Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Beyond Velcro and Teflon, there is a Shepherd

When we are confronted with the mystery that is God we tend to make one of two common mistakes. Both are ways we try to avoid coming to grips with the mystery and to avoid the mystery coming to grips with us.

The first mistake is to presume mastery over the mystery. It is to believe that we have God somehow captured, somehow defined, such that when we say “God” we think we know exactly what we are talking about. We presume that every name and definition we throw at God sticks. It is as if God is made of Velcro. It is the way of various fundamentalisms. And it is rooted in fear. It is an attempt protect ourselves from the ambiguity of mystery by building walls of certainty.

But, there is no such certainty. God is not made of Velcro. Not every name, every image, every definition, no matter how good, that we throw at God sticks. And God is always more than and, in a profound way, other than, all our images and definitions and names for God.

If all images and definitions of God fall short, perhaps it is better to say that all the names for God are off the mark and no one really knows. Perhaps if we take the mystery seriously we should acknowledge that we do not know all that much about God. Perhaps we should accept that all names, images, and words for God are more or less right and more or less wrong. This has in fact become a popular approach. Some people stop using the word “God” because even that is too definite. It has become fashionable in some circles to refer to the “Sacred” or the “Holy.” One popular writer suggests that what we call “God” is the “something more” about reality. In this understanding all of the particular names and ways of understanding the divine are more or less equal human attempts to address the mystery. We throw names, words, and definitions at the mystery, but none of them sticks. It is as if God is made of Teflon.

But there are problems with the Teflon understanding. For one thing it surrenders too much to agnosticism which leaves us knowing nothing about the mystery. But, it also masks a desire to prevent the mystery from having any mastery over us. When people say they don’t care what you name God, what they usually seem to mean is, “I don’t care what you name God, as long as the God you name supports and endorses those things that I consider most important. I don’t care if you name God “Allah”, or “Yahweh”, or “Vishnu”, as long as the God you name supports what I hold most dear and considers obvious what I consider obvious, and reprehensible what I consider reprehensible.

Another problem with the Tephlon approach is that it leaves us in charge of the ambiguity. We tend to find ambiguity where it is convenient – in those areas that don’t mean much to us. If God is Teflon and no name sticks we are left with the prejudices we have picked up elsewhere. God-talk becomes merely a way to give our biases extra gravitas. Thus, as with the Velcro understanding, speaking as though God is made of Teflon is, in its own way, also a kind of hiding. If God is all ambiguity, then none of my most firmly held values or prejudices are challenged. My political and cultural assumptions are safe. My ideological prejudices are unassailable. It is possible to hide from the mystery behind walls of certainty. It is also possible to hide in a fog of ambiguity.

If the mystery at the heart of it all is not Velcro or Teflon, what might be a better understanding? What if, out of the mystery, God has made a gate in our walls and come searching for us in our fog to call us out and lead us deeper into the mystery? We might then have some direction and some knowledge, but we would not pretend to have mastery over the mystery. God does not give us certainty. God does not leave us guessing. God gives us Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

It is important to remember that God is mystery. An attitude of humility is essential and all of our knowing is partial. But, Christians believe God has not remained utterly unknown. If Jesus is the Good Shepherd, then we begin to have some idea of the paths we should follow. If the Good Shepherd laid down his life for us, we ought to lay down our lives for one another. We will not demand the lives of others to protect own security or way of life. We will understand the world’s goods as things to be shared. We have some idea of what it means for us to love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And that will reassure our hearts.

If Jesus is the Good Shepherd we are faced with a decision. Do we risk following him into the mystery or not? We live in a society in which to choose one way over others and suggest it is nearer the truth is offensive. But, there is really no escaping it. Sooner or later, we choose something or someone, some principal or ideology, to shepherd our thoughts and actions – whether we name it “God” or “the Sacred” or “Spirit” or something else. Choosing Jesus, and claiming Jesus as the Good Shepherd, is no more presumptuous or arbitrary than choosing any other idea to shape our lives. And following Jesus as the Good Shepherd does lead to some conclusions about the nature of the mystery of God. The Church has summarized those conclusions in the Creeds. At the heart of the Creeds is Jesus who calls us by name and calls us to follow. That call is a challenge to all our usual ways of thinking and being. We cannot hide in ambiguity and fill the mystery with our own definitions. If we want to be led along right pathways through the valley of the shadow of death, there is no better shepherd than Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

Still, if we follow Jesus out of the fog of ambiguity he does not lead us behind walls of certainty. God remains a mystery, neither Velcro nor Teflon. What we are offered is humble confidence. If Jesus is the Good Shepherd, we can have confidence that, following him, we are headed in the right direction. He will lead us to still water and green pasture.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, has come to us from the Mystery at the heart of it all to lead us back, ever more deeply into that Mystery. The Good Shepherd does not come to grant us the security of certainty. Nor does the Good Shepherd allow us to avoid the risk choosing. But, the Good Shepherd does call us to lie down in green pastures and leads us beside still waters. The Good Shepherd does lead us along right pathways for his Name’s sake. Jesus comes to us and calls, “Come out, come out, wherever you are. Come out from behind your walls. Come out of the fog. Follow me into the open country of faith. It is for us to decide whether or not we will follow.