”Roll up, roll up for the big event” — some thoughts on God and Baseball Gloves
|Not a baseball glove but, perhaps, just near enough: |
my softball glove
Introduction to “The Size of God — The theology of Bernard Loomer in Context” by William Dean (Mercer University Press, 1987, p. 1).
Bernard Loomer’s (1912–1985) father was a sea captain. He was acquainted with his small place in an uncontrollable nature. In a talk in 1974 Loomer described his father’s instructions about the uses of a baseball glove. The father had just overheard his son’s sandlot [playground] complaints about the thinness of a glove inherited from his older brothers. When his father asked him what a baseball glove was for, young Loomer had said that it was to protect the hand. In the words of Bernard Loomer in his sixties, his father replied:
“Son, I never have played baseball, but it seems to me you ought to be able to catch the ball bare-handed. The way I look at it, you use a glove not to protect your hand, but to give you a bigger hand to help catch balls that are more difficult to reach. I assume that in this as in all walks of life there are tricks to the trade. I suggest you learn how to catch with that glove for two reasons. First, because you are not going to get another one, and second, because you don’t need protection from life. You need a glove to give you a bigger hand to catch baseballs you might otherwise miss.”
As the decade of the 1970s progressed, Loomer reflected increasingly on the fact that what you might otherwise miss was irrational, even evil, but must be caught anyway, Loomer grew increasingly dissatisfied with those who seemed to restrict their reach—even Whitehead was faulted, And, increasingly, it appeared that Christian theology was the theology Loomer had—that he was not going to get another one—and so, although it was thin in places, he attempted to use the one theology he had, to catch all he could.
Even in a church such as this, one which accepts and welcomes people who are agnostic or even atheist in outlook, there is no way to avoid using or referencing the word “God”.
We may sometimes choose to use instead words like Spinoza’s “Deus sive natura” (God-or-Nature), Spirit (or Source) of Life, the Divine, the transcendent other, or whatever, but we all know they are being used because there is always-already floating around in the background that tricky three-letter word, “God”. Coming from a liberal Christian and Enlightenment tradition of free-religious thinking, it would be hard (perhaps impossible) to understand ourselves as being some kind of religious community without making some reference to it — even negatively, and even as today we find ourselves (perhaps) moving towards articulating some kind of secular, and religious naturalist understanding of the word.
Some people think this is mere indecisive, theological shilly-shallying about, an indication of our collective confusion about God, the divine and the sacred and why as a religious community we should not be taken seriously. Sometimes this may be true — our flexible approach to the word God can be used to hide some very sloppy and sentimental kinds of thinking — but, in my opinion, another way of looking at it is that, at best and for the most part, it is a frank acknowledgement that the source (foundation) of all things, and all life, remains utterly mysterious and beyond the grasp of all our theories. What “this” is (even if it is an “it”) just doesn’t seem to be amenable to articulation by human language and concepts.
But, despite this, each of us seems to have little choice but to use some kind of theological language to catch all we can about “God” and also, therefore, to catch hold of those things we might meaningfully call the divine and the sacred.
The still unfolding theory I and this church tradition has inherited is, if not one derived from a full-blown theological version of Christianity, then it is certainly one derived from a Christian humanism that prefers simply to centre upon following the practical example of the man Jesus. And, just like Bernard Loomer, I know — and I think we probably all know deep in our hearts — that we’re not going to get another baseball glove (or theological theory) anytime soon and so, although the one we have might be worn thin in places, we know it’s the only one we’ve got at the moment to catch something, anything. So whenever I’m engaged in religious thinking or practice, such as today, I still find myself putting on my (figurative) baseball glove as I come out to play.
Before I begin properly, I frankly acknowledge the possibility that we may one day simply be forced to get a new glove and/or perhaps even start playing an entirely different game but, right at this moment we are not in that situation. The basic game remains religion as it has grown out of human experience around the world and the glove I/we are using here to catch what we can remains more or less liberal-Christian, humanist and Enlightenment shaped.
With this important caveat in place what is it that, as your minister, my baseball glove currently helps me to catch?
Here I may turn to John Caputo’s (b. 1940) words we heard earlier (see end of this post) who, along with a number of other key modern theologians, has stopped trying to talk about God as a super-being (an ultimate entity) who (or which) could only ever be abstractly theorised about and he has, instead, begun to talk about and gesture towards understanding God as event.
In other words, Caputo thinks — and I agree with him in this — that what he can no longer catch with his glove is the God of theism, the God with whom most of us here today grew up. What he catches today is something very different, namely God as event. But, as I indicated when I read the passage earlier, I think that in order better to be understood, Caputo’s words benefit from being brought down clearly into the context of our own church’s life and experience. So, let me run very quickly through Caputo’s five points in my own words:
Firstly, when I speak with you about God, I do not understand God as some “thing” that is present, but rather as something seeking to make itself felt in what is present. So, for example, for me it's not right to say Jesus is God because I always encounter him as having been my brother, always-already a human being like me. Rather what makes Jesus special to me, and to the religious tradition to which I belong, is that he lived in such a way that we felt we saw something making itself felt in his presence among us, something which we have been minded to call God. He was a person who seems to have been able given shape to this presence in what happens. This is why I still point so regularly to the example of Jesus and say to you both explicitly and implicitly, “Look there! That is what I mean by God!” Of course, although Jesus remains for us our own primary, exemplary model of this occurring, we have a lively sense that this kind of event has occurred, and still can occur, in and around other people.
Secondly, when I speak with you about God, it is important to realise that I’m distinguishing between the name “God” and the event that is astir in this name. So, when I use the word “God” here it I always try to attach it to the restless events in which I see people called, as the prophet Micah summed it up (and as we sung in our first hymn), to express to themselves and others true justice, the love of mercy, and the desire to walk with God. This is why I point to any act of justice, mercy, love and the walking with others and say, both explicitly and implicitly, “Look there! That is what I mean by God!”
Thirdly, when I speak with you about God, I do not understand God as an ultimate thing, a super-being whose existence could be proved or disproved by either science, philosophy or theology because I take it that God is that which is astir in all things. This is why I often point to the interconnectedness of the universe, the natural world and its constant commingling, and say, both explicitly and implicitly, that in the provisional and ever-revisable interplay of things, “Look there! That is what I mean by God!”
Now before I turn to Caputo’s fourth point I need to add a quick word here about the deconstructable. Take a word like “democracy” (an appropriate word to consider during this General Election week). The thinking goes something like this: There is something astir in the name “democracy” that means every actual existing system to which we give the name democracy will be critiqued and taken apart by that same something astir in it’s name. That something astir in the word always calls us to do better, to revise, to reshape, to try again to be true to the astir something that trembles at the heart of the word. The something astir in the word “democracy” cannot be deconstructed, but every actual expression of democracy can always deconstructed. What is true of the word “democracy” seems especially true of the word “God”.
So, fourthly, when I speak with you about God, I do so having been persuaded that, no matter how beautiful or venerable they are, whether they are Trinitarian or Unitarian, whether they theist or atheist, all human expressions of and theories about God are always deconstructable — including the one I’m making today! These expressions may, and often have had, some temporary ad hoc usefulness, but they must never be thought of as being themselves the event that they harbour. This is why I so often point with particular approval to living and always unfolding, self-critical, non-doctrinal and non-creedal forms of religious or secular community and say about them, both explicitly and implicitly, “Look There! That is what I mean by God!”
Fifthly, when I speak with you about God, I understand “God as event” as something that is always calling us from afar – call it from “heaven” if you like – something which is always persuading us into living a form of life ever more committed to seeking more justice, more love, more mercy and a continued walking with each other and God. I also understand “God as event” as a memory that remains very dangerous to all earthly powers that, for whatever reason, want to repress the memory of, and call to, this same life of justice, love and mercy. It is no wonder that every earthly, coercive human power which wants to control and dominate others and nature feels the word “God” to be a dangerous memory and an always-already new call for reform and (non-violent) revolution. This is why I constantly point to what might seem to be utopian, radical visions of human organization, such as that expressed in Jesus’ idea of the kingdom of God or, and in my mind this amounts to the same thing, the republic of heaven, and say, both explicitly and implicitly, “Look there! That is what I mean by God!”
So, to conclude, it seems to me that my job as a pastor in this liberal-Christian, humanist and Enlightenment tradition is never to try to persuade you of the truth of this or that theory or doctrine about God (for they are all going to be seen as severely limited or even plain wrong in the end anyway) but, instead, simply to find ways to catch with my admittedly worn-thin glove certain events occurring in life and to throw them gently on to you with the words, “there that’s what I mean by God.” The gamble I’m taking is that there is in fact something astir in these events and that, as you catch them in your own gloves, this same something will felt by you too, and that the resonation it sets up will cause you to have an a-ha moment and say, “Ah! Yes, I think I see what you mean!”
But, as your pastor, it is also my duty to say that, whatever any of us catch, it must never be mistaken as fixed and final, stable and settled, done and dusted. Not at all! for no single thing, word, theory or doctine is ever large enough fully to contain or finally define the mysterious something that might be astir in them. As Bernard Loomer himself said: “Final answers are not to be trusted. We are born in mystery, we live in mystery, and we die in mystery.” (Source: Wikipedia)
It seems to me that our calling in a liberal church such as this is simply being always prepared to be set astir ourselves by this same mysterious, yet liberating something which continues to call upon us better to build the kingdom of God or republic of heaven amongst and within us all and to see, as did Loomer, that
“. . . the world is holy ground; and because it contains and yet enshrouds the ultimate mystery inherent within existence itself. . . . The world in all the dimensions of its being is the basis for all our wonder, awe, and inquiry” (ibid.).
“A Theology of the Event” — from John D. Caputo’s essay “Spectral Hermeneutics – On the Weakness of God and the Theology of the Event” in “After the Death of God” by John D. Caputo and Gianni Vattimo (Columbia University Press, 2007, pp, 47–49).
One way to put what postmodernism means is to say that it is a philosophy of the event, and one way to put what a radical or post modem theology means is to say it is a theology of the event. Obviously, then, on such an accounting, everything depends upon what we mean by an event, which, for the sake of simplicity, I describe as follows.
1. An event is not precisely what happens, which is what the word suggests in English, but something going on in what happens, something that is being expressed or realized or given shape in what happens; it is not something present, but something seeking to make itself felt in what is present.
2. Accordingly, I would distinguish between a name and the event that is astir or that transpires in a name. The name is a kind of provisional formulation of an event, a relatively stable if evolving structure, while the event is ever restless, on the move, seeking new forms to assume, seeking to get expressed in still unexpressed ways. Names are historical, contingent, provisional expressions in natural languages, while events are what names are trying to form or formulate, nominate or denominate.
3. An event is not a thing but something astir in a thing. Events get realized in things, take on actuality and presence there, but always in a way that is provisional and revisable, while the restlessness and flux of things is explained by the events they harbour.
4. What happens, be it a thing or a word, is always deconstructible just in virtue of events which are not deconstructible. That does not mean that events are eternally true like a Platonic eidos; far from being eternally true or present, events are never present, never finished or formed, realized or constructed, whereas only what is constructed is deconstructable. Words and things are deconstructible, but events if there are any such things (s’il y en a), are not deconstructible.
5. In terms of their temporality, events, never being present, solicit us from afar, draw us on, draw us out into the future, calling us hither. Events are provocations and promises, and they have the structure of what Derrida calls the unforeseeable “to come” (à venir). Or else they call us back, recall us to all that has ﬂowed by into the irremissible past, which is why they form the basis of what Johann Baptist Metz calls “dangerous memories” of the injustice suffered by those long dead, or not so long, a revocation that constitutes another provocation. Events call and recall.