Theologians like me who are grounded in the history of religions make our lives very difficult. In fact, I’ve often wondered why I didn’t follow the easy Way allegedly taken by scientists: remain skeptical until empirical proof requires belief. But as I reflect on it, perhaps theologians—and process philosophers and the teachers of Zen, the Hindu Way, the Daoist and Confucian Ways, and several native American shamans with whom I have crossed paths—have elected to follow the difficult Way because we have been victimized by revelation. As Mircea Eliade put it, the Sacred however named has visited the Earth. The transcendent has invaded the immanent. The mysterious and unfathomable has redefined what is natural and understandable—and what is not.
Yet “revelation” has done us few, if any, favors. What I would like from revelation is some kind of window opening out toward a visible transcendent landscape. But the window remains closed, and like a mirror—a “mirror of simple souls” as Marguerite Porete described it in her Mirror of Simple Souls—turns me back to look at my own mundane reality. While Revelation is a reminder that there is a sacred reality standing over and against the world, knowing exhaustively what that reality is remains impossible within the scope of knowledge circumscribed by the world in which we have no other choice but to live. So the task of theological reflection is mainly an attempt to understand what is transcendent in terms of available knowledge about the world we experience daily, including what we can know about the world scientifically. This is why the task of theological reflection, particularly process theological reflection, is never finished, but is always in need of revision.
Theological ideas are like koans that sometimes point to a person’s or a community’s experience of a transcendent reality named “God” in the monotheistic traditions of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Ways. According to my Zen Buddhist friends, kōans are words that demonstrate the inadequacy of words, thoughts, or images whose purpose is to project meditators beyond all words, thoughts, and images. Kōans teach us to shut up so we can glimpse, however partially, the beyond-words-and-letters reality of the Sacred, however it is named. This is also the goal of Christian traditions of contemplative prayer.
But here’s the rub. We can never get beyond words and letters. This is so because we experience through a theological tradition or a system of practice what that theological tradition or system of practice trains us to expect experience. We interpret the nature and meaning of what we experience before and after it occurs according to the doctrinal traditions that train us. This is why mystics in all of humanity’s religious Ways experience the paradoxical frustration of having to use words to describe a Sacred reality that all agree is beyond the limitations of words. Yet mystics in general, and theologians in particular, are stuck with using words to describe “it.”
Take, for example, Christian theological reflection about God. God must be experienced before “God” can be a word. Unless God can be experienced, whatever words theologians use will be without content, like road signs pointing nowhere, like lightbulbs without electricity. So is we use words about God, we need to make sure these words are preceded by, or at least coming out of, an experience that is our own, the sort of experience that touches us deeply, perhaps stops us dead in our tracks, fills us with wonder and gratitude, perhaps scares the hell out of us; and here’s the hiccup again, an experience for which there are no adequate words. And yet as theologians, we must use words.
But to realize that God cannot be reduced to linguistic description because the reality that constitutes God as God is beyond “all words and letters” does not mean that nothing can be said about God, but only if our words and conceptions are not in the least literal, but symbolic. Of course, all knowledge is symbolic, and to delve deeply into any field—say, for example, physics or art—is to learn faith in its symbols. At first, we notice that the objects of our thoughts are symbols; then we work hard to translate them as we go into own familiar idioms. Later we learn faith and release them so that they can interact on their own terms, hadron to hadron, paint surface to paint surface—and only them do we make progress. Here lies the root of Anselm or Canterbury’s definition of theological reflection as “faith seeking understanding” Faith is “trust,” not ideological commitment to symbols and doctrinal propositions.” Faith is “trust” that a Sacred reality we name God surrounds all existence like a blanket, even if it is beyond all words and letters. Doctrines are theological proposition we can intellectually assent to, that is “believe,” or not intellectually assent to or “disbelieve.” In faith, we bet our lives on a Sacred reality we can only partially comprehend because we can only experience it “through a glass darkly.” We should never bet our lives on theological propositions—the error of fundamentalism wherever it occurs. Doctrines may be elegant, coherent or incoherent, truthful or ideological nonsense, intellectually coherent or not, true or false, elegant or stupid. But faith is never reducible to “belief” in doctrines.
This is so, particularly for theological reflection, because symbols not only refer, they act, sometimes with a life of their own. There is no such thing as a mere symbol, and whenever we climb to higher levels of abstraction, we discover that symbols are all there are. They are our only tools of knowing and knowledge’s only object. It is no leap to say that space-time is itself a symbol and if the world we inhabit is a symbol, it is a symbol of our minds, or of God. So in the last analysis, theological symbols do not merely define the Sacred, but manifest it in its beyond-words-and-letters fulness. Theological reflection begins by using symbols, but in the end contemplates them. And we come back full circle where we started, only this time we know where we are.
Note: This article was originally posted on OpenHorizons.org and is reproduced here with their gracious permission.