What do you see when you think about pursuing God?
I remember the professor in my first theology at Wheaton asking a similar question. He asked what image of God do we find most appealing: lord, king, savior, and so on, drawing from different expressions of God in the Bible. I answered, “King,” reflecting my sense of calling at the time to go questing in search of light, wisdom, pursuing obedience. I was reading a lot of Stephen Lawhead back then too and I found his King Arthur trilogy particularly inspiring. So, I liked the royal attributes of God and the associated chivalry of the Christian life. At least as I understood it.
A lot was uncertain in life, then, and I wanted to make sense of it, and make sense of it in a way that brought meaning and hope in the midst of overwhelming and impossible struggles. Clinging to the stories of great adventures, purpose, meaning, helping me navigate the great swath of senselessness and yearning that had characterized my life up to that point. Life almost kept working out, doors just about opened, opportunities mostly resolved. I was drawn just far enough to keep on, always defeated enough to prevent satisfaction. It had to mean something, because I knew there was something more drawing me onward.
It was chivalry of Quest not battle. I knew there was truth and falsehood, good and evil, heroes and villains. But I didn’t want to conquer others or really even debate them.
I saw Christ as King, and myself as a dogged, if imperfect, servant. So now, when I think about what my image of theology was in my earlier years, this one probably fits, though I wouldn’t have understood the question the same way then.
It’s not very sophisticated. It is quite earnest. And it was an image that kept me going through uncertainty and a myriad of distractions. I identified with Galahad and his search for the grail, so maybe this one is even more particular.
It probably didn’t help I read books like The Interpretation of the New Testament with its mentions of champions, and entering the lists, and suchlikes. Made it feel like a struggle worth fighting for. Though not initially in theology.
That was an image that sparked my interest in law school–fight for justice–through my senior year and onwards. Only after continued reflection on that direction did I make left turn into seminary, as the Quest kept driving me. The image stayed, mostly, the same. AA service. A sacrifice. A goal. A noble path.
Theology was about doing, performing, accomplishing, advancing, discovering and transforming.
I saw the grail. But I couldn’t take hold of it during my seminary years.
Toward the end of that season, I was feeling burned out by church politics and dysfunctions. I was enthralled by the depth and hope in my study of theology and Scripture. What I was seeing as the possibilities in and with God was finding expression in ministry but kept running against a wall of something that I couldn’t address or even name. Every time the grail would near it would dissipate. I was nearing exhaustion in the Quest and went to the Getty museum to find some restoration.
I wandered through the halls, letting my thoughts wander amidst the art and scenery. Not seeking anything, just wanting a break from the usual.
Then I saw this small painting by Caspar David Friedrich:
It was like a cool pool of water on a hot day. I dove into it. Stood there for a while taking it in before moving on to continue my museum wandering. The painting stuck with me, tugging at me well after I got home. This was it, I realized. What? I asked myself. I don’t know, I replied.
I have a lot of conversations like this with myself. The thoughts morph into a prayer of sorts, asking for wisdom.
It came to me after a while. Be, don’t do. God is asking me to be with him, not do for him. To rest in him, to walk with him, to seek him, not perform or accomplish. Being, not doing. The image clarified a driving whisper in my soul to enter into prayer, restoration, amid nature. I found myself drawn away from the city and the busyness of social expectations. I visited the mountains and found the same melody played by wind and trees and raven calls. A theologian is one who prays truly, Evagrios once wrote. And that was the call that came through that painting. It was my new image of theology that replaced the quest.
So, I moved to the mountains beginning an extended season of theological refocusing, a neo-monastic approach to life and theology that was alternately breaking and exhilarating, renewing and frustrating, all of it exposing my self to my self, no longer offering distractions to avoid dealing with the inner chaos. The wave crashed over me, carried away a great deal of clutter, leaving me emptier and free. A walk in an extended dusk, sun always on the horizon, never setting, risking being for the sake of being.
The light switch turned on in 2007. I felt drawn back to the world, back into a form of busyness without chaos. Doors perpetually closed began to swing open, paths revealed themselves, opportunities awakened. Yet the theological task was not fully illuminated. I was being called to go, but to where? To what? The old assumptions of the Quest tried to marshal their forces, but that wasn’t the image I had anymore. It was more of a Way, a journey, a walk into the mists. The images were also now more my own. As I thought about how I conceived this new season a picture from a hike came to mind:
I walked along this dirt road fairly regularly during my time in the mountains, with it also often one of my jogging trails. Forests have moods and on this foggy day it was a somber place, wet and still. I couldn’t see too far, but kept walking, knowing there was beauty at every step.
I went off trail, to places I hadn’t gone before, trusting in what I did know to orient my journey. I didn’t have a goal besides the journey itself, entering into the mystery with expectation. This is the image of theology I had through my PhD studies, and one that in part continues to call to me.
More recent imaging of theology in the next post.