Category Archives: Uncategorized

Now blogging on the Praxis Communities website

Dear blog followers,

Just a quick note to let you know that I’m transferring my blog to the praxis communities.org website.  Please visit that site to read my posts.  Thanks.  -Karl

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Words, Science, and Religion

Rick Searle, on his blog Utopia and Dystopia recently posted on Giordono Bruno, burned at the stake by the Roman Catholic Church in 1600 for speculation about the possibility of there being a plurality of worlds.  I liked Rick’s post a lot, and wrote this response:

Your piece made me think about how I use science in my religious life.  But first, I have to object to the idea that “Religions are above all ethical and philosophical orientations towards life on a human scale.”  That’s certainly part of religion, but I think at base religions are a response to the numinous.  People have had, and still have, experiences that go beyond rational explanation, that go beyond science, even.  They need some way to think and talk about those experiences, and they find their way to religions, not because they’re rejecting science and its claims, but because they find that religion provides the language for what they need to say.  I, like you, decry the way that religions can become intolerant.  I would describe that intolerance as a kind of xenophobia – we become so immersed in the language of our faith that any other language seems threatening, other, strange.  But if we reject these other “languages,” our own starts to die.  English is full of French words, is in fact a strange combination of latinate and Germanic languages.  But that’s exactly why I think it’s so beautiful.  To my mind, religion only increases its beauty by allowing scientific words and phrases (by which I mean concepts) to change it.  When I think about science, I think about it religiously.  That doesn’t mean that I try to ignore its truths and make it conform to any dogma.  It means that I encounter science through the lens of my faith.  I seek to understand the natural world because doing so helps me to understand God.  Like a scientist who really believes in the scientific method, I know that my understanding of God is incomplete, that I am merely proposing hypotheses in an attempt to speak about a mystery that is far beyond my comprehension.  Some of the hypotheses I propose will be proved wrong.  Some will stand, at least during my lifetime.  But a disproven hypotheses doesn’t mean that I’ll abandon the language of religion, or the work of trying to understand the numinous.  For me, the idea of other planets, other worlds, even other dimensions, is a very welcome one.  It excites me to think that there are other words, other concepts, through which I can think about God.  But always with the knowledge that God is outside of my understanding.  I think that Bruno’s theological mistake was in trying to apply the concepts of “finite” and “infinite” to the nature of God.  “Since a single Jesus visiting an infinite number of earths one at a time would take an infinite amount of time, there must be an infinite number of Jesuses. Therefore, God must create an infinite number of Christs.”   God wouldn’t need to create an infinite number of Christs if God is Christ (Christ, in Christian theology, is uncreated and existed before creation, as God).  God is outside of time.  A triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) who is outside of time can be on infinite worlds all at once, or play with time in any way that divinity can imagine.  But here I am entering into Bruno’s mistake, claiming that my conception of infinity is applicable to God.  The only way to move beyond speculation is to find other worlds, and to look for Christ on them.

Word and Table Podcast up now

One of the reasons I haven’t been posting as often is I’ve been hard at work on a new podcast, Word and Table, which just went up today.  You can listen to it by going to wordandtablepodcast.org.  It’s pending in the iTunes store, but will be there soon.

My Week with God – Living within Ecclesiastes

Professor Fredal was talking about Ecclesiastes.  Wealth, reputation, accomplishment, none of these things matter, he said.  The ultimate and only reality is death.  Everything else is vanity and the chasing after winds.  The wise and the foolish both die.  It doesn’t matter how you live your life.

In the third row, a girl with blonde hair raised her hand.  “Why is this book even in the Bible?” she asked.

I had an answer.  I often worry about raising my hand in class.  It’s a Bible survey class, and I have a distinctly unfair advantage.  I’m learning amazing things every day, but maybe I can listen for them easier because I understand the material that they emerge from.  The literary structure of the psalms is instantly interesting to me, because I hold some of the psalms in my mind, and can begin examining that structure right away.  But the undergraduates in the class are being assailed with fact after fact, ideas and thoughts that they’ve never encountered before.  It must be bewildering.  And if they enrolled for reasons of faith, it must be deeply confusing to find that the Bible argues with itself, that it’s multi-voiced, that Ecclesiastes disagrees with Proverbs.

“Ecclesiastes is a corrective,” I said.  Proverbs assumes that rich people are rich, and healthy people are healthy, and successful people are successful, because they’re virtuous.  There’s a nasty tendency in Proverbs to blame all suffering on foolishness.  If we could only be wise enough, we’d never know pain or loss.  But Ecclesiastes doesn’t allow for that kind of thinking.  Everyone experiences pain and loss, it says.  It doesn’t matter if you’re wise or foolish.

Yes, Professor Fredal said, that is a corrective.  But there’s more to Ecclesiastes than that.  If we can’t rely on our own wisdom, or prominence, or reputation, what can we rely on?  If our actions in the world will ultimately be forgotten, if one generation ignores the generations that proceeded it, if every thing we do has been done before and originality is a vacant category, what is the purpose of being alive?  Grace, Professor Fredal said.  We cannot rely on ourselves.  We can only rely on, fall back on, rest in, God’s grace.

I’m learning, slowly, to do this.  My work is tenuous and rootless at best, and I find myself drifting through my days without a large sense of where my actions are leading.  My priesthood has become a work of art, and I’m following my instincts, and sometimes going far astray, producing bad art with my life and with my vocation.  I often long for familiar settings and roles.  What I really want is to have a list of actions and ways of being that I could strive to fulfill, and by fulfilling them be assured that I am good and wise.  I’m living within Ecclesiastes, and I long for Proverbs.

But I’m learning to rely on God’s grace.  At a retreat several weeks ago, a woman who has been battling cancer read this poem by Denise Levertov:

The Avowal

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.

Living within Ecclesiastes means learning to attain free fall.  It means learning to accept all-surrounding grace.

My Week With God – The Face in the Tortilla

The smudge on the conference room table didn’t really show a lion’s face.  But I’ve been drawing lions lately, and have begun to know the pattern of their faces, and so I was predisposed to see eyes and muzzle staring up at me from the dark, burnished wood.  I was so taken with it that I got out my sketchbook and drew it, even though I knew I was being rude, and seemed to have checked out from the conversation in the room.  And I thought about the woman who saw Jesus’s face in the tortilla.  I thought about her without cynicism, because I felt that I understood her.  It wasn’t that she needed a miracle.  She didn’t need Christ’s face to appear to her in a burn pattern on flat bread.  If something miraculous was happening, it was happening inside of her, because she was so focused on Jesus that she could see him everywhere.

We see the things that we’re already concentrated on – they become visible to us in the world.  I’ve always loved this tendency towards saliency, our ability to make meaning by narrowing our focus.  But these days I’ve become wary of forcing my meanings on the world around me.

I’ve been reading nature poetry, Mary Oliver especially, and I love the turn that her poems take about three quarters of the way through.  She’ll be doing nothing more than describing a scene in nature and then, suddenly, she lets insight break in like a break in the clouds.  I admire this, but I also wonder about its merits.  Should we inflict our insights onto the environment, onto swans and frogs and herons?

I wonder about this because I’ve realized that I’m not a nature poet.  I’m not really a poet at all.  The focus of my writing is on people.  Yesterday morning I was standing in line at Buckeye Donuts.  It was early, and the restaurant had that sparse, clear feeling of a well-lit place in the predawn.  The man in front of me was deaf, and obviously a regular.  He pointed to what he wanted with great precision, and the man behind the counter was fluent in reading his gestures.  There was a young black man in a vest and a trilby hat standing against the far wall, waiting for his order to be handed to him.  The deaf man gestured at him, and the man responded with words, smiling, because it was a conversation that they’d obviously had many times before.  I watched all of this and felt a great inner joy, the same joy that Mary Oliver seems to feel when watching a loon rise from a lake.  But I couldn’t say what the meaning was, because the deaf man and the man in the trilby hat have their own meanings, and who am I to superimpose my meanings onto them?

Perhaps its enough to simply observe their gestures.  And yet, I have Christ in mind when I do so.  An image rooted in my consciousness, a tendency to see His face swimming up to the surface of things.  Sometimes its the face of a lion.  I will not say that the deaf man and the man in the trilby hat were Christ, the Christ that

plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces. (Hopkins)

They may have been, and Christ’s face may emerge from their own.  I will always be watching for it.  But I want things, and people, to have their own meanings, too.  Maybe it is only a statement about myself, the specificity of my concentration, the direction of my saliency, when I say that I see lions in tables and Jesus in people.  Maybe that is enough.  And maybe there is something miraculous about it, in a small way, because it points to a change in me, if not the world.