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Thinking Out Loud

Thin Places: Nameless Mystery

by Michael Jinkins | Oct 30, 2015

Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

Nameless Mystery 2The traditional viva voce at the culmination of the British system of doctoral studies can be intimidating. The candidate sits in a room alone with two examiners, one internal to his or her university, and the second, the external examiner, comes from another university. They can ask any question within a discipline, and the experience can be so terrifying that I have known of people, long finished with their coursework and dissertations, putting off this examination for years.

My external examiner was the late Professor Colin Gunton of King's College, University of London, one of the most brilliant theological minds of his generation and a scholar I had long admired. In the course of my examination, he did something unexpected. He made a personal observation that had a profound effect on my faith as much as on my theological and philosophical inquiries. He observed that John McLeod Campbell, one of the subjects studied in my research, seemed to view the triune God almost like an idealized Victorian family. "Very cozy," Gunton said; but he asked if this is really adequate.

His comment, in time, rubbed a blister on my soul. I had, after all, only recently and only gradually returned to faith while I was in my doctoral studies.

Believing in God was a huge step for me. Believing in a personal God, bigger still. But Gunton's question grew there in my mind quietly after I graduated, as I continued to serve as a pastor, and, eventually, when I started teaching. I've noted before in this blog how faith is given by God and, I believe, can be withdrawn by God - how God's apparent absences can be gifts of the Living God who refuses to be at our beck and call. Now, however, I found myself experiencing something rather different from doubt or belief, something different from a consciousness of God's absences or presence. I began to sense the ways God might deconstruct our beliefs and ideas about God, however pious these beliefs and ideas might be, however much we might have learned from them and gained from them, been blessed and even sustained by them.

The dogmatic chickens let loose by Colin Gunton had come home to roost, and gradually I realized that it wasn't just John McLeod Campbell's concept of God that resembled a cozy Victorian family. It was mine, too. And something in me was outgrowing the parlor in which this family passed its long winter evenings.

The discontent may have begun long before Gunton said what he said. Perhaps it had begun with my study of the famed Cappadocian Fathers, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus; the fourth-century students of Evagrius Ponticus; and, ultimately, of Origen Adamantius. Perhaps it had begun even before this, when as a young pastor I read Paul Tillich and Karl Jaspers voraciously, or as a high school and college student, when I fell in love with Lev TolstoyNikos Kazantzakis and Fyodor Dostoevsky. It could have been so many factors. We all are made up of so many factors, flowing, intermingling, ever changing, never fixed. We are ourselves Heraclitus' stream one cannot step into twice.

It all came to a head for me in 1999 while I was on sabbatical at Oxford. I was reading God's Funeral, A.N. Wilson's brilliant study* of the loss of faith in Victorian England at the rise of the modern scientific era. Wilson, who is known for his award-winning biographies of Tolstoy and C.S. Lewis, works his way through the nineteenth century when Britain and much of Europe began to see the tenets of Christian orthodoxy as inadequate to explain life's origins and meaning. Ironically, by the end of this book, Wilson finds himself not so much aligned with Thomas Hardy, whose non-belief is expressed in the poem that gives Wilson the title of his book, God's Funeral, but with William James, the American philosopher and psychologist, whose generous agnosticism carries in its heart an affection for humanity, a respect for transcendence and a longing for that ultimate reality we designate as "God."

This intellectual pilgrimage left me longing for faith larger than my Victorian parlor had afforded, and I found myself in a new place spiritually. And, yet, not a new place at all. Paul Tillich had urged us to consider that while "God is not a person," God "is not less than a person,"** just as Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus had signaled that when we speak of Trinity, of God as Father, Son, and Spirit, we are not speaking the "name" of the unnameable God, but are describing a relationship, the plurality and unity that lies at the heart of Being, that mystery that cannot be named, reverence for whom reduces us to awed silence before the Word that God sent.***

All of which takes me to my back porch, where a few months ago I sat engaged in mindfulness meditation. I had been sitting there a very long time in silence when something came across my mind that was at first awesome beyond words. It was as though I was looking over into the trackless vastness of limitless space, dark and cold, beyond all whirling galaxies, their black holes hidden at their darkly sparkling centers, their stars only dimly distant. As I looked into this deep space, quite suddenly it was as though a voice said to me, "the universe has no regard."

The meaning seemed clear. The universe does not care whether I exist or I don't. This field of energy and matter is, what it is and I am utterly insignificant to it. As I said, at first this scene was only awesome. Then, something else dawned on me, not fear exactly, but sadness; then resignation, if not acceptance.

As one does in the practice of meditation, I sat with these feelings as much as possible without judging them or wishing them to be otherwise. Then without warning, a face appeared in the midst of these thoughts. It was the smiling face of one of my granddaughters, Clara. We have all seen such smiles a thousand times - a smile of pure, simple affection and love, a smile of which only a small child is capable. And, as though my mind were engaged in a conversation beyond me, I was conscious of something like an insight forming: "A universe in which that smile is possible cannot be without love."

There are moments when a theology comes full circle. Perhaps there is a naïveté beyond the second naïveté. And, perhaps John McLeod Campbell's God, whose every act is motivated by filial love, is not so distant from William James' being behind and beyond all the universes and multiverses that stretch out forever. Perhaps. And perhaps D.S. Cairns also was right when he insisted - against so much evidence that was stacking up against every argument for the existence of a loving God - that at the heart of the universe there beats a parent's heart.**** Or, perhaps, the loving heart of a very small child.


*A.N. Wilson. God's Funeral: A Biography of Faith and Doubt in Western Civilization. London: John Murray, 1999.
**A statement which Thich Nhat Hanh reflects on in his Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999), 12-13.
*** An especially beautiful and accessible expression of this theological insight can be glimpsed in "The Second Theological Oration" of Gregory of Nazianzus; see the edition published by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press (2002) under the title, On God and Christ: Five a Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius, translated, with notes by Lionel Wickham.
**** D.S. Cairns, The Riddle of the World (London: Student Christian Movement Press, 1937), 321-327.

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