Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Letter To a Friend

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by Henk Hart
Photo by Henk Hart

In this piece I reflect on how film or some other art form could promote inter-religious dialogue that transcends doctrinal or theological or ecclesiastical conflict.

This striking cross as source of the river of life invites those who enter the 8th century cathedral in Ely, England. It didn’t strike me as an invitation to evaluate its theological correctness, but moved me to drink from that river together with others, any others.

I spent quite a bit of time reflecting on the curious reality that three secular movies all received wide acclaim despite their obviously spiritual focus. I've actually been thinking about that off and on and I now recall that quite a few weeks ago I wrote you about these movies and you wrote back that you had read the book on which one of them is based, Of Gods and Men.

As I meditate I ask myself:  how do we connect with people who seek to connect with "God." It's widely accepted I think that there is no way of speaking "about God" apart from symbolic, indirect, figurative, metaphorical language. How does that affect our knowing God? What does it mean that our access to (what we mean by) God is, in our language about God, never direct? Are God, Jahweh, Father of Jesus, Allah, Nirvana and others all different names pointing to the same underlying mystery? If that is so, despite the many ways toward that mystery, are Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists in essence bedfellows? Do conversion, missions, and evangelism still have a place on our agendas?

Many more issues seem to cling like iron filings to a magnet when we agree that language provides no direct uni-linear access to God. We can say metaphorically that God is our rock precisely because we know God isn't a rock. Who God is differs from tradition to tradition. We no longer insist that spiritual fellowship requires a shared language for God. Many of us can say with Karen Armstrong that all of us (our race, our kind) are in essence struggling to find the way of compassion as our access to grace and redemption. If so, I suspect we could likely recognize kindred spirits more easily by sharing our experiences of being on The Way, rather than in discussing theological articulations rooted in millennia of diverging traditions. Those traditions give us a vocabulary for why x is to be preferred over y, Jesus over Buddha, the cross over meditation, etc., But given the limitations of our language, what is the relative (un)importance of our differences? If we could make our deepest religious affirmations known without any reliance on language, would we experience people in other traditions as being essentially on the same way we are, the recognizable road, the path to a life that is the fruit of love?

This seems to be the core message of the movies I have been seeing, especially the two honored at Cannes. Both have their setting in the Christian tradition, but it seems to me that each is understandable and acceptable as meaningful in all major traditions. Both The Tree of Life and Of Gods and Men explore what it means to be compelled by love, the one in the form of an artistic vision, the other in telling a true story. In both films love lifts us beyond death. The one relies heavily on ritual, the other is focused on the experience of grace, but both seem to empower people of different traditions to walk the road of love together. As It Is In Heaven may have the same message. The conductor, Daniel, when asked how he could have fulfilled his life's ambition of making others happy with his music, responds: They love me and I love them. Film, too, is metaphor, and therefore, like language, multi-interpretable. But its boundaries are vastly more fluid than those of theology or other verbal traditions and a film's message could unite rather than divide.

Perhaps I can take this a step further. If metaphor is all we have to "speak of God," do we any longer have good grounds for recommending our own theological/confessional preferences as best for all? We can (and I do) make a choice to follow Jesus on all sorts of good grounds, but not because he is the "only way" to "God." My personally most compelling invitation to the way of compassion is the life of the man who chose to demonstrate his love with his life. I experience that as a deeply radical and encompassing love and therefore struggle to be on the way of the cross. Could we consider artistic vision universally shared on digital media as a new way to give shape to how the world's spiritual community might become more unified in the pursuit of love, living lives of love? Could we see art as a medium that invites into fellowship all who recognize love as Way? Might this move us to look for metaphors that more compellingly have wider appeal than verbal articulations in theologies? Is this  a role for plays or films or even musical drama? What is it about Tree of Life or Of Gods and Men that provides an appeal which transcends their own immediate setting?

I recently received a very long review from the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews of Hugo Strandberg,  Love of a God of Love: Toward a Transformation of the Philosophy of Religion. Early on the reviewer suggests that a definition or description of love is elusive and often not even attempted by theologians and philosophers. That actually makes some sense to me. Jesus refers to love as the "summary" of all that God hopes for us. So love then becomes a single word by which, in concentrated focus, we say in one breath what at core all of life comes to when we rejoice, have mercy, do justice, pursue peace, abide in hope and all else we do that fulfills and redeems. Karen Armstrong's studies of compassion in all major religions points in that direction as well.

If there is something to this, the elusiveness of verbally and theologically clarifying love and God (God is love, love is God) becomes somewhat understandable. If normally we clarify things by referring to their connections and interrelationships, then the total concentration of all difference in one focus defies such clarification. The same difficulty exists among Buddhists in saying what Nirvana is. An example from our contemporary world is the Big Bang. It continues to elude scientists, though all agree that it relates to the point of origin of all that is—so full, that from its fullness all that exists not only broke into being when it exploded, but continues to expand into a universe whose boundaries ceaselessly recede. The One (the Unity, the Whole and the Totality of All) defies our grasp. It reminds me of some language in the Bible. The one in whom we live and move and have our being is the one who is all and in all, says a Biblical author. When Jesus prays in John 17 that all may be one, does he mean One? The author of Ephesians (pro)claims that humanity on the path of love will become filled with the fulness of the one who fills all in all and that this surpasses knowledge. This suggests we can recognize each other in the Way, but we do not have a shared language for what we then experience and what we do share in words is all metaphor. It would seem that (to use words I saw somewhere recently) film or poetry are not a stumbling way to say what philosophers and theologians say so much more clearly, but more likely an inspiring way to hear what philosophers and theologians say in ways that do not compel.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Faith Today

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by Henk Hart

Photo by Henk Hart

Especially in the Christian tradition it remains acceptable to deal with faith positions that are very different from ours by rejecting, condemning, excommunicating these. I prefer to relate to left and right in love. In this piece I suggest that the metaphorical character of faith language allows us to be more radically ecumenical than we often think. Loving our neighbour whose faith excludes ours is difficult at times, but leads to fulfillment when we embrace God as Love.
The contemporary Jesus sculpture is from the 8th century cathedral in Ely, England. The outstretched arms are a loving invitation to all.

In my spirituality I embrace metaphor more and more as I get older. This means in part that I am more patient with people whose metaphors differ from mine, as well as with people who tend to a more literal stance. Since metaphors abound, there seems no need to insist on the ones I embrace. What matters to me is that within their articulated position people find what they should expect from their faith: sustenance, redemption, hope, peace, joy, etc., and that they should welcome others with different articulations.

As I get older I am also increasingly impressed with how historical our faith is. None of the positions we take will last. Our theologies, our hermeneutics, our sense of what redemption is, etc., etc., continue to change. So I value a faith that speaks to us in our time and does not hang on to metaphors that spoke to earlier generations.

I have learned to see that we need to be more and more ecumenical across the spectrum. Instead of being more open minded to and accepting of people who are progressive like we are, we can be just as open minded to those who are more conservative.

In all of this I do, of course, need to make choices. I may respect Native American spirituality and learn from it, but I am Christian, and my allegiance calls for integrity toward my own tradition. So to guide me I take the Bible seriously, because within Christian faith the Bible is a touchstone. But I do not take this to mean, e.g., that I need to make sense in contemporary faith of whatever the Bible mentions as important. It may be important to discuss the relation of God's wrath to God's love when talking to Christians who take that wrath more seriously than I do. But in today's world I do not consider it my Biblical duty to dwell on God's wrath, or to embody it.

So do I still have faith norms and can I be critical of some forms and kinds of faith? I think I can deal with this by embracing God's love as the root of all faith norms and try to relate to people who in my experience depart from the call to love as a disciple of love.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Question of "God"

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by Henk Hart

Photo by Henk Hart
A secluded place in the garden was my favourite place to meditate on God’s presence. That did not always result in knowing God is near. At other times I struggled with the questions that won’t go away for many, especially younger, people in our times. This piece was written about 10 years ago during the days our daughter was dying. Her impending death often made God feel distant, but also spoke forcefully about God as love.

Mystical experience traverses all religions and is not limited to religious people. This raises a big question: when we speak of God in the context of mystery, what are we saying, what do we mean? The word "God" has such wide and indefinite usage that, one might say, it has lost its meaning. Is God Jahweh? Allah? Father of Jesus? Creator? An individual, immaterial, invisible spiritual being who is omnipotent and omniscient? Do atheists reject the same as what Christians confess? All of these? None of these? When I speak of God in conversation, how will my conversation partner hear me?

Our response to these questions is largely shaped by the tradition in which we normally use the word “God.” But in an age of universal ecumenism, many of the faithful in a tradition may affirm both that for them God is the God they have learned to know in their tradition and that God is not confined to that tradition.

The one God of monotheism is a late arrival, preceded by a world populated by good and evil spirits with divine powers. These spirits may have been invisible and immaterial, they may also have been embodied and been visible from time to time. Maybe there was a chief spirit, the great spirit, but not to the exclusion of river spirits, harvest spirits, sky gods, earth demons, etc., etc. It is likely that all of this can be seen as personifications of how the spiritual forces unleashed by the mystery were manifest to human beings in a truly enchanted world.

If we continue to be open to the presence of the mystery in all that surrounds us we should be able to connect with this earlier phase of our history. And we should also be able to relate to monotheism as born of the realization that in the most profound mystical experiences all is one. At the same time monotheism tends to lead us away from the earlier enchanted world. The mystical reality of God, however, may suggest monotheistic religion would benefit from re-inventing an enchanted world, that is, a world in which everything speaks of the mystery and in which, given the right conditions, we all can (to some degree) experience our oneness with all things and the bliss, peace, and love of that oneness. In the Christian tradition God as the All in all is a deeply Biblical perception. So when, in listening to Arvo Part's Te Deum, we feel transported outside ourselves in becoming one with the music, that could be called a "God" experience, a bit of revelation of the mystery. And I would say the same of the bliss I experience in the garden when all is silent and I feel myself as less separate and more one with the other creatures.

Historically our connection with God has come to us, in community with others, in the context of a given spiritual tradition and its richness. The great religions, each in their own way, help us give meaningful shape to living with the mystery. All global traditions, however, despite their own specific character, emphasize the spiritual priorities of oneness, peace, love, joy. By being immersed in the Christian tradition, the ecumenically shared experience of the One takes on more specific and concrete meaning when interpreted "in Christ." For in the following of Jesus one reaps the spiritual benefits of special emphases on servanthood, on sacrificial love, on being content by not seeking to be the first, on becoming oneself not in seeking but rather in losing oneself. And the meaning of these as Christian spiritualities can in turn only be experienced via the roots of Jesus' life in the history of his Jewish tradition. Nevertheless, an interpretation of life with God “in Christ” does not sever the connection with the fundamental orientation of other traditions.

To summarize the above one could, using language borrowed from the Christian Scriptures that has its echoes in all traditions, say that “God” names our origin and destiny. “God” names the depth of the mystery as the be all and end all of all reality in all traditions, allowing us to say that "in God" we live, and move, and have our being. In “God” the world is “in Love.”

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

On a Hot Day at the Lake

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by Henk Hart

In the 1980’s many dimensions of my faith took on new meaning. In that context I often experienced a yearning for more awareness of God’s presence and frequently I searched out private places to meditate, surrounded by unspoiled creation. Eventually these occasions yielded what I was hoping for and they have ever since inspired me to know that God is near.

On a hot day at the lake, the heat can dissolve the heavens and the waters into one another. Neither sky nor water-surface are visible. The heat has joined them in a veil of vapor that floats on the motionless waters, wave-less without wind. Earth and heaven have become one and no spirit troubles the waters. We feel peace. We can let go and become one with bluebells, bumble bees, brimstone butterflies, and barred owls, hardly aware of ourselves. In this state we can focus on any part of ourselves and feel it: the tip of our nose, our right eyebrow. We can lose all sense of time and space, yet experience minor details in sharp focus. We can also sense God's Spirit, whether buzzing with the bees or speaking in the silence. When this state resonates with our tradition of religious trust, our being one with creation yields spiritual guidance.

When I join myself to this unity of creation I can feel the warm, moist air surround me as a safe womb from which I can emerge a new creature. Such conditions inspire hymn writers and prophets to see the elements conspire together to declare some of the mysteries of God. The heavens declare the glory of God, says Psalm 19. If the warm wedding of water and the firmament quiet my heart within me and open my inmost self to speech from afar, I, too, can hear declarations of mystery that give me new life. So can we all. We can listen to the stillness and hear the speech of the heavens, coming soundless into our heart when all the earth seems to be a seamless gathering of all that surrounds us into peace.

God’s Spirit is our breath of life, giving us life in the truth that is God’s emeth in all relations, the covenant of love. That life comes from music, flowers, bees, and butterflies. People can be recognized as spirits when they make this all conscious and help move time into the right direction. To know our times spiritually we, as spirits, must search out God’s Spirit, to help us to make time for all things, all creatures. Listen to the birds, watch the flowers bloom. Make time for everything, for family as well as work, all spiritually enriching each other.

We are spiritual beings called to redeem all relationships in time, since in faith we can know the redeeming Spirit who is all in all, in whom all things move and have their being, whose fullness we are, called to be all things to all people.

Though the world is highly structured, it is not rationally predictable in its fullness. But other ways of knowing: meditation and prayer, being one with creation around us, seeking connection in illness, all help us when times are out of synch. The great connector is love, in which we connect with God and neighbor and which God manifests to us. The fullness of time is the fulfillment of all relationships in a simultaneity of faithfulness: all in all. Truth is fullness of the Spirit of God’s emeth.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

Monday, October 03, 2016

From Henk's Archives

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Hendrik "Henk" Hart was the first Senior Member at the Institute for Christian Studies, where he taught from its founding in 1967 until his retirement in 2001. Over the course of his career, Henk explored such themes as, among others, the relationship between reason and faith, what the call to do justice means for Christians, and how the Bible might be read for the sake of wisdom in God's world. Many of these explorations were published in articles and books, but further investigations into these and other themes were undertaken in letters, notes, jottings, and journals. From Henk's Archives is a series on Ground Motive offering readers a look into this previously unpublished material graciously selected by Henk himself.

The material shows a wide variety in form, content, and length. Though it is edited for accessibility, it is not necessarily edited for more formal publication. Some pieces reflect more polish than others. What emerges is a panoply of writing that provides a way into the life and work of one of ICS's founding members, a career marked by provocations and consolations, ranging from devotional inspiration and personal introspection to theoretical frames and thought experiments. It is of interest for readers long familiar with Henk's work, now able to see other sides of and motivations for his thought, as well as new readers, who might encounter the seeds of contemplation that have grown into longer studies and projects. Pieces in From Henk's Archives will be published as they are made available from the author and collected into a dedicated page on Ground Motive.

Ground Motive considers it a blessing and a privilege to host this collage of literature from one of the founders of the Institute, and we hope it finds a wide and welcoming audience.

--Ground Motive Editors