Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Gesturing Toward Divinity
The poet Christian Wiman, editor of POETRY Magazine, cautions those of us for whom Scripture too easily becomes the central artifact and arbiter of faith:
Language can create faith but can’t sustain it. This is true of all human instruments, which can only gesture toward divinity, never apprehend it. This is why reading the Bible is so often a frustrating, even spiritually estranging, experience. Though you can feel sometimes (particularly in the Gospels) the spark that started the fire of faith in the world – and in your heart – the bulk of the book is cold ash, (Christian Wiman, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet, 2007, p. 160).
There is part of me that rebels. Have I spent a lifetime sifting through little more than ash in an attempt to communicate through words something of the Word of life? Are those who read the Psalms in the evening of life or at the precipice of great grief vainly breathing on cold ash hoping only for some spark? Do my colleagues who teach Bible experience with their students a text that is, in the main, spiritually estranging? I have never thought that the Bible is “the thing itself,” never paraded in front of a congregation with it laid over my hand like a talisman, never made the Book with its texts the object of my faith. Yet there is in me something that wants to say more.
But what? Wiman, a man whose vocation is language and whose own faith has been rekindled in recent years, is not easily dismissed. A few years ago during a sabbatical I read through the Bible, cover to cover. It was a close, careful reading, aided by commentaries and theological reflections of gifted and faithful scholars. One comes away impressed by the narrative sweep, the great story of a world spoken into being moving toward its dramatic encounter with an enfleshed word. But the day to day reading was rarely uplifting. I wouldn’t say I was estranged, but I wasn’t really inspired, either. A lot of it was cold ash. I had simply done it, like one of those long lists of things you feel for some vague reason you ought to do at least once in your life.
I remember wondering if there was something wrong with me. Was I, a religious professional, losing confidence in the basic tool of my trade? Had my move a few years earlier from parish ministry to church “bureaucracy” unhinged me from the life and death struggles where texts did seem to matter to my parishioners and to me? If I were to admit this, would it be an act of courage, or merely pathetic? Other things continue to gesture toward divinity for me – the prayers, hymns, movements, the sacraments and silences – especially the silences – of the liturgy, the icons of Orthodoxy, the prose of Updike and Buechner and Robinson, much of Bonhoeffer’s writings, the Faure Requiem I’m listening to as I write these words, the courage and hope of loved ones and of colleagues I have been privileged to know over these years. And, of course, many of these things are a kind of mediation of the Biblical texts and narratives which give them – in some cases quite literally – life and shape and without which most of them would collapse. But the Book itself stands behind them, veiled if you will, like the One to whom the Book itself testifies. Wiman reminds me that “God is not the things whereby we imagine Him.”
There are those texts that do beckon urgently in their gesturing, like those “red letter” versions that presumed to lift out the words of Jesus himself. Since 9/11 I find Elijah compelling, summoned from his self-indulgent cave with the reminder of the 7000 who have not bowed to Baal. Or Ezekiel, standing among the bones, trusting enough to accept the possibility that they might live. Or Esther, confronted by Mordecai to reject what Bonhoeffer described as the human tendency to “heroically extricate ourselves from the affair of the day.” Or the parables, many of them, taking direct aim at the seductions of greed and violence and Empire. Yet even here they confront me with responsibility, with the implications rather than the fact or even the object of faith.
I have no quarrel with a faith that resists the domestication of the Divine, refusing to turn a Book shaped by imagination into an instruction manual to be used for all sorts of unholy agendas whether of Christian, Jewish, or Islamic variety. I have grown tired of radio preachers, alternately stern and sentimental, for whom the Bible’s meaning is so plain that it brooks no mystery. I no longer have any interest in fathoming whether billboards announcing “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father but by me” are invitations or judgments or both. Maybe we’re the culprits who have turned the texts to cold ash, so constraining the Bible to suit our purposes that it can no longer breathe, the expired Word that no longer inspires?
And yet, one does encounter sparks, perhaps less incandescent than we would like, but sparks nonetheless. They do gesture toward divinity even if they don’t apprehend it. And that just may be more than enough to keep us coming back to an inadequate text with sufficient submission and trust, as Wiman later puts it, to have those inadequacies transcended. As if to confirm that possibility, the Bible itself ends with its own self-effacing gesture toward the ultimate Promise of divinity: “Surely I am coming soon,” (Revelation 22.20). Isn’t that enough? Amen. Come!
John H. Thomas