By Rev. David Rommereim
Simone Weil (1901-1943)
"There is a reality outside the world, that is to say, outside space and time, outside man’s mental universe, outside any sphere whatsoever that is accessible to human faculties.
Corresponding to this reality, at the center of the human heart, is the longing for an absolute good, a longing which is always there and is never appeased by any object in this world. …
Just as the reality of this world is the sole foundation of facts, so that other reality is the sole foundation of good.
That reality is the unique source of all the good that can exist in this world: that is to say, all beauty, all truth, all justice, all legitimacy, all order, and all human behavior that is mindful of obligations….
Although it is beyond the ready of any human faculties, man has the power of turning his attention and love towards it.
Nothing can ever justify the assumption that any man, whoever he may be, has been deprived of this power.
It is a power which is only real in this world in so far as it is exercised. The sole condition for exercising it is consent.…
The combination of these two facts~the longing in the depth of the heart for absolute good, and the power, though only latent, of directing attention and love to a reality beyond the world and of receiving good from it~constitutes a link which attaches every man without exception to that other reality.
Whoever recognizes that reality recognizes also that link. Because of it, he holds every human being without any exception as something sacred to which he is bound to show respect."
(From: “Two Moral Essays” (written as part of her work for the De Gaulle government in exile when Germany occupied France in the early 1940s.) Quoted in Earth Honoring Faith, Dr. Larry Rasmussen, 2013.)
Posted above are thoughts from Simone Weil, written in 1942 occupied France. Encountering them one finds out she is writing on behalf of the exiled De Gaulle government during barbaric WWII. She says, There is a reality outside the world, that is today, outside space and time, outside man’s mental universe, outside any sphere whatsoever that is accessible to human faculties.
One could dismiss her as a contrarian mystic. You may think she is inviting us into a yearning far beyond scientific reality. Or, she may be what some say, “So heavenly minded and no earthly good.”
Listening to her writing some may jump to the conclusion she is speaking of angels, or divine majesty. One may be reminded of the rhetoric of church leaders who told us that God was ‘up there’ looking down on us, and ‘mad-as-hell.’ We are to fear him (always masculine). They told us that God seeks to unveil the mysteries by some fantastic eschatological or apocalyptic event. God will come down to fix the troubled world. We used to call that divine action, end times. Literally the word used for the end is “apocalypse.” It means unveiling.
Rather than a television version of apocalypse now in computerized technicolor, we could begin to think of the end as an unveiling, or a revealing of the end of the capacity of divine earth to feed humankind. It could be the end of humankind other than the end of the world as it is. In the ending process humankind has been able to take along thousands of species in some sort of revolutionized premature extinction. The Monarch butterfly is a species I’m rooting for. They are down by 75%. The present “end times” for most species is unveiled in the present catastrophe of 2 to 5 degrees of warming.
As Simone writes in the 1940's, she appears to lean into the thoughts that there is a reality outside the world making the humans of this known world restless. Could it be that my personal confidence in this world is jeopardized, therefore I lean toward another realm? Could it be that I am losing control of my known world, its special neighborhood? Could it be that there is a Divine power also restless to return to the original configuration of the created order; beauty, equity, justice, and shalom? Could it be we need to return to a biodegradable and continuously resurrecting biosphere, rather than a world riddled with plastic? Will the unveiling be a violent overthrow of the present regimes? Who will be “left behind?” Or is this simply an anthropocentric model of thinking from a species who plays and pretends to be as important as God?
We often think some other power is going to remedy the situation by getting rid of all the bad. It appears, as Simone Weil writes in the early 40's, that the polarization of good and evil often come to the same unveiling through opposing positions. Nazism and its learned Arian model of control sought to remove evil through what turned out to be a personification of evil. Likewise the West sought with the rhetoric of good, to rid evil from the European hemisphere through partnering with evil through the use of armaments all the way to the first use of the atomic threat on two lovely towns in Japan.
Today, America has become a nations of mass incarceration. Dr. Iva Carruthers, General Secretary of the Chicago-based Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, is a leading voice of the faith community calling for an end to mass incarceration. She calls this a “nation in chains.” Where the U.S. incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation on earth. Getting rid of evil is to 'lock ‘em up and throw away the key.' Today our private prisons have developed a tax based income to the tune of $65,000-$75,000 per year per inmate. It has become profitable to fight evil by chaining persons to long term sentences without rehabilitation.
We tend to name that battle with evil as God. That same God we have trusted through a panoply of nicknames (Elohim, Adonai, YHWH, Alla, El, Lord God, etc.). A little less than two millennia ago the community known as the desert fathers lived in isolation and solitude; prayer, contemplation and a new Torah (instruction) focused and Christo-centric faith, working toward building a beloved community. The word they used for sin was not some pejorative moral incursion sentencing you to a life of solitary confinement. It was not a punitive culture (like ours). It did not blame nor shame residents for their wrong-doings. It simply spoke about doing wrong as harming the “beloved community” (Psalm 133). They simply tried to keep from “bad.” That is, bad talk, bad actions, bad.
The story of the Desert Fathers is similar to the second story of creation in Genesis (Bere’shit) 2: 4-25. The story of The Garden takes place when Adonai frees Adam (ish) and Eve (ishshah) from the interior of the garden due to their reluctance to maintain the status quo of their responsibilities (Genesis 2.23). Once they broke their promise that they would not eat from the tree of knowledge, in the process of accountability and renewal Adonai (YHWH-God) set them free from the obligation and set them apart to rely on their own ingenuity of connecting with the sublime encounter and the other, the mystery (Genesis 3.1-19).
In other words they were “on their own to negotiate the ways and means of living in the abundance of God’s creation. They have to set out on either own, without daddy always making sure all is well. They were in the dangerous realm of responsibility. What they did from here on out was not calculated and sure." They entered the realm of what I call the “ministry, the theology, of "perhaps."”
"Perhaps" is when you and I set out on our own. We may find food and water to sustain our family. Perhaps Adonai (God) is with us. But faith refers not to certainty. Faith refers to the great “Perhaps.” You and I believe in the God of Perhaps. The God that insists on our faithfulness and spiritually enlightened behavior. We believe in this God. This God always surprises us with a new encounter with the challenge to faithful living.
Yet, perhaps we act like we don’t have faith. So far God has provided for us; every 'jot and tittle.' But, after our mechanistic endeavors for the last 4 to 5 hundred hears of human exploitation and enlightenment, we are not sure. We have sought to eat up the world. Is it because we worry about our comfort? Or, perhaps we actually believe the faith in the holy mystery cannot make us any more comfortable? Air conditioners on a hot day can do that. God can’t. Perhaps, this was their conversation as they entered the fullness of created order. Perhaps “all that is solid melts into air” and we are left with simply and exponentially, our faith. Faith in the God that accompanies and does not control. Faith in the God that breathes into the empty space and does not inhale our mistakes.
Ms. Weil goes on to suggest something beyond my own discomfort, or the discomfort caused by the rhetoric of bible thumping preachers. She suggests a deep dive into good. She writes, "The combination of these two facts~the longing in the depth of the heart for absolute good, and the power, though only latent, of directing attention and love to a reality beyond the world and of receiving good from it~constitutes a link which attaches every man without exception to that other reality. Whoever recognizes the reality of the good is engaged with the link." Because of it, she holds every human being without any exception as something sacred to which she is bound to show respect. Needless to say that link provides an inhuman enterprise that calls sacred all that is not human. This the deep dive into good.
Through the stories of God expressed through the Semitic peoples 2 to 5 millennia ago, along with those stories of beginnings from many parts of the earth, we hear about the subliminal exchange with the other. Dr. Ulinov calls that the wisdom of the other… or, “other-wise.” Cute but true. Such an exchange with the wisdom of the other is always good. It is always loving. It is always a test of whether the faithful could perfect hospitality with the stranger.
Once we acknowledge the fact that humankind has consumed and controlled the earth's fabric of nutritional gravity, we quickly turn to that which is causing the plunge into end times, or the plunge into a limited future.
Lately I turn to historic genius to teach me how to live through these circumstances. I see this conundrum of evil and good, through the lens of a 1920 scholar, intellect, and spiritual mystic, W. E. B. Du Bois. He wrote in Darkwater: 'Voices from Within the Veil', published after being censored for 10 years from a frightened academy. The thoughts are printed on the second column on page two of this essay. He says, With Negro and Negroid, East Indian, Chinese, and Japanese they form two-thirds of the population of the world. A belief in humanity is a belief in colored men. If the uplift of mankind must be done by men, then the destinies of this world will rest ultimately in the hands of darker nations.
In today’s language we speak of Dark Bodies, Brown Bodies, Yellow Bodies. For my sensibilities, both spiritually and politically, the wisdom of W.E.B Du Bois is clear and resolute. The lives of those who have been kept in a veil through economic exploitation and manipulation are the very lives who will save humankind from this catalytic catastrophe.
In my community the little children are noticing that there is talk of a “Race War.” Two have spoken about this specifically in the public conversation of our Sunday Worship. It is a frightening topic. It is highly volatile. And it is a topic that should never be dis-acknowledged by saying to a child, “Oh, don’t worry my child, everything is going to be OK.” Rather, it is worth worrying about. Public life can go good and bad. People of faith always pray and work toward the good.
Through the child’s inquiry the adult in the room must discuss and act out the full extent of that it means to be a human being today. We must also acknowledge our human obligations.
To be human first means we must be honest about place. The land we borrow to consume. The land we are asked to till and nurture. We are informed through interaction with the full garden (an Eden conscience) that God has shaped. Without that place as a beginning point we will quickly find our pocketbooks making the decision by going shopping. We will then be faced with the decision, ethical and moral decision, of what we purchase or refuse to purchase. This is the most remedial challenge for every consuming American. Each of us must remember that our food travels more than all the jet setters put together. My morning banana has traveled at least 3 K miles to get to my stomach. Love the fact that it is a convenient way to receive the potassium I need from day to day. But I get this 365 days a year. When out of season they come to my breakfast table from farther out. That is a simple banana.
Second, we must observe our obligations. What W. E. B. Du Bois reminds us even today is that the whole of the earth is divine, not for those who can pay for it and privatize it. This is our most obligatory mandate for the last century. How we manage the wealth is the survival of life or the extinction of life, as we know it. Without it we all die and the earth remains injured. Sure it will take a long time to remove humankind. And we will take along with us many species in our reckoning. But the damage will be painful and irreconcilable.
We will contribute to the demise by sophisticated drone wars and poverty belts subsuming lives and killing folks through hoarding resources. A few have perfected hoarding. Each of us is good at it. So the end of humankind will take some time, but without our obligations we will enhance the process. As a white man, a Christian leader, and a pastor, it is important for me to come to terms with and be clear that I have received benefits Dark Bodies have not. Once I do that I begin to reconcile and place myself before the living God that stands for no nonsense, no bitterness, no deceit. This is the God of truth and we are expected to be free with it.
Perhaps even the ‘canoeing in the fog’ photo that my friend, Dr. Arne, took of my son and myself can represent the holy mystery of the great emergence of the recovery of race, nationality and humanity, and the species' among which we live. We may not see beyond the fog but we know we must row into it with confidence. It is at that point we are obligated - when we do the deep dive into the good.
Rev. David H. Rommereim
Facing the Dark with a Spiritual Flashlight
Rev. D. H. Rommereim
This photo expresses a narrow, but significant part of the core canon of my theological
journey. The literature is part of a library that challenges me to pay attention to the beauty
of what the church can and has offered, as well as the trauma caused by the narrow
mindedness of the church. The works represented in this photo, assumes that faith implies
doubt. What better way than through faith to explore the far reaches of both history and
experience. In our post Einsteinian Universe ambiguity and uncertainty are constants. We
are no longer able to be precise and objective about any natural or cosmological
phenomena. Yet we remain committed to the minute detail of all uncertainty. When we are
honest with uncertainty we can imagine a new and healthy partnership with this earth we
have borrowed these thousands of years of human spiritual evolution. Ultimately, the photo
shows a commitment to an honest engagement with the sacred text and its shalom,
In Edinburgh, Scotland, during the first year of the 20th century, the psychologist William James wrote about the Varieties of Religious Experience. He was the Harvard professor of Philosophy and Psychology. His lecture took place at what was called, the Gifford Lectures. It was in 1901. The lecture eventually became the famous book of the same name. It remains important to recognize the accomplishment of William James’ work since it continues to affect the global theology of this 21st Century religious landscape.
As we enter the book, William James quickly writes about religion and dogmatism. These are two of the forces that either become, compatible with, or contrarian from one another. Today we have a similar dilemma expressed between religion and spirituality. The common parlance is that one would say, “I am not religious but spiritual.” It categorizes the life force and the ecclesial forms that one aligns with when speaking about faith and the faith community. When one says, “I’m religious” do they mean they are part of an organized faith expression; a church, synagogue, mosque, temple? Or when one says, “I’m spiritual,” do they intend to mean specifically that they are not part of organized religion. Or, are individuals using this dilemma, spiritual versus religious to express what Robert Bellah coined decades ago, “Shielism.” This refers to the individual Sheila who had her own personal faith expressions and expectations apart from anyone else, or any institution.
In the early 20th Century the dilemma expressed by William James reminds us that religion and dogma may have been as significant in that era as religion and spirituality have become in our generation’s ecology of faith. To the point of religion and dogma, Dr. James says that, “the theorizing mind tends always to the oversimplification of its materials. This is the root of all that absolutism and one-sided dogmatism by which both philosophy and religion have been infested.” He reminds us that becoming a religious thinker means that there is the possibility of becoming narrow minded rather than far reaching.
In my 33 years of pastoral care, it is the oversimplification of materials and the roots of absolutism that have engendered in me the most fear. When a person questions their faith I see it as an opportunity to expand one’s grasp of the mysteries of G*d, rather than a foreboding problem placed in a conundrum of one’s “faith crisis.” I often observed that there appear to be two basic types of faith pilgrimaging: One may use a set of binoculars to see what lies ahead. Another may use a microscope to look for details. Each is method is helpful in the journey, yet of a different orientation and expectation. In this little essay, I see another model useful for the faith journey. I believe it is helpful to face the dark with a spiritual flashlight so as to not be afraid of the unknown, nor of the things that are deeply embedded in the soul that have yet to be clarified. To worry less about the dark, but see that you have batteries for the spiritual flashlight.
As an ordained, “set apart,” minister of the Word of God, I see myself as a caregiver of the holy mysteries rather than an adjudicator of the doctrines of the church. It is the grounding principle of my Lutheran hermeneutic that the nurture of faith is the core responsibility of the religious community. If doctrine is able to work its salt so that it marinates the faith properly, then the ministry of the church is good. If doctrine produces unnecessary bitterness in the leadership of the church, then it is not helpful. Pastor Martin Luther would say that if the doctrine does not produce faith then it is adiaphora (secondary).
I seek to create an atmosphere in the congregation that honors our questions more than provides answers. I prefer a deliberate, thoughtful response that is not remedial and boarding on empty fussy quicksilver. After all, faith is not certainty. Faith is a manner of living. It is a way of life which includes doubt. However, this is a delicate place from which to lead.
Let me give you an example. One of my favorite philosopher/theologians is John D. Caputo. Dr. Caputo is the professor of Religion, Humanities, and Philosophy at Syracuse University. He shares a story about our having different experiences and different names for things as we move in faith through life. He says, “We can lift the lid of a music box and peek inside to see what was hidden from our view, or we can look inside a clock to see what makes it tick, but no matter how hard we try, we can never fully look inside the mind and heart of another person. For the relation with the other is a journey we never complete, the shore we never reach where that incompleteness is not an imperfection but a testimony to the perfect excess of the other; it is not a loss but a source of endless novelty and discovery.”
The questions of our faith pilgrimages begin at an early age. Once the Tooth Fairy and Santa Clause become notions of kindness and generosity rather than trustworthy visitors of good fortune, we begin to question the stories. When the child learns that they are part of the parents’ loving-kindness, stress enters the parent/child relationship. At first it is hard to give up Santa because life was simpler and relationships were easy. When the child is ready to accept the fact that the story is a figment of imagination and give up the myth of Santa flying gifts from the North Pole, something deeper and more life-changing occurs and the journey with the sublime that will take a lifetime begins. Parents remember that they too questioned their faith over the years in the remarkable and unremarkable encounters with sublime surprises of pure goodness and love. As the adolescent enters self-differentiated adulthood they enter the world of William James and his variety of religious experiences.
Questioning is sine qua non of human living. It is part of our adult life when we engage in the struggle of “making a living.” The world expands along with our questions. When we are getting used to the hard work of adult living (high rent, high food costs, high travel costs, and low wages) we are also engaged with the broadening expanse of our experience. What was once limited to home, school, friendships, acquaintances, now becomes exposed to strangers who may think differently. The world moves from the classroom to the seemingly unlimited expanse of thought, experiences, and opportunities. It is simultaneously exciting and frightening.
I remember the words of my Rabbi, Harold Swiss (G*d bless his memory). He reminded me about the phrase “the house of Jacob.” You will read that phrase dozens of times in the Torah, the Psalter, the Prophets, and wisdom literature. “When one hears the phrase, the house of Jacob,” Rabbi would say, “one is asked to honor the questions. After all, it was Jacob (the heel sneak), who became the god-wrestler” (Genesis 32.24-32). G*d is often, and more so now than ever, engaged in wrestling with our 21st Century beleaguered and post-Einsteinian community.
As a Bronx pastor I became categorized as a feisty independent Lutheran thinker in what was formerly a Hauge Lutheran tradition. The Hauge tradition of Lutheranism comes from Norway. Why I was in the Bronx perhaps had something to do with the spirit of Hans Nielsen Hauge (but that’s another story). The Hauge tradition was deeply spiritual, less ecclesiastical. It was a reform movement in the Norwegian State Church in the mid 19th century. It traveled to the USA when the Norse began to emigrate en mass during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. As it came to the USA the reform nature of the movement changed and began to be enmeshed with American puritanism. It became a piety that was individual and morally rigid such that is was so embedded with the individual and the isolated community that it would not organize large ecclesiastical structures. It remained congregational. Yet, its strength was in the ability to transfer questions about G*d into local life; apart from doctrine. If doctrine was to be worthy it would be built upon the personal experience with G*d.
Even though Hauge Lutheranism is a distant memory, it has amalgamated into North American religious pragmatism, I am convinced that the spirituality of religious experience is nurtured by the affirmation of independent spirituality. Lutheranism that retains a glimmer of hope in an aged church can only have legitimacy if, and when, it becomes helpful in the building of person and community in a spiritual and religious manner. Our religious evolution may be leaning on the spiritual more than the doctrinal, yet it is that wonderful poet who inspired me to be unafraid, and to maintain a battery for my spiritual flashlight. Wallace Stevens writes, "It was when I said, ‘there is no such thing as the truth,’ that the grapes seemed fatter. The fox ran out of his hole.' "
When I visited the neighbors surrounding the Bronx church property, I would ask what they thought about the church. Some would not know it was a church. Many would equate church with a building rather than a gathering of people in the spirit of Christ. I look around in my latest call in Brooklyn and see there are many remnants of church buildings; some have become apartment complexes, others are doing a better job after becoming aligned with Lutheran Health Care, or some other agency of social good. Still others are healthy because they have become engaged with the political issues of the local neighborhood and borough. In ELCA terms that refers to “going public” and partnering with others who seek justice and well-being.
I see open-minded leaders as vital in the recovery of the common good. At the same time, I watch as the rise of absolute convictions puts an end to the imagination needed for the dreams of the faith to be healthy and reach the embrace of divine creativity.
For Christians and Jews it is the trademark of alignment with the other that points to the integrity of our traditions. For Israel it is Abram’s test shared the book of Bereshit (Beginnings/Genesis). Abraham’s status as a person of faith was lifted high as G*d spoke him to leave home and “Go!” (Genesis 12.1). This is the Lekh Lekha, the travails, of faith offered in Genesis 12-25. He is the hero because he left without knowing the destination. It was a blessing that carved into his soul. His trials were very unsuccessful. Yet it was in Genesis 18.1-15 that we hear about the sacred story that exposes Abram to the radical hospitality necessary for the proper following of divine mystery. How one treats the unannounced stranger in our midst effects how one is faithful to G*d. Again Dr. Caputo writes:
"The name of God is the name of trouble. The insistence of God means that God calls for a response or, since God is not somebody who ‘does’ things like call, it means that the calling takes place in the middle voice, in and under the name of God. God calls in the middle voice. The call is perfectly figured in an unexpected and insistent knocking on our door. A disturbing visitation in the night is an uncertainty in which all the sting of ‘perhaps’ is perfectly concentrated, in which the dynamics of ‘perhaps’ and a theology of insistence is both modeled and put in play. Hospitality means to say ‘come’ in response to what is calling, and that may well be trouble. We might say that hospitality is an example of an event, but if so it is an exemplary one, a paradigm, maybe even a surname for any and every event, which can come at any moment, like a wayfarer in need of a cup of cold water unless, perhaps, he is a thief in the night. As an ancient virtue in the Bible, where the very life of the desert traveler depended upon being made welcome, hospitality cuts deeply into the fabric of the biblical name of God, where the invisible face of God is inscribed on the face of the stranger, as if God were looking for shelter. Well beyond its status as a particular virtue, hospitality is a figure of the event, a figure of the chiasm of insistence and existence of call and response.”
That he, Abram, fulfills the test of properly responding to the stranger lifts up the fact that the stranger becomes G*d’ self. This is the test which affirms Abram and Sarai ready and able to birth laughter (Isaac) and become the ancestors of G*d’s multinational humanity. What the varieties of religious experience does for the church and its tendency to oversimplify and absolutize its behavior, is to keep it honest. Variety removes us from the threat of absolutism and certainty which has caused so much bloodshed and disquieted behavior with and among those who have a particular choice in their faith practice.
It is my vocational goal to lead so that I broaden the spiritual imagination of the person(s) who are attached to the church’s faith journey toward, what I call, communitarian habits of social responsibility (habits of the heart). For biblical persons that is located in the eternal quest for the divine preferential treatment of the poor. And the poor may be expressed as those without a proper pocketbook as well as a proper flashlight.
The dearth of imagination in our contemporary, fear-based religion, causes us to be afraid of the deep, dark questions that our religious experience encounters from day to day. Some of the most expanding experiences of faith (as in Wallace Stevens’ poem above), and greatest impacts of a believing community on the person come at what is called, “the night of faith.” or "dark night of the soul." It comes at the dark foreboding moment of question ambiguity and deep thinking that each person, each soul has when expanding their quest for authenticity. When one allows themselves to enter the dark, into what Bereshit calls tohu vabohu (Genesis 1.2), the deep primordial void, one enters the possibility of extinction. Yet the holy mystery, G*d, leaps into the void (tohu vabohu) and decides to remain in the void while light is shed on the dark. I remain dedicated to the wonder and beauty of the ‘spiritual darkness’ as we seek to find the appropriate flashlight to meander through our experience.
This “dark night of the soul” is the meditation offered to the Christian community through the poetry of the anonymous. We face this deep spiritual darkness and its adjoining fear not knowing what may come. There is, in other words, no simple glimmer of hope where one can have an escape valve to soften the blow of despair. Therapists know that a point of deep sadness, depression, or fear may become the point at which the client may emerge a new person.
This could be the context with Jesus’ contemporary, Nicodemus, in John 3. 1-17. He was the leader of the Jewish community. He came to Jesus at night to speak about spiritual issues. The story is presented as an encounter with two spiritual people. One who seemingly looks at faith through the linear lens; what’s this going to do for me. The other looks at faith through the lens of divine blessing (ruah, spirit, wind breath, Holy Spirit).
For believing Christians we, too, have a model for this tohu vabohu (deep darkness). It churns in the form of a story. The story is about a person. That person is represented by the character of Jesus of Nazareth. That story, which Christians call Good News/Gospel, is sweet and gentle hopefulness. It is filled with failure and pain. It is filled with the deep darkness that expresses itself in loss and painful conflict. And it is filled with the promise of a deep abiding presence, soulful presence, if you will, that G*d never leaves us orphans. G*d continues to dive into the dark. This is our spiritual flashlight as we face the unknown.