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A Postmodern Spiritual Journey

Jim Miner

August 18, 2013

Category: Philosophy and Religion > Belief Systems

Sophomore year I took Erwin Goodenough's seminar "Contributions of Hellenism to Early Christianity." Goodenough's working definition of religion was this: Human beings paint pictures on the interior of curtains which hang between themselves and the mysterium tremendum, the terrifying and awe-inspiring unknownness of existence. The purpose of the pictures is at least to address, if not answer, the inscrutable questions of life: origins, destinies, and the meaning of it all.

I had hoped for something a little more elegant as a description of a project to which I was already beginning to feel a call to devote my life. I am in my 46th year as an ordained Episcopal clergyperson. Prior to retirement I served congregations for all but six years, when I was a diocesan executive.  As it turns out, I was in fact for all that time a curator, preserver, interpreter, and transmuter of the pictures. In my case the pictures were the Biblical images, the narratives that have shaped the Christian tradition into which I was born and which I have in turn embraced.

My restlessness with Mr. Goodenough's curtains was that I longed to have confidence that somewhere behind the images there is something "really real": Plato's immaterial Idea, in which our transient material experiences participate to acquire their verity and legitimacy.  ...GOD as envisioned in the confessions and catechisms.  But the critiques first of modernism, and then of postmodernism, have relentlessly eroded and washed away hope of any such certainty.  We are reminded time and again that there can be no immutable truth; reality is a social construction.  (One almost wants forlornly to add the word "mere" in this assertion.)  The postmodern declaration is: "There are no absolutes!"  Nothing stands apart from its embodiment in living community, society, language.

This declaration, while fatal to my yearning for eternal certainties, is also a theological description of the human situation. All we have are the curtains and the pictures — social constructions.

And so what place is there for faith and tradition? I have come to believe that, far from being an exercise in either fantasy or esoterica, tending the curtain and its pictures brings to the pluralistic postmodern world the resources of a great tradition and practice of prophetic insight, wisdom, and spirituality. This tradition offers us patterns of speaking, thinking, perceiving, and acting rooted in deeply humanistic and communal values informed by a vision of integrative justice, a justice that goes beyond distributing to each fairly, to welcoming and offering to each deep hospitality.  It is a vision that imagines not just a human community but a community embracing the whole of creation.

What Mr. Goodenough's curtain pictures can offer a world that has inescapably to live with ambiguity and distrust of all universal statements is not the certainty of GOD statements, but an invitation to imagine how things might be, beyond the mere facts of today and yesterday, and a community of people who choose to live as embodiments of that imagined vision.