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Thinking Out Loud

A Stairway to Heaven?

by Michael Jinkins | Sep 15, 2017

Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2017-2018 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

Stairway to HeavenIs there such a thing as a stairway to heaven?

The Led Zeppelin song says yes, and "she's buying" it. But, after more than twenty centuries of debate, Christian theology remains resolutely ambivalent on the question: Resolute, because so many individual theologians, priests and preachers have weighed in "definitively"; ambivalent, because the Christian tradition as a whole can't decide.

I am very pleased about the ambivalence. It shows a rare humility in a tradition that has sent far too many people to the stake or the gallows because they had the temerity to disagree with the religious majority.

As we begin our yearlong exploration of Christian spirituality, I want to begin by considering the perspective of a contemporary writer whom I have admired for many years, Karen Armstrong. She is not only a thoughtful writer, she possesses an openness that goes far beyond mere tolerance, and she explores her own spiritual journey under the suggestive title, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness (Anchor, 2005).

I've twice read this book, the first time on my own, the second time with a group of students with whom I met weekly for prayer and study of classic literature on Christian spirituality. I was so moved by Armstrong's honesty and intelligence that I wanted my students to consider her perspective.

Here is a woman who, at seventeen, entered a convent. She did so with the conviction and passion of an idealistic young person seeking to know God better. Seven years later, she left the convent to pursue the study of English literature at Oxford University, feeling herself a failure because she didn't "succeed" at being a nun. She writes:

"I had tried. I told myself … I had not been the best nun in the world, but I had honestly done my best, and my superiors had tried to help me. But it was just no good. If God did exist, he clearly wanted nothing to do with me, and right now I couldn't blame him." (Spiral Staircase, p. 45)

The "darkness" in the subtitle of Armstrong's book, from which she says she climbed, included physical illness and psychological struggles that only exacerbated her spiritual crisis. In the midst of a long period of extraordinary personal anguish, Armstrong studied T.S. Eliot's sequence of poems titled "Ash Wednesday." Feeling alone, feeling like a failure, and in the throes of a terrifying illness, she found herself "thrilled" by Eliot's poem, noting especially the lines:

"Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice."

She comments on this passage:

"There was nothing depressing about this deliberate acceptance of reduced possibilities. It was precisely 'because' the poet had learned the limitations of the 'actual' that he could say: 'I rejoice that things are as they are.'" (Spiral Staircase, pp. 141-142)

Despite her academic brilliance, Armstrong's life seemed for some time to be tumbling out of control. All the while physicians and psychiatrists tried to help her toward stability and health through a variety of treatments and medications. Even as she was writing her first book, she was fired from her beloved teaching position. Wondering if, indeed, she could ever "hope again," she gradually was able to make peace with the universe. In the midst of her "darkness," she apparently came upon something like what one medieval mystic called "the cloud of unknowing" and another described as a perception of the "groundless ground," the sense of transcendent understanding, of enlightenment, of intuition more profound than mere knowledge.

Just as everything she tried to make fell apart, she found the key for which she had searched. She writes:

"This must be the way that human life worked. He who loves his life shall lose it; he who loses his life shall save it. This was not an arbitrary command of God, but simply a law of the human condition. If you cast your bread upon the waters and were prepared to give it up for good, it would somehow come back to you - albeit in another form." (Spiral Staircase, p. 142)

Her own "loss of life" was far from theoretical. Each time she labored to construct a life, it seemed to fall apart. But when her grasp failed, what she sought was placed in the palm of her hand, though "albeit in another form." The other "form" of life which came "back" to Armstrong arrived through her intellectual interest in the various ways different peoples and cultures experience God. She had been reading about the things that separated - often violently - Christians, Jews and Muslims.

"Why not explore also the things they held in common?" she thought.

Armstrong began to explore other faiths empathetically, attempting to understand and articulate the perspectives of other faiths authentically enough that practitioners of those faiths would recognize themselves and their convictions in her descriptions. At the same time, she also tried to articulate the reality of these other faiths in terms that could be understood in idioms more familiar to herself and to those who come either from Christian or secular traditions. She became both a translator and an honest broker of religious pluralism. She refused to smooth over differences, but neither would she resort to caricature others.

Among the most important insights to which Armstrong came was this one:

"All traditions went out of their way to emphasize that any idea we had of God bore no absolute relationship to the reality itself, which went beyond it. Our notion of a personal God is one symbolic way of speaking about the divine, but it cannot contain the far more elusive reality. Most would agree with the Greek Orthodox that any statement about God had to have two characteristics. It must be paradoxical, to remind us that God cannot be contained in a neat, coherent system of thought; and it must be apophatic, that is, it should lead us to a moment of silent awe or wonder, because when we are speaking of the reality of God we are at the end of what words or thoughts can usefully do." (Spiral Staircase, p. 292)

The greatest heresy begins in our compulsion to force God to serve as the exclusive representative of our metaphysical opinions and social values. This compulsion may originate in our desire to make gods of ourselves, which itself comes from our insecurities, our fears and sense of powerlessness in the face of mortality, our inability to come to terms with the starkness of reality; therefore, we feel the need to believe that “Someone Exactly Like Us” ultimately is in charge of the universe and that this Someone will guarantee our interests. When we speak of humility, religiously speaking, we are describing the fundamental rejection of the temptation to craft gods in our own image and likeness.

Armstrong discovered in her quest to understand other faiths, what had eluded her in her struggle to understand her own. Drawing on the thought of Cantwell Smith, Armstrong came to the realization that all our ideas about God are by necessity human constructions, and that the compulsion "to equate faith with accepting certain intellectual propositions about God" was a modern preoccupation dating from the eighteenth century. (Spiral Staircase, p. 292)

This seemingly startling and startlingly humanistic conclusion is shared by some of the most orthodox of Christian theologians: St. Augustine of Hippo and Karl Barth, for example. Both of these great Christian thinkers warn of the "idolatry" of worshipping our ideas of God (which amount to projections of ourselves and our wishful thinking) as though our ideas about God are identical with God.

Armstrong, though working from a basis of comparative religion rather than constructive theology, comes to a position reminiscent of John Calvin, at least with respect to the meaning of "belief." Armstrong writes:

"Faith was really the cultivation of a conviction that life had some ultimate meaning and value, despite the tragic evidence to the contrary. … The Middle English word beleven originally meant 'to love'; and the Latin credo ('I believe') probably derived from the phrase cor do: 'I give my heart.'" (Spiral Staircase, p. 292)

Reformed folk may want to read John Calvin's writings again, this time with his personal motto in mind: "I offer (or give) my heart to God promptly and sincerely." And we may want to examine again St. Anselm of Canterbury's famed statement of faith, usually translated, "I believe in order that I may understand," in light of Armstrong's insight; if we do, we will discover that Anselm might just have meant, "I love so that I may understand."

Rather than joining the throng ready to go to war over our doctrinal differences, Armstrong proposes "a more excellent way." She rejoices in a kind of faithful agnosticism, again, not unlike what we find in some of the most orthodox Christian thinkers of all time. As St. Augustine once wrote, "If you think you have understood God, it is not God which you have understood." When one considers that this humility in the face of divine incomprehensibility originated from the same pen that bequeathed to the world untold thousands of pages of carefully reasoned Christian theology, one might well pause before demanding one's dogmatic way.

So, is there a stairway to heaven?

Maybe the question is just wrong. Maybe the whole intellectual scaffolding for asking the question is just wrongheaded.

Perhaps we are beckoned by “SomeOne” beyond our knowledge to love that which we do know: the world and the people in it. That seems to be what the Epistle of First John was getting at when it warned us that we can hardly claim to love God, whom we cannot see, if we don't love the people we can. And maybe that same love will help us to entrust all that lies beyond the boundaries of our knowledge to the One who beckoned us to love in the first place.

Maybe taking life "on faith" is less about believing the unprovable and more about loving the unlovable. In other words, if faith doesn't start and end in love, we're not headed in the right direction, wherever a stairway claims to go.

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