Wednesday, January 11, 2017

No Idle Claim II

by Henk Hart


Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, photo by Henk Hart

“we have this treasure in earthen vessels” (2Cor. 4:7).

Although the spirit of sacred texts is not voice specific, not tied to a specific voice, it also cannot be heard unless voiced in a specific language. We expect that specific language to enable us to hear the living spirit in the confusion, pain, and despair of our own times. Hence each different time needs its own different voice in hearing and reading the spirit in the text. To be faithful to the spirit of the text we let go of voices that no longer speak the life giving language of the spirit, even when the voice of origin retains its sacred character. No time has a voice that speaks for all times. Each time will in significant ways be tone deaf to the sounds of other times. And no time’s language sets the tone for other times, whether past or future.

We cannot prescribe how our reading of sacred texts is to be heard by the next generation, nor can we fault earlier generations for having been differently attuned. At best we can forge a language that allows us, in our time, to hear and give witness to the spirit alive in the text. In humility we can offer that language to people who in our day seem to be deaf to the spirit because their hearts seem closed to the spirit’s dynamic. We can also strive to hear the spirit in languages that no longer speak to us and in that way seek connection with earlier communities that found guidance in the sacred texts. But we cannot escape our own finitude.

We must not only honor voices from the past, but also expect that over time our own voice will become a voice from the past. The spiritual power of our own voices needs to yield to a generation that no longer speaks our language. Those who preceded us were not for that reason ignorant or immature, neither are our own best efforts mistakes because a later generation is not well served by them.

Because the spirit of true sacred texts is not bound to any specific voice and can also not be recognized without having been given a specific voice, we can only speak the language of the spirit in humility. Hearing the spirit is a gift more than an achievement. Its voice is a still, small voice. No human language captures the spirit for all the ages to which it belongs. We may in our time find that compassion is the truest vehicle for the spirit’s journey among us. And if there is depth to our insight we will find the echoes of compassion resounding in the earliest sacred texts. But the pains and hopes of other generations will need to recognize their own word of comfort.

The spirit blows wherever and we don’t follow its windy path unless we allow ourselves to be born of the spirit. The spirit is free to drop the seeds of life wherever. As children of that spirit we seek to be free spirits ourselves, set free to follow the spirit of freedom where it moves. But we will always need to be liberated from Egypt, from fleshpots that continue to hold us in bondage. Our golden calves are always a temptation to protect the voice we once heard, to allow it to hold us back in ways that resist the spirit’s movement.

The spirit’s vulnerable sojourn in our stories and traditions encourages us to be forever on guard against enthroning our generation’s awareness of God as a shrine for the ages. All language about God is our language. We have no access to words, sentences, or stories that are God’s own. Our speech of God will always be contaminated by our voice because our voice cannot detach itself from spirits of our age that are alien to the spirit we seek as God. We are always tempted to muffle the sounds of God’s spirit with language that already serves as vehicle for a different spirit that we fail to discern as alien. In our sacred texts these barriers are embedded in the fact that, as human artifacts, these texts are impure and require that we are open to alien and distracting spirits that mislead us when we are closed to their presence in our texts. In addition, our finitude clings to our language and our speech is inherently insufficient, also when it is the speech of sacred texts. We can speak of God only in metaphors. In that way we experience the limits of our access to the spirit. We may try to embolden our metaphors with the hyperbole of superlatives that make God omniscient, or absolute, or omnipotent. But these, too, remain metaphors belonging to some time.

Throughout the ages the metaphorical message of sacred texts has been activated in the symbolic medium of the rites and rituals, songs and dances, sounds and silences of liturgy. Reading and understanding sacred texts in the context of a community’s cultic ways of nurturing the human connection with God remains the context of choice for keeping the spirit alive. Though the spirit who is present in the mystery of our being will always transcend our reach, we will recognize the presence of that spirit when sacred text and liturgy join to move us toward our destiny and connect us with all of creation. Movement and connection are fundamentally works of the spirit. We will always intuitively recognize our destiny in movements that bring us closer to peace and joy, to love and justice, to freedom and life. And in connection and community we recognize marks of the spirit’s presence; disconnection, exclusion, alienation, estrangement indicate that we have lost our way.

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

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