Forming character through the insights of literature, contemporary culture and Scripture.
by Arthur Paul Patterson
YEARS AGO, I read with admiration and excitement about a Christian philosopher who "ripped the roof" off his theological system, examined what was there, and started over again from scratch. Becoming as agnostic as humanly possible, he read broadly in Christian and philosophical thought for two years. He quit all his teaching and associations with the church. When I read the results of his experiment, I was unimpressed by his conclusions but had to admit that I admired his approach and the courage it took to undergo such a vulnerable evaluation.
I'd like to say that I voluntarily followed the philosopher's example but I can't. I lacked the courage to rip the roof off my house of faith. I had to wait for a metaphorical tornado - a divorce-remarriage and an imposed exile from my theological tradition - to set me free to do what I otherwise ought to have done myself.
Instead of two years of study, I took nine years re-examining my faith. Instead of theology and philosophy, I emphasized literature, cultural studies, religion and psychology. I did this study in the context of our Watershed community reading Poe, Shelley, Emerson, Western Esoteric symbol systems and Ken Wilber's Integral Studies. In terms of spiritual practice, I engaged in the spiritual reading of sacred texts (Lectio Divina) and the way of contemplative prayer (silent meditation).
At the end of these nine years, I concluded that ripping the roof off my faith-home should not be an experimental exercise but a permanent spiritual condition. I now desire to keep the roof open to the heavens and not enclose it again. Building a roof was the problem. Spiritual life has to be open to change from above, beneath and from the outside. My bronze dome of dogma had to go!
What remains of faith when the roof is ripped off? Along with a definite sense of freedom there is a vulnerability to the elements. Without the protective capstone, I had to develop the virtues of hope and trust instead of knowledge. Instead of resting in surety, I have been moved to follow my spiritual homing instinct. A restless desire for a spiritual resting-place is quintessentially trustable. The ancient Psalmist used a very sensual and vulnerable image of this desire for home:
As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? Psalm 42
We may have no idea what a spiritual home looks like; still, we can trust our thirsty instincts to get us there. While tasting various spiritual approaches and philosophies, I have made it my practice not to settle for partial quenching. If there is something still lacking, the journey to the stream is incomplete. Celebrating and cherishing that incompleteness keeps me going.
Without some kind of containment, my desires can run into a torrent of addiction. Before ripping the roof off, belief was my container. It held my desires in check. Genuine sincerity, coupled with trust in God, now holds me tightly.
Isn't this a prescription for self-delusion? It would be, if the object of my sincerity was my feelings surrounding my thirst but it is not. Home is what I am sincerely thirsting for; I want to go home and it isn’t just a place to be fed and changed and comforted. Home is where I belong spiritually, morally and physically. I am determined not to substitute anything for home, not even the most tempting replacement. Anything less satisfying than the spiritual stream of home is a cruel deception.
It is, however, not uncommon to experience cruelty in our quest for home. After all, what would be more of a betrayal than the false claims of home? In addition to the test of personal sincerity, accompaniment in community orients me. Fellow travelers, living and dead, draw maps and portraits of what home could look like. They tell me that they have tried to find home in this place or the other and this is what happened. Their wisdom keeps me digging deeper into my own thirst for streams that satisfy. Standing alone- together, we dream and yearn for our homecoming.