God the Stranger?

John Suk bravely explores what a  post-theistic stance looks like.

the contemporary approach to the question of who God is and what God does that is most interesting is Richard Kearney’s, as described in his book, Anatheism: Returning to God after God. Kearney describes God using the metaphor of stranger.
 God is a stranger. God is so, in part, because the portrait of God that emerges in scripture is deeply coloured by a billowing sea of unknowing that the authors of scripture swim in.
 So God is a stranger. And this, for me, is what post-theism is all about—finding a way to accommodate not the tried and untrue God of the status-quo, but to find the stranger, who may even give life.

Suk is obviously moving into some deeply personal waters, a way of knowing but not knowing as it were. As with all pilgrims, the language must be his; it is not language that one disputes.

But this business about “God as stranger” did catch my ear as another pilgrim. Leaving behind the ordinary narratives of the status quo is unsettling to say the least, not least because one must surrender in order to find. In the midst of this seeking, perhaps some caution on the meme of God as stranger is in order.

First, there is the nature of that very word, “stranger.” Already at the outset we are in world of us and Him, Our Angel of the Jabbok so to speak. Sneaking into that concept is the hint of self, that I still get to define God, even if God is a stranger, or an empty place at my table. I’m still (subtly) in charge.

Of course, to say God is a stranger is also to say that God is a stranger in the world I experience, that the world can’t speak.

Is that really the case?

Abraham Heschel in Man is Not Alone starts with this world, and more specifically our sense of wonder. The world contains a surplus of meaning; things inevitably point to something other. And off in the corner of our eye, are these experiences of the indescribable, the ineffable. Wonder. This certainly is a  sunnier way of encountering the Unknown.

Another challenge to the stranger is  the idea of forgiveness/hope. How do we start over again, what we do “the day after”? As with the wonder that rises from the surplus of meaning in the world, is there a surplus of possibility for my life? For our life together? Can we do something different? The possibility of transformation is every bit as strange as that of the unknown God.

What I suspect Suk is reaching to is not an epistemological stance, nor an ethical one, but something more intimate. To speak of God as stranger is to whisper another, softer prayer, not that we may find, but that we may be found, and that being found  we may find ourselves beloved.

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And that’s the truth

How do we know if something is true?

One of the sources for Truth has been “the plain teaching of Scripture”  — a common term in the circle I run in. The other day, John Suk penned some thoughts on that notion (actually a rather lengthy post). the topic is actually rather slippery, since it moves from the rhetoric used in controversies, to the theological stance of the  Reformation (aka perspicuity), and from there to theology of revelation.

Oh my.

In contemporary terms, perhaps the best term is that of clarity. Couldn’t God have been more clear, wonders Suk

God, for example, could have (as Buechner once imagined in a nice sermon) rearranged the stars to say that “I exist,” or “Jesus saves.” Or used a writing style more akin to Berkof or Plantinga than Isaiah or Paul. But if scripture is the best God can do when it comes to being clear, or perspicuous, I’m disappointed.

Perhaps this clarity business is a misreading, a going off track. After all, there’s a long-standing tradition (back to Benedict) of reading/listening to Scripture to meet God. At its basic theological sense, clarity needs to be connected to kerygma : the text is validated by the encounter, by the message. That seems to be a continuing process, time-tested, if you will.

From this perspective, the plain teaching of Scripture is closely associated with the dis-intermediation of Bible reading: it does an end-run on authority. In doing so, it creates a space for a counter reading of the Tradition; from the individual side, the plain meaning of the Scriptures is subversive — one reason why the Belgic Confession speaks of  “the detestable Anabaptists.”

This aspect of the notion poses an ironic counterpoint to the theological rhetoric of the “plain meaning of Scripture”. In present-day North America the term is used generally to privilege some position, silencing debate, or otherwise asserting the authority of the speaker (who can be a bigger source than God, right?). This claim to “plain meaning” has a further traction within the Anglo-American traditions of plain speech v Latinate speech; and especially the popular icons of the plain spoken western hero as a truth teller. We give a lot of credence to those plain speakers — look at the imagery for George W Bush.

Meanwhile, the plain meaning, spoken by the Spirit to the faithful believer’s heart continues to do its subversive work, educating that reader to such goods as love, hospitality, mercy and justice.