I am.

I’ll start somewhere pretentious and clichéd. Set the tone early.

When René Descartes wrote his famous line, “cogito ergo sum,” he was trying to find a purely rational starting point. I think, therefore I am. If I can think, therefore I must exist. The very act of thinking implies there is a someone who is thinking. First year philosophy students love this kind of pretentious egotism. They only know for certain that they exist, but you or me? They can’t be sure. What an enticing concept!

As with many philosophical thought experiments, it is rational but it’s not reasonable. We can’t function in a world in which we have to prove the other exists. The other so clearly exists that we can’t live as if it weren’t the case. Another example is Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains:

In his Proslogion, St. Anselm claims to derive the existence of God from the concept of a being than which no greater can be conceived. St. Anselm reasoned that, if such a being fails to exist, then a greater being—namely, a being than which no greater can be conceived, and which exists—can be conceived. But this would be absurd: nothing can be greater than a being than which no greater can be conceived. So a being than which no greater can be conceived—i.e., God—exists.

Again, the argument is rational, but it’s not reasonable. It’s silly. You can’t just argue God into existence. Admittedly, I’ve only dabbled in philosophy and this blog isn’t a philosophy blog. I’m not interested in arguing for the existence of God. For one thing, much smarter people than me have debated the subject for centuries. Secondly, I find the conversation boring. I don’t know if God exists and I’m sure I’ll never know. But I do feel compelled to live in a world in which there is a being that we name God. It’s not necessarily a rational stance, but I think it’s reasonable.

This is my starting point. Where we go from here is what this blog is about. My spiritual formation and profession were within the Christian tradition. I have explored and fallen in love with all kinds of theological expressions. I grew up begging to feel God like my friends around me appeared to feel God in the midst of high energy praise and worship gatherings. Eventually, I found myself drawn to sacramental worship because I found ritual and beauty to be more effective in that quest. If ever I felt the presence of God, it was in the midst of silence and beauty. I was drawn so strongly to the church where I found silence and beauty that I believed I felt a call to the priesthood within this spiritual context. After all, what better way to encounter God than to live and work in a vocation dedicated to God?

The beauty was always there but the silence was not. More and more I found myself uncomfortable with theological words. This became a problem as I found myself increasingly uncomfortable preaching them. The more I preached from that elevated pulpit, the less confident I became in what I was saying. I was trapped in a perpetual state of cognitive dissonance. Depression and anxiety were always lurking, especially on Sunday afternoon as I second guessed the confident words I proclaimed. I decided to pursue an alternative career. I became a teacher in the public school system. Now I don’t have to say anything about God. In fact, I’m encouraged not to.

In my wanderings, I came across a theological concept that has taken my soul captive: apophatic theology or negative theology. The idea, as I understand it, is that God is more knowable by knowing less. The less we say about God, the more accurate we are. One of the great saints of apophatic theology, Evagrios of Pontus, is a heretic (be still my heart). Part of my pseudonym comes from his title. Combine that with my love for Kierkegaard’s love for latinized pseudonyms and you have Johannes Ponticus.

Evagrios wrote my favourite definition of theology: a theologian is one who prays truly and one who prays truly is a theologian. I wrote that from memory (which means it may not be exact). I loved it so much, I made it my motto as I pursued theology in university. If that definition stands, then I stand firmly as a theologian. All I can do is pray truly. It is encoded in my DNA. If that takes me into the realm of heresy, then I shall lay in those green pastures and walk by those still waters because I am content here.

Biblically, this is borne out in that knotty old tale of Moses at the burning bush. When he asks what he should call God, God responds by saying, “I am.” Biblical scholarship has had a romp with this expression ever since. It is ambiguous exactly what kind of tense is being used. It could be “I will be what I will be”, “I am what I am”, “I am what I will be,” etc. Whatever God actually meant by this response, it is one I can get on board with. I was born on board.

In fact, it surprises me when others find it insufficient. Take Ezra Koenig, lead singer/songwriter of indie darlings, Vampire Weekend. He has a lot to say about religion and God, seemingly rooted in a his feelings about his Jewish spiritual heritage. In the gorgeous song, “Ya Hey,” he sings:

Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name
Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name
Only “I am that I am”
But who could ever live that way?
Ut Deo, Ya Hey
Ut Deo, Deo

I love this song. I listen to it frequently. Each time I am struck by his brazenly blasphemous rendering of the tetragrammaton (YHWH). Where good orthodox Jews believe the name God gave Moses is so holy, they won’t even speak it, Koenig happily sings it with playfully mocking twist. What chutzpah! I don’t share his suspicion of the holy name. Quite the opposite. I’m ok with God self-identifying as simply existing. Indeed, I would prefer if that was all that was ever said about God. All the words we’ve added since are never sufficient. They always deter, detract, or distract.

So, this is a blog about releasing God from the bounds of our words. It’s about how letting God simply be affects my life and understanding of the world. I still pray, but mostly it’s meditation free from words. I still attend church, but it’s not easy to be around all those words like substance, trinity, and incarnation flying about. If I’m allowed to call myself a Christian even without being able to confidently confess our creeds, so be it. Those who like to keep score in such matters might feel the need to call me something else. That’s fine. All I can be is what I am.

One thought on “I am.”

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