Church poetics (engl.)
by Gerrit Pithan
for the „Weiten Raum Marburg“ (Open Place Marburg)
translated by Andrea Poster, Christina Lambach, Nina Endress and Björn Wagner
Perhaps poetics is closer to the kingdom of God than dogmatics, at least if we consider the one of whom is written in the gospels, the one who , amongst other things, told people stories.
The itinerant God
The unchanging thing about God is his changeability. Though it’s a paradox it’s hard to put it into words in any other way. We humans have a tendency to settle, but God, on the other hand, departs and moves on.
In the antiquity it was sometimes the case that statues of gods in the temples didn’t have any feet, so that they couldn’t walk away. Another means of keeping the gods was to chain the figures in the temples. There seems to be, therefore, a fundamental longing in humans to pin their gods down. Of course, they said that the gods ruled the universe, but in reality they wanted to rule the gods and subdue them. They tried to appease them with offerings so that they did what the people wanted.
The authors of the bible write about their experiences and understanding of God. The God of Judaism and of Christianity is a God who is on the move. On the one hand God always moves towards a person and goes after him, but on the other hand he doesn’t dominate him either. Furthermore, God challenges people to leave their security, their home, in order to follow the nomadic God to distant lands. Abraham left Ur and moved to Canaan; Israel is freed from slavery and follows its God into the desert. The book of Exodus tells of this liberation, but it also reports how the people time and again wished themselves back to the security of their time in slavery. The people of Israel are scared of freedom, they’re suspicious of the promised new land and they’re deeply unhappy about the fact that they don’t have any control over this unpredictable God. This complex tangle of a situation leads to them attempting to subdue this God by making a bull representation of him. So now they didn’t need to wander around with this incomprehensible God any more, but instead gave him a form which they could take around with them. So the roles were reversed, until Moses stepped in and destroyed the figure. The ban of images protected Israel from confusing the image with its subject. Scripture (the Tora) replaced the image, but even scripture could and can be mistaken for God – idolised, as it were. And so God stays on the move; in Jesus he becomes man and calls people to discipleship. Jesus, the itinerant preacher, challenged people so much with his life, work and speech that the spiritually inert put him to death for political and religious reasons. But even death couldn’t hold God – the gospels report of the risen one with his disciples. Jesus’ resurrection however doesn’t mark the end of God’s journeying; paradise doesn’t dawn; Jesus departs from his disciples and ascends to heaven. It’s not possible to constrain Jesus. The book of Acts then recounts the event at Pentecost; the spirit of the itinerant God fills the disciples; they’re stirred up and enthused. It’s not that they have God, but rather he has them. The [hi] story of the church begins with the outpouring of the spirit – a [hi]story of paths, diversions and barking up the wrong tree. Time and time again Christians have tried to contain God in new ways, but God draws back. It’s impossible to control him in rigid church hierarchies nor padlock him in dogmatic systems or sacraments. God is an escapee king; we can‘t hold him with anything; we can only hope that he’s got a hold on us. He’s always one step ahead of us, tempting us into the expanse and setting our feet in a wide open space.
What does this mean for us nowadays? Should we give up everything that defines our lives? Should we Christians populate the world’s camp sites like travellers? Perhaps one or two. There’s no recipe that’s identical for everyone when it comes to following the itinerant God. I may travel the world and yet be firmly rooted and uncompromising in my spirit. In the same way I can lead a normal life while my spirit follows the itinerant God freely and receptively.
Irish monks in the early middle ages fostered the idea of pilgrimage – they didn’t want to be tied to anything other than God. They even talked of being ready to be martyrs in the context of pilgrimage. In this they differentiated between the red, green and white martyrdom: red martyrdom meant that someone died for their faith; green martyrdom meant leaving one’s home, property and family in order to go one physical pilgrimage; white martyrdom meant living a normal life while going on a spiritual pilgrimage. It was an internal journey, into the quietness, the way of Christian mysticism. This was and is the way of surrendering security, of no longer trying to control or subdue God. It’s a way of trust, with no railings, because you trust the one who is always at least one step ahead.
Our scope of knowledge about God
Psalm 31,9b: “You have set my feet in a large place.”
God is like the horizon that surrounds us. He is distant from us; he is right on the edge of what is invisible to us, right on the edge of infinity. He is the boundary between the known and the surmised – the place where fact and mystery blur and overlap. His holiness makes him distant, but since he perfectly encircles us, like a horizon, and since we are in him, he is at the same time infinitely near. In him, that which is most distant and that which is nearest are sublimely one.
If we head towards the horizon in order to reach it and grasp it, it eludes us. It’s the same when we try to grasp God or try to contain him. By trying to reach God we’re hoping to gain clarity and clear insights; we desire to own HIM. If we pursue this misguided desire then we focus on our own limited knowledge of God, which only represents a tiny fragment of God’s reality. We home in on this tiny fragment and lose sight of the whole until we finally lose everything. This desire is as absurd as the proverbial search for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Whatever we do and wherever we go, the horizon’s perfect circle remains and we are in the middle of it. However misdirected and morbid our view of God is, his nearness to us never ends. Our misguided notion of wanting to grasp him, to hold him, despite a feeling of closeness can lead to us ending up further away from him. It’s easiest to lose God when living piously. In this way his nearness to us and our distance from him can tragically be two sides of the same coin.
The relationship between the ring of the horizon and my position in the middle is well-balanced. This is also the secret of a relationship with God. In the same way as when I upset the balance by trying to reach the horizon/God, I also upset it if I think I should try to not make any mistakes and rigidly defend my views.
God tempts me to venture into the distance; he awakens in me a desire to act and to develop. With each step my view of the horizon/God changes and I see him in a new and different way. The joy I feel when I see strange new things, a new vision and a happy awareness of my own presence in strange lands are all gifts from him . Our knowledge grows as we wisely humble ourselves and as we are in a harmonious relationship with God, journeying together.
Faith in Christ is the foundation of our faith. But what is a foundation? We often think of it as something solid underground which gives us stability; something immovable, which thus renders it solid. We reel off a list of points and define our faith, our God and our truth in this way – which we then label as the truth. Is the foundation of our faith a foundation of this type?
Jesus says: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the father except through me.” (John 14v6) It’s a fundamental phrase, though the way isn’t something static but rather a process – and the same goes for the life. Why, then, do we define the truth as something static? Doesn’t our faith and knowledge of God change as we get older? It would be tragic if this weren’t the case. Therefore the foundation of our faith is something fragile, something that has begun but not yet been completed, something that is progressing and keeps us moving.
The foundation of our faith is as Miguel de Unamuno has described it: “Those who think that they believe in God but do so without passion in their hearts, without anguish in their souls, without uncertainty, without doubt, without an element of despair even in their consolation, they only believe in the idea of God rather than in God himself.”
Dialogue rather than preaching
In the original sense of the word, communication means “sharing”; or, put another way, it is also a figure of speech describing a speaker seems to seek advice from those listening . These two definitions instantly reveal the positive and negative nature of communication.
Nowadays we use the term “sharing” quite neutrally, for example in the sense of passing on a message. However, the word actually means something else: it’s about a person confiding in someone else, revealing something about themselves, sharing their identity with others. If we were to scrutinise our everyday communication we would probably reach the conclusion that only a fragment of what we say actually lives up to this. Most of what we utter actually seems to be fake communication. It’s either small talk or we are just expressing a certain view along the lines of “Here’s where I stand, I won’t be moved.” There’s no attempt to really understand the other person; it’s more just a comparison of points of view. Where people hold incredibly similar opinions they fall into the trap of thinking they get on well with each other; where views differ they distance themselves from each other.
Christians in particular often run the risk of not being able to talk to each other but merely preach at each other. Preaching in itself may be a good and useful thing in the right place within the context of a church service. A clear and unambiguous message is formulated so that the congregation understands it and can implement it. However, preaching has little to do with communication, dialogue or sharing since the congregation can’t reply and no conversation or fruitful exchange takes place. It seems Christians have heard so many sermons during their lives that they’ve subconsciously appropriated this form of speech. As a result, they broadcast their opinions everywhere, they take a stand on things, they say what their theological positions are, and so on. As important as that may be from time to time, none of it has anything to do with dialogue.
The mark of a living church of Jesus – which we should be – is not rigid dogmatics or a standardised orthodoxy. The church of Jesus relies on dialogue – the dialogue between the individual and God, and the dialogue with each other. Dialogue depends on listening; I can only recognise the unique person whom God has placed in front of me when I listen to their words. Only when I have learnt to listen am I in a position to reply. I have carefully chosen the word “reply” and not “speak” since “speak” is very impersonal and can only be one-sided. A reply responds to what the person in front of me has said. When we begin to venture to dialogue then we will also no longer pigeonhole people as “evangelical”, “charismatic”, “feminist”, “fundamentalist”, etc. As dialogue proceeds, God will change us so that these labels become irrelevant.
When we venture to dialogue, we learn tolerance at the same time. Tolerance doesn’t mean that all opinions are immediately right and important. Tolerance means that we put up with the views and perhaps wrong opinions of the other because the person – our conversation partner – is infinitely important to us. God is the word, the speech, the invitation to a dialogue that can change us and our world. Imagine how our Christian churches could look if we attempted the dialogue with each other that God wants to have with us.
Imagine we were jars,
Whole and undamaged,
Filled with the holy spirit –
We could only
Pass something on of God’s spirit
If we were overflowing with it.
But how rare are these moments,
In which we are overflowing with God’s love!
That is why
God uses the fissures and cracks in our jars
To flow through them
From us to others.
There will be no answers without questions
We want to honour the holiness of questions.
I do not believe unquestioningly.
God loves the person who loves to ask questions.
The Parable of the Childlike Faith
At the times when God strolled among men, he saw some children, who played in the mud of a puddle, and he sat down with them. They played together, they laughed and were one heart and one soul. When God wanted to leave after an hour, they asked him to stay, because it was so pleasant. „Other people also need me“, he replied, „but I thank you for this pleasant and carefree hour. On parting I want to give you a gift. In each of your hearts I will put a childlike faith.“ He put his hand on their heads, blessed them and looked into their eyes, so that they were standing in front of him, confused and happy. „Look after this faith and cherish it until I am back“, he called upon leaving.
Years and decades passed, until God came back into this region and looked for those who once were children. „What did you do with your childlike faith, that I gave you at that time?“ he asked them.
„I remember“, said a woman, „and if I am right, it must be somewhere. I would need to look for it, it’s surely still there. It’s not the right moment as I have another appointment and I will meet my friends tonight. What about tomorrow or next week?“ she asked and looked for her calendar, but God had already moved on.
A man looked grimly. „I am not a child anymore, who is fobbed off with fairy tales. I have seen the world and have become a man. There is no God in this world. Morals take second place when you are hungry. Only those who are hard and know their advantage well will survive. There is no place for God! While he was speaking, he became transparent until he disappeared. God reached out for him to keep him back, but he slipped through his fingers and seeped into time without leaving a trace. For a moment, his voice was still to be heard telling about his success, but it became more and more quiet.
„I saw the suffering and the injustice in the world, the hunger, the war and all the plagues“, said a third one. „And as I could not bear it I got involved. I used my hands to reduce the suffering. I had my hands full and so I could not handle any more of the faith you gave me. You should have given me more hands to be able to change the world!“ And God hugged him. „I love you my child, even though you are like the one-eyed in the country of the blind, like scissors with just one blade.“
„My God, I tried so hard“, said another woman. „The faith was so perfect and so beautiful! I got answers to all my questions. Yet life hit my faith out of my hand and it fell to the ground. I lifted it up again, but it had dents, nicks and crevices. I sinned against you, and my faith got stains like rust on metal. I never returned to you. My certainty turned into questions. Life broke my heart, again and again, and my faith is made of fragments whose edges hurt my heart.“ „My dear child“, God replied, „my friend Zvi Kolitz said ‘there is nothing more complete than a broken heart’. The childlike faith I gave you once turned into your faith now. It developed from something broken, like the seed grain dies to bring life. Faith is not a collection of answers. There is an answer only to one question, to your question. Your questions are what makes your faith grow. You only see the suffering, but there is much more than suffering. Your faith is precious and beautiful, through pain. Be blessed and come into my kingdom.
And the last one said: „Look, my God, here is the faith that you gave me. I have preserved it, polished it and brightened it. I hid it in the deepest corner of my heart and cared for it, for it must not be lost or damaged. It is as bright as on the first day you gave it to me.“ „You did not make more of it? “ asked God. „Is what you give not perfect? “ the man asked. „And aren’t you a God who goes far beyond understanding and who applies a demanding standard to his people? Didn’t I preserve your faith against all temptation and hostility of the world?“ God knit his brows. „The butter, that stands for long time, doesn’t it become rancid? The bread, that lays for long time, doesn’t it mildew? The egg that nobody eats doesn’t it get rotten? The same – a childlike faith that doesn’t grow becomes childish. Go away, man, I don’t know you!“
God and the arts
The arts are exploring the boundaries: the indescribable, the infinite, the twilight and the fathomless pit of humanity. The arts offer us means of expressin our faith and our absence of faith, our sorrow, our doubt and our despair. The arts lend us Words, Sounds and Colors for what we dare not utter. In the arts we find a language encompassing our existence and expressing even the darkest night of our soul. They wrestle words from the unsayable, steals sounds from the unhearable and extract images from the invisible.
We may never forget: God has not saved us by means of glory and omnipotence, but through failure and forfeiting his might at the cross. We believe in a dying god. Therefore we can assume him to be closer to us in our profundity than in our triumphs, even the triumphs of our piety.
God can speak to us through the arts in a manner different than through dogma or sermon. Visual and plastic arts, music, drama, dance and literature are languages God is fluent in. We want languages of God to be uttered with our midst. We want artists to be at home in our community.
The artist painted a picture.
They wanted to know what it was.
And he painted another picture.
They wanted to know what it meant.
And he painted another picture.
They wanted to know what it was worth.
And he painted another picture.
They wanted to know what it was good for.
And he painted another picture.
They asked why he didn’t answer.
I asked first, he said
And painted another picture.
In the eyes of God all humans are equal
God loves all human beings equally. He/She doesn’t distinguish between colours of skin, religions, man and woman, sexual orientation, poverty and wealth. We would like to follow suit.
God is Love. Love cannot exist on its own, it needs a counterpart. Love is relationship. That is why God created us in his image, to make Love whole. Only in relationship I truly become human. If I only see myself as the center of my life, my soul and spirit will limp like a war invalid whose leg was amputated.
Without woman, man would not truly be man;
without man, woman would not truly be woman.
Without heterosexuals, homosexuals would not truly be homosexual;
without gay and lesbian people, heterosexuals would not truly be heterosexuals.
Without a mother, a father would not truly be a father;
without a father, a mother would not truly be a mother.
Without children, parents would not truly be parents;
without parents, children would not truly be children.
Without God, humans would not truly be human;
And without humans, God would not truly be God.
God is Love that has loved us into being.
We love the bible as an expression of God’s poetry.
It is the testimony of Israel’s faith and a witness of the early Christians’ beliefs. It is the trace of God’s work within human words.
The Bible is a literary and intellectual mountain range which cannot be scaled by walking in spiritual shoes that are unfit for rough terrain. Understanding scripture doesn’t drop into our lap – we have to be willing to invest ourselves.
Where- or whenever it touches us on an existential level – whether it builds us up, encourages us, comforts us or challenges or criticizes us – there and then it becomes “Word of God” for us.
As Christians, we believe in the living God – not in a book.