This is the final of a three-part post by Jay Aquinas Thompson: a poet, activist, parent, and an adult convert to Catholicism. He lives in Seattle with his family, where he attends St. Mary’s Church and teaches creative writing to women incarcerated at King County Jail. He keeps a blog at downdeepdowndeep.wordpress.com.
- Spiritual individualism and abiding grace
Really, the key question the Death of God theologians grapple with—“how will God be able to respond to this present crisis?”—is one plenty of Christians ask. But it’s a question that can be asked with too much urgency. The “present crisis” I often hear people of faith fretting about now is that of the “spiritual but not religious.” In my own community and time, the spiritual language among progressive folks is often framed entirely in terms of individual wellness. Many of us come to spirituality (from meditation to church to yoga) asking what belief and practice can console or enlighten us. The desire is to improve our well-being, rather than to engage personally and radically with our community or minister to the suffering Christ in our oppressed fellow-humans. For my own part, the longer my spirituality is confined to my own head, my own thoughts and feelings, the more it starts to spoil. I’m close with plenty of spiritually sensitive folks whom I want to call to vigorous and liberatory work in the world, but I believe it’s a misuse of energy to greet this (somewhat-gnostic?) spiritual individualism either as the herald of a new era or as a menace. The hype about our time is that this form of spirituality is our future; I don’t see it that way.
But I wouldn’t have come to this perspective without having watched Alitzer and Hamilton buy into their own era’s discourses, preoccupations, and intellectual frameworks so completely. This is not to deny the seriousness of Hamilton’s commitment to worldly service, and Alitzer’s pain at God’s perceived self-negation. In their book, Alitzer and Hamilton accept bourgeois liberalism’s claims about itself, and define their understanding of God’s “transcendence” so narrowly that it’s snuffed out of any possibility of being.
“Before God and with God, we live without God,” Bonhoeffer said. This is the unbearable paradox that Christians have to sit with after a century of organized horror, in the pervasive alienation of secular modernity, and in the countless small experiences of contingency, corruption, and death we encounter in a life. But it’s a paradox, not a death-knell: a call to make God manifest in the world through radical love, ardent faith, and spiritual self-renewal. “Abundance and destitution are two facets of the one face of God,” as Christian Wiman says, “and to be spiritually alive in the fullest sense is to recall one when we are standing squarely in the midst of the other.” This equanimity isn’t always easy to summon—in rapture or in desolation—but it’s a precious gift, in that it’s a call to the faulty communities of worship, the all-too-inadequate symbols of religion, and ordinary human love, whether God feels intimate or impossibly remote. We encounter Spirit only in corporeal things, and experience God only in history; and this idea can bring us overflowing peace, not just the anxiety that grips Alitzer and Hamilton. Or, to quote R.H. Blyth, writing from a radically different tradition: “Culture is our making the will of God prevail, but the will of God always prevails anyway, and when we know both, there is Zen.” The longer I sat with Alitzer and Hamilton’s book, the more limited it felt: the authors shedding tears at the graveside of old pieties, believing they were crying for God.