Archive for July, 2011

Spirituality for Religious People: Old Testament Perspectives

by   |  07.12.11  |  Uncategorized

Here are some thoughts on spirituality in the Old Testament, which I take to be spirituality for those of us who don’t make good mystics but would like to make good Christians.  This is from a talk given a few months ago to our faculty.  I’d welcome your comments.  (Mark Hamilton)

How do we speak of spiritual formation in the Old Testament?  It is much like talking about the wetness of water or the automobileness of Bugatti.  It seems redundant.  After all, the Old Testament is full of prayers, wise sayings, stories of exemplars and antiheroes, in short, of all the raw materials of a grammar of assent to the presence of God.  Still, if I must try to say something about all this in a few moments, the best and most obvious place to begin would be the Psalter, that magnificent collection of 150 laments, hymns, wisdom meditations, and so on scanning the spectrum of human emotions from anger to zaniness – or if not that, then at least delirious joy.  In these ancient songs, we see shiny bits and pieces of the human encounter with God, all of them merging together in a gorgeous mosaic of faith.

And what a faith!  The basic conviction of the Psalter, and indeed of all biblical faith, is that the race before us is not too long, nor the foes besetting us too fearsome, nor our own strength too small that we cannot finish with success.  Evil does not win, despite all appearances.  This is so because we tread the path laid out by the one who accompanies us through the valley of gloom, the God who created the cosmos and from time to time shakes it up a bit so as to leave Mount Zion secure and its citizens confident.

Perhaps a way to begin to understand the Psalms’ sense of the presence of God is to notice how the various psalms themselves begin.  It is never, of course, easy to begin a poem.  The only things harder than the beginning are the middle and the end!  I am often glad that I have been given a way to start prayers “Dear God” or “Our Father in Heaven” so that I didn’t have to think of one.

The beginnings of the various psalms say something about their spirituality: “blessed is the one”; “Why do the heathen rage?”; “Oh Lord, how numerous are my enemies!”; “when I call, answer me”; “Hear my utterances O Lord”; “O Lord, in your anger do not rebuke me”; “O Lord our God, how majestic is your name in all the land”; “I will praise the Lord with my whole heart”; “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away?”  Those are the first ten entry points.  We could go on: “O Lord, I called you; notice me”; “I cry with my voice to the Lord”; “O Lord, hear my prayer, listen to my petition”; “blessed be the Lord my rock”; “I shall exalt you, my God the King”; “Oh my soul, praise the Lord”; “for it is good to praise our God”; “praise the Lord from the heavens”; “sing to the Lord a new song”; and “Praise God in his sanctuary.”  Those are the last ten.  In between the Psalter moves those praying it from the desolation of life seemingly without God to ecstasy – all without escapism or sentimentalism or the life-denying pseudo-piety that so often passes for spirituality in our own time.  The Psalms are a nonsense-free zone.

But they can look life squarely in the eye because they can see round the corner.  The beginning of an honest piety leads us not to despair or cynicism but to hope.  Consider just two examples.  The 46th psalm boldly opens with an appeal to “our God a refuge and strength in crisis, found strongly to be a help during distress” – or as the KJV puts it so eloquently, “a very present help in trouble.”  It then offers a way of whistling through the graveyard: “therefore we shall not fear when the earth quakes or the mountains shake in the heart of the seas.”  Why such confidence, if it is confidence?  Or perhaps better, what spiritual values would lead one to think that perhaps we could steel ourselves in the face of adversity by appealing to God?  The Psalmist answers the unspoken question with a warrant for such faith: “there is a river whose streams make God’s city rejoice, the holy dwellings of the Most High.  God is in its midst.  It will not be shaken.”  The old poetic idea that a river flows through the heavenly mountain of God gets transferred to Zion – where the only rivers exist in the imagination – so that it can be surpassed as a symbol by that to which the symbol points: God’s presence.  And how does the one praying know when God is present, other than the gorgeous words sung by a believing community?  The psalmist answers “Go – masculine plural – observe the wonders of the Lord where he has done shocking things in the earth, stopping wars to the ends of the earth, snapping the bow and shattering the spear, torching carts.”  What evidence is there that God is present?  We can answer that in one word – peace.

The spirituality of the Psalms thus does not land in the calmness of the individual human soul, but in the trust of a community seeking the end of adversity, not just for itself, but for the “ends of the earth.”  The Psalms of the sons of Korah, of which this is one, long for a resolution of conflict, a worldwide calmness and condition of human wholeness.  Thus we read in another one from after the Exile, Psalm 85,

Oh Lord, you have rescued your land, you have reversed the reversals of Jacob.

You have removed the iniquity of your people; you have covered all their sins.

It then makes a most interesting move.  It says, “Return us O God of our salvation.”  Which is it?  Has God returned us, or must that occur sometime in the future?  Or perhaps the juxtaposition of time here – past and future – highlights a present, and indeed abiding reality.  In all new situations, we continue to need God’s help because we are in danger.

Now you might criticize the psalm’s understanding of the world, and any good modern person would raise questions.  Doesn’t the spirituality of dependence diminish the autonomy and integrity of the human person?  Isn’t it a form of escapism masquerading as piety, or even worse, a method for evading accountable action in the real world?  The answer, I think, is no.  No because claims of human perfectibility lack supporting evidence from our experience or history.  No because the peace sought in the Psalms never comes without a prior commitment to justice.  No because the dream of God’s presence does not repeal human dignity but rather consummates it.  Thus the psalm continues a few lines later:

How near is his rescue to those in awe of him, for his glory to dwell in our land.

Mercy and trustworthiness meet, justice and peace kiss.

Trustworthiness springs up from the ground, and justice bends down from heaven.

Yes, the Lord gives what is good, and our land gives its produce.

Justice goes forth before him and plants its footsteps on the trail.

The dream of this psalm, and of all the psalms, is not mere personal fulfillment.  Our spirituality does not consist of warm moments of personal satisfaction or the comfort of those who love us or a sense that all we do is right.  After all such things do the pagans seek.

Beginnings and endings and middles thus give us clues to the spirituality of the Psalms.  The vision of the individual praying with a community of people united across the barriers of time and space by a commitment to the creator and judge of the universe surely compels us.  But there is one more feature of the spirituality of the Psalms and the Old Testament that we must address.  It is not a quiet, passive, sweetness-and-light approach to God.  Sometimes quarrels break out between God and Israel.  Sometimes prophets persuade God to change God’s mind.  The praying community as a whole speaks openly of God’s absence and on occasion of God’s unreliability.  Sometimes God’s presence is experienced as anger, which was the ancient way of describing God’s radical commitment to the right.  (There are things about which we should be angry!)  Interpreters of these texts have long struggled with how to make sense of such ideas – Philo of Alexandria already worried about them – because they seem to be too dynamic and “hot” – the wire is a bit too live.

So what should we do with such a querulous and argumentative spirituality?  The Psalms, like the entire Bible in fact, express the deepest human longings so fittingly that it makes sense to introduce them not merely as our words but in some sense, God’s.  Our longing for God and thus for each other mirrors God’s creative work in the cosmos, which seems to express God’s movement toward beauty, radical variety, and fruitfulness.  Such goals cannot be reached by timid, Hummel-figurine, weak tea and vanilla cookie sorts of prayers.  God is not so distant or threatening or, alternatively, given to cheap grace that we must resort to platitudes and clichés in our approach.  We need not hide or pretend or pile up approved words and phrases because the spirituality displayed in the Old Testament does not confine its horizon to the human mind or even human society.  Rather, it opens the door to a vision of the world in which, despite our questioning or perhaps because of it, we ask with childlike eagerness, in the words of the hymn: “All things praise thee.  Lord, may we?”