Tuesday, July 7, 2009


The following is an interesting excerpt from Richard Rohr "Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality" St. Antony Messenger Press Cincinnati 2008 pp 18-20. I think it speaks to our effort at making a spirituality for troubled times.

Once you agree to experience your experiences, once you accept that God is found in the actual, there is something else: You have to experience the negative side of the actual along with the positive! No wonder we split, avoid and deny, no wonder we prefer abstract ideas, where we can dismiss the unacceptable material. But the Hebrew Scriptures, most amazingly, incorporate the negative. Jesus does the same when he is "tempted by the devil for forty days" (remember, temptation implies at least some level of attraction and conflict).
The Jewish people, in a sense against all odds and expectations, kept their complaining and avoiding, kept their arrogant and evil kings and their very critical prophets inside of their Bible. They read about them publicly and still do, and we read them also. These are passages that didn't tell the Jewish people how wonderful they were, but told them how terrible they were!
What you have built into the Hebrew Bible and strongly expressed by Jesus and the prophets is the capacity for self-critical thinking. It is the first step beyond the dualistic mind and teaches us patience with ambiguity and mystery. Critical thinking is a characteristic of the Western mind that produced the scientific and industrial revolutions, as well as the Protestant reformations. The Jewish and Christian religions always have the power to correct themselves from inside, because of these kinds of sacred texts.

This is quite rare in the history of religion. This is the self-criticism necessary to keep religion from its natural tendency toward arrogant self-assurance. It undercuts the possibility of any long-lasting group idolatry, even though it also deteriorates into cynicism, skepticism and post-modernism.

The Jewish people possessed an uncommon power to stand their ground, with God alone, before negative realities. That's quite the opposite of what we often have today, which can feel like "making a religion out of your better moments." They made a religion out of their worst moments, which is probably why they have lasted so strongly to this day, even after the Holocaust.

You've got to realize how daring Jewish religion was and is. Imagine, before they crossed the Red Sea, Moses telling them, "You have nothing to do but keep still, Yahweh will do the fighting for you" (Exodus 14:14). Or "No one has ever trusted in Yahweh and been put to shame" (Psalm 25:3).

These kinds of assertions leave you naked before your enemies and before the moment. No wonder one-third of the Psalms are psalms of lamentation. Much of Christian history has found itself unable to do the same, while considering itself superior to Judaism.
Our temptation now and always is not to trust in God but to trust in our faith tradition of trusting in God. They are not the same thing! Often our faith is in our tradition in which we can talk about all of our past saints and theologians who have trusted in God. That's a very clever way to avoid the experience itself, to avoid scary encounters with the living God, to avoid the ongoing Incarnation. We tend to trust the past for its own sake, as if God came to earth to protect human traditions, or that past time is somehow holier than present time. Jesus specifically says that is not true (see Matthew 15:3).

I must say that I love Tradition, but it's a tradition of surrender to the wonderful and always too-much mystery of God. In that sense it will always be a Tradition of not-knowing. That's what we call the apophatic tradition, or the "cloud of unknowing," and it becomes the very concept of faith, the freedom not to know because I am known more fully than I know or even need to know (I Corinthians 13:12). We do need enough knowing to be able to hold and sustain the mystery of not knowing.

It is amazing how religion has turned this biblical idea of faith around to mean its exact opposite: into a tradition of certain knowing, presumed predictability and complete assurance about whom God likes and whom God does not like. I guess we think we have God in our pocket. We know what God is going to say next, because we think our particular denomination has it all figured out. In this schema, God is no longer free and must follow our rules and our decisions. If God is not free, we are in trouble, because every time God forgives or shows mercy, God is breaking God's own rules and showing terrible inconsistency!

The amazing thing about the Hebrews is that they did not repress their reality. They refused to let themselves be consoled by superstitious myths. In a certain way, Israel did not distance itself from its own contradictions or the contradictions of life, from the horrors and abysses of human history -- which finally became "the cross" in Jesus. But these hard realities had already been presented in the stories of Job, their own experience of exodus and exile, and their constant invasion or occupation by foreign powers. They often must have felt like saying to God what Teresa of Avila is supposed to have said: "If this is the way you treat your friends, I would hate to see your enemies."


  1. I learned the Teresa quote as "If this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!"
    It's one of my favorite bits of "tradition," which has often sustained me with its example of utterly honest prayer.

  2. I think there is much to be learned from our past and our traditions - both positive and negative lessons. I believe that it is always a good idea to question, re-evaluate and change them if need be. The reminder that our faith is and needs to be experiential is well put and oft needed - at every age/stage of life. It is so easy to get comfortable in the routines of our beliefs and forget to participate in our relationship with God!