Fear and Wonder
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Fear and Wonder
The French Jesuit Scientist Pierre, Teilhard de Chardin once said, "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience." While growing up as a fundamentalist, I would have thought such a statement to be impossibly radical. I knew that God is Spirit, and that Spirit is eternal. But how could I, a mere mortal and a sinner, dare to think of myself as a being that came from eternity and would eventually return to eternity? I'd been taught that this was a claim that only Jesus the Christ could truthfully make.
How I wish that someone then had drawn me to Psalm 139, the beautiful Scripture that praises our Creator because we human beings are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” The psalmist celebrates God who knew each of us before our birth, whose eyes beheld our unformed substance. Speaking to the Creator, the psalmist declares, “In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed” (139:16). It is as if a sacred contract has been made between us and God, an agreement written in eternity before we were born into this world to learn what we need to learn here and now.
The author of Psalm 139 apparently saw himself (or herself) as a spiritual being having a human experience - living with God in eternity before this life, walking with God’s constant presence during this human life, and certain of returning to God when this life has ended. Wherever the psalmist goes, the Creator is: “If I ascend to heaven, you are there,” reads verse 8. “If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” In verse 18, the psalmist asserts, “I come to the end - I am still with you.”
Similar thoughts are present in the Christian Scriptures. The author of Ephesians tells us we were “chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world” (1:4), and that “we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (2:10). The writer further asserts that one day all things in heaven and earth, including ourselves, will be gathered up into Christ (1:10).
All of this seems to me astonishing, magnificent, awe-inspiring. News this good should be shouted from the rooftops! Unfortunately, when we are trying to make ends meet financially, or when we get bad news from our doctor, or when we travel through other tough times, eternity can seem remote and frighteningly abstract, too metaphysical to do us much earthly good. It is all too easy to be caught up in the fearfulness that surrounds our sojourn in this world, and lose all sense of the wonder of our own creation.
Truly, humanity is a paradox: Each of us is a timeless entity who currently lives within time, a being created both fearfully and wonderfully. But what does it mean to live out this paradoxical reality of time and timelessness, of fear and wonder? How can a better understanding of our true nature lead us toward life more abundant? How can it deepen our understanding of our purpose for living, of human diversity, and of our interconnectedness - the mystery of ourselves-in-community?
The author of Ephesians suggests we have a single reason for being here: To grow up in every way into the One who is the head, into Christ (4:10). We are given life on this earth in order to incorporate consciously the timeless into our mortal flesh, to learn to live as wisely and compassionately as Jesus lived, to grow up in every way into the perfect image of the Source, the nature of Christ. The goal of our sojourn here in time is to learn to live with the guidance of God’s deep wisdom at the center of our beings.
The challenge begins the day we are born. In “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” the great English poet William Wordsworth writes that “our birth is but a sleep and forgetting,” and that we come from God, “trailing clouds of glory.” But as we are socialized, “shades of the prison-house” begin to close around us. Thereafter, it is only in rare moments that we catch glimpses of our own sacredness - and many of us have been trained to deny these glimpses as heretical or delusional.
Not so! The same Christ who proclaims “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12, 9:5) declares to the multitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14). No less than for Jesus, the point of living for each of us is to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to God in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
Yet this high calling to grow up in every way into Christ can be terrifying when we think of God as intentionally putting Jesus to death for others’ sins. T.S. Eliot once referred to the prayer “Thy will be done” as “a hardly, barely prayable prayer/costing not less than everything.” And, in a sense, he is right: The cost to our sense of ourselves as disconnected, body-identified egos is everything. We must die to our ego separation in order to live into our larger all-inclusive Christedness. But many of us have been taught such a ferocious concept of God that we are afraid to say “Thy will be done.” We think God is waiting to zap us.
I remember kneeling next to my son’s bed when he had a high fever and finding the words “Thy will be done” to be “hardly, barely prayable.” At that moment, I did not really believe that God is love. I did not believe that God’s will for me is perfect happiness. I did not believe that all things work together for good for those who love God. Furthermore, I did not believe that my son had his own sacred contract with God, and that God would bring him safely home only at the right time for himself and everyone concerned. At some level, I still imagined that God was hungry to make me sacrifice my happiness.
I still occasionally struggle to trust God’s loving-kindness utterly and completely. I still sometimes find myself viewing other people as walled off inside their own bodies instead of seeing them as timeless beings who are spiritually one with me and God. And in those moments I become afraid. I lose the sense of myself as an eternal being and am fooled into seeing myself as an ego caught in a dying body. But when I can remember that my own true and eternal nature is not me, but Christ within me, then there is nothing to be afraid of.
In every moment, we choose whether to live fearfully and wonderfully. Every instant is either a hellish moment or a sacred one. When I identify with my own body as separate from your body, I feel separated not only from others but from God, and life becomes hellish. The incest and abuse damage I’ve experienced floods in upon me, and life turns dark and cold. But if I identify instead with the timeless and sacred Spirit of Christ within me, that darkness clears, and I am reminded that, in the words of William Blake, “everything that lives is holy.”
To one degree or another, all of us must constantly choose between joyous connectedness and isolated, angry despair. Our purpose in life is so simple: just to be in the presence of God’s loving kindness wherever we are, as Jesus was. But all of us have been damaged to one degree or another, and that damage breeds fear in us. So it is a constant challenge to grow up into the Christ-likeness, to offer to the Spirit in each moment our little willingness to see as God sees. Then and only then can we look through the terrors and pangs of embodiment and see the sacred movement of God’s self through human experience. This is the way we grow up into the head, the source, the eternal Christ, the light that enlightens everyone who is born into the world (John 1:9). This is the way we learn to live, like Jesus, right at the intersection of timelessness and time.
While our embodiment can too easily lead us to separate ourselves from others and from God, there is also, paradoxically, something very good about being fearfully made. In fact, the Hebrew word that is translated “fearfully” in Psalm 139 is not the word for sheer terror, nor even a cowering before God, but actually means both fearsome and worthy of reverence, which is quite a paradox in itself. As long as we are not defining ourselves by our bodily limitations and using them to wall ourselves by our bodily limitations and using them to wall ourselves off from others, our incarnation in these physical bodies is important and good. Our embodiment grounds us, enables us to communicate with and care for one another, and equips us to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly in communion with God.
Which brings me to my second point: We are fearfully and wonderfully made in all our diversities. The secret of mature Christian living is to celebrate our differences and particularities without elevating any of them into idolatry.
For instance, it is important for a transgender lesbian like me to claim and be grateful for these elements of my identity. Although I did not choose and cannot change these aspects of my humanity, although some in society and even in my own family devalue these aspects, I am happy to be all of who I am. I know that God, my Source, who apparently loves diversity, chose to create me in her image to carry her love and light into the world in just this particular fashion. And this is true for every individual, whatever a person’s race, ethnicity, gender, marital status, abilities, or other particularities. None of these aspects is all that a person is, yet all of these aspects should be valued.
Valued, yes - but not overvalued or undervalued. Herein lies the fearfulness of our wonderful diversities: The separated human ego seizes on diversity and difference as a means of alienating us from one another. All of society’s divisive “isms” use bodies as walls of separation: Racism uses the color of skin; sexism, the shape of our skin; classism, the possessions each body can claim; nationalism, the location of our bodies; heterosexism, the nature of our bodily expression of love; gender rigidity, the insistence that our roles, clothes, and behavior must match our bodies’ genitalia; ageism, discrimination based on bodily age; ableism, discrimination based on how our bodies and brains function; and on and on.
Whether we overvalue or undervalue our particularities doesn’t really matter - either way we are using our differences from others to judge them and push them away. As a lesbian, I’ve met many heterosexuals who believe themselves better than me because they are certain heterosexuality is God’s will for everyone. But I’ve also met heterosexuals who feel guilty about their more priviledged status in society and seem to wish they shared my oppression. I understand that emotion; I call it “liberal guilt,” and I have experienced how my own similar guilt around issues of race and social class affects my relationships with persons of a different ethnicity or economic status. Unfortunately, liberal guilt throws up a wall of imagined inferiority just as surely as self-righteousness throws up a wall of imagined superiority.
From the perspective of time, our particularities matter a great deal. To be sure, I have expended tremendous energy learning to value myself as a transgender lesbian woman. I expend lots of time and energy every day coping with the pain and limitations of my disability of arthritis. But from the standpoint of eternity, our bodily particularities are not much more than a tiny blip on a huge radar screen. All of us come from God into this world trailing clouds of glory; all of us have to liberate ourselves from the various prison-houses that close around us in this world; all of us have to train our minds to focus on the sacred ground that undergirds forms and appearances; and all of us need one another’s help to grow into the fullness of the One who perfectly mirrors our Source.
It is this need for one another that leads to my third point: Fear and wonder surround our interconnectedness. We live in a society that overvalues individualism and undervalues community. Growing up in a Protestant fundamentalist environment, I always heard salvation defined as a purely individualistic matter between oneself and God. I never heard anything about the social dimensions of salvation, despite Jesus’ lifetime of eating with tax collectors and sex workers and challenging the politics of hierarchy and colonial occupation not only through his words and deeds, but through his execution and resurrection from the dead.
Furthermore, partly because U.S. churches have not taken a prophetic stance, our society has become more and more individualistic and less and less concerned about the common good. And the gap between the “haves” and “have nots,” both within our nation and across the globe, continues to widen.
In such a society, it can be hard to remember that we were created for community, and that our full humanity requires relatedness within community. We cannot know who we are until we see what we do and say in relationship to others. Although our capitalist society values autonomy and self-reliance as the fullest realization of personhood, in actuality a person is someone who acts in relation to others, and the person’s character is disclosed by the quality of her or his words and actions.
Whereas U.S. society views family as a closed-system nesting of one male and one female and any children they may engender, the Christian Scriptures depict the marriage relationship in terms of the church, the corporate and universal body of Christ in whom “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). Love of one other person is intended to build a foundation for universal communion.
As biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann has stressed, one of our critical tasks as Christians in community is reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:17-18). This task must include actions of solidarity with all the “little ones” - not only children, but everyone who for any reason is weak, poor, and powerless in society. Most of our churches would rather practice charity toward little ones than solidarity with them, because charity does not disturb the power structures. To the degree that the church and governments refuse to redistribute power by sharing it with the little ones, our job is to speak truth to those in power. And Brueggemann reminds us that, to the degree that we possess power - our ministry is the empowerment of those who until now have been denied power.
All of this to me seems quite wonderful. As ourselves-in-community, doing the work of reconciliation, we are most wonderfully made. But as a reconciling community, are we also fearfully made?
I think the answer is a resounding yes. It isn’t enough just to learn how to include others without coopting them to our agenda; nor is it enough to learn to connect with others without merging so completely that we lose our own authenticity. We also face the fearsome job of behaving in a reconciling manner toward our political and religious opponents. We know that Jesus told us to love friends and enemies alike, but when we consider the brutal policies of heteropatriarchy, how is it humanly possible to seek reconciliation with those who think things are just fine exactly as they are?
Theologian Carter Heyward gives us some help in her wonderful book, Saving Jesus from Those Who Are Right. Heyward makes it clear that “those who are right” refers not only to the political and religious right-wing, but also to our own tendency to forget that our perceptions are always partial, imperfect, and limited. She goes further, asserting that “We are all deeply implicated in the evil that is being done every day.” For instance, she explains that, whether we want or not, White people inevitably profit from the monopoly of culture by Whites, so the best we can ever hope to be is “anti-racist racists.” And most of us in the United States profit to one degree or another from the starvation of a segment of the human race, and from slavery and sweatshop conditions around the world. She contends, “No one born into this world is untouched by wrong relation and the evil we do in it.”
We cannot approach our opponents as if we are innocent and they alone are guilty. Instead of distancing evil from ourselves by projecting it onto others, Heyward urges us to learn to “transform it into a different kind of energy, a force for healing and liberation.” I think this is what Jesus was suggesting when he told us to love our enemies (Luke 6:27,35). We are not asked to agree with unjust policies, but to recognize and work with our common humanity, including the various unjust privileges we have in common.
Having to acknowledge our corporate complicity in the world’s evil systems brings home the fact that we are fearfully made. Fortunately, however, viewing ourselves as in community lifts up even more the fact that we are also wonderfully made. As Heyward puts it, “We are all divine together, in mutual relation with our sisters and brothers. No one of us alone is ‘God.’ God is the Holy Spirit (that connects) our lives, moving with us and through us.”
Indeed, we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Let us rejoice together in this gift of our common humanity. For while our passage through time has damaged our bodies and personalities, nevertheless our inner timeless Self remains as fresh and loving as God’s own universal nature, revealed to us in the personhood of Jesus. May we continue to engage in the struggle for justice, secure in the knowledge that it is a joyous struggle, because eventually the will of God will be done on earth as it is in heaven.