Living with Paradox.
Religion is like that. You think you know what you want to know. You think you know where to go with the questions. But then it turns out that there are no answers out there -- only more questions and more places to go. At a recent gathering of theologians, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church observed that a primary characteristic of orthodoxy is a capacity for paradox. Heresies tend to round off the edges and eliminate what does not fit. Faith that demands certainty is probably no longer faith but some form of science.
Cross Currents has operated on a paradoxical assumption for half a century. The paradox is this: that faith is compatible with intellectual inquiry. We do not have to park our brains at the door of this church. Nor is it necessary to declare some part of one's life off-limits to reflection. Faith holds its own here; we do not apologize for it. Keeping these parts of the human self in balance is difficult in our time. We are encouraged to be wholly consumed by our culture's bright lights, nothing left in shadow, nothing left unsaleable.
One might argue persuasively that choice itself has become the dominant religion of the West. It does not matter what one chooses or what the choices are. All that is important is that one might choose. This is the essence of the consumer mentality, that there are forty brands of cereal to choose among or fifty churches. All of them have fiber and sugar; some have raisins. The Internet exemplifies this characteristic of contemporary life. It is fundamentally about choice, nothing but the endless proliferation of options, any one of which is as good as another. The choices are also randomized, even when we go in search of a particular object. Other objects arrive uninvited. It is also the perfect advertising medium: every object can be attached to a commercial message.
Religious experience and faith itself have been profoundly affected by this culture of choice. The hottest books on the shelves are those that examine the marketing of religion. What are people buying? How are the successful religions positioning themselves? What packs in the crowds? It appears that syncretism works: pieces of any religion may be combined with parts of others to form endless private expressions of belief. These arrangements can be altered at will, shifted as needed, abandoned when they become unwieldy. Some describe this situation as a welcome culture of pluralism that frees us from the tyrannies of triumphalist religion. Others embrace fundamentalist certainty in order to liberate themselves from the tyrannies of choice. Paradox has no place in either the culture of unlimited choice or the realm of unquestioned assurance.
Living with paradox, however, is not a passive behavior. It is less like the secret in the closet than the gorilla in the living room. As a Christian, I am continually aware of the paradoxes of my faith, some of which are eloquently addressed by contributors to this issue, particularly in the postmodern and post-denominational era. Saying the Nicene Creed is an exercise in bicameral thinking. But God has always been in the bush that burns but is not consumed. We see it, do not understand, and yet work to resolve the paradox before us in lives of faithful reflection. We take off our shoes. We tell others what we have seen.
Cross Currents has been at this business for fifty years, most of them under two editors, William Birmingham and Joseph Cunneen, and the past ten under Nancy Malone as well. Believing that Christian intellectuals should be theologically informed, the founding editors put together from the beginning a vivid mix of writers and let a thousand paradoxes bloom. In time, intelligent people of all faiths came to comprise our audience -- and now the staff itself. The evolution of editorial perspective has signaled a change in the way we think about ourselves and about the organization that publishes Cross Currents. The board of the Association for Religion and Intellectual Life has decided to rename the organization Cross Currents -- the new mission statement is on the inside back cover of this issue. The editorial interests of the journal will now be characterized by the phrase on the front cover: The Wisdom of the Heart and the Life of the Mind. It is a better way of describing who we are and what we care about. I t is also a statement of the fundamental paradox that challenges contemporary believers.
For many, the word "religion" connotes institution or perhaps field of study. It has lost resonance and vitality. Likewise, "intellectual life" sounds removed from the life we all share, as if intellectuals were abstracted beings living on a higher plane. You who are part of the organization we now call Cross Currents may well be members of religious institutions or even ordained leaders in them. You may also be students of religion, professors and academics working in universities. But those descriptions seem to contain rather than liberate. You, our readers and partners in this enterprise, are seekers as well as dwellers (to use the distinctions drawn by Robert Wuthnow). You are willing to be simultaneously on the plane of the spiritual and the plane of the mind. You have an instinctive appreciation of the distinction between and relatedness of wisdom and intelligence.
When we invited writers to contribute to this issue, we asked them to think about the questions on our mind--but we also wanted to know what they were thinking about. We encouraged personal reflection as well as academic inquiry. The results surprised us in many ways. The urgency of the environment as a theological issue crossed all boundaries, turning up in surprising ways. There is a profound sense among many of these writers that Christians live in a post-institutional church--an age of the Holy Spirit or the realm of Christianness. There is no triumphal Christianity here. But there is a strong sense of the vitality of inter-religious experience, in the lives of individuals who share with us their own journeys and in the reflections of theologians on what it means to be in dialog across traditions.
At a recent conference I attended, someone remarked that in the pluralistic world as the West imagines it, experience "trumps everything." What he meant was that our culture of "all choice all the time" has made it difficult for us to be in true conversation with others of faith. This paradox of dialog is one that we embrace in this issue: our contributors are not people who have necessarily jettisoned structure, belief, or theological rigor. Most of them write out of a faith perspective or practice. They have made choices. But they represent a new species in the wisdom landscape. How do we recognize these people? What shall we call them?
Janet Abels began life as a Roman Catholic in Czechoslovakia during the Second World War and at the turn of the millennium is the Dharma Holder of Still Mind Zendo, an ecumenical Zen community in Manhattan. Is she a Catholic or a Buddhist? Katherine Kurs was born a Jew and is now Ecumenical Associate Minister at West Park Presbyterian Church. Don Cupitt professes a theology at odds with Christian orthodoxy but continues to call himself a Christian. Raimon Panikkar speaks of a way of being Christian that is beyond institution altogether. It is likely that all of the contributors would agree that Alan Ecclestone's working definition of Judaism applies to their own stance in the world: "a radical, ruthless, confident attempt to come to the truth of our human condition." (Catherine Madsen's article on some recent Jewish books opens with this observation.) It is all the more apposite that Ecclestone is an Anglican clergyman. And even more wonderful that Catherine is a convert to Judaism.
For some, the millennium ended with 1999. Technically, the new one does not begin until 2001. I would like to suggest, therefore, that we inhabit a unique time in which the heart and mind might come together, as they do here, and show us how we might live when we return to ordinary time. Here, then, is the wisdom of the heart and the life of the mind in the moment between millennia, the year zero. Our goal at Cross Currents is to help in the reconstruction of the world so deeply wounded in the past two centuries by inviting everyone to join in a radical, ruthless, confident dialog of the human heart and mind.
There are no answers here. There are no answers anywhere. Contrary to what people of science and religion long believed, questions not answers are the building blocks of the universe.
KENNETH ARNOLD is Editor of Cross Currents.
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|Date:||Mar 22, 2000|
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