“When Jesus is given back his humanity, so, too, is the whole of the Christian tradition and those of the past who defined it for their time.”
—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus, 161
I could not help but think, as I read chapter 7 of Embracing the Human Jesus, of Louise Erdrich’s delightful novel The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, which tells the story of a woman disguised as a priest to the Ojibwe people. At times painful, at times comical, it is a story of lost people reaching out to one another, and in the end Agnes DeWitt truly becomes Father Damien Modeste; in her dual identity she manages to embrace and live out her role as a sustainer and guide for her people. Yet throughout the novel the Pope represents a lovely but distant Christian God, who offers nothing to sustain Agnes/Modeste through the trials of reservation life, including several battles with the devil, who appears to Agnes in the form of an aggressive black dog. Agnes/Modeste addresses the Pope in letters variously as his Holiness, Rock of the True Church, and the Fountain of Hope, until at last, devoid of reply and in her final hour, she writes:
Perhaps we are no more than spores on the breath of God, perhaps our life is just one exhalation. One breath. If God pauses just a moment to ruminate before taking in a new breath, we see. In that calm cessation, we see. All I’ve ever wanted to do is see.
Don’t bother with a reply.
The solution to Damien’s despair, a theme that returns repeatedly throughout the book, is to remain fully present, to embrace life: “After returning from despair, Father Damien loved not only the people but also the very thingness of the world. He became very fond of his stove—a squat little black Reliance with fat curved legs. The stove reminded Agnes of a cheerful old woman who had given her bread as a child…” (215). Elsewhere Father Damien declares, "What is this life but the sound of an appalling love?" In the dissolution of the identities of Agnes and Father Damien, the holy and the earthly become one. Compassion is what binds her to this dense, messy place, not to escape it but to embrace it.
In Embracing the Human Jesus, David Galston is likewise advocating for a profound transformation of Christian liturgy that celebrates where we are rather than pines for a separate, somehow better, heaven. Liturgy is the pattern of rituals for a given religious community. The liturgy of a traditional Christian church service typically opens with confession, then moves on to reading from the Bible, then thanksgiving and receiving of the Eucharist bread and wine, and finally concludes with the blessing and commission to “go out and preach the good news.” What Galston recommends in its place is a new liturgy based on the historical Jesus. We gather, we learn from one another, we share a meal and we continue our journeys with good tidings for one another. It’s important that this be a ritual that is celebrated in a historical Jesus community; rituals give power and significance to an act. It imitates what we already do at a family meal, but on a larger scale, suggesting community can be seen as extended family. “Compassion marks the end of religious battles between the mighty gods of human creation who set their truths against one another,” writes Galston. “Compassion is the turn to complementarity, which is the understanding that human beings create truths and live them only in relation to others.”
It wasn’t until I read this chapter that I really understood what David meant in his opening chapter about relativism, that we have to allow for the incompleteness of our knowledge. We can’t escape it. We live within history. We live and understand ourselves in relation to others, and even define the universe in relation to ourselves (what is time, for instance?). “Truth is the activity of living; it is what defines the relation between myself and another” (167). I've experienced this as a reality in my own life. To quote another of my favorites, Judith Butler’s essay “Beside Oneself” speaks movingly of what grief reveals about how inseparable the “self” is from others. She writes:
I am not sure I know when mourning is successful, or when one has fully mourned another human being. I think … one mourns when one accepts the fact that the loss one undergoes will be one that changes you, changes you possibly forever, and that mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation the full result of which you cannot know in advance. ... I don't think, for instance, you can invoke a Protestant ethic when it comes to loss. You can't say, 'Oh, I'll go through loss this way, and that will be the result, and I'll apply myself to the task, and I'll endeavor to achieve the resolution of grief that is before me.' I think one is hit by waves, and that one starts the day with an aim, a project, a plan, and one finds oneself foiled. ... Something takes hold, but is this something coming from the self, from the outside, or from some region where the difference between the two is indeterminable? (Undoing Gender: 18)
A ritual of community, openness to others, and compassion for others is rooted in being-with rather than trying to hold apart and purify one soul, which, in the end, is not possible. Grief reveals this in a profound way, as my very ground of being is swept out from under me, forcing me to acknowledge that I am a mishmash of connections all concentrated into one point of light.
The brilliance of the Louise Erdrich’s novel lies not in the success of Agnes’ disguise but rather in how completely she belongs to her community. It is no coincidence that every member of the community acknowledges at different moments that Father Damien is Agnes, and yet the movement of the story never depends on “unveiling” her dual/ambiguous identity. There is no ultimate confession, although she attempts to confess various things in various ways—words that, tellingly, never quite reach their intended destinations.
In the end, there proves to be no burden to relieve. There is no sin, no end to history, just a quiet pulsing of one life into the world that leaves the faintest of marks. Nevertheless, it does leave a mark, and so we all bring the world closer to whatever vision carries us onward.
This is part of an ongoing series on David Galston's book, Embracing the Human Jesus. Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓[divider style="hr-dotted"]
Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.