Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter Monday: On belonging, not knowing, and "What do we do then?"

So, I meant to post something awhile ago, since I was in the middle with this blog-alog with Andy. But then Holy Week and Easter...and also getting engaged!! So I've been a bit preoccupied. So here it is, my final response to the questions that Andy asked in this post: "What if God isn’t just that which gives us meaning or allows us to feel like we belong? What do we do then?" I thought that trying to answer the last two questions (since I took a shot at the meaning part in my last post) would be a good way to finish out a sort-of-series about not knowing. It's impossibly long and you probably won't read it all, it is anyway.

So, Andy asks:

What if God isn't just that which allows us to feel like we belong?

Two thoughts on belonging.

One: as Andy said in his post, belonging is a very powerful thing. It's a wonderful word but often has dangerous consequences. Here's Andy's take on it:
"We fight wars (literal as well as theological) in order to figure out who belongs and who does not. We witness the attraction and comfort that is created by a sense of belonging, and yet we also see the trail of wreckage left behind when that same belonging is kept just out of arms reach. We can’t figure out where that desire for belonging comes from or what will finally rid us of the grip that it holds on out lives, but we know that we are terrified of what life looks like when we are alone."
Part of what Andy is getting at here, I think, is the way that we find belonging by creating an in-group, which of course requires an out-group. We figure out how we belong by excluding others. And this exclusion is often violent--emotionally, spiritually, and all too often physically. Religion is pretty adept at this, and certainly Christianity is no exception.

Interestingly, however, right at the center of Christian faith is, I would argue, a powerful rebuke of this tendency to create belonging by "othering," scapegoating, and excluding. This has been very much on my mind over this past (Holy) week.

The Catholic theologian James Allison, inspired by Rene Girard, points to Jesus' life, death, and resurrection as a refusal to go along with the exclusion mechanisms of humanity. Take John's gospel, for example. Perhaps no other biblical text has been so often used to exclude and create Christian "in-groups." One of my students shared with me recently that she had been spit on by a Christian who was holding a John 3:16 sign. And John 14:6 is always quoted with the emphasis on the to make it as exclusionary as possible: "I am the way and the truth and the life."

But John also has some insight into the insider-outsider scapegoat mechanism. In 11:50, Caiaphas the High Priest says: "You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for people than to have the whole nation destroyed." A similar story in Luke's gospel has Herod and Pilate, natural enemies, becoming friends because of Jesus' death. Jesus death becomes a uniting factor, a way to bring people together. A way to create belonging.

And then (spoiler alert) comes the resurrection. And Jesus is alive. The scapegoating mechanism falls apart. And yet, instead of taking revenge, Jesus breathes peace. Offers life. Shares forgiveness. Jesus, in other words, doesn't just reinscribe the mechanism by creating a new in-group. Jesus challenges the type of belonging that is created by exclusion. The violence of exclusion is defeated and a new type of inclusion, one that is nonviolent and open and inviting, is created. In the words of Jesus, again from John, "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold."

So followers of Jesus, then, should always be looking to the outsider, the excluded, and saying: how do we go there? Because that's where Jesus is, living and dying and being raised. In other words, God doesn't make us feel like we belong. God challenges the basis of our sense of belonging. God disturbs our belonging. God sends us out to give and receive love in places outside the comfort of belonging. And as soon as the out-group becomes the in-group, God troubles the waters of belonging and sends us out yet again from the comfort of our cliques.


Ok. Second thought:

The other way that I think religion often is used to create belonging is by assuring people that they are not alone in the universe. This is, I think, a good thing. It's part of the fundamentals of what I believe.

But the way this idea is constructed can sometimes be a bit of a problem. What I mean is that I often hear this idea posed in a very individualistic way that seems to set it up in opposition to human relationship. The idea, for example, that fickle friends will abandon you but God never will. Or that when we're lonely we can just turn to God and we won't be lonely anymore. My, holy cow, my fiance!!!!....Leigh once went to a church that changed U2's "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" into "I finally found what I'm looking for." And she cringed, and I cringe, not only because you probably shouldn't mess with U2 lyrics, but also because the changed lyrics don't match our experience. Finding Jesus or building a relationship with God or becoming Christian didn't magically satisfy our desires or make us never lonely or sad again. In fact, there's something dissatisfying about following Jesus. A sense of always being sent somewhere uncomfortable, of being dissatisfied with the world-as-is because we've been given a sense of the possibility of a world-as-it-could-be, a realm of justice and peace and truth and love. Of abundant life for all.

So I also think that God isn't something that gives us belonging over and against the real human need for community. There are very lonely people out there and they don't just need to hear about Jesus and then everything will be fine. They need us, sitting with them and listening to them and holding open holy space for silence and loneliness. To paraphrase the letter of James, "If a brother or sister is lonely or excluded, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; know that God loves you and that you are not alone,' and yet you do not supply them with companionship and love, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead."

There are people who feel Godforsaken and they don't just need to hear, "You're wrong, God's still here." They need to hear, "I've felt like that too, and so have so many of the saints and holy people throughout history." Even, as we were reminded on Good Friday, Jesus. Or maybe they don't need to hear that so much as they need to feel it by having us sit next to them and not judge them for their experiences.

We need friends. Jesus, if John 15 is to be believed, needed friends. Which, in a boring old orthodox Christian understanding, means that God needs friends. Which means that we need to be friends, to each other and to the friendless.


So there it is. God doesn't give us belonging. God challenges our belonging, and sends us to be with people who feel excluded or lost or lonely, and not just to offer them trite theologizing of their plight but to actually be with them and be their friends.

Which helps to answer Andy's last question. If God doesn't just give us meaning or belonging, then what do we do then? Well, we stand with those who are face-to-face with experiences of meaningless and exclusion. We stand with them, not with easy assurances of meaning (God has a plan) or belonging (God loves you but I don't have much time for you), but rather with our presence, with our friendship, with our lives. And that's really, really hard, and will take a whole lot of work over a whole lifetime, and we'll probably mess it up all the time, and, to paraphrase Rumi, we'll need more grace than we thought. But, to quote that old beast John again: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends."


But here is one more thing, one more answer to the question of "What do we do then?" As I said in my last post, in Andy's initial questions I hear the echo of concerns that belief in God is just a human projection. Author Rachel Held Evans, in one of my favorite pieces of writing ever, writes about doubt on Easter Sunday and poses the question this way: "What if we made this up because we’re afraid of death?"

You'll have to read her post to see how she answers the question. It's far more articulate than mine.

But her question reminds me of another favorite piece, from a wonderful book called the Sparrow. In it, an agnostic character asks a Jesuit priest, "What if you made all of this up? What if it's just a story?"

And the priest thinks for a second, and smiles, and says, "Then what a story."

If God isn't just that which gives meaning or belonging, what do we do then?

Why, what we always do. We tell our stories. We share our stories with each other. And that, ultimately, is how we find true meaning and belonging and love. In the telling, in the listening, and the sharing.


Whatever you believe, share your story.

I would love to hear it.

And if you care to listen to my story as well, I will tell you that my story is just a little story in a very, very big story about a love that is so deep and so big and so old that it overcomes death to be with us. That my story is, somehow, inextricably caught up in the story of a homeless Palestinian Jew who stumbles up to Jerusalem, knowing it will cost everything. Who, after a miracle of miracles, is scrubby enough that a woman who loves him confuses him with a groundskeeper. Who teaches that the greatest commandment, the greatest law, is love, and then shows us how that is true.

I will tell you that, in the big story that my little story is a part of, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, life wins. Love wins.

And if what I think I know is all wrong? And if it's all just a story?

Well...what a story.

What a story.

A happy Easter season to all of you. Whatever your story, you are loved.

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