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Mysteria Poetica: Some Reflection on the God Question

In God’s brief history, which corresponds to humanity’s brief history, God has taken many names and forms. Three big ones are nature, culture, and intuition. In our postmodern age, none of these forms seems to work in a satisfactory way anymore.

On Parables

Defining Parable

A parable is a form of teaching that eludes easy definition. In fact, its intention is to be elusive. Due to its very nature, it is easier to describe what a parable is not than what it is.

A parable is not a pronouncement. It does not claim that the world should be one way rather than another. It is not a moral lesson. It is not a description of a second or supernatural world. A parable is built on the images of the everyday world but reconfigures the everyday world. It opens a seam or a glimpse to an alternative world and an alternative way of reasoning in the world. In this sense only does it describe a different world or the world seen differently. However, it never leaves this world. It simply re-orients this world through its description of a happening that never really happens.

The Parables of Jesus

The parables of Jesus are rooted in the everyday world. Someone loses a coin. A truant child returns home. A gardener sows mustard seeds. A group of day laborers are waiting for a call. A man travels alone down the dangerous road from Jerusalem to the wealthy villa of Jericho. A woman conceals leaven in flour.

In each story the expected happens, but at the same time the unexpected happens. An altered version of reality arises from the usual to make us laugh or scratch our heads as if impacted by comic relief—which is sometimes no relief at all. It can also be very acute, making a strong political or social comment by way of a sharp contrast. A woman searches all day and finds a coin. That’s common enough. We have all searched diligently for something of value to us. Then, she throws a party to celebrate her luck. The cost of the party is far in excess of the value of the coin. What she has found is more than lost again. In fact, in the practice of ancient hospitality, the result of the party is likely debt—which will either earn her friends or deliver her to destitution. We might ask, is she crazy or brave? The unexpected ending is a plays on the comic-tragic hope that to lose what is found is to find even more.

It is rather expected that if you are silly enough to travel unaccompanied down a dangerous road, you’ll likely fall among thieves. The unexpected is that the hero in this story turns out to be a Samaritan. A Samaritan is the enemy. Yet in this story our enemy practices loving kindness better than we do. Our enemy teaches what it means to love our enemies. Think. The Samaritans have a Torah, a mountain, and a God different from our Torah, mountain, and God. They are not supposed to get it right because they got it wrong! But this story shatters our prejudices directly. Then there is the comedy of the aftermath that we can only imagine. Once again, given ancient customs of hospitality, imagine the Judean in this story who will return home to announce, “Guess who is coming for dinner?”

The Garden of Forking Paths, Jorge Luis Borges. Image Credit: Southern Cross Review

Kafka and Borges

Franz Kafka and Jorge Borges are two 20th-century writers who used the art of parable. They told stories that on the surface are plausible but that, in the course of their telling, point toward the unexpected, inexplicable, and unimagined. Yet, the unimagined part of the story causes the re-evaluation of the world order and meaning in life.

Kafka has a story about an estate holder who takes a trip on a horse out to the countryside. At the gate, the manager of the estate wants to know where the master is going. These are common images on an estate in or around early 20th-century Prague, where Kafka lived. The response to the query is “out of here” or “away from here.” The estate holder says that he is going “out,” plain and simple. He has no explicit destination.

The response of the estate holder converts the common scene to a parable. We suddenly see that if we are to understand the story we have to change the initial impression of what is happening. We have to change the world we reside in. We have to notice that the servant does not understand the master, that the trip in question is not about arriving somewhere, and that the draw to go away from here does not rest on a reason. It’s not about getting somewhere; it’s about becoming in the process of going. That’s an entirely different scene.

Jorge Borges tells the story of a spy in World War I who is hunted down by an English assassin. In the course of evading his pursuer, the spy hides in a noble’s house. Curiously, the noble householder has a copy of the spy’s grandfather’s novel, which is widely considered unintelligible. It turns out the noble has an interpretation: the novel is a labyrinth; it is not about interpretation but about the intersection of choices. Borges’ reader shares the desire to know the interpretation of the unintelligible novel, but “parable” happens when the situation turns on itself. The novel is the endless intersection of unending choice. The right interpretation is that interpretation is not the point.

Parable is a fascinating form of teaching. It takes the student on a journey of transition, yet once (and if) the student makes the transition there is no longer a point or aim or purpose to the parable or even to life. Life is converted to dance or to metaphor or even to fiction. It is light. It is joyful. It is gift. Describing this transition is extremely difficult since the very act of description introduces purpose or aim back into the parable. The un-parabolic question is to ask why then tell a parable? The parabolic answer is that everything is parable, and the only way to convey this is to tell a parable.

David Galston

David Galston is a University Chaplain, Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Academic Director at Westar Institute, and academic adviser to the SnowStar Institute in Canada. He is the author of Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity (2012).

How Has Biblical Studies Research Opened New Questions about God?

At the turn of the nineteenth century, theology and biblical studies parted ways. Theology committed itself to the exploration of matters of faith, while biblical studies dedicated itself to history and other humanistic disciplines. This divide has never been a clean one, of course. Whether engaged in scholarship or in public discourse, most of us are aware that appeals to God or some ultimate reality continue to be an active part of human vocabulary, persisting even in the face of claims that religion is dying and being replaced by strict secularism—that is, a focus on this life and this world without any appeal to super-natural causes or influences.

While most of us are probably familiar with the controversial April 1966 Time magazine article asking "Is God Dead?", the average person still believes in God, even among those who have abandoned organized religion. According to the Pew US Religious Landscapes Survey, 71 percent of Americans responded "absolutely certain" to the question, "Do you believe in a universal God or spirit? If so, how certain are you about this belief?" Eighty-eight percent were at least "fairly certain." That's a lot of people, and that's just one country. "Large populations of the world don't see a problem with God," observed Westar Fellow Perry Kea at the new Seminar on God and the Human Future, which convened November 22nd, 2014, at the San Diego Convention Center to discuss critical questions at the intersection of religion and philosophy. "That's not just true of theists," he added. Some atheists are also content to stick with a certain idea of God. But when philosophers began declaring God dead, they weren't referring to a cold body on the floor. So what did they mean?

Scholars of religion confront this question in their own research, implicitly and explicitly. The Death of God question is about more than culture wars, although the culture wars are a symptom of the deeper question. In fact there have always been many definitions of God, and some of the most exciting and challenging ones are hardly the equivalent of an old man in the sky. To begin to open up conversations about some of those options, and to ask whether any particular understanding of God can—or should—have a future in human life, the new Seminar invited members of past Westar seminars to field questions about the visions of God they found in their historical work, as well as what of their own philosophical and theological assumptions came out in their research.

Jesus Seminar scholars Hal Taussig and Bernard Brandon Scott challenged both Jesus Seminar participants and those who have followed the proceedings over the years to acknowledge that the attempt to set aside theology, to say to themselves, "Just the facts, ma'am," was never entirely possible. It was, in fact, shockingly reductionistic at times. They didn't do this with their eyes closed, of course. Jesus Seminar founder Robert W. Funk, in his opening remarks in 1985, touched on this issue:

A fiction is ... a selection—arbitrary in nature—of participants and events arranged in a connected chain and on a chronological line with an arbitrary beginning and ending. In sum, we make up all our “stories”—out of real enough material, of course—in relation to imaginary constructs, within temporal limits.

Our fictions, although deliberately fictive, are nevertheless not subject to proof or falsification. We do not abandon them because they are demonstrably false, but because they lose their “operational effectiveness,” because they fail to account for enough of what we take to be real in the everyday course of events. Fictions of the sciences or of law are discarded when they no longer match our living experience of things.

... Not any fiction will do. The fiction of the superiority of the Aryan race led to the extermination of six million Jews. The fiction of American superiority prompted the massacre of thousands of Native Americans and the Vietnam War. The fiction of Revelation keeps many common folk in bondage to ignorance and fear. We require a new, liberating fiction, one that squares with the best knowledge we can now accumulate and one that transcends self-serving ideologies. And we need a fiction that we recognize to be fictive.

Satisfactions will come hard. Anti-historicist criticism, now rampant among us, will impugn every fact we seek to establish. Every positive attribution will be challenged again and again. All of this owes, of course, to what Oscar Wilde called “the decay of lying;” we have fallen, he says, into “careless habits of accuracy.” And yet, as Kermode reminds us, “the survival of the paradigms is as much our business as their erosion.” Our stories are eroding under the acids of historical criticism. We must retell our stories. And there is one epic story that has Jesus in it.

Jesus Seminar scholars knew the risks of assuming they would be able to tell a purely historical story without appeals to faith or belief. This was a necessary commitment in order to be open to new stories of Jesus and Christian history more generally, but of course, as Funk and others have acknowledged, human subjectivity is inescapable at base—a problem faced by all historians, not just historians of religion. Nevertheless, "to the surprise of ourselves and our opponents," noted Taussig, "the Seminar affirmed the existence of Jesus." Much of the energy of the Seminar was then directed toward "empire of God" language, the parables, because those were considered the likeliest voiceprint of the historical Jesus. So who was the God of "God's" empire?

The historical Jesus' God may be better understood as all good, not all powerful, suggested Taussig. Jesus "was breathtakingly comfortable with incompleteness," and his good God was not necessarily a just God. There are limits to the interventions a good God can do. The tension between the desire for an all-powerful God and an all-good one is evident throughout Christian texts. "Frankly, I don't need Jesus to be this good but fragile God," Taussig went on, "but he reappears in this form in later tradition." Scott, picking up on the theme of the historical Jesus and later tradition, observed, "Jesus uses all the wrong metaphors for the empire of God for his time. The church has always been interested in God, but I see no evidence Jesus was interested. ... I would like to draw a distinction between theological questions and ecclesial questions (that is, about the power of the church). The Christ of faith is a power move of the church—a power move, not a theological one." Charles Hedrick, agreeing with Scott, notes, "I would begin by talking about the world. ... There's no real ethical action behind what goes on in the world. It's an absence of God. When I look at the church, there's a theological perception of God. What, then, is the point of reference for God?"

In light of these questions, John D. Caputo posed the question, "Does it matter whether there is an entity behind the kingdom 'of God'?" Without assuming that we can fully know an ancient person's psychology, at the same time Arthur Dewey offered the idea that we can "seek the imagination of Jesus, what his strategies reveal." We can look at those strategies and ask whether we want to play that game. Susan (Elli) Elliot warned the Seminar away from reductionistic thinking. "When we give priority to language and texts, we are making a theological choice." There are many other options for articulating such questions, such as theology of place, ritual and practice. Diversity is quelled by reductionism. How can we avoid this? David Galston advocated for engaging with criticisms of the Jesus Seminar without at the same time labeling any one person who has voiced them as an enemy; meaningful criticism can open up serious philosophical questions.

Paul Seminar scholars Arthur J. Dewey and Lane C. McGaughy opened their session with an appeal to see the apostle Paul's vision as relational rather than doctrinal. "Paul was working out his experience and appealing to the experiences of his listeners. His logic is inductive, playing to the experience of his listeners," Dewey explains. "It's a constant renegotiation of relationships." To put it another way, "We cannot spin a non-temporal cocoon around his writings." Paul lived in a certain time and place, and interacted with specific communities. Furthermore, "for Paul, it is about God, not about Jesus." Paul appeals to trust in God, as Jesus and Abraham before him trusted God. Paul's vision is incomplete; he doesn't draw his apocryphal vision to a close. Thus, the best way to respond to and build on the work of Paul is to explore the use of metaphor, as Paul does, from multiple angles without settling on any one. His advice in his letters should not be seen as the final word.

The work of translation for The Authentic Letters of Paul was often the work of dismantling the translators' own assumptions. Philosophers and theologians, and anyone who is working with second-order (explanatory) language, need to acknowledge that they, like Paul, are working out of metaphors that may not always be obvious and may not be the final word. "I had functioned through the Jesus Seminar, Paul Seminar, and other Westar Seminars ... as a historian, and wasn't sure at first if this was a good launching point for a God Seminar," McGaughy said. "But what this Seminar signals is that over the last generation, since the time of Rudolf Bultmann and his colleague Martin Heidegger, the whole focus of theology and philosophy of religion has changed to the point where it is now possible for biblical studies and theology to link up again ... because of what Martin Marty has called the linguistic turn in philosophy." We are now in a place to recognize that fundamental questions about God are not about a physical deity but about our language for reality and the limits imposed by that language. Language is the meeting point of major philosophers like Wittgenstein and Heidegger, Bultmannian theology and biblical studies, and linguistics. "Notice that in all the humanistic disciplines, language has become the root problem of the twentieth century."

Acts Seminar scholars Milton Moreland and Dennis McDonald picked up on Lane McGaughy's point about the departure of biblical studies from theology. In spite of this attempted separation, many who deal with the New Testament remain very much theologians at heart. Often, they assume a traditional view of God based on a literal reading of Acts. "We've got to re-imagine how one goes about using the stories [of Acts] to talk about the rise of Christianity," Milton said. "What happens when you re-situate Acts into a humanistic enterprise of asking what this text is trying to do in its setting?"

The critical moment for the Acts Seminar came when participants placed Acts in the second century. Acts is not a neutral history but a rhetorical and ideological work. The writer of Acts was apocalyptic, supersessionist in how it placed Christianity in relation to its Jewish heritage, and beginning to feel pressures from Marcionite tendencies. "We know more about Christian origins than Luke. It is clear Luke knew more about Christian origins than he told," McDonald explained based on his work in The Gospels and Homer and Luke and Vergil. "This doesn't mean Luke ceases to be significant. He remains significant not about the period about which he wrote but about the period in which he wrote." He goes on, "What we are doing as critical scholars is reconstructing Christian origins in a way that goes far beyond the simplistic and ideological commitments of the author of Luke-Acts. The challenge for us is to view statements about God, Jesus and so on in Luke-Acts not as metaphysical references but as politically charged foundation mythologies that are used to organize early Christian theology to incorporate Paul into the Petrine tradition."

In response to William O. Walker's question about whether there was theological motivation in the formation of the Acts Seminar, Brandon Scott observed, "I don't think you can raise these questions without raising theological issues. ... When you raise these questions, you're going to be messing with somebody's theology." This theme continued as Joe Bessler revisited discussions around the historical Jesus and the church from earlier in the session to ask, "Is Acts the place where collapsing happens, where ecclesial and philosophical questions merge?" Moreland observed in response that this is precisely why assigning Acts a date appropriate to its concerns is so important. "Taking the author seriously within his time period is productive, not just critical."

Perry Kea tied this to second-century Christians' question, "Who are we in relationship to the Empire? ... Who are these followers of Jesus who are not Jews?" Early Christians struggled on the one hand with who they were in relation to the Jews, yet also wanted to retain some continuity with that tradition. While condemning supersessionism, we can still appreciate that Luke had a tough job. Kea goes on, "The God Seminar might use that historical recognition and extrapolate God language from the lived experience of communities struggling for their voice and their identity in the midst of other voices and often powerful forces."

John Caputo, taking up this thread, asked, "What did God look like to this pre-Nicea community?" Moreland responded, "There's not a single view of God in early Christianity. What does the God of Acts look like? A God who kills people who disagree with the group. We get miracle stories that match up with the larger Greek and Roman story world. ... In that competition and staking of claims, they are starting to formulate a deity that is more powerful, distinctive, that is clearly the God, the power."

I will save a report on the final session of the God Seminar, the papers presented by David Galston, Jarmo Tarkki, and John C. Kelly, for a later report since the topic shifted pretty significantly at that point in the discussions. Also, on a related note, thank you for your patience as I continue to produce these reports. The new timing of the Fall Meeting alongside the Thanksgiving holiday created a busier schedule than I anticipated when I set out to report on the sessions. Reports will continue to come out over the next week or so.

Thanks, and as always, don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below!

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra 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.

The Three-Tiered Cosmos and Other Lost Causes (EHJ series)

"The historical Jesus community does not worship; it gathers."

—David Galston, Embracing the Human Jesus, 171

My college Hebrew professor once woke me up to the dramatic differences between ancient and modern world-views by drawing us a picture of the cosmos as the writer of Genesis understood it. On a dusty green chalkboard he drew a line to represent the ground, then added a half-circle above it to represent the firmament—the vault or arch of the sky. Underneath, he drew a few pillars to hold up the earth, with the space in between representing the world of the dead. Finessing a bit, he added a few windows into the semi-circle, which the gods could open to smell the delicious scent of burning meat on an altar and sprinkle down life-giving water onto the earth in return for the gift. According to the Babylonian epic of creation, the Enuma Elish, which is much older than the Hebrew Bible and on which arguably writers of the Hebrew Bible shamelessly riffed, the firmament was built of the corpse of Tiamat, goddess of creation, who takes the form of water:

Then the lord rested, gazing upon her dead body,
While he divided the flesh of the ... , and devised a cunning plan.
He split her up like a flat fish into two halves;
One half of her he established as a covering for heaven.
He fixed a bolt, he stationed a watchman,
And bade them not to let her waters come forth.
(end of 4th tablet)

You might be interested to learn that human beings in the Enuma Elish were created from the blood of a traitor god Kingu, and destined to be servants of the gods at least in part because of this heritage. The Hebrew God YHWH also assumes the servitude of mankind, but—more optimistically, it seems to me—makes us not of blood but of the dust of the earth. In this sense, the Hebrew worldview had more in common with the Egyptians, who for example in one ancient spell described the relationship between god and humans in the following manner:

It is in the body of the great self-evolving god that I have evolved,
For he created me in his heart,
Made me in his effectiveness,
And exhaled me from his nose.
(Coffin Text Spell 75, in Hollis, "Egyptian Literature": 129)

Each of these stories of who we are, where we come from, and how we relate to ultimate reality in turn shape our values. It is to such varying understandings of god, the cosmos, and human meaning—in a word, theology—that David Galston turns in chapter 8 of Embracing the Human Jesus, which we have been reading for the past several weeks on this blog. Galston's whole project has been to ask what would happen if we tried to build a community based on the historical, human Jesus. In this chapter, David asks if we bracket and set aside the idea of a divine being clothed in human flesh, and let Jesus just be human, how would it change our theology?

Courtesy of the British Museum. Clay tablet; map of the world; shows the world as a disc, surrounded by a ring of water called the "Bitter River"

We don't live in a world that is quite as small as the one envisioned by ancient Mesopotamian peoples. To put it in Galston's words, "Sometimes ancient problems, even when explained with modern sensibility, remain ancient problems" (181). We can't make the ancient view of the heavens fit ours. There just isn't a divine corpse up there holding back the waters of chaos. We've gone up and looked around; we know! What's up there is a dark, cold space punctuated by light. We can still feel awe when we regard it, sense beauty in its formation, and desire to know it. What we can't do necessarily is worship it as divine.

Galston is arguing that, in the same way, "a word like sin may not be just outdated, it might be a fundamentally flawed way to think about life" along with notions of Jesus as a divine savior and divine intervention in human affairs (181–82). Another notion that goes to the wayside it prayer, in the traditional senses of supplication and thanksgiving. Although many generations of theologians have found ways to make these notions palatable to modern people, it's still basically the remains of a bygone era. What makes more sense now is to replace the language of God with the language of life, as philosopher Don Cupitt has argued. Although individual people may hold onto these notions for psychological reasons such as the comfort it brings, or out of nostalgia for family and cultural values, Galston urges us to resist this temptation especially in the public sphere, and most especially in church:

All of these expressions deflate the community experience by directing the collective will away from history and from authentic language about life. ... An imperative of the historical Jesus community must surely be that the language of the community needs to be directed to history, raised from within the solidarity of people, and hold inspiration to act now. (184)

What I found most meaningful in this chapter was the unswerving commitment to this life, and the warning not to escape it by redirecting our attention to an external, possibly nonexistent reality. Even if it does exist, Galston points out, we still have to live life here, now. Importantly, the conviction is for public life. We don't worship; we work. I stumbled here on the realization that we often informally define religion itself as involving an attitude of worship. Buddhism, Taoism and other world-views are frequently described as "philosophy" instead of "religion" on this premise. If there's no worship going on, is it still religion? The next chapter of Galston tackles that question. For now, we are charged not to hope but to act, as in the example of the Good Samaritan: "It is not about a world where someday there will be no enemies; it is, rather, the practice of compassion that shatters the present world of enmity" (185).

From this perspective, the reigning question of life becomes, what actions are you taking that go beyond hope and actually challenge and change a present reality?

This is part of an ongoing series on David Galston's book, Embracing the Human Jesus. You can find chapter 7 here. Don't leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra 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.

The Sound of an Appalling Love (EHJ series)

“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:

Pope!
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.
Modeste
(344)

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 ↓

"Breath of God" © drm (Flickr)

"Breath of God" © drm (Flickr)

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra 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.