Struggle

There are some strange stories in the Bible. The strangest often involve direct encounters with God. Moses meets God in the burning bush where God won’t tell him his name. Abraham invites three angels/God/who knows? over for dinner. And then there’s this beauty:

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

Genesis 32: 24-30

You know the story. Maybe someone read a sanitized version in an Arch Book or you coloured a picture of it in Sunday School. Maybe you’ve heard it read and preached about in Church. Or maybe you’re not like me and didn’t grow up in a religious family and have never heard the story. Well, you may be better off than those of us who’ve had decades of interpretation imposed on the story. Take a step back and read it again without thinking about the possible meanings. Just enjoy the sheer absurdity of it.

The events leading up to this moment aren’t any less strange. Jacob is an asshole. He steals his brother’s birthright by lying to his father and then heads for the hills. He meets his match in the form of his father-in-law-to-be/cousin, Laban. He makes Jacob work for seven years before he’ll hand over his property daughter. We don’t even blink when we read about Jacob fucking Leah on the night of his wedding to her sister Rachel meaning that now he’s got seven more years to buy Rachel. I mean seriously, how does he not figure it out? Is he so horny he simply has to complete the coital congress? There is a French translation of the story in the TOB that succinctly captures the mood, “Et au matin… surprise, c’était Léa !” or “In the morning…. surprise, it was Leah!” My eternal gratitude is due to Dr. John Simons, one time principal of Montreal Diocesan Theological College (my alma mater) for this observation.

Oh yeah, and by the way, does anyone ever ask how Rachel and Leah feel about this? They’re used as prostitutional pawns in Laban and Jacob’s scheming. As far as I can tell, true love stories in the Bible are non-existent. Our concept of mutual free giving love isn’t there. Men often fall in love and buy their brides but what she thinks is never taken into account.

So with his pair of duly purchased brides, Jacob heads home to see his brother. On the eve of their reunion, Jacob wrestles with God. As you do. And God cheats. As He does (apparently). Jacob holds his own, so God has to use magic to touch Jacob’s hip causing permanent damage. Still, Jacob persists. Eventually, God asks him to let him go. Jacob won’t until he gets a blessing. God gives him a new name, “Israel.” We all know that name don’t we? That’s a nation of people as well as a geopolitical nation. How touching!

Except, well, except that it means something as do all good Hebrew names. It means, “struggle with God.” That’s right. An entire nation of people is named after the struggle with God! And struggle they do. The history of the Israelites is the history of struggle. They were a rag tag bunch of misfits who managed to hold onto a small but significant piece of real estate for hundreds of years. They did so by the skin of their teeth. They also spent time in exile and were conquered over and over again while somehow holding onto their land until the Romans got fed up with them in the 1st century.

Israel is defined by its faith in Yahweh. Religion and politics are inseparable. They are intertwined. And yet the nature of this faith in God is cemented in their name. They struggle. Read some of the prophets. Prophets were not unlike political pundits of antiquity. They challenged those in authority and warned of the consequences that would come from immoral behaviour. Hosea got to marry a prostitute. Ezekiel got to eat food cooked on shit (God graciously allowed it to be animal excrement rather than human). Jeremiah seems to spend a lifetime in lament. How long oh Lord!?

This view of God is hard to reconcile with our contemporary focus on God as loving and gracious. The God of struggle can sometimes come off as a jealous lover or abusive husband. “You just get me so mad sometimes, baby, but you know I love you.” At the same time, this view of God is far more consistent with the travails of evolution. Evolution is progress at the cost of overwhelming failure.

This God of struggle also reflects my life experience more than the smiling faces of praise and worship bands. My life of faith has been a life of struggle (decidedly middle-class struggle, let’s be honest here). I wish it weren’t but what are you gonna do? I feel condemned to a life like Jacob or Jeremiah as opposed to… Come to think of it, I can’t recall a figure in the Bible whose life didn’t involve a significant struggle. Abraham and Isaac, Joseph and slavery, Moses and Pharaoh, David and Goliath/Saul/Absalom, and the list goes on. The heroes of the Hebrew faith are all fragile and broken men with some exceptional women too (Sarah, Deborah, Ruth, Mary strugglers all). I guess I’m in good(?) company.

So I will continue to struggle. The other options are less appealing. Praying truly means facing hard truths as well as basking in the glow of enlightened ones. The mystics confirm it. Of the mystical canon, in Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross expresses it directly. Praying truly is not easy. And the more I doubt the potential miraculous rewards, the more I wonder whether the struggle is worthwhile. But here I stand and can do no other.

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.