known in a biblical sense" if you will.