Sunday, 28 January 2018

The limits of language: That which reveals also hides

The following is taken from “The Cathedral of The World: A Universalist Theology” pp 10-11 by Forrest Church

Above all else, contemplate the windows. In the Cathedral of the World there are windows beyond number, some long forgotten, covered with many patinas of grime, others revered by millions, the most sacred of shrines. Each in its own way is beautiful. Some are abstract, others representational; some dark and meditative, others bright and dazzling. Each window tells a story about the creation of the world, the meaning of history, the purpose of life, the nature of humankind, the mystery of death. The windows of the cathedral are where the light shines through.

Because the cathedral is so vast, our life so short, and our vision so dim, over the course of our pilgrimage we are able to contemplate only a bit of the cathedral, explore a few apses, reflect on the play of light and darkness through a few of its myriad windows. Yet by pondering and acting on our ruminations, we discover insights that will invest our days with meaning.

A twenty-first-century theology based on the concept of one light and many windows offers to its adherents both breadth and focus. Honouring multiple religious approaches, it only excludes the truth claims of absolutists. This is because fundamentalists claim that the light shines through their window only. Some, as we know from painful experience, go so far as to beseech their followers to throw stones through other people’s windows.

Skeptics draw the opposite conclusion. Seeing the bewildering variety of windows and observing the folly of the worshippers, they conclude that there is no light. But the windows are not the light. They are where the light shines through.

We shall never see the light directly, only as refracted through the windows of the cathedral. Prompting humility, life’s mystery lies hidden. The light is veiled. Yet, being halfway in size between the creation itself and our body’s smallest constituent part, that we can encompass with our minds the universe that encompasses us is a cause for great wonder. Awakened by the light, we stand in the cathedral, trembling with awe.

Some people have trouble believing in a God who looks into any eyes but theirs. Others have trouble believing in a God they cannot see. But that none of us can look directly into God’s eyes certainly doesn’t mean God isn’t there, mysterious, unknowable, gazing into ours through the windows of the Cathedral of the World”

...The above extract from Forrest Church's "The Cathedral of the World" puts beautifully into words my own understanding of my own universalism...Or at least it sheds a little light on it (Tee, hee, hee)

Each Sunday I attempt to communicate with with the beautiful people I serve, through the worship I create and lead. It does not come easy, sometimes I really struggle and I am never wholly satisfied with what comes out of my mouth. I can never put into words exactly what I am attempting to share and I know that it is never fully received from those who are engaged in this creative interchange. It is a challenge to find the right words, to touch the hard to reach places, to truly articulate the language of the heart.

It is the same when sitting with those who are suffering. To offer comfort in such times is impossible. All any of us can really do is be with one another. Prayer helps. I often use an adaption of the fear prayer “God please remove my fear and direct my attention to what you would have me be.” I’m not so much asking what to do, that can be tough to discern, but how to be is a whole different matter. I know how to be. I need to open my heart and hold space for others to be. The heaet transcends language.

People are often asked how do you feel? In reality it’s a difficult question to articulate, to put into words. Words are limited, they can never fully describe a feeling. Actually if truth be known when we communicate face to face we do not do so with only the words coming from our mouths. If you are anything like me, it will be written all over your face and in your body.

That said words are our primary form of communication, whether written or spoken. It is how we attempt to explain and pass on something. As soon as we do though we are already reducing the meaning of what we are articulating. Yes people can relate, but they cannot experience exactly what another person has or does experience. If you don’t believe me go and ask a friend to look out of window with you and describe what they see. I will bet you anything that what you share will not be exactly the same.

Now of course some communication is intuitive, some people are better at connecting than others this way. There are some people that we connect with on this level easier than with others too. There are people in my life who have and I do connect and communicate with on a deeper heart level, way beneath the limits of language and words. As I look back at my life I can remember moments, situations and people for whom words were not required, the connection was and is heart to heart.

There are also times when something happens and you are just completely lost for words. It is ok you know, I have been many times in my life. This is humble, it is human and the truth is there is a limit to what we can say about anything and everything.

Words have their limit. There is a gap between experience, process, articulation and receiving of words depicting experience. By the time we put it into words the experience has already been reduced greatly. The great twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich had an interesting take on the limit of language to describe ones faith. He claimed that whatever reveals “Ultimate Reality” also hides it. I think it applies to all aspects of truth. Whatever we do to communicate truth will reveal aspects of it, but not fully. I’m not sure it is possible for any of us see the light of truth absolutely, we always see it through lenses. We never see anything absolutely and as soon as we attempt to articulate the meaning something gets lost in translation. We understand things through the lens of our culture and upbringing and we communicate it through this even more so. It is important to remember this. It certainly humbles me.

I was recently talking with someone who I feel it easy to communicate with, very much on a heart to hear level. There is quite a lot of synchronicity between us, which always delights me. During the conversation they asked me about the process of creating and sharing worship. A difficult question to articulate, as my muses are wide and varied. In many ways I just seem to stitch things together, but loosely, a kind of patchwork quilt really. I also explained that the sermons I deliver are less and less what I actually write. They are of course variations on a theme, but never what I initially write.

In spiritual matters sometimes words, language and understanding can actually get in the way. I remember many years ago when I was exploring ways to develop meditative practices I found the Brahma Kumaris. They practise a beautiful form of Raj Yoga meditation, which is open eyed and in principle is about focusing on light and love. I practised with them for many months and it helped me hugely. I still practise the methods today and can easily connect to those beautiful places deep within my being and all being. As in most things I was very enthusiastic and wanted to know more. The problem was that when I got into the theology and the imagery beneath the practise I found it impossible to follow. I suspect I took it too literally and not as mythos as a way of revealing deeper truth, rather than absolute truth. I was not so spiritually mature at the time and actually soon stopped practising with them. I feel a little sadness about this today as I wish I hadn’t got so lost in the images and the words and instead had just been happy with the practise. Why did I need to understand and articulate what I was experiencing? Why did I have to allow the literal and reductionist mind I had those days lead me away from aspects of this beautiful practise?

God only knows!

As I grown older, and a little wiser I hope, I have developed a growing love for poetry. There is a deep truth to poetry it speaks a language that allows the limit of words to go deeper. It seems to reveal far more than it hides, W.S, Merwin claims that poetry is “the expression of faith in the integrity of the senses and of the imagination.” It speaks a deeper truth. Perhaps a universal truth, it is mythos. As Stanley Kunitz has said, poetry is 'the most difficult, most solitary, and most life-enhancing thing that one can do. It's a struggle because words get tired. We use them. We abuse them. A word is a utilitarian tool to begin with, and we have to re-create it, to make it magical. You have to kill off all the top of one's head, remove it, and try to plunge deep into self, deep into memories, deep into the unconscious life. And then begin again.'

Poetry though frustrates people because it uses words illiterally, it tells the truth slant as the poem suggested that truth should be spoken.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant --
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind --

Now as many folks know one of my ministerial inspirations has been the writing of Forrest Church, who I only discovered shortly after he actually died. He speaks a language that hits my heart. He articulates something that makes sense to my head, heart and soul. I particularly love his view of faith and his attempt to articulate a metaphor for 21st century Universalism, a humble and a real approach to faith. This "blogspot" began with an extract from it.

His image of “The Cathedral of the World” is asking us to imagine the whole of humanity standing under the ceiling of the cathedral of the world. Around this cathedral are millions of stained glass windows. There is a light outside of the cathedral shinning through all of the windows; this is the light of truth, the light of God. No one inside is able to stare at the light directly, we all see it passing through a stained glass window. Each of the windows distorts the light in some way; they only allow some of the light to pass through. Sometimes the light is refracted, by the tinted windows and occasionally it is blocked by the opaque aspects of each window. In some places the light is almost completely obscured. By the way the light is not only coming into us from the outside the windows, but also from ourselves shinning out to the window. The light is in us too.

This metaphor is an attempt to describe a 21st century Universalist theology, one that speaks to the heart of me. There is one light outside of the window but there are many windows through which we can get a glimpse of the light. Each window is unique in its own way; each window is different; but none gives us a perfect image of the light. Each window is representing different religions, different ideologies, different philosophies, different dogmas, different views about life, the universe, everything. The key is to understand that each window has been fashioned by human hands, often with great skill, imagination, beauty, intelligence and artfulness that said through no one window is the light seen perfectly.

From where we view our particular perspective on the light we can begin to believe that what we see is the absolute truth and that the light only shines through our window. That only our window offers the true representation of the light. That what others see through their window is false, even stupid and irrational. Forrest Church’s Universalism though is saying something very different. He is saying that each window conveys part of the truth and that no one window has a monopoly on the truth. He is echoing those words of Paul Tillich, “that which reveals also hides”.

I think it is important to accept that none of us ever glimpses the whole truth, no matter which window we are looking through. Even if for s pit secend we could, we could never fully articulate this. Two people looking through the very same window can see something different or perhaps their attempts to put into exactly what they are experiencing may be very different. How on earth do any of us articulate this?

This humbles me, as most conversations I have with others about their faith humbles me. Humility is always the key by the way. This teaches us that we can only glimpse the truth and we can never make complete sense of what we see or ever adequately articulate it. Now the wonderful thing about this is that by genuinely accepting it we are opened up to a myriad of possibility that we probably believed were way beyond our capacity to experience. If we listen to one another lovingly we may just find a greater truth, if we can but just lay aside what we think we know, our prejudices.

The epistle Paul hints at this in his letter to the Corinthians (1ch 13), those beautiful words on love and charity. Here Paul gets to the very nature of humility when he says, “for now we see through a glass darkly”. He is making the point that even when our knowledge and understanding is not perfect, which I suspect, it never can be, we cannot go wrong if we follow love without prejudice as a guide. Love without prejudice is a universal principle found in virtually every one of the windows that the light is pouring through, it seems that the only ones not preaching it are the ones who are trying to throw rocks through the windows that others experience the light through. Not a different light, but a slightly different view and understanding of the light.

Universalism is a way of openness of truth seeking and love experiencing. They are not perfect though and they also glimpse the light imperfectly.

What’s the light like, that shines through your window?

This is my attempt to articulate something that is almost impossible. This is not easy. I hope it has helped you in some way to open you to the light which ever window you look through and attempt to share that with those you share your lives with and thus live more loving and charitable lives.

Let love continue long and show to us the way, it shines through every window.

Let it’s warmth transform us.

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