Wonder Shining in My Eyes
I wonder if one of the central tasks of faith at this middle stage of life is that of reimagination. To unlearn the notion that faith is a “whoever dies with the most correct ideas about God in their head wins” kind of game. To open oneself to the possibility that when it comes to the things of God, it’s less about arguing than evoking, less about proving than reminding and revealing, less about heroically thinking enough right God-things or doing enough good God-things than loving mercy. Sigh. Even as I look at the preceding three sentences, I hate the soppy mid-life cliché that they sound like. Perhaps one of the other tasks of the middle-stage of life is to somehow come to peace with the cliches that we inevitably become.
It is comforting to know that I am in good company. James K.A. Smith wrote a piece in the Christian Century last week that hit all kinds of notes for me. It’s worth reading in its entirety. Really. You can click away right now; I won’t be offended. It’s called “I’m a philosopher. We can’t think our way out of this mess” and is basically a kind of mid-life coming to the end of what logic and analysis are actually good for. Smith is a Christian and a philosopher. He grew up in what sounds like the same kind of low church evangelicalism that I did, and entered young adulthood more or less convinced that his task was to learn enough smart God facts to convince other people of said God facts. Which is more or less what I thought as a young man and what drove me off into the study of philosophy and theology in my twenties and thirties. This is what professors and pastors are for, right? To tell people what to think. To help them get their ideas about God straight. Salvation surely lies down this path. Right?
Well, wrong, as it happens. Smith discovered this around mid-life when he sunk into a depression that no analysis or reason could lift him out of. He was confronting painful realities that all the right ideas in the world were no match for. It wasn’t good ideas but the faithful presence of a friend that pointed him toward the light. And it got him thinking that perhaps human beings are more than just thinking things (he probably knew this already, but sometimes it takes the heart a while to catch up with the head. So I’ve heard, at any rate). Smith summarized his present approach thus:
It’s not that I’ve given up on truth. It’s just that I’m less confident we’ll think our way out of the morass and malaise in which we find ourselves. Analysis won’t save us. And the truth of the gospel is less a message to be taught than a mystery enacted.
Smith goes on to say,
If I try to crystallize the change of mind I’m experiencing midlife and mid-career, it is some version of this question: How can I write to light up the night? If there is a pivot I’m still working through, it’s the reverberating effects of absorbing the distinct power of metaphor I see at work in Augustine’s preaching. It’s a conviction about communication, a sense of calling to be a very different kind of writer—not simply a philosopher with ideas to teach but a co-pilgrim alongside my neighbors, all of us wondering if the darkness will overwhelm us. I want to string together words that bear witness to the light in a way that people don’t just understand but can stake their hope upon.
Yeah. Me, too. I suppose it’s something of a rite of passage that you reach a certain stage of life and you find your ideas inadequate to the task of living. You’ve accumulated too many failures, hurt too many of the people that you most love, come to the end of yourself in more ways than you can even enumerate, and become utterly convinced that you simply don’t have enough time or brainpower to come up with enough right ideas to do much of anything that matters in the world. You realize you’re not even remotely an expert and don’t want to be. A “co-pilgrim stringing together words that bear witness to the light?” That sounds a lot more attractive. It sounds doable, at any rate. And infinitely more hopeful than continuing to churn out the God-facts.
Near the end of his article, Smith talks about how it will be the arts, not arguments, that will resuscitate imaginations up to the task of living faithfully and bearing witness to the light:
I’m throwing in my lot with the poets and painters, the novelists and songwriters. While Plato would exile them from his ideal city, these artists are the unacknowledged legislators of the city of God.
Here, too, I think that Smith is bang on. I don’t just think it, I know it. I’ve experienced it.
I spent thirteen hours driving over the Rocky Mountains last week which was a lot of time to fill. Over one stretch, I listened to a podcast containing approximately three hours of erudite, engaging theological conversation. The hosts were people I respected, even admired. The content was relevant, important, and interesting. I finished the podcast, smiled and thought, “Well, that was very good. I’ll have to listen some more.”
I pulled over to fuel up and then resumed my journey. For some reason, I thought I’d switch to some music for a while. David Gray’s new album showed up on my phone and so I thought I’d give it a try. A song called “Heart and Soul” came on. Within ninety seconds, I felt a tear trickling down my cheek. Three hours of learned theology and philosophy and trenchant cultural analysis did not speak nearly as clearly or forcefully or poignantly as a four-minute song. The song evoked something. Not a desire for better and truer arguments, but to experience the innocence, the purity, the lack of defensiveness, the taking leave of posturing, the… well, the whatever reality that song is describing:
And if I died tonight
To ask for more would be obscene…
Well, I’m heart and soul…
With glory shining in my eyes like I’m three years old…
With wonder shining in my eyes like I’m three years old.
“The logician speaks a tongue that’s foreign to the heart,” according to James Smith. That’s a sobering thing to realize when you have a lot of sunk costs in the language of the logician. But better late than never, right?
It’s not that I all of a sudden have no use for logic or arguments or philosophy or theology or anything like that. No one who reads what I write or listens to what I say would ever come to that conclusion. But like Smith, I think I have come to a point in my life where I am deeply aware of the limits of these endeavours. God is not a logic proof. The life of faith is not an argument or a solution to a rational problem. The gospel is not the “system” that we so often and eagerly reduce it to, but a story and a song. And you and I are not data machines in need of the right inputs. We are lovers who need to be loved into remembering. We are dreamers who need more expansive imaginations. We are a ragged choir in need of a better song.
So, here’s to the artists. Here’s to co-pilgrims who bear witness to the light in the midst of the darkness that can seem overwhelming. Here’s to the unacknowledged legislators of the city of God.
The image above is taken from the 2020-21 Christian Seasons Calendar. It is called “Lighthouse” and is a creation of Daniel Bota for the season of Lent.