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Beyond Belief in Bethlehem

God born in a manger? One can accept it on faith. “Just believe,” some say. But belief is high-maintenance. Is there a different way to approach the meaning of the season?

God born in a manger?  One can accept it on faith, I guess.  Anything is possible. Take the leap. “Just believe,” some say. 

But belief is high-maintenance.  Beliefs require defense, argument, protection, proof.  When we’re involved with the belligerent world of beliefs we’re often dealing with embattled egos, beliefs as extension of egos, beliefs as weapons for frightened egos.

The world has grown tired of beliefs.  The world knows the costly price of dogmatic assertions and fundamentalisms of every kind.  The world has lost faith in what the Church believes because it has failed to embody it – incarnate it, enflesh it – in its practice. 

I, too, have grown tired of beliefs.  Sounds odd coming from a preacher, right?  Perhaps. 

The first Jesus followers did not have a “belief system.” Jesus called people to follow him, which meant more than believing in him, more than simply confessing certain theological ideas about him, and certainly more than attempting an anemic ethical do-goodism (which often passes as “Christian” these days).  The first followers had an experience of the holy, an encounter with the divine, the numinous, and they participated in the power and grace and intensity of God’s Spirit unleashed upon the world in a new way, gospeling creation in the flesh, in a person, calling humanity to embark, like him, on a heroic journey of divine dimensions and cosmic proportions.  

That’s why the shepherds are my favorite characters in the Christmas story.  Their journey begins with an encounter on the outskirts of Bethlehem; they show us the way.

Luke’s description of what the shepherds underwent was something like a mystical experience, it was a meeting with mystery – and mystery, because it’s a mystery, not a puzzle (which can be solved), it’s not completely knowable.  It can’t be measured.  It can’t be analyzed.  It can’t be verified.  It can only be experienced. 

Despite the presence of stories like these in scripture, the Church has been suspicious of the mystical. Mystics were often repressed by the Church.  Cultural historian José Argüelles (1939-2011) sees a “dictatorship of reason” in the modern era of Western culture that “banished mysticism as a branch of the insane.”  

We need to acknowledge that there are other ways of knowing in addition to reason.  Albert Einstein (1879-1955) insisted that, “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.  It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.  Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead.” The psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1875-1961) warned, “…only the mystic brings what is creative to religion itself….  The creative mystic was ever a cross for the Church, but it is to him [and her] that we owe what is best in humanity.”

What if we viewed the shepherds as mystics?  The King James Version says the shepherds, “were sore afraid” (Luke 2:9); the Greek behind the King’s English is stronger and means something like, “and they became afraid with very much great fear.”  They were terrified! Seized by a holy terror and awe. The Greek suggests language brought to its limits, incapable of expressing the holy fear, the terror that comes with encountering something mysterious. Yes, the angels replied, “Fear not,” but only after the initial experience.  This is what theologian Rudolph Otto (1869-1937) described as a mysterium tremendum et fascinans:  a terrifying and fascinating mystery that seizes us and overwhelms us in love.

The Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel (1907-1972) defined mysticism as “radical amazement.”  Wasn’t that Mary’s response to the shepherds’ experience?  Maybe she, too, was a mystic. “Awe is the beginning of wisdom,” Heschel claimed.  “Awe precedes faith.”  Not belief, not reason, but awe.  Radical awe. And praise, too, “precedes faith.” Awe is the beginning of wisdom.  The fear experienced in awe and terror “is not the fear of guilt” or of being attacked or judged by an angry God, but a feeling of WOW! – a reverential feeling rooted in the wonder of our existence, of our being included in the amazing twenty-billion-year drama that is the universe,  conscious that the Creator of this universe and the source of existence itself encounters us, overwhelms us with love, and faces us – literally – in the flesh, in the birth of a Son who came for us to know once and for all that we are deeply loved, that we are God’s beloved sons and daughters, the objects of God’s joy and passion.

So how does one respond to this kind of awe? What do we “do” with it?  We don’t “do” anything with it. It “does” us, and shapes us and loves us.  As the ancients knew, there is one proper response to mystery – to kneel.  The poet T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) told us in his Four Quartets, this is what the journey of life is about, this is what faith is about, this how we respond to the mystery of the Incarnation and every mystery we encounter; he said,

You are not here to verify,

Instruct yourself, inform curiosity

Or carry report.  You are here to kneel….

Indeed.

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FIFA December 27, 2012 at 02:55 AM
As per an earlier poster, what is the delay in posting comments? Please editor explain that. It is not beyond comprehension I believe.
Gregg Roberts December 29, 2012 at 11:37 PM
Beautiful piece here. I am sure that for the fundamentalist that beauty is lost. I especially enjoyed how you meshed a Jewish theologian's teachings with the Christmas story. FIFA -- God doesn't require your love. He seeks it. He offers it. He created you -- that in short is why He seeks it. No one created the Creator. That question is perplexing but not as perplexing as what caused the Big Bang / the world to come into existence ? Random chance? That takes a lot more faith then I can muster to believe in. The alternative? A Creator. I agree it's hard to fathom but it's the most fathomable of all explanations.
anon December 30, 2012 at 04:33 AM
I had trouble understanding the message of this article. Write from your heart and tell us what makes you believe. Help us look for signs that there is something to believe in. Jung, theologians, good for philosophy and theology class, but way over my head. http://gracegems.org/18/Ryle-%20Preaching.htm
FIFA December 31, 2012 at 10:20 PM
Gregg, not to argue with your premise. But you said how did the Big Bang happen but you accept on faith that nothing preceded your Creator. Do you not see the conundrum? I do not yet fully understand the Universe nor will I in my lifetime, but Christians used to think the world was flat too. Christians and other religions believe many things they no longer do, It took time and science to show them otherwise. We continue to grow exponentially in our understanding of the Universe, I believe we will just never know the full Universe because we will cause ourselves to no longer exist. It is the human way.
Tim January 02, 2013 at 06:38 AM
See, I think just the opposite. What makes you honestly think that this is the only civilization in the thousands and thousands of galaxies in the universe - places we can't even begin to explore? I find this to be logically far more practical then just one all powerful being pulling all the strings here in this (or multiple) locations in the universe. I don't completely discount the existence of a "Creator" or "God", of course. It's certainly a possibility. Nobody knows one way or the other, and by the time we find out yes or no, we're dead, so... not attempting to argue here, just throwing an alternative viewpoint that's all.

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