Ineffability

GoodOmens_MassMarketPaperback_1185845373Last night I finished Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. It is hilariously wonderful. I am usually a quiet reader, but this one had me laughing out loud. Aziraphale and Crowley immediately became one of my favorite fictional-friendships. If you want to read about the coming of the Apocalypse (and something better written than a certain bestselling series), have more than a few laughs, and yet ponder the ineffability of the Plan and the nature of humanity, angels, and demons, read on. Considering that The Name of the Rose took me five weeks to read, it was refreshing to gulp down a novel in just a couple of days. Have I mentioned that I love Aziraphale (and Crowley, because you can’t really have one without the other…)? Anyway.

This morning I managed to wake up and get ready in time to go the service at All Saints’. I’m glad I did. It reminded me very much of Emmanuel, and so I think I will be visiting again. I forgot that I’ll be out of town next weekend so I’m kind of sad to not have the immediate follow-up, but I’ll go the next week.

I have the policy that I’ll stop singing if a lyric of a hymn doesn’t seem ‘right’ or if I don’t get it, and then resume singing once I’ve either figured out or if the rest of the hymn looks ‘okay’. I hold the same policy for spoken responses: stating something with the voice indicates belief, especially during Mass, and so I prefer to tread consciously. We sang a hymn this morning that I am still pondering from St Andys a few weeks ago, particularly this stanza:

Drop thy still dews of quietness,
till all our strivings cease;
take from our souls the strain and stress,
and let our ordered lives confess
the beauty of thy peace.

I am not comfortable with the idea of ceasing our striving—here, perhaps, I display that I am a humanist as well as a Christian. As we are exhorted to ‘continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling’ (Philipians 2:12), so I see the striving of the human mind, heart, and spirit to understand the divine and the universe as a noble effort. God is honored when we ask questions, when we use the intellect and rationality that he gave us, that separates us from the other creatures with whom we share this earth (hem, not sure about those dolphins though) and brings us closer to the image of God. I am wary of wishing for the ‘strivings cease’ because that, to me, implies a blind faith, complacent and stagnant. Likewise, I hesitate at the prospect of an ‘ordered life’—surely, our lives can confess the beauty of God’s peace, but is this not done moreso through the messiness of human experience? Is not faith an ongoing process, the working out, the negotiation and reconciliation, of imperfect human finiteness with perfect divine infinity? I will admit, albeit reluctantly, the bounds of human reason, and thus accept that the answer to some questions are as Marc says, ‘Because God likes it that way’ (The Sparrow). Yet this does not mean I will give up the curiosity that ought to distinguish the children of God. Because, as Marc also says, it is the human condition to ask questions and receive no plain answers. The Divine is, after all, ineffable.

‘The Jewish sages also tell us that God dances when His children defeat Him in an argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds. So questions like Anne’s are worth asking. To ask them is a very fine kind of human behavior. If we keep demanding that God yield up His answers, perhaps some day we will understand them. And then we will be something more than clever apes, and we shall dance with God.’ (p. 201)

Perhaps I should not be so philosophical and realize that the stanza means the struggles and sorrows of daily life, but even those are the crucibles that refine us and are the moments in which we ask our questions, so perhaps we should accept the good and the bad, and wish for the grace to live through both.

Well now, I think I shall go back to work on that Dissertation. This next chapter is on the Apocalypse, ironically enough. I may not be able to write about the Antichrist with a straight face…

7 thoughts on “Ineffability

  1. Katherine says:

    I think all Christians should think about what they sing (or say). I would agree that the messiness of human life does reflect God’s work, but I think the key to this hymn is the “striving,” which implies complaint and fighting. we are encouraged to ask questions of God. Job did, and God never rebuked him for asking. However, to think that we can “beat” God in an argument is not a reflection of the gospel. Rather, it reflects an attitude of pride, believing that we are in essence better than God.

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    • Chera says:

      I guess when I think of the times it seems like we ‘defeat God in argument’—those times we make a point and it seems like there is no response—God is actually smiling enigmatically, and the truth is that we have no idea what is going on. But he smiles also because we are asking questions, interacting and engaging with him. That is why ‘ineffable’ is such a great (and shiver-inducing) word.

      Also, it depends on which definition of ‘striving’ we are using. You, I think, are using the one that comes from ‘strife’, whereas I was thinking of the one that describes the effort to attain something.

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  2. Kelly says:

    Adam, frankly, is the creepiest, most theologically brilliant Antichrist ever. The more often you read the book, the more frighteningly profound it becomes. (Use sparingly.)

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  3. Megan says:

    Oh, this is one of the times I wish we were in the same city and could talk things over back and forth. But let me attempt a response here. (Sorry that it’s long.)

    I completely agree with all you say about the “working out” and not settling for blind faith, so I won’t repeat what you’ve written. However, as I always do, I come to the place of feeling that most things are a dichotomy, the balance of life in the seeming paradox that is God. While seeking and asking and pounding on that door till He answers is demanded of us, He also says again and again, “Take a chill pill!” Rest. Rest in ME. Obey my command for Sabbath rest, and realize that you need it; I made you that way. And quit thinking you can DO enough to either ensure your financial and physical saftey or to earn My love, respect, or salvation. Remember Me- “that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you,” (not you yourself). [Ex 31:13] This is by no means a call to laziness. He assumes in commanding a day off out of seven that we are working at something those other six.

    I’m not sure, but it sounds to me like the part about ordered lives isn’t saying that the order is what brings peace. I think the writer is saying that WE order our lives and fill it up with things we think are good or necessary, and what we need more of- is God’s beautiful peace- to remember that order and habits don’t ensure peace. The “be still and KNOW” instead of always trying to prove Him in our actions or usher in religiousity. Not “be still and quit caring,” but just trust. Outwardly, take a moment to sit and BE instead of Do. Inwardly, pause whatever mental strivings you’re in and remember that “I Am.” This is where faith, in things unseen but hoped for, comes in.

    I think some of us need more reminders to just stop it (striving, rationalizing, philosophizing, emphasizing works) and remember the faith like a child that He demands. Others of us need to grow up and put that faith into actions, requiring reminders to get up and work out our faith. Neither is wrong, but one or the other might not be the words for you to hear at a particular moment.

    All this has been swirling around in my head for the last week or so, actually, so if I only addressed one part of the issue, it is because I’m biased toward my own needed reminders.

    And yes, we’ll have to wait and see about those dolphins. 😉

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    • Chera says:

      Oh Megano, but I did address the point that eventually we just have to stop and believe. “I will admit, albeit reluctantly, the bounds of human reason, and thus accept that the answer to some questions are as Marc says, ‘Because God likes it that way’ (The Sparrow).” The ineffability of God eventually silences us. Sometimes that’s comforting, sometimes it isn’t. But I think that mature faith is benefited by both insatiable curiosity and ineffable trust. Too often it seems that (mainstream protestant) Christians are told just to believe, don’t ask questions, and you’ll be told everything upon entrance into heaven. If this is so, then why did God bestow upon us relentlessly curious minds? And, at the present, I can think of no biblical evidence for instant revelation once we enter heaven. (This can be an entirely different topic altogether, so I’m shelving it aside for now.)

      Yes, we are told to approach Christ as children. It’s always been described to me that this is because of childlike simplicity. I worry, however, that such encouraged simplicity tends toward a simple faith, of blind faith. What if we are to emulate children not because they are so ‘trusting’ but because of their curiosity, their imagination, and their ability to readily accept the impossible? Perhaps we ought to be practitioners of the insatiable ‘why’. Our eyes are to sparkle with wonder, our cheeks rosy from laughing at impossible mysteries, our hands outstretched not only to obediently hold the Father’s hand but to be given a flower, a bug, a star, of which to inspect with childlike scrutiny.

      There is a distinction between a child’s acceptance of the impossible and narrow-minded blind faith. A child would still ask ‘why’ or ‘how,’ and a good parent would answer honestly. A child would accept a fact to be true but not without follow-up questions. At no other stage of our lives do we learn so much so quickly but as children. So I wonder, if we are to be as ‘children’ approaching God, should we not also hunger and thirst for knowledge, in so far as that knowledge leads us to a better, deeper understanding of God? Many mysteries will remain unknown to us, but as I seek to know God, I also seek to know about God and about his creation, and this pursuit can be an act of faith, too.

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  4. Megan says:

    PS: The growing up not just being a need to put faith to action, but mentally- to eat solid food instead of being fed milk- to ponder more, go deeper.

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