Yesterday, a fellow blogger linked to an intriguing challenge. It seems that somewhere in recent debates concerning the vitality (or lack thereof) of the mainline church, someone has raised the matter of the reluctance of progressive Christians to talk about who God is. Lots of intellectual theological talk, lots of conversation about social justice and politics, but little about encounter with God. And so this person has posted a challenge: write a post about God.
He has a point. I recall a young pastor preaching about having failed a seminary exam in which the sole question was, "Who is God?" She had filled a bluebook with a narrative of God's activity from the first page of Genesis to the last of Revelation, and at the end of her last page was that awesome "F."
I wasn't surprised, as she was profoundly uncomfortable talking about God in private conversation. Her sermon represented an effort to rectify that situation, and I applauded her for it.
Second point: One of the books I've read recently is entitled Kindling Desire for God: Preaching As Spiritual Direction by Kay Northcutt, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian institution. Her argument, based on years of reading and listening to student sermons, is that our seminaries fail to teach preachers how to talk about God, how to convey any of the 2,000 years of Christian history of engagement in contemplation, spiritual direction, in discernment. She may be right about that. I think that I do many of the things in my sermons that she thinks we don't do ~ I talk about the desert fathers and mothers, about the great contemplatives, about spiritual practices; I talk about who God is! ~ but I can't claim to have learned much of any of that in seminary. I know for certain that none of it came up in my homiletics course.
I am relieved to say that I picked up quite a bit of it from my own Presbyterian pastors, who talk and preach all the time about who God is. And some of it from a few wonderful theology courses in which we explored the ways in which others have wrestled with God. But most of it from my own reading and my work in spiritual direction.
And from lots of conversation with people who love to talk about God, about who God might be and who God might not be, and about our experiences of God. But . . .
Third point: It is hard to learn to do. I think that most of us mainliners struggle to develop an ability to talk directly about God, and my Catholic friends tell me that the same is true for them and those in their communities.
I clearly remember that when I first started spiritual direction, I felt so inarticulate in my efforts to speak about my life of prayer with my eloquent and knowledgeable spiritual director that I hit upon the idea of plagiarizing the life of someone like Catherine of Sienna or Teresa of Avila. I thought that I'd just read one of their biographies and report the experiences therein as my own.
It occurred to me, however, that my director was probably well aware of their stories and would recognize my ploy for what it was. And so making the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises turned out to be, among many other things, a year-long course in learning to talk about God.
All of this is to say, I'm going to attempt the challenge at issue. How about you?
Image: Michelangelo's ~ the one with which so many of us begin.