Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Letter To a Friend

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.

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