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.