Pilgrimage, Day 6: All Jesus All the Time

We spent the majority of the day today in Capernaum and on Mt. Arbel. I’m not able to express my feelings about these experiences in words just yet, so I’ll share some of my thoughts instead.

Capernaum was Jesus’s “home base” during his ministry. The town sits on the northwest side of the Sea of Galilee (a glorified lake, really), firmly within Jewish territory but not too far from Gentile settlements. It makes great practical sense–Capernaum lies near the international trade routes and near many of the other major settlements of Galilee. Even more, archeology indicates that Capernaum was a manufacturing center for grain and olive oil–meaning that people from all the smaller villages nearby likely came to the town with their raw materials, allowing Jesus’s ministry to reach farther more efficiently.

There were other realizations today. Prime among them, which has been building since we got here, is just how poor my mental imagery of Biblical scenes had been–the imaginative equivalent of a painted-craft-paper background in an elementary school play. This land is diverse in form and terrain, beautiful and full of life (both plant and animal). More than this, I’m starting to realize just how visual Jesus’s mode of speaking and teaching is. It’s axiomatic to say that Jesus spoke in parables that would make sense to the disciples, but it’s another thing altogether to say that Jesus had the objects he used in his analogies before him at the time he spoke the parables. This makes good pedagogic sense as he’s attempting to use the mundane to explain the complex and supernal. When you see a donkey mill–the kind of mill often used for milling grain in 1st Century Israel–and know that the device was so common that there was almost certainly one in front the disciples when Jesus says that it would be better to tie a millstone to your neck and throw yourself into the ocean (the Sea of Galilee, too, is likely in view at the time, a wholly different and more complete understanding comes into focus.

As Dr. Beck argues in his books and on this trip–very rightly so, I think–Jesus made great use of geography and the things that could be seen at the locations where he gave particular lessons and made particular statements.

This takes us to Mt. Arbel, the likeliest location for the Sermon on the Mount and the Great Commission. Rather than rehashing, I’ll refer you again to Dr. Beck’s books for the full laying-out of the argument. But, sitting on the mountain, going through the Sermon on the Mount, listening to Jack’s explanation, I could not help but be moved. Until today, I had not had the visceral emotional response to being were Jesus walked and taught that I had hoped to have. Today, though, things became real at a very fundamental level. There’s something about putting Jesus’s words into geographical and visual context that makes them feel more embodied (and therefore more “real” and relatable) and at the same time more spiritually profound.

I’m also realizing just how perfect the place and time of the Incarnation was. As I mentioned in previous posts, the Roman Empire makes a perfect example for the kind of craving for wealth, power and dominance that Jesus argues against. That Israel represents the great international route between the Middle East and Egypt by land and is linked to Europe and the rest of Africa by sea, means the message has a way to reach the world. The place itself and its history provides the context for a revelation that directly addresses the people of the place and yet remains universal in applicability.

For me, especially, with my heavy philosophical bent, this journey is really convicting me of the embodied, present and concrete nature of Jesus’s life teachings, and Passion. When we arrived, we were told that, like Abram, God has called us to Israel, that there is something for God to reveal to each of us here. This confrontation with the Incarnation as something no longer abstract and far away in time and place may be just the thing God brought me here to show me. It’s certainly something I needed, even if I didn’t know that I needed it.

Pilgrimage, Day 3

Today has been a long day. We started the day at the Jerusalem University College campus for a briefing on Dr. Jack Beck’s approach to geography in the Bible.

If it’s not clear that I’m a nerd, this may have been my favorite part of the day. By my understanding, Dr. Beck’s approach is essentially existential–the geography of the land formed a crucial and central part of the worldview and cosmic understanding of the Biblical authors. Understanding the geography of the Holy Land helps us to understand the way that they thought and felt about the subjects about which they wrote.

This existential–and unfortunately, mostly intellectual–understanding informed my day today more than I had anticipated.

After our morning classroom session, we proceeded through Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter to the Western Wall, the part of the late retaining wall built for the Second Temple that is closest to where the Holy of Holies once stood. Many of those traveling with our group felt the tangible presence and power of the Lord in approaching the wall. I, unfortunately, did not. I saw a pile of old stones. Historically and religiously significant, of course, but no more directly relevant to my spiritual understanding than any rock formation built from Creation. In some ways, I envy those whose experiences were more profound than my own, and I take some solace in the fact that that’s the majority of our group.

But my own experience also directly relates to some points that Dr. Beck has made as well as more expansive conversations I’ve had with fellow pilgrims. Both Judaism and Islam have significant attachment to physical location Christianity, focused ultimately on the person of Jesus Christ (and, perhaps, on orthodoxy rather than orthopraxy), does not have as strong a (institutional or faith-wide) focus on geographically significant places.

Considering the journey I’m on, with its particular focus on geography, that statement requires some unpacking. For Jews, the physical presence of the Lord within the Temple constitutes a central locus for the religion. For Islam, the Holy City of Mecca represents a physical place strongly tied to the faith it represents and embodies. For Christianity, however, the focus of embodiment is a focus on God adopting human flesh, not upon a geographic locale. And the God who dwells among us is simultaneously more universal and more ephemeral than geography–that is the way of all flesh. In some sense, that perhaps undermines the (temporal) power of Christianity. Ultimately, though, it makes the theology of Christianity far more applicable and far more enduring than those of the other “faiths of the book.”

If that is the case, then the geography of the Holy Land holds power to better help us understand the person and words of Jesus Christ without itself verging on idolatry as the physical bearer of what the Hawai’ians might call “mana.” But the land itself is not a source of salvation as it might be considered to be in Judaism and Islam. This analysis, I hope, is what influenced my lack of strong emotional response to the Western Wall. I found myself more moved by the significance of the devotion of worshippers at the site than the site itself.

After the wall, we traveled to the City of David, that hill to the south of the Temple Mount that likely represents Jerusalem after David seized it from the Jebusites (and, indeed, the city had been called Jebus before the Israelites conquered it). I found the geography here fascinating for its claustrophobic space–an entire settlement containing only 10 acres. Solomon would follow his father by building the First Temple of the Lord, expanding the are of Jerusalem to something closer to 32 acres. The archeology, which has been ongoing for over 20 years at the site, made it clear that the location matched both the Bible in description and the material culture for the period of David.

We had intended to travel through the “wet” tunnel built by King Hezekiah to bring water from the Gihon Spring in the Kidron valley to the Central Valley on the other side of Mount Zion (the ancient mount Zion on which the City of David was built, not the more modern “Mount Zion” partially contained within the Old City walls, on the outside of which the JUC campus sits) but were hindered by scheduling difficulties. We were only able to pass through the earlier Canaanite “dry” tunnel that allowed passage to the pool tower to which water from the spring flowed from behind the fortification walls. This was quite enough.

After that, we walked down Mount Zion to the Pool of Siloam (and then back up) and back to through the Old City to the hotel. My Fitbit marked over 15,000 steps before the end of the day.

After dinner, I went to find some baklava near the Jaffa Gate to debrief on our experiences. The camaraderie certainly vied for the best part of the day, though I have to say that, ultimately, it’s sharing these experiences with K that ultimately does that.

Tomorrow, very early, we leave to head to Caesarea Maritima, Nazareth, and the Sea of Galilee.

Pilgrimage, Day 2: Arrival

This evening, at least by Israeli time, I write to you from the Gloria Hotel just inside the Old Jerusalem city walls near the Jaffa gate.

We arrived at about 4:20 p.m. local time after a mostly sleepless night on the plane. An hour-and-a-half or so to get through passport control and baggage claim, an hour from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by bus, a fifteen minute walk up to the Jaffa Gate and the hotel, fifteen minutes to get room keys and take baggage up to the hotel room, and finally dinner at 7:30. After dinner, an intrepid companion and I decided on an evening stroll through the Old City.

It was breathtaking in a number of ways. The beauty of the old stone (the city wall dates from the 16th Century and is a fascinating combination of medieval design approaches. The Old City itself is a tangled ball of streets, sidestreets, alleys, closes and stone stairs, the historical equivalent of the steel canyons of a modern downtown, with stone buildings overhanging on both sides of each street.

My intent was simply to wander and wonder, to soak in all they I could of the environment without being to focused about it, to let it wash over me. This the city did without holding back. We wandered into the Muslim Quarter, where shopkeeps and their children were closing up for the evening. From the instant we encountered the Damascus Gate (we had exited the Old City through the New Gate and followed the outer wall to the Damascus Gate to re-enter), it was clear that things were different there. Four IDF soldiers with M4s stood watch over the entrance, cordoned off by steel traffic barriers like they occupied a make-believe guard tower.

Further into the Quarter, we encountered a squad of eight IDF soldiers in full tactical gear patting down a single young Palestinian man in soccer shorts and a jersey. He cooperated (who wouldn’t with that many assault rifles around) and the whole thing seemed rather low-key, quotidian. Perhaps that’s what bothered me most about the seen, the faces on both sides that resignedly said, “This is just the way things are.”

In an instant, that experience shook me from the reverie of this trip. I came for history. I came for spiritual reflection and introspection. I came for friends and theology. And I forgot that there’s a very real and ongoing struggle here, one with victims and perpetrators and perpetuators on both sides–and dozens of those who have become used to this way of life for each one who wants to do something about it.

To be clear, I have no solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have too little real or meaningful experience from either perspective to do anything but naively say, “Why can’t we all just find a way to peacefully and respectfully co-exist?” I have sympathy for both Israelis and Palestinians and a belief that both sides have fault to claim and both sides will have to learn to forgive for their to be any hope.

And while the particulars of Israeli-Palestinian relations trouble me (to the meager extent that I understand them), what I really took away from the scenes I witnessed in the Muslim culture is a reminder. We cannot separate the past from the present just as we cannot separate the present from the past; they are inextricably bound together for eternity. The study of this trip has little meaning if it does not relate the present needs of the world. And I, of course, firmly believe that the message and redemptive work of the Incarnation, the Passion and the Resurrection are every bit as important now as they’ve ever been. As we start our serious work tomorrow, I’ll be going in with eyes open to the need to find something with modern applicability in every past location, person and event we discover.

The Meanings of Life

I fail to understand why people talk about “the meaning of life” as if there is a simple answer, monolithic and one-size-fits-all to such questions.

My own theological conclusions lead me to propose that we seek to regard the question “What is the meaning of life?” with a two-fold or perhaps even multi-part answer, because I believe that there are really (at least) two interrelated but separate answers to the question.

On the one hand, the example and teachings of Jesus Christ present us with an objective meaning of life—fulfillment through relationship. We are told to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).

I think that we ought to treat this statement not simply as a command but as a revelation of the way existence works. Christ is telling us that, in seeking right relationships, we will find joy and fulfillment because God has created all things in such a way that relationships naturally and inexorably create joy and meaning while isolation and selfishness create unhappiness and pain as a matter of cause and effect. In other words, this is not just good advice, and Jesus is not simply preaching morality—he is telling us about the fabric of existence itself. This, I think, makes good sense—an omnipotent God does not need to resort to meting out hyper-specific rewards and punishments when God controls causality itself. Which is not to say that God could not hand out consequences to mortals specifically and directly, but my own experience leads me to believe that God is subtler and more elegant than that.

This understanding is necessary, but not sufficient, to fully answer questions about what meaning is to be found in life. Unfortunately, I think that we Christians often miss—or at least fail to communicate—the rest of the message. Worse, we sometimes suppose that the meaning of life is about us worshipping God—and nothing more. As I’ve argued elsewhere (and will likely continue to do), that explanation reflects poorly on our beliefs about God’s character and purposes and saps meaning away from human existence. Worship is good and right, but it is not the sum total of Creation. Relationship fills the universe with eternal meaning, but our loving God doesn’t stop there.

Look at the diversity of existence—of people, of things, of situations, of feelings, of thoughts, of interests, of possibilities—and one cannot help but find that our God is not reductive. So why do we treat the meaning of life in such a way?

That second part of the equation for the meaning of life is much tougher and is, more often than not, what people really mean when they ask about the meaning of life. What they’re asking is, “What does my life mean?” or “What is the personal meaning of my life?”

Those questions are not to be disregarded; God purposefully made us as individuals. The scriptures are full of passages reminding us of the importance of our individuality, our “selfhood.”

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul expounds on the goodness of differences between us and how, through both diversity and unity, we create something beautiful. This idea is important enough to Paul that it bears repeating—he first discusses differences in spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-11) and follows with the analogy of the parts of the body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31).

But Paul is far from being the first in the scriptures to describe the gift and wonder of individuality. The psalmist in Psalm 139 praises God, saying, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well” (Psalm 139:13-14).

Here also is the reason that marriage is used as a metaphor for the relationship between Christ and the believer (or Christ and the church). In marriage, two individuals become something greater together, at once maintaining their individuality and yet also creating a unity with a meaning and wonder all its own, the frustrating and inspiring “both/and” we so often find in Christian theology.

If you have read much of my other theological musings, you know that I take a distinctly existentialist approach to theology, borrowing much in my own thought from Paul Tillich. Tillich, and particularly some of his students, emphasize that humans are storytellers, that that is how we rationalize and assign meaning to our existence. While not denying the existence of absolute truth established by God (I would rather vehemently affirm it), I am convinced that most of our understanding of any topos is formed by relating that thing to all other things—by organizing categories and understandings in relationship to one another and thereby creating (or, perhaps, inferring) meaning based upon observation of those arrangements.

This state of being results in the situation I described in my recent post “The World and the World.” The idea plays into our discussion of the grand meaning(s) of life like this:

I have two major meanings in life—the meaning of my relationship with God (and by extension all of Nature, Creation and other Creatures) and the meaning of my own individuality. A macrocosmic and microcosmic meaning in close relation to one another.

There are some things that we ought to consider in our approach to the meanings of our individual lives.

We ought to consider the importance of free will. God gave us free will to use it. He gave us a macrocosmic meaning of life so that we might simultaneously enjoy free will and use it well. We ought also to consider the great space and freedom God has given us for personal definition within that larger and divine meaning of existence.

Considering these things, I believe that it becomes evident that the individual meaning of life is a conversation, not a question and answer. Within the bounds of the greater meaning of life to which God calls all of us is near-infinite space for positive and beneficial expression of self. While God has certainly created us with certain personality traits, preferences and dispositions, we also have a thorough hand in creating and defining ourselves through the use of our free will.

As a student of early modern literature, I frequently encountered the Renaissance idea of “self-fashioning,” what we would call “fake it ‘till you make it.” Even modern neuroscience tells us that our brains are more plastic than previously thought and that it is not just functional brain states that influence the mind but that the activity of the mind can, over time, “rewire” the brain.

This is why the personal meaning of life is a conversation—it’s a back and forth (as I’ve argued all free will is) between the ways God is calling you and the places God wants you to become yourself, whoever that specific self may be (provided that it is within the bounds of what is good and true).

The space here (and may own ability, I’m afraid) is woefully insufficient to even scratch the surface of these ideas with much depth. For now, I’ll content myself with the following proposals:

Our theology ought to revel in our relationship with God, the profound diversity of Creation, and the wonder of our call to be active, participatory and individual within Creation. We need a “theology of self” that uplifts humanity and inspires while still acknowledging the (matter of fact) reality of God’s ultimate sovereignty. We ought to continuously praise God for such amazing gifts bestowed freely upon us—and the redemption God has given us for when we (inevitably) misuse those gifts.

We ought not to look outward to the lives of others to find meaning in life. We ought to look upward to God and inward to the core of ourselves to participate in the eternal creation of meaning in the Kingdom of God—both the present reality and the promise to come.