On August first the world here in the Smokies seems to pause, take a breath and then sigh with a slight cool shudder of fall. Global warming might advance that date, but it recurs as regularly as the cicadas, fireflies, and the first yellow cherry leaves. After a period of busy-ness, I too pause, take a deep breath and try to understand what I’ve been doing. And it seems that I have been entering that thin period of life we call old age, where we are more aware than ever of how our lives are always seeking ways to be some slight intimation of an ethereal whole that lies beyond our feeble thoughts, words, and feelings. This summer I’ve been hunkering down with several books as I explore the question of how this ethereal Other is mediated into our lives.
After a long delay, I finally tackled Walter Brueggemann’s massive (750 pages) Theology of the Old Testament, in which he focuses his extensive Biblical knowledge on the question of how the sages, prophets, poets, and chroniclers of ancient Israel tried to mediate their encounter with the mysterious YHWH, the I Am, the One at the heart of their promissory existence. Like so many of our time, Brueggemann no longer expects or looks for the lineaments of some systematic doctrine nestled in some rational framework, whether of Aristotle or even of Whitehead. Instead, we only have the ongoing, often baffling conversation between a people and the Power that leads them on in promise as well as punishment and disappointment. While the image of God that emerges here often bears evidence of a grumpy and abusive father, it also can be a glimpse of a Source of life that is both free and covenanted, fiercely jealous and expansively loving. We find only an argument, a conversation at the heart of faith.
And then I turned to Barry Lopez’s last work, Horizon, which came out shortly before his death in 2020. (A posthumous collection of his writings came out subsequently entitled Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World.) I once exchanged some notes with Barry upon finding that we occupied the same apartment building in Mamaroneck, NY, when I was four and he was a freshly-minted baby. His story in Horizon begins with his wading into the Long Island Sound, just as I did, igniting a life-long quest to press beyond the horizons of his known world. So the book is a series of travel stories that take us to the places and people on the boundaries of human existence. In all these places, whether Ellesmere Island in Canada’s Arctic, Antarctica, or the Galapagos Islands, Lopez is seeking a kind of mediation of a greater reality, a greater mystery in which we find our being. For him, the sacrament that mediates this mystery is the teeming particularity of life itself. He pays attention to the things of this world, to the way human beings have tried to make a home in it, and, with fearsome lament, how we are destroying our own abode with fire and greed, poisons and pestilence. But always, what is mediated in his inquiry is the pulsing Life that will Be what it will Be—a World to which our only response should be gratitude rather than possession.
At the same time I have been wrestling with the transformation of the ancient Christian concept (notion? image? inkling?) of God as Trinity. Starting with Catherine LaCugna’s God For Us I then moved to Jürgen Moltmann’s Der Geist des Lebens, and Geiko Müeller-Fahrenholz’s God’s Spirit: Transforming a World in Crisis. All of these open up the way to a genuinely social image of the Trinity as a profound conversation at the heart of being. No longer “Two Men and a Bird” (Sandra Schneider’s terrific moniker), the trinitarian God is the ordered field of energy at the heart of love, of communication, of nuclear fusion and fission, and indeed, of the conversation of thought itself. This is what God as “Word,” as “Logos,” means. It is not a word of command between Father/Despot and Son, but of constant inter-communication.
This conception of Trinity provides an anchor for reflecting once again on the foundations of covenant and of public conversation that have shaped my thought for many years. It is the grounding for the practice of conversation at the heart of the roundtable worship I am once again seeking to explicate in a longer piece I am writing. I’ll give you a glimpse of that when it jells some more. Meanwhile, these are some of the ways I’ve been thinking about how that wider mystery is mediated to us in our ordinary lives as well as in the events that people are trying to weave into a tapestry of history and cosmic evolution.