Novak (novak) wrote,

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Personal/Theological Notebook: July 31st Anniversaries

Friday marked an anniversary. Actually, it marked two. I didn't really observe either in an explicit way, as my day was mostly directed toward gathering with the gang over at Dan and Amy's, and all that food and talk and play really took over my attention. Then I came home to, among other things, a surprise late-night online conversation with Michael Blair, a former student of mine at Saint Joe's. So I was distracted.

The first anniversary was my brother Joe and his wife Daniele's 5th wedding anniversary, which is all cooler than cool. They had a tremendously fun wedding on the western beach of Jamaica at sunset: pretty much everything that you could hope for in arranging a tropical getaway wedding of that sort, where they invited everyone to stay and enjoy some of the honeymoon activities with them: everything from para-sailing to scuba diving. Both sides of the family got to meet a large portion of the other side, and everyone took to one another very quickly. The only downside of all that was that my return from the wedding marked the occasion of my greatest computer gaffe of all time, where I managed to accidentally delete much of my photographs and digital movies from 2002 through the wedding in 2004 – on both of my harddrives, which took exceptional skill. Although I finally figured out a program to buy that let me dig into my harddrive and retrieve much of what I had deleted, there were some permanent losses: almost all of the early stuff I'd shot of Grace, and a goodly portion of the wedding. Anyway, it's fun to see them already at five years married, much less the years they were a couple before that.

The other anniversary is not one I talk about a great deal. That was the – and I can hardly believe it – 25th anniversary of my having for the first time consciously chosen to embrace the Christian faith I had been raised in, resulting in one of the more dramatic mystical experiences of my life. The first part – the cognitive side of things – that I'm not shy of talking about: by unexpected twists in my life, that's turned into my career – the academic, intellectual, public explication of Christian thought. Christianity is inherently public: that is one of the things that is most distinct about Judaism and Christianity, in fact. It wasn't conceived in one person's head, the result of one person's mystical experiences, or drawing from (with the exception of earlier Genesis, for example) mythological stories set outside human history. Instead, Judaism and Christianity (the latter being inseparable from the former) are public reactions to public historical events, and therefore able to be investigated, analysed, and debated on a fair, intellectual playing field. But that other side of Christian faith, the necessarily personal and individual, and therefore occasionally mystical – the individual experiences of spirituality, well, that's often a bit too personal for easy sharing, especially, I suppose, in a public forum like an open journal.

Plus, of course, there's just the fact that this was when I was still young, and even mystical encounters with God still come into the historical context of who and what we are, and so some of this experience now looks and feels painfully youngish to me, which is a state that is much less enjoyable than simply being young. Becoming a teacher, I find, has been a great help for looking at, and trying to understand, the activity of God in a human life, especially my own. And it is reassuring to see that some of the great spiritual geniuses of the ancient Church also found that metaphor of God as a Teacher to be a very helpful one. And as a teacher, I know that you work with what you have got, at the level that a student is at, at a given moment, however much you hope to draw them upward to a higher level of insight through a given lesson. I was young enough then to still know everything, and so that fact that I could be teachable at all was probably in itself a great gift of grace.

I had been reading the New Testament documents for about four months by this point, once through each month, and although I had been raised Catholic and supposed that what I had been taught was true, on the rare occasions I thought about it, nothing had really been put to the test for me yet. And now, reading the Gospels and Acts, and the Epistles straight through for the first time, instead of having them broken up into the lectionary readings: that floored me. For the first time, I was beginning to see the internal logic of Christianity: what it claimed, the full scope of what it was beginning to teach, and, extrapolating from all that, the implications of it. I remember the one thing I said, when I raised this topic hanging out with friends one evening in Jimmy's garage, prior to a summer evening of playing Scorpion or Dungeons and Dragons. I had asked if any of the other guys had read it, and not gotten much of a response. But I was slightly enthralled by what I had begun to understand – the scope of it all, from the individual down to a sole electron and back up again to the borders of the cosmos – and I said what I suppose might serve as an explanation or mission statement for pretty much all I've done with my life: "If this is true, this changes everything." There wasn't a great deal of interest in the topic, maybe even a hint of that polite discomfort from my violating the Golden Rule of Politeness (or is it Ignorance?) to not talk about Politics or Religion, and we drifted on to other things.

On vacation that summer, and a bit thrown by the radical dissimilarities to my experience of growing up Catholic by falling into the social world of a deep-in-the-heart-of-Texas, Assemblies of God, charismatic church, I was nevertheless struck by the thing that had not yet occurred to me in the four months of curiously reading the New Testament before bed: that at some point I had to make a choice. I had to choose to commit. Or choose not to. To recognize that, at some point, perhaps soon, despite just breaking into my teens, indifference would itself constitute a choice – a response to the dramatic and life-consuming call for response that the God of Israel was articulating into history through Jesus of Nazareth. What I didn't expect was the experience that came with praying in the mode I read about in the Acts of the Apostles, of inviting this aspect of God, this Holy Spirit, to enter into me, and to in turn be immersed back into God, "baptized in the Holy Spirit." Sensations of fusion, of new physical sensations or mental stimulation bordering on thrills of ecstasy; like two dimensions becoming aware of three; information pouring into my brain that hadn't been there before; my hairs standing on end, like walking into a powerful electrical field, but instead of the cold, foreign, sterile feeling of electricity, this was warm, personal, emotional: loving, with all the variations that come within love, from worship to hilarity, the quiet depths of silence and the unfolding of perfect conversation.

Years of historical and theological study later, I can understand now, intellectually, why it is I couldn't be prepared for such an experience; I have a vocabulary now, one developed by thousands of years and of millions of people sharing these spiritual experiences, and crafted into the language and study of spirituality. I understand something of why the Holy Spirit is encountered in a mode of love, Who Is the living Love between the Father and the Son, that Person or modality by which the Logos is bound together with the Father in the Godhead. But the language is only useful among those who have been taught it, and who have taken the training to be equipped to use such language. And even then, it's a charcoal sketch of a sunrise: real, even accurate, but still a shadow of the experience itself, though even that shadow is better than nothing. I was quickly able to leave behind much of the trappings of the Fundamentalism in which I had had this experience, being fortunate to be able to reason myself past much of the limited theology and spiritual language that had been offered to me as interpretive tools for that experience. A longer sojourn in Evangelicalism gave me a familiarity with Scripture that I did not receive in my Catholic religious education, but it wasn't until beginning to immerse myself in the wider historical experience of Christians, especially in the ancient world, that I accidentally began to catechize myself. Then I began to move toward the multifaceted spiritual language found in Catholicism, with its seemingly-endless variety of spiritualities, and, more critically, the fullness of the Trinitarian theology of God, the only human theology I have ever found that truly expresses a transcendent picture of God, instead of all the theologies that either reduce God to the level of a human person, and usually a defective one at that, or to some sub-human, sub-personal concept or absence of concept. We do well, instead, to recognize God as personal, or perhaps better yet, "trans-personal;" not engaging in the constant temptation of anthropomorphizing God by doing so, but recognizing that in our own personhood, we are seeing something divine, or something like the divine, "the image of God," as it were.

That which or Who I've encountered in these years since then is overwhelmingly possessed of these good qualities that we find echos of in ourselves. And I wish I could bring myself to be possessed of the daring that we see in Augustine's unbelievable Confessions (the most daring book ever written, to my mind) to write in a truly unguarded way of such experiences. It feels more safe to stay in the abstract, to pour the experiential over into the academic and public moulds, and to distance myself from even my own experience of God. I'm not much of a Christian, and perhaps it shows most in my being a theologian, strangely and sadly enough: that it is easier in the jaded and skeptical generation of my post-Enlightenment days, where Christianity is assumed to be already disproven by history (and where we have even been excused for having to produce such proofs), to hide in the objective-style language of the theological, philosophical, and historical sciences. It feels safer, to try to talk about God, then to try to simply talk with God. If anything will save me from that, it's simply that I have been blessed to have very early on conceived a commitment to pursuing Truth, wherever it took me. Thus I'm a Catholic theologian, who once dismissed the Catholic Church entirely as a failed form of Christianity. That commitment spares me from having to try to remain consistent with myself At All Costs, and to turn about in a new direction if the evidence takes me there. So, in other words, God has perhaps blessed me with a (relatively?) clear awareness of my own bullshit, even when I'm entirely immersed in it.

And I don't mean to poo-poo the value of theological discourse, training and teaching: as I've noted more than once, it is one of our great flaws as a culture that we've jettisoned all that. The Enlightenment, that philosophical movement that birthed our secular culture, encouraged us to drop theology because that philosophical school had concluded that Christianity was false. And so, proud that we have seen through the falsehood of our culture's inherited religion, we excuse ourselves from doing theology, with the irony that the people of our culture buy into more idiotic theological ideas than ever before. By not talking (and studying) Politics and Religion, we only become politically and theological naive. Suckers, even. I, of course, may be the grandest sucker of them all for having bought into this crazy, crazy idea, but I know why I've done so, challenging myself with every last hard question and doubt I have ever been able to conjure up or read. But if it were just an idea, if this was only a product of human ideology, then at best this quarter-century quest makes me someone like Lenin. Instead, I hope that the truth is more like Francis of Assisi, who was more dangerous and powerful than a hundred Lenins, not that "dangerous" and "powerful" is what I'm after. Francis was filled, with his distinct gifts in his distinct time, and for his distinct goals – with the Spirit of God, and that is transformative in ways far beyond the linear and predictable transformations of ideologies.

As immersed in the ideas as I must be, for the goofy choice of having made my God into my academic subject and career, it is still nevertheless these ongoing mystical moments that drive me, I have to admit. (And I note that I mean "mystical" meaning touching that which is "hidden," God in all God's depths, which we all can do. To be mystical is and must be standard in Christianity: it isn't the Hollywood notion of mysticism, where you dress in robes, levitate, and be different from the "regular" people, making you bad-ass or irrelevant, depending on which movie you are watching.) My dissertation has forced me to reconsider these earliest experiences, especially, as I ended up doing a dissertation that touched heavily on "charismatics" and topics like "baptism in the Holy Spirit," all of which I had no interest or intention of doing. (Which is probably a fair description of this whole story, or the whole story of my life.) But it has been illuminating to reconsider these earliest days, and to talk them over with God, now with the tools of 25 years' thinking. I have often shied away from looking too closely at all this, even in the privacy of my own head, because of an urge to distance myself from some of the "youngishness" of myself at that time. So it has been a strange and unforeseen opportunity to find myself having to look at all this again. My Dad recently spoke with regret to me of all that I've had to give up to pursue these studies for so long, and I was really struck by that, because I really very rarely have ever looked at my life and those choices in that way. Yet if there was ever a turning point in my life, a ninety-degree turn of irrevocable consequence, this was one. In the tale of my days in the story of humanity, whether I talk about it much, 31 July 1984 will always figure greatly: it is a day I can never get away from, even if I wanted to.
Tags: family, friends-oregon era, high school, mysticism/spirituality, old stories, personal, philosophical, pneumatology, secularism/modernity, systematic theology, theological methodology, theological notebook

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