Seeds of Faith
eBook - ePub

Seeds of Faith

Theology and Spirituality at the Heart of Christian Belief

Mark A. McIntosh, Frank T. Griswold

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  1. 200 pagine
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Seeds of Faith

Theology and Spirituality at the Heart of Christian Belief

Mark A. McIntosh, Frank T. Griswold

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A spiritual introduction to Christian theology

Christian belief can be understood neither entirely through doctrine nor entirely apart from it. Doctrine is the starting point, the seed of faith, from which springs forth flourishing life in the fellowship of the church. But that growth occurs only when theology and spirituality are held together in a relation of reciprocal influence.

With decades of combined experience in both the church and the academy, Mark McIntosh and Frank Griswold prioritize the life-giving relationship between theology and spirituality in this immersive introduction to the Christian faith. Drawing inspiration and guidance from Christianity's greatest mystical theologians—including Augustine, Maximus the Confessor, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Catherine of Siena—McIntosh and Griswold unfold essential doctrines and illuminate the transformative power of Christian belief. The result is a book that propels readers beyond abstract knowledge to an experience of the living mystery who is God.

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The Hidden Presence of God in All Things

Discovering Our Intimacy with God

Christians believe that God is love and is in love with all beings. God is the reason we—and our universe—exist, and is not simply another more powerful and invisible being alongside us within our world. What would happen if this belief came to life for us? Maybe a thought experiment could help us.
Imagine that we are all characters in a play; I don’t mean that we are actors temporarily portraying the characters, but rather that we are the actual characters in a play. As such we have no notion that we are characters in a play; we simply see our present existence as what life is and that’s it. It would never occur to us that there might be another form of life, of existence, of a mysteriously greater and deeper kind—the life of our author, our playwright.
Our analogy of God as author and we as characters suggests that at the very heart of every being is God’s knowing of it. God is intimately present within every aspect of the world, thinking and loving everything and everyone into existence moment by moment. God is wholly present within everything as an author is intimately present within everything in her book. Our author’s thinking and loving sustain life moment by moment. Because God transcends the universe as its author, God is more intimately present within everything than another being alongside us could be. God’s hidden or mystical presence within everything holds it in being.
Though we believe this, what would happen if it shaped our experience of our journey through life? Few things can help us grow more richly human than the abiding conviction that God loves us without reserve and will never turn away from us. We can always ask God for a sense of this intimate, loving, and life-giving presence in our lives. Most practices of meditation or awareness lead us to this understanding, as we allow ourselves to become aware: first, of the surface noise in our minds, and then of the passing play of thoughts and emotions—noticing all these with patience and compassion and then returning our focus to a deeper level of stillness, of awareness. In such moments of deeper awareness, we begin to sense the expansive radiance of God’s intimately generous giving at the center of our beings, knowing and loving us in every moment.

Frank’s Reflections on God’s Authorship

I find myself pondering Mark’s analogy of God as an author of a play or a novel in which we are expressions of the author’s creativity. I note here that the word “author” comes from a Latin verb that means, among other things, “to originate,” and therefore to “bring into being.” That certainly is one of the classical ways in which we think about God—as the originator, the author of all things. I am aware too that Christ is described as an author in the Acts of the Apostles, in which Peter, in a speech to Jewish authorities, accuses them of having killed “the author of life.” As well, when we reflect on the Trinity and proclaim the Word as the agent of creation, and then in the Nicene Creed refer to the Holy Spirit as the “giver of life,” we immediately see that the originating and creating function is integral to the life of the Trinity. And in Wisdom of Solomon 13:3, God is proclaimed as the “author of beauty” reflected in creation.
From the word “author” we derive the word “authority,” which instead of being defined as raw power can be thought of as the ability to impart life, that is, to bring things into being. Certainly, in this regard the authority of Jesus in the Gospels is one of bringing into fullness of being the blind and lame and those on the margins of society. When we speak of God or the persons of the Trinity bringing things into being, we recognize that we have been brought into being, and that we share from the moment of our creation in God’s own life—in the way that an author’s life and creative imagination bring characters into being. A human author decides what each character is going to do, the challenges each will face, and the resolution of various situations as they occur. However, in the case of God as an author, we have a loving parent who has given us the gift of free will and has chosen to imbue us with the capacity to love but allows us freedom to determine how that love is to be expressed: selfishly or selflessly. Just as loving parents do not want a child looking endlessly at them for an indication of what to do, so God allows us a full range of possibilities, as did the father of the prodigal son, in the hope that the choices we make, and what we discover along the way through trial and error, will lead us ever more into a fullness of selfhood that is God’s deepest desire for us.
If one stays with the analogy of God as author of a play or a novel, it is worth pointing out that human authors often are surprised to discover that, in the course of delineating their characters, their characters break free and say or do things that come as a surprise. Many an author has said at the end of a book: “I had no idea that it would end this way. It certainly wasn’t in my original plot outline.” For example, Madeleine L’Engle, in her book Walking on Water, relates how she was surprised by the actions of characters she herself had created.
As I meet this analogy in the course of Mark’s rich and engaging reflections, I remind myself that the divine author has created us to share God’s life and to express that life in love that is free and ever unfolding.

Why Analogies Are Helpful in Theology

I find myself wanting to reflect on why I am drawn to this analogy between authors and their novels, and God and the universe. We will return to it a number of times throughout this book (and in our companion volume), and so its strengths and weaknesses as an analogy are worth pondering. Frank’s reflections just above not only help us to think more deeply about authorship but also help us to recognize an important disadvantage to the authorial analogy. Even though human authors are sometimes startled by the unexpected vivacity of their characters, as Frank reminds us, still, we normally do think of everything within the world of a novel as fixed and determined by the author’s creative intention: nothing within the world of the novel normally gets to make its own decisions!
So, we need to think, as Frank does, about how God’s authoring of us, unlike the authoring of a human artist, is the very source of our human freedom rather than its denial. Human authors, no matter how wonderfully inventive they may be, have a finite imagination, and their characters are tethered by that; but God’s loving imagination is infinite and inexhaustibly creative. God gives us ourselves moment by moment, with the freedom to discover the authentic truth of that gift and live into it.
There are other aspects of the authorial analogy, however, that have become deeply helpful to me—and I hope they will be for you as well. I’m writing these words using dictation software because, as we noted earlier in the book, I am living in the later stages of ALS. My body is now paralyzed except, blessedly, for the ability to speak and to swallow—though my speech is beginning to be impaired. Much of who I am seems to be falling away from me and into silence. I have been immensely helped during this season by pondering the Christian belief that the deepest truth of who I am is not buried within me and subject to my own physical diminishment and death; rather, my identity is sustained within God’s friendship with me, and the reality of my life flows from God’s everlasting knowing and loving of me. And of God’s knowing and loving of us, there is no end.
But why does theology even use this kind of thinking by way of analogy, this analogical imagination? Why use analogies to talk about our life and God’s? Because there are wonders in the life of God we cannot comprehend. And so a good analogy can help us to start our journey toward understanding: by allowing us to think about the things we do know, a good analogy allows us to use those things to move in the right direction toward the things we cannot yet understand. For example, we cannot look directly at the sun without blinding ourselves, but we can “see” the sun by observing the beauty it brings to light as it shines on the world around us. The bright shining beauty that radiates through a sunlit maple leaf gives us a way of imagining the source of that brightness, namely, the sun itself. Analogies help us to reach across from what we can understand to what we cannot yet comprehend. They are crucial to the work of theology precisely because theology is the work of faith seeking greater understanding; it is the life that hopes in what is still unseen.
Fortunately, Christians believe, God has created a universe that is inherently analogical, symbolic, sacramental. For every good and perfect thing that we can know in our universe receives its existence, its goodness, from God, who is Existence and Goodness. Because of this, our world, at least in all that is good and true and beautiful, points toward the Source of that goodness, truth, and beauty—who is God. And that means that the world is, as I said above, inherently analogical, inherently pointing from the things that we can see to their full plenitude and source in God, the Author of all things.

Four Ways of Recognizing God in Our Lives

Let me briefly summarize the four ways in which the authorial analogy has helped me, and then I can explain them a little more fully. First, the analogy helps me to think about the very fact that we need analogies! In other words, it helps me to think about the difference between our kind of existence and the fullness of life who is God. Second, the analogy helps me to ponder and appreciate the great intimacy of God’s hidden or mystical presence at the heart of everything. Third, it helps me to think more deeply about how God is present—about how it is the very pattern and rhythm of God’s own life that touch and infuse our lives. And fourth, it helps me to recognize our deep common kinship with all other beings, for we all flow forth into time from the everlasting unity and communion of God.
Consider, then, the first way in which our authorial analogy can help us. When we talk about our life and God’s life, we are easily misled by the fact that we use the same word, “life,” to refer to both kinds of existence! But the authorial analogy helps us to remember that our finite existence is but a reflection into time and space of an infinitely greater kind of existence—just as the existence of characters in a novel is a reflection of their author’s life and depends upon that life. While this analogy helps us remember the mysterious “beyondness” or transcendence of God, it also helps us recognize the reflection of God in all beings. The beauty of every seashell, the goodness of every just act, the joy of every child’s laughter are all expressions in time and space of the infinite beauty, goodness, and joy that are the very life of God. But are we destined only to hear rumors of God’s great goodness in the world around us but never to share in it ourselves? Could characters in a novel ever “journey” beyond the world of the novel to share in the life of their author?
Astonishingly, God seems to be so in love with all creatures that God desires to bring them from their finite experience of all that is wonderful into the very source of that wonder, the inexhaustible wonder of God’s own life. The world and the life that we know now turn out to be only the beginning of our adventure. Christian mystical theology contemplates how God lovingly brings us from our mortal existence into communion with the everlasting life of God. This infinite passing over would indeed be as if an author could bring one of the characters from her novel into the real world of her own life. Perhaps we could imagine her doing this by awakening her character’s awareness of her hidden presence within the character’s present form of life—and the character’s desire to share in her greater life. And in fact this is what Jesus and the Holy Spirit do—awaken us to a mysterious destiny written in our very hearts, which ever calls us beyond ourselves and into the life of God.
This leads us to the second reason why I find the authorial analogy so helpful. Because it gives us a way of thinking about how God is present to us and with us. God, as we said above, is not another being within our world who stands apart from us or tries somehow to get close to us. Like authors who are present by their creative artistry and delight at the heart of everything in their novels, God is intimately present at the heart of all creatures—always understanding and loving them into being. Every thought I think, every word I speak, is an act of God. Not because God takes my place or forces me to do anything, but rather because moment by moment God is at the very core of my being, giving me myself, calling me toward the fullness of who I might become.
And this suggests a third way in which the authorial analogy can help us—giving us a window into the manner of God’s presence. Think of how a really great author enjoys a profound self-awareness or self-understanding. We could even say that this is the precondition for his artistry. For he is able to bring forth from the deep meaning of his experience just the right ideas that can inform and give life to the characters in his novel. In other words, the creative imagination at the heart of the characters is nothing less than the deep word or meaning of the author’s own life.
In an analogous way, Christians believe, God eternally contemplates Godself and in doing so brings forth the Word who is the full meaning and understanding of all that God is. It is this eternal Word who speaks at the heart of every creature, speaks just the right idea of God’s own life that gives us ourselves, our own unique way of being in time. For what the analogy especially helps us to see is that God’s Word, God’s thinking at the heart of each of us, is nothing less than God’s thinking and understanding of Godself. And that is why we exist as the beloved reflections within time of different aspects of God’s infinite life.
But authors not only bring forth the word or meaning of their own life, by which they give vitality to their characters. They also embrace and affirm that truth of themselves that becomes resonant as the heart of their characters. They rejoice and love to see this reality unfold in all its possibilities within the world of their novels. This offers us an analogy to the coming forth of God’s own joy and love, God the Holy Spirit: for God not only eternally brings forth the Word who is the very meaning and truth of God, but God also affirms and delights in that truth—and this inexhaustible love and delight Christians call God the Holy Spirit. So our analogy helps us to see that God’s infinite delight in each creature is nothing less than the eternal joy and love of God for God. In other words, the love by which God loves each one of us is the very same eternal love of God’s own life, the love of God for God’s own goodness and truth.
The historical presence of Jesus and the Holy Spirit at work in our world, as “characters” within our world, turns out to be how God restores our consciousness of God’s authoring intimacy within us—and within all beings. The Christian mystical journey follows the path of this awakening consciousness, the consciousness of God thinking and loving all beings into existence. And that is the fourth reason why the authorial analogy speaks to me, because it helps me to ponder how I might become more attentive and attuned to God’s meaning and desire, God’s Word and God’s Spirit, at the heart of all things. Attending to God in this way has helped me not only to live into the truth of myself, as a continuous gift of God, but also to realize more deeply that we are all coming forth from God’s eternal knowing and loving—that in the mind and heart of God we are united, we flow forth from that divine unity. Our differences can never be the reason for divisions, for our kinship and unity as fellow creatures are the deepest and truest dimension of us.

Learning How God Communicates with Us

In the chapters that follow, we will explore many ways in which God’s hidden or mystical presence in all beings comes to light across the great symphony of Christian beliefs—and helps us glimpse the hope we share for life together in God. Over many years of talking with people about their spiritual life, about how God seems to them, I have come to believe that God gives each of us a number of particularly significant moments, moments when God opens our minds and hearts to God’s meaning and love in our life. Often these moments are buried in our past, and asking God to help us recall them (and to help us understand more of what God wants to teach us through them) can be wonderfully helpful. In the hope of encouraging you to search through your own memories with God’s help, I might describe a moment of such grace from my own life.
When I was growing up, among my dearest and closest friends was our family’s dog, a golden retriever named Chiz. He was, to my childhood self, enormous and powerful, yet his fur was the softest thing I knew. To rest your head on his side was to curl up within a blazing sunset, and to look into his deep brown eyes was to know yourself loved without limit. When I look back on our adventures in the neighborhood together, I sense that God gave me such a wonderful companion so that I might more easily awaken to God’s beauty and love all around me.
One summer, when I was old enough to cross the road, Chiz and I began the exploration of a vacant lot nearby. I know now that it could not have been nearly as vast a region as I experienced ...

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