From the Editor: Footloose and Flung

Ray Waddle

Fifty years ago, Time Magazine turned a small cadre of theologians into unlikely celebrities. The Holy Week cover in 1966 asked, in huge provocative font, “Is God Dead?” The God-is-dead debate, already a century old (maybe three) and often misunderstood, was suddenly news.

I was just a kid at the time, but the troubled reaction was clear from adults in the American Christian universe: The death of God thing was a signal that the church must brace for a corrosive, post-Christian pluralism. We must gird ourselves against the chaos of choice, the scattering of the old truth.

Ever since, the temptation of many a believer has been to dream of returning to an old cultural unity that would silence the new cacophony of voices, assertions, and dissents that mark the 21st century.

And if a denizen of our times doesn’t care for this sort of religious unity – Bible-oriented, nostalgic for postwar American preeminence – there are other unifying principles ready at hand. A trust in the relentless efficiency of the global marketplace … or a commitment to the clash of civilizations … or a faith in a liberating, frictionless online future – these appear to be mutually exclusive, yet what they have in common is an attractive simplicity, the grand search for a way to organize or minimize the teeming, in-your-face rush of pluralism.

Perhaps this is one shape of the pluralism of the moment, a competition between ambitious secular or religious worldviews, none of which are comfortable with … pluralism.

The Death of God dust-up anticipated these new open spaces, where fresh contentions for truth face off. The naughty phrase itself was really just shorthand for some familiar nagging dreads – despair of the nuclear threat, the shame of the Holocaust, the failure of traditional religion to hold the imagination – that new generations felt. These theologians were insisting on ways of talking about divinity outside the old metaphysics. Ultimately, it seems now, the controversy was a (mostly Protestant) plea to churches to embrace their own ethical commands and fight for humane social change in the secular city. Space was being cleared for new spiritual adventures.

Some years later, writer Annie Dillard, an early writer hero of mine, used the sheer force of poetic rhetoric to imagine a new – actually very old – source of unity that might mend this fragile vessel of our existential agonies. She reached for an ancient Christian speculative idea that she called Holy the Firm. She described it as the divine substance at the base of everything, sub-mineral, unseen, yet linking heaven and earth, matter and the Absolute, perhaps a mystic emulsion that knits immanence to transcendence, God’s otherness to God’s intimacy, accessible to us if we dare. In the wake of a shattered post-Enlightenment consensus, old rifts in our psyches, and between each other, might finally be healed. God has a stake in this, she declares.

“And the universe is real and not a dream, not a manufacture of the senses,” she writes in Holy the Firm (Harper & Row, 1977). “Subject may know object, knowledge may proceed, and Holy the Firm is in short the philosopher’s stone.”

By a kind of ecstatic Neoplatonism, declaring God “footloose and flung,” she melds poetry to prose and reclaims a wholeness available to everyone at the salty foundations of grainy daily existence.

“It is the one glare of holiness: it is bare and unspeakable,” she writes. “There is no speech nor language; there is nothing, no one thing, nor motion, nor time. There is only this everything. There is only this, and its bright and multiple noise.”

She speaks, in other words, of our capacity for holy astonishment. It’s a capacity every human being shares. Maybe pluralism is God’s way of making everyone look each other in the eye on this crowded planet, acknowledge that other people and other tribes actually exist, and share in the abiding wonder.

We can’t hide under the overweight architecture of ideologies, not for long. The jarring contemporary klieg lights expose and bleach them. They weaken and collapse without warning. We nevertheless hold things in common, miraculously yet pragmatically – this earth, seasons of perplexity and gratitude, the surge of words, the power of human touch, the dream of love.