Thanks

I got the job!

What with all my hand-ringing last week, how am I supposed to feel about it all? I didn’t pray for it but my parents did. In fact, they put out a prayer ABP for others to, as well. So did their prayer work and now I have to worry that it actually wasn’t me that earned it? I don’t know. I am genuinely thankful, but if God didn’t intervene, who do I thank?

I prepared for the interview. For someone like myself, the interview process in the bureaucratic world of teaching means that they have strict rules guiding the process. There is a point system and the interviewers (usually two principals, one from the school and another from a different school) are supposed to record everything the candidate says. At the end, they tally up a score based on whether your answers referenced the “right” concepts. Note: it’s not whether the candidate understands the concepts and how to incorporate them into their job. Rather, it’s simply a matter of buzzword bingo. Did you drop enough jargon into your answers? You get the points.

I hate corporate speak. I don’t have an issue with the research behind the concepts or the concepts themselves. But the words are simply names that some academic or guru has given to the concepts. The names they give are not relevant as long as the concepts are understood and, more importantly, actually implemented. The problem with corporate speech is that people think knowing the buzzwords and using them is enough. That’s where it all falls apart. Doing is better than saying, every time.

I instinctively rebel against this stuff. I would rather not say the words but answer honestly and in a way that reflects how I would do the job than simply throw out as many of the right words as possible. So what I did was research the words and ensure that I had them at the ready so that I could use them to explain what I would do. I must have done enough since I got the job. But it was me that did it. Wasn’t it? I did the research. I did the interview. What did God do?

Part of the reason I have stopped praying is that I want to do things for myself. I want to grow and feel that I had agency in the process. I don’t want miracles. I want to improve myself and earn my rewards. I’m sure this isn’t inconsistent with God acting in the world. Prayer doesn’t have to be a simplistic zero sum game. God can encompass the contradictions we formulate. I’m sure there is some way in which both God acts and we act and our responsibility is shared. After all, the most consistent name we give God, as well as the one Jesus used, is “Father.” What is a father but a man who raises a child to become an adult? The jargon we use for that process in the teaching world is “gradual release of responsibility.” See what I did there? I’ve just shown you that I know the words, understand the concept, and can apply it which the interview process doesn’t measure.

The problem with this way of seeing the process is that it is hard to know where God ends and I begin. I guess it’s not that important, but it is meaningful for me to know that I earned something. Perhaps I don’t need to know exactly how much of me earned it as long as I can claim some agency in the process.

All this being said, there is another more deeply held need for me. I need someone in whom to direct my thanks. I am thankful. I have a job. I have a permanent job. The anxiety around changing careers is now over. The risk I took a few years ago to shift careers in middle age with a large family seems to have paid off. I have a good career in a stable sector. I will have benefits and a pension. I am thrilled with the position and hope that it will be as fulfilling as I think it will be. So to whom do I direct my thanksgiving?

In the earlier days of loosing my religion, I felt a loss at the idea that if God didn’t exist, I would have no one to thank for this world we live in. That has always been an important aspect to my spirituality. The most significant “mountaintop” experience I have had was literally on a mountain in the Swiss Alps. As I gazed across the valley before me, it struck me that if I love all this, I love the creator of it too. This was a significant realization because it solved a question I had long had about how to love God unconditionally. If I love the creative spirit that made this world, then I love the who of God as opposed to loving God for what I get out of him.

The natural response to that beauty is giving thanks. But if there is no God, who do we thank for all this.

Thanks too implies responsibility. That is, if we are thanking God for the world, then we are laying the responsibility for its creation in his lap. That means God also bears some responsibility for the things we lament too. This is very Old Testament. The Psalms and the prophets constantly shift from praise and thanksgiving to lament and pleading.

The glass is full. It’s neither half empty nor half full. It’s full but the contents are a muddy mess. The pure spring water of beauty, love, and joy has formed a cocktail with the stagnant muck of evil, pain, and sorrow. It’s a messy business life. However, at the risk of letting the metaphor get away from me, if you are still enough to let the mixture settle, it will separate enough to enable us to see the good for what it is despite being contaminated by the bad.

I am thankful for the good. I am furious at the bad. I don’t know how to rationalize or make sense of this cocktail of contradiction, but I can both thank God for the blessings and rage at him for the curses. The Psalmists and the prophets did. So I guess I’m in good company.

However it all came to be, I am thankful. I am thankful for the good stuff in my life. I’m thankful too for some of the bad. The bad has made me into the man I am. I still resent some of the bad and cannot see how it has had any positive affect. There is so much evil that hasn’t led to good. Some things are just evil beyond any redeeming. So I name that for what it is while I give thanks to God for the good.

I have a job. I am thankful.

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.