There is a scene in the film “The English Patient,” where a young women steps outside her door in the evening and glances down to find a small lamp at her feet. When she looks up she sees a trail of small lights leading off into the distance. Intrigued, she follows the lights until they lead to an open door. She hesitates a moment before entering for an encounter with her lover.
It’s an enchanting, wordless moment that that only a medium like cinema could capture. Some things defy description, like first love, or holding your newborn child, or experiencing a night sky filled with stars or hearing Bach’s Christmas Oratorio for the first time. These are things which so fill our hearts that we experience far more than we can say or understand.
Encounters, epiphanies, experiences above or outside of ordinary time, we try to remember them. So we write poetry or music, or we paint, or we tell stories. Ordinary telling won’t work for us. The telling has to contain something of the magic of the moment so we use poetry, metaphor.
In a world that science has so thoroughly demythologized, there seems to be very little poetry left. In fact, the whole genre has pretty much gone out of style. People used to sit around in smokey cafes for hours on end listening to poetry. Prizes were given and poets were idolized and medialized.
In ancient times, bards, traveling troubadours were welcome guests at feasts and other public gatherings and they not only preserved the lore of the culture in preliterate societies, but were the sources of the news of the times. And they delivered their messages in verse, in metaphor. The history of poetry and public recitation to capture the imagination of the hearers and to preserve and immortalize human events goes back as far as the beginning of human language.
In a world with so little leisure, so little time, so little awe, so much mechanized, so much mundane, so little consolation, so little contact with the deep enduring things of life, we want our news fast and to the point in thirty minutes between commercials. We tire quickly of Victorian novels with endless descriptions of pastures of Queen Mary’s lace and musing about the meaning of a dropped handkerchief.
But with our technological proficiency, our material well being and our instantaneous communication with ever evolving hand held devices, we can’t help but feel a sense of loss, of being disconnected and anxious. There is little to console us, either in the news, or at the office, or in the world at large. And modern cinema which is so filled with violence, speed and impersonal sex so often reflects our inner anxiety and fear .
In former times, although life was brutal, short, and much more at risk, there still were consolations. For many, the quiet evangelical purity of domestic life, an intimate acquaintance with seasonal change in farming communities, neighbors one could count on, long evenings at home with no where to go so people shared more of their lives with each other. And, there was the consolation of religion. The assurance of permanence in a hereafter no matter how difficult life could be where a reward awaited those who persevered and endured and a reunion with those one loved. No such assurance today. Science has effectively dismantled heaven and hell and it seems we are left to our own devices and on our own in our struggles.
In a democratic society, as long as we have our youth, our health, our job and adequate insurance, we generally feel pretty good about this. But somewhat shaky. We’ve lost the glue that once held communities together. We have lost our stories. And along the way in our disenchanted world, we seem to have lost God along with hope of heaven or fear of hell. And in a mobile society where we move because of the job every few years, or flip houses in an overheated housing market, we’ve lost our neighbors and sense of community. We have lost the sense of anything permanent.
Would it be fair to say that we may suffer a loss of hope? Hope is the convection engine of life. That in spite of everything, tomorrow is another day. Someone or something will be there. That in spite of everything, when there is no way out, there will be a way through, or over, or around. And at the end when the lights go out for us, or for the ones we love are gone, there will be God, the ultimate source of hope.
Hope is a trail of lights leading off into the unseen distance with a promise at the end. Have we traded hope for anxiety? Because in a world where noting is permanent, what constitutes the ground of hope? How do we find God in a disenchanted world that has lost all it’s stories, all it’s poetry, all it’s sense of place? Is God anything more than a figment of an immature imagination? Is there anything permanent, anything we can trust?
Well, for many of us, in spite of all, God is still there. There still is hope and wonder. There still is that newborn child, that sky filled with stars, music, love, things we experience far more than we can understand. There still is that string of lights leading us off into the unknown in hope. Into the things we most value and cherish.
But the stories we’ve told about God have changed. We can’t do with virgin births, miracles outside the natural order of things, third day resurrections or reincarnations or the Red Sea partings. We can’t do with a god that favors one group of people over another or sends catastrophes that disfavor others. Those gods are too small and unreliable.
No one has a clue what God is. To understand God we rely like the poet on clues and metaphors. And yet, God must at least must be reality as we understand it. Wherein we do not know, therein we may not speak, except in symbolic language.
But what we can do is to understand that all human language, even scientific language, is poetry and metaphor at best. There is a necessity at the heart of all knowledge, a need to know, whether the knowledge is formulated around a primitive campfire or in a laboratory. So we use what tools we have available to us. We use models and metaphors to explain what we experience. The difference is that in the modern world we understand that all models are subject to testing, to revision, to new understanding. Often we only have a story but our stories must evolve as our experience evolves.
“Can’t you see I’m doing a new thing?”
Physics may have eleven different string theories, (stories) but experience is reliable. An experience that is verified by the experiences of others. A hundred years ago, physicists gave up trying to understand “what” subatomic particles were and instead began to focus how they worked. Experimental physics took over the field from descriptive physics. This was huge! Philosophers and theologians had spent 2000 years or more focused exclusively on What something was. What are the elements? What is an atom? What is energy? What is God? What is the nature of Jesus, divine or human?
Holding that newborn, gazing at that starry sky, having our first love, we don’t have to ask “What is it?” We say, “Behold!”
We know what we value.
What we can “know” about God comes from deep within ourselves and only through what we ourselves experience, not from anyone else’s experience or observation. Like the new quantum mechanic physics, it comes from the “observer-participancy” kind of knowing. It’s as close as our skin. It’s evolved with us. It’s a string of lights that illuminates a pathway of hope. And it consists of at least three things.
It begins with that newborn, who has evolved to reach in hope for the breast and to smile in love at recognition of her parent’s face. And in the wonder and excitement of that child exploring his world with his first step and with each new discovery. It bursts into song running through the park and laughs at the antics of a puppy.
Second, the “knowing” continues in the experience of community. In love, forgiveness, compassion, generosity, hospitality, helping others, being cared for by and in caring for others. In learning how to trust.
Third, through our experience with a natural world that never ceases to amaze us. A miraculous world increasingly revealed to us by science and discovery in and through human community. “A world that reveals no beginning and no end.” Where each new area of knowledge opens up vast territories for the wonder of new discoveries.
The real world of human experience is where we find God. With all we know and all we have yet to discover beyond our wildest dreams. God is love. God is what we value. God is a string of lights luring us on to what we value. We might say, God is the lure to value present in every living thing.
If there is a God, then God is the the name we give to the ground of being of all that is and the future and the harmonious reconciliation and consolation of everything we value. God is the highest thing we can possibly think. And much much more.