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 September 7, 2009   •   VOL. 47, NO. 15   •   Oakland, CA

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Classical language of religion — more iconic than literal
Some images of God stifle spiritual growth, foster alienation
Classical language of
religion — more iconic than literal

Before Henri Nouwen wrote the book that became his signature work, “Return of the Prodigal Son,” he went to The Hermitage museum in Russia and sat for whole days contemplating Rembrandt’s famous painting on the return of the prodigal son.

He was given permission to bring a chair into the museum and he would sit for hours, studying the painting from various angles and letting it speak to him in his varying moods. The result was one of the finest commentaries ever written on both Rembrandt’s painting and on the meaning of that famous parable in the Gospels.

What Henri Nouwen did with Rembrandt’s painting is what we need to do with a lot of the classical language of Scripture, the creeds, and dogma.

Language of metaphor

The language there is more iconic than literal, more the language of metaphor than of ordinary life, deep image rather than video-taped history. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t true or that it’s “Alice-in-Wonderland” mythology. It is deeply true, so true that we hang our very lives on its truth.

But it is meant to be studied, contemplated, meditated, knelt-before and prayed-with, rather than taken literally.

Allow me an example: Consider the language and image surrounding the death of Jesus as paying the price for our sins.

Scripture, our creeds, and our Christian tradition have a certain language around this. Among other things, we say:

“He paid the price for our sins. We are saved by his blood. He paid the debt of sin. We are washed clean in his blood, the blood of the lamb. He is the Lamb of God who takes away our sins. He restored us to life, after our death in Adam’s sin. He conquered death, once and for all. By his stripes we were healed. He offered an eternal sacrifice to God. He is our victim. He opened the gates of heaven. He stripped the principalities and Satan of their power. He descended into hell.”

Language but not vocabulary

Accepting the truth of this language is one thing, explaining in within the categories and language of ordinary life is something else. About Jesus’ death, we have a language, but we don’t have a vocabulary. We know its meaning, but we can never adequately explain it.

What exactly do we mean by these statements? How does Jesus’ death save me from being accountable for my sins? How does his death vicariously substitute for human shortcoming, including our own, through the centuries?

Why does God need someone to suffer that agonizingly in order to forgive me? How does Jesus’ death open the gates of heaven? Why had they been closed? What does it mean that, in his death, Jesus descended into hell?

Literal explanations come up short here. The words are more like an icon, an artifact that highlights form to bring out essence.

The language of Scripture, the creeds, and our dogmas put us in touch with something that we can know but struggle to conceptualize and explain. It is meant to be grasped at levels beyond just the intellect. It is a language to be contemplated and knelt-before more than a language to be understood literally.

Some years ago, Time magazine did a cover story on the death of Jesus. Among other things, they interviewed various people and asked them how they understood the blood of Jesus as washing them clean.

Deep personal search

One of those interviewed was JoAnne Terrell, the author of “Power in the Blood? The Cross in the African American Experience.” For her, the question of how Jesus’ blood saves us triggered a deep personal search.

Sitting in a seminary classroom and studying the death of Jesus, she began having flashbacks: As a young girl she had seen her mother murdered by a boyfriend. She vividly recalled the blood-soaked mattress and her mother’s bloody fingerprints on the wall. And so her search was very much a search “to find the connection between my mom’s story and my story and Jesus’ story.”

For her, the language around the death of Jesus, its blood and heartbreak, became an icon to be contemplated for meaning. Like Henri Nouwen, she began moving her chair around to look at it from various angles and to see how it spoke to her in her life-situation, to the blood in her own history. The language of redemptive blood gave meaning and dignity to her mother’s blood.

We cheat ourselves of meaning whenever we treat Scripture, the creeds, and the dogmas of our faith as simple statements of history, newspaper accounts in literal language.

They have a historicity and they are true, but the language surrounding them is not the language of the daily newspaper. They are anchored in history and we risk our very lives on their truth, but they speak to us more as does an icon than as does yesterday’s newspaper.

Their language is meant to be contemplated, knelt-before, and absorbed in the heart as we experience more and more of life’s mysteries.

An atheist, someone once quipped, is just another name for someone who doesn’t grasp metaphor.

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher, and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX. He can be contacted through his website www.ronrolheiser.com.)

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Some images of God stifle spiritual growth, foster alienation

One night when Joan Chittister was 13 years old, she had “an experience of intense light” inside her parish church. “I was early for a Girl Scout meeting, so I went upstairs to make a visit. It was dark in the sanctuary. Suddenly, there was this light. I’m still not sure where it came from — it could have been the janitor working late.”

But young Joan intuited something far less prosaic, something more profound about “this startling illumination”—she took it as the presence of God.

The experience became the driving force in her life, leading Joan Chittister to the convent door three years later, seeing her through a long bout with polio, and becoming the inspiration over the next few decades in the writing of 42 books on spirituality.

A mysterious light

This mysterious light stayed with her during her roles as prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, as president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, as co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders and the Tikkun Community’s Network of Spiritual Progressives, and as the founder and current executive director of Benetvision, a website resource for contemporary spirituality.

“I never told anyone about following this light until now,” Sister Chittister confessed during her keynote address July 16 at Sophia Center’s Summer Institute at Holy Names University in Oakland.

“But once you see this light, you can never take blindness as a personal luxury again.”

Using this summer’s conference theme, “The Cosmology of Convergence: Towards a More Mutually Enhancing World” for her address, Sister Chittister spoke of the need to leave behind images of God that do not look to the light, but instead stifle spiritual growth and foster alienation, loneliness, violence and narrow-mindedness.

“Without a mature spin, a new look at our image of God, we cannot change this culture,” she warned. To build a better world means looking for God in unexpected places.

“We have to look beyond the formulas and see what fits, seeing God in the light, rather than through an image packaged inside a theological test tube.” The heart of this Divine image problem, she observed, seems to be that after God created us, we proceeded to create God in our own images.

“Some of our human projections onto the creator include the God of Wrath who turns his back on us. So then we become indifferent, turning our backs to the world as well.” The consequences? In our aloneness, “we shrivel up and die.”

Vending Machine God

Other images include the Vending Machine God, “who makes traffic lights green and turns off the rain at our picnics.” The God of Laws image causes some people to become sterner, demanding that everyone follow rules that they can’t keep themselves. “We’ve seen some of them on TV,” she said.

The Will of God image “is our own inability to stop evil and injustice,” said Sister Chittister. These ills become God’s will instead of our own inability to react out of love and compassion to others, or to change the social structures keeping them tied to poverty, sexism and racism, she said.

The Mighty Male God

Religion has also favored the Mighty Male God, who consigns women to subservience, and never calls God “Mother.” It has also enshrined “God as judge, blocking all the good in us, consigning life to boxes of sin, rites and rules, which become more important than helpless people.”

Admitting that she has struggled with all of these images in her own life, Sister Chittister said they did nothing to deepen her spirituality, acknowledging that “fear of wrath did not seduce me to love.”

What did lure her to love were those images of God favored by the Jewish mystics and Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard De Chardin, who viewed everything in creation as sparks of God.

Another insight came from English mystic Julian of Norwich who “broke open the boundaries to see God as a nurturing mother, as the air I breathe, and the womb in which I am loved. This is the God who wishes us good and not grief,” and who inspires us to minister to others.

During an interview with The Voice, Sister Chittister said a further insight came when she finally comprehended the story of the Tower of Babel in the Hebrew Scriptures.

“I hadn’t been able to understand a God who could confuse people’s tongues so they couldn’t complete their prayers together. But later it made sense. God doesn’t want us to speak in one language. Instead God wants us to learn to listen to one another carefully for the revelations that come out of every religion.”

‘Opened my soul like a flower’

That understanding “opened my soul like a flower. I began to see God working everywhere.” So now, Sister Chittister said she receives joy from “throwing flowers with the Hindus, bending to the ground in Muslim prayer, chanting with the Buddhists, and singing my heart out with the rest of Christianity.”

One of Sister Chittister’s recent books is “The Tent of Abraham,” which she co-authored with Sufi scholar Neil Douglas-Klotz and Jewish Rabbi Abraham Waskow. Each tells the story of Abraham from his or her own spiritual tradition.

The Sophia Center is a graduate program of Holy Names University, offering master, certificate and sabbatical programs in culture and spirituality.

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