Washing my first puppy, Taffy.
Last week I referenced “The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search of God,” a George Bernard Shaw story about a young woman who takes the search for God literally, encountering various forms of the deity that require confrontation, sometimes with a knobkierre, a kind of club used primarily in southern and eastern Africa. At age 18, I was intrigued by gay icon Christopher Isherwood’s stage adaptation of the story for L.A.’s frequently experimental theater, the Mark Taper Forum.
In context, I mentioned that all my writings could be said to be “the adventures of a gay red-headed boy in his search for God.”
The adventure continues as I am (finally) reading Karen Armstrong’s 1993 tome, The History of God, which I found on sale on the remainder table of our nearby Barnes & Noble a few weeks ago. As I read, I discover that many of the questions I have asked in my books and my blog have been asked before in the multi-millennia search for God! As I have suggested on this blog, such books remind me of how little I know!
But reading about the fourth century Cappadocian theologians of Eastern Turkey puzzling over the essence and manifestations of God, I realized what I missed dropping a church patristics course my first semester of seminary. I recognized the names of Basil of Caesarea, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and his friend, Gregory of Nazianzus. Having their wisdom summarized by Armstrong reminded me that this is what I missed when I summarily dropped the course because it conflicted with a class on spirituality I happened into, Henri Nouwen’s “Discipline and Discipleship.”
At the same time, these theologians may very well have understood my need for spiritual experience over church doctrine. As Armstrong puts it:
Plato had contrasted philosophy (which was expressed in terms of reason and was thus capable of proof) with the equally important teaching handed down by means of mythology, which eluded scientific demonstration. … Aristotle had made a similar distinction when he had noted that people attended the mystery religions not to learn anything but to experience something.
Basil expressed the same insight in a Christian sense when he distinguished between dogma and kerygma. Both kinds of Christian teaching were essential to religion. Kerygma was the public teaching of the Church, based on the scriptures. Dogma, however, represented the deeper meaning of biblical truth, which could only be apprehended through religious experience and expressed in symbolic form. …
Some religious insights had an inner resonance that could only be apprehended by each individual in his own time during what Plato had called theoria, contemplation. … As Basil said, these elusive religious realities could only be suggested in the symbolic gestures of the liturgy or, better still, by silence.
Western Christianity would become a much more talkative religion and would concentrate on the kerygma: this would be one of its chief problems with God. In the Greek Orthodox Church, however, all good theology would be silent or apophatic.* …
[Quoting Basil:] “We know our God only by his operations (energeiai) but we do not undertake to approach his essence.”
Paradoxically, I mistook church patristics with dogma as in doctrines, when I was looking for spiritual experience as in contemplation, which was how Eastern theologians understood true dogma. So I was drawn to a class whose notes would become Nouwen’s Reaching Out: Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, the movements from loneliness to solitude, from hostility to hospitality, from illusion to prayer.
“The adventures of a gay red-headed boy in his search for God” has been full of meandering such as this. When I wrote an occasional column for the progressive periodical Christianity and Crisis, my then pastor observed that, in my writing, I went hither and yon, letting everything from events to conversations shape my thinking, till I came to some conclusion reflective of the whole.
Etymologists dispute the following theory of the origin of the term “saunter” (which means “to muse, be in reverie” or “to walk with a leisurely gait”) but I like the myth that the word described the meanderings of those who went on pilgrimages. Though the OED thinks it unlikely, the Anglo-French sauntrer may have been derived from the French word s’aventurer, “to take risks.”
This to me describes the spiritual life. Like the black girl in search of God, this gay red-headed boy’s search has been convoluted and risky.
One more twist. I briefly dated a gay porn star, though I was unfamiliar with his work, even his genre! He was very well-read, devouring everything from novels to philosophy. And he introduced me to Christopher Isherwood and his partner, the artist Don Bachardy. The gay red-headed boy, in his search for God, now encountered a gay pioneer, who was also, as it turns out, a Hindu scholar.
God is good—and full of surprises.
*The best way I could illustrate the term apophatic would be with my post, Spiritual Picassos.
A reading for this week of Lent:
“I Thirst.” (The water crisis of Flint, Michigan, has given new relevance to this post.)
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