Even the gods speak of God: The Primacy of Appreciation—a meditation on a poem by David Whyte and some words by Edward F. Mooney

An view of the moon that stopped me in my tracks
READINGS:

SELF PORTRAIT by David Whyte
from Fire in the Earth ©1992 Many Rivers Press

It doesn’t interest me if there is one God
or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel
abandoned.
If you know despair or can see it in others.
I want to know
if you are prepared to live in the world
with its harsh need
to change you. If you can look back
with firm eyes
saying this is where I stand. I want to know
if you know
how to melt into that fierce heat of living
falling toward
the center of your longing. I want to know
if you are willing
to live, day by day, with the consequence of love
and the bitter
unwanted passion of your sure defeat.

I have heard, in that fierce embrace, even
the gods speak of God.

From “The Primacy of Appreciation” by Ed Mooney

We are knowledge-seeking creatures. We are equally creatures of appreciation. I appreciate things I often know very little about — a sunset or smile.  I appreciate music, art and narratives — novels or Biblical stories. They reside in a space of appreciation rather than knowledge. I become who I am through love, community, great art and rustling leaves — through webs of shared appreciations. Appreciations can grow without knowledge.

A world of multiple revelations just is – period. Revelations-appreciated need nothing ‘behind them’ for certification. The profundity of a Dickinson poem is self-sufficient, resting on nothing deeper. “God” often serves to block infinite regress. God makes love of infinite value. We can’t ask, “But what makes God valuable?” “God is a ‘regress-stopper.’ Thunder-clap-Glory also blocks infinite regress. I needn’t find out what underlies that Glory.” It “just is!” You can’t, and needn’t, get deeper.

Appreciation is a way of being in the world. It’s responsiveness  to textures of life, textures that stories and narratives, music and paintings, display for our appreciation.  In the region of appreciation the smile of a child can be more powerful than E=MC/Squared. Facts, theories, or values don’t give us the intimate radiance or horror of the world.  Narratives, grand, petite, or middle-sized, do this. 

Biblical narratives invoke and deliver God and revelations of God. In my view, we don’t have God first as a fact, and then discover his/her revelations. We have revelations whose appreciation circles around the narrative of their being propelled from a divine source. But appreciation does not await certification or authentication by a divine source.

As I see it, to worship God is to appreciate, to kneel before, to be ‘blown away by’ an endlessly revelatory world. Creation is not an event in historical time. It’s the endless unfolding of the beautiful, holy, and good, and of the dark shadows of each. If we have no space for appreciation of beauty, glory, or of the world’s darkness, we have no space for God or the Devil; no space for radiance or terror.

ADDRESS
Even the gods speak of God: The Primacy of Appreciation—a meditation on a poem by David Whyte and some words by Edward F. Mooney

Although at first I realise it might seem strange for a minister of religion like myself to admit that I really, and I mean really, never feel entirely comfortable speaking of God, it strikes me that, in truth, no one should ever come to feel comfortable about doing such a thing.

Having spent forty-four of my fifty-four years listening to at least one sermon a week and now, for twenty years, having been giving them weekly myself (although I prefer to see my own simply as ad hoc, tentative, exploratory essays or addresses), I have come to realise that it is the height of human hubris and folly to dare to speak as if, a) I genuinely knew first hand the “divine reality” that is supposedly being referred by the word God, b) that I had, in some fashion, also talked with this same God and, c) that following this conversation I now knew what this putative God wanted me to say to you. To my knowledge I have only ever committed the first of these hubristic sins but that’s hardly an excuse — I shouldn’t even have done that. But if all the preceding is folly then it would surely be an even greater folly were I to try to avoid committing the initial folly by choosing to believe what someone else, either in person or via some text, had told me about exactly what God was, what God had said, and what God wanted me to tell you to do.

What’s true for me is, I imagine — indeed I hope — is true for you. Indeed, let’s be honest about it, were I to tell you right now that God had told me that that you should be doing such and such, would any of you here really believe me?! No, of course you would not. Were God to exist (and the jury remains firmly out on that point) I would have no more or less access to him, her, they or it than you or anyone else including, as you will soon see, perhaps even the gods themselves.

Given all of the above I think there is a real case to be made for the idea that one place where the word God really should be uttered as little as possible is in spaces dedicated to religion, whether they are stone-circles, sacred springs, groves, temples, synagogues, churched or mosques. Indeed, it has always seemed to me that the Jewish tradition is exceptionally wise in attempting to acknowledge this by their refusal ever to say out loud what is for them the divine name, the tetragrammaton YHWH (that we pronounce as Yahweh), and only to use terms such as hakadosh baruch hu (“The Holy One, Blessed Be He”), Adonai (“My Lord”) or HaShem (The Name”).

Which point brings me directly to David Whyte’s poem you heard earlier. Before we turn to a consideration of his poem it’s worth noting that Whyte feels that all of his poetry and philosophy is based on “the conversational nature of reality” and, at least as I have got to know his poetry over the last few months, this self-description feels to me to be accurate. In any case it has clearly informed his use of the word “God” in his poem “Self Portrait” (a poem perhaps written as he looked at himself in a mirror).

Whyte isn’t here interested in the question of whether “there is one God or many gods”, instead, his interest, and indeed my primary pastoral interest, is in how any one of us deals with our own conversations with reality: whether we “belong or feel abandoned”, whether we “know despair or can see it in others”, whether we “are prepared to live in the world with its harsh need to change you”, whether we “can look back with firm eyes saying this is where I stand”, whether we “know how to melt into that fierce heat of living falling toward the center of [our] longing”, whether we are “willing to live, day by day, with the consequence of love and the bitter unwanted passion of [our] sure defeat”?

As Whyte says, in this “fierce embrace” with reality — an embrace that none of us can ever totally avoid — it is rumoured that “even the gods speak of God”.

His point is, of course, that all the ways by which we use the word God will turn out to be inadequate in the fierce embrace with reality and, if the meaning of the word runs out in our human, all too human lives, then it will assuredly fall infinitely short of expressing anything meaningful about that “something” which we like to imagine is being referred to by the word God.

Our usual understanding and use of the word God is clearly so often inadequate that I really think religion would do well to set an example and stop using the word as freely, easily and thoughtlessly as it so often does.

But, despite all the preceding, personally, I don’t think the word God should be dropped from use by us, not least of all because a judicious use of it can help us to keep clearly in mind how (and it what ways) it is an inadequate word and this process, in itself, is useful and necessary thing. Indeed, without being to use the word, Whyte would not have been able to write his poem in which, in the end, he can say even the gods are forced to speak of God.

It is this point that begins to bring me to some words written by my friend the American philosopher Ed Mooney.

In our knowledge-seeking mode we humans have spent great deal of time seeking knowledge of God; we have wondered about whether this God exists or does not exist and, if God does exist, then what kind of being he, she, or it is and we have gone on to give this entity countless names and attributes such as eternal love, justice, compassion, vengeance, omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence and so on. But the passing of the centuries has shown all too clearly that when the use of the word God has remained too closely tied to our knowledge-seeking selves all the problems I have just outlined always comes into play in the fierce embrace of reality — the word simply fails fully and ultimately to deliver up what we hoped it would (think, for example, of how the intractable problem of evil comes out of this way of using the word God).

However, as Ed points out, we are equally “creatures of appreciation” and he speaks on our behalf when he says of himself:

I appreciate things I often know very little about — a sunset or smile. I appreciate music, art and narratives — novels or Biblical stories. They reside in a space of appreciation rather than knowledge. I become who I am through love, community, great art and rustling leaves — through webs of shared appreciations. [And a]ppreciations can grow without knowledge.

These appreciations or, as we sometimes feel compelled to term them “revelations”, just are, they “need nothing ‘behind them’ for certification” and the “profundity of a Dickinson poem” — or as today a poem by David Whyte — “is self-sufficient, resting on nothing deeper.”

This is, in one way, to say that there is simply no need for some deeper reality such as we imagine is being referred to by our theological, knowledge-based use of the word God.

But when we use the word God as creatures of appreciation then it begins to serve the purpose it does in Whyte’s poem when he says he has heard that “even the gods speak of God.”

This is because, as creatures of appreciation, in the fierce embrace of reality our use of the word God is more often than not serving, as Ed observes, “to block infinite regress.” Here are Ed’s words once again:

God makes love of infinite value. We can’t ask, “But what makes God valuable?” “God is a ‘regress-stopper.’ Thunder-clap-Glory also blocks infinite regress. I needn’t find out what underlies that Glory.” It “just is!” You can’t, and needn’t, get deeper.

In these words Ed wants us to see that “appreciation is a way of being in the world”. Appreciation opens us up to the astonishing variety of “textures of life, textures that stories and narratives, music and paintings, display for our appreciation.” And, surely Ed is right when he says that

In the region of appreciation the smile of a child can be more powerful than E=MC/Squared. Facts, theories, or values don’t give us the intimate radiance or horror of the world. Narratives, grand, petite, or middle-sized, do this. 

This, in turn, helps us to see that:

We don’t have God first as a fact [as an object of knowledge], and then discover his/her revelations. We have revelations whose appreciation circles around the narrative of their being propelled from a divine source. But appreciation does not await certification or authentication by a divine source.

Consequently, I find myself completely in agreement with Ed in feeling that:

[T]o worship God is to appreciate, to kneel before, to be ‘blown away by’ an endlessly revelatory world. Creation is not an event in historical time. It’s the endless unfolding of the beautiful, holy, and good, and of the dark shadows of each. If we have no space for appreciation of beauty, glory, or of the world’s darkness, we have no space for God or the Devil; no space for radiance or terror.

And is this not just exactly how the gods use the word God in Whyte’s poem? Whyte suggests that they, too, just like us, find themselves in an endlessly revelatory world and they, too, now and then are ‘blown away by” it all and feel compelled to kneel before this fact, to stop the infinite regress and to “look back with firm eyes saying this is where I stand”.

God, at least as I personally understand and try always to use the word as the minister of this church, is not a being — an object of knowledge — but always and only an event, experienced in the fierce embrace of reality, in those moments when we are stopped in our tracks by “the endless unfolding of the beautiful, holy, and good, and of the dark shadows of each”. It is in those moments, we find ourselves able to utter and mean those words attributed to Martin Luther: “Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders. Gott helfe mir. Amen!” — Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen!

Comments

Popular posts