Of divinity and cocktail parties

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  • October 2, 2009
Questions of faith come up in the most un-churchly ways and places. You might be at a cocktail party making small talk, or in a bus waiting for your stop, and hear profound spiritual questions slipping in and out amidst the surrounding dialogue. As a teacher of mine liked to say, God is not really hard to find — “He’s everywhere.”

In my practice as a marriage and family therapist, faith questions surface unsought, in their own time and way. When given the time and space, people are generally eager to talk about them. Indeed, we suffer from carrying such
questions alone, often without the resources to help us probe and learn from them. But the questions are alive and well in real life.
For instance, a young woman whose parents are of different faiths was telling me about her search for a religion. She didn’t come intending to talk about religion, she came because of a life trauma. But as we investigated that trauma the question arose as to the divinity of Christ. She respects religion, she said, and has faith in God, feels comfortable in churches and could see herself becoming Christian, but holds back because “Christians keep saying Jesus is God. How could a human be God?  Isn’t that idolatry?” 

Many stay out of the Christian church, but few give such a profound theological reason as did this young woman. And plenty of Christians don’t approach so close to the heart of Christianity. At the end of a theology lecture, once, a student came up to me with a troubled air, and said: “Are you saying the Church teaches that Christ is God? I’m not sure I believe that.” After a lifetime being Catholic, he’d moved his finger to the pulse of the church and felt, perhaps for the first time, its true heartbeat.

Daily life vibrates with such faith questions. It’s sad they so often go unexpressed or unresponded, since Christianity is actually well-equipped to meet them right where they’re being asked. One of the earliest Christian writers, St. Ignatius, whose feast day is Oct. 17, is a historical and spiritual treasure. He’s compelling because his writings are alive with faith questions, wrung from the sinews of life. He shares his reflections with fellow Christians, not academically but urgently, as one whose life is shaped by the answers. 

We have seven letters Ignatius of Antioch wrote around the year 108; late New Testament writings were, perhaps, still being completed at this time. His letters are dynamic, vital, at times densely theological, at times practical or pastoral. Here was theology lived in ordinary lives — faith put to the test. His relationship with God wasn’t limited to the conceptual; he gave everything he had for it. 

Scholars debate, but these letters are generally accepted as authentic. Ignatius was bishop of Antioch, a great ancient city in the south of modern-day Turkey. In the time of the emperor Trajan (98-117), many who professed Christianity were arrested and sentenced to be given to wild beasts in the Roman arena. Ignatius was taken from Antioch to Rome, a journey of over a thousand miles, for this purpose. Along the way, he wrote letters to six Christian churches and one fellow bishop. He says his journey to Rome is, for him, a journey to life; because through it he’s coming closer to Christ and through Christ to the Father. It’s the fruit of his desire for union with the divine, and he knows the way to this union because he knows Christ. The lesser suffering is torture and death; the greater suffering is separation from God.

Ignatius begs the churches not to try to free him (Roman citizens had the power to intervene in some circumstances). He’s not advocating suffering and death as good things in themselves, as though one could reach God by denying life. Rather, having turned to face his particular way of living it through martyrdom, he wants to follow it to the end; “every wound is not healed with the same remedy,” as he writes. Ignatius is staking his life on the conviction that this encounter with Christ is an encounter with God. In the process, he’s entering deeply into his own humanity.

For a troubled, perplexed world, Christianity shows us not what we “ought to do” but who we are and what’s going on inside us. We’re made for union with God. That’s our story. Our pain is the pain of being separate from God; of being out of communion with God and each other; of not fully participating in the life of the Trinity, our true home. 

Christianity’s proclamation is startling, even disturbing, as my student perceived.  It upsets our idea of God and ourselves, as my young client noticed. “Can a human be united with God?” is the question to which it ringingly replies:  Yes! Come this way, and you’ll see for yourself. Keep asking, with your mind, your heart and your life.

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