Not Safe, but Good

[In the spring of 2020, I was a Teaching Fellow for the class Christianity Engaging Modernity at Boston University’s School of Theology.  The course was a required class for all master’s students in STH and was a combination of historical theology and church history, from the beginning of the enlightenment to the present.  Halfway through the course, the Covid-19 pandemic began, and we had to transfer to online education with only a few days’ notice.  On the last day of the semester, the professors asked me and the other teaching fellows, to speak to the class about how the pandemic effected the way we think about theology or theological education, or our vocation as religious educators.  I jotted down a few notes and addressed the class.  This blog entry is an adaptation of what I said that day.]   

One of the things that I keep reflecting on, in the context of this pandemic is the idea of “relationality.”  Religious leaders, theologians, people of faith today love to talk about this idea – believing that it is something really profound.  Something about what it means to be a human being.  Something about the world.  Something about the nature of God.  This was true in the Unitarian Universalist ecclesial context that I participated for several years as well.  In their “seven principles,” a list of values that UU’s covenant to hold together, they talk about respecting the “interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”  I don’t think they are wrong to do that.  Relationality counters the individualist myths that we often hold onto in the West.  It says something deep, something metaphysical, about the nature of value, and this incredible, complex, aesthetically rich, world that we live in.  We need reminders of that.  That our connections, with each other, with nature, with God, say something remarkable about the religious depth to existence.  

Yet I fear too often, we have a tendency to romanticize and sugarcoat relationality.  So much of the time, talk about relationality has a slightly new-age, hippie, acid-head kind of vibe.  We forget that metaphors like “web of all existence,” as the religious philosopher Robert Corrington reminds us, are drawn from a spiders’ web: a marvel of nature that is used to capture prey. A device of predation, a device of death as well as life. [1] 

We live in endless orders of relationality, more than I could ever enumerate here.  We participate communities, in broad patterns of social, political and economic relationships.  We live as part of complex ecosystems.  Indeed, our own bodies are complex ecosystems of their own.  In a book that influenced me a great deal as a seminarian (Science and Religious Anthropology: A Spiritually Evocative Naturalist Interpretation of Human Life), Professor Wildman talks about how we, as human beings, live in a “microbial ocean that births, supports, threatens,” and, ultimately, “reabsorbs” us. [2]  That “threatening” capacity is one that we are seeing on display at the moment.  And we see the dark underside of relationality from a human perspective when we see the impact that a virus, one of the countless varieties that can affect human life, disrupts our ecosystem.  We see the dark underside of our increasingly connected and globalized world when we see just how fast this virus traveled around the world.  We see how fragile economic relationships can be.  We see the impact on our mental health when the support systems of our relationship are ruptured due to unforeseen circumstances. 

I say this not to challenge the idea that relationality is sacred and religiously significant.  I affirm this unreservedly.  I say this to remind us that what is sacred is not necessarily safe.  That what is religiously important, ultimately true, and holy about existence does not always look as if it is scaled to human interests, human concerns, human projects.  

In the CS Lewis book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the character of Susan, prior to meeting the Lion, Aslan, apprehensively asks Mr. Beaver whether Aslan is “safe.”  Mr. Beaver’s response is quite telling.  “‘Course he isn’t safe.  But he’s Good.”  We rightly say that God is Good.  Yet a God who grounds this world, a world that is not centered around the human, a world that is not scaled to the human, will not always look recognizably Good to us.  God is the ground of all goods: the goods of all forms of being.  Goods that often conflict.  

We are not always good at talking about this aspect of God, or whatever language we view for the religiously significant depths of life.  And I fear that often that is especially true of religious liberals.  We de-fang God.  We turn God into a figure of absolute love and humanly recognizable good.  What symbols of God from our tradition do we ignore, because they make us uncomfortable?  What symbols that can help us come to terms with a world that just is morally ambiguous?  What symbols help us develop the courage to live in that world and not pretend that is safe, and that leave us shaken when our safe patterns are disrupted?  

Maybe we still need the God of Isaiah.  The God who says, “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7) Where is the God in the whirlwind that appeared in Job’s revelation?  The God who leaves him saying “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know,” that leaves him repenting in “dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1-6) We lose access to these symbols at our peril.  

We need to develop ideas that help us recognize and reflect on this world, and that help us reflect on the divine glory at the heart of this ambiguous, too wonderful to speak of, thoroughly interconnected, aesthetically rich, creative world of which we are a part.  

[1]. Corrington, Robert S.  “A Unitarian Universalist Theology for the Twenty-First Century: Toward An Ecstatic Naturalism.”  Unitarian universalist Voice.  (Vol. 3, No. 3, Fall 1997), 8.  

[2]. Wildman, Wesley J.  Science and Religious Anthropology: A Spiritually Evocative Naturalist Interpretation of Human Life.  Burlington: Ashgate, 2009.  Chapter 8. 

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