This past week I have had the pleasure of helping with hosting the annual Canadian Theological Students Association Conference at Vancouver School of Theology. It has been a wonderful time, not only because of the content of the conference but also because of the context of the conference, and the chance to do one of the things I really love to do: help people fall in love with Vancouver.
I thoroughly enjoy offering hospitality to people, and being able to do it in such a lovely setting makes it way easier. Any dull moment of conferencing could be quickly filled by merely gazing out the windows of the school at the spectacular view of the harbour and mountains.
Even taking people to see Vancouver’s “worst” area on the Downtown Eastside was not so bad, since I think the delegates appreciated us not glossing-over the reality of our own context, especially since the theme was “God in the City: Faces of Faith”. We also visited the peaceful and pastoral setting of a monastery in Mission, and gave people an afternoon off so that they could wander the city and visit the various neighbourhoods and attractions.
My hope is that by seeing the stark contrasts in an arms-length setting in someone else’s city, the delegates will then go back to their own cities to see their own difficulties, beauty and contrasts. The week has also given me the chance to reacquaint with the city I love yet again and see it anew as I accompany others in navigating its richness. This week I learned that I am indeed comfortable walking the Downtown Eastside on my own during the day; that it is necessary to visit many parts of the city regularly to experience is complexity and lushness; and that, as I had learned theoretically, but hadn’t tested, merely walking the streets, alone or with others, reinscribes the meaning of the city on my body and the body of the city. God indeed works in wondrous ways.
So yesterday my friend Tara and I had the honour of attending a CBC Radio recording session of an interview with 2007 Massey Lecturer Alberto Manguel. It was for the Studio One Book Club and will air on BC’s weekend morning show North by Northwest starting on the 27th.
It was an exciting experience! As Tara and I walked down the long basement hallway to “Studio One” we grinned at each other and exchanged the sentiment that we both felt as if we were on holy ground. I have only recently fallen in love with CBC Radio (CBC is Canada’s public broadcasting network) and I am totally smitten, so to be there was thrilling.
Added to the thrill of just being there, was that it was actually a really fascinating, inspiring, interesting interview with a very sweet and quite brilliant writer. Manguel spoke of the importance of literature because it allows questions and ideas to remain open. He spoke with sadness of the commercialization of language and the tendency in that commercialization to tie down dogmatic meaning and remove ambiguity. The beauty of stories, of literature, however, is that they defy quick and easy succinct readings, language itself is ambiguous, fragile and open. Books grant a sense of freedom for our minds in a world where we are, in Manguel’s opinion (a well-founded opinion I think) educated to be stupid. We are educated to not question, to not allow for openness of meaning and ambiguity.
Manguel acknowledged the difficulty in leaving things open to diverse interpretation, but was adamant that no idea should ever be censored. He laid out the challenge of allowing ourselves to be “prey” to all sorts of ideas, be they dangerous or banal, and as part of that to accept the responsibility that comes with being intelligent, self-aware, imaginative human beings. These are the very qualities that make us human, and yet we are so afraid to accept responsibility for the power in our own thinking.
Most fascinating to me, however, was a comment he made about freedom of thought, and learning to think better, leading us therefore to love more deeply. My imagination caught on this idea although he hardly said anything about it. And so, since it was an interactive radio show, I got up near the end and asked him to say a bit more about what he meant by this. He said that when our minds are free to really get to know someone (the ‘Other’) we cannot hate them. Hate, he said, is a failure of the imagination. Love, on the other hand, is perhaps the most beautiful thing our imaginations can dream up and then live out.
In the context of our diverse cities, a posture of openness to the unknown, no matter what it may bring, seems to be the one that holds most possibility for that which is perhaps the essence of Christian practise: love of neighbour.
So today I am remembering why the rain actually is not all that bad (sometimes): it makes me stay inside and do schoolwork.
I’m a big fan of sunshine, I say sometimes, jokingly, that if I were not so inclined toward the Christian tradition that my number two choice would be worship of Shamash, the ancient Babylonian Sun God. Shamash was awesome. Shamash was also a god related to justice, because, the literature says, Shamash shines light down on whatever we are doing, good and bad, kind of like justice sheds a light on what we’re up to. Shamash is wise and Shamash makes us happy and helps our food grow. All-around a pretty awesome god. I studied ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature last year, hence the familiarity with these Babylonian Shamash texts. Fun times.
Back to the rain though. Since I’m so Shamash-a-philic (or maybe Shamash-a-rotic?) I kind of REALLY like to be outside when the sun is out, which, in case you haven’t noticed, tends to happen a LOT in the summertime. Which means when the sun is out, I’m probably not at my desk, studying. Hopefully this is shedding some light (ha ha, pun intended) on perhaps how my summer unfolded this year….. True, there were actually some bigger things going on too that held me back from my academic work, but when big stuff is going on, I tend to head outside, to try and synch myself back up with the sun and the grass and everything else I’m connected to.
But now the rain has started again, and so instead of lingering outside, sitting in a lawn chair and reading, I am inside writing, looking up books, and actually getting schoolwork done. So perhaps the grey days I’ve been bemoaning are actually a gift in themselves, to free me up from my Shmash-worshipping duties and allow me to turn my mind again to more intellectual pursuits. Which I also love, but in a different way than the way I love napping in the grass on a warm afternoon. Both have made me who I am, both will make me whoever I become.
Someone in my apartment building is baking. At first I thought it might be cookies, but then I sniffed more intently and decided it could possibly be a cake. There is definitely the scent of vanilla and sugar in the air, and that golden-brown fresh-baked smell. It is both my gift and curse that I have this incredibly acute sense of smell.
Now, there is a part of me that wishes I could/would go and hunt down the source of this heavenly aroma. I wish I knew the people on my floor well enough that I could start knocking on doors and find out who was baking, and why. But the sad thing is that I actually do not know anyone else, even in the building. Sure, I can recognize faces, and the guy in the apartment next door I know owns a motorcycle and keeps odd hours, but I have no idea what his name is.
I sit here at my desk with five quotes staring me down, five quotes that are hanging above me in order to help focus my critical thinking for my thesis work. They are all quotes about “community” because “community” is my obsession, my quest, my holy grail. I have plenty of “conflagrations of community” (as Catherine Keller would call them) in my life. I draw on both the past and future possibilities in my dreams of community (as Marjorie Suchocki reminds me to do). I know that community is difficult and tenuous and “not automatically ‘beloved'” (as Grace Jantzen puts it). And I realize that community should never force us to deny, stifle or smother out our differences (as Zigmunt Bauman challenges).
And so I sit, gazing at these quotes and dreaming of living where I can knock on my neighbour’s door and ask what it is they are baking. I dream of taking my own fresh-baked cookies across the hall to the guy with the motorcycle. I long to make too much potato salad because I know that someone in my building is too busy to make dinner and would love to share mine.
Sometimes I think these dreams are silly and childish. Sometimes I wonder if I dream of these things because they are what the demographic I belong to are supposed to dream of. But part of me believes that I dream of these things because there is some desire deep within me (and maybe within others too?) to huddle together and share food and laughter and tears and touch. I’m interested in how we can do that with fidelity to our post-modern, post-Christian context, and how connection and community can, indeed, even save us.
It is tricky to put these two things together: the academic quotes and the heartfelt dreams. Right now I can feel the two both weighing heavily on my heart and mind, because they are still learning how to speak each other’s languages and are still learning how to be patient enough to listen to one another. And yet I press on, convinced that somehow I might be able to say something that will take the desires of my heart and speak them back into my academic work in authentic and life-giving ways.
Maybe I’ll go bake some cookies.
Catherine Keller: A conflagration of communities “cannot draw opaque boundaries around either its individuals or its communities…. it clusters locally and vines globally.” (Apocalypse Now and Then. 218)
Marjorie Suchocki: “Who we are,” as individuals and as ‘the church’, “depends upon our past and upon our future possibilities.” (God, Christ, Church. 143)
Grace Jantzen: “Communities are not automatically paradise. Communities can be extremely powerful, and can use that power in destructive ways.” “Community is not automatically ‘beloved’.” (Becoming Divine. 225)
Zigmunt Bauman: We need to employ “the republican model of unity, of an emergent unity which is a joint achievement of the agents engaged in self-identification pursuits, a unity which is an outcome, not an a priori given condition of shared life, a unity put together through negotiation and reconciliation, not the denial, stifling or smothering out of differences.” (Liquid Modernity. 178)
Me: “Middle-class, North American congregations need to re-imagine what Christian Community looks like in their particular contexts.”
Is there enough poetry in our lives? Today my teacher, who is first generation Chinese-American was telling us how much Chinese love poetry, they put it everywhere: on teapots, in landscape paintings, around the door of a home, on a flower vase, wherever there is a little spare space a few characters of poetry can be added.
Poetry doesn’t seem to occupy the same sort of space – literally or metaphorically – in our North American lives. In fact, I find that poetry tends to actually make people rather uncomfortable: “I don’t get it” folks say, “That’s pretty, but what does it mean?” folks wonder.
But the more that I study theology, the more I try to preach or write about what I dis/believe, the more I try to connect in pastoral yet challenging ways with my fellow spiritual pilgrims, the more I find that poetry offers far more possibility than any other form of writing or speaking.
I presided over a church service this weekend and found that the best way to communicate what I wanted people to learn or take away was through the hymns – the poetry. I find that people are at such different places in their spiritual journeys, and needs are so different, that most communities need “gappy” theology. By “gappy” theology, I mean theology that has enough gaps to allow people too find and make their own meaning. By this I don’t mean hymns or poetry that have no meaning or completely relative meaning, but rather different layers of meaning that can speak differently to different people.
I too find myself, far too often, trying to tie people down to thinking exactly the way I do, believing exactly the way I do – I find myself thinking “if only this person could read exactly what I’ve read, and hear the lectures that I’ve heard, then they’d see things the way I do!” But then there’s the experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve loved, those who’ve loved me, the things I’ve seen… all of that has influenced the way I see the world and the way I do theology. How could I ever convey that totality of life theologically?
I speak of poetry as a revelatory distillation of experience…. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so that it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.
-Audre Lorde “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” in Sister Outsider
Maybe poetry is a way of doing theology in a way that both honours the fullness of our lives and allows enough space for others to enter in.
Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky
the way of a snake on a rock
the way of a ship on the high seas
and the way of a man with a woman
When some of my friends and I talk theology we often find ourselves at some point rubbing our own skin or touching each other to try and show what we’re trying to get at. “It’s about this” one of us will say, stroking another’s hand or arm, skin on skin, the intimacy of touch and the basic-ness of body as demonstration of the type of truth we are trying to articulate.
Why is it that this sensual act is where “the rub” is with theology for me and for much of my community? There is something very important to me in the act of touch, in the act of closeness. I think it is in part due to one of the most basic elements of my theology: this life and these people in this place at this time deserve my love and compassion. My metaphysical world is not void of non-material substance that is of value, but I try to remember the value of the material world as well, which I think is also central to Christian theology.
Our flesh is so precious: our contemporary cosmologists, our physicists, tell us that matter is extraordinarily rare in our universe. This body that sits typing is made up of more empty space than matter, and the universe has even more empty space. How precious and wonderful and rare we all are with our tiny amounts of matter in relation to the vastness of space. Christian doctrine backs up this preciousness of the flesh as God takes to flesh and becomes incarnate, in-spiring and enlivening our skin and bones, not only in the body of Jesus but in the dry bones in the desert, in ha-adamah the first earth creature, in the water, in the wind, in the bread, in the wine, in our tongues.
And yet these spirit-imbued fleshy bodies are fragile and vulnerable. We need each other for protection, for touch, for creating new life. And we need food to eat and shelter and warmth and clean water, for we are easily hurt; we simply cannot survive alone and exposed. Perhaps it is this very vulnerability that causes us to doubt so much our own preciousness, to doubt that divinity would dare to move in this weak flesh, these frail bones.
Ludwig Feuerbach told us in the mid-1800’s that our idea of God is merely a projection of ourselves – or more specifically for Feuerbach, Man. More recently, feminist philosopher of religion, Grace Jantzen, took up this notion of projection and dared to suggest, with help from Luce Irigaray, that projection does not necessarily have to imply atheism. If our projections are ethical, ideal and life-giving, then they ought to draw us toward being more, toward becoming divine ourselves. Becoming divine, says Jantzen, ought to be the goal of all religion.
Could the frailty of our flesh be part of what has precluded some philosophers and theologians from allowing this possibility of allowing ourselves divine projections and moving toward those projections? How could something divine come from this frail flesh, they might ask. To which I would respond – how can divinity come from anywhere else but right here? *Shannon caresses her own arm*
As a friend spoke the other night of the frailty of human bodies, I was struck with a sense of awe for life, and compassion for all life. I am surrounded by fellow beings who are living with pain: watching my grandma in the hospital, watching friends and family members recover from surgeries and accidents and traumas, experiencing the unreliability of my own body – the brokenness of it all can be overwhelming. Yet we are here and we are alive and we are together and divinity breathes anew each moment, even right here where my wrist hurts, and right there where stitches close your wound, and right there where the pain is so deep we cannot touch it, and right there where new life defiantly begins. Right here, in this flesh is where we find “the rub” of theology, is where our religious lives take shape, is where all life becomes divine.
Ludwig Feuerbach. The Essence of Christianity.
Grace Jantzen. Becoming Divine: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion.
Luce Irigaray. This Sex which is not One. and Sexes and Genealogies.