Wednesday, January 13, 2010

With Whose Strength

"Where will I end up?" As my life continues its Hegelian course, I keep asking this question. Is there an end? Will I finally settle into an identity? Or is this the Buddhist hell of samsara, an endless wandering and a homeless soul? One does not "do" things so much as rearrange things.

When I was younger in my spiritual journey, the one thing that was drilled into my mind more than anything else was the frailty of humanity and our constant need for God. Should that have been the basis of my Christian education?

Thinking back to Bonhoeffer's idea of "costly grace" over and against the concept of "cheap grace," I believe it's legitimate to ask whether I had the proper starting point. If we begin with grace, the idea that God will not hold the things you do against you, that you have a pre-paid gift card of righteousness, the conclusion must be licentiousness and anarchy. If on the other hand, it is sin, death and condemnation that is the assumption, then grace becomes costly because it costs us both the life of the only Good person who had ever lived and, in all likelihood, the only life we have ever known.

But I began with a gaggle of teachers and mentors telling me how weak and unfortunate humanity was. We die. We get sick. Mostly with that order reversed. Our best asset, the mind, finds itself so often deceived, deluded and in pain because of its thoughts. And more often than not, that best asset, is used to commit inhumanity and atrocity against its fellow human. And thus, we need God, my teachers said.

And because I trusted, I found myself in a world of agony. Because I believed in my weakness, because I so earnestly prayed looking for divine providence to solve all my problems -- I was jailed in my own life. Of course, the too simple way, the dishonest way of answering this theological problem is to say that God need not answer every prayer with a 'yes' and that prayer is supposed to reinforce the fact of our own position relative to God instead of granting us our desires but that doesn't solve my true question: Am I going to build my life on the belief that I am a helpless creature caught in a hopeless world? That my efforts will always be in vain unless I tap into a power not my own?

Moreover, what does this say about God? The rude and never-asked question during studies on prayer -- if we take as our conclusion that the goal of prayer is not to receive things that we want as if, to use the common analogy, God were a soda machine but instead to illuminate the true nature of man and God, then what is the implied premise? What kind of God would we serve in that case? Powerful surely, but insecure, almost certainly. In my heart and in my mind, I cannot but see it as the case of a man insecure about his wife's advancement in education and career because he must always feel that he is in control and he is in power. And furthermore, where is that man's confidence? Does it lay in the opinions and badges that others value or is it in the knowledge of his own ability and his own power? Is this the God I was to serve?

Don't take my questions as rhetorical. As accusatory as they are, I truly don't know. For the first time, in a very long time, I truly don't know the answer.

I do know some things though. I'm not as helpless as I had been taught. No longer do I worry about what I can't do, but I focus on what I can do and my God, what results have I seen. I don't even believe myself to have stepped out of Plato's cave.

It would be ludicrous to say that I have the words to describe my present state when I am not even at the point of knowing what to describe. It is that damp, trackless purgatory of the now-but-not-yet.

At another time, perhaps 5 years ago, I might have gone to the Scriptures for my answers first instead of turning to my own pen and paper or in this case keyboard and blog. But I have tremendous difficulty reading the Scriptures these days. So much so, that they remain a closed tome and only accessible through the library of my mind. In the particular points, I can't help but see God as petty. Why should the lives and goings-on of small creatures merit his attention? Why should their opinion, their worship, the internal and rarely spoken of valuation that accompanies the bleeding necks of bleating victims, flickering flames and sacrificial smoke, why should these things matter? Of course, my value system is not community-based. It is private. If someone disagrees with me, I'll trample them underfoot with nothing but the strength of my will and never even notice their protests. I chose this path when I came to the conclusion that Community, namely their opinions and desires, were my chains.

But when I see Scripture from a distance, the individual ugliness of these acts blur and appear as something altogether different. God, specifically the Father appears as the Father I've always wanted to be. Confident, strong and daring his children to rise higher and higher. The strongest animals are always individual hunters. Tigers always hunt alone. It is the tiny and weak little piranha that needs numbers to be dangerous. And God has always been in the practice of separating us from the things that make us weak.

He commanded Adam and Eve to go forth into the world, cultivating it and filling it with his image. He smashed the bricks of Babel when cowardly, soft-spined men came together to ascend to Heaven on their own terms. He confused their languages so that they would never be one again. When Israel stayed in its borders, festering in its idolatry and injustice, he sent the Assyrians and then the Babylonians to disperse them. And later as the first century Christians became too comfortable in their small group bible studies and fellowship feasts, the Roman sword would pursue them along the well-paved Roman roads so that the gospel might reach the world. In this case, God and I agreee, clingy cowards should die. I suppose God wouldn't agree with my desire to defecate on the corpse afterwards though.

How can both these realities co-exist? I don't know. I can't deny either because I have evidence for both. Something is amiss among my premises but I have yet to find it. In my heart, I believe that there will be a resolution, that this is still  a part of the universe's dialectic and there is still something yet more that I do not know or something I do know but have not given its proper emphasis. But once I do know, once I give the detail its proper emphasis, all will become illuminated and that overwhelming, effervescent joy will flow freely again. That infectious, irresistable laughter that accompanies that eureka moment, I can see it in my mind even now. It could be an off-hand comment that a friend says as we're driving to this mundane location or it could be as I sit bright-eyed in the first row of a conference where some great mind shines forth, or it could happen when I sit at my computer during one of the dull weeks at work reading manga. Who knows where I'll be when this moment comes? But this much I know, I have to use my power, my strength and my mind to keep pushing forward. And why? Because I know something can be done and this is the kind of goal that merits effort and heart.

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