This is Only a Test


(Spectrumbot) #1

Man is always being challenged; a question is always being asked of him. —Abraham Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity

When I walked out of my comprehensive exams at graduate school, it was a beautiful Southern California day and I thought, “That’s it, I’m done. No more exams!” Of course, I was wrong, which is concrete evidence of how much I still didn’t know. Life is a series of tests, none of which we can cram for and many of which we will not see the results of until long after we’ve forgotten what we were tested on.

It’s not that I hated exams; I rather enjoyed the opportunity to explain, describe, and analyze complex issues. It was the build-up to the exams that brought anxiety, the persistent feeling that no matter how thorough your preparation there would always be some question designed not to show what you knew but to punish you for what you didn’t know.

When I started teaching, I kept in mind how I felt about exams. I steered clear of minutiae and tried to design questions that gave students an opportunity to take a long view. I made it clear I expected accuracy in portraying the positions of others, honesty in expressing one’s own position, and clarity in writing. Nobody was getting paid by the word; brevity and conciseness were virtues. On questions of ethical practice as distinguished from analysis of ethical theory, I blessed responses that were exploratory and forward-looking. I encouraged students in philosophy and ethics to use their imaginations as well as their reasoning and analytical powers. Above all, I asked them to see themselves as both teachers and learners.

How would they describe and explain what they knew to someone who was deeply interested in what they had to say, but lacked their foundational knowledge on the subject? Could such a person pick up their written responses and understand them? Could those responses be the starting point for a deep and exciting conversation? Could they lead others to see what they had learned? And could connections be made in all directions from the subject they were studying? What had they learned in their American history class that their ethics might address? Could their ethical theories apply to their health practices, their economics courses, and their intercultural communication?

“There is only one subject-matter for education,” said A. N. Whitehead in The Aims of Education, “and that is Life in all its manifestations.”

***

There are two kinds of exams in education. One tests what we have learned (summative assessment) and the other tests what we need in order to learn (formative assessment). Generally speaking, the life of a spiritual wanderer, someone seeking the Water of life, is a process of formative assessment. If life is for learning, then we can look to every day as experimental research into that which helps us learn of God, of ourselves, and of others.

“Speculation does not precede faith,” says Abraham Heschel in God in Search of Man. “The antecedents of faith are the premise of wonder and the premise of praise. Worship of God precedes affirmation of His realness. We praise before we prove. We respond before we question.”

For those who have been on this path all their lives, and who find themselves no nearer knowing God than when they began, this may almost sound like mockery. How can a person in their fifth or sixth decade of life on this planet regain this wonder? “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” asks Nicodemus (John 3:4). We get worn down by life; our capacity for wonder ebbs and our willingness to suspend our disbelief diminishes in inverse proportion to our need to appear objective and aloof. All the evidence that the world is indifferent to our struggle swarms before our eyes and we shake our heads in exasperation. Experience cannot be reverse-engineered back to innocence.

Heschel invites us to look again: “It is not from experience but from our inability to experience what is given to our mind that certainty of the realness of God is derived.” Our very lack of what we seek takes on the outlines of a God-shaped vacuum in our lives, the via negativa of the medieval mystics and contemplatives.

But we are twenty-first century people who respond more readily to the merest factoid, rather than venturing beyond our skepticism. The trust that is the DNA of faith does not come easily, despite the brave face of certainty that we profess when pressed. Instinctively, we believe that a testimony given must be anchored, not understanding that a profession of belief without the trust of commitment can sometimes be a grappling-hook thrown heaven-ward to draw us up.

Doing can result in being, a genuine form of faith.

But there are some caveats to the formative assessment of our education in faith. “Knowledge is not the same as awareness,” notes Heschel, “and expression is not the same as experience. By proceeding from awareness to knowledge we gain in clarity and lose in immediacy. What we gain in distinctness by going from experience to expression we lose in genuineness.”

It’s a risk worth taking. Heschel assures us that “To the prophets wonder is a form of thinking,” a way forward when faced with the numinous, with the burning bushes, and the whispers of God within the hurricane. “Our certainty,” says Heschel, “is the result of wonder and radical amazement, of awe before the mystery and meaning of the totality of life beyond our rational discerning. Faith is the response to the mystery, shot through with meaning; the response to a challenge which no one can for ever ignore.”

For Christian existentialists, of whom I am one, authentic faith is a leap beyond what can be wholly certified through reason. “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable,” suggests poet Mary Oliver. That challenge comes in the form of questions put to us by God, corporately and personally. Some of them are formative: they shape us going forward. Others give us a needed pause on this journey, a timeout to catch our breath and look around us. They are summative of what we have learned through our experience.

***

These are some of the questions I am seeking to be shaped by and to answer to.

“Where are you?” —Genesis 3:10

“What does the Lord require of you?” —Micah 6:8

“And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” —Matthew 6:27

“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” —Matthew 14:31

And the most important question of all…

“Who do you say that I am?” —Mark 8: 29

We are questions to ourselves. Life itself throws us demands that we may field as questions. The ones that draw us in, turn us inside out, and lift us higher come to us from the Spirit “who searches everything, even the depths of God (1 Corinthians 2:10).”

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 darmokjilad@gmail.com.

Image: National Building Museum. Photo courtesy of the author.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9385

#2

Much of life is a matter of taking steps into the unknown of the future based on the accumlation of past known information. And even that information was accumulated from a minimal sense of reality at the time of the experience.

As a friend once said, “You can refuse to make up your mind, but you can’t refuse to make up your life.” We move forward because we must and not because we are capable or prepared.

Like tentacles, our senses reach out during our life encounters to capture what we can of the ‘experience’. Yet that which we capture is never as rich in texture nor expansive in potential as the actual encounter. Nor are our synaptic containers sufficiently equiped to authentically preserve the encounter for untarnished further examination.

Yet, still, we must make the most of what we can perceive of our everyday encounters within life and also of those mysterious, holy, synaptic storms from which comes revelations regarding our relationship with God.

As we examine and evaluate our stored and active encounters, we should pray for God’s blessings on our efforts to know Him - and be faithful in pursuit of that future time when we will ‘know even as we are known’.


(Steve Mga) #3

I have enjoyed getting to know Abraham Heschel.
I was introduced to his book “The Sabbath” by a local Rabbi where I go on
Friday evenings to begin Sabbath.
This Rabbi is the son of a Rabbi who had Abraham as one of his teachers.
So have heard some interesting stories.
If one wants to REALLY ENJOY the blessings of Sabbath make sure you
read Heschel’s book, “The Sabbath”.


(Steve Mga) #4

I would say Life is more of a Journey. We are allowed to begin with the companionship of
our parents on THEIR Path.
But as we age, we are allowed to visit along on other paths that intersect with theirs.
But soon we begin our OWN Journey on a Path. A Path that has lots of interesting things
to do, to try out, people to meet who are also journeying, and enjoying lots of interesting
things.
OUR particular Journey allows us to make choices of later paths to either try out or ignore.
To gain knowledge we didn’t know, to meet people we didn’t know and to do this a number
of times in our life time if we desire.
Our basic test in all of this is will we Journey with God or will we Journey by ourselves and
depend only on ourselves as our own traveling companion? Journeying with God may not
keep us from hard or difficult situations, but it will allow us to get through them more pleasantly
and with more confidence.


(Sirje) #5

It may be our Adventist background that reverberates here. For some reason we have been schooled to believe that given enough education, we are going to crawl our way up some ladder of knowledge, eventually “knowing God”. I think we have to come to understand that God will always be a mystery to us.; and we will always be fascinated by the unknown. This fascination has launched explorations in geography, medicine, technology, the arts, and human endurance, to mention just the basics. When it comes to our faith, we either are seekers all our lives, or we are just not tuned into any exploration.

All seekers are not born equal. Whether by birth, or by nurture, some of us just settle into what has been bequeathed to us, while others command ships and challenge our bounds - in faith as much as in everything else. Some of us ask questions others claim are unanswerable, and don’t even try to pursue them. I just wonder if there are questions to which there are no answers; or, that if we can even think of a question, there must be an answer to it. In other words, are we capable of asking questions to which there are no answers. That seems impossible to me.

…so, to my mind, the wonder can never wane. We can never get an answer that stops our quest. There is always more to learn. In that sense, the search goes on; but, at the same time, the questions have already been answered. It’s like the quest for the elusive theory of everything in physics - a simple equation that includes all the theories the physicists spread across their blackboards. While the answers to our questions about God would spread across eternity, yet they have been answered in a person - a man like us.

While we struggle with erudite theological questions, there is a simplified answer - an equation that settles everything - [Christ + faith = our salvation]. When we draw our last breath, that’s the only truth we’ll be interested in.


(Thomas J Zwemer) #6

Adventism is an institutional copy of the rich young ruler. “What must I do to be saved?” The Gospel is what Christ did for my salvation. Believe that and live in gratitude and generosity. We are the adopted son’s and daughters of the King of Kings. Let us live enjoying that relationship.


(Mad) #7

Knowing God is one thing.
Knowing our identity in Christ is another.
Our salvation is not of our self. Christ gives it to you as a Gift of Grace.

Eph 2:8
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:

No works of the law required to be worthy of Grace.

Eph 2:9
Not of works, lest any man should boast.

We can rest in our salvation.

We are SEALED.

Eph 1:13
In whom ye also trusted , after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise,


(Mad) #8

Hi, A journey in which we are sealed with that holy Spirit of promise.

Not a Journey of Guilt or certainty of our current and present salvation.


(Spectrumbot) closed #9

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