Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Sacredness of Questioning Everything

I want to announce the good news that God, the God in whom I believe, never calls anyone to playact or pretend or silence their concerns about what's true. I want to break through mind-forged manacles that render us incapable of seeing truthfully for fear we might let in the wrong information. God is not made angry and insecure by an archaeological dig, a scientific discovery, an ancient manuscript, or a good film about homosexual cowboys. Nor would I imagine God to be made angry or insecure by people with honest doubts concerning his existence. God is not counting on us to keep ourselves stupid, closed off to the complexity of the world we're in.

I encourage the use of whatever strong language might be employed in tearing down these idols, these false conceptions of who God might be. Damn this demonic Uncle Ben business. Damn it all to hell. May we bear it no more. Be explicit in bearing witness against such hellishness. Or pray, if need be, as Meister Eckhart paradoxically prayed, "God, rid me of God."

"God, rid me of God." Does this strike us as scandalous? Eckhart's prayer is scandalous to us only to the extent that we still believe that our conceptions of God -- and not the grace of God -- are what will save and deliver. As if our intellectual consent to certain truths is what will redeem, as if our faith in our own faith is the price of admission to eternal bliss. This madness degrades both the biblical witness and the possibility of sane thinking. Leaning on our own understanding of God in this way is idolotry, an inappropriate and unfaithful dependence on our pictures, concepts, and broken ideas that can't hold life-giving water. Nothing that we claim to know or have hold of or pretend to believe as children or adults places us on the winning side of God's affections. Maybe we're only called to be honest. Maybe a vision of God whose love transcends the limitations of our visions enables such honesty.
-- David Dark, from The Sacredness of Questioning Everything

Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.
-- Adolf Hitler

People do not believe lies because they have to, but because they want to.
-- Malcolm Muggeridge

Two weeks ago one of my friends took part in a TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party/demonstration in Lansing, Michigan. He came home and excitedly blogged about the hordes who joined him. He noted, among other things, that event coordinator Amy Kramer had stated that over one million people took part in these protests, in 346 cities nationwide. That same day, CNN reported that “several hundred people showed up in Lafayette Park opposite the White House,” and that “in Philadelphia, a rally in Center City drew about 200 rain-soaked participants.”

I wasn't there. I don't know what happened. I do remember a bit about basic math, however, and I recalled that "one million" is a bigger number than "two hundred," and I found it curious that one side of this story chose to look at the event as a whole and report it as "over one million people" while another side chose to look at individual gatherings and report it as "about 200 rain-soaked participants." Not only were they small in number, but they were all wet.

I write that, and quote from several sources at length, only to say that David Dark's latest book, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, ought to be required reading for human beings, regardless of their religious or political stripes. David Dark is one of my favorite Christian thinkers, and his earlier books Everyday Apocalypse and The Gospel According to America: A Meditation on a God-Blessed, Christ-Haunted Idea have, respectively, outlined the in-breaking of truth in popular culture, and our national overconfidence in our own righteousness. For his third book, Dark pulls out all the stops, and surveys the stories that we hear on a daily basis, stories about God and religion, our nation and its history, our self-defined passions, our sacred cows, our morality. We hear these stories in a thousand places; in television broadcasts, in classrooms, in the books we read, in our choice of friends and the viewpoints we are willing to take in, in the magazines we subscribe to, the music we listen to, the web sites we frequent. To a large extent, they define our identity.

And David Dark understands that we are formed by our stories; by the stories we've heard, and perhaps taken in unconsciously. They are stories about who we are as a nation, about democracy, about our shared history, our values, our mythic figures. And, if we are Christians, they are stories about God, his character, his people, and how to live. None of these components exist in isolation from one another. Our understanding of our shared national history informs our theology; our theology informs our views on political and social issues. Our friends tell us about a new Arcade Fire album. That Arcade Fire album tells us about Joe Simpson, the father of Jessica and Ashley Simpson. Jessica Simpson appears on our television set, sings a song, and we either fall in love and run out and buy her new album or dismiss her as a talentless hack. None of this is particularly surprising or revelatory. What is surprising and revelatory is how much we are shaped by these shared stories without ever really thinking about the stories themselves. Question everything, David Dark tells us. Don't believe the hype. Don't believe anything -- whether anything is defined as trivially as the media's preoccupation with robodiva singing stars or as significantly as the weight of biblical teaching -- unless you've thought it through, analyzed it every which way, and owned it for yourself.

I was particularly struck by Dark's commentary on the need to question our images of God. In all too many cases individuals have been burned by the image of the punitive, sin-tallying, stern, judgmental vision of God. It's a vision of a false god Dark terms "Nobodaddy," the divine avenger, and Dark is right to suggest that the most appropriate response to those who have been scarred by such teachings is compassion. Throughout the book there is an admirable and winsome call to hold on to our views of truth lightly, to admit when we're wrong, to change our minds when the facts seem to suggest that an admission of stupidity and obstinate hard-headedness might be in order. It's an ongoing summons to constantly acknowledge that we don't have it all figured out. And it's a clarion call to admit to ourselves, and to others, that somebody's almost always lying. It is no small task to sift through the lies, the damned lies, and the statistics, to attempt to make sense of it all. All I know is that "one million" is not "two hundred," and try as I might, I can't put the two together. Dark suggests that it's still a good idea to ask two, basic journalistic questions: Who is lying? And why might they lie? Do yourself an invaluable service and read this book.


Kirsten Kinnell said...

It looks amazing. Can't wait to read it!

nikkip said...

this is going at the top of my reading list! thanks, andy.

Brother-in-law Bill said...

It's so much easier to be a sponge than a skeptic. I suppose sponges are skeptical of anything that disagrees with what they've been passively absorbing.

I haven't read the book. It does sound interesting. I am reminded of the 1970's "Question Authority" bumper stickers that wound up being translated to "Ignore Authority, because it's evil by definition." I don't sense that Dark is going there, but it is another standard sponge reaction.

Ideally, we would all honestly question what we're told. My world weary experience tells me that most will not. And I know you would agree that the evidence is all around us.

One last thought: questioning does have to hold open the possibility that what one is hearing, reading, etc., is sometimes true. Just not always.

Good post!

Brother-in-law Bill said...

By the way, I left a comment a while back on "The Great American Petulant Pout" that has never shown up. I know you've told me that you've not excluded any of my comments in the past, so I'm not sure what happened to this one. As i recall, I wasn't particularly nasty, although nastiness is surely in the eye of the beholder.

Any news on the job front?