The Intolerable Halfness of Being

“Why, then, are we frightened of wholeness? The answer is that the more whole we are, the more capable we are of suffering.”[1]

When I think about the judgment of God it’s usually because I see other people wreaking injustice. When I think about God’s judgment upon me, it comes down to forgetfulness or ignorance. I see a wide gulf between God and other people, a mere gap between myself and God.

Were my moral eyesight to be tested, I could read to the last line of the chart the sins of others, while only managing the larger letters of my own failings. The wrath of God lingers in the background of my judgments, justly served upon others, negotiable in the case of my own transgressions. There is exasperation in witnessing the sins of injustice; there is reluctance to cast the first stone.

As a teenager, trying to find a path to God through Jesus, I was told never to trust my feelings or my instincts. They were unreliable, fickle, volatile. Relativism and subjectivism were the dangers. Truth and certainty were the aims. On the other hand, we were told to yield to the pleading of the Holy Spirit right now. Don’t put off the decision. Don’t rationalize it away. Now is the time!

At the time, I sidestepped the advice to surrender all, more out of stubbornness than conviction. I recoiled at any hint of coercion in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I didn’t feel I was at war with any of them. When I came to them (not “if”), it wouldn’t be through fear. It would be because I couldn’t imagine a depth to life without them.

But now I’m reading back into my experience as a teen. When I strip away the overlay of years and experience, my memory is of a confused welter of emotions, a need to belong, and a thrumming measure of guilt. What I clearly understood was how easy it was to pass as “good.” Being good in my community meant staying out of trouble with the law, getting respectable grades, not doing drugs, and being baptized into the church. All these requirements I had kept since childhood. But when it came to selling all that I had and following Jesus, like the rich young ruler in the Gospel story, I turned away.

I don’t mean a literal selling off of my goods; most of what I owned, except for my books and guitar, fitted in a couple of suitcases. I mean the packing up and disposing of my image of God.

How do we know when the view of God we hold is no longer right? Do we listen to our intuition or to our trusted leaders? Do we hide in fear? Do we dare swerve from an image of God’s nature that is corrosive to our faith?

One such image was on the pamphlet that my friends and I handed out in a small town in Northern California after church. The day was blazing hot, dry, with a light wind, early fall, probably September, hot enough to melt candles indoors.

This was all part of “witnessing for our faith,” the well-intentioned effort by youth leaders to teach us how to share the Gospel with our neighbors. I went along with it; I felt uneasy, but I couldn’t say why.

My friend and I split up, each taking one side of the street. I was carrying a pamphlet with the title, “The Great Radar Sees You.” It showed a man with a face contorted in fear, sweat running down his forehead, eyes wild. Behind him loomed an enormous radio telescope, the kind SETI uses to track incoming signals from alien civilizations. That was supposed to be God.

I tried, I really did. I handed them out to people who answered their doors. It was an awkward exchange. Most people were polite enough to accept the pamphlet. No one actually crumpled it up in my face. But when I got to the end of the block, I was done. I dropped most of them in a trashcan in an alley, and my friend and I made our way back to the rendezvous point. That was the end of my pamphlet proselytizing. I knew this image simply couldn’t be — in fact, shouldn’t be — how we understood God or God’s wrath. I sensed, mutely, that this mattered.

***

If there has been one constant throughout my life, it has been the need to understand who God thinks I am. That sounds trite and cliched, but there it is. By the circumstances of my childhood and upbringing I missed out on some crucial experiences but was blessed immeasurably by the love and care of my grandparents. Still, like every other person on the planet, there is a hole at the center of my life which refuses to be filled.

Like Augustine, I have adopted the prayer, “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” But my paths to religion have not brought me rest. Like Bono, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” That has weighed upon me at times and brought me sorrow. But the ache for wholeness, the very need itself, points to its possibility.

This requires a certain spiritual innocence that is neither naive about our failings nor a denial of our shared reality. It means standing, exposed to the whirlwind. “To be innocent,” says Christian Wiman, “is to retain that space in your heart that once heard a still, small voice saying not your name so much as your nature… You must protect this space so that it can protect you.”[2]

The metaphor I have carried throughout the years is of pilgrims traveling light. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who link us to the past. We travel into the future singly, but together. We are trying to become our true selves. We are born again daily, in suffering that bears us toward the joy of wholeness.

I realized this when I immersed myself in the writings of Harry Williams, an Anglican priest and scholar who was Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge. A collection of his sermons, The True Wilderness, was recommended by a friend, whose assurance was that I would find in him a soul companion. “All I could speak of,” said Williams, “were those things which I had proved true in my own experience by living them and thus knowing them at first hand.”[3]

What is our experience of the judgment of God? Does it beat us down mercilessly, day after day, when our own voice is amplified by fear? Then it could also be the cold silence that we face when our days run out.

Or it could be the means of our salvation.

“Christ, our Creator, redeems us first by His wrath,” says Williams. “The wrath of God is His refusal to allow us to rest until we have become fully what we are.”[4] We can believe this, says Williams, because Jesus walked this path himself.

“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks the disciples. It is not a rhetorical question nor is he trying to elicit the response which Peter blurts — “You are the Messiah.” This is one of those self-revelations in which the full humanness of Jesus is seen. In the Gospel of Mark, this story follows one in which Jesus is asked to heal a blind man. The first attempt at healing is partial: “I see men,” says the fellow, “they look like trees, but they are walking about.”[5] Jesus touches him again and this time he can see clearly. “Don’t tell anyone,” says Jesus.

This is not a story about the failure of Jesus’ touch. It is a story about how difficult it is to see clearly, even when Jesus touches us. And when Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” we hear a man struggling against self-doubt, hoping that those who know him best could bolster his wavering confidence. After all, he is beginning to realize that he faces a violent and lonely death from which God will not protect him.

Could there be a more poignant example than this, that Jesus was a man like us in every way? Who am I? he asks. Am I wrong in following to the last degree where my heart and faith are leading me? And when at last, on the cross, he cries out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” he confirms what we experience in our extremity and suffering.

When we feel ourselves to be overwhelmed, bound by our circumstances, or spinning in the futility of our guilt, we are assured that “Christ comes to us by means of our ordinary, common experience of living. In the heartache, the fever, and the fret, there is Christ in His wrath refusing to allow us to stay as we are, reminding us of our intolerable halfness.”[6]

In our halfness we long for wholeness. “God’s love harmonizes us by convincing us that we are accepted as a whole… God accepts both sides of us, not just the man humbly praying on his knees, but also the man in a flaming temper.”[7] According to the Gospel of Matthew, the last thing Jesus says to the disciples is, “Be assured, I am with you always, to the end of time.”[8]

All the rivers in God’s country flow into the sea of redemption, through which we are made whole. In my mind’s eye, I see a figure on the shore in morning light. Over the thunder of the surf he calls out to my companions and me. “It’s the Lord!” cries Peter, and I follow him over the gunwale of the boat to catch the wave that will bring us to his side.

 

Notes & References:

 

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, ethics, and communications for 37 years at universities in Maryland and Washington, DC. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. Email him at [email protected]. His first book, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery, is now available.

Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

 

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10615
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Thank you for another thoughtful article!

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This theme seems to permeate the life of the church. I’m surprised there are any artists, poets, or writers of any depth within the Adventist family. Maybe that’s why all church services look exactly the same - like the fast food places that circle the globe.

This reminds me of the Sabbath I, as a teen, sat in church with a battle going on in me of whether to give all my savings (for a neat pair of shoes) to whatever the pressing need was from the pulpit. I ended up putting it on the offering plate - and feeling virtuous. I guess that’s the kind of shallow Christianity I have fought against from then on. Instinctively I knew there had to be more to being a Christian.

But, I must say, I feel fortunate, like “dodging a bullet”, not to have been brought up with all the fears that seem to have plagued a lot of SDA kids. Never did I question God’s love - how could I - I was His creation; and as He sent the rain for the trees and flowers, I knew He would care for me. But then, I knew nothing about Adventism. Not until I was baptized at 16 did I know that my grandmother had been an Adventist long before. I see the stark difference between SDA upbringing and mine in my own home. Just wondering - does depression plague SDAs more than the rest of the religious population?

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God thinks you are His embodied breath of Life, our Creator is Spirit, we are embodied spirits, our mind is that embodied breath of life, see Job 32:8

The feeling that artistic sensibilities are not encouraged or fostered is one which I too have felt. Beauty in any form does not really have a defined place in SDA churches. I’ve found this to be much more obvious after spending time in churches where art and beauty are valued and to be very honest, it hurts my soul to see this part of life not respected.

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Like both of you, I have felt that imagination and artistic expression has not been nurtured or appreciated within Adventism. My guess is that at least one reason is our profession of the imminence of Christ’s return and the seriousness with which we are to live our lives. But to me, this emphasis must be balanced by the Sabbath, which celebrates creation and creativity, loves this Earth, and has liberation as its hallmark. There is a lot more that could be explored in this discussion. But to me, imagination in one’s spirituality has become central for thinking and acting.

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@laurel

Well, the SDA message does not value imagination. Fiction and drama are late comers to any kind of SDA production. The idea is that we can’t trust our imagination - who knows what anybody will come up with.

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Yes, there’s always been that fear that the devil would find a way in if not guarded against.

And as Barry implied, the apocalyptic nature of the church makes time spent on the arts, or even philosophical pursuits, seem frivolous.

I don’t think this is the way God meant for us to live.

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Does the Bible support existence of life (intelligent beings) on other planets in the universe, apart form the angels?

Christopher, I’m not aware of any Biblical references for this. And I don’t think Ezekiel’s wheels were really UFOs.

I am convinced that God embedded a baseline set of intelligence within our DNA as evidence that throughout culture and races, everyone has an idea of what is right and wrong innately. Get two children and give one child a cookie while the second one gets two cookies and you will get a uniform response regardless of culture and races. And intelligence only improves as we mature in age. So as an example, when our GC leaders give a pass to men and not to women on ordination, what we are witnessing is not a secular and cultural response but a response created and embedded in our DNA. To reject that response is evidence of disregarding God’s creative powers. We have become gods ourselves.

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However, the existence of sinless intelligences in the universe, apart form the angels, is one of the teachings of our church based on Ellen White writings, some proof-texts, and wild speculations.

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Barry, since you taught religion, could you give a detail explanation of 2 Corinthians 12 where Paul went to the “third heaven” and heard and possibly saw things so astounding no human is allowed to tell. If God barred Paul from telling, why would EGW claim she has “been shown?” Is it because EGW considered herself not human? What possible explanations are taught to our biblical scholars in the seminary?

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Elmer, I’ve always thought Paul was “caught up” in vision, as was Ellen White. Perhaps Paul could not find the words to describe what he saw and felt it was too personal to share. Perhaps EGW felt compelled to describe what she saw in the belief that God wanted her to share her vision. There is much evidence for visions in the history of religions. Muhammad was taken to Jerusalem in vision, St. John of the Cross took an interior journey, as did Buddha. My favorite is Julian of Norwich who had sixteen “shewings” or revelations as she lay dying. She said she saw with her eyes, saw with her heart, and saw with her mind. I follow William James in these things, who accepted that people had visions without assuming that they were either lying or insane. The world is wondrous strange!

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Didn’t Jesus talk in parables? Was that not fiction, creative and made people think?

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