Finger(s) Pointing to the Moon

My friend Jay shared a new take on the old adage of the finger pointing to the moon. That’s the idea that the constructs we create to understand reality are not reality itself, just as the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon. Jay talked about walking outdoors with his newborn great-grandchild and pointing out the full moon rising in the twilight sky.

“Then I realized the only thing he would see is my finger, not the moon,” Jay reflected. “I looked at the moon and I looked at his face and I thought, ‘What am I doing?’” Jay realized that the baby in his arms is every bit as sacred as the astral body that lights the sky.

That’s a beautiful reminder of what we have right here, right now. And of the impossibility of trying to contain that miracle in any kind of words, or thoughts. Yet that’s what religion does, with the best of intentions. Every world religion is a finely tuned system, the product of centuries of deep thought as to what constitutes reality and how we may best participate in that. They’re valuable guides. Our only fault is getting so identified with them, with the finger pointing to the moon, that we forget about the moon itself.

The seminary training I’m receiving is all about making plain the way we identify with the finger. We deconstruct our consciously held beliefs, examining how they formed in the context of their times. We study bone, muscle, ligament, tissue, and say, “See? It’s only a finger.”

Yet that examination is a finger of its own. It’s another system of belief that forgets about the transcendent More. Academia is so wrapped up in its own concerns that it overlooks the wonder. The heart of faith is conspicuously absent from many of the classes I take.

I’d like to venture a guess, from this admittedly rookie position, that this is largely what is wrong with mainline Christianity. Liberal churches have been bleeding members for years. I wonder if this clinical, cut and dried approach isn’t part of the problem. I like to quote that line attributed to laconic country dwellers in New England: You can’t get there from here. You can’t get to faith from a purely analytical stance. It requires a leap, as Kierkegaard said.

I’ve spent recent weeks struggling to remember that the moon exists. Glimpses of a larger reality penetrate my malaise: the face of God in my friend Jay’s arms, the sound of nuns singing their evening prayers, the vibrant grey and russet tapestry of the winter world.

Which Jesus?

“She’s fun, she’s smart — and she knows Jesus,” my sister-in-law said, singing the praises of her new neighbor. I’ve heard her use that phrase before. “Knowing Jesus” means something very specific to Karen, a certain way of being in relationship with God. But which Jesus is that? I wanted to ask. Is it the atonement Jesus or the wisdom Jesus or the apocalyptic Jesus or the social justice Jesus? What makes you so sure there is one right answer?

New Testament scholar Scot McKnight says people relate to Jesus as if he were a Rorschach ink blot, seeing their own beliefs reflected in him. That’s probably true of all the ways we look at the world. Our own understanding is necessarily part of what we see, isn’t it? That turns out to be a very modern proposition, I have learned. The classical approach sees truth with a capital T: an objective reality that can be known if not fully understood. There is no ambiguity in the Jesus my sister-in-law knows. She believes the facts about him are made plain in scripture. Yet the lens through which she reads scripture has been shaped by the creedal controversies of the early church, Anselm’s theology of atonement in the Middle Ages and the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth in the 20th century.

There is no such thing as truth devoid of its context. My neoplatonic belief in a God of emanation and return dovetails with the Eastern mysticism I was exposed to as an impressionable teen. The Christian faith I have claimed is an outgrowth of the liberal tradition developed by Schleiermacher and other Enlightenment thinkers, who argued that we can only know God through our own experience. When carried into community, this approach views our shared life together as the means to realize God’s kingdom. Liberal theology emphasizes ethics over eschatological (end times) hope. Two other strands of thought affect my Christian orientation: the mysticism I’ve gravitated toward since early childhood and the ongoing quest to separate the historical Jesus from the Christ of faith.

Karen and I have approaches to faith so different as to be almost two religions. Add the sacramental faith of Roman Catholicism, the charismatic worship of the Pentecostal churches and the dizzying array of postmodern approaches, and it gets hard to know, which Jesus are we talking about?

Sometimes I feel like the blind man with the elephant, reaching out for Jesus and touching …. what? An archetypal presence? A projection of my own consciousness? A discrete entity capable of effecting change? Maybe even the Son of God? There is something there. I have known it with a certainty that makes all uncertainty disappear. And so I keep groping. Somehow, beyond any category I can grasp with my mind, there is something real we call Jesus. Maybe I’ll never understand. Maybe Jesus is the mystery that will never be solved and my search is the striving for control that is ultimately illusion.

I pray, dear Jesus, not so much to know you as to love you, to surrender myself to your love, again and again. Help me be alive in you. Help me see your aliveness in every other living being. Help me live in a way that nurtures that aliveness in myself and in others. Amen.