Friday, March 8, 2013

A Place to Stand?

The following is drawn from a message delivered in ESR and Bethany Joint Worship on February 22 by David Johns. This material is part of a larger project David is working on entitled "Mobility, Displacement, and the End of Solidarity":

“Give me a place to stand and I will move the world” – Archimedes
“Here I stand, I can do no other; God help me” – Luther
“Will you still love me tomorrow?” – the Bee Gees

It was a triumph of imagination when the third century BCE philosopher Archimedes said he could move the world if he had a place to stand. He calculated how large items could be moved with little effort if he placed a fulcrum in just the right spot along a lever. He did the math and it worked. But his imagination went wild as he considered stepping off the planet itself in order to lift it. Can openers, fingernail trimmers, teeter totters, catapults, crow bars, tire jacks, and light switches all resulted from his insight, but Archimedes never could find a way steady place off the planet in order to move it. That place does not exist, but in many ways we are still looking for it. And theology and religious folk lead the charge.
Through the years and as recently as last Sunday and this morning, God has been treated like Archimedes’ fulcrum, a fixed point that can be depended upon to steady ourselves and to move, if not the world, at least our corner of it. God is where the buck stops. From this point systems have been built, arguments launched, wars waged, and hope rooted. Even for Descartes who built a way of thinking on methodical doubt, God was foundational, like the function of zero for mathematicians—a base to keep the bottom from falling out.
But so many of the images of God that have been passed down through the centuries describe God as something moving, flowing, and wildly unpredictable. Moses discovered this in a burning bush and in a passing shadow; Nicodemus did too when Jesus said the movement of God’s spirit is like the wind. That’s unsettling and unacceptable when you’re looking for a firm place to stand.

So, when God doesn’t cooperate, other fulcrums have to be used: the Bible, religious law, laws of reason, the authority of approved teachers, the Church (denominational founders/leaders: Alexander Mack, George Fox, Troy Perry, Emanuel Swedenborg, Mary Baker Eddy, Joseph Smith). Or even human experience. In one form or another and at one time or another, each of these has been held out as sure and reliable, a fixed point on which we can safely build our house.
And, in order to provide a sure footing, these fixed points need to be protected and bolstered so as to avoid challenges to their authority or to convince us of their reliability. Thus, whether we want to or not, many of us find ourselves arguing in support of something good and valuable, but of transient value (“It’s not 1652 anymore”). We can legitimize it by thinking somehow we are arguing for God, or somehow defending God’s honor against the hordes of evil (or at least against the multitudes of unenlightened). But at the end of the day we in fact are defending the slippery foundations of our own certainty. It is like frantically writing with a pen that has no ink or a roller ball that is frozen. The harder we try the more likely we’ll tear the paper to shreds. Better to acknowledge that we are writing outside the realm of ink—so, sharpen a pencil and do the best we can in the present moment. Whatever will stand tomorrow will be here tomorrow. It will take care of itself—today has enough challenges of its own.
What is important to note is that this clamoring for certainty is not a characteristic of one persuasion of another. I say this because I sometimes hear people characterize conservative persons as needing security and assurance that they do not.
However, the reality is that even if sources such as the bible, doctrine, law, and the like, are rejected, they are generally replaced with a foundation of experience—personal experience. This becomes the unchallengeable, unquestionable last word. Although the place of authority and certainty changes, there remains an effort to be sure and rooted, even if it is principally within the individual person. On this point, conservative and liberal are kin.
Archimedes’ genius is indisputable and his fulcrum point is so true, it would seem, that it functions in a thousand ways in our lives each day. However, he never accomplished the imaginative goal of stepping off the planet in order to move it. Likewise, we can’t step outside the flux of our lives in order to secure a footing to move our lives. We are in our life—fully. 100%, 24/7. Attempting to leave our life to make better it, only adds to the chaos and anxiety that drains life out of the life we so desire.

Life in Flux

It goes without saying that life is a constant movement. What does merit saying is that this is not new. Its part of the arrogance of every age to assume somehow it is completely unique and that its challenges and its delights are new discoveries. In one sense we are always “discovering” for the first time what previous generations discovered for the first time that previous generations had discovered for the first time (that previous generations…you get the point).
Clearly, in response to the movement, the in-fluxness of existence, people have looked for solid ground as far back as we can imagine. This desire, and maybe it is a psychological need, is intensified in times of uncertainty and change, in ‘liquid times,” as Zygmunt Baumann calls it—whether change is real or imagined. When threats come to our integration, in whatever form, the desire for stability increases. Shifts in culture, in demographics, in economic conditions, and so on, add to the feeling of insecurity and prompt efforts to establish security and certainty. This can be seen in various forms of group solidarity against “others” who are perceived as threatening social stability—who is in and who is out. Urban theorist, Nan Ellin suggests that “form follows fear.” She discusses the ways in which urban spaces are designed to “protect” against modern fears but end up becoming what she calls “architecture of fear,” which actually perpetuates and expands the very fear from which these spaces allegedly protect us.
Flux and movement challenge the very notion of “place”—here and there. “Vituality” makes real what may not be—or at least it posits in real-time and in semi-concrete ways, worlds not visible on any map. Where precisely is “there?”
I remember a Sesame Street skit that tried to teach the concepts of here and there. “I am here. You are there,” said one Muppet to another, over and over until it was clear. Then, someone else walked onto the set and said to the one who was “here,” “Hey, what are you doing there?” Funny and ironic, even then. However, virtual worlds are inhabitable worlds, and not only for self-indulgent, isolated individuals. These worlds are inhabited by tens of thousands of people who interact with each other there and who develop parallel and distinct lives, while physically inhabiting another space. They are both here and there, simultaneously—there and not here—wherever “there” is.
My son, Nick, a university sophomore, is a lead programmer with a group called Hoosier Games. They are designing interactive computer games which not only “connect” people, but that place them together is a space neither here nor there, but a space that is real and inhabitable and that is populated by flesh and blood human beings.
Although few would contest this portrait of our own time and the shape of our societies, the urge is strong to seek the Archimedean grail of the fixed point beyond our lives, the fixity from whence we can move the world. It is a utopian vision which can consume much of our lives [Real Academia Espanola defines utopĂ­a: “un lugar que no existe”]

Staying Connected

The more committed we are to fixity, to ideas, or to the substitutes for stability –bible, law, even our own personal experience—the less we need to be oriented to God in a living relationship/friendship. Clearly, the life lived in the adventure of mystery is open-ended and doesn’t give us much, if anything, solid to stand upon. However, we move, we follow the pulsing, blowing spirit.
I’ve often thought about Moses in this sense. Moses wanted to see God—and why not? It seemed like the least God to do for a man who had done so much. However, God’s response is illuminating. If you see me you will die. You can see my passing presence. And that’s as good as it gets.
There really is only one posture we humans can take in response to such a manifestation of God—follow, move. It does no good to fall on our face in worship or to build a shrine. God, if God had been there in the place we kneel down, is not there now. The presence has moved on. Peter wanted to remain on the Mount of Transfiguration to hold onto an experience of God’s presence. This is understandable. But Jesus knew better. We see nothing of his conversation with Peter, only the result. They leave the mount and return to the crowds to carry on and continue moving where the spirit was leading.
But when we have the security of objects, be they scriptures, or laws, or holy people, or well-developed systems, we can convince ourselves we are holding on to something real. And for a moment it is real. But then it is not. Nancy Wilson, Presiding Elder with the Metropolitan Community Church said, “We have to continually reinvent ourselves if we are to keep up with God.”
I took pictures of my wife just as she was being pulled into the air on a parasailing ride. We laughed when we viewed them later that day. Most were blurry shots of the sand. In the time it took the shutter to open and close she had moved upward. So it is with God…only a thousand times more. A snapshot, which Moses might have liked, captures a place where God was. The bible, as important as it continues to be for the community of faith, is a snapshot of a place where God was, not where God is—unless it is being read together by a community on-the-go. The cherished holy sites and objects and practices of our denominational traditions say “Kilroy WAS here, not that Kilroy IS here.” Holding on too tightly is the surest way to miss the moving, living presence of God.

As soon as the ink dries on our theological statements, our systems, our sermons that work together so well, so beautifully, God has moved on. It’s not that the statements are not true; just that they are dated.
But whatever theology is—this whole practice of imagining and reflecting upon faith and life—it seems to me to be more like art—maybe choreography.
Karl Barth spoke of theology being free—that is right, I think. Unless it is free it cannot be responsive to the Spirit that moves and surprises. And, of all the things it needs to be free from, in the first place, it needs to be free from itself. When we take ourselves too seriously, in whatever theological work we do, then we are not free and are on the brink of idolatry. If there is anything that becomes dated before the ink dries it is our talk about God.
Archimedes wanted a place to stand…so did Luther, so did Elton Trueblood, so did the Bee Gees.
But standing is not an option.
What do you stand for? I don’t stand for anything.
I move.
I move.
I move for/with God.

David Johns is a graduate of ESR and the School's Associate Professor of Theology.

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