“You modern men, you children of reason, cannot begin to appreciate love as pure bliss and divine serenity.” ― Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
“It’s not the laughter of someone who claims to have seen the light”. Leonard Cohen
There’s a fine line – or perhaps even some overlap between the wise and the foolish.
The crisp spiritual breakthrough inherent in Zen enlightenment has much common ground with a Marx Brothers or Charlie Chaplin pratfall.
The Russian monastic tradition has deep roots in the concept of the ‘holy fool’ – the one who sees, hears or understands what no one else seems to recognize.
There is much of the impractical deeply rooted in the concept of discipleship; gaining the world while losing one’s soul (Mark 8:36), eating the body and drinking the blood of your savior (1 Corinthians 10-1)? How about losing your life to find it (Matthew 10:39)? Or Jesus saying directly that he used parables so that they would not be easily understood (Luke 8:10)?
A Messiah that is a lamb – and a lion (Revelation 5:5-6)?
How about the Bible itself that begins with humankind’s first command to care for the earth, and, we are told, ends with its final throes in the fires of destruction?
Or a savior who rescues us, by refusing to rescue himself (Luke 23:37)?
A Christianity whose chief figure flaunts Roman authority (and the whole concept of Empire) and challenges the deepest beliefs and prophecies of his own religious traditions (even as he claims he is fulfilling them) but has somehow become the icon – if not sanitized mascot – of nationalism and religious propriety?
To put it mildly, there is some peculiar logic at work here.
There is much that is ‘difficult’ if not ridiculous about faith.
The practical among us do their best to organize themes and concepts into a body of what is called, without irony, systematic theology.
This is the ultimate Quixotic quest; what kind of god would desire or expect – or reward – a formulaic ‘proposition’ based faith which is, at its essence, an intellectual exercise a short step – if that – from works based righteousness.
But ‘systematic theology’, as difficult and self-contradictory as it might be, is, for most of us, far preferable to slippery concepts like Grace, mercy, joy, restoration and forgiveness.
These ‘difficult’ aspects of the divine are beyond our definitions, expectations and categories – well beyond our human reach and quantification.
The more we (attempt to) capture these concepts, the more dead they become, and in contrast, the more free, dynamic and autonomous our faith becomes (free from human hands, fears, biases or agendas) the closer it resembles the Biblical image of the flame that will not be controlled or quenched (Ezekiel 20:47).
Ever know anyone who didn’t ‘get’ a joke – but thought – or pretended they did?
How else could we explain how the ‘prince of peace’, the one who came to liberate, restore and heal has instead become the icon, mascot and sometimes justification for war, pillage and destruction?
Tragedy and comedy have always been intertwined, and the ultimate tragedy (and justice) will be when God comes in judgment to ‘destroy the destroyers of the earth’.
One has the disturbing sense that there is a special judgment for those who would frack, torture, traffic or exploit in the name of Christ.
‘Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing’ could easily be expanded to ‘Father forgive them, because they didn’t understand a single word I told them – they truly and fully did not get the joke.
Many people of faith criticize atheists for not being ‘consistent’.
It’s an odd criticism; who among us is consistent?
Is consistency even possible, let alone desirable?
I love the idea (and reality) of a faith that veers between ballet and pratfall, wistful reflection and ventures into the preposterous, the meekness of a lamb and the ferocity of a lion, the fragility of a sparrow and the soaring grandeur of an eagle, and the stillness of a starry night and the unyielding power and destruction of an oncoming storm.
I love logic and rational thinking, but if we take refuge in the rational at the expense of inherently unknowable and immeasurable, we have reduced a living faith to literally its lowest common denominator; a predictable math-like problem to be solved instead of an unforeseeable journey into the ultimately unknowable and the mysterious beyond human vocabulary, where God’s name is sacred, whose ways are far beyond ours (Isaiah 55:8) and whose face we are called to pursue, but will consume us if we get too close (Exodus 33:20).
Wisdom and absurdity could be seen as reciprocals; two extremes of the edges of human experience. Both are, at some level, not safe, but much more safe than the lukewarm, adrift stasis most of us have become accustomed to.
We are called to ‘know’ God in a language – perhaps all languages – where to ‘know’ someone or something is not a level of intellectual mastery or acquaintance, but is instead a corollary of the deepest, most enduring, personal, and yes, sexual intimacy – the ultimate act (at its best) of surrender, giving and healing – an act itself – saturated in sacrifice and tenderness which holds, at least potentially, the possibility of new life.
But as with God’s Grace, or faith worth following, or a joke understood, how many of us have even the slightest understanding, expectation or experience of this kind of love.
We ‘settle’ for lukewarm faith, stale and offensive humor, and passionless, interchangeable ‘relationships’.
Jesus showed us, as only he could, that the ultimate act of vulnerability and sacrifice is also the ultimate act of generative creativity.
Our faith (and our lives inspired by our faith) should ever be alive and challenging.
If our faith is dead, it is because we have killed it.
If our faith and our souls are to be continually revived, we must embrace the absurdity, the serendipity and the accidental. Wisdom lies not far beyond.
And the statement ‘You can’t fall off the floor’? Perhaps like every word of true wisdom, it holds many facets of truth and relevance depending on the situation; is it from the point of view of a drunk? A toddler learning to walk? Someone with a health problem? A senior citizen with equilibrium problems? Someone worn and weary from life’s burdens?
We may all ‘fall’ in different ways. But Grace from God, and compassion from each other, can revive us and remind us that the fullest expression of faith may not be getting our theology exactly right, but ‘getting’ the message. Or the joke.
Morf Morford considers himself a free-range Christian who is convinced that God expects far more of us than we can ever imagine, but somehow thinks God knows more than we do. To pay his bills, he’s been a teacher for adults (including those in his local county jail) in a variety of setting including Tribal colleges, vocational schools and at the university level in the People’s Republic of China. Within an academic context, he also writes an irreverent ESL blog and for the Burnside Writers Collective. As he’s getting older, he finds himself less tolerant of pettiness and dairy products.