I love the nuts and bolts of the Christian faith: interesting, endless and unpredictable. By nuts and bolts I mean how it works beneath the surface, how it is constructed, why it works, how it fits, the secrets it holds.
Back before I headed to school as a mature (?) adult I had a friend ask me about the program I was entering. As I explained that it was a combination of social and religious studies and lots of theology, Bible, etc. he wondered out loud how there could possibly be that much stuff to learn.
You mean you can’t learn everything about the Bible in a year? Or at the most, two? I mean, it’s just one book. Of course he asked the question rhetorically with some self-deprecating amusement but at the same time there was a ring of honesty to it.
Little did he know that there are brilliant theologians who spend their lives exploring the tiniest slivers of our faith and who are continually fascinated by new discoveries. Students have to bypass large tracts of religious training just to manage the corner they are interested in.
Mind you, there are TV preachers who have all the answers – they don’t say it literally but they practice it. I suggest avoiding their authoritarian simple-mindedness because it manipulates knowledge and shrinks the infinite.
I have now arrived at the conclusion that, no matter what speed I choose to go, I am destined to a lifetime of learning and at the end of my life I will have only scratched the surface. I feel like a marine biologist who spends a lifetime studying sea anemones while swimming in an ocean filled with millions of other fascinating creatures.
So imagine my surprise when a non theologian did some amazing theology a few days ago. Real live theological thinking based, as it should be, with one foot in reality and one foot in mystery.
I hadn’t heard of Nick Cave before reading this article at CNN but after learning a bit about him my mind was sent soaring.
Cave is an Australian song writer and musician now living in Los Angeles. In his early years he and his band were known for their energetic, gothic music and Cave himself struggled with drug addiction. These days he reminds me a bit of Leonard Cohen with his rolling music and pensive lyrics.
His spiritual journey took a turn when, in his words, ‘I slowly reacquainted myself with the Jesus of my childhood, that eerie figure that moves through the Gospels, the man of sorrows, and it was through him that I was given a chance to redefine my relationship with the world … The voice that spoke through me now was softer, sadder, more introspective.’ Hmm… How interesting.
In 2015 he and his wife Susie were thrown into a dark storm when their 15 year old son died after falling from a cliff in England and the trauma from that event affected Cave’s view of life and fuelled his creativity.
Cave later had this thoughtful reflection: ‘I felt very acutely that a sense of suffering was the connective tissue that held us all together. Without being hyperbolic, this feeling of collective love has saved my life. It is a transcendent circle that just seems to grow stronger. It is religious.’
The mystery of pain is one I don’t understand but it is one of God’s primary weapons against evil. We know that because the torture of Jesus on the Cross was how sin and death were emptied. Somehow, in the mystery of the universe, pain is actually the path to wholeness and as Scripture says explicitly, one must first understand how to die before one can live.
That’s what is so unfortunate about our constant pursuit of answered prayer and healing from God. Nothing wrong with the asking but we also need to be aware that the struggle is valuable and there is also healing through pain. Our shallow, feel-good version of Christianity misses that God is with the powerless, the weak and the broken. How? Through a transcendent mystery that I don’t understand – but have lived.
Inevitably Cheryl and I find ourselves occasionally talking about our loss, our trauma; conversations that can still bring tears. Hard experiences that we would never want to endure again and wouldn’t wish on anyone. Yet here we are. Here I am.
I am a different person than I was before but I don’t know what happened. I am stronger but I can’t say why. God is more real and precious but don’t ask me how that works because I don’t have an answer.
In recent years Nick Cave has emerged into a more sensitive, reflective period which is seen in his music as well as his personal life. Cave keeps a bust of Jesus and an open Bible on his piano.
A few months ago Cave invited fans to send questions to him and he promised to respond personally to each and to publicize some to share. His object was simply to talk and communicate. What followed was an avalanche of letters asking all sorts of questions but a surprising number were about God, evil, life, spirituality.
Interestingly he has become an almost pastoral figure who, in the words of one person, provides ‘… the stuff I always wanted (and never got) from religious services.’
Last month a fan asked him what God’s voice sounded like and Cave’s answer began with the hope that it sounded like the traditional booming male voice but admitted that seemed unlikely. The body of his answer was both mysterious and awesome.
‘Perhaps, God would have the combined voice of all the untold billions of collected souls, an assembly of the departed speaking as one — without rancour, domination or division, a great, many-layered calling forth that rings from the heavens in the small, determined voice of a child, maybe; sexless, pure and uncomplicated — that says ‘Look for me. I am here.”
Beautiful. It doesn’t answer the question, yet it absolutely does. Thanks Nick for reminding me of transcendent mystery.
When it is all said and done, there are things that are immeasurable, indescribable, unknowable. Definitions, seminary courses, sermons and books have their place – I enjoy them – but they quickly lose their voice when our minds and souls follow their instincts and reach beyond words. That’s why we have art and music and dance and science fiction and poetry and all sorts of expressions. They are our way of exploring and poking voicelessly into a void that we know is filled with God.
The ancient Hebrews had various names for God but the most notable one is frequently written in our Bibles as the simple English words Jehovah or LORD. They don’t do it justice of course, because how do you speak about something that has a voice but is voiceless? Is ever-present yet invisible? Loving enough to hold us yet beyond anything?
So the name YAHWEH became the standard to describe God but the Hebrews did not speak the vowels (which have no known pronunciation) because God’s name was too holy to be spoken. That is how we end up with the familiar name YHWH.
YHWH’s description of himself is both simple and beyond description: ‘I am that I am’. I don’t know what that means and neither do you. Neither do those volumes of words from theologians who try to explain it.
On Facebook a few days ago I saw a discussion about whether God is a man. Well, the biblical answer as I see it is that God is commonly addressed in the masculine but has both male and female descriptions while actually being neither. Yeah, both and neither.
I can’t explain it in much the same way I can’t explain how bitcoin is money or black holes gobble planets or time-travel is theoretically possible. At every turn, there is more mystery.
I accept that much is beyond me these days but I keep searching anyway because I love mystery and discovering new answers.
There is always more in the transcendent mystery of God.
I prefer it that way.