First, let me say how glad I am to be back at EDS. This school will live in my heart forever! I’ve enjoyed following recent appointments -- Susie and Patrick’s reputations go before them. As these appointments were being made, I got calls from Emory and
Union and other places telling me how lucky EDS would be to land them both! Then of course there’s Katherine Ragsdale , whose bold appointment as President and Dean has moved the school forward in remarkable ways. Indeed, the revolution is never won – and it is sometimes amazing to see what comes next, once we ourselves move on. May God continue to bless this seminary through these new leaders and each and every one of you here tonight.
Years ago, maybe 20, while on this faculty, I was at a concert over in Sanders Theater, listening to the great American folk singer Pete Seeger. He was teaching us a song called “Somos El Barco (We are the Boat)” – the tune I forget, the words I’ll never forget – “We are the boat, we are the sea, I sail in you, you sail in me.” – a lovely companion piece to EDS’s current motto, borrowed from Mohamed El-Sawy, “We either live together or we die together” -- indeed, and that’s because “I sail in you and you sail in me.” As we, the audience, finally got the tune and the words and were singing our hearts out, Pete Seeger laughed into the mic and said: “You see, it’s a lot like life. Once you’ve learned it, it’s over.” As the years move along, I find myself thinking a lot about it.
What am I thinking these days? This question opens into so many directions at once – from thinking about what kind of hay to feed an ailing horse, to which horse to match up with a 4 year old autistic boy, to how to raise more money for Free Rein our therapeutic riding center, to how to understand the various Medicare forms that seem to arrive almost daily and in duplicate. What am I thinking? About what to say in an ordination prayer for a friend; about how to play the fiddle in a way that doesn’t drive my friends away; about how to be both intimate friend and care-provider for people that mean the world to me; about how to be involved actively, as a senior citizen -- it’s hard to take in! -- on matters that mean as much to me as ever in these challenging times in which racial, sexual, gender, and economic injustice continue to gnaw at our social fabric, and in which xenophobia of many kinds, especially today against Muslims and Mexicans, is on the rise.
Bev Harrison, Sue Sasser, myself, and our other companions in the mountains of North Carolina (including EDS alums Nancy Richards, Jennifer Rouse, Peg Hall, Norene Carter, Ann Franklin, Elly Andujar), are thinking a lot about Bev’s declaration that “aging is not for the faint hearted”; We think about what Bev aptly names “capitalist spirituality” is doing to us all. As we do each spring, Sue and I are thinking a lot right now about the stables and our horses and how to care for them in ways sustainable environmentally and economically. She and I recently read and discussed Atul Gawande’s interesting book, The Checklist Manifesto, which offers a good bit of wisdom about the value of teamwork, preparation, and focusing in getting a job done.
So then, what am I thinking about God and the world? What on earth does it mean to speak of “God” in this world at this time?
How others “read” us can help us understand ourselves. I do not know the Jewish liberation theologian Marc Ellis personally, but he evidently has read a good bit of my theological work. In his book Unholy Alliance: Religion and Atrocity in Our Time (Fortress, 1997), he suggests that my work, like Jewish social philosopher Martin Buber’s, is “haunted by relationality” (149) – and this is the theme of my presentation tonight: “haunted by relationality.” Marc Ellis is not presenting Buber, myself, and others whose work he assesses, as parallel or equivalents. Rather he looks at Buber’s work and mine and others’ as representing those Jewish and Christian theologians who have troubled some of our contemporaries by presenting theologies that are, in Ellis’ words, seen as being “naïve and utopic” because they rely too heavily upon “relationality.” –
But aren’t all Jewish and Christian theologies relational? You might well ask. Yes and no. All Christian and Jewish theologies do indeed presuppose a relationship between the Creator and the creation, and also among creatures, including human beings, who constitute the creation and the history in which God acts, or does not. But by no means are all theologies – Christian, Jewish, or other – relational at the depths to which Martin Buber calls us.
The relational theology I have attempted to articulate and build on over the years is rooted in the social philosophy of Buber. Like Buber, I assume that whatever is true, whatever is good, whatever is just, whatever is God can be known only “in relation” to “the other.” That is, in relation to whoever or whatever is outside my, or our, most immediate frames of reference.
For example, I can only know what it means, to me, to be Christian in relation to those who are not Christian, or who are not the same kind of Christian I believe myself to be. If I take this relational claim seriously it means that I cannot be a faithful Christian without acknowledging the good and the harm being done both to Christians, and by Christians, in this nation and elsewhere – and how the good and the harm are shaping me, and how I am shaping these healing and destructive dynamics. No-thing, no doctrine, no spirit, no salvation can be truly known (either cognitively or experientially) apart from its relational matrix – that is, apart from how it affects and is affected by others.
Thus, a truly relational Christianity will not claim to know, much less be, the only way to god. A genuinely relational Christ will not claim to be the only child of a Father God who himself does not claim to be the only image of that which, from a relational perspective, is always and forever reframing itself, reshaping itself, reforming itself in relation to that which it has not yet encountered, known, or incarnated in quite the same way before. If God is love, then to god, or to love, is to eternally be opening into spaces and places of the universe, and the human heart, that are yet to be, or yet to be fully touched.
Many Christian theologies hint at such a theology. I think immediately of Whitehead and Process Theology, of Pannenberg’s God of the future, of Moltmann’s Theology of Hope, and Rosemary Radford Ruether’s utopic realm of One who is not present yet, but always coming. I think of other feminist and womanist theologians – Sallie McFague, Delores Williams, Kelly Brown Douglas, Rita Nikashima Brock, and of course Kwok Pui-lan, each of these women working theologically on the basis of god’s unfolding in multiple and varied ways, through diverse bodies, relationships, and cultures. I think also of liberation, postcolonial, and queer theologies and of the work being done not only by the elders of these theological movements, like our own Christopher Duraisingh, but also by the brilliant “youngers” like Patrick Cheng and Suzanna Snyder, who are coming along now to grace us with their theological leadership.
And yet very few Christian creeds, or doctrines, make allowance for, much less encourage, the faithful to learn to bend and sway upon this radically relational, ever shifting, ground of our being, as the basis of Christian faith and the foundation of pastoral care.
Let’s see what Marc Ellis says about Buber, because it is timely. “Buber is often seen as naïve and out of touch with reality, a mystical utopic thinker uninvolved with the world.” (152) [for most of his life, he was a university professor]. Ellis continues, “Buber, until he was forced to leave Nazi Germany in 1938 and then immediately after the Holocaust, spoke of the need for and the possibility of German-Jewish reconciliation. This was true as well in the realm of Jewish-Christian relations before and after the Holocaust…. (151-2)” Furthermore, Ellis writes, “Buber wrote and organized against the division of
Palestine and the coming state of Israel both within and internationally.” (152) “Because Buber saw the Jewish return to Palestine as a fulfillment of a spiritual destiny rather than an attempt to normalize the Jewish situation through state power, the return was a spiritual elevation of the Jewish psyche and soul rather than an empowered state ….” (152) Palestine
Ellis recounts that, after the founding of the state of
, “Buber spoke forcefully to [Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion] about [the issue of Arab repatriation] as ‘a great moral act’ that [would arise from] ‘the Jewish ethical tradition.’ Buber addressed this question in light of Jewish history by asking Ben-Gurion, ‘Were we not refugees in the diaspora?’” (152-3) “For Buber,” according to Ellis, “Jews and Arabs should realize a union comparable to that of Israel , with two partners recognizing the full national autonomy of the other while pursuing cooperative projects and educational opportunities.” Ellis concludes that “It is difficult to argue that Buber was divorced from history. Rather, he entered history from a particular perspective and offered a path that was largely rejected, at least by the more powerful elements of social and political life.” (153) Switzerland
As I read Marc Ellis’ reading of Buber, my work, and that of others, I’m left with a sense that Ellis thinks all of us are certainly utopic and perhaps a bit naïve, all who base our theologies, philosophies, psychologies, or other world views on mutual relation as a basic value and goal for groups and individuals and even different species in relation to one another. But Ellis contends that this utopic character is not a bad quality but rather is inherent to all work in which relationality is taken seriously.
I think, for example, of the work of feminist psychiatrist Jean Baker Miller in the late 1970s. Subsequently, Miller was joined by several younger feminist psychologists who, together with her, founded the
Stone Center at and developed a relational psychology that challenged the more traditional psychological assumptions that the healthy individual essentially stands alone or apart from others in the core of his/her psyche. I think especially of one of the Wellesley College Stone Center founders, psychologist Janet Surrey’s linking of relational psychology to relational spirituality and of Surrey’s partnering with her spouse Steve Bergman to write Bill W. and Dr. Bob, a powerful theatrical presentation of the relational foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Powerful stuff, the struggle to be mutual, to generate with others a dynamic, out of which something sacred emerges, something that transcends each one’s identity and, in God, re-creates and spiritually enlarges each one in the struggle for mutuality -- each of us re-newed, reformed, even transformed with, and through, the others. “We are the boat. We are the sea. I sail in you. You sail in me.” Like it or not, we are indeed haunted by a radical relationality . From moment to moment, we may or may not have much role in choosing our relational challenges and opportunities.
So perhaps we are a bit naïve in imagining that such relationality , something that we preach, teach, sing, struggle for politically and socially, can possibly be realized in this world. If not naïve, we are at least utopic, but as Rosemary Radford Ruether’s insists, “utopia” is not unreal or simply imaginary -- but rather is that which is “no-where yet.” Like the kin-dom, or realm, of God, it is no where yet, but always coming – to the extent that the Martin Bubers of this world continue to set before us the possibilities of “making God exist” (Jean Casanas).
This was Jesus’ work, of course – to make God exist, to struggle for right relation with sisters and brothers, to image a God in whose relational image we truly are created for the purpose of struggling with one another to make God exist, again, here and now. I believe that the Christ, or christic, Spirit haunts us with radical “relationality.” If our hearts and minds are open, we intuit this, even when we don’t actually understand it, for all around us in the world relational activists, artists, teachers, spiritual and political leaders are on the move, haunting us like “friendly ghosts.” We often don’t see them or recognize them if we do, but they are all around.
We are haunted, for example, by the life and ongoing work of Wangari Maathai, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, a Kenyan woman and environmentalist who initiated a movement to save the trees, and therefore the land, in
. Like every other prophet, Wangari Maathai had to take on the principalities and powers and, in leading the Green Belt Movement, she had to be able and willing to suffer for her belief in the people and the land and the trees and the Spirit that enlivens them all. In her memoir, Unbowed (Anchor, 2006), Wangari Maathai images society – whether Kenyan or American – as necessarily sitting on a three-legged stool. One leg is a government that respects humans rights. One leg is a culture of struggle for peace. One leg is an economy moving toward sustainability of people and natural resources. Think about this. If there is any truth to Wangari Maathai’s vision of what makes a society not only good but possible in the long run, what does this bode for the Kenya ? We all know the answer to this question and it is not a happy one. United States of America
So where, then, does this leave us, if not filled with unhappiness?
For reasons largely unknown still to my brain, I keep returning to
of all people – me a feminist and LGBTQueer liberation theologian. I keep returning to Augustine not for his help on matters of body, sex, gender, women or, for that matter, social justice of any kind. I’ve come, years ago, to accept that we, every one of us, is constructed socially by the world around us – and that Augustine was no different. Within the limits of his flawed abilities and partial insights, he had a lot to say, much of it worth our bother. One of the most intriguing theological insights that Augustine shared very early in his work (Confessions) was about Time. Here’s what he said: “In eternity, our expectations, our attention, and our memory are one. (Book XI)” He is saying here that, in God [eternity], our future [expectations], our present [attention], and past [memory] coincide. In a poignant passage recounting his last moments with his mother Monica before her death, Augustine wrote, “While we spoke of the eternal Wisdom, longing for it and straining for it with all the strength of our hearts, for one fleeting instant, we reached out and touched it.” (Book IX) Saint Augustine
Now many who have been present with loved ones of any species at the time of death have had this experience: to reach out and touch God. Many who have been present at the moment of birth also know this experience. And I believe also that anyone who lives in the present – in which expectations, attention, and memory coincide – know what it is to reach out and touch the Eternal Wisdom, the Sophia of God.
If we live fully in the present – that is, as fully as possible, and as often as possible, and make a habit of it through prayer and meditation, through the friends we keep and the communities we build– we are grounding ourselves in God in such a way that Wisdom becomes an old friend and the struggle for mutual relation, increasingly, a way of life. This is because a life lived fully in the present is a life in which memory of the past, and expectations and hopes for the future, find their place in the serenity/the holy attentiveness of the present. In this spiritual crucible, we are able to see ourselves in God, and God in us, and we are able to know where we belong in relation to others – partners and friends, sisters and brothers, bound together by the mutuality that always moves us close to the heart of the Sacred. Able with Augustine and Monica, to reach out and touch the Eternal Wisdom.
But how do we know that the Wisdom we touch, the God to whom we pray, the Jesus who goes with us, is not simply a construct of our own limited vision?
I am offering in this presentation only one criterion: We must be always open to that which we do not yet know. This criterion, I believe, is the peg, that secures each of the legs of Wangari Matthai’s stool: human rights, economic and environmental sustainability, culture of peace. None is possible without the ongoing openness of the community to those who/that which we have not known before. And by the way, this criterion also offers new images of spiritual depth and vitality to each of the 3 legs of the Anglican stool of authority: Bible, tradition, reason. Thus, whether Kenyan peasants or Episcopal seminarians, if we are to touch the eternal Wisdom, we must be open to the possibility of discovering more truth, or other truths, of learning what we have not known before -- about God, Jesus, church, Bible, other religions, other cultures, other peoples and species, which means ever-learning new truths about ourselves.
Indeed, we must take care, for as Marc Ellis contends, “The God who limits the possibility of more truth is the same God who legitimates atrocity.” (166) Atrocities like the Holocaust and what is happening in Israel/Palestine today, and in Libya, Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe, Uganda, everywhere else people and other creatures are suffering under the yoke of human greed, violence, and madness. Here in the United States, China, India, and Japan (until the terrible recent disaster) and elsewhere in those countries rich with money, weapons, and some global clout, atrocities may be better disguised and less publicly dramatic but they run rampant nonetheless. Atrocity abounds wherever people and other creatures are unable to find and share nutritious food, clean water, adequate health care, adequate public education, safe places to live and love and work without fear of state sponsored laws and customs that legitimize oppression, violence, or torture. Atrocity runs insidiously in the veins of any and every culture and religion that does not celebrate diversities of tribe, race, religion, culture, gender, sexuality, age, species, and politic.
As for what this has to do with God, Ellis writes, “Within the eruption of barbarism, in the midst of atrocity, the God [that Buber, and the others of us] point to does not yet exist.” (149). The God of mutual relation does not yet exist. The Eternal Wisdom that moves the struggle for right relation is not here yet. The God upon whose foundation the Episcopal Divinity School has tried faithfully to build itself from one generation to another is no where yet, a utopic Spirit, and yet She is on her way, coming with power.
Precisely because this relational utopic Spirit is so hard for communities like the Church to fathom and for individuals to trust, countless intelligent, caring people have simply had it with religion and “God talk.” Surely we can see why. There are a lot of hateful, frightened and frightening, folks running around talking about Jesus and running for President. A number of years ago(when I was living here in
), it was a bit more frightening to identify myself in public gatherings as “Christian” than it was as “lesbian.” Of course the opposite is true where I live now – in the mountains of North Carolina, but down there, especially, those of us who are Christian feminist liberation theologians have to frequently clarify that being “Christian” does not mean that we don’t want to work with Jews, or Muslims, or pagans, or atheists; or for that matter with Christians who don’t agree with us. Being Christian also does not mean we think that either we ourselves or others are damned sinners because we’re gay or angry, or because we’re universalists, or because we don’t believe the Bible is The One and Only Word of God. No, it’s not hard to see why lots of intelligent, deeply loving people have had it with religion and believe it does more harm than good. Cambridge
Religion of any kind or tradition invariably does more harm than good unless it is sparked by a relational Spirit that can never be exhausted, and never fully known, because there will always be more truth, more justice, more compassion, more God to be discovered with, and in relation to, those whom we do not yet see, or recognize.
In the midst of the terror happening on every continent and in the seas and air, how we use the word “God” matters. We need to use this word, “God,” only very carefully, and prayerfully, those of us who use it. Even before the Holocaust, Buber had said that the word “God” is the “most heavy laden of all human words… soiled [and] mutilated.” He continued, “Just for this reason I may not abandon it,” (reported in his later book, Eclipse of God, Harper, 1952, 7-8). After the Holocaust, Buber proposed that God was “in eclipse.”“Perhaps one can swim with a new stream whose source is still hidden,” he mused. Buber also wrote, “the I-Thou relation has gone into the catacombs.” and he asked, “Who can say with how much greater power it will step forth?... Something is taking place in the depths that as yet needs no name…” (Eclipse of God, 129)
Surely no one paying attention would suggest that we have progressed much, if at all, spiritually, morally, or politically since the Holocaust. Again, this is not a happy or hopeful thought. But it is something I think about at times, actually rather often, when I’m mucking out the horses’ stalls or walking the dogs or horses through the woods in the morning. I think about the state of our nation and of the world; and I think about God.
I think about German political and feminist liberation theologian Dorothee Soelle’s insistence that God cannot be all powerful and all loving – unless we redefine power as love and love as power. Only insofar as we do so can we possibly affirm that God is omnipotent, all powerful. And what that means is that God’s power is God’s love and that whenever we love one another, a power is present that will not die. God’s power, God’s love, will always return, for the power and love of God is irrepressible, immortal, forever haunting the present moment.
Until the day she died, while leading a retreat on “God and Poetry” with her husband Fulbert Steffensky, Dorothee Soelle was adamant that we humans, if we wish to be faithful to the God whom Jesus loved, must do whatever we can to generate this love that is power, to struggle for right, mutual relation; to make God exist in the smallest and largest places of our lives, those parts of who we are that are most private and those that are most public. Like Martin Buber, Dorothee Soelle was haunted by relationality – and in her life and work,her theology and her politics, Dorothee Soelle haunted the world around her with relationality.
For many decades, a close friend and mentor of Angela Bauer, Dorothee Soelle was also one of my teachers, mentors, colleagues, and friends. After she died, I found out that she had told Bishop Bob DeWitt, the man who ordained my sisters and me in
in 1974, that she considered him to be my “spiritual dad” and herself “my spiritual mom.” I was quite taken with this image! Partly because, why not? what a team! but even more because it was so true, in many ways, for many years. These two mentors haunted my life and work with relationality! And they are still at it! Philadelphia
Bob DeWitt and Dorothee Soelle belong to my “heavenly council,” a small group of people and other creatures who have gone on before, and whose wisdom I routinely seek. Our beloved EDS colleague and pioneering sister priest, Sue Hiatt, often in her time called “bishop to the women” (before there were any official women bishops) is part of this heavenly council, as is Sister Angela of Stroud, Australian artist, nun, priest, and mystic, who spent some time with us at EDS. While they were alive here on earth, both of these women were among my best friends and spiritual mentors, and they still are. Through their spiritual companionship, I am learning better how to live in the Eternal Now, daring to speak of “God” only when it seems to me it will do more good than hard – that is, always in such a way as to make space for “the other.”
My spiritual dad Bob DeWitt faithfully practiced this relational theology. Here’s a little of what I said about him in the homily I preached at his memorial service in this chapel in May 2004. I’m reflecting here on a visit with Bishop DeWitt shortly before he died, in his retirement community in
(passages taken from Keep Your Courage: A Radical Christian Feminist Speaks, Episcopal Church Publishing, 2011): Saratoga Springs
Bob told Sue [Sasser] and me a story in response to my asking him whether he had ever had any particular religious or spiritual – mystical – experience. He said that, when he was a boy, maybe about 16, or maybe even as young as 12, he and his family were vacationing in Canada, and he was in a little boat out on a lake. All of a sudden he sensed something. He didn’t hear any words or see any vision. Rather, he just knew that he was surrounded by – ‘for lack of words,’ he said – ‘a presence.’ He said that, if it had used words, which it didn’t it would have said something like, ‘I see you. I know you’re there. I’m glad you’re there.’ ‘Even now,’ Bob said, ‘It’s as clear to me as if it were yesterday.’…
In June, 1973, about a week before I was to be ordained a deacon in
, I panicked. I can’t be ordained, I said to myself, because I can’t, in good faith, take that damn ‘Oath of Conformity,’ which goes something like this: ‘I believe the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God and to contain all things necessary to salvation, and I promise to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.’ My own good bishop, Paul Moore, was unavailable to talk with me about this, because his wife Jenny was dying of cancer at the time. So I phoned Bishop DeWitt of New York City , whom I had met and begun to know through the movement for the ordination of women. I told him over the phone what my problem was. ‘I tell you what,’ he said, ‘Let’s meet tomorrow in Penn Station ( Pennsylvania ) and have coffee.’ New York City
What I recall is my own hyped-up anxiety about the situation being met by Bishop DeWitt’s laughter – not at me, of course, but at the situation. What he said to me was hugely important to me then and has been ever since: first, he said, to affirm the Bible as the Word of God doesn’t mean that it’s the only Word of God; second, to say that it contains all things necessary to salvation doesn’t mean that everything it contains is necessary to salvation; and third, to promise to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Church means only that, as with any vow, you’ll do your best, ask God to help you, and use your common sense.
As important as these words were to me, there was something even more important about that meeting with Bishop DeWitt: I think I was a bit like he himself had been in that boat so many years before. In this meeting in New York’s Penn Station, I sensed myself surrounded by God, a Spirit much larger than us both and much larger than the Episcopal Church, and much larger than the Anglican Communion, and much larger than Christianity. Bishop DeWitt’s ministry to me on this occasion was to laugh! In this Spirit, he helped me see that basic to the ministry I was being ordained into was a deep, soulful recognition that, in the larger scheme of things in God’s world, the Oath of Conformity in the Episcopal Church does not rank very high! On the subway, headed back up to the seminary from Penn Station, I remember thinking, ‘He’s talking about keeping things in perspective!’
Haunted by relationality – the boy in the boat, being seen, and sensing a benign and comforting Presence; the bishop in Penn Station, meeting the other – a strung out young woman – where she was, needing not to be judged or lectured to, but rather needing to laugh at the situation!
I close tonight with a poem by Linda McCarriston, a poet with origins in
Lynn, MA, and currently Professor of Creative Writing at University of Alaska in . I share it with you because it so powerfully images my experience not only of horseback riding but, moreover, of the relational Spirit that haunts us. Anchorage
“Riding Out at Evening” by Linda McCarriston (used with permission by the poet, 4/11)
At dusk, everything blurs and softens
From here out over the long valley,
the fields and hills pull up
the first light sheets of evening,
as, over the next hour,
heavier, darker ones will follow.
Quieted roads, predictable deer
browsing in a neighbor’s field, another’s
herd of heifers, the kitchen lights
starting in many windows. On horseback
I take it in, neither visitor
nor intruder, but kin passing, closer
and closer to night, its cold streams
rising in the sugarbrush and hollow.
Half aloud, I say to the horse,
or myself, or whoever: let fire not come
to this house, nor that barn,
nor lightning strike the cattle.
Let dogs not gain the gravid doe, let the lights
of the rooms convey what they seem to.
And who is to say it is useless
or foolish to ride out in the falling light
alone, wishing, or praying,
for particular good to particular beings
on one small road in a huge world?
The horse bears me along, like grace,
making me better than what I am,
and what I think or say or see
is whole in these moments, is neither
small nor broken. For up, out
the inscrutable earth, have come my body
and the separate body of the mare:
flawed and aching and wronged. Who then
is better made to say be well, be glad,
or who to long that we, as one,
might course over the entire valley,
over all valleys, as a bird in a great embrace
of flight, who presses against her breast,
in grief and tenderness,
* Carter Heyward, St. John’s Memorial Chapel, Episcopal Divinity School, April 14, 2011. Poem by kind agreement of Linda McCarriston author of Eva-Mary. No part of this poem or blog may be reproduced without permission from the authors carterheyward(at)aol.com and linda.mcarriston(at)gmail.com